Vulnerability

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Tell me about your last fight.

That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.

There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything. 

There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.

But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”

To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”

I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.

And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”

Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.

Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.

Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.

Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.

And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.

This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One. 

I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.

And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.

We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.

And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.

And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.

So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.

Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.

Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?

When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…

I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little  twinge of vulnerability.

I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.

And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.

However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.

The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!

In the end, that’s Advent.

More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.

Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.

That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me. 

Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents. 

Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.

Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!

Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.

Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.

This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.

I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!

In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.

And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.

But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.

And that’s a big if.

But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.

And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!

That’s wild stuff.

It’s what we call grace.

Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.

God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.

Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.

That’s not just great news, its Good News!

Happy New Year! 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)

Someone Reigns!

Psalm 93.1

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved. 

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explain later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time and that Barth’s final words were as follows:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still Someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III).

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he publicly ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote against the atrocities that took place during the Vietnam War. 

And it brings me great comfort to know that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us (still) reigns over the cosmos. Barth’s final proclamation is decisively Christians in that we, as disciples, know how the story ends which feeds us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself.

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for five minutes, or scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God chooses to do so in God’s infinite and bewildering freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who ever could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been obliterated forever and ever.

Which is all just another way of saying, Christians see the world differently. We see the world through Christ which means that all earthly means of power fall powerless to the King of kings who rules not from a throne built on blood, but instead from a cross marked by his own blood. 

Therefore, we, through the power of Spirit, have the courage and conviction to rebel against the insidious power of despair and, instead, seek the means of grace and the hope of glory that are the brick and mortar of the Kingdom of God.

Someone reigns! That Someone’s name is Jesus Christ! Thanks be to God. 

The King of the Kingdom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom

Election Confession

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. 

Don’t mix politics with religion.

We’re told to keep these seemingly incompatible things as far away from one another as possible. Whatever political proclivities we hold and whatever we might believe are meant to remain in the private sphere and the world has no right to interfere with either.

And yet, we confuse them all the time! We put up American Flags in our sanctuaries and frighteningly blur the line between church and state, we view one another through the names on our bumper stickers rather than through “the name that is above all names,” we believe that what happens on a Tuesday in November is more important than what happens each and every Sunday. 

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” actually looks more like an extremely complicated marriage in which neither partner knows why they are still together.

It then becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to think and speak theologically about what it means to be Christian! Such that our faith has become so privatized that it is relegated to Sunday mornings and only Sunday mornings.

This is a rather strange proposition considering the language of faith articulated to and by Christians who confess Jesus as Lord.

Or, to put it another way, if we believe that Jesus is Lord then all of our assumptions about who we are and whose we are cannot remain the same.

The psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” What a wonderful word for a people who are running amok drunk on democratic idealism! I have heard, more times than I can count on more election days than I can count, that this is the most important election in history. Well, here’s a controversial and theological statement: This is not the most important election in history – the most important election in history was Jesus electing us.

The psalmist’s words echo through time and they indict us. We worship our politicians in a way that Jesus would call idolatry and we keep believing that so long as our candidate gets elected then everything will be fine and good for us. But politicians (princes) and political ideologies have come and gone with failed promises again and again.

The democratic practices we hold so dear are fine and good, but they will not bring us salvation.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, this is a deep mistake. It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Perhaps the proclamation from the psalmist is beckoning us to remember that our unending desire to win is but another way of falling prey to the practice of idolatry. If we take our Christian convictions seriously, then we are bound to love our neighbors just as we love God, regardless of their political affiliation. Which is just another way of saying, the Lamb is more important than the Donkey or the Elephant.

Therefore, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be faithful, let us pray that the Lord will grant us the grace and peace necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that there is no hope in us, but that the hope of the world has come to dwell among us. That hope is named Jesus Christ whom we did not elect.

The Good News is that he elected us. 

Beware The Preacher

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including coaching connections, problematic relationship advice, Reba McEntire, pots and pans, letter writing, priests, sin removal, eager waiting, cultures of call, anti-stewardship, and power cocoons. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Beware The Preacher

An Ordinary Church

Psalm 24.1

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

Fred Craddock was a preacher and then a teacher of preachers. Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Craddock’s contributions to the field of homiletics (preaching) are incalculable. At the heart of his homiletical teaching was a desire to bring the congregation into the sermon, rather than attempting to dump knowledge into the minds of the congregation. And, at the end of the day, Craddock was a great storyteller and his stories always pointed to the story we call the Gospel.

