On The Real Miracle Of Pentecost

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Jason Micheli and I recently sat down for a conversation about the celebration of Pentecost and what it means to preach about the Holy Spirit. Our podcast Strangely Warmed is dedicated to addressing the reading from the Revised Common Lectionary without using stained glass language and our recent episode brought forth some great topics such as the connections between Exodus and Acts, what it takes to be able to confess Jesus as Lord, and and the real miracle of Pentecost. If you want to listen to the episode (or subscribe to the podcast) you can find it here: Pentecost – Year A

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On How To Read Barth or: Why The Tamed Cynic Is Wrong

Back in February of 2013, Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) proposed an invitation to read Karl Barth’s writings over the following two years. Throughout this time Jason periodically reflected on what he read for the whole world to read on his blog. I like Jason a lot. I’ve written about him here on the blog, I’ve used him as an example in a number of sermons and devotionals, and I genuinely believe he is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus I’ve ever known. Because I like Jason, and I grew up listening to his sermons, I like Karl Barth.

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Barth is most well known for his writings in the theologically shattering Epistle to the Romans and his dialectical approach in his Church Dogmatics. Reading his work over the last few years has profoundly shaped the way I understand what is means to be a Christian and how to read scripture.

When Jason invited me to start reading Barth from afar I was already familiar with The Epistle to the Romans, I had read sections from Church Dogmatics, and had read a number of his sermons from other compilations (Deliverance to the Captives and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth). Though relatively familiar with Barth’s style and larger project, I was excited to read Jason’s “Tips for Reading Karl Barth”:

  1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in the given week.
  2. Barth uses the term “being” a lot. IT’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as “character.”
  3. Whenever Barth speaks of the “Word of God” he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.
  4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.

 

Jason’s “tips” are on point when the daunting task of reading Barth is open on the table. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is divided into fourteen volumes and takes up the entirety of one of my bookshelves. I fully agree with his first three “tips” but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with the fourth: “The footnotes. Skip over them.”

If theology is like jazz, then Barth’s footnotes are his greatest improvisational work over the larger melody.

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Reading Barth is challenging and requires patience. There are times when you will come to the end of a long paragraph and have no recollection of what you just read. There are times that you are sure you know what he is driving at only to have him turn the whole topic upside down and address it from a different angle. But it is in his footnotes (or excurses) that he exegetes the biblical texts that brought him to the conclusions in the rest of the text. The excurses are where Barth does the true work of theology.

For example, in part III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, Barth makes the claim that “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant.” He breaks down arguments for the watchmaker analogy as if God created the Earth like a watch and is not sitting back and watching the hands go round and round and instead posits that God, as the divine creator, created freely in love and is forever bound with creation. This is all good and true, but it is the long excurses on Genesis 1 that the brilliance of Barth’s theology comes to light.

In it he goes through the scripture with a fine-toothed comb and provides reflections on each day of the creation story. He looks at the presence of light and darkness: “The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elected and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God.”

He spends a great amount of space analyzing the power of created water and its relevance throughout the entirety of scripture: “The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage with desert-wandering, captivity and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us. It is thus the more note-worthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are His walking on the sea in royal freedom, and His commanding the waves and storm to be still by His Word.”

All of this and much more can only be found in the places that Jason suggested skipping over. The more I have read Barth, the more I am convinced that the most important parts to read are his footnotes where he dives deeply into the strange new world of the bible.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on some of my favorite excurses from Church Dogmatics including Barth’s thoughts on Creation, the Tower of Babel, and the Doctrine of Election.

Jason’s proposal to read Barth was a great challenge, and I am grateful for his “tips”, but the ripe fruits of Barth’s work should not be skipped over.

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Devotional – Galatians 6.2

Devotional:

Galatians 6.2

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

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One of my friends has incurable cancer. He’s in his 30’s, married, has two kids, serves as a pastor, and his cancer will never go away. When he shared the news of his diagnosis, I was speechless; as far as I could tell he was in perfect health and it felt like I was smacked in the face. And then I did something that I’m ashamed of: I avoided him.

The days became weeks, and the weeks became months, and every time I picked up the phone to call him just to check in, I couldn’t muster the courage to dial the number. As a pastor, I spend time in hospitals and rehab centers almost every week with people from the church community who are suffering through cancer, or a major surgery, or depression. But when it came to Jason, I just couldn’t do it.

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Maybe it was my own selfish need to believe that nothing was wrong with him; I wanted to keep the image I had of him in my head, instead of seeing his bald head and weakening body. Or perhaps his cancer hit too close to home and made me fear for my own health. Or maybe his cancer was just another frightening reminder of the fragility of life.

While I was ignoring him, my little sister was doing the opposite. When Jason needed to go for chemotherapy treatments, Laura-Paige volunteered to drive him and sit with him through the whole procedure. She told me that she never felt pressured to talk or console him, because the only thing he really needed was for someone else to be there.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia and called for them to “bear one another’s burdens.” For by bearing the burdens of the people around us we can fulfill the law of Christ. It took me a long time to finally pick up the phone to call Jason and apologize for my lack of presence during his treatments and I still feel guilty for abandoning him in the midst of his pain. But I give thanks for my little sister and the countless others who bore his burdens during his fight against cancer.

