A New, Old Way To Pray

What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?

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I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray

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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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The Future Present

Romans 8.22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

All of creation groans.

            How can we put those words into images?

On Monday 60 Palestinians were shot and killed and another 2,700 others were injured during protests at the border with Israel. Some of those killed were individuals from aid agencies who were providing medical care to the protestors. Some of those killed and injured were children.

On Friday morning a 17 year old walked into a high school in Texas and shot and killed nine students and one teacher.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, while we wait for redemption.

Perhaps the best we can muster in a world like ours, in a time like ours, is a groan, a sigh, and dim hope. We live, as many have noted, in a time of perpetual amnesia – because we know so much about the world, and we know how broken it still is, we are bombarded with story after story to such a degree that we can barely remember what happened a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. Our televisions and newspapers and timelines are filled with such tragic stories and we just move from one to the next.

If we find ourselves moaning and groaning, sighing and crying, then we are on the right track. We hope for a better tomorrow, for a world that does not look like this one. We yearn for what has been promised in faith, but do not yet see.

            All of creation groans.

Paul is right to name and claim our salvation – but we are saved in the hope of redemption. We live in the light of God’s good promise, however, we do not live in the fulfillment of that promise.

We are still waiting.

Like pilgrims in the midst of a great journey, or a woman anticipating her baby’s due date, we are not yet at the goal.

And Paul tells us that while we wait, we do so with patience.

The great missionary of the 1st century loves to do this type of thing, which is to say Paul liked navigating the confusing contours of now and not yet. Paul danced between the present time and the time when all things would be conquered by God.

Most of us are not like Paul. Rather than enduring the days at hand with patience, we want to see change here and now. We are not the backseat Christians who willingly accept the status quo. No, when we see and feel the groans of the world we want it to stop. Now.

There are plenty of Christians in the world who rest on opposite sides of this spectrum. Some sit back and wait, without a care or concern for how things currently are, because one day (whenever that might be) God will fix everything. And for as much as that is true, they are like those who see a building on fire and instead of reaching for a bucket of water they say, “It must be God’s will.”

And then on the far other side there are those who are in denial of present sufferings and are utterly convinced that if they only prayed harder God would make them healthy and wealthy. They might receive a horrible diagnosis, or lose their employment, but they believe that God is waiting for them to pray the right prayer before God drops the perfect cure of the more lucrative career.

But us other Christians, those who find ourselves in the middle, we know that it is no comfort to deny present suffering, nor is it comforting to focus all of our energy on the hope that God will fix everything in a jiffy. We know that reflections on the future must be, at times, postponed. It is not the future that commands our attention but the present.

And here in lies the crux of it all, we focus our focus on the present, not as a denial of the future, but precisely because we know that we don’t know what the future holds.

We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all things in this world will perish; we’ve all seen it happen too many times, but the cross of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of this lonely and broken world and it is the sign of our hope. Easter boldly proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning – Pentecost shows us how we take the first steps.

Today of course is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The disciples spent forty days with the risen Jesus, learning about the kingdom of God, before Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. But then they had ten days of waiting.

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Imagine if you can, though we certainly can’t, what it must’ve been like to not only encounter the risen Jesus, but to lose him again, and to wait. What were those conversations like in the ten-day waiting period? What plans were made in case nothing happened? Were they patient in their hope?

Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, all the disciples were in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire place where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

They immediately went forth from that place proclaiming the good news to all with ears to hear, and on that day the Lord added 3,000 to the growing faith, and they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Many of us, if not most of us, would like to see the Spirit manifest like those first disciples did on the day of Pentecost. We want signs of power and majesty, we want this sanctuary windswept and on fire for the Lord. But, like the readers of Romans, we may not receive the signs we so desperately desire.

Hope that is seen is a limited kind of hope, for if we can see what we want, it is certain to be limited to what we are now able to behold. Do you think those disciples were yearning for the Spirit to give them the strength to speak in other languages? Do you think they prayed night after night for the Spirit to fall upon them like a blazing fire? Do you think this is what they hoped for?

