Vulnerable

Readers of this blog will know that I have a complicated relationship with the American Flag and the rampant forms of nationalism that are all too present in the church today (and have been for some time).

Part of the challenge stems from the non-existent separation of Church and State such that many American Christians consider themselves Americans first and Christians second. Which runs counter to the Pauline affirmation that our (that is, Christians’) truest citizenship is in heaven.

And yet, no matter how I may feel theologically about the state of American Christianity, today is a day when it feels like no matter what I might say, it will get interpreted the wrong way.

Which is just another way of saying: Americans aren’t allowed to speak ill of America on September 11th.

I was in the 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in our living room watching the towers fall over and over again on television. I can remember my father saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.

In the weeks that followed everything felt like a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of nationalism and patriotism to that degree since the end of World War II.

Everything about September 11th was discussed in a rigid binary: We are right, and they are wrong – we are innocent, and they are guilty – America is pure, the Middle East is wicked.

It was only later, after countless books and conversations with people from other parts of the world, that I discovered how much more of a complicated situation the whole thing was. My public school education, television diet, and conversations with my parents never taught me about what the US was up to in other nations across the planet. I assumed, as an 8th grader, that what was done to us on September 11th was without cause. But now, as an adult, I know that America is not as innocent as she portends to be.

My own transformation took place over time, but I can trace a lot of it back to a particular moment; when I came across a prayer written by Stanley Hauerwas 30 minutes after the destruction of the World Trade Center. For, rather than praying for God to strike down our enemies, or to bring swift justice, or whatever else filled so many prayers that day, he prayed with a sense of honesty that I had yet to encounter up to that point.

So, on this September 11th, as it becomes harder and harder to think theologically about what it means to be a Christian who happens to live in the US, I offer this prayer written 19 years ago today as a helpful reminder that we (Americans) are not as innocent as we might think we are.

A Prayer Written 30 Minutes After the Destruction Of The World Trade Center – Stanley Hauerwas

Vulnerable – we feel vulnerable, God, and we are not used to feeling vulnerable. We are Americans.

Nor are we used to anyone hating us this much. Such terrible acts. Killing civilians. We are dumbfounded. Lost.

We are good people. We are a nation of peace. We do not seek war. We do not seek violence.

Try to help us remember that how we feel may be how the people of Iraq have felt while we have been bombing them. It is hard for us to acknowledge the “we” in “we bombed them.”

What are we to do?

We not only feel vulnerable, but we also feel helpless. We are not sure what to feel except shock, which will quickly turn to anger and even more suddenly to vengeance. 

We are Christians. What are we to do as Christians? We know that anger will come to us. It does us no good for us to tell ourselves not to be angry. To try not to be angry just makes us all the more furious.

You, however, have given us something to do. We can pray, but we wonder for what we can pray. To pray for peace, to pray for the end of hate, to pray for the end of war seems platitudinous in this time. Yet, of course, when we pray you make us your prayer to the world. So, Lord of peace, make us what you will. This may be one of the first times we have prayed that prayer with an inkling of how frightening prayer is. Help us. 

Connected

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

“I’m bored.”

I’ve heard it more than a few times from more than a few people during this pandemic period.

Individuals forced to remain away from others so that the virus isn’t spread further and faster than it already has.

Families confined to their houses not knowing at all what “virtual education” will look like, let alone feel like.

Partners staring off into the distance at night not knowing what to do to pass the time.

“I’m bored.”

And yet, we, that is most of us in the West, have access to more entertainment than ever before simply because of a device in our pockets, the infinite reaches of YouTube, or the seemingly never ending array of binge-able streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBOMax, etc.

And, the question is, are our lives better?

I, for one, am grateful for the existence of something like Disney+ these days. It has been a joy to go through a number of old Disney films with my kid, films I, myself, watched as a kid. But when I take a step back from the whole thing, it makes me wonder about how connected we are to all things all the time.

Moreover, without the remarkable advancements in technology no one would be able to read this devotional online, we wouldn’t be able to stream worship services from the comfort of our couches, and we wouldn’t be able to video conference with those we love. 

But our connections are deceptive. 

With the click of a button we can access more information than anyone ever has in human history prior. And, to make it even more complicated, we are creating content at an unfathomable rate – we create as much information every two days now as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

And even though there is all this content, and we have access to it (and to one another), we believe we want to do and accomplish so many things but we’re mostly just spinning our wheels.

