Farting Around

Devotional:

Psalm 146.10

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord! 

Weekly Devotional Image

I had an existential crisis yesterday.

I was sitting in a local Auto Parts Shop waiting for my car’s inspection and emissions to be completed having procrastinated for far too long. When I entered I took a seat close to the door, filled up a too-small styrofoam cup with horrible coffee, and pulled out a book to read. But before I could even find my recently dog-eared page, I noticed the man sitting next to me. He was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, he had a beat up paperback sitting on his lap, and he was fast asleep. It was then that I took stock of my own clothing and situation, for I too was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, and I was about to open my paperback book.

And I kind of freaked out.

What made me freak out wasn’t the odds of running into my twin (who was probably 30 years older than me) but was the fact that I felt like I received a brief glimpse into my future. And it left me feeling, well, uncomfortable.

Instead of opening my book and actually reading, I spent the rest of my purgatorial time asking questions in my head like: Is this what I doomed to do the rest of my days? Is life just a repetitive joke until it ends? Is their any meaning to all of this?

By the time my name was called I was sufficiently in the midst of a mental crisis when the snoring man’s cell phone rang. He promptly woke from his slumber, brought the phone to his ear, and after listening for a moment he said, “Yeah, just farting around waiting for my car to be ready.”

Which made me think of a haunting quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

In Stanley Hauerwas’ sermon “Facing Nothingness – Facing God” from his collection Without Apology he seeks dispel the sentiment of Vonneguts’ quote by in fact naming what we are here on Earth to do, namely “wait for a new heaven and a new earth.”

The sermon explores the many ways in which we wrestle with our finitude and mortality by trying to seek out our own immortality by making a difference such that “we will not be forgotten by those who benefit from our trying to make a difference.” And yet, we very rarely actually make much of a difference. The world continues to spin in spite of our best intentions, we revert back to the same old sins that leave the lost lost and the found found, and we neglect to realize that even if we are remembered for our good deeds the people who knew those good deeds will also one day be forgotten.

This is a recipe for anxiety.

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But what does this mean, particularly, for Christians? What about those who gather week after week in the hope that our lives are not pointless?

The prophet Isaiah was once called by God to comfort God’s people and to speak tenderly with Jerusalem. But when Isaiah presses the Lord about what to actually speak it sounds anything but tender – “All people are grass that withers away when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.”

Or, in other words, we are not the center of the universe.

For a people constantly told to “make your own destiny” and “leave your mark” it can be a difficult endeavor to confront the reality that we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday: We are dust and to dust we shall return. The life of a Christian is defined by the recognition that we are fragile, fleeting, and finite things. And, even more importantly, we can’t do much of anything about it! This is our lot in life.

But we are an Advent people and we have learned (or are learning) what it means to wait. Christianity isn’t about being given a set of tools or resources to make sure we are remembered long after we’re dead. Instead Christianity is about seeing how the time we’ve been given is a gift because it is God’s time for us.

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Karl Barth put it this way: “When I really give anyone my time, I thereby give them the last and most personal thing that I have to give at all, namely myself… The difference at once to be noticed between our having time for others and God’s having time for us is twofold, that if God gives us time, He who deals with us is He who alone has genuine, real time to give, and that He gives us this time not just partially, not with all sorts of reservations and qualifications, such as are habitual with us when giving to others, but entirely.” Church Dogmatics I.2

The regular gathering and shaping of Christians through the liturgy forms us into people who know how to wait in the time God has given us. Whenever we hear the Word read in worship or we gather at the table of communion or we pray over the waters of baptism we do so by facing God in the person of “Jesus Christ who gives us the confidence that time is not a tale told to us by an idiot, but rather time names God’s desire that we participate in God’s very life. We are not abandoned. The heavens do declare the glory of God.” (Hauerwas, Without Apology, 54).

As Advent people we are also Easter people – We know how the story begins and how it ends – We know the Alpha and the Omega.