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They had no idea what they were in for! There’s no way they could’ve possibly imagined what would happen ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s no way they could’ve known the Spirit would arrive in such a dramatic way. There’s no way they could have predicted that the rest of their lives would be spent in an illegal community based on the worship of a crucified God.

Something greater was in store for all of the first disciples, greater things were yet to come – and the same holds true for us.

Paul is completely convinced, though he was not there on the day of Pentecost and did not receive the Spirit in the same way, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not really know how to pray as we should and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

There is something majestically powerful in being reminded that even when we cannot find the right words, the Spirit is with us in our sighs. Because how in the world could we possibly pray, in the right way, for those living in Israel and Palestine? What kind of words could we offer to parents who discovered that their children were murdered by a gunman in their school?

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            There are no words except for the deep groaning of the cosmos that can come close to what needs to be said in prayer.

And yet, we have hope. Not a blind foolish hope, but a deeply rooted hope in the one of came to live, die, and rise again. We have a hope, like the early disciples, that what we see and hear and experience now is not the end. And, at the same time, the Spirit is with us to give us the strength to not only yearn for a better world, but also actually do something about it.

That’s the thing about hope – it is meaningless unless it prompts us toward transformation. Hope that remains in the heart and mind alone is nothing more than a clanging cymbal. But our hope, a hope for a world that we cannot yet even imagine, is like a fire – it warms the soul and lights our path.

When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on all the disciples it was like a fire and it spread in wild and unpredictable ways. Those first followers of Jesus, though persecuted and often killed for their faith, are responsible for us having heard the Word at all. They were so on fire in their hope that they went beyond what they could see and hope for, knowing that with patience, the world would begin to change.

In 1969, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had only been a national show for year. And on one fairly typical episode Mr. Rogers entered the screen as usual, but instead of putting on his infamous sweater, he mentioned something about how hot it was outside and decided to soak his feet in a tiny swimming pool. While resting and relaxing, a black policeman name Officer Clemmons walked by and Mr. Rogers invited him to share the small pool. Officer Clemmons quickly accepted, rolled up his pants, and placed his very brown feet in the same water as Mr. Roger’s very white feet.

Today, in 2018, this might seem insignificant, but in 1969 it was everything. In the late sixties public pools became the battleground of segregation to such a degree that it was illegal in some places for black bodies and white bodies to be in the water at the same time, if at all. There are horrible images of the summers in the 60s in which white pool managers would pour acid into pools when people protested by swimming with other races.

But for one episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the country was shown a glimpse of the future, a future of hope, one that few people could possibly imagine at the time.

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John Wesley, the pioneer of renewal that led to the birth of our church, once said that if you light yourself on fire, people will travel miles to watch you burn. Our hopefulness, our yearning for a new day and a new way, should be like a fire that people can’t help but watch.

Mr. Rogers had a fire that was as simple and yet profound as soaking his feet in a swimming pool, but it was exactly his hopefulness that resulted in people tuning in each and every week for decades.

We talk a lot about how we, as Christians, are citizens of a different kingdom – but sometimes we don’t take the next step to imagine what the kingdom looks like. God’s kingdom is one ruled by hope. A hope for things not yet seen, a hope for a time we cannot even imagine, a world in which the fire of Pentecost is present in everyone we encounter.

The Holy Spirit with its bravado and bombastic arrival is always pointing from death to new life, it is always praying with us and through us even when we do not know what to say, and it is always redeeming us for a new day and a new way. Amen.

Trust and Disobey

1 John 5.1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and the blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

Annual Conference is a strange beast. It is uniquely United Methodist, and it is the one time each year when church representatives, clergy and lay, from all over our state get together to worship, to pray, and of course, to vote.

The first time I ever went to annual conference, it was years before I actually became a pastor. The lay representative from my home church was unable to attend, so they asked me, a teenager, to go in his place. I, at the time, was beginning to wrestle with a call to ordained ministry so I figured I’d have to find out what all this stuff was about anyway, so I went.

I can’t tell you much about that first annual conference. There were a lot of people in one place uncomfortably shifting around in their seats as we listened to individuals talk about all kinds of stuff that were only barely relevant to the mission of the God in the world, but eventually something happened that I will never forget, and it took place when we came to the time of voting.

Someone, somewhere, put forth a motion requiring every United Methodist church in our conference to take at least one Sunday a year to pray for our country’s troops, and more specifically for those fighting overseas.

There was an audible affirmation of the motion, but before it could be put to a vote, somebody, somewhere, offered an amendment. They walked up to their microphone and said, “I am fine with praying for our troops, frankly we should be doing it anyway without being told to do it at least one Sunday a year. My only concern is that if we mandate and require all churches to be obedient to this rule, then we should also ask them to pray for our enemies, particularly those whom our military is fighting against.”

And like a stick of dynamite, the room exploded in arguments.

It took another hour of debates and amendments and further motions, 60 minutes of pastors and people pontificating about the validity of such a strange and bold request, before we got rid of the original request all together. Not because people were against praying for our troops, but because we could not agree on whether or not to pray for our enemies as well.

Obedience is a dirty word. It is a dirty word because we don’t like getting too close to it; it makes us uncomfortable. In our freedom-worshipping culture, we strive for independence and liberty above all else. We talk about being guided by our inner voice, we promise our children they can become anything they want when they grow up, we tell people to make their own destiny.

And yet Jesus, the one whom we worship, love, and adore, loves us enough to command us toward obedience.

No doubt this sounds authoritarian, and perhaps we don’t like imagining Jesus this way. Maybe we’d rather think of Jesus’ words as suggestions more than commands. From the time we are young we are taught about the folly of fascism and the need to reject superior rulers who tell us what to do. But lest we reject Jesus for his calls to obedience, let us at least admit the truth of our own subjugation.

We are all obeying somebody.

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In this world we respond to a great number of masters with an almost blind and willful ignorance – our peers, our families, our jobs, our government, our political parties, popular fads. They all dictate, in some way, shape, or form, what we are to say, how we are to act, and who we are to be.

We do as we are told.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.

For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.

We could debate, much like the people at annual conference did, about what it means to be obedient or not. But perhaps the better question is: “Who do we really obey?”

There are of course some Christians who boldly claim that Jesus, and the bible, are their ultimate authority – and they follow them explicitly.

I love meeting people like that, and not for the right reasons. I love people who blindly obey the bible because there are all kinds of crazy stuff in here, and contrary to John, it can feel pretty burdensome.

In Leviticus the people of God are expressly forbidden from wearing clothing with more than two materials mixed together (Leviticus 19.19). Do you know how hard it is to find clothing made of only one material? Most of what we wear is a blend of more than one substance, and we are so bold in our sinfulness that we brazenly show up to church wearing our sins literally on our sleeves!

Or we can look at other places in Leviticus, like when it says men must not cut the hair on the sides of our heads, or cut the edges of our beards (Leviticus 19.27). Take a good hard look around the room right now; not only do we have heathens in different clothing materials, we’ve got men on a straight shot to eternal damnation because they decided to pull out the bic razor this morning before they came to church!

The laws are indeed burdensome!

And yet, somehow, John is bold to proclaim the opposite.

Jesus requires our obedience to his commandments. We are called to obey that which he calls us to do. And, taking a cue from the New Testament, if we look at the summary of the commandments as loving God and loving neighbor, we can then begin to wrestle with how difficult those two things may or may not be.

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Loving our neighbors is about more than treating folks like family. In fact, sometimes that’s exactly the opposite of what we want! Just think about the last time you gathered around the table for Thanksgiving with family members you fundamentally disagree with! Rules and calls to obedience in terms of loving our neighbors become nothing more than abstractions unless they are somehow tied to a deep awareness of the mystical union we have with God in Christ Jesus.

It is precisely because God loves us, in spite of us, that we can love others. It is in the recognition of our unworthiness that we can actually meet the other where they are and, in spite of differences, we can love one another.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, not because being close to Jesus helps us get what we need or want.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, because we believe that being close to Jesus allows God to fulfill whatever God wants to get out of this world!

We live in a time deeply saturated in pluralism, when countless value systems vie for superiority or are uncritically embraced such that we no longer know who we are or what we are doing. We so root ourselves in ourselves, that we move farther away from God while telling ourselves that at least we are free.

But the Gospel is disorienting. It finds us where we are, in our shadowed existence, or deeply rooted in our own convictions, and it turns it upside down. The messages of grace, of Jesus’ life-death-resurrection, are unnervingly radical!

The commandments to love God and neighbor, though difficult according to the ways of the world, are possible through the impossible possibility of God. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God – when we believe (not just with our minds but with our actions) that Jesus is the Messiah, we begin to see how bound together we all are, and how we, and all of our earthly perspectives, have been conquered by God for something greater.

Right now the contemporary church, from the realm of United Methodism to conservative evangelicalism, is struggling. The church struggles, in large part, because of our failure to recognize how we are bound to God and not to the world – such that many churches take their theological cues from the powers and principalities and assert them on scripture, rather than the other way around.

It is precisely why our divisions are growing wider and our walls are growing taller.

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For too many decades, our denomination (United Methodism) has struggled with the question of human sexuality. We have in our polity the theological position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The belief and claim manifests itself in different ways from leaders barring homosexuals from becoming members at local churches to committees denouncing transgendered individuals, to pastors being punished for officiating at same-sex weddings.

Part of the church’s willingness to claim homosexuality as incompatible is rooted in the fact that our denomination believes that in so doing it is remaining obedient to Jesus’ commandments.

For months there has been a commission within the denomination seeking a Way Forward regarding human sexuality. They have read books, and prayed together, they have listened to stories, and imagined the future of the church. Our governing council of Bishops met this week in Chicago to begin looking at the commission’s proposals about where the church is being called and what’s in store for us.

There have been parliamentary debates and procedures to follow, press releases are being put together, and some churches are already banding together in hopes of starting their own denomination whether leaning traditional or progressive.

And, in the coming months, we’re going to talk more about the commission and the path of the United Methodist Church. But right now we don’t know a whole lot more than what I just told you. However, one thing we do know is that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.

Everyone.

Gay or straight, black or white, soldier or enemy, whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God. We, and they, are made one, by the Spirit, in Christ Jesus who came to live, die, and rise again. We can build our walls higher, we can put stricter language in our institution, we can do all kinds of things, but only Jesus conquers the world.

            Jesus conquers us.

To confess with our lips and with our lives that Jesus is the Messiah is a radical thing. It compels us to tell the world that no one else has the power Jesus has – not a political party, not a government, not even a church institution. It pushes us to look in the face of the powers and principalities and triumphantly declare, “No more!”

It is the beginning of a revolution of our hearts. Amen.

Back To The Future

2 Kings 2.1-12

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed the dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could not longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

 

Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

In 1940 John Lewis was born into a poor sharecropping family in Alabama. He was raised in such a way that he was forced to skip school and help on the farm, to which he decided to rebuff his parents and run out to the School Bus when they weren’t paying attention, knowing full and well that punishment would come when he arrived home in the afternoon.

He eventually left Alabama to attend school in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was there that he became involved in the Civil Rights movement, helping to lead sit-ins at local businesses. Some of us can remember what it was like, and of course some of us are young enough to have no idea what it was like, but there was as a time in this country, in fact for the fast majority of it, where people of different races were not allowed to share anything; not a water fountain, not a bus, and not even a table.