We want the newest and the fastest technologies because we want to have and use a power that we don’t need nearly as much as we think we do.

But we can no longer imagine a world without what we have.

Of course, all of this was bound to happen – faster connections to farther ideas and spaces. The power of technology often exceeds our real necessities of life and, in order to continue, technology must forever call forth new problems to fix and solve.

And there was no real way to prevent technology from becoming the crazy thing it is today. It gives us comfort and entertainment all the while providing anxiety and danger. 

Yet, we should never accuse technology of “having no soul.” For, it is actually our own irrational desire for unending power that has no soul.

The real problem with modern technology is us.

St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The Christian conviction of non-conformity is rather plain in scripture and is rather missing in our preaching and teaching. Instead of witnessing to the difference that Christ makes, we want to make Christ like us. 

Our non-conformist notions do not mean we have to throw away our phones or cancel our Netflix subscriptions, but they do mean we have to be mindful of how we use our technology and how much it shapes our worlds. For, technology is something we will forever consume assuming it will give us life. Technology is a sign to others (and to ourselves) about our status in the world. Technology promises a better world that, upon closer inspection, actually stays largely the same.

God, on the other hand, remains steadfast. God sees our insatiable desire for the next best thing and still chooses to march to the top of Calvary for us anyway. God has already made the world the better place in Christ Jesus.

It’s just that so many of us are so consumed by our technologies that we haven’t bothered to notice. 

Don’t Lie

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 17.1-7, 15, Romans 9.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Biblical character identification, new names, God’s marks, pentecostal prayers, divine time, false witness, Pauline anguish, faithful food, better education, and bigger tables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Lie

Lies We Wrap In Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to pray in the midst of a time like this. A time when all you have to do is get on Twitter or television and you’re bombarded with images and videos from our local community and across the nation of people in anguish and fear, and the ways others are responding to it.

This morning, I arrived at church and went to the sanctuary to pray as I always do and I was at a loss for what to share with the Lord. I felt like I had no words to offer in regard to everything being experienced.

From protestors being hit by police cars, to the President tear-gassing a church so that he could have a photo opportunity with a Bible in his hands, to the countless images of violence being perpetrated against those who are demonstrating peacefully.

It’s difficult to know how to put into words how I’m feeling, how to communicate it to God, and how we should (perhaps) all be feeling about this. And I was reminded this morning, particularly as a pastor who feels like I always have to be coming up with new, fresh, and insightful things to say, that I can rely on the words of others.

And, in particular, I can rely on the prayers of others.

Karl Barth once said, “To clasp hands together in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That’s how I try to think of prayer whenever I pray whether it’s individually or corporately.

Therefore, I would like to share a prayer from someone else, a prayer that has meant a lot to me, and feels even more important considering the condition of our current condition:

Lies We Wrap in Love – Stanley Hauerwas

Lord, we often ask you to invade our lives,

To plumb the secrets of our hearts unknown even to ourselves.

But in fact we do not desire that.

What we really want to scream,

If only to ourselves, 

Is “Do not reveal to us who we are!”

We think we are better people if you leave us to our illusions.

Yes, we know another word for a life of illusion is hell. 

But we are surrounded by many caught up in such a hell – 

People too deficient of soul even to be capable of lying, 

But only of self-deceit.

Dear God, we ask for your mercy on all those so caught,

Particularly if we are among them.

The loneliness of such a life is terrifying.

Remind us, compel us to be truthful, painful as that is.

For without the truth, without you, we die.

Save us from the pleasantness which too often is but a name for ambition.

Save us from the temptation to say to another what we think he/she wants to hear

Rather than what we both need to hear.

The regimen of living your truth is hard,

But help us remember that any love but truthful love is cursed.

The lie wrapped in love is just another word for violence.

For God’s sake, for the world’s sake, give us the courage to speak truthfully,

So that we might be at peace with one another and with you. Amen. 

So, whether it’s with your own prayers, or the prayers of those who came before, I pray that today you find a way to clasp your hands in prayer such that is a beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. 

Comforted?

Devotional:

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

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I love and loathe the 23rd Psalm. I love it because it brings a sense of peace whenever I read it and I loathe it because it is, by far, the most overused psalm from the entirety of the Psalter. 

