Devotional – Psalm 85.8

Devotional:

Psalm 85.8

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

Weekly Devotional Image

In 1968 there was a man whose job was to record nature sounds for films and television. He would pack up his recording equipment, hike out into the wilderness, drop his gear, and then return later for the undisturbed natural sound. In order to achieve 1 hour of unaffected sound, no planes or sirens or human presence, it would take 15 hours of recording time.

Today, the same man continues to record and when he wants to get 1 hour of unaffected nature sounds, it takes 2000 hours of recording time.

We live in loud world.

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Most cars now come with separate audio systems for the front and back so that passengers can listen to different music. You can buy clothing with wires stitched into the fabric so that you can have music in your ears wherever you go. I even saw a commercial last week of a couple out in the wilderness camping and they were unable to sleep because it was too quiet and they then started playing “soothing city noises” of traffic and horns honking on their phones in order to fall asleep.

What does it say about us when we now have apps to help us sleep with the sounds of pedestrians and road rage?

What does it say about us when we need to have sound and music playing whenever we’re in the car, whenever we’re sitting in the backyard, or whenever we’re walking down the street?

What does it say about us when most of squirm and uncomfortably cough when we’re asked to pray silently in church on Sunday for all of 15 seconds?

Loud-Noises

Many of us want the same things as the psalmist; we want to hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people. But how can we ever expect to hear God speak when our ears are filled with the sounds of life that bang and clash and hum over and over?

When was the last time you were intentionally quiet for ten minutes? What is it about silence that makes it so difficult? Why is it so much easier to be surrounded by noise than to stop and listen?

There are times when God will speak to us through loud and cacophonous means, but there are other times when God shows up in the silence, if we are willing to listen.

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On The Power of Sheer Silence

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Molly Williamson about the readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, 1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Molly is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Duke University and loves talking about God’s Word. The conversation covers a range of topics including the perils of skipping scriptures, how God can speak through silence, and why you can’t ignore the Old Testament. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Sheer Silence

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Devotional – Acts 2.42

Devotional:

Acts 2.42

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Weekly Devotional Image

“Why don’t you offer the prayer?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask in order to make someone uncomfortable when they least suspect it. I’ll be out at dinner, or some sort of communal function, and the moment right before the host inevitably asks me (as the pastor) to pray, I’ll lean over to someone and say, “Why don’t you offer the prayer?”

The question is often met with a blank expression that quickly morphs into terror. Some people feel like they can’t say no when a pastor asks them to do something so they start to pray; others begin to quake under the anxiety of publically praying though they muster something together; and others just sit there silently waiting (and perhaps praying) for me to start saying something instead.

But the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realized how harmful it can be. And not just on an interpersonal level regarding the manipulation of the pastor over and against a lay person, but also because it leaves people feeling like they have to be able to make up a prayer and offer it on the spot in order to be a Christian.

Spontaneous and extemporaneous prayers can be difficult and problematic things. Instead of sitting silently and listening for the Spirit we often fill the void with our own words that may have nothing to do with what it means to pray in the first place. We assume that praying has to be original and new every time it happens, but it was not so for the first Christians.

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In the wake of Pentecost, the new coverts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Notice the definite article: the prayers. They were given prayers to pray and this is entirely different than assuming that everyone can and should be able to make up their own prayers on the spot.

It is a great gift in the church to have prayers from the saints, to be able to look back and use the words that have been used so many times (and will continue to be used long after we’re gone) because sometimes we don’t have the right words to pray. Rather than struggling to come up with something on our own we can use the words from the Psalms, or reach for the Book of Common Prayer, or even read the words from a beloved hymn. Those words are our prayers, they are the prayers, and they have been given to us. Thanks be to God for providing the words of prayer when we cannot find them on our own.

Devotional – Psalm 19.1

Devotional:

Psalm 19.1

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Weekly Devotional Image

“Where do you feel God’s presence?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I gather with fellow Christians, and one that I will be asking the youth on our mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina this week. “In your daily life, where do you feel the presence of the Lord?”

The good and faithful members of St. John’s are usually quick to say they feel God’s presence in the sanctuary whenever they gather for worship. Whether it be a particular hymn, a stained glass window, or even the rare good sermon, they feel like God is with them when they’re sitting in the pews.

Others will tell me that they experience God’s presence in the silence of the morning right after they wake up, or the moment right before they fall asleep. They can describe feeling comforted by the Lord’s presence in that moment when they are otherwise totally alone.

And still yet others tell me they regularly experience God’s presence in nature. There is something about the sounds of the woods, or the view of a sunset, that is indicative of God’s great majesty and power.

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In the psalms we read about the earth proclaiming the handiwork of the Lord. From the smallest cell in a leaf to the great horizons of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the world around us declares the work of the Lord.

The challenge of discovering the Lord in nature is in not taking nature for granted. How often do we get in the car to drive along I-81 without taking a glance at he mountains in the distance? How often do we sit in our backyards without giving thanks for the light and subtle breeze? How often do we curse the bees flying around our heads without giving thanks for their pollinating practices?

This week, as we continue to take steps in faith, let us look for the presence of the Lord in the pines and the poplars, the plateaus and the prairies, the ponds and the puddles, the wind and the wake, the stars and the sky, the breeze and the bulbs, the fungi and the fireflies.

Listen to Him! – Sermon on Mark 9.2-9

Mark 9.2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

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Two years ago, today, I woke up like every other Sunday and got ready for church. Though I was enriched with theological education Monday – Friday in seminary, I looked forward to spending time in worship with people who were not from school on Sundays. Duke Memorial UMC is a beautiful church located right on the corner of downtown Durham and serves the needs of a wide variety of people. The sanctuary is wider than it is long, with a balcony, and a raised area above the altar for the choir and the organ. The church prides itself on its ability to worship faithfully, and engage deeply in the community.

Two years ago, today, I woke up like every Sunday morning, but this one would be different. While my roommates got ready to attend their respective churches, my phone began to ring and my pastor’s name appeared on the phone. Now, many of you might not know this, but if you receive a phone call from me on Sunday morning, it usually means there’s an emergency. I nervously answered the phone and through her scratchy voice I learned that both pastors of Duke Memorial were sick, and neither one of them would be able to preach. I had a feeling that I knew were the conversation was headed and I quickly glanced over at my clock; worship would begin in one hour. She continually apologized for their sickness and then finally asked if I would be willing to preach in a very short amount of time. “Of course” I said with a chipper voice, knowing full and well that I had not the faintest idea regarding what I would preach about.

The next hour was a blur.

I obviously did not have the time to write out a manuscript, I was not able to consult numerous commentaries about the text, and I had not spent an appropriate amount of time in prayer over the passage. All I knew was that the passage was the same as today’s (Mark 9.2-9) and that it was Transfiguration Sunday.

Duke Memorial UMC

Duke Memorial UMC

I barely made it in time for the service to began with a 3×5 index card in my pocket with three key points that I wanted to make. Upon arrival I searched for a bulletin to discover what else would be going on during the service and I quickly said a prayer before entering the sanctuary. My eyes were still closed when organ began and an acolyte walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the preacher?” To which I responded, “You’re looking at him.

The next hour was also a blur.

I led us through the usual motions of worship after explaining the lack of two ordained pastors. We prayed together; we sang together; we read together; I preached; and before I knew it, the service came to a conclusion ten minutes earlier than usual.

While people departed from the sanctuary, I did as all pastors do and stood at the door to shake hands with everyone. Many made comments thanking me for my service and willingness to preach on such short notice, but most of the compliments came in the form of, “Hey thanks for getting us out early!

However, there was one older woman waiting around at the back of the line for her turn to come forward. Another thing you might not know is that if someone waits a long time to speak after a service, they usually have a critique or a criticism that they don’t want to share in front of everyone else. I waited and waited until nearly everyone was gone when she finally stepped forward and grabbed my hand; “Son,” she said, “I’ve been coming to this church my whole life to worship the Lord and hear people preach. I want you to know that you said more in 10 minutes than many could say in 45. Thank you.” And with that she left the sanctuary.