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Lewis became well versed in the work of non-violent resistance, and his involvement (and beating and arrests) eventually introduced him to a young man named Martin Luther King Jr. At the time Lewis was 18 and ready to give his life to something, and the young Dr. King was the kind of mentor and visionary who provided it to him.

During the sit-in protests Dr. King offered him ways out of the demonstrations if necessary, but John Lewis remained committed, though he almost spent more time in jail than he did protesting.

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.

After the Nashville sit-in movement resulted in the desegregation of the lunch counters in downtown Nashville, John Lewis continued to be arrested and beaten as he sought to desegregate other parts of the community. In 1960, Lewis became one of 13 original Freedom Riders, who sought to ride in public buses in an integrated fashion. At the time, even though segregation was outlawed, many southern states refused to let people of different races sit next to one another on public transportation.

So Lewis and his companions began riding all over the south. When they arrived at bus stations in places like Birmingham and Montgomery, angry mobs were waiting with KKK members and local police officers to inflict violent retribution before hauling them off to jail. Again, because of the sheer amount of violence, leaders in the Civil Rights movement proposed an end to the Freedom Rides, but Lewis was determined to not let any act of violence keep him and his fellow workers from the goal of freedom and equality.

When the Civil Rights movement marched on Washington D.C. in 1963 John Lewis was the youngest individual invited to speak, and today he is the only one left alive.

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.

In 1964, Lewis began leading what would later be called the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in which he non-violently combatted the inability for some black individuals to register to vote. He organized education classed which helped people to pass the voter registration tests, and he invited college students from all over the country to witness the perils of the black experience of the south.

The responses from the local communities were harsh and violent, and again, leaders from the movement offered a way out for Lewis, encouraging him to go to other parts of the country for work, but he stayed.

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And on March 7, 1965, Lewis began leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, and as they crossed a bridge just on the outskirts of Selma, Alabama State Troopers charged the demonstrators while beating them with nightsticks. Lewis’ skull was fractured during the attack, but before he was taken to the hospital he appeared before television cameras calling on President Johnson to bring an end to the injustice in Alabama.

To this day, Lewis still has visible scars from the incident.

Three years after the bloody events of Selma, Dr. King was assassinated, but Lewis has worked tirelessly over the decades to keep his dream alive.

The month of February ties together a handful of narratives. At one moment we are focused on Black History, the individuals and communities that have been long overlooked in the education of young people. At the same time, in the church, we prepare for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. We do so in the church with what we call Transfiguration Sunday, a day in which we remember that holy moment when Elijah and Moses appeared on the mountain while Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. It is in the reading of the story that we are also called to remember the prophet Elijah who was sucked up on the whirlwind of the Lord, and his disciple Elisha who took up his mantle and continued his prophetic work.

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All of us have experienced moments of transfiguration, times and events that dramatically reshape the way we experienced the world. If any of us made a map of our lives, there would be those big locations, those massive landmarks of metamorphosis. Those places are obvious in retrospect; they are as big and bold as Gilgal, where the Israelites camped after crossing the Jordan river. Or like Bethel, the sacred temple site. Or like Jericho, where the Israelites famously defeated the city.

Those moments of transfiguration could be big and bold as Birmingham, Montgomery, or Selma.

These locations are important because they reveal a lens about where we were, but they also play a role in the future as well.

When Elisha followed his friend and mentor to the big bold places, he was experiencing the past of the people of God, while also preparing to be handed the mantle of the future.

When the disciples witnessed their friend and Lord transfigured before them, when they took in the vision of Moses and Elijah on either side, they were at once seeing the entire history of their people while also experiencing a foretaste of the future.

When John Lewis marched and protested in those now infamous moments, he was carrying the history of an oppressed people, while believing in a dream that was handed to him by his friend and mentor Martin Luther King Jr.

We are who we are because of the people who paved the ways for us, and the transfigured moments that show up on the map of our histories. However, the most transformative moments tend to happen outside of the big landmarks, in the days of everyday living. It is there in the ordinary moments that life is disrupted in ways both strange and superb.

Transfiguration takes place in the conversations between a prophet and his student on the way to the next town. Transfiguration takes place at a table when a teacher shares bread and a cup with his disciples. Transfiguration takes place in the linked arms of a protest line outside of a no name diner.

And that is why we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. It is why we remember the journey of Elijah and Elisha from one place to the next. It is why we take the time to learn about the struggles of a people in this country, who are still suffering under the weight of prejudice and racism even today.

Elisha, the disciples, and even John Lewis were given plenty of opportunities to leave. There were moments when the path before them was clear, and knowing what was at stake did not deter their vision. The work of the Lord, of going to the margins for the sake of people on the margins is no easy task. For many, it results in punishment, isolation, and even death. Yet staying the course resulted not only in their transfigured lives, but also in the transfiguration of all things.

Elisha and Elijah were standing by the Jordan river when Elijah rolled up his mantle and struck the water. And, just like in the days of Moses, the waters were divided to let them pass to the other side. In their final conversation, Elisha asked the prophet for a double share of the spirit, and Elijah was quickly lifted up on the whirlwind of the Lord as Elisha looked on with terror. And when Elijah was finally gone from sight, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces.

The disciples who were on the mountain with Jesus during the Transfiguration stayed with him almost until the end, when he was hung on a cross for all to see. And in the wake of his suffering and death, they wailed and lamented in grief.

John Lewis continued the hard and challenging work of the Civil Rights movement knowing that his life could’ve ended many times, and that it could’ve ended with a gun shot just like his friend who dared to dream.

That is why we remember. That is why we take the time to read the stories, and sing the songs and offer the prayers. Because these stories are who we are. We are there with Elisha crying out into the void, we are there with the disciples shielding our eyes from the brightness of the Transfiguration. We are there with John Lewis marching across the bridge toward certain doom.

We do this because it is in the looking back, that the light of Christ shines before us propelling us back down the mountain, across the river, or even over the bridge. We are propelled back to the future seeing how far we’ve come while also knowing how far we still have to go. Amen.

We Don’t Belong To Babylon

Isaiah 44.6-8

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

 

Years ago I spent a summer working for a Toyota Dealership up in Alexandria. I was a porter and I was responsible for parking customer’s cars, driving them into the bays, and then bringing them back out when the work was completed. Every day I hopped into more cars than I could count and drove with great care through a parking lot that had twice as many cars as it should have.

I loved working there. I loved how every day was different, I loved all the strange and bizarre things people kept in the cars, I even enjoyed the great range of music that people chose to blare through their sound systems. But the part of the job that I loved the most was the people I worked with.

All of the other porters were at least twenty years older then me, and none of them were white. We were quite the motley crew standing together waiting to park cars, and during the slow moments we regaled one another with stories. That summer I learned about Carlos’ difficult journey from Mexico to the United States, I learned about Jamal’s continued experience of racism even though we lived in a supposedly progressive place, and I learned about Michael’s love for his home country of Ghana.

Of all the other porters Michael took me under his wing and always made sure that I was always drinking enough water. He called me Mr. Taylor and would clap his hands when he saw me walking up early in the morning.

We worked side by side for an entire summer and by the end he felt more like a friend than a co-worker.

On one particularly rainy afternoon, while business was slow, I asked Michael about what it was like to live here after spending most of his life in Ghana. He told me about how for years he only dreamed of one thing; saving enough money to bring him and his family to the US. How for years they watched American movies and read American books and they knew they had to do everything they could to get here.

And when they finally saved enough, when they finally came to the US, they were disappointed.

I remember thinking: “Disappointed? How could they be disappointed with all we have to offer here?”