When I visit folk in the hospital and ask if they would like me to read some scripture, they invariably ask for Psalm 23. When I meet with families to prepare funeral services they request a read of Psalm 23. If you’re with a group of Christians and someone says, “The Lord is my…” there’s a better than good chance that the room will finish the sentence and keep on going to the very end.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it being the most popular psalm, but it does mean that we know it without really knowing it. 

When was the last time you thought about how the Lord prepares a table for you, in the presence of your enemies? For many that would strike a sense of fear, rather than comfort. Or, when was the last time you thought about dwelling in the house of the Lord your entire life? I know some of you love church, but to dwell in the house of the Lord for the rest of your life would have to mean that you really love church.

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But today, the bit that sticks out the most to me is the psalmist declaration that the rod and the staff of the Lord are a comfort. This sticks out to me because the rod and the staff are tools used by shepherds to keep their wandering sheep in check. 

Another way to encounter the verse would be like this: “Even though I’m going through some tough stuff, I’m not going to be afraid, because God is with me and knocking me around until this stuff really starts to sink in.”

These are uncertain times – the numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases in Virginia keep going up day after day, schools are closed for at least another 3 weeks, and local grocery stores are starting to shift around their operating hours to help mitigate the rate of exposure. 

And yet, strangely, the psalmist reminds us that, even though we are sequestered into our homes and are limiting our interactions with others, are not alone. God in Christ has come to dwell among us, to be present in our prayers, to be revealed in the reading of the Word, and even to rest in the silence with us that we otherwise try to avoid. 

Sometimes it takes a lifetime of Sundays before the Gospel message finally hits home. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us of our fragility in a world that keep foolishly promising us that we’re invincible. Sometimes it takes reading the most popular Psalm for the thousandth time before we can start to see the most beautiful aspect of it: the fact that its true. 

Favor Fades

Devotional:

Matthew 4.12

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

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Having the favor of the people can disappear in an instant. I have known too many beloved leaders in their respective communities who took one step too far and then lost the popularity or the respect they once held. Preachers, politicians, and professionals alike are often at the whim, and the opinions, of the people they serve. 

Jesus was widely praised by crowds of people when he first initiated his earthly ministry, but then he was run out of town (incidentally, his home town) as soon as he claimed that the scriptures were being fulfilled in him. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. was revered and praised for the kind of prophetic proclamations he made, but in the end those kind of declarations led to his assassination.

Years ago I was asked to speak at a community gathering in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and, to be honest, it was terrifying. How could I possibly do justice to the man who I had admired throughout most of my life? How could I find the right words to offer in memory of a preacher I still strive to emulate on a regular basis? How could I speak a word of hope and truth while so many people are still being persecuted for the color of their skin?

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But then, shortly before I was invited forward toward the microphone, I remembered a few words that Martin Luther King Jr. often said, words that Jesus similarly uttered in the garden of Gethsemane: “I just want to do God’s will.”

Whatever we do in our lives, it should have less to do with what we think people will think, and more to do with striving to live out God’s will for, and in, our lives. Rather than sugar-coating messages of false hope, we are called to seek justice for the many ways we have failed to love our brothers and sisters with every fiber of our beings.

Which is all to say, sometimes our faith will drive others crazy.

And now, in honor of Dr. King, I would like to end this devotional with a prayer from the man himself – a prayer that is worth our time and consideration particularly today…

“Thou eternal God, out of whose absolute power the infinite intelligence of the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls, and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives in the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

Liturgy of Thanksgiving

Devotional:

John 6.35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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The older I become the more complicated Thanksgiving feels.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of food, eavesdropping on grownup conversations, and running around in the cold until a responsible adult 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 that one thing that will set everyone off. 

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). Now we wear our red hats, or mention a recent debate sound bite, in order to make sure everyone at the table knows what side we are on.

Which is remarkably strange when we consider the fact that Jesus came to destroy the divisions that we so eagerly want to demonstrate around our tables.

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

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Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Liturgy of Thanksgiving 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 theological clarity to what our tables are supposed to feel like…

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:

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Meditation:

We cannot live by bread alone – so Jesus reminds the Devil and all of us during the temptations in the wilderness. But we do have to eat to live; it’s just that ordinary bread isn’t enough. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is bigger and more important than just the sharing of food. It is through our conversations and our prayers that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. The table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table on Sundays and when we come to it we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. This is the work of God, and we are all witnesses.

Prayer: 

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as ours around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

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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