Two years ago, today, I woke up and got tapped to preach a sermon at a moment’s notice. Now, of course, I am the pastor here at St. John’s and I have plenty of time each week to work on preparing for Sunday worship. I have the time to be in prayer over the words of scripture, I have the time to consult commentaries about what’s happening in the deeper sense of the text, I have the time to write out a full manuscript of everything I will say from this pulpit. But this week, I kept thinking about what happened two years ago on Transfiguration Sunday, and I wanted to do something similar…

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Instead of combing through numerous books highlighting the ins and outs of Mark 9, instead of doing all the things I normally do to prepare a sermon, I began by reading one verse: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”” and then I felt propelled to do something radical, something that I have not done in a long time, something that I want to share with all of you right now:

I listened to Jesus.

I spend so much time talking about Jesus, that I don’t spend enough time listening to him. Now, I have had some remarkably beautiful and religious experiences in my life, but I have never literally heard the Lord speak like on the mountain during the Transfiguration. I felt called to the ministry but it did not come in the form of a voice booming down from on high saying, “Taylor you need to be a pastor!” So, this week, I put away all the books, and tried to listen to Jesus speaking in my life.

I heard Jesus during my interactions with other people: 

One of my best friends in the world found out he has cancer this week. As a young pastor, husband, and father of two young boys, he is more often on the other side of the hospital bed praying for people in the midst of suffering. I immediately wanted to shout with my clenched fists in the sky, I wanted to know why this was happening, but when he wrote to me about his diagnosis I heard Jesus telling me that I need to keep the faith. I remembered that even pastors need prayers and that all of us are called to be faithful and loving people toward those who are suffering around us.

A few days ago I visited one of our long time church members who is nearing the end of her life. Upon arrival I learned, from one of her helpers, that she had tried to get herself ready for the visit, but discovered that she did not have enough energy to get out of bed. As I made my way into her bedroom, and knelt beside her bed, I saw her smile for the first time in a long time; “It’s not everyday that I invite a young man into my bedroom” she said with a laugh. We talked together about her struggles, we reflected on the many blessings from her life, and we prayed for God’s peace to reign abundantly in the days ahead. While kneeling beside her bed I heard Jesus telling me to be thankful for my blessings. I felt convicted by her faithfulness to not wallow in my own self-pity, and strive to live my life as fully as she has.

I heard Jesus during my reading of scripture.

This might come as a shock but I am ashamed at how rarely I read my bible. Sure, I read scripture every morning as a devotional practice; Sure, I read the bible every day in preparation for sermons on Sundays. But it has been a long time since I just picked up the good book and started reading for the simple pleasure of reading. More often than not my reading of scripture is based on a requirement or using the text as a resource. Even when I tell myself that I am reading for the right reasons I find myself writing down notes about using this bit in an epistle article or weekly devotional.

So, one day this week, I carved out some time and sat down with my bible. It took a while to rid myself of the vocational tendencies I have when reading scripture, but eventually the words and pages started to flow through my mind. I read about the great acts of God during the life of Moses, I flipped ahead to the story of Samson when he toppled the pillars and destroyed the Philistines, I soaked up some of the psalms and let their words become poetry for my soul, I walked the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus as he prepared to overturn the tables in the temples, I entered the strange new world of the bible and felt it come alive. Through reading the scriptures I heard Jesus telling me to that all people are part of God’s cosmic plan. From the patriarchs in Genesis, to the crowds in Mark, to the disciples at St. John’s, God can use anyone to bring about his will on earth.

I heard Jesus in the silence. 

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I am not a quiet person. I am as extroverted as can be. I usually have music playing in my office, or I am tapping my fingers away in some sort of percussive rhythm, or I am humming a hymn or song out loud. But this week I tried to be quiet and listen. I turned off the radio in the car, I let my turntable collect some dust, and I left my headphones at home. Silence is uncomfortable. Even a few moments of silence can drive us to fidget in our seats. Allow me to demonstrate: (1 minute of silence from the pulpit)

How did that feel? Yet, even though it makes some of us uncomfortable, silence can be beautiful. Turning off the noise this week allowed me to hear things that I normally miss: the sound of children laughing in the preschool, the crisp sound of pages turning in my bible, I even heard my heartbeat. What did you hear during our minute of silence? Maybe you heard the wind blowing against the roof of our church, perhaps you heard people breathing beside you in the pews, or maybe you heard heard the faint murmurings of your heart beating. During my time in silence this week I heard Jesus telling me that life is precious and beautiful. Only God could have imagined something like a heart to give us life, constantly thriving and pumping to bring existence to our bodies, a constant reminder of the fragility and beauty of what it means to be alive.

