Daydreaming About God

Devotional:

Hebrews 1.1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed her of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

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One of the things I loved most about the church I grew up in, is that I always felt like I could bring questions about faith to the pastors. They, like good clergy in the UMC, would come and go but no matter who stood in the pulpit on Sunday they offered a willingness to hear what was stirring within me, and they were always prepared to nudge me in the right direction. 

For me, a question would usually begin to percolate in the middle of a sermon. It would be a line, or a phrase, or even just one word that would stick out and from it I would journey into the unknown. Sadly, there were many times when that precise moment of question formation was when I tuned out the rest of the sermon and started searching in a pew bible for an answer. However, I would inevitably find myself more confused than when I started and I would patiently wait in line after church to drop my bombshell on the pastor.

It’s like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “People don’t come to church to hear preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”

And it was on one such Sunday, long ago, while I was daydreaming about God that I got stuck on a particularly profound question: “Why don’t we hear God speaking to us like how God speaks to the people of the biblical narrative?” The text that morning must have been from a moment when God definitely spoke to a particular individual, and I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear God in the same way.

And so I dug into the pew bible and went looking for an answer. But by the final hymn I was no wiser than when I started, so I asked the pastor on my way out.

To this day I remember exactly what he said: “God spoke God’s truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speaks in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”

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I only later learned that the pastor got the answer from the first chapter of Hebrews.

That memory has stayed with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect to hear God audibly speak to us in the midst of our prayers like we’re talking to a friend on the phone, and then we immediately become disappointed when God appears to be silent. However, my pastor was right: God spoke God’s fullest word in Jesus because Jesus is, was, and forever will be the incarnate Word. God can and still does speak to us through a variety of means like a conversation with a friend, a particular verse from a hymn, or even in the rare decent sermon, but God will always speak into our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.

So, instead of reading the Bible like a collection of stories from the ancient past, can you imagine how life-giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was still speaking to us here and now? 

The beauty of the Bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him in the present. 

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Dear Church…

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, but the Spirit that he has given us.

Since Easter Sunday we, as a congregation, have been reading through 1 John. Every worship service, every scripture reading, every sermon, even the hymns have all been based on this one letter written centuries ago.

And it is important to remember that 1 John was, and is, a letter. It is a document written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are in the midst of their faith journeys by addressing the challenges of discipleship.

For John, following Jesus was all about love… We know love by this, that Jesus laid his life down for us, and we ought to do the same for one another. Let us not love with words or speech, but in truth and action. And we shall do all of this because God is greater than our hearts.

Now, to be abundantly clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader; seriously, I made you all play around with crayons, balancing blocks, and play-dough last week! I don’t have decades of experience to rely upon when addressing the marks of following Jesus. The well of my wisdom is shallow compared to the deep insight that John shares in his letter.

I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place. It was a written communication designed to sustain people like me, and you, in the midst of this strange and beautiful thing we call faith.

During the time of John letters were carefully crafted, parchment/papyrus were expensive and rare, reading and writing was uncommon. A lot of thought went into a letter before it was sent out. And this was even more particular in the realm of the early church when letters were shared with more than one gathering. They were sacred pieces of text that were treated with the utmost care.

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Today, however, we communicate in a variety of different forms. Sure, some of us still take the time to write our thoughts by hand, and then send it through the mail. But many of us, if not all of us, are versed in the instantaneous forms of email, text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Instragramming, and even snap-chatting.

One of the biggest differences in the way we communicate today, as compared to the time of John, is that many of us offer our opinions and weigh into debates without really taking time at all to think about what we are offering. It is so easy to type a few lines, or click the share button, or take a picture on our cell phones that we do it without even realizing what we’re doing.

Today there exists computer programs designed to test whether information being shared in true, fair, and accurate. The fact that we need those things, because we simply don’t have the time to look into ourselves, is absurd.

But, when you consider how much is being produced, how much content is being created, we need something to help us sift through everything. Believe it or not, we, as a species, create as much content in 2 days as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

            That’s craziness.

If you talk to a writer or a poet, they’ll tell you that if they got a paragraph together in one day, then it was a very good day. Sometimes all they can muster is a single sentence. But that’s because they take the time to weigh out what they’re trying to say.

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On the other side of the spectrum, most of us try to get out what we’re saying as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. We don’t like our time wasted so we just throw words out and hope something sticks.

And so, while recognizing that I am not like John, and that we are bombarded with so much information, I reached out to a number of people this week. I asked a simple question: “If you could say anything to your/the church, without consequences, what would you say?”

It was my attempt to get people to think like John and speak the truth about what the condition of the church is like.

And, like seasoned and faithful Johns, a number of people put together their ideas about love and discipleship for our benefit. Whether it was on Facebook, email, Twitter, or YouTube, insight rained down upon our church office, and now you will be blessed to receive those same messages.

Fair warning: some of this will be hard to hear. It will be hard to hear because at times the messages can be convicting, just like John was. Some of them are short and to the point, some of them are a little longwinded and introspective, some will leave us scratching our heads, some will make us lift our chins with pride, and some will make us droop our heads in shame.

But that’s the thing about communication today – sometimes we say what we’re thinking without thinking about how it will be received. And maybe that’s okay…

 

Dear Church,

One of the best things about our church is the way we love each other. I can’t think of a Sunday when I came to worship without someone checking in on me. And that’s what I really care about. It doesn’t matter if the sermon falls flat, or if one of the hymns is too hard to sing, when I worship I feel loved.

 

Dear Church,

Life can be really difficult. But when it’s hard we have a choice, we can lay down and take whatever comes or we can get up and work on solving the problem. The choice is up to us.

 

Dear Church,

We should be doing God’s will, not power-hungry people’s will.

 

Dear Church,

What the church does is all about sharing the good news. And the good news is the fact that God loves sinners. And all of us are sinners. All of us.

 

Dear Church,,

I don’t care what church it is; if I have to hear another political sermon I’m going to lose my mind! The gospel is not about creating strong political opinions or calling people to march in protest. Jesus doesn’t share the Good News so that we know what political party to join, or which candidate to support. So many preachers today sound like wannabe politicians and I just can’t stand it anymore!

Following Jesus is not about whose political sign is in your yard or on your bumper; it’s a call for the people who have the resources and goods to open their hearts to people who have need. Love is about action, yes. But love is not a doctrine, or a sermon, or a political persuasion.

It is what you do, not what you think.

 

Dear Church,

I’ve been worshipping here for a while now, and I don’t think anyone knows my name.

 

Dear Church,

Love is more than a word.

 

Dear Church,

How can any church call itself a church when it refuses to help, or ignores altogether, people in need? This is why the church is dying. Not because it’s boring. Not because it’s old fashioned. The church is dying because it is hypocritical.

 

Dear Church,

Speaking up for the good of people is risky. You can lose your job, relationships, money, and even your life for living by the kind of love we talk about at church. But isn’t that what Jesus was willing to risk?

 

Dear Church,

Laying down your life for someone is different than dying for them. When push come to shove, many of us would consider sacrificing ourselves for the good of those we love. But laying down one’s life, laying aside your goals and priorities and dreams for the betterment of someone else, that’s entirely different. We need not die for anyone, but we certainly must lay aside our needs for others.

 

Dear Church…

 

After receiving these comments, and many more, I thought long and hard about what I might say. I pondered about what kind of letter I would write to this church, or any church, about what is really at stake. I prayed about what kind of shocking wisdom we might need to hear in this place.

And yet, rather than pontificating from the pulpit, I’d like to hear from you. I know this is uncomfortable, perhaps even worse that having to spend 15 minutes with playdough like last week, but if you could say anything to the church about what it really means to follow Jesus, what it really means to love, what would you say?

Imagine, if you can, that this was your final communication to the church, and that you had the opportunity to speak some truth into the midst of all of our lives, perhaps about what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly – What would you say?

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We can open up forums on the church website. We can solicit responses from people all over the Internet. We can even listen to the people in the pews next to us.

And we can also listen to John, speaking through the centuries, about the wisdom of loving and being loved:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Amen.

Devotional – Jonah 3.1-2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.1-2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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Sometimes, we don’t want to say what God wants us to say. All of us have a little Jonah in us, and all of us have faced a Nineveh at some point and decided to run in the opposite direction.

However, there are times when God gives us the strength, courage, and wisdom to say what God commands us to say.

On Saturday morning 600 United Methodists from all over the Northern Virginia area gathered for a day of spiritual renewal and theological reflection. At the beginning of the event, the District Superintendent from the Alexandria District stood up and said, “By now you have all heard what our President said about the kinds of people he doesn’t want coming to our country. Well, last night I was driving home from church and I was listening to the radio when person after person denounced what the President said and the words he used. But there were three people in support of the President’s message: A member of the KKK, a member of the Neo-Nazi movement, and a pastor. Thank goodness it wasn’t a United Methodist Pastor, but most people outside the church do not differentiate between us.”

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The DS then went on to express his gratitude for our denomination, and in particular for our Council of Bishops, who publically condemned President Trump’s recent remarks against immigrants.

It’s not easy saying what God wants us to say. There are always people who will be angered by what the church has to say, and frustrated by the path of discipleship that calls for others to be better. But our Ninevehs are always waiting, and God has given us something to say.

Below is the statement from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, on behalf of the whole council:

“We are appalled by the offensive, disgusting words attributed to President Donald Trump who is said to have referred to immigrants from African countries and Haiti, and the countries themselves, in an insulting and derogative manner.  According to various media accounts, President Trump made the remarks during a White House discussion with lawmakers on immigration.

As reported, President Trump’s words are not only offensive and harmful, they are racist.

We call upon all Christians, especially United Methodists, to condemn this characterization and further call for President Trump to apologize.

As United Methodists, we cherish our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world and we believe that God loves all creation regardless of where they live or where they come from.  As leaders of our global United Methodist Church, we are sickened by such uncouth language from the leader of a nation that was founded by immigrants and serves as a beacon to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Thousands of our clergy, laity and other highly skilled, productive citizens are from places President Trump has defamed with his comments.  The fact that he also insists the United States should consider more immigrants from Europe and Asia demonstrates the racist character of his comments.  This is a direct contradiction of God’s love for all people.  Further, these comments on the eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Day belies Dr. King’s witness and the United States’ ongoing battle against racism.

We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, whose parents during his infancy, had to flee to Africa to escape from the wrath of King Herod.  Millions of immigrants across the globe are running away from such despicable and life-threatening events. Hence, we have the Christian duty to be supportive of them as they flee political, cultural and social dangers in their native homes.

We will not stand by and allow our brothers and sisters to be maligned in such a crude manner.  We call on all United Methodists, all people of faith, and the political leadership of the United States to speak up and speak against such demeaning and racist comments.

Christ reminds us that it is by love that they will know that we are Christians. Let’s demonstrate that love for all of God’s people by saying no to racism; no to discrimination and no to bigotry.”

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.

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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?

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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.

Devotional – Ephesians 4.29

Devotional:

Ephesians 4.29

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

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A few weeks ago Gwen Hammer, a wonderful member of St. John’s, came into my office with a gift. She and her family had been on vacation and she said they found something I “just had to have.” So with eager anticipation and excitement I opened up the package to discover one of the funniest signs I’ve ever read, a sign that is now hanging in my office for everyone to see: “Live your life so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”

Whenever I meet with families and friends to prepare for a funeral, I hear wonderful stories about the person who has died. Without having to ask questions, I quickly learn about what it was like to grow up with the person, how they met their spouse, what it meant to them to be a parent, and a slew of other details. I hear the funny stories that have been told and retold countless times at family gatherings. I start to see how God’s grace developed in the person’s life and led them to live the way they did.

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But at some point, stories pop up that I would not want to share from the pulpit; disappointments regarding a grudge that was never settled, failures to communicate what was really happening, and frustrations over choices with larger implications. I always do my best to sit and listen patiently, knowing that it is important for the friends and family to experience their grief in different ways. But when it comes time to craft the words that will be shared at the funeral, I do my best to include the truth about the person’s life, while emphasizing the details that help to build up the community of faith.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about what it means to live in community: “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As human beings we tend to emphasize and remember our problems, but as Christians we are called to speak in a way that benefits the people around us. In our everyday lives we have opportunities to share kind words toward others such as complimenting their work or affirming their character. Whatever we can do to live in such a way that we build others up, rather than breaking them down, will allow us to fully live into God’s kingdom.

This week, let us speak in such a way that our words may give grace to those who hear, and live in such a way so that the preacher won’t have to lie at our funeral.

Devotional – Acts 10.44

Devotional

Acts 10.44

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 

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It happens all the time. I’ll be preaching from the pulpit, or leading a bible study, or praying for a family when someone responds later by quoting back something I said, only I never said it. The sermon will be about the importance of loving our neighbors, and someone will bring  up our “obviously similar” political persuasions while we shake hands after the service. The bible study will move through the book of James and the challenge of being wealthy and Christian, and someone will later thank me for my comments about “sinful multi-national corporations.” I’ll be in a hospital room praying with a family for God’s will to be done, when someone will later attribute the cure to my wishing for a miracle.

In ministry, and in life, something happens between our lips and another person’s ears that we can never prepare for or predict. For as much time as pastors put into their sermons/bible studies/prayers it is a remarkable thing that we often lose control over what we say. The exact moment the words leave our lips they wrench themselves free from our dominion and take on a life of their own. The consequences of this lack of control can be both destructive and life-giving.

Occasionally someone will hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it leads to a divisive and frightening argument. The narthex conversations following worship can be nerve-racking because you never know what to expect. But, more often than not, people hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it gives greater glory to God than I could ever do with my own words. People will open up and confess they believed the words were meant for them alone and they experienced God’s abundant presence speaking into their lives.

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Preaching is meant to be a conversation. The pastor stands at the front speaking words about the reality of God and they pick up subtle clues regarding responses: the occasional head nod and the rare audible “amen.” But they also deeply rely on the comments made after the service regarding the proclamation. Just as the Spirit fell upon all who heard the word from Peter, the Spirit shows up in worship, in bible studies, and in hospital rooms reigniting words, rearranging them, and helping them to sink deeply into people’s lives.

It is hard to relinquish control over something as precious as a sermon, but then again the sermon never belongs to me in the first place; it belongs to God.

This week let us take time to really listen to the people in our lives and engage in conversation with them. Let us give thanks to God for providing the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make something out of our words in spite of us. And let us have the courage to be honest with all the pastors in our lives about what they say and what it means to us.

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.