It is far too easy these days to give in to the existential fears that so regularly plague us. No matter how old we are we all look back and wonder what the sum of our lives mean. Life can, at times, feel meaningless. But for Christians, our lives have meaning precisely because God has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Our meaning comes in receiving the One who comes to us precisely to remind us who we are. We have been given good work to do because all we have to do it wait – the rest is up to God.

Christmas Ruins Advent

Waiting is a dirty word, at least to the ears of most Christians (in America). After all, we are a people of action. We are not comfortable to sit idly by while something could be taken care of. In the world of United Methodism, this is inherently part of our DNA as John Wesley is the one who first said, “Never leave anything till tomorrow, which you can do today. And do it as well as possible.”

It is therefore strange and uncomfortable to arrive at church during the Advent season to hear all about the virtues of waiting.

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In many ways we blindly stagger toward the word of waiting with connections to waiting to open what is under the tree more than waiting on Jesus. It functions as a trite and helpful little analogy that resonates with parents and children alike. And so long as we’re all patient, we’ll get that for which we hope on Christmas morning.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us want to wait around for anything, let alone presents, the birth of the Savior, or his promised return.

Or, to put it another way, if God isn’t going to bring us the kingdom, we’ll bring it ourselves. That’s the American way.

In his sermon “Waiting” from Minding the Web Stanley Hauerwas laments our inability to wait during a season all about waiting:

“Advent is a time, and time is at the heart of what it means for us to be a people who have learned to wait. Therefore at Advent, we think it important to at least act as if we are waiting… we play at being Jews for a few weeks, but we do so as if we are in a drama with designated roles for us to play. However, once the play is over, we have no reason to play the roles associated with waiting.”

There’s a reason that many in the mainline church avoid the early Pauline corpus in worship – it’s too apocalyptic. All that talk of Jesus returning again sounds like what people in crazy churches talk about. We are far more sensible. We are helping people become better people. We are taking care of business. 

And we do so because we have been habituated this way. Our bodies and our minds are shaped by practices and rituals that start to form us such that we no longer know how we wound up this way. Pay attention the next time you’re in church, notice how many times you hear the words “should” and “ought” and “must.” The church today has taken upon itself the burden of responsibility and habituates it into the people through the words and practices of worship that leave us feeling like we have to do something no matter what that something might be.

Consider how we treat the presents under the tree as children (and to some degree as adults). We were once encouraged to ask for particular things from Santa, or from friends and family, all under the auspices of possibly receiving those very gifts so long as we behaved accordingly. This is all the more relevant today with the meteoric popularity of the “Elf on the Shelf.” We are always making new ledgers to keep others in line.

But part of the message of the Gospel is that God has thrown out the ledger books forever! As Paul wrote, “And when you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2)

The songs we sing (He’s making a list, checking it twice) and the traditions we practice (Elves hiding on shelves) form us into people who are afraid that our behavior will remove blessings (presents) from our lives. And for as much as we’d like to consider ourselves beyond these silly theological ramblings as adults – habits formed in childhood are very hard to break.

Which leaves us far more comfortable with waiting for a baby in a manger who appears innocuous and unable to judge us, than waiting for the Son of Man who comes to judge both the living and the dead. For, we know in our heart of hearts, we’ve done things for which we should rightly be judged.

We no longer know how to wait. We want to skip to Easter Sunday without having to confront Good Friday and we want Christmas without Advent. And yet all of them, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable, point us to something beyond ourselves: The judged judged has come to be judged in our place. Jesus’ crucifixion, made possible by his incarnation, has accomplished that for which it was purposed. 

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Jesus’ crucifixion rattled the very constitution of the universe because death could not hold him. Three days later he is raised. He walks with two former followers on the road to Emmaus, teaching them how to read Scripture. Such instruction was required, because they found it difficult to understand how the one to liberate Israel could end up on a cross.” 

Today, it seems we are a people who find it difficult to believe that God would choose to die for us. We’d rather hear about all the things we can do to earn God’s favor than to believe that God favors us regardless of our behavior. 

