Bible 101

What, exactly, is the Bible? Why do/should Christians read it? Is there a proper way to read it?

The Virginia Annual Conference for the UMC has an annual challenge of reading through the entirety of the Bible and Rev. Matthew Smith and I were recently invited to record a podcast for the conference about Bible basics. You can check out the episode here:

Story Time

Nehemiah 8.5-6

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Most weeks we find leftover detritus in the pews after worship. There’s the occasional candy wrapper, a handful of loose change, and (my favorite) children’s drawings. The drawings are usually confined to the margins of various pieces of paper like offering envelopes or prayer cards and whenever I encounter one I am hit with waves of nostalgia.

There’s no telling how many bulletins I covered with Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and comic book heroes over the years. 

But, at some point, either from pressure applied by my parents or the wandering gaze of other church members, I gave up my artistic Sunday morning pursuits and I attempted to be a good Sunday morning worshiper. I said all the right prayers, sang all the right hymns, I stood up and sat back down just like everyone else. And yet, there were plenty of Sundays when the sermon could not hold my attention and I needed something to do.

So I did the only thing I could do: I reached in front of me, grabbed a pew Bible, and I started reading.

This is my confession: I fell in love with the Bible not because of some gifted homiletician, or from a remarkably profound experience of Vacation Bible School, but because I read the good book Sunday after Sunday while worship was happening around me. 

There’s this moment in the Old Testament when the priest Ezra pulls the holy scriptures up and the gathered people rise in reverence and then fall to their knees in prayer. Their love for the Word is palpable from the pages of the Bible precisely because they understood it to be the remarkable thing that it is. 

And yet, today, I’m not sure how we feel about the holy scriptures.

It doesn’t help that we often use it like a bludgeon against those with whom we disagree.

It doesn’t help that the words within it get cherry-picked to make whatever argument we want to make.

It doesn’t help that the Bible can leave us scratching our heads more than wanting to stand up in reverence or pull us down in prayer.

But perhaps we can reclaim a love for the scriptures when we start to see them as the strange new world that God has made for us. Or, to put it another way, maybe it would help if we stopped reading it as if it’s an instruction manual of religious behavior and instead we started watching it like a movie.

You can’t understand a movie, or say anything about it really, until you’ve consumed the thing as a whole. The Bible is the same. It is not meant to be taken apart in these little discrete segments – it is meant to be seen, appreciated, and understood as an entire proclamation. 

When you start to see the Bible like a movie you start to appreciate how all the separate parts might be entertaining or enlightening but in terms of their meaning, you cannot know what it is until the end. Each story/chapter/verse seems like it’s going somewhere, but only when you see Christ on the cross and Christ risen from the grave, all the sudden you start to understand what’s behind everything!

So the next time you’re in church on a Sunday morning, or watching the livestream from the comfort of your couch, and you grow bored with the preacher up in the pulpit, reach for your Bible and enter the strange new world that God has made for you. 

It might just change your life. 

Take It Up And Read

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, Luke 4.14-21). Todd is the lead pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, age differences, textual reverence, liturgical moments, the gift of rediscovery, the equity of the Law, restoration and reconciliation, new gifts, pulpit shadows, and Martin Luther. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take It Up And Read

The Operating System Of The New Testament

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the 5th Gospel, visible vindication, marital imagery, Good News For Anxious Christians, judgment as transformation, sentimentality, spiritual gifts, communal confirmations, the atonement, and new wine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Operating System Of The New Testament

Family Ties

Matthew 1.1

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Merry Christmas!

Here we are on the other side of the manger, the presents have been opened, the zooms with family have taken place, and we find ourselves back in worship waiting on a Word from the Lord.

There’s something about this season that can bring out the very best, and the very worst, in us. I’ve stood in enough churches for enough Christmas services to witness the extent of how true that sentence really is. 

It was merely days ago that the children of the church dressed in all the correct costumes and re-created Christmas for us…

But it was also merely days ago that I heard raised voices and arguments out in the church parking lot, disagreements came to the brim at some of our Christmas tables, and long held grudges remain held.

After our 8pm Christmas Eve service, a woman walked up to me who I had never seen before and all she said was, “Thanks for being open tonight. I didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve.” And with that she walked out.

