The Fruit Of The Womb

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (Ruth 3.1-4, 4.13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44). Teer serves as an associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the cohosts for Crackers And Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent devotionals, Rated R scriptures, podophobia, neighborhood names, bringing God into the voting booth, the once-for-all-ness of the atonement, sacrificing Jesus one Sunday a month, and ignoring people in robes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Fruit of the Womb

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Teer Talking About Feet…

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Mercy > Merit

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for All Saints Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including All Saints habits, the problem with stained glass language, really long communion tables, being mindful of the malleability of time, removing disgrace, holiness and hand sanitizer, open doors, funeral texts, and the universality of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy > Merit

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Flashing Forth Flames of Fire

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Imagine, if you can, that I was a middle student and I came to your office one day and asked you to explain the Trinity. What would you say?

I was sitting at a table surrounded by pastors and lay people from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and they were evaluating whether or not I had been effective in my first three years of ministry. This was one of the last requirements to be fully ordained, and get to wear a stole like this one.

So I was sitting there at the table having already fielded an hour’s worth of theological questions when I was asked to explain the nature of the Trinity to a hypothetical middle schooler.

What would you say?

The three most popular analogies for the Trinity are as follows:

The Trinity is like an egg. At one moment it is three distinct things – a shell, a yolk, and an egg white. Without all three it ceases to be an egg. However this fails to justice to the Trinity because it cannot be divided into parts, but the egg can.

Another analogy is that the Trinity is like water. Water, depending on external temperature, can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. And regardless of what state it is in, the chemical composition remains the same. However, this too fails to do justice to the Trinity because water can change into gas, or vice versa, but the Father does not become the Son or the Spirit.

Finally, there’s the analogy of the shamrock. St. Patrick was once said to have picked up a shamrock and say, just as there are three leaves, but there is one plant – so it is with the Trinity. However, this falls apart with the fact that the shamrocks have different parts and that is not true for the Trinity.

Pretend I’m a middle schooler and I wanted to know about the Trinity. What would you say?

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Today is Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday immediately following Pentecost and it is a time for us to confront our three-in-one God. It continues us throughout the period we call Ordinary Time until Advent. Many churches use this day as a teaching moment to help illuminate church doctrine about what it means to be Trinitarian. They might break out some water, or eggs, or shamrocks and do what they can to help all in attendance to understand what we believe just a little bit better.

            But here’s the thing – For as much as our God is a present and revealing God, our God is also incomprehensibly and uncontainably complex.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings! The voice of the Lord thunders, it breaks the cedars, the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord flashes forth like flames of fire!

The psalmist conveys to us images of the divine that have far more to do with destruction and devastation than with eggs, water, and shamrocks. Here we discover a God who causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare, such that all the people in God’s temple say, “Glory!”

Most of us have come of age in a world where the God of scripture has been conveyed to us through analogy after analogy, where professional Christians like me have endeavored to bring people like you closer to the divine, when the truth of the matter is that we cannot describe God, and God is the One who encounters us.

Our God cannot be contained by metaphors and analogies for middle school students – our God is as overwhelming as a windstorm leaving a forest bare, as frightening as a voice that can shake the wilderness, and as bewildering as flames of fire flashing forth.

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The church, the Bible, the Trinity, they are all confusing, and we can blame it on God. God reveals God’s self in ways we cannot imagine or rationalize, and choose to be God for us as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that it is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe.

And so, with all this confounding confusion, what can we say about our God?

Perhaps, we can say that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. We can say this because God chose to reveal God’s self to us in the person and incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, like God, is anything but simple.

In Jesus, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar. God came close to us, too close for comfort for many. Jesus is God in action. Jesus is God refusing to remain an abstract idea removed to a far off place. Jesus is God breaking forth from the shackles of God’s own divinity.

But, lest we fall into a day-dream version of God in Jesus through the lens of sentimentality… God is still the God of the psalm flashing forth flames of fire.

