Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13

Devotional:

1 Peter 4.13

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

Weekly Devotional Image

“Who are you?” That is without a doubt one of my favorite questions to ask, because the way someone responds to that simple question says a lot about how the individual understands who he/she is. If I asked you the question right now, how would you respond? Recently, I’ve discovered that when I ask the question, the first response is almost always “I’m an American.”

This is, of course, true for many people in the context I serve, and it speaks volumes about priorities and identities. If someone’s immediate response was “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father” we could assume that they understand their parental role as their most important and therefore the identity they identify with most. Similarly, if someone’s response was “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” we could assume their political identity is their most important identity.

And answering with “I’m an American” can be a good and right thing, but if that is our first thought or response, it often shapes our understanding of Christianity rather than the other way around.

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Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their fears regarding change in the cultural ethos and most of it has to do with feeling safe. For instance, “We need to have that wall on the southern border to keep us safe” or, “We should’ve elected Clinton because she would’ve kept us safe.” But as Christians, being consumed by a desire to remain safe is strange and almost unintelligible; we worship a crucified God!

Peter calls the church to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” In America, as Americans, we fell so safe in our Christian identities that we assume being a Christian and being an American are synonymous. Therefore we are more captivated by a national narrative (Freedom, Capitalism, Democracy) than by the Christian narrative (Suffering, Patience, Penitence). But to call ourselves disciples implies an acknowledgement that, if we want to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we might find ourselves on top of a hill with a criminal on our left and on our right.

Taking our faith seriously is a difficult thing to do when it appears normative in the surrounding culture. Instead we fall captive to the other narratives that we believe dictate our lives. But the truth is that God is the author of our salvation, that the Holy Spirit determines our lives far more than any country, and that Jesus is our Lord.

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Best Day Ever

John 14.1-7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.

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Dear Teagan Leigh…

We are the stories we tell. Stories make up the very fabric of our existence here on earth. As you grow older your parents and grandparents and teachers will tell you tales and fables in order to teach you lessons about the world around you. When you mature enough you will be told stories about the past in order to avoid the mistakes of those who came before you. And when you get old like me, you’ll start telling stories in order to comprehend the events of life and in attempts to derive meaning out of the mundane.

We are taught by stories, we are convicted by stories, and we are entertained by stories.

Teagan, when your parents got married, I stood in front of them and their friends and their families and I told them about the importance of stories. After listening to them describe their love and commitment to and for one another in the months leading up to that moment, I knew that their stories were coming together in that holy space as I pronounced them husband and wife.

I told the story of how when your Dad, Tucker, was 4 years old he went shopping with your great grandmother. The whole trip was planned around your Dad finding something for his mom for Mother’s Day. He was given complete and total freedom to pick out whatever he wanted from the store, and sure enough he found the perfect Mother’s Day gift. They went home and wrapped it and then you’re grandmother, Lisa, opened her gift to discover that your 4 year old father, out of all the items he could’ve pick in that store, chose for her a broom and a dust pan… Your grandmother mustered up all the strength she could to accept her gift with pride, though she couldn’t help herself from asking, “Tucker, why the broom and the dust pan?” To which your father replied, “Momma, they’re green, just like your eyes!”

Teagan, I also told a story about your mother, Jess. When your Mom was about 5 years old, she started playing tee ball. She practiced and practiced and then the first real game finally arrived. When your mother got up to the plate for that first at-bat, she swung as hard as she could and she started running. By the time she rounded second base she was beaming with pride thinking about how she was about to score her very first run, and when she was closing in on third base, her coach yelled, “Home Jess! Go home!” but instead of rounding third, your mother ran straight into the dugout and, if her friends and parents hadn’t been there, she would have literally kept running all the way back to her house.

I told those stories at your parents’ wedding because we are the stories we tell. You’re mother is a remarkably loving friend who takes people at their word. Her trust for others is such that she would go to great lengths for the people in her life, even if it meant running all the way home. And your Dad is easily one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met in my life; he will tell you exactly how he feels rather than waste anyone’s time and he knows how to make the best out of any situation, even if he bought your grandmother a broom.

At your parents wedding, I stood before them, their friends, and the rest of your amazing family and told stories. I told those stories to show how your mother and father were about to have their stories join together and you, sweet precious Teagan Leigh, are one of the wonderful results of that union.

And frankly, I would like to take a little credit for your existence. Had I not been there to marry your parents together, had I not joined them in holy matrimony, you wouldn’t be here this morning for your baptism. So, you’re welcome.

I’m just kidding, but there is someone else we need to talk about, someone else whose story makes possible your story. And you might think that I’m going to start talking about Jesus… nope (or at least not yet). We need to talk about your grandfather Marshall.

At your parents’ wedding, your grandfather stood up at the reception and gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I was listening to it because I realized that no one would remember what I said during the ceremony, but everyone would remember what your grandfather said. And, if I may be so bold, I can condense his 45-minute speech into one phrase: Best Day Ever.

Your grandfather Marshall went on and on about all the memories he had of your Dad and your Mom and how every day was the best day ever, all the way up to the wedding day, and that throughout their marriage they would continue to experience the best day ever.

It was perfect.

What made it perfect was how faithful it was. Because marriage, the joining together of two people is based on an assurance of commitment, what we like to call a covenant. Your parents covenanted to love and cherish and remain with one another recognizing that life will change, that circumstances would move them into strange and unknown places, and yet they believed in the power of God to hold them together in spite of the great mystery we call marriage.

Which brings me to Jesus…

Teagan, your parents are crazy. In their marriage they looked into the abyss of the unknown and jumped right in, and they’re doing it again today in your baptism. Bringing you forth to be baptized is one of the craziest and most faithful things that you parents will ever do, because in doing so they are recognizing that you don’t belong to them.

            You belong to God.

Teagan, there is this profoundly awesome moment in the gospel of John when Jesus was talking to his disciples about what it would mean to follow him. Jesus went on and on in attempts to strengthen his friends and provide for them a glimpse of the kingdom of God on earth and Thomas responded by saying, “Lord how will we know the way?”

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Thomas’ question is all of our questions. Throughout your life Teagan you will encounter this question in its many forms: Who should I sit next to at lunch? What should I get my mom for Mother’s Day? What school should I attend? Who should I marry? What kind of family should I raise? What kind of job should I pursue? What kind of church should I attend? How will I know when it’s the right time to retire? All of these questions are predicated on the assumption that we do not know where we’re going and we need all the help we can get.

Thomas wanted to know how to get where Jesus was going, he wanted an answer to his question, he wanted to know the way. And Jesus responded like this, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Teagan, there are many ways that you can live your life, you can find a great number of answers to your many questions. But Jesus is THE way, and THE truth, and THE life. And unlike many of the means by which the world will try to entice you with a great number of choices, attempts at making you the author of your own story, Jesus is the one who acts upon your behalf.

There might come a day when you’ll look back and regret the choice that your parents made for you. You might wonder if you would’ve made the same choice for yourself had they waited until you were old enough to make it. Your experience of the baptized life might be such that you’ll even be mad at me for being the one who doused you in water. But this thing we call baptism doesn’t really have anything to do with you, or your parents, or even me. Instead it has everything to do with God revealing THE way through THE Son.

In your baptism, something you won’t remember outside of stories and photographs, God is the one acting on your behalf. It is the Spirit that moves through the water and calls you forth into a new life, it is God who has worked in and through the waters of so many who have been grafted into the church, it is Jesus who makes possible the kind of radical transformation that takes place in the water.

When your parents got married, they stood before the altar of the Lord and asked for God’s help to navigate the difficult and challenging covenant of marriage. And in your baptism they will do much the same, and we will all join them in their covenant. The people of God’s church, and not just the people of St. John’s but all Christians everywhere, are making the promise to raise you in the faith, to support you when you falter, to congratulate you when you succeed, and to call you out when you wander from THE way.

In a sense, we are making the public proclamation that you are a gift to us from God.

For many of us Teagan, this is the best day ever. When we look up to see you at the font surrounded by such love it will give those of us who have followed THE way a great deal of hope. In the water that will cover your head we will be reminded of THE truth of what Jesus came to do for the world through THE life of God offered on the cross and resurrected from the grave. And Teagan, I hope that one day you will look back at this day, the day of your baptism, as the best day ever.

But even that would be a disservice to the living God who breathed the breath of life into you, the living God who called your mother and father to live in holy matrimony all of their days, and the living God who revealed THE way and THE truth and THE life in his Son. For to follow Jesus on THE way as THE way is to know that every day is the best day ever. Because every day is another opportunity to encounter the incredible grace of God in the laughter of a friend, in the tear of a spous e, in the smile of a stranger. Every day offers us a chance to live into THE truth that God is the author of our stories. Every day presents an occasion to give thanks for THE life that reorients all of our lives.

Teagan Leigh, you are a gift. You are a gift to your mother and father and to your family. You are a gift to the church. You are a reminder of what God’s grace actually looks like. So today we give thanks to God for you, for making this the best day ever, and for THE truth that even greater days are yet to come. Amen.

Strangers in the Sanctuary

Last Sunday I announced to my church that I am being appointed to a new congregation at the end of June. I am truly grateful for the time I’ve had at St. John’s and recently I’ve been thinking about the many ways they’ve let me experiment what it means to preach from the pulpit.