We are not particularly good at waiting because we want to take matters into our own hands. And yet part of the message of Advent is that if it were all up to us, we would fail. We need a savior who can come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In the end the only thing we have to do is wait, because the rest is up to God. 

Another Way Forward or: Why “Holy Conferencing” Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

On November 16th, 2016, Americans flocked to their assigned polling stations. The election cycle had been particularly brutal with the partisanship at its zenith. And while countless citizens waited for the election results to come in, a handful of people gathered for worship at Duke Divinity School to hear Stanley Hauerwas preach.

It’s a good sermon, you can read it in his recent book Minding The Web, but there’s one part that has really stuck with me over the last few years:

“I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas. Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often over-looked, but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election, 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Annual Conference is often experienced as the most determinative week in the life of United Methodism. Sure, we have a General Conference every four years that establishes the global budget and a handful of other truly important matters. But every year, every Annual Conference meets to discern the future of the local church as it pertains to missional strategies, ordination, and conference structures. And we worship occasionally, but that certainly feels like an afterthought most of the time.

And within the regular movements and machinations of Annual Conference there is an element of conferencing that is so engrained into who we are that we no longer question its’ subversiveness – Robert’s Rules of Order, and specifically voting in general.

I don’t know the exact date of when the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations sold their souls to the organization of Robert, but I do know for sure that it has nothing to do with the gospel.

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Take Hauerwas’ point: The only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus. They thought they knew what they were doing and they nailed the Lord to the cross. There are, of course, other moments of important decision in the New Testament, but they don’t happen through a pre-arranged structure, or through secret ballots, and certainly not through electronic devices. 

There isn’t even campaigning for particular people or ideologies.

When the apostles needed to choose a new disciple to replace Judas they did so with the casting of lots.

When the apostles encounter the Spirit’s movement among the Gentiles they simply went along with the flow rather than creating subcommittees to study a new way forward for the Good News.

But that’s not how we handle things in the United Methodist Church. 

For years I’ve entertained the thought of approaching one of the open microphones to make a motion (under the guidelines of Robert) to amend our general rules and practices so that EVERY vote would be done with the casting of lots. I’m sure that it would be debated, and ultimately struck down, but the craziest thing is it would have the potential of being more faithful than whatever it is we are already doing.

Instead of listening for and discerning the movement of the Spirit, we “take matters into our own hands” by exhibiting our democratic rights. Which means, to put it another way, that the UMC has adopted a secular means of deliberation that mirrors corporate America more than the living Word of the Lord.

Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry, who is retiring at this year’s Virginia Annual Conference says: “We have conflated effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”

During this Annual Conference cycle there has been a lot of behind the scenes politicking in order to establish slates of candidates to be voted upon for the 2020 General Conference. Different camps/tribes are hoping to either overturn or strengthen the Traditional Plan from GC 2019 that created stiffer penalties for clergy who preside over same-sex weddings and Bishops/Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Those who lean to the right have their slate of candidates and those who lean to the left have their own slate of candidates. But on both sides, two of the primary factors for consideration have been electability and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.

So here’s my question: What does it say about the United Methodist Church that when discerning the future of God’s church we want to elect individuals who have name-recognition and who are aware of a parliamentary process that has nothing to do with the Bible?

Robert’s Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing and neither is sitting down for an election. They might keep us attentive to the matters at hand, but they also leave us more polarized than we were when we started. 

So, here’s another way forward in light of GC 2019 and our continued Annual Conferencing – 

Get rid of Robert’s Rules of Order. Throw it away and never look back. Will Annual Conference become chaotic and difficult to keep under control? Of course, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does best. Do you think the disciples waited for someone to make a motion to accept the Holy Spirit before it was poured out on Pentecost?

And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of voting altogether. We can either work through consensus building, or cast lots like they did during the time of Jesus. Will it be difficult, and will we feel like its’ unfair? Of course, but God’s grace is entirely unfair – it’s for everyone.

