How Can We Know The Way?

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.

During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.

Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.

It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing. 

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen

John 12.32

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.

But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.

Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”

Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith. 

For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.

We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.

God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting. 

Nine members of the church were killed.

The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.

He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”

So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.

A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”

So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.

There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.

And we wept.

And then we prayed some more.

How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today. 

Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.

So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.

We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices. 

And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church. 

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.

This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.

What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.

Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may.

And perhaps we must. Amen. 

So Be It

Isaiah 60.1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 

I was sitting in a basement office somewhere on the campus of Duke Divinity School with an administrator who was explaining the ins and outs of “Field Education.” She shared the convictions of the institution, the valuable and positive research of such endeavors, and (finally) she told me where I would be spending ten weeks my first summer of seminary: Bryson City, North Carolina. Every student would also be spending their summers working for various churches and para-church organizations so that we could take what we learned in the classroom and apply it to the field. 

Before I had a chance to properly come to grips with the information shared with me, the administrator handed me a piece of paper and she said, “It’s covenant time.”

She watched me diligently as I weaved my way through the wording:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. 

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low by thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. 

I only later learned that the words I used can be found in every United Methodist Hymnal because they are part of “A Covenant Prayer In The Wesleyan Tradition.” And, I also learned that countless Methodists have come back to these words at the start of new years, new jobs, new relationships, and a whole assortment of other new endeavors.

It can feel a little daunting to “freely and heartily yield” all things to God’s disposal but, according to the strange new world of the Bible, that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Looking back, I am profoundly grateful for the covenant I made that day because I carried those words with me to the people of Bryson City, North Carolina and together we encountered the Lord who encounters us. 

Therefore, wherever you and and whatever you’re encountering, I encourage you to read through the words of the Wesleyan Covenant, let them sink deep into the fabric of your being, and know that “so be it” might be the most faithful words we can ever speak. 

Joyful Obedience

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [C] (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent disciplines, Handel’s Messiah, The Muppets, Christmas unicorns, Home Alone, prodigal love, J the B, the refiner’s fire, the Daily Office, darkness, God’s grace, missional moments, the Lord’s Table, and universalism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Joyful Obedience

A Liturgy For Thanksgiving

Matthew 6.25

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? 

The older I get the more complicated Thanksgiving becomes.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of delicious food, eavesdropping on grown up conversation, and running around in the cold until one of the aforementioned adults beckoned us back inside.

But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say the one thing that will set everyone off.

And that’s not even mentioning the logistic nightmare of figuring out who will cook what and how in a tight time frame!

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). This year we are likely to hear opinions on presidential decrees, gubernatorial soundbites, and judicial rulings, just so that everyone else can know exactly what side of what issue we are on.

Which is remarkably strange, at least from a Christian perspective, considering the fact that Jesus came to destroy the very divisions we so desperately cling to and want to demonstrate around our tables.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.

Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Thanksgiving Liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience.

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

Psalm 126: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Meditation:

Jesus boldly proclaims in the midst of his temptations in the wilderness that, “One cannot live by bread alone.” It is certainly true that we need food to survive, but we need more if we want to really live. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is more than merely sharing food. It is through our conversation and our prayers and our thanksgiving (the action, not the holiday), that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. In many ways the table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table to which we are beckoned again and again even though we don’t deserve it and we cannot earn it. So let us rejoice in the knowledge that, through the power of the Spirit, God has done great things for us.

Prayer:

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table around which to gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. Work in and through us such that our tears turn into laughter, and our mourning into rejoicing. Let the feast around the table give us a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

The End Of The World (As We Know It)

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [C] (Jeremiah 33.14-16, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the new year, Advent 1 recommendations, mandolins, Vince Guaraldi, Die Hard, divine promises, sacramental arrivals, sins, keeping the cross in Christmas, bullying, incarnational prayers, apocalyptic anticipation, and the end of the beginning. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End Of The World (As We Know It)

My Life With God

1 Samuel 1.10

Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.

Bishop Will Willimon used to teach a class in which the first assignment of the year was a 3-5 page autobiographical essay titled, “My Life With God.” The idea behind the assignment was to take the time to properly reflect on questions like, “How does God help to explain your life?” and “In what ways has God shaped you into who you are?”

Willimon will often recount his joy with regard to that particular assignment because, every year, he was reminded of the myriad ways in which God really is the maker in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Of all the papers he read over all the years, his favorite began like this:

“I was a teenager from hell. I made my parents’ lives miserable. They weren’t surprised when, only after a year, I flunked out of the University of Texas, drinking and partying my way into oblivion.”

With an introduction like that, Willimon knew he was in for a good story!

The paper continued, “I hung around Austin for a while and, strangely, I got involved in a nearby United Methodist Church. I thought I was rebelling against the church, but I loved this church, adored the pastor, and got more and more involved. Then one Sunday afternoon I drove back to my little town in Texas to tell my parents the astounding news that I was going back to school and that I was going to become a Methodist preacher.

“When I sat my parents down and told them the incredible news, I was shocked when my mother immediately broke into tears and said, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ I couldn’t believe it! I thought she would rejoice! But then she said, ‘Do you remember that I told you your father and I lost a couple pregnancies before we had you? Well, when I got pregnant with you, I prayed to God that if he would only let me keep this baby, I would dedicate him to the Lord. And I would call his name Samuel, just like in the Bible.’ And I said to my mother, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?! You could’ve saved us all a lot of time and headache!’ And she said, ‘I didn’t know that it would work! We’re Methodists! We don’t take this stuff seriously!’”

Stories like the stories in scripture still happen all the time. 

People face seemingly unfaceable situations and they call out to the Lord in need. Despite the major moments of cosmic reordering, the Bible is made up primarily of intimate moments between people seeking out what it means to be in the world. That’s why Jesus tells so many parables (read: stories) that are about things we all experience: regret, jealousy, family dynamic, loss, fear, etc.

We worship the Lord who gives people unimaginable gifts, what we might otherwise call blessings. And we are called to use those blessings to be blessings to others.

Which is all just another way of saying, “Be careful what you pray for!”

The Divine Yet

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 23.1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22.1-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Survivor, divine anger, prayer droughts, proper terror, the spiderweb of scripture, grammatical turns, sharp swords, wealthy Christians, and the gift of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Yet

Eat Me!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including relay races, wicked wisdom, Christotelism, financial irony, fear, character recognition, Dead Poets Society, pagan worship, the Prayer of Humble Access, non-sentimental sacramentality, and the preaching office. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eat Me!

From Riches To Rags

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8.7-15, Mark 5.21-43). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Flannery O’Connor, special songs, memory, twitter dunking, theological deconstruction, pivotal prayers, wading vs. waiting, rhetorical flourishes, desperation, and diachronic stories. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From Riches To Rags

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 3.12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3.1-7, Luke 24.36b-48). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Lenten lamentations, CPE reflections, evangelism, Christological claims, ecclesial ignorance, election, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, pandemic prayers, prevenient grace, Stanley Hauerwas, metanoia, and holy hunger. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels