Approaching Spiritual Doom

Psalm 19.14

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. 

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I’ve been doing some thinking, which is a dangerous thing these days…

Things are pretty messed up right now. People are lobbing destructive claims about other people in their communities simply because of the color of their skin or their political affiliation. Kids are afraid to go to school because of the violence they might experience. Great sums of people are making their way through life day after day without any hope of a better future.

We, as a people, are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. We worship our bank accounts. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We, as a people, spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on all of the programs of social uplift combined. This is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We, as a people, perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of ever 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

We, as a people, enable gross injustices each and every day: racial, economic, gendered, and social injustices. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something has to change.

How are you feeling right now having read those words? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are planning to go out and do something about them? Or are you clenching your fists in anger because you feel like I’ve criticized our country and culture?

Most of what I just wrote did not come from me, but from another preacher, one who was responsible for many of us not having to go to work yesterday: Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say that like what I wrote that he was murdered.

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When we think about Dr. King or even when we learned about him in school, he is often white-washed and whittled down to the “I Have A Dream Speech.” But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote, or one speech, or even one issue. 

All of what we do as a church was handed down to us by those who came before us. The same was true for Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which gave him the confidence to say and believe that God could make the impossible possible.

He, more than most, prayed for his words and his meditations to be worthy of the One who hung on the hard wood of the cross for people like us.

When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us! 

Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered.

Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.

One of the hardest prayers to pray is one that’s even harder to live out. Because if we really want our words and meditations to be acceptable in the sight of the Lord they might lead us toward the valley of the shadow of death. But what is resurrection if not a promise that death is not the end?

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On The Perils Of Preaching At Home

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, Luke 4.14-21). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reading from other preachers, the cyclical nature of history, getting rid of pew bibles, communal interpretation, clapping in church, God’s perfect speech, the most important question in church, first sermons, and helping people cry. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: On The Perils Of Preaching At Home 

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Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

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These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

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However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

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I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

I Can’t Keep Quiet Anymore

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for 2nd Sunday After Epiphany (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Forged Fitness, preaching through one book, being a city on a hill, the church in exile, new names, the Government Shutdown, spiritual gifts, divine interruptions, the difference between Baptists and Methodists, and drinking with Jesus. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: I Can’t Keep Quiet Anymore

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Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen. 

The Voice Of The Lord

Psalm 29.4

The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 

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It was a particularly nice day outside so I decided to walk across the church lawn to the retirement home that was adjacent to the property. A number of my members would march with their walkers across the grass every Sunday for worship and I would try to swing by for random visits whenever I had the time. On this particular day I can remember the sounds of birds chirping in the trees as I turned toward the main entrance.

When I looked up I saw Polly, one of the oldest members of the church, standing out on her balcony on the third floor. She was tidying up the little space that she had, and I cherished the brief stolen moment I had seeing her without know that anyone could see her. But then it felt a little awkward to be staring at an older woman from the parking lot so I shouted out, “Hey Polly.”

No response.

I knew she could be hard of hearing so I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted even louder, “Polly!”

To which she quickly looked up in the sky and said, “Yes Lord?”

I started laughing so hard in the parking lot that it took me a few moments to collect myself before going into the building to actually knock on her door. And when I did she answered with a flustered look on her face and she said, “Pastor Taylor, you’re never going to believe this… but I just heard God talking to me, and He sounded a lot like you!”

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The psalmist describes the voice of the Lord like thunder with tremendous power that can even break cedar trees in half. I tend to imagine God’s voice sounding a lot like Maggie Smith’s voice from her portrayal of Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series, but it doesn’t carry with it quite the weight of the psalmist’s understanding. God’s voice is apparently powerful enough that it can shake the very foundations under our feet.

Today it is all too easy to read scripture or hear it read aloud in church on a Sunday morning and immediately think of someone else for whom those words were written: 

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” and our minds jump to our remarkably frustrating relative and we think about how nice it would be if they would stop being so judgmental! 

However, the strange and convicting truth of the gospel is that when God speaks, God speaks to me – to us – to you. Sometimes the voice of the Lord speaks great and comforting words into the midst of our fears. But there are other times, times we’d rather ignore, when the voice of the Lord calls us out of our sinfulness into lives of holiness. 

Asking The Right Quanswers

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 2.15-17, 21-22). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lighting stuff on fire, unpacking redemption, being comfortable with sin, Maggie Smith as the voice of God, shouting “glory!” in church, the gray area of sentimentality, baby baptism, and youth group initiations. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Asking The Right Quanswers

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