Here’s one of those stories:

“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about the church. Sometimes the preacher would call and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants – it doesn’t care about me. They just want another pledge, another name to add to the roll.’ That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival. The pastor would bring the evangelist and tell him to go after my father, and he would just say the same thing: ‘The church doesn’t care about me, they just want another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times, until I didn’t. He was in the veteran’s hospital, down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and the x-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, plants and flowers were covering every available surface, there was a stack of cards 20 inches high next to the bed, and even the tray that was supposed to hold the food he couldn’t eat was dominated by flowers. And every single one of those things were from people from the church. My father saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

Church is, and can be, a lot of things. It can, of course, get caught up in the machinations of the world and start to use the methods of the world to achieve its ends. 

Stewardship drives can get caught up in dollars and sense rather than bodies and souls. New membership classes can get caught up in filling the pews rather than transforming hearts. Even food programs can get caught up in making a good impression on the community rather than treating those who receive the food with dignity, love, and respect.

And yet, the church, even at her worst, exists for others. We are a community of people who seek to live out a commitment to loving God and our neighbors. We receive the Good News in order to become Good News ourselves. It might not seem like much, but a well timed card, or a phone call out of the blue, or even a hastily put together email can be the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

Hear the Good News: Christ has a knack for taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary – things like water, and bread, and wine, and even us. Thanks be to God. 

God Goes Buck Wild

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 1.1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9.11-14, Mark 12.28-34). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cheesy novels, the tenacity of human relationships, relevance, wedding texts, biblical agency, praise, faithful children, bloody hymns, at-one-ment, the words of life, and the end of questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Goes Buck Wild

Church Is Good For You

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. 

A friend of mine from seminary just co-authored a piece in Christianity Today that should drive people in droves to local churches. Even though only 36% of Americans view religion with a “great deal of confidence” (down from 68% in 1975), and even though only 29% of Americans say they go to church every week (down from 43% in 2011), regular corporate worship attendance strongly promotes health and wellness.

The article points out that “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”

Literally: church is good for you.

Now, of course, the point of the Good News isn’t to lower our cholesterol, or to add years to our lives, but there is something about the gathering of people for worship that makes things better for people. 

The psalmist writes, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” When we gather in worship together, we enter the strange new world of the Bible only to discover that it is, in fact, our world and that God delights in being made known to us in the breaking of bread and the waters of baptism. These sacraments are the activities that make our lives intelligible in which we are told/reminded that we belong to God and that despite our best (and worst) efforts we are a people who live in the light of forgiveness.

Which is all just another way of saying: when the Good News actually sounds like good news then it can make all the difference in the world.

To be clear: just showing up Sunday after Sunday won’t make us happy; it’s not some magic flourish of the wrist that makes all the bad things go away. But, at the same time, being part of a community of faith means that we’ve been incorporated into something such that, when the bad things happen, we know we will not face them alone. 

I had the opportunity last year to lead a short online class with the theologian Phillip Cary and I asked him during the final session to make the case for why people should go to church. He said, “People should go to church because it is true, it is beautiful, and it makes life better.”

He was right.

And now we have the research to prove it!

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological insights than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to be part of something that makes life better:

The Westerlies are a brass quartet from New York whose sonic ventures would do well in sanctuaries, concert halls, and living rooms. Their music has hints of jazz, chamber music, and even rock and roll. “Robert Henry” is a foray into pulsing trombone rhythms with stylized trumpet syncopation that is sure to get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face.

Mia Gargaret is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Chicago. While she was in the midst of a tour in 2019 she lost her singing voice due to a sickness and retreated to her synthesizer for comfort. She began creating ambient meditations that drew inspiration from philosopher Alan Watts lecture “Overcome Social Anxiety.” Her song “Body” samples the lecture with a synthesized assortment of arpeggios. 

The British band Bombay Bicycle Club released a 16 minute cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” back in May in honor of “World Turtle Day.” The song is nothing short of a sonic journey. I invite you to sit back with some good headphones and enjoy the ride.

The Altar Is The Whirlwind

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including podcast statistics, popular theologians, ashy repentance, feasting on the Word, constant communion, The Holy Mountain, faithful architecture, the manifestation of mercy, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Altar Is The Whirlwind