Back in 1992, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon published a book entitled Preaching to Strangers. The book includes a number of sermons preached by Willimon at Duke Chapel with Hauerwas’ comments and critiques immediately following. And there is a line in the introduction that has stuck with me during my time at St. John’s:

“A congregation cannot be strangers to one another, not because they know one another well, but because they have all had the same baptism… [However] most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers.” [Willimon and Hauerwas. Preaching to Strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 6.]

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How is it possible that we can have churches filled with strangers? Perhaps our worship prevents us from seeing the pews as avenues of connection and instead we see them as walls of division. Maybe we spend so much time facing forward that we forget to look left and right. Or perhaps we’ve let our faith become solely about our relationship with God and not about our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Regardless of the reason, I noticed from the beginning of my ministry that there were strangers in the sanctuary.

We did such a good job of welcoming and connecting with one another during the times immediately before and after worship, we even sat down and talked during fellowship events, but we didn’t really know one another.

And I didn’t do anything about it.

Instead, for the first 2 years, I got up in the pulpit every week and preached my sermon. I shook hands with everyone on their way out the door and started the process all over again. And again and again I would have people come up to ask me questions about the family that had just walked out the door, or someone wanted to know the name of the man who sat on the left side in the third pew from the back, or people would ask how long some particular individual had been sitting in that particular spot without knowing their name. But still, I did nothing.

I waited and waited until something happened back in 2015 that forced me to try something new, strange, and bizarre.

One day our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man immediately began to cry and said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future… These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of being part of a church where we did not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I didn’t want the sanctuary to be a place of loneliness of Sunday mornings. So I tried something different.

Instead of the typical ~15 minute sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups during worship (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. I assigned group leaders with instructions (printed below) and provided a list of questions (also below) to help get the conversation flowing.

When I announced what we were doing from the pulpit that morning there were audible groans from the congregation. “Here he goes again,” they must’ve thought. And, begrudgingly, they filed off to their different rooms in silence.

But when the activity was over and they came back to the sanctuary, I couldn’t get them to stop talking!

In the years that followed that weird Sunday I’ve been blessed to see new friendships between individuals and families that had their genesis in those classroom conversations: A group of widows who were previously unaware of one another have lunch together once a month; a new family to the community connected with a long-time Stauntonian family and now regularly spend time together; people formerly divided by age are now connected over common interests like movies, restaurants, and even time travel destinations.

 

Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk from the pulpit, and not just in a daring or controversial sermon. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the way and let the Spirit do what the Spirit wants. Sometimes church can be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness.

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Living in Harmony Activity

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversations during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

 

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  2. Ask everyone to share his or her name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below is a list of questions to ask the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask him or her to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen.

Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

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Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

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We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?

Devotional – Matthew 5.23-24

Devotional:

Matthew 5.23-24

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the alter and go; first be reconciled to you brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

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“I want you to write down the name of someone who is currently driving you crazy.” That’s how I chose to begin a sermon more than a year ago. Each bulletin had a blank piece of paper inside, and after writing down the name I asked everyone to crumple it up and hold it in their hands until the end of the sermon.

The sermon was focused on Isaiah 6.1-8 and I talked about how Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront conflict. I said that to be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love, that to be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong, and that to follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

I concluded the sermon by asking everyone to look at the names crumpled up in their hands, and seriously consider making the first move to confront the conflict with that person. I warned everyone that it might not go well, and that it might blow up in our faces, but that the longer the conflict remains, the harder it would be to hear the living God speaking in our lives.

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Like a lot of sermons, I preached it and hoped the people of St. John’s took the challenge seriously. Over the next few months I occasionally heard about what happened when certain individuals confronted the conflict in their lives, but a few people told me that it was too hard and they were too afraid to face the person whose name they wrote at the beginning of the sermon.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, takes the art of reconciliation very seriously: Before you bring a gift to the altar (before you place your tithe in the offering plate during worship) you need to leave; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come back to offer your gift.

I’ve often thought about what this would look like in the middle of a worship service: How would people respond if we told them to leave the church right then and there to be reconciled with the people they are quarreling with before giving their gifts to the church? Would any of them come back the next Sunday? Would anyone walk straight up to me because I’m the person they’re frustrated with?

It is easy to show up to church every week as if we have everything in our lives figured out and squared away, when the truth is that we are quarreling with people in our lives and that we don’t have everything figured out. Church, however, is the place where we learn what it means to be broken, and how God is working through us to put the pieces back together.

So, if we took Jesus’ words seriously, who would we need to reconcile with before we show up to church next Sunday?

Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Weekly Devotional Image

Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.

“What’s heaven like?”

If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.

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If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.

But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.

However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.

The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?

As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”