I once heard that God is at least as nice as Jesus, but the same holds true that Jesus is at least as frightening as God.

            And then we’re left with another question: Who is God’s peace for?

After describing the destructive power of the Lord, the psalm ends with a call for God to give strength to God’s people and for them to be blessed with peace. What about those who are not part of God’s people? What does this peace actually look like? Does God take sides?

The answers to those questions are as confusing an as ambiguous as the Trinity itself.

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The Lord blesses the sons and daughters of Abraham but they live in a time of famine.

            They are rescued by Joseph only to become slave in Egypt.

            Led by Moses they escape bondage to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

            Joshua delivers them to the Promised Land but they are never really at peace.

            There are wars after wars and the so-called “chosen people” lose just as often as they win. They are taken into exile, or forced to wait for loved ones to return home. And when they are reconciled, if ever, peace is the last thing on their minds.

We can read these stories over and over again in the Old Testament, we can encounter those elected and rejected by God, but we don’t have to look far to know that it is true – we war among ourselves all the time; father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, sister against sister. And then we still ask, “Are we going to encounter the God of earthquakes, flames of fire, and whirling winds – Is God on our side?” Or, perhaps better put, “When will the Lord finally bless us with peace?”

Psalm 29, the doctrine of the Trinity, they both raise more questions than they provide answers. People like you and me have been struggling with these words and ideas for centuries, we’ve been tugged between the tension and ambiguity of God’s nature in the world and in our very lives.

We worship a God who blesses, but we live in a world where bad things happen to good people nonetheless. There is no easy and satisfying answer to the question of whether or not God takes sides, just as there is no easy and simple analogy for the Trinity.

We may never be able to avoid the confusing nature of faith completely. So much of what we do is based on a premise of mystery – we just happen to live in a world hell-bent on having an answer for everything.

If all this talk of trinitarianism and God’s frightening power seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. There are plenty of churches and communities that make this easier on the brain with simple analogies and ignorant assumptions. But there is no way for us to do justice to the marvelous complexity, the community in unity of the divine, without believing in the three-in-one God. We cannot worship God in faith without struggling and wrestling with the question of God’s preferences.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with his knowledge of God. He read all the right books and went to the right school, and even became a priest in the Church of England without believing in the faith he preached. He struggled and struggled to the point that when he asked one of his mentors what to do about leading a church without faith his mentor said, “preach until you get it.”

And it was 280 years ago this week that John Wesley wrote something rather remarkable in his diary: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God work in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had spent most of his life looking for God, when in the end God was the one who found him and warmed his heart. That moment changed everything, that society meeting on Aldersgate is largely responsible for the existence of the United Methodist Church today.

God comes to us, all of us, at any time and at any place, as Father-Son-Spirit. For some God flashes forth like flames of fire, and for others God’s flame is found in the warmth of our hearts. God finds us and, contrary to what we might want, God doesn’t answer all of our questions. Yet when God encounters we discover an assurance that this God is with us.

When the far-off One who has been brought near is us, when the wall that has been destroyed is the wall we build in a vain attempt to keep God out of our lives and off our backs, that’s when we start to know the Trinity.

Faith, however, will always remain a mystery. We will find ourselves confused by the God who finds us. Because, in the end, it may simply be too frightening to think about God’s peace, whatever that is. It might be too overwhelming to think that God is not on our side, or worse: God might be on their side.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as we leave scratching our heads, we do so with the hope that God will bless us with true peace – not as we know peace or wish to know peace; a peace that is always defined on our terms. No, this Trinity Sunday, we pray for the peace, the perfect peace, that is known and shared within the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.

            And, we may be so bold so pray, that God might warm our hearts in the process. Amen.