Families are complicated.

And perhaps no family was and is more complicated than Jesus’.

The Gospel according to St. John begins with a connection to the cosmos – in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Gospel according to St. Mark doesn’t even have an introduction and just hits the ground running with the J the B going buck wild out in the wilderness. 

The Gospel according to St. Luke provides some authorial remarks regards the necessity for the transmission of the Gospel in the first place.

And The Gospel according to St. Matthew gets down to earth and puts Jesus’ family tree in the particular context and history of Israel. And the closer you get to earth, the dirtier it all becomes. 

Therefore, for the next ten minutes or so, I’m going to attempt to bring us through the genealogy of the baby born King we were worshipping on Christmas Eve. And, hopefully, you will see that my claim of Jesus’ sordid family history is not made in vain.

We start with good ol’ Abe. Father Abraham! The one with whom the covenant was made. I will be your God and you will be my people, and all that. Through you, the Lord says, generations will be blessed.

And Abraham, in his old age, becomes the father of Isaac.

However, it is the faith of Abraham, a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments, that results in Isaac being nearly murdered by his faithful father. Thanks be to God for the ram in the bushes!

Isaac survives to father Jacob, a devilishly tricky young boy who swindles his way into salvation history by pulling one over on his own aging father.

Incidentally, Jacob was himself duped as well. He wound up sleeping with the wrong bride by mistake and becomes the father of Judah.

And, because families are complicated, Judah accidentally slept with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, who pulled one over on him by dressing up as a harlot (more on that in a moment). And when Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law got knocked up while a lady of the night, he ordered her to be burned at the stake!

He only relented when, of course, he discovered that he, himself, through his midnight machinations fathered the child in her, Perez.

And that’s just the first three verses of the genealogy!

Next we encounter a list of people we know nothing about until we get to Boaz.

The strange new world of the Bible tells us that Boaz was a good and honorable man and his conjugal connections with Ruth, a dirty rotten foreigner outside of the covenant, continue the family line.

Ruth, notably, shows up after Boaz had a few too many ciders on the threshing room floor and, prior to their marriage, uncovers his feet.

If you know what the Bible means…

Anyway, this kind of behavior would’ve been no surprise to Boaz because his mother was Rahab, the harlot who had the sweetest little house on the edge of Jericho, who hid the agents of Joshua, and who, herself, was brought into the family line after a city was massacred.

So Ruth and her Bo-az (get it?) made their life in Bethlehem (ever heard of it?) and they brought Obed into the world, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

If you couldn’t tell already, the whole first section of the genealogy is filled with the complicated nature of reproduction.

The next section is filled with violence.

David, after slaying Goliath and playing the harp, after high-tailing it away from King Saul, eventually becomes King. And while King, with all the power it holds, he chanced upon Bathsheba, a woman bathing naked, during some afternoon peeping.

He used the power at his disposal to arrange her husband murder, rapes her, and becomes the father of Solomon, you know, the one with all the wisdom.

The whole story of David is filled to the brim with intrigue and murder.

A lot of murder.

In many ways, David was just a really successful band who, along with the Holy Spirit, brought together a bunch of tribal areas and started a real kingdom.

But, back to the family tree: Solomon’s son Reheboam lost almost all of David’s gain through his insatiable greed. He, according to scripture, encouraged pagan cults and even sacrificed male prostitutes.

The next few names on the list aren’t much to speak us, through at least two of them had some idea about what it meant to be covenanted with the great I Am.

Nevertheless, from Jehosophat through Joram and Ahaziah, it’s quite awful. Should you find yourself with some free time, you can skim through the canon and learn about murdered sons, blood thirsty kinds, assassins, and more!

Perhaps the first Sunday after Christmas isn’t the best time to take a peak behind the curtain of the Holy Family, but it’s all there. All the way up to, and through, the exile.

After the time of being strangers in a strange land, of wrestling between planting roots and getting plucked up, things only get marginally better for this family. But only because most of the next names in Matthew’s genealogy aren’t mentioned anywhere else in scripture.

And finally, finally (!), we make our way down the list until we’re back in the little town of Bethlehem with Joseph who Matthew describes as a just man (which is saying something compared to his ancestors). And who does Joseph brings to the family reunion caused by the emperor’s census? His pregnant virgin fiancé Mary.

