Devotional – Psalm 4.4

Devotional:

Psalm 4.4

When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

Weekly Devotional Image

I like going to the gym. It’s one of the few places I can go without being spotted as a pastor (and therefore can avoid of all the Christianisms that often occur like, “I haven’t been to church in a long time,” and “What do you think heaven is like?”). There is a peace I experience while running on the treadmill in that I can be alone in my thoughts, with just enough distraction in running to actually relax.

On Monday afternoon, while about halfway through my run, my mindful journey was interrupted by the person running next to me. When I quickly glanced over it was clear that he was deeply disturbed by something on the television screen and I could hear him cursing under his breath. For 15 minutes I continued to run in silence, but I could not stop listening to, and worrying about, the man next to me. With every passing minute his face grew redder, his volume increased, and his anger became even more palpable until he could no longer stand it, he shut off the machine, and he walked away.

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I honestly left the gym feeling pretty good about myself. Not only had I taken the time to be mindful about my physical health but also I wasn’t nearly as angry or ridiculous as the man running next to me. I know I left on Monday afternoon with a sense of pride. At least, I did until I got in the car, started listening to the news on the radio, and saw my tight knuckles gripping the steering wheel as I listened to all that is going on in the world. By the time I got home I realized that I was no better than the man from the gym, the only difference was he let out his emotions in front of everyone and I did it in the solitude of my car.

How do you respond to difficult information? Do you pick up a nearby object and hurl it across the room? Do you mutter words of anger under your breath? Do you lash out on those around you? Do you clench your fists in concentrated frustration?

It is impossible, and frankly unhealthy, to keep everything bottled up. Whether it’s a response to what you witness on the news or learning something disturbing about someone you know and love, we can’t avoid how we feel. But, as the psalmist puts it, we can at least take the time to ponder it in silence before reacting.

If the Lord we worship responded to our many failures with knee-jerk reactions, this world would probably not exist. But God is patient and contemplative when it comes to how God’s creatures act. Sometimes God is silent specifically such that we might come to realize who we are and who we need to be.

We all live and move in a world predicated on knee-jerk reactions. The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with information designed to elicit responses from us. We check our emails, and social media accounts with a regularity that is frightening (myself included). But God shows us a different way; a way in which we can ponder the events of the world in silence before jumping into the fray.

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Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Weekly Devotional Image

Sin is an ugly word. It is an ugly word because it makes us uncomfortable. When I encounter people in my life who no longer attend church, they often describe their reasoning as “church was only about sin” or “I left every week feeling miserable.” Sin is an ugly word.

It is true that in some churches sin is the focus of nearly everything. But in Mainline Protestant Christianity, we avoid even mentioning sin because of its ugliness. We preachers would rather talk about God’s loving nature than God’s judgment. We would rather tell our people to love their neighbors as themselves than to tell their neighbors that they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard passages about condemnation than reflect on how they are still speaking directly to us even today.

And yet, God speaks through Isaiah to say, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

There are definitely bad ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. Logging on to Facebook in order to belittle the other for their differing political or social opinion might sound like a blaring trumpet blast, but it accomplishes nothing good. Sending anonymous letters or notes to people because of their former lifestyles might feel like “not holding back” but it usually just leaves them hurt and afraid. Judging others from afar with our like-minded peers might feel like “announcing their rebellion” but it will just harden our hearts.

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However, there are good ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. First, we must remember that we too are sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory. Second, we can only speak the truth of another’s sin in love, which is to say, we need to be in relationship with the person to such a degree that they can hear what we have to say without blowing it off. Third, we can only “announce rebellion” if we are willing to help the person to move out of their sinfulness; we cannot simply declare their sin like a trumpet blast unless we are willing to do the hard work of helping them out of it. And finally, we can only announce another person’s sins if we are prepared to hear our sins as well.

The existence of the church is a response to our need to hear about our sinfulness. We gather together to hear the Word so that we might be transformed into God’s people. But this cannot happen if we are more concerned with transforming others, than with transforming ourselves. We cannot announce the sins of another, unless we can first say “Have mercy on me O Lord, for I am a sinner.”

So shout out, and lift up your voices like a trumpet. But beware, for the trumpet will blow in your direction as well.

On the Impossible Possibility of Karl Barth or: Why God is God

Many years ago, Karl Barth was invited to give a lecture on theology during his visit to the United States. After waxing lyrical in his high-pitched Swiss accent, he spent some time answering questions and mingling with those in attendance. A young man who was able to snag a chair in the back mustered up the courage to walk to the front and shake the hand of the man who he believed had changed his life. After waiting and waiting he finally reached out his hand and said, “Professor Barth I want to thank you for all that you’ve done. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written and it has changed my life.” Barth looked inquisitively at the young man, took his hand and said, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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Or so I was told long ago. Stories about Barth are like great myths that you can never really prove, but they wonderfully add to what we imagine he was like. That simple story of his interaction with a young man was my first introduction to Karl Barth prior to purchasing my copy of The Epistle to the Romans. From the story, and from my first reading, I quickly learned that to read Barth’s work is work. He held a long time motto that what really matters is “to say the same thing again and again in different words.” This is true of his writing, his preaching, and his influence in the world of theology today.

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In The Epistle to the Romans there is a great passage where Barth juxtaposes the law with faith: “The truly creative act by which men become the children of Abraham, by which stones are transformed into sons, does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.”[1] His expression of the impossible possibility of faith is one that, I believe, is indicative of Karl Barth’s greater contribution to theology. His writing is some of the most difficult to comprehend but, like Joyce’s Ulysses and Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it will change you.

About a month ago I set out to write a number of reflections on what I consider are some of Barth’s best exegeses from Church Dogmatics. In preparation I pulled out my heavily earmarked and notated copies of the different volumes and dove back into the strange new world of dialectic theology. To do theology dialectically is to think in unresolved contrasts. It means that Barth can write, “God is God” which looks like a sentence that is an explanation, but it actually really does not explain anything at all. Barth, unlike so many theologians, rejected the temptation to explain, and thereby limit, God. Instead, Barth leaves it at “God is God.”

This kind of theology is powerful and it is frustrating. We are so conditioned to expect explanation and clarity that when reading Barth we are left reeling and waiting for the notes to resolve, but they don’t. Like any great jazz improvisationalist, Barth leaves us wanting more because the work of theology is never finished.

Just as it is hard to read Barth, it is hard to write about Barth. When I first read his reflections on Creation, the Tower of Babel, the Doctrine of Election, and the Strange New World within the Bible, it fundamentally changed me as a person and as a Christian. When I returned to those works over the last month I experienced the same excitement of transformation once again but when I opened my computer to write, I stared at a blank screen for a long time. How could I adequately reflect on explaining the unexplainable? How could I limit a 44-page exegesis to a 2,000-word blog post? How could I share my thoughts on something that gives me theological whiplash (in the best way)?

Writing about Barth’s writing is difficult precisely because Barth is impossibly possible.

God is God. Three words that say everything and nothing at the same time. God is God; an impossibly possible statement. To say, “God is God,” is to affirm that we cannot control God. We cannot start with “God is…” and fill in the blank with whatever we want God to be. God is what God is, and we are not. (Hence the instruction to Moses: “Tell them ‘I Am” sent you.”)

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“God is God” in its frustrating impossible possibility, reminds us that God can only be known through God. This does not mean that God is somehow hidden from creation, or completely unknowable, but that God is revealed to us according to God’s will. We cannot go digging for God throughout the bible, we cannot go out into the peaceful wilderness to find the divine; it is God who finds us. Or, as Barth puts it, “[the grace of God] is like an arrow from the other side of a shore on which we will never set foot, yet it hits us.”[2]

What Barth’s impossibly possible theology sets forth is a theology that is never finished. Like the shorter ending to the gospel according to Mark, we are left in God’s great ellipses. We are now part of God’s great story being told until God makes all things new. There is no end to the work of theology because there is no end to God. Faith, similarly, never concludes because every moment is a new opportunity to be met by God and to be transformed over and over again.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 138.

[2] Ibid., 98.

Weekly Devotional – 11/25/13

 

Devotional:

Philippians 4.4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

 

My family loves to celebrate different holidays. My maternal grandmother loves to go out of her way to develop new and fun games depending on the particular festivity. On Easter there is always an easter egg hunt in addition to counting all of the different easter bunnies throughout the house. On Christmas we are usually given a random assortment of objects with the challenge to create something that is indicative of the Advent season in addition to trivia quizzes about differing Christmas songs, scriptures, and traditions. I will wear my grandfather’s lederhosen while my sisters will wear some of my grandmother’s dirndls. Holidays are a big deal.

Mertins Family Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

On Thanksgiving we always gather together as a family while also inviting friends to partake in this special holiday. The abundance of food and guests usually leaves us with having to put up temporary tables in different rooms in order to accommodate. There is usually some sort of Turkey quiz, or an acrostic poem for something like “M-A-S-H-E-D-P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S.” But the best thanksgiving tradition takes place immediately following the blessing of the food where everyone has to go around the table and share with the group what they are most thankful for. One of my uncles usually says something that makes the entire table laugh, one of my cousins leaves us with something deep to ponder, and my grandmother usually has us all in tears by the time she finishes. I love sharing what we are thankful for because it gives us a time and a space to reflect on the goodness in our lives with the people who embody God’s goodness for us.

Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about the Christian life as happy and holy. He encourages the budding Christian community to rejoice in the Lord, to think about the blessings in their lives, and to keep the faith.

As we gather together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends and family I encourage you to share the goodness of your lives. Reflect on how God has made your life happy and holy. Reflect on how you can be a blessing for others.

Remember that as you gather together around a communal table, Christ has invited you to partake of him at his table. That from Him all blessings flow. That we all have something to be thankful for: the gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ.