Church People Are Gonna Church People

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including College Football message boards, hot winds, discomfort for the Lord, pretending all is well, colloquial liturgy, praying for others, the sneakiness of works righteousness, and the impracticality of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Church People Are Gonna Church People

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The Orchard Of Scripture

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wil Posey about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Amos 8.1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42). Wil serves as the pastor of First UMC in Murphy, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fruit puns, sermon titles, fishing for a thesis, baldness as a punishment, the feat of death, reading canonically, using the first-person plural, piety vs. mercy, and praying with our feet. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Orchard Of Scripture

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The Good News Should Be Good

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with David King about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). David is a 21 year old college senior who is currently studying philosophy and religion. Our conversation covers a range of topics including prayers for healing, disrupted expectations, finding words, laughing at funerals, Paul as James Joyce, bearing burdens, boasting in the cross, on not going house to house, and the fruit of God’s labor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Good News Should Be Good

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Unknowable – A Wedding (Renewal) Homily

Matthew 6.25-34

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the filed, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the filed, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” Or “What will we drink?” Or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for such things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. 

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No one knows what they are doing when they get married.

Everyone thinks they know what marriage will look like because they assume that everything is like how it is portrayed in the movies. Which, most of the time, never shows the marriage, but only everything leading up to it. We, then, bring to the altar all these preconceived notions about what our marriages will be when the truth is none of us know what we are doing.

Allow me to present a resounding example:

I asked Rosina a few months ago if she could remember what it was that drew her closer to Nathaniel all those years ago. She charmingly brought a finger to her chin and furrowed her brow only to declare that the thing that most attracted her to him was his hair.

His hair, huh?

Where is all of that hair now?!

We have no idea what we’re doing when we get married because we, as people, are forever changing. That’s why the act of Christian marriage is one of the more bizarre things any of us can do, because we know not what the future holds and yet we make a promise, a covenant, to face that future with another person.

Now, I want to be clear that most of you here know Nathaniel and Rosina better than I do simply because you’ve known them longer than I have. But I do know that all of us here can attest to the fact that your marriage is nothing short of a miracle.

It is a miracle not only because neither of you really knew what you were getting into but also because Rosina has had to put up with all your nonsense all of these years Nathaniel! She really is the pastor of your family because she knows what real forgiveness looks like.

I’m only kidding around. 

It is a miracle because all marriages are miracles. God sees us, really sees us, with all of our idiosyncrasies, and all of our needs, and all of our faults, and all of our failures, and says, “Why not put these two together? They can probably figure it out.”

And figure it out you have.

But let’s get back to the beginning shall we? You two are here, after all, to renew your wedding vows and there’s no better way to do that than by remembering how you got here.

The story goes that one of Nathaniel’s cousins had a salon and one day Rosina walked in to get her hair done. Now, Nathaniel had seen her around town before this momentous meeting took place, he told me that he still loves the way you walk (!), but when he saw her in the salon he knew he had to do something.

To be clear, most enterprising young men would think of a witty remark to offer, or would simply ask if the young woman would like to go out sometime. But no, not Nathaniel. Instead he had it worked up in his mind to make a grand gesture. So what did her do? He paid for her hair.

For a complete stranger!

But he knew it would take some time for it to all wrap up so he decided that he could come back later to reveal his plan and see if his kindness could land him a date.

I can only imagine how puffed up your chest must have been that afternoon as you walked around town. You must’ve thought you were the smartest man alive.

And yet, when Nathaniel returned to the salon, Rosina was long gone!

Rosina left with a free hairdo and Nathaniel was left with the bill!

Eventually they did meet up with each other, they decided to go out together one night, and the spent the entire time talking to each other.

And now here you two are all these years later.

I know, for a fact, that neither of you could’ve have predicted where your relationship would take you. 

For instance, Nathaniel, there’s no way you could’ve known that after applying to the immigration lottery for years and years that Rosina would win on her first try. 

There’s no way either of you could’ve anticipated leaving most of your lives behind in Ghana to try out a new life here in the United States. 

There’s no way you could imagined having the incredible children that you have.

There’s no way you could’ve known that one day you’d be standing in front of a pastor as old as you two have been together renewing your marriage vows!

Your entire relationship has been one with mountaintops and valleys. You both can look back over the years and remember both the laughter and the disappointment. That’s what makes marriage work. You know that you don’t know anything. But you cling to one another in the midst of the mystery.

And here’s what you have to show for it. Turn around please, and take in this view. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. For here, in this space, you are forced to confront the strange truth that your marriage was never really up to you in the first place. Everyone in this room has played a part to bring you back to the covenant you made so long ago. 

Sure, we could chalk it up to your great sense of style Nathaniel, or we could attribute it to your marvelous hair Rosina. Or still yet we could give credit to Nathaniel’s loyalty and honesty, or even Rosina’s passion and faith.

But the truth of the matter is that these people, and the Lord Almighty, have done more for your marriage than you could possibly imagine.

Now back to me. 

When we were meeting to plan out this whole covenant renewal I asked both of you to consider an interesting question. Most of the time when I’m marrying a couple I ask them to imagine what marriage is, or what their marriage will look like. 

But the two of you have been married for awhile now which meant I got to turn the question around. So instead of asking you to imagine marriage I asked you to consider what advice you would give to other people getting married.

Who could be better at offering advice than those who have already journeyed through the crucible of marriage?

And I loved your answer: “You need to have patience! It’s the most important thing in the world because patience can fix anything. And you have to pray. Marriage is hard, and you can’t do it on your own, you need God with you.”

So what do all marriages need? Patience and prayers.

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It would seem to me, therefore, that we haven’t changed much since the time of Jesus. The disciples were a bunch of worriers. They worried about everything. And do you know what the only good that can come from worrying is? More worrying.

And Jesus decides to speak directly into their anxieties and their fears with words that have resounded throughout the centuries: Don’t worry about your life! Think about the birds of the air… do you think they spend all their time flying so high filled with worry? No. They are fed and that is enough. When will you ever learn that you have enough?!

Do you think that by worrying you can add one minute to your lives? Of course not, worrying takes away life. 

Think instead upon the grace of the Lord, who cares not about your faults and failures, who worries not about your faithfulness or grace, but who satisfied to shower life and life abundant down upon you for no good reason at all. 

Stop worrying about tomorrow! God is in control. God knows what you need. And God provides.

This was the first passage that came to mind when I began considering your covenant renewal. Because you two are the type of people who know, more often than not, that all of the good in your life, your friends, your family, your faith, never came from you in the first place. Sure, you two look good, you are clothed better than Solomon in all of his glory, and yet you hold a humility that Solomon never knew.

You two see, better than most, how truly blessed you really are. And, more importantly, you know that you can’t take it for granted.

In my life I have rarely encountered two people for whom their joy is as infectious as yours. 

It doesn’t matter if I’ve preached the worst sermon of my life, Nathaniel, you are always waiting in the narthex to cheer me up. 

It doesn’t matter if I’m going through all kinds of stuff in my life, Rosina, because you always great me with a tremendous smile and encourage me to be grateful.

It’s one thing to talk about how all these people have played a role in your lives, and in your relationship, and in your marriage, but its another thing entirely for all of us to praise God for putting you two in our lives. Your commitment to one another has given us a glimpse of God’s commitment to us – an unwavering, joyful, and even at times ridiculous connection that will go on forever.

However, lest we give you two too much credit, all of the good that has come from your marriage came first from God. God gives more than we deserve. God loves us even when we do not love him back. God has turned the world upside down for us in the person of his Son so that we might always walk in the glory of the resurrection.

I see and I feel and I know resurrection in this life because I know both of you. I can believe in impossible things because you two shine the light of Christ through your lives each and every day.

So, Rosina and Nathaniel, thank you for blessing us. And may the Lord continue to bless you in your marriage such that you are filled with a prayerful patience that can lead you through even more surprises. Amen. 

Be Unprepared

Luke 11.1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Be prepared.

It’s the Boy Scout motto, drilled into my brain over years of camping trips, patrol meetings, merit badge requirements.

I loved being a Boy Scout. I joined as a Tiger Cub when I was in Kindergarten and I continued all the way through until I earned my Eagle Scout. To this day I can still recite the Boy Scout Law and Oath, I can remember how to tie countless knots, and I still hear that incessant reminder in my head all the time: Be prepared.

When I was 13 years old we met at the church to organize our caravan before heading off into the woods for two nights of camping. We had meticulously gone through all of our gear to make sure we had everything we needed, we had checked the weather forecast in order to bring the appropriate clothing, and we had even planned out all of the activities we would be doing until it was time to return home.

By the time we got to our campsite that night it was dark. But we were prepared for that eventuality and we hung up our flashlights in order to tie down the tarp and pull out the camping stove. The adults were always very good about giving the boys their space as we navigated the necessary survival techniques, and when we went to open the cooler to begin cooking dinner, we were glad that they were far away.

