An Understanding Mind

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind

By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Poetry is not my forte.

That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.

Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.

But poetry? No thank you.

Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.

Poetry takes time.

And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.

Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word. 

And that takes time.

Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are. 

A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true

That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

Good Theology

Psalm 24.1

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

I stood up on Sunday morning and led worship for a new church. At least, it’s a new church for me. Methodists are, usually, used to pastors moving around to serve different appointments, but it’s always a little jarring going from one pastor to another in the matter of a week. 

When the service was over we all milled about on the front lawn sharing lemonade and I received my first round of Sunday morning comments: “We’ve got some great weather today!” “Got any plans for the afternoon?” and so on.

But there was one comment that really stood out. A woman old enough to be my grandmother waited patiently for an opportunity to step forward, she grabbed me by the hand, and said, “It’s nice to know that God is still God no matter who stands in our pulpit.”

That’s some good theology.

While certain United Methodists are starting over because of new pastoral appointments, we’re all in the process of starting over because, in ways big and small, we’re transitioning to a time called life after Covid. It means we have to relearn what it means to be in physical spaces with one another. It means we have to be cognizant of those who are not ready to return to the way things were. It means the church has the challenge and the opportunity to be the church in a time that is so unknown.

But we’re also all in the process of starting over because that’s what the liturgy does to us. No matter what we have going on in our lives, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, God speaks truthful words through our worship about who we are and whose we are. 

On Sunday, I got to look out at an entirely different congregation than the one the week before and yet I was able to say, with assurance, the same thing: “Now hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” 

Forgiveness is the beginning to which we return to over and over again and it’s what makes the life of faith so exciting in the first place.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to start over:

Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” is a song made for couples along the road of a relationship. The singer-songwriter’s baritone is met, beautifully, by his wife’s accompanying harmonies as they proclaim a beautiful chorus about holding on to something while everything else seems to change.

Lucy Dacus’ music haunts me. Her voice sounds like she just consumed a cup of cream and her lyricism paints these landscapes of memory. “VBS” is her reflection on growing up in the church and coming to grips now with what it all meant. If nothing else, stick around for the face-melting guitar riff near the end of the song.

What Is Love, If Not Jesus Persevering?

“I can’t stand people who say, ‘Well, when it’s all said and done, what’s really important is that we love one another.’ No! You’ve gotta love one another rightly. And how do we do that? Well, in the Gospel of John Jesus declares, ‘I call you my friends and now you can love one another.’ Remember: to be a friend of Jesus didn’t turn out very well for most of the disciples. The love that moves the sun and the stars (Dante) is that love that sustains the disciples through the challenge of dying – that is the love that is rightly seen at the center of the Christian life. Love is rightly understood to be the very substance of relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” – Stanley Hauerwas

If you check out any church website, or examine any sign on a church property, you are pretty much guaranteed to see something about love. “We love everyone at this church!” “All are welcome here!” “We have open hearts, open minds, open doors!”

Which is all good and fine, but it’s not true. At least, not really. 

The church is in the business of welcoming all people but then we usually tell them, explicitly or implicitly, that they need to start acting like us. That is: we are fine with loving people until they fit the version of themselves that we want them to be.

Love, then, is radically coercive and predicated on how we view one another rather than how God views us.

Or, in some churches, our understanding of what it means to love remains forever in the realm of sentimentality and we do the bare minimum to maintain relationships that never extend to anything behind polite hellos. 

Stanley Hauerwas, on the other hand, rightly observes that we know what love looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, then, isn’t whatever we view on the Hallmark channel or celebrate around on Valentine’s day. Love isn’t a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. 

Love is cruciform.

Love is death and resurrection.

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life to make something of our nothing. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking of what it means to love rightly.

Natalie Bergman will be releasing her first solo record “Mercy” on May 7th. The album is a beautiful amalgamation of psychedelia and gospel and it follows her search for hope and salvation amidst the loss of both of her parents in a car accident. The song “Home At Last” is a profound reflection on love and loss with some wicked harmonies.

J.E. Sunde is a singer/songwriter who hails from Minneapolis. “Sunset Strip” has a super-catchy melody with harmonies that are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Oddly, it feels upbeat but it delivers a gut punch of repentance: “Yes I did wrong but you know I confessed it / I wrote this song just to prove that I meant it / But now you’re gone and I feel empty / I feel empty I feel empty.”

Leon Bridges has one of those voices that feels out of time, in a good way. “Like A Ship” is a cover of T.L. Bennet gospel tune from 1971 and it sees Bridges lifting up his silky smooth voice with a groovy baseline on top of some tight drums. A gospel choir belts out the harmonic anthem and the song, appropriately, ends with an organ solo that would delight any Sunday morning church crowd. 

Internalizing The Eternal

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5.9-13, John 17.6-19). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a trinity of books, the agency of Emmaus, ecclesial discernment, theological education, the confounding nature of the Spirit, reading in community, a full life, and the sectarian temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Internalizing The Eternal

The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

Jesus Is Not A New Moses

We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the Law refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever. 

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world. 

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make. 

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. 

We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us. 

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun. 

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference. 

We Are What We Pretend To Be

What does it take, what does it mean, to be a Christian?

This is a worthy question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, particularly during the time we call Lent. Lent, after all, is a season of repentance, or turning back to the Lord who came to dwell among us. Lent is that wondrous opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the one who breathed life into us.

And yet, most of us believe, even though we confess ourselves to be sinners, that we are actually good enough. We know we are not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). It is therefore not at all clear to us that we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior who can make something of our nothing.

As Christians, thankfully, we believe that we must be taught what it means to be sinners. That training comes by being confronted by Jesus Christ who, as Karl Barth puts it: “has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all people. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken our place for us in Jesus Christ.”

Just as we must be taught what it means to be sinners, we must be taught what it means to be disciples – and this is a teaching that takes a lifetime.

So we need not worry about whether or not we are really Christians. During Lent (or any other liturgical time) we may think we are only pretending to be Christian, going through the motions of faith. 

But, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be.

Here are some tunes to get in a Lenten mood…

Kevin Morby’s “Wander” has been on repeat in my house over the last few months if only because my four year old loves to pound his chest when the kick-drum shakes our bookshelves as it mirrors a heart beat midway through the song. The lyrics, though, feel perfectly Lenten as it conveys a journey into the stormy weather of the wilderness. 

The Strokes’ “Under Control” is one of my all time favorite songs and Rostam’s cover pays homage to the teen angst of the original while putting it inside of a more reflective and ethereal feel. As one of the founding members of Vampire Weekend, Rostam excels in creating atmospheric melodies and what he does with “Under Control” keeps the song stuck in my head for hours. Lent, to me, is a season where we wrestle back and forth between being in, and out of, control which is what this song is all about.

Wilco’s “On and on and On” is remarkably apt this lenten season as it feels like we never really left Lent last year because of the pandemic. Jeff Tweedy has this uncanny ability to craft songs that speak these tremendous truths, and the lyrics in this song are both hopeful and frightening (in the best way) at the same time: “On and on and on we’ll be together, yeah / please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.” 

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

In The Beginning Was The Verb

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [B] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the proleptic tense, Christmas unicorns, reconciliation, peaceful borders, God’s grammar, feeling the feels in worship, theological adoption, Herbert McCabe, letting in the riff-raff, and reading from the margins. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: In The Beginning Was The Verb