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper organization is the key to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do or what we control – instead, it’s about what God did and does and whether or not we have the eyes, ears, and minds to perceive it.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that has more to do with Sears than it does to the kingdom of God.

Here on the other side of GC 2019, our conferencing is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To continually give ourselves over to Robert and his rules is to admit how drunk we are with manifesting our own destiny. 

My fear is that we are so entrenched in our ways, that we are no longer listening to The Way. 

If we’re honest, none of our committees would elect Jesus to do much of anything. He is far too radical, too perverse, and he associates himself with all the wrong people. He wouldn’t sit around for all of the parliamentary procedures before marching out to do his own thing.

I just hope that we would have the presence of mind to follow Him, rather than trying to show Him where to go. 

Strangers in the Sanctuary

Last Sunday I announced to my church that I am being appointed to a new congregation at the end of June. I am truly grateful for the time I’ve had at St. John’s and recently I’ve been thinking about the many ways they’ve let me experiment what it means to preach from the pulpit.

Back in 1992, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon published a book entitled Preaching to Strangers. The book includes a number of sermons preached by Willimon at Duke Chapel with Hauerwas’ comments and critiques immediately following. And there is a line in the introduction that has stuck with me during my time at St. John’s:

“A congregation cannot be strangers to one another, not because they know one another well, but because they have all had the same baptism… [However] most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers.” [Willimon and Hauerwas. Preaching to Strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 6.]

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How is it possible that we can have churches filled with strangers? Perhaps our worship prevents us from seeing the pews as avenues of connection and instead we see them as walls of division. Maybe we spend so much time facing forward that we forget to look left and right. Or perhaps we’ve let our faith become solely about our relationship with God and not about our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Regardless of the reason, I noticed from the beginning of my ministry that there were strangers in the sanctuary.

We did such a good job of welcoming and connecting with one another during the times immediately before and after worship, we even sat down and talked during fellowship events, but we didn’t really know one another.

And I didn’t do anything about it.

Instead, for the first 2 years, I got up in the pulpit every week and preached my sermon. I shook hands with everyone on their way out the door and started the process all over again. And again and again I would have people come up to ask me questions about the family that had just walked out the door, or someone wanted to know the name of the man who sat on the left side in the third pew from the back, or people would ask how long some particular individual had been sitting in that particular spot without knowing their name. But still, I did nothing.

I waited and waited until something happened back in 2015 that forced me to try something new, strange, and bizarre.

One day our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man immediately began to cry and said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future… These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of being part of a church where we did not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I didn’t want the sanctuary to be a place of loneliness of Sunday mornings. So I tried something different.

Instead of the typical ~15 minute sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups during worship (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. I assigned group leaders with instructions (printed below) and provided a list of questions (also below) to help get the conversation flowing.

When I announced what we were doing from the pulpit that morning there were audible groans from the congregation. “Here he goes again,” they must’ve thought. And, begrudgingly, they filed off to their different rooms in silence.

But when the activity was over and they came back to the sanctuary, I couldn’t get them to stop talking!

In the years that followed that weird Sunday I’ve been blessed to see new friendships between individuals and families that had their genesis in those classroom conversations: A group of widows who were previously unaware of one another have lunch together once a month; a new family to the community connected with a long-time Stauntonian family and now regularly spend time together; people formerly divided by age are now connected over common interests like movies, restaurants, and even time travel destinations.

 

Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk from the pulpit, and not just in a daring or controversial sermon. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the way and let the Spirit do what the Spirit wants. Sometimes church can be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness.

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Living in Harmony Activity

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversations during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

 

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  2. Ask everyone to share his or her name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below is a list of questions to ask the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask him or her to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen.

In Defense Of The Revised Common Lectionary

Crackers & Grape Juice is an interview-driven theological podcast about faith without using stained glass language. My friends Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Morgan Guyton started the podcast over a year ago in order to remain connected to one another while also continuing to explore theology. Near the beginning, I was asked to help with editing specific episodes and quickly became part of the team. Since the inception, Crackers & Grape Juice’s audience has grown tremendously thanks, in part, to interviewees such as David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Rob Bell, and others. We are committed to producing and providing faithful content with faithful theologians, but we have also added a new podcast to the mix.

