Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ordination papers, getting outside the church, dreams of patience, God in music, tinkering with prayer, Breaking Bad, literal funeral arrangements, mercy, prodigal years, and being stuck in the kitchen. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

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Devotional – Ephesians 2.10

Devotional:

Ephesians 2.10

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.

It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.

After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.

At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”

Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.

But that wasn’t the case with Frances.

Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.

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But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?

When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.

Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

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If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.

On Not Looking Like A Pastor

Stanley Hauerwas is known for telling his seminary students that they should never marry couples off the street and they should never do a funeral in a funeral home. His instructions to soon-to-be-pastors can sound a bit harsh the first time around but they are worthy commands.

Pastors should not preside over funerals in funeral homes because we are supposed to have Services of Death and Resurrection in the same place that baptisms take place. Our life with God begins in baptism, and finds its new beginning in our death; those two things should not be separated.

However, in my time as a pastor I’ve done a handful of funerals in funeral homes simply because the family was afraid of the cost of having the funeral home transport the body/urn and they were overwhelmed by the total cost to begin with.

But the prohibition to never marry someone off the street is one that I have taken very seriously.

In our current culture, the divorce rate is creeping above 50% which means that by the time I retire from ministry, there’s a chance that half of the marriages I presided over will have already come to an end. This terrifies me.

In response to the continually growing trend of separations and divorces, I have made a concerted effort to spend as much time with couples before their wedding so that whether I knew them before their request or not, they will not be strangers by the time I stand with them by the altar. I insist on having a minimum of three pre-marital counseling sessions and I reserve the right to not perform the marriage if I feel either something is wrong, or that I am not the one to bring them together.

Of all the questions that I ask, (and I do ask a lot) the one that makes couples the most uncomfortable is not the question about sex, or even how they handle money, but about why they want me to perform the wedding. And I don’t mean me personally, but why do they want it to be a religious service.

I ask this question because it is a lot easier (and cheaper) to drive down to the local courthouse and be married by a justice of the peace. There’s no premarital counseling involved, there’s no need to have a packed room full of people and for a liturgy. So, why have a religious ceremony?

Last night I was having a pre-martial counseling session with a couple whose wedding is coming up, and upon asking the question the soon-to-be husband very honestly answered that he is suspicious of organized religion, that my involvement has less to do with his choice than with the family’s choice, but that in the end he wanted it to be religious (and wanted me to do it) because I don’t seem like a normal pastor.

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Drinking Methodist “Champagne” at the Easter Sunrise Service

I hear that kind of thing all the time. I’ll be at a local coffee shop working on a sermon when someone will strike up a conversation and when it moves to the topic of employment, and they learn I’m a United Methodist pastor, they’ll say something like “Are you sure?”

Or I’ll be at a party with mutual friends and when I’m introduced, as a pastor from a nearby church, people will always hide their beer cans or glasses of wine behind their back until they see that I am holding one as well.

Or when I drop off my son at day care after months of learning about the teachers and other parents I’ll be wearing a clergy collar and someone will ask me if it’s a joke.

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor.

And I think this is a good thing.

I think it is a good thing precisely because of what Dr. Hauerwas taught me: Never marry people off the street. When I am invited into the intimacy that is shared between two people prior to their wedding, when I can have real and vulnerable conversations with them about the sanctity of marriage and God’s ultimate role in it, I can break down these strange stereotypes about what a pastor is supposed to look and sound like.

Being myself, rather than having a presumed pastor-like personality, helps to show the world that Christians (and the church) are not what the world makes of us. We Christians are not all like the Westboro Baptists who are forever picketing certain events, nor are we all like the gay-shaming ultra-conservatives who belittle people for their identity, nor are we all like the quiet, antiquated, and archaic pastors from television shows and movies.

We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world.

So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.

Devotional – Matthew 6.28-29

Devotional:

Matthew 6.28-29

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

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In a few hours I will gather with members of the community for a Service of Death and Resurrection for one of St. John’s long-time members, Gracie Jackson. During my first two months serving at St. John’s (almost 4 years ago), I tried to visit as many people as possible from the church community, particularly those who could no longer attend worship on Sundays. I want them to know that the church still cared about them and that they were in our prayers regardless of their presence.