The disciples thought they knew everything they needed to know about Jesus. They believed they had him completely figured out. But when they made it to the top of the mountain God made it very clear that their assumptions and expectations were wrong; whenever we think we know what God is up to, its usually more about us than God. Its like looking for something at the bottom of a well, when all we really see is a faint reflection of ourselves. The Transfiguration shines brilliantly as a reminder that we are called to listen to Jesus. We need to hear him through the people in our lives, through our prayers, through our bibles, and through the silence.

Listen to Him through the words of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s table. Hear what God has done in the world for people like you and me. Listen to the Messiah that speaks to us through the bread and the cup. Hear the Lord speaking to you as you come to gather at the altar. Listen closely, and you just might hear God speak. Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 1/13/14

Devotional:

John 11.27-28:

She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

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We sat around the room, uncomfortably crossing our legs occasionally while sitting in stiff chairs. The fellowship room at Asbury UMC in Harrisonburg, VA was welcoming but something was wrong with the thermostat; the heat was on full blast and the windows were open to help offset the sauna-like atmosphere. As is common in most Methodist gatherings, conversation percolated about the weather, parking in the immediate area, and church identities.

We were all there to talk about prayer. Lay and clergy alike, someone had invited each one of us to participate in this “Kindred Project” to focus on the importance of spiritual disciplines in the lives of our churches. We exchanged the typical pleasantries, identified our positions in local churches, and then entered a time of contemplative prayer.

Our leaders began to read from the 11th chapter of the gospel according to John, repeating the line: “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” While sitting in the circle, we each looked to the person on our right and repeated the line to them, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” When the statement had finally made its way around the whole group, we entered a period of silence for 20 minutes.

Silence is difficult. Its hard to maintain focus without a myriad of thoughts beginning to sprout in the gray matter. I tried to keep focusing on that one sentence, but others ideas began to creep in: What am I going to preach about on Sunday? Who do I need to call this afternoon? etc. So, after a few moments of silence, unsuccessful in focusing on prayer, I removed myself from the circle, walked around the room for a minute and sat down on a rug in the corner. The silence weighed heavily on my heart as a tried to seek focus and contemplation. As I pushed my extra thoughts out of my mind the word teacher began to move through my head in a rhythmic fashion. Teacher, teacher, teacher.

When our twenty minutes were up, we shared our experiences and prayers with the rest of the group. This is what I said:

“I’ve been serving St. John’s for 6 months. I have embraced the role of teacher and preacher in a number of different ways and have thoroughly enjoyed my time so far. It often feels that I am supposed to be a master of the text (scripture) for the laity and provide for them concise and coherent reflections about how scripture continues to speak to us. However, during the last twenty minutes of silence, I realized that I’ve been looking at scripture and my calling to pastoral ministry a little backwards. I am not supposed to be a master of the text, but instead a servant of the Word. I am not called to be The Teacher, but must remember that I am still a student of God’s Word for me and my life.”

It never ceases to amaze me how God can use some of the most mundane moments to remind me what faith and discipleship is all about. For as much time as I spend in scripture to prepare sermons and bible studies, I must also remember my commitment to study the Word of the Lord in order to transform and shape my life as a Christian.

So, I encourage you to remember that “the Teacher is here and is calling for you.” It does not matter whether you have a degree in biblical theology, or you’ve never even opened a bible. Discipleship is about recognizing that we are forever students on the journey of faith. God’s Word is alive for you and me because whenever we approach it, it can speak a new word into our lives. So, if you have time this week, open your bibles to a passage of familiarity, read it aloud, read it silently, and dwell upon those words. How is God using them to speak into your life? What lesson is the great Teacher offering you right now?