We were glad because the one boy who was responsible for bringing all of our food that weekend had forgotten that it was his responsibility.

We were prepared for everything, except for not having food. 

So we did what any reasonable scouts would do, we kept the information to ourselves and went without food the entire weekend.

It was only on the ride home, when one of the boy let it slip how absolutely famished he was that the driver of our vehicle, our scout master, said, “I hope you boys learned your lesson.” We all grumbled about how we knew we were supposed to be prepared. And he waved that off and said, “No. We all could tell that you forgot to bring food and we had plenty to share, we were only waiting for you to come ask for help. I hope you learned that you can’t be prepared for everything, but that you can always ask for help.” 

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“Hey Jesus!” shouts one of the disciples. “When are you going to teach us to pray like John taught his followers?”

Jesus, reluctantly says, “When you pray, pray like this: Father, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgives us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”

Hopefully, the first thing you noticed as the scripture was being read this morning was how similar it sounded, but maybe not too similar. It’s familiarity stems precisely from the fact that this is Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer – the prayer we pray every week in this place.

And, if you recognized it, then you no doubt noticed it’s quite a bit shorter than Matthew’s version, the one we pray in church. In fact, it dispenses with some of the elevated language that we so often use and instead cuts right to the heart of the matter.

No fuss, no muss.

And even though we say something close to it every week we can’t help but wrestle with how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when considering this is how Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in response to them wanting to be educated in the way John the Baptist educated his disciples.

John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter into what we might call the program of salvation. You start here, and make your way here, and eventually you get over there. You confess and repent of your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.

In John’s worldview, redemption was all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.

Jesus, on the other hand, sees things differently. In fact, to the Lord of lords, the new thing has already happened in him, and it has happened for everyone. There’s no 12 step program to get God to do anything.

Jesus doesn’t come just to show the disciples, and us, a new way of life but is, himself, the new way.

This can be rather frustrating for the many of us who want Jesus to just be clear about what we should and shouldn’t do. Contrary to what we often hear from the church, Jesus does not call for perfect lives, but simply says the time has come for us to recognize how last, lost, least, little, and dead we all are.

And we are, all of us. Make no mistake: even those of us who look perfectly beautiful and wonderful and happy right now are but shells of people whose real lives are actually pulling at the seams.

The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want it to be laid out nice and clear as to what we are supposed to do, say, and believe. We like little trite and memorable zingers like, do a good turn daily, or be prepared. 

But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with something that’s so simple, perhaps too simple, that it’s a prayer in which we don’t have to do much of anything. In fact the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive. Which, as we have said in nearly every week of this parable series, it intricately connected with our own willingness to die.

From the king forgiving the debt of his servant, to the father forgiving the prodigal son, to cancel someone’s debt, to really forgive, is only possible for someone who dies to their own version of what life could’ve been.

This so-called Lord’s Prayer rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that are often present in our own prayers. There’s not even a hint of ethical perfection, or moral equivocation. It just about the bare necessities to keep us together and fed so that we can get to the best part of life which comes through the realization that we have already died with Christ.

And we haven’t even gotten to the parable yet.

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Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, and without being asked he starts rambling on with another one of his crazy stories.

Imagine you have a friend who is at home in bed at midnight, and you go knocking on her door because someone just showed up at your house and you don’t have anything to offer them. You aren’t prepared. And when you start banging on the door, she says, “Leave me alone!” However, even though she brushes you aside, you know that she will eventually give you what you need.

What kind of story is that?

Jesus has his friends imagine that God is like a sleepy friend. Someone who experiences the closest thing to death while we are still alive, sleep. And then Jesus has them picture this whole scene in which they break in upon the drowsy God with a battering ram of requests.

In other words, “I need you to wake up for me.”

We could, of course, explore why we/the disciples don’t have anything to entertain our untimely friends in the first place, but we will get there in due time.

First, Jesus calls the disciples to see that the sleeping friend is their only hope. That they are a people in need and the only one who can provide is the one who has something better to do.

And, to make matters all the more complicated, the figure of God in the story gives them the cold shoulder.

In other words, “Let me sleep!”

This is not the God we are often called to imagine in our minds. Don’t we all think and believe that God will drop everything for us should we only must the courage to knock on the door and ask?

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It is certainly strange, but part of the parable functions in such a way to tell us, particularly with the language of sleeping and rising, that God rises to our prayers out of death.