Throughout those first months I was welcomed into a great number of homes and learned so much about Staunton and the impact St. John’s has had throughout the decades. One of my first visits was to the Jackson home where I sat and talked with Lenard and Gracie Jackson. But we didn’t sit for long. Instead, they wanted to give me the grand tour including the basement workshop and the green house in the backyard. There were plants everywhere but one in particular was striking and unlike anything I had seen before. Lenard explained that it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, and like the name implies, it only blooms at night. At the time, I casually mentioned my interest in the plant and we continued the door.

However, a couple days later Gracie told Lenard that he HAD to invite me over to witness the Night-Blooming Cereus in all it’s glory. (Lenard recently told me that in his life there were always two ways to doing things, and both of them were Gracie’s!). So at 10pm Lindsey and I drove over to the Jackson house and the four of us sat in their living room in our pajamas patiently waiting for the plant to do its magic.

When the right time arrived, we huddled in the green house with the dark sky coming through the windows and the cactus bloomed right in front of us. It produced the most exquisite scent and filled the room with its glory. And in that moment I was struck by the holy space we were sharing and was reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

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That Night-Blooming Cereus was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen and I never would’ve experienced if it weren’t for Gracie’s insistent invitation. Similarly, our faith is something that is offered to us as an invitation. We can read all about the Lord in Scripture, we can pray privately on our own time, but when we share our faith with another person it can bloom in the most exquisite of ways.

I am so remarkably grateful for the time I got to spend with Gracie, and for the many ways she embodied God’s grace for me.

Devotional – Job 19.23-25

Devotional:

Job 19.23-25

O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

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Last Thursday, while my wife, son, and I were visiting family in Alexandria, I received a phone call about one of St. John’s long-time members having died. Ruth Cassidy joined the church weeks after it formally began back in 1954 and while it was still meeting in a basement down the road. Ruth was easily one of the kindest people I ever had the chance to spend time with, and she will be greatly missed by our church community, and by her family.

A couple years ago I received a phone call about Ruth’s husband Howard, and it was clear that he was close to the end of his life. And so, I made my way over to their retirement home and when I walked into the room Ruth was sitting next to her husband, she was lovingly holding his hand in hers, and he had just taken his final breath. I, not wanting to intrude on the holiness of the moment, slowly started to back away but Ruth insisted on me sitting down with her on the couch. She immediately started asking me questions about my family and St. John’s and I was still in a state of shock; I was overwhelmed by the totality of the moment, and the fact that Howard had literally just died. Ruth continued to ask me questions, but I wanted to acknowledge what had just happened. It took a couple minutes, but I finally mustered the courage to ask: “Ruth, are you okay? I mean, Howard just died…”

She looked right into my eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, everything is fine; I know where he really is.”

Rarely have I encountered such faith, such hope, and such love as what I regularly experienced through Ruth Cassidy. Like the biblical character of Job, she had an assurance about the way things really are. In that holy and profound moment immediately after her husband died, I could almost hear the words of scripture floating in the room with us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

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Ruth’s assurance, her blessed assurance, was one worthy of our emulation.

Do you know that your Redeemer lives? What words or thoughts would you want to engrave on a rock forever? Can you feel the Holy Spirit moving and breathing into your life? Are you filled with an assurance about who you are and whose you are?

O that my words were written down and engraved forever! I know that my Redeemer lives! And that at the last he will stand upon the earth!

The End Of The Beginning – Ash Wednesday

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

If you’re here in this place, with these people, on this occasion right now, you are blessed. You are blessed because you understand, you grasp, what the church is really all about. We are a people called church, who follow Jesus and take upon ourselves the sins of the world.

However, we don’t take upon the sins of the world in the way Jesus did. We are told to take up our own crosses, but we don’t drag them up to a place called The Skull, and we don’t wait for people to nail us to them. We take upon the sins of the world in confession, a confession that God is our judge and has every right to be. Because we have failed to be the people God has called us to be over and over and over again.

The United Methodist Church has a document to help us whenever we gather together. The Book of Worship outlines the ways to serve the Lord for just about every occasion, including funerals.