Strangely Warmed is a new lectionary-based podcast designed to address the weekly church reading without using stained glass language. The Revised Common Lectionary is a wonderful resource for churches and one that has come to shape the Christian experience over the last few decades. The RCL is a three-year cycle of four readings for each Sunday and special days throughout the liturgical year. There is always a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel (with a few exceptions). At the heart of the RCL is a desire to bring churches through the great narrative of scripture without being limited by the subjectivity of the preacher.

However, the Lectionary is something unknown in many churches even if the preacher follows it weekly. Therefore, I have created the following Top Ten List in defense of the Revised Common lectionary for pastors and lay people who are interested in following and subscribing to Strangely Warmed. (You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spreaker)

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  1. Our Time is NOT God’s Time
    1. Christians, whether they know it or not, follow a different year than the calendar year. We might write February 28th on our checks and important documents, but for us the day is actually defined by being part of the season of Epiphany (until Ash Wednesday when we enter the season of Lent). To follow Jesus Christ implies a willingness to have our expectations (taught to us by the world) uprooted and flipped by the living God. The RCL helps guide us through the Christian year in such a way that our identity first rests with our discipleship, and then everything else secondarily. Moreover, following something like the RCL is a reminder that our time is not the same thing as God’s time. We might feel wearied by the weight of the most recent political development or social event, but the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people transcend time; they are in fact timeless. There is a great comfort that comes when diving into the strange new world of the bible through the RCL because it provides a sense of perspective that Christians regularly need.
  2. Habits/Discipline
    1. As Stanley Hauerwas has said on a number of occasions: What we believe shapes how we behave. Following the RCL informs our beliefs and necessarily shapes our behaviors, choices, and actions. The lectionary is a habit and requires discipline for both pastors and lay people. I will be the first to admit that there are plenlty of stories in the Bible that I would rather not preach, and when a particular event occurs I often know which story from the Bible would be effective to use from the pulpit in which to address the event. However, only picking and choosing the stories that we are familiar with, or the stories we are comfortable with, furthers the sinful idea that we can fit God into a box. Psalm 23 is a beautiful text and brings comfort to many people, but it cannot be the only thing that we Christians proclaim on a weekly basis. We need the Psalm 22s just as much as the Psalm 23s and the RCL provides that disciplined exposure to the canonical narrative of God’s grace.
  3. Limited Imagination
    1. Similarly, following the RCL, whether in preaching or in a bible study, forces us to proclaim scripture we would otherwise ignore. God can, and does, speak through scripture, even if we can’t imagine how upon first glance. And when we limit the passages on Sunday mornings to, say, the Gospels, we are limiting God’s Word being proclaimed in worship. There are definitely weird and strange passages in both the Old and New Testaments, but committing to them (rather than ignoring them) challenges us to have scripturally shaped imaginations. At the heart of the RCL is a commitment to be under the obligation of the text to say what God wants said for God’s church rather than what the preacher want to say about God to God’s church.
  4. Biblical Literacy
    1. We don’t know our bibles like we once did. Period. I could go on and on about the many times I’ve encountered someone who has gone to church for most of his/her life only to not know about the story of the bible. For instance: I was recently asked if Moses was in the New Testament, another person had no idea who Isaiah was, and another shared her utter shock that when we have communion we are living into the last time Jesus gathered with the disciples. All of those interactions came from people who have been going to church longer than I’ve been alive! Now I’m not say that we need to memorize the entirety of scripture, or get lost in the weeds, but the RCL is a tool to help us reclaim our biblical literacy.
  5. The catholic (universal) church
    1. Preaching and reading from the RCL connects us with the church universal. There is something profoundly beautiful about the fact that two churches, from completely different denominations, can read the same scripture on the same Sunday morning. Personally, this connection with the catholic church has been made manifest in a Lectionary Bible Study I participate in at the church I serve where more than half of the people in attendance attend other churches on Sunday morning. Yet, the same scriptures we read during the week are the ones they encounter on Sunday morning. In a time when there seem to be almost more denomination than there are Christians, the RCL connects us to the united church that Christ prayed for in John 17.
  6. Scripture Interprets Scripture