And then he told me that they were disappointed because it was dirty, because there were people in need, and that he and his family still felt like strangers in a strange land.

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Isaiah’s message from the Lord isn’t just some random call from a prophet for the people to know more about God – it comes at a particular time to a particular people in a particular place. These words were, and still are, meant for a people in captivity.

The people of God had grown distant from the Lord and after countless attempts to bring the people back into the fold; they were taken into captivity in Babylon. For two generations God’s people were in a foreign land and it was in the midst of the Babylonian captivity that Isaiah spoke these words from the Lord: I am the first and I am the last, there is no one else like me. If any are so bold as to claim to be like the Lord let them declare what is to come. Do not fear, or be afraid. Have I not told you what was to happen? You are my witnesses!

The people receiving the Word from Isaiah were a people without hope. They had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their faith, their traditions, their roots, their identity, and their sense of belong. The Babylonian empire was known for its power and its majesty, but it was not what they thought it would be. Like my friend Michael from Ghana arriving in a new place, the Israelites were strangers in a strange land. Babylon was a nation with its own roots and customs and gods, and Israel was a tiny nation that had been assimilated into the greater empire.

Every single day God’s people were surrounded by idols clamoring for their worship. But unlike all the idols of Babylon, unlike all of the customs and the experiences, Isaiah declared that only the Lord is first and last, only God calls the future into being.

And to be honest, it is almost impossible for us to connect with the captive situation during the time of Isaiah. We are so entrenched in the culture around us that we cannot even fathom what it would look like to be in bondage, to be chained down, to be strangers in a strange land. But we are.

We are in bondage to the next new thing; in just a few months droves of people will be lining the streets for the next iPhone, Potomac Mills will be nearly impossible to navigate through, and the promise of big deals will cause people to make irrational decisions and choices.

We are controlled by the current political structures that we think determine our lives. Just ponder about how much time we spend watching or reading the news that is now completely and totally focused on who said what, the next vote down the line, and the latest tweet from the White House.

We are chained to economic plateaus that are relatively inescapable. Here in this country we cherish the American Dream, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of us will die in the same economic bracket we were born into.

We think that all of those things determine our lives. They have become our Babylon.

On any given day we will spend more time worrying about a new product, or politics, or our prosperity far more than anything else. Like the Israelites in Babylon, like Michael at the dealership, we Christians are strangers in a strange land. And here’s the frightening part: the longer we spend time in the strange land, the less strange it appears.

I know a man who started attending church later in life and quickly got involved. At first he volunteered as an usher, and pretty soon he was helping to lead worship as a liturgist. He loved church. He embraced the different rhythms and habits of the congregation and threw himself completely in.

And, of course, it didn’t take long for him to join one of the many committees at church. For months he attended the meetings and all of the other activities at church, but suddenly he stopped appearing around the church as frequently until he disappeared all together.

I asked to meet with him to discuss what happened and his answer was simple and hard to hear. He said, “I loved church because it was unlike anything else in my life, but at some point it started feeling the same. I experienced arguments in church meetings, apathy in the pews, and people never stopped lamenting about the past. I came to church to escape that kind of stuff from my life, only to discover that it was here as well.”

If the church is no better than the culture that surrounds it, if it doesn’t embody a different way of being, then it simply isn’t the church.

We are supposed to be strangers in a strange land. While the world around us strives to change our priorities the words of Isaiah ring even louder. While the culture tells us that we have to make it through this life on our own, Jesus tells us that we cannot do it on our own. While cultural idols strive for our allegiance, the Lord speaks loud and clear: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God.

We don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God.

And, as Isaiah is bold to proclaim, our God comes to us from the future. God is concerned about where we are going, whereas we often spend far too much time stuck in the past.