But if we were good people, if we were prepared for friends showing up at strange times, we would never need to intrude upon the privacy of someone else in the middle of night. Many of us would never dare dream of knocking on a friend’s door let alone and neighbor in the middle of night. And why not? Because if we did so, it would show how in need we are of other people.

And we hate the idea of needing other people.

We hate that idea because we have all been fed a lie since the time we were kids that we have to get through whatever our lives are on our own – that we can’t trust or expect anyone to do anything for us. Otherwise we come off looking like beggars who haven’t worked hard enough to figure out our lives.

And yet, if we were dead to those judgments (most of the time self-inflicted), then we could show up at a friend’s house in the dark of the night with nothing more than a confession of our unpreparedness, and it would be the beautiful admission of our inability to be what we thought we were supposed to be, namely perfect.

Being unprepared, therefore, would raise us out of that death into something far greater than we can even imagine.

And yet, today, more often than not, this prayer and parable from Jesus get whittled down to some version of “you have to be persistent in prayer.” Which is another way of saying, “If we nag God enough, God will come through with what we need.”

When all of us know that’s simply untrue.

Of course we should be relentless with our prayers, with our needs, but if that’s all Jesus is saying with the parable then all of us will eventually be disappointed. 

We will be disappointed because God does not answer our prayers the more we ask them. Far too often people (like me) tell people (like you) that if your prayers are unanswered then its because you don’t have enough faith.

Which is terrible.

Tell that to the mother whose child stops responding to the chemotherapy.

Tell that to the husband who has to make the decision about unplugging his wife from the respirator.

Tell that to the son who studies night after night only to bring in Ds and Fs.

This might be the most confounding thing about the parable – God rises from death, awakens from sleep, not to satisfy our requests, reasonable or unreasonable, but to raise us from our own deaths.

Therefore, if we walk away from today thinking that we can keep praying until we can con God into giving us something we really want or even need, then we have failed to see the gospel for what it really is. However, if we can take the story in all of its weirdness for what it is really saying, then we can constantly bring our death to the death bed of the Lord and rejoice.

Jesus concludes this particular parabolic encounter with a statement that we might rather ignore, but we are compelled to approach it head on. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

We don’t like being called evil. 

It’s as if Jesus is saying, you, who can never seem to do enough, who avoids doing the right thing, who hangs your head among all the wrong things, who turns a blind eye toward the relentless injustices of the world, who believes that things will always get better if you just try harder, who struggles to be prepared for a world of unpredictability, if even you know what a good gift is, then how much more will God give to you!

Thanks be to God that the Lord will resurrect us from the death of our own foolishness.

There is no greater gift than this. 

We can’t make it through life on our own – and that, dear friends, is why we pray. Not to get some things done for us, but to celebrate the greatest work of all that has already been done for us, in spite of us.

We can rejoice knowing that we have a friend at midnight and that, even in our death, that friend is there for us no matter what. 

We can’t be prepared for everything, but we can always ask for help. In fact, it is the asking that sets us free. Amen.

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?

We’re God’s Joke On The World

Devotional:

Psalm 72.11

May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

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I am sitting in my office after being gone from the church since Christmas Eve. I flew to visit family in the midwest and did my best to find some recreation during my time away. But, of course, living in another’s person house, sleeping in a different bed, driving in different cars, it begins to take a toll on you. It’s as if the disorder from our normal order just gets under our skin and there isn’t much we can do about it.

And then, having avoided the news media for more than a week, I made the foolish decision to turn on the TV to find out what I had been missing!

Some things never change.

Which led me to one of my favorite books from Stanley Hauerwas: Prayers Plainly Spoken. The book is a collection of prayers written without the pretenses often found in prayers that are prayed on Sunday morning. And, over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to this ragtag collection when I am at a loss for words. 

And this was the first prayer I read having returned to my office:

“Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Of course we get tired, bored, worn down by the stupidity that surrounds us. But then that stupid person does something, says something that is wonderful, funny, insightful. How we hate for that to happen. But, thank God, you have given us one another, ensuring we will never be able to get our lives in order. Order finally is no fun, and you are intent on forcing us to see the humor of your kingdom. I mean really, Lord, the Jews! But there you have it. You insist on being known through such a funny people. And now us – part of your joke on the world. Make us your laughter. Make us laugh, and in the laughter may the world be so enthralled by your entertaining presence that we lose the fear that fuels our violence. Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Amen.”

As Christians, the new year for us began 5 weeks ago, but I also find it fitting to think about entering the secular new year with a prayer for laughter. For what could be closer to the voice of God than the sound of laughter?

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