    1. The bible is cyclical, and you can miss this if you read it in isolation or with the strange collaboration of something like the RCL. For instance, the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop is a powerful one in and of itself, but it takes on a whole new meaning when we read it in light of the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Both were born into situations where their lives were in peril, both heard the voice of the Lord in pivotal moments before their ministries began, both proclaimed the law from a mountain, and both had their faces shine in the light of God’s presence. Scripture helps interpret scripture, and the RCL does a pretty good job at pairing readings from throughout the bible that connect with one another.
  7. Christological Focus
    1. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we read scripture. We Christians have the benefit of knowing the “end of the story” when we are reading passages from the Old Testament and we should remember Christ’s role throughout the canon. However, we don’t simply read the New Testament into the Old; we also need to read the Old into the New. The New Testament is filled with scriptural references to the Old Testament that fall flat when we, as preachers and readers, do not draw the connections between the two. And Christ is the glue that holds both Testaments together. The RCL implores those who adhere to it to see the connections between all four readings and how Christ is the means by which they relate to one another.
  8. Inexhaustibility of Scripture
    1. God always has something to say. Now that I’m in my fourth year of ministry, I am making my way through Year A of the RCL for the second time and I am blown away by how much the same scripture I preached on just a few years ago still have so much to say. The way I read John 1 my first year in ministry has changed dramatically and has therefore transformed the way I preach that passage. Similarly, I have been in bible studies and read enough theology over the last few years that I will never look at certain passages the same way again. The RCL allows we preachers to reflect on how we looked at, and preached, a text in the recent past and how we can use in again in the present.
  9. Room for the Spirit
    1. As previously mentioned, there are some difficult passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Passages about the wrath of God or the judgment of God are not easily preached or taught in church. However, using the RCL compels the preacher to rely on the Spirit’s guidance when handling a difficult passage which is something that should be done for every sermon regardless of difficulty. When I was first appointed to St. John’s and was planning worship for the coming months, I made a habit of reading all for lectionary texts for each Sunday and the one I wanted to preach on the least was the one that I picked for the particular Sunday. This simple practice forced me to rely on praying for the Spirit to guide me and for God’s will to be done in a way that made my preaching better, more faithful, and more fruitful.
  10. Being Shaped by the Word
    1. In our current cultural clime (the Reign of Trump), the lectionary helps us negotiate the world in which we find ourselves. Rather than reading into scripture what we want to say, the RCL allows us to proclaim what God wants to say. If we are willing to stand under the text (rather than above it) then we can let the text narrate our lives and we can be faithful. For example: On election day, the gospel lection was about Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in three days. Stanley Hauerwas was tasked with preaching that week at Duke Divinity School, and he preached about how Jesus just didn’t get it; you don’t tell the Jews the Temple is going to be destroyed in three days if you’re running for office. He then went on to address how the assumption that elections are the means by which just societies are established is an illusion; in the New Testament we learn about how democracies work in the one moment where there is an example of a democratic election… the crowd chose Barabbas. Hauerwas easily could have picked any number of passages from the Bible to preach during Election Day, but he was held accountable to the lectionary, which told him what to preach rather than the other way around. Following the RCL, whether in preaching or in teaching, grants us the freedom to be shaped by the Word.

 

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Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

The Top 10 Books I Read In 2015

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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Without a doubt, The Sellout is one of the most convicting novels I have ever read. Set in south Los Angeles County in an impoverished community with a farm, the story covers racism, comedy, subsistence farming, the Little Rascals, the (in)justice system, and a slew of other subjects. The main character, a black farmer raised by a controversial sociologist, attempts to reinstitute segregation in hopes of giving hope back to the black community. Favorite line: “It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, right?” “It is.” “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

 

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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McBride’s novel is a fictive retelling of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. The narrative follows a young male black child who pretends to be a girl after meeting John Brown in order to avoid hard work and violence. The story is gripping to such a degree that I nearly read the entire thing in one sitting.