An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the The Liturgy of the Passion [Year B] (Isaiah 50.4-9a, Psalm 31.9-16, Philippians 2.5-11, Mark 14.1-15.47). Teer serves as the associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC and Jason is the executive pastor of Aldersgate UMC (both in Northern Virginia). Our conversation covers a range of topics including talking about ourselves as little as possible, the freedom to fail, memorizing scriptures and prayers, an accursed way to die, shame, the gospels as television channels, the nude dude, and disappearing from the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

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If there’s one thing that most us have in common, it’s a dislike for hearing about our own sinfulness. Most of us are fine with raising the sins of other people, in fact some of us actually delight in bringing up the failures of others, but when we’re asked to take a good hard look in the mirror we’d rather turn away.

My suspicion is that we enjoy the sins of others because it makes us feel like we have our lives together. When we hear about that couple whose relationship is on the rocks, it makes us feel like the last argument we had with our spouse wasn’t really that bad. When we receive word that one of our children’s classmates is repeating a grade, it makes us feel like even though we know we could do more at least our kid is moving on. When we turn on the television and witness scenes of celebrities entering rehab facilities, it makes our addictions look manageable and therefore unnecessary to confront.

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But then the Word of the Lord beckons our attention through the sands of time: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

The challenge with this, of course, is that we are not necessarily the ones meant to do the shouting! The prophet Isaiah was given this unenviable task, and today we are the ones meant to receive this, and therefore the Lord’s, condemnation.

How often have we ignored our own sins while identifying the sins of others? How often have we continued down a path of pain and shame knowing full and well the results of our actions? How often have we heard a challenging word in Church only to think about who else it might apply to instead of ourselves?

The season of Lent, which we enter into on Ash Wednesday, is no easy thing. We embark on this journey through a strange season every year as a way to stand before the mirror of truth and see who we really are. It is a time of repentance for what we’ve done, and a time for listening about how God is calling us out of the pit of our sin. It is the liturgy (ie. work of the people) designed to give us the strength to hear about our rebellion, and do something about it.

The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Over the last few years there has been a phenomenal rise in a liturgical practice called “Ashes to Go.” And I think it needs to end.

This is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads.

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Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

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Last year, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge for an Crackers & Grape Juice episode about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said:

“It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, Ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church.

While the world bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are.

Give Me Joy Or Give Me Death

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I am convinced that the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are some of the noisiest days in the year. There’s the noise of scratching together the proper shopping list, the boxes of decorations being dragged down from the attic, kids screaming in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, extra services at the local church, and boxing other people out to buy the perfect present at the mall.

And right at the beginning of all this noise, the time of frenetic and frantic noise, we have Christ the King Sunday.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the church calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long long time, Christ the King was only established as an official day in the liturgical year in 1925. It took the church nearly 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between the two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jesus the Christ is Alpha and Omega, the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. This psalm and this day are a reminder of our first and primary allegiance to the Lord.

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Make a joyful noise to the Lord, everyone! Praise the Lord with glad and generous hearts; come into the presence of God and sing your hearts out. Know that the Lord is God. The Lord made us and we belong to the Lord. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. With every breath give thanks to God and bless the name of the Lord. God is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We praise and sing with joy because God in Christ is the Good Shepherd. We jump to our feet and throw our hands in the air because God has already done so much for us.

But if we’re honest, sometimes it feels hard to praise God during this time of year. For some of us, all those decorations and all those songs don’t hold the joy they once did.

Rather than hopeful in expectation, we are fearful in deliberation. Instead of thinking about all the God has done for us, all we can think about are all the things we still have to do. And instead of praising God with a joyful noise, we struggle to hear God among all the sounds of this season.

The psalmist proclaims a joy for the Lord that cannot be contained, a joy that must be shouted from the rooftops. But most of us don’t want to sing to the Lord in public. In fact, we don’t want to be confused with the type of people who do sing aloud in public places.

However, Christ the King Sunday prepares us for Advent, the season dedicated to waiting for the arrival of Christ on Christmas. This is joyful, praise-filled waiting. And, ironically, in many churches it does not look like the congregation is making a joyful noise to the Lord. Rather, most churches are filled with people singing along looking slightly bored.