In church we like to pretend that we’ve got everything together in our lives. So long as we can get on the right outfit, sit in the right pew, and offer the rights prayers we can appear however we want toward the people around us. The truth however, is that we are all broken and suffering through something. This week, let us take the time to reach out to just one person in our lives and start bearing their burden. Maybe we can attend an AA meeting with a friend who suffers from alcoholism, or we can sit with a neighbor going through chemotherapy, or maybe we can just ask how we can be present for someone in the midst of their life right now. And in so doing, we will fulfill the law of Christ.

Devotional – Isaiah 9.2

Devotional:

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined. 

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This Wednesday (at 3pm and 7pm) our church will welcome a number of people for whom church attendance is limited to Christmas Eve and Easter. In the church community these people are often referred to as “Chreasters” or the “C and E crowd.” I can remember as a child how wonderful it felt to be at church on Christmas Eve and see all sorts of people from the community worshipping together who never attend for any other occasion. Christmas Eve is one of the profound worship experiences that brings all sorts of people together to praise God for coming into the world as a baby in a manger.

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One of my friends, and former pastor, Jason Micheli has this to say about the “Chreasters” who only attend church on a limited basis: “The dirty little secret is that often the way preachers and church people talk about ‘Chreasters’ makes them sound like the bad guys, like we want to make them feel guilty for not being regular church-going people. Which doesn’t make any sense to me because I gotta think ‘Chreasters’ are exactly the sort of people Jesus would prefer to hang out with… So rather than looking down on them with guilt-inducing contempt. We should, like the Lord we adore, simply welcome them in the thrill to be with them.” (you can read more of Jason’s thoughts about ‘Chreasters’ here: Tamed Cynic)

For this one night, we have the privilege to sit beside weary travelers on the roads of life who, for whatever reason, have decided to worship the Lord. It is nothing short of a blessing to find churches filled with people on Christmas Eve because it is a time for us to proclaim that wonderful and great truth: God is with us. Many will come because they feel suffocated by the darkness of life’s burdens, and we will be there with them as they experience the light of the world.

This Christmas Eve, wherever you worship, I encourage you to open your eyes to ALL who gather to celebrate the new born king. Do not look down on the “Chreasters” with contempt for their limited worship, but instead give thanks to God for putting them in your life. Above all, be fully present with those around you and rejoice knowing that the light of the world shines in the darkness.

Merry Christmas.

Divine Irony – Sermon on Exodus 2.1-10

Exodus 2.1-10

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happened to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

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Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him. Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

God and Relationships – Part 2

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One of my favorite theological blogs belongs to my friend and mentor Jason Micheli (www.tamedcynic.org). Recently, Jason produced a number of posts about the importance of being in relationships. In a similar vein, I have decided to post a few of my thoughts on the theological virtues of relationships.

 

“To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say the ‘I.’”

Fountainhead

So says the fictional Howard Roark to Dominique Francon in Ayn Rand’s behemoth novel The Fountainhead. Though Rand herself was staunchly opposed to all forms of religion, I believe her quote, in a way, speaks profoundly to the importance of what it means to be in relationship with another.

To use Rand’s language: To say “I love you” one must first be able to say “I.” And, perhaps, more importantly, to say “I do” in marriage, one must first be able to say “I.”

Will Willimon writes, “Most people think that the toughest part of marriage is deciding who we ought to marry, making the right choice, and preparing for the decision. We say we are deciding whether or not we are “in love” with this person. Curiously the church has traditionally cared less about our emotional attachments. What the church cares about is not who you have deep feelings for but rather whether or not you are a person who is capable of sustaining the kind of commitment that makes love possible.”

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In today’s culture people (young and old) often commit to a romantic and marital relationship before ever experiencing what it means to be an individual. Young people are maturing later and further delaying the ability to find sense in individuality and therefore seek identity in others. Yes- there must be sacrifice in all relationships, but not at the expense of losing whatever it is that makes you, you.

Before a couple can fully appreciate the depth of what it means to covenant their life to someone else, they have to know who they are in order to give themselves over.

 

But here’s where it gets a little complicated…

 

You will never fully know who you are.

 

As a pastor, when I stand in front of a couple leading a wedding ceremony, the question is not “Jack, do you love Jill?” Instead the question is, “Jack, will you love Jill?” There, in that precise moment, we discover that, according to the church, love is something you commit to, something you promise to do, a future activity, the result of a covenantal marriage rather than its cause.

 

As Stanley Hauerwas famously put it, “we always marry the wrong person.” This is to say that we never marry the right person because marriage and life changes us. There will come a time when you realize that the person you have been living with is no longer the person you married or met at the coffee shop or knew from high school.

 

No one can fully know what he or she is getting out of a husband or a wife. There is a lot to be said about preparing for marriage (meeting with professionals, discussing the future, etc.) but there is an element of unpredictability that must be respected. We can never prepare for marriage in totality, but we can prepare ourselves for a lifetime of commitment to someone who is always changing (ourselves included).

 

This is exactly why it is so important to understand what you say, when you say “I.”

 

You will change in ways that you cannot predict just as your partner will change. But, as Christians, we have been adopted into a new identity through water and the Spirit that sustains us throughout the many changes of our lives.

 

Christ is alive through us, in us, and with us.

 

If we hold on to that identity, love can be the result of our relationships rather than the requirement.