The Service of Committal is brief and is reserved for the graveside. And in our Book of Worship you can find these directions for clergy: “Stand at the head of the coffin and while facing it, cast earth upon it as it is lowered into the grave. The pastor then says, ‘Almighty God, into your hands we commend your son/daughter, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

The last time I did a graveside burial, I held the Book of Worship in my hands like I’ve done too many times before, I read the all too familiar words, and when it came time to cast dirt upon the coffin, I couldn’t find any. I frantically looked at the area around the hole, and they had covered it with a frighteningly sharp bright green carpet of AstroTurf. So I bent down in my robe onto my knees, and I started ripping up the perfectly manicured grass on the edge of the fabricated lawn. I needed some dirt. I needed to dirty this pristine and picturesque committal service because death is ugly and disruptive. I clawed the ground and threw the grass to the side until I scraped enough bare earth with my hands to have a solid mound to drop onto the coffin.

It was a holy thing.

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I took my dirt covered hands and placed them on the coffin, I prayed the words from the Book of Worship, and then I slowly walked away giving the family time to grieve before leaving. And just as I began backing away, the funeral director motioned for the pall bearers to come forward. But they did not bend down to the hole in the ground I had just revealed. No, they took roses, the boutonnieres, from their lapels and laid them silently on the recently dirt covered coffin.

It is, of course, much nicer to throw roses than dirt. But like almost everything in the tradition of the church regarding worship, the dirt has important theological significance.

I wound venture to guess that many Christians, though they hear the words about ashes to ashes and dust to dust at funerals and at Ash Wednesday services, they have no idea where those words come from. But you do. You know where they come from because you just heard it. It is the final announcement from God to Adam and Eve as they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

            For us humans, this is the end of the beginning.

Much has been made about the Genesis story of eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. The slithering serpent who manipulates Eve’s desire; Eve’s treachery through inviting Adam to join her in the prohibited act; Adam hiding his shame and nakedness from God when the Lord returns to the Garden. And its all pretty harsh.

By this act sin was brought into the world. Because of our ancestors’ choice, we were banished from the paradise of God’s created order and were punished. Women must suffer through childbirth. Humans must work and sweat over the earth in order to glean enough produce to survive. Families are torn apart by an individual’s choice that has ramifications far greater than they can ever imagine.

And then we come to a place like this to have ashes smeared across our foreheads in an effort to remember what happened long ago, and what will happen to all of us one day.

We will die.

But we’re content with spending the rest of our days prettying everything that we can. We bring roses to place on the coffins at graveyards. Politicians bump up statistics to make things appear better than the actually are. We do our best to cover our scars, both physical and emotional, as if they were never there. And some churches spend Ash Wednesday not in sanctuaries confessing their sins with their brothers and sisters in faith, but in their parking lots presenting “Ashes to God with a cup of Joe.”

We would rather cover the harsh realities of truth than look at them in the eye.

God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve, that terrifying moment when they were expelled and told that they will suffer until they return to the ground, that strange and all too familiar expression you are dust and to dust you shall return, they strike fear in the hearts of us mortals.

Sometimes its good to be afraid because it reminds us what a tremendous blessing it is to be alive at all. Sometimes its good to get down on our knees and confess our sins before the Lord because it reminds us that we are not God. And sometimes we need to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror on Ash Wednesday to remember who we are, and whose we are.

This day, this Ash Wednesday, is a moment for us to confess our sins, and for all the sins of the people who are not here. We bow our heads and are adorned with a sign of death, not just as a reminder to us and to others that we will die, but that God will not let death be the final Word.

And here is the hope, my brothers and sisters, the hope we need on a day like today. We know how the story ends. We know that the pronouncement at the edge of the Garden was not the final word. We know the final word is not suffering, nor death, nor dirt, nor even dust. We know that the final Word is Jesus Christ.

The ashes that will soon be on our skin are not our crosses to bear, but Christ’s who carried it to The Skull and was nailed to it for the world. Jesus Christ is God’s greatest and final Word because in him the fullness of the Lord was pleased to dwell. In Him the sin of Adam and Eve were reconciled unto the Lord. In Him we are brought back into the dwelling of God’s grace where the light always shines in the darkness.

So wear the ashes with fear and trembling, let them dirty your lives a little bit, but also remember the hope that has been available to us in the one who hung on the cross, and rose again. Amen.

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