No wonder no one wanted to let them stay at their house.

And then, Jesus, son of God and son of Man, light from light eternal, is born in the manger.

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ family tree in all its glory.

So what should we make of it?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus obviously did not belong to the nice clean world of all the worst Hallmark Christmas movies. He did not belong to the reasonable, or honest, or sincere world of decency and that we all too often claim for ourselves today.

Jesus comes from a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, scoundrels, adulterers, and liars.

Jesus comes from people like us, and he came for people like us.

No wonder God had to send his Son into the world; Jesus is the only hope we’ve got. Amen. 

Christmas Clothes

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [C] (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the means of grace, clergy vestments, living the faith, motherhood, praise, worship music, creation imagery, Tolkien and the Ents, the Daily Office, parenting the Lord, Good News, and the Ascension in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christmas Clothes

Embodiment

Hebrews 10.5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 

“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.

So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”

Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him. 

But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.

You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.

Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?

Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment? 

What about freedom from sin and death?

There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.

Incarnation.

It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”

All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.

Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?

The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.

Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.

And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.

We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.

But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!

We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.

Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.

And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.

In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.

Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.

However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?

Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.

There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”

Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.

But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.

We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.

We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.

We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.

Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.

And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time. 

There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.

In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.

There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.

In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.

But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.

It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.

There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.

One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.

He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”

Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.

Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.

But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.

The only problem is, none of us can do it. 

We’re all on the naughty list.

We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.

But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.

Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.

The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.

Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”

Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.

In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross? 

There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.

That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.

But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.

When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.

Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.

And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.

Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.

Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.

Come, thou long expected Jesus! 

Born to set thy people free; 

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in Thee!

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)

Lucky Bums

Psalm 84.12

O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

The praise service had been hitting all the marks – the band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their folding chairs. The gymnasium truly transformed into a place of worship and the people couldn’t get enough of it.

The sermon was delivered with a beaming smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side, celebrate successes, and to praise God in all times and in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether or not it was the caffeine, people were jazzed for Jesus.

Following the service, as was customary, the preacher stood by the door and shook hands with the people of God. His smile remained bright and shiny as each family, couple, and individual walked by.

Until one woman stormed past him and everyone else while muttering words under her breath.

The preacher apologized to the couple in front of him for the woman’s behavior and shouted at her as she sped across the parking lot: “Don’t forget to praise God!”

She stopped dead in her tracks, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her index finger into his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me feel what I’m feeling, and I’m never coming back.”

And she never did.

Happiness is such a fickle thing. Happiness comes and goes like the wind and we rarely hold onto it as long as we’d like to. The demands of life always catch up with us and for as much as might want to “keep on the sunny side,” the night will come. 

The psalmist writes, “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.” And the word “happy” is notable because in other translations it is rendered as “blessed.” 

And there’s a big difference between happiness and blessedness.

The differing translations come from the Greek word MAKARIOS which, at times, can mean happy, blessed, contented, and a slew of other things.

And yet, the words we use carry great meaning. For instance, happiness is often seen as a feeling that can change depending on one’s internal or external circumstances. Such happiness ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors. Happiness, then, is somewhat under our control. That is: we can make ourselves feel happy by engaging in certain activities.

But being blessed has little, if anything to do with our control and agency. We are blessed by others and not by ourselves. In other words, our blessedness is not within our own control but only something offered to us like a gift.

In the church we call it grace.

We are blessed not because of our own machinations or because we have earned it or deserved it. We are blessed because we are swept up in God’s goodness. The acts of God in Christ make us blessed.

Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century, translates being blessed like this: “You lucky bum!” To be blessed by God is nothing more than receiving something that we never should have received in the first place except for the fact that God delights in doing so. 

Jesus doesn’t wait on the arms of the cross until we are happy enough or good enough or repentant enough before he declares forgiveness upon us and all of creation.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we get our lives sorted out, or right all of the wrongs, or exhibit perfect mortality before he returns to us resurrected.

Our happiness, whatever it might be, is fleeting and fragile. But our blessedness is sure and forever because it comes to us from the only One who can offer it in the first place.

Ours is the kingdom! What a bunch of lucky bums we are!