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The Israelites in captivity were stuck in the past just as much as they were stuck in Babylon. Their minds were focused on the old things, the failures of a distant time, memories from days long ago. They needed to hear the good and the true Word of God: “Who else can tell you what is to come? Let them try to prophesy the future. I am coming to you from the future for I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Do not fear, or be afraid! You are my witnesses. Remember what I have done for you, and you will know there is no other rock.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation the people were in danger of forgetting who they were, and whose they were. They wallowed in their present circumstances and were giving themselves over to the idols in their midst. They needed a probing and holy Word from the Lord. They needed deliverance from their chains. They needed to hope for things not seen, they needed to believe, they needed to know that God was with them even in the midst of captivity.

But maybe all this Babylonian captivity stuff is too much for today. We haven’t been stolen from our homes and delivered into a foreign country. Perhaps the talk of idols and nationalism, the comparisons within politics, and the particles of God’s time traveling omnipotence are just too heavy. Maybe we’ve got other things to worry about: bills to pay, people to call, children to raise, a marriage to sustain, a future to figure out. Perhaps we are so deeply rooted in this strange land that we can no longer see it as strange. Maybe our captivity has become our home.

Well then let us all hear the adapted word from the prophet Isaiah:

We cannot save ourselves. We have been and will be saved by God. There is nothing on this earth, or in the entire cosmos, like the living God. No amount of materialistic accumulation, economic growth, or political power will ever bring us satisfaction. Every little thing that we want to give meaning to our lives will fall away.

God, however, is almighty, eternal, and full of mercy. God is the one reaching out to us when we no longer have the strength to reach back. God is the one who surrounds us when we feel completely alone. God is the one who delivers us from the captivity to the Babylons in our midst.

As Christians, we are strangers in a strange land. Everything surrounding us is constantly telling us what to think, how to act, and what to believe. The world tries to tell us who we are and whose we are.

But we don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God. The world’s ways are not our ways!

We are more than the stories of the past. We are more than the failures of the present. We are more than our captivity to the idols competing for our allegiance. We are God’s children.

And our God is an awesome God! Our God is the first and the last. Our God is the beginning and the end. Our God is in control. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God is king of the cosmos. Our God is the solid rock upon which we stand. Our God is concerned with our future. Our God believes in our future. Our God know where we’re going.

Thanks be to God that we don’t belong to Babylon. Amen.

Devotional – Exodus 24.15

Devotional:

Exodus 24.15

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.

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I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.

When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.

When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.

When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.

I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.

Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.

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When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.

Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.

Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.

Devotional – Isaiah 42.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 42.1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

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I need to apologize. At least, I need to apologize to the people of St. John’s who were present in worship on January 1, 2017. We started a new sermon series on “Dumb Things Christians Say” and I decided it would be good to start with “Everything Happens For A Reason.” It is one of those trite and cliché Christianisms that are forever being flung around without anyone thinking about the consequences of such a statement.

I began the sermon with a story and a quote from Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who recently said that “It wasn’t Russia who intervened in the election of Donald Trump, it was God.” I then went on to theologically proclaim the strange tension Christians live in between and all-powerful God and a free humanity; God rules this world but gives us the freedom to act in the world.

The thrust of the end of the sermon went like this: “Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.

But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.”

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Upon listening to the audio of the sermon, and rereading it before posting it online, I realized that I was very heavy-handed with my language about President-Elect Trump, and that I inadvertently compared his election with the suffering of innocent people in car accidents.

What I should have said was that even though Donald Trump was elected by the people of the United States of America, and not by some divine act of providence, God still uses people like Donald Trump to make God’s will incarnate on earth. The beautiful wonder of the Lord is that God works in and through individuals in ways that we can scarcely imagine; a chance conversation, a fleeting dream, a subtle nudge in the right direction. We can have hope in the Lord regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office because we know that God is the one who has the final Word. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection.

Jesus is the servant who God upholds, the chosen one in whom the Lord delights. Jesus is the one who brings forth comfort to the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to pray for our president in order that he may discern how to bring peace and justice to this world in a way that resonates with Jesus’ peace and justice.