 

The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas

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Hauerwas’ new collection of essays is the closest thing to listening to him lecture at Duke Divinity School. Collected in an all encompassing format, the essays show Hauerwas’ attempt to wrestle with important subjects from how he thinks he learned to think theologically, to how to write a theological sentence, to how to be theologically funny (though other essays are actually funnier than the one on being funny). It is quintessentially Hauerwas and worthy of anyone wanting to know what it means to be theological.

 

Hear The Wind Sing / Pinball 1970 by Haruki Murakami

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For years Murakami resisted the demands of publishers and fans for an English version of his debut novels. Written while he owned and operated a jazz bar in Tokyo, he claims that it took him two novels to figure out how to really write, and he describes A Wild Sheep Chase to be his first true novel. However, this year his first two stories were published in English together in one volume. It is clear that Murakami is learning his voice through these narratives, but as an avid fan of his work, is was a joy to see the beginnings of his imagination at play.

 

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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Full disclosure: This was my third attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. The first two times I would get through 50-100 pages and just give up. It is a struggle. With footnotes that propel the story forward but also drive the reader crazy, you have to really work to get through this thing. But if you can, it’s worth it. It is impossible to describe Infinite Jest in a way that does the thing justice, and that’s kind of the point. It is at times comedic, tragic, political, geographical, historic, and absurdist. If you have the time and patience to make it through, it will change the way you look at literature.

Also: the all-too-brief section describing the game of Eschaton is incredible.

 

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

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Graphic-novels were a new thing for me this year. I read through all the great Batman works by the likes of Frank Miller, Jeff Loeb, and Alan Moore, but the one graphic-novel that continues to stay in my mind is The Complete Maus. Written and drawn by the son of a holocaust survivor, Maus tells the story of a man’s survival and destruction. Spiegelman’s use of animals to portray human characters makes the story approachable while also making the subject matter completely jarring. Spiegelman’s graphic novel is one that demands to be read in order to remind us of how quickly prejudice can lead to violence.

 

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

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Larsen’s follow-up to the incredible debut novel of The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, is about a black child named Radar Radmanovic born to white parents. While at first the giant novel seems like at attempt to bridge racial tensions, it really avoids the subject altogether. Instead the narrative is about Radar’s father and the way that art can change the soul regardless of whether anyone is there to observe it. Additionally, Larsen’s use of fictive footnotes to books that do not exist draws the reader into a total world within, and outside of, the story.

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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Flanagan’s story is not for the faint of heart. There were times that I wanted stop reading because it was just too sad. The novel jumps time periods in Dorrigo Evan’s life from his childhood in Australia, to his love affair as a young soldier, to his work on the Burma Railway as a POW in 1943, to the effects of life after the war. Flanagan resists the temptation to stay with one narrator and shows both sides to every story within the novel, leaving the reader helpless to determine who was right or wrong, or whether we should even use those qualifiers to describe ourselves.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Doerr’s novel deserves all of the strong reviews and awards it received this year. Set before, during, and immediately after World War II it follows a young boy who winds up fighting for the Germans, and a young blind woman struggling to survive in France. As their individual stories eventually come together, the reader beholds a beautiful and haunting novel about what it really takes to “see” the other.

 

Life After Life / A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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I have collected the two novels as one because they really inform one another. The first portrays a young British woman living through World War II and the many ways that she dies. Every time she comes to the end of her life, whether from a disease or a bomb, the story starts over and the young woman makes minor changes to her life in order to avoid the previous outcome. It is unlike anything else I have read. The second novel follows the girl’s brother as an RAF pilot during the war and his attempts to find a normal life in post-war Europe. Atkinson’s characterization shows an author at the top of her game, and I can’t wait to see what else she puts out in the years to come.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

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The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir

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