Thanks be to God that this church is not like other churches.

Last Sunday, during the 8:30 service, our sound system decided to no longer cooperate when it was time to sing our final hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord.” The whole service had built up to the final hymn and our chance to respond to what God had said, and I sighed as I reluctantly announced that we would be singing it acapella knowing it wouldn’t have the full strength as usual. And just when I was about to start singing the first note, Gloria raised her hand from the choir and said, “Pastor, I can play that one on the piano.”

Friends, I don’t know if we’ve ever sounded more joyful than when we sang that hymn last week. And even at the 11 o’clock service, when I knew ahead of time she was going to play it, I ran over to the drums and joined her for our final hymn and the whole congregation made a joyful noise to the Lord.

It was a shot of joy to the arm, and it was a reminder that the Lord is indeed good.

But it forces us to ask ourselves, “How can we be joyful when so much is wrong in the world?”

When a new widower attends church on a Sunday morning, he hears the familiar words of a Christmas hymn and instead of being transported to joyful memories from the past, all he can think about is the now empty spot next to him in the pew.

When a mother goes to the store to purchase Christmas presents, she goes not with the excitement of how the children will react, but with the fear of how the family will be able to afford it all.

When the refugee woman hears similarities between her story and Mary’s, she cowers in fear upon returning home and wondering if she will be caught and shipped back to her home country.

The kind of joy the psalmist sings about is not a surface-level temporary experience. It is not a fall on the floor guttural sense of laughter that eventually fades.

The joy of the Lord comes because God is still God, even when the world feels like its falling apart.

The joy of the Lord comes because we are still God’s people, even when we feel like we’re all alone.

The joy of the Lord comes because Jesus is King, even when it seems like other people are determining what happens in the world.  

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When we feel the struggle of making a joyful noise amidst all the other noise, we fall back to God’s great gift of music. For music is the magnificent agent that lifts our hearts to commune with the heavenly angelic choir. Music transforms our hearts and minds such that we give thanks to the Lord through our voices, and we know that the Lord is good.

A few summers ago I took a group of youth down to Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip. My particular group was assigned to help at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise together, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite the shock to the youth to go from the comfort of their homes and friends and family to sitting in a room full of people with limited abilities and limited communication.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and number. I encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but almost all of them just stared off into space. We even tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but it was as if we weren’t even there.

To be honest, we felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all the way to Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of their lives. But then I saw a discarded hymnal on a table, and I started flipping through the pages until I found Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

            ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

            The youth moved closer toward the center and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that had all heard so many times before.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chair, even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

            The Lord has promised good to me, his words my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

The aides and employees who were wandering the hall started gathering in the doorway to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

            Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their minds were found by the time we all joined together for the final verse.

            When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each day, to the smiles and wrinkles breaking forth on individual faces, to the youth singing and dancing in the middle of the room, the Lord was giving us the strength to make a joyful noise.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and we joined together for a number of hymns. That previously silent room was suddenly filled with the words and tunes of Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell they Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

            It was one of the most powerful moments in my life, and we get a hint of that same feeling every week when we gather here together.

When I hear all of you say the Lord’s Prayer just as Jesus taught his disciples, with one voice, it sends shivers up my spine. When I look out while the choir is singing and I see some of you on the edge of your seats my heart flutters in my chest. When I open my eyes right before saying “Amen” and catch all of you faithful praying with tightly clenched eyes, I feel the Spirit moving through air.

And I am filled with joy.

Even the sounds that drive some of us crazy: the shuffling around of bulletins from someone in the back row, a toddler crying from a pew, a kid cackling on their way up the stairs toward Children’s Church. These are joyful sounds!

They are a reminder of God’s wonderful majesty and mystery. They are a reminder that God still has work for us to do. They are a reminder that Jesus unites us in a way that nothing else on earth can.

We worship the King of kings in Jesus the Christ. We come into God’s presence with gladness and singing because of all that God has done for us. And in response we can make a joyful noise. Amen.