Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling”

Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling
Date: July 28, 2019
Scriptures: Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

“We know through painful experience that
freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Let us pray:

God, give us the strength to approach You. Help us to be bold and to choose to listen to what you say to us. Bless us and keep us both now and forever. Amen.

I have spent the last week seeking wisdom. A few weeks ago an idea started spinning up in multiple people’s minds and spirits. I have been praying through not whether I should listen to God’s calling but how it will look in my life.

I read through a book by a church leader named Paul Nixon that was called “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” I heard bold words about leadership, following God’s calling, and changing church culture. I dreamed through what it meant that my heart was warmed by Paul Nixon’s set of choices on how a person approaches leadership. Could I choose to be bold over being mild? Could I choose to ac kkt now instead of later? Could I choose life over death? As a leader, I have always had a calling, but this felt deeper.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the words in your bulletin that we read. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He wrote it to a group of white clergymen who insisted that Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham were unwise. Dr. King insisted that the oppressed must demand to call for their own freedom. He insisted that the people rise to claim their freedom.

I pondered these words as I thought about our world. Dr. King was talking about a far more insidious and evil problem, but the words still kept filling my head with thoughts and dreams.

I identify as a millennial and my generation is very spiritual but divided from traditional organized religion. I have had many conversations with people my age who have said “Church is boring,” “Church is hypocritical,” and worst of all “Church doesn’t bless me–all it does is hurt me and people I love.” I have also had these same conversations with disaffected people both younger and older than my generation.

The thing is that I know these things may be true for some people, but only because the church has often forgotten the mission or left it behind to be more comfortable. This reality is tragic.

Look at what the Colossians are told: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

When I think about what I was taught about Jesus Christ as a child, I remember being taught that Jesus loved me, that Jesus cared about what was going on in my life, and that I always had a place in God’s house. When I was a teenager, I gave my life to Christ because the Church had taught me that when everything went wrong, I had a Friend and Protector in Christ Jesus.

When I accepted that love, when I placed my identity in that strength, and when I learned more about Christ, I was thankful. I abounded in thanksgiving. Why? I abounded in gratitude because Jesus Christ’s love was closer than my right hand. When Paul says continue in the love the church taught me as a child, I see a love that means the world to me. There have been times in my life when I would rather have been separated from my arm than separated from that love.

People in my generation and people in general are oppressed by misinformation–the misinformation they have about God does harm. They do not understand how powerful God’s love can be for their lives. It hurts my soul to think people do not learn of this love because they think church is boring or irrelevant. This kind of good news brings joy and meaning to life! It breaks my heart to think people would come to church and see the church as some place harmful rather than some place beautiful. Such things are holding people in my generation down. Such things are breaking hearts and causing pain. Such things should not be.

I thought about the quote from Dr. King, I thought about what I was reading, and I wondered. What would it look like if we took the parable Jesus tells as a story with a message for us? If we were to believe that Jesus cares for our neighbors and if we were to ask God to lead us through breaking through those barriers, do we believe God would not answer? Would a parent give a child a scorpion instead of an egg for breakfast? Would a parent leave the door unanswered if their small child knocked on the door asking to come in? Of course not. I love my kids, I may love sleep, but if they came asking for something they needed in the middle of the night, I would get it for them. The same holds true for my friends–I may wish to stay in bed, but if they needed help, I would get up and help.

It is my belief that God wants to help too. As I have listened to God, respected friends in the church, and my own soul, I believe that God is preparing us for something new and exciting. I think we are facing multiple challenges and that obstacles are being thrown in our way, but I believe these are attempts to put something in the way of those who call out from the edges. I hear their cries: “Love me!” “Welcome me!” “Welcome my kids!” “Welcome my parents!” “Welcome my brokenness!” “Welcome my weirdness!” “Welcome me!”

It has become such a call in my thoughts that I am asking a question of myself: Who is knocking? Am I knocking on the door asking for help of God? Is God knocking on my door to ask me to pay attention to the least? Are the people knocking because they need something better?

The thing is that the things we believe divide people from the Jesus’ love aren’t there. Are they too loud or too lax compared to what they should be? Well if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they drinking too much at the bar or spending too much on clothes? Well, if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they unlike the people we knew growing up in church? Well, if that’s a sin, that has been nailed to the cross.

One of the amazing things about Paul’s words is that the act of forgiveness described is always listed in the past tense. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well you were forgiven at the same time that people 200 years ago were forgiven. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well, the people down the street were forgiven at the same time. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well the people who haven’t been born yet, haven’t done terrible things yet, and haven’t asked for forgiveness were forgiven at the same time as us. We have all been buried with Christ and resurrected with Christ.

When Paul speaks of not being taken captive by false ideas and puffed up ways of thinking, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to think of what Christ has done. People were telling them that eating non-Kosher foods would damn them, but Paul tells them to stop believing the lies. People were telling them that there were Sabbath rules that had to be followed, but Paul told them to stop believing the lies. Their salvation did not rest in the rules but in Jesus Christ.

I went to church as a young man at my father’s church on Grand Island. I grew up believing that I had to wear the nicest clothes, sit quietly, and always behave perfectly. When our church launched a contemporary worship service, we started to attend worship with a bass guitar, clapping during worship, and with people who led worship in jeans. It was weird and I kind of rebelled against it for a long time as I tried to come to grips with the differences. I had come to my own faith in Christ, but could worship take place in church with guitars and clapping? Wasn’t that a youth group thing for when the adults were all off having coffee somewhere and couldn’t stop us?

I came to realize that worship wasn’t about sitting perfectly still or being perfectly dressed. Worship was about God. I knew God loved me as who I was, but it took me a while to realize that the Sabbath laws of Sunday morning church did not make me a good Christian. Only God’s love made me a Christian in a first place. All of my salvation came down to the actions of Jesus Christ, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the love my Creator. When Paul tells me to continue my life as I was rooted and built up in Christ, I find my own roots have strength not in tradition or historical accuracy. I find my roots only have life where they are connected to the love of God.

What is God calling me and others to do? Honestly, we’re still discerning what that looks like, but one thing is clear: If it will succeed, it will only be because it is founded on God’s love. How does that old hymn go?

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Let us pray…

Reflecting on “This is my song” and John Chrysostom

This morning we sang a hymn in place of the offertory. The hymn is a well-meaning hymn known as “This is my song” by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. The hymn has an interesting history: first as a poem and then as a hymn. The song is a stirring song set to the tune Finlandia.

Poet Lloyd Stone (1912-1993)

I also struggle with that particular song. I struggle for two reasons. First, I struggle with the song because I love the song. I think it is beautifully written, wonderfully lyricised, and matched perfectly with the stirring tune of Finlandia. If I were to choose a patriotic song as one I could adopt as my own, this would be the song I would choose first. I appreciate the balance between pride in one’s land and an appreciation for the viewpoint of others. I also appreciate that Dr. Harkness was a pioneering theologian whose work I love to support.

Dr. Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a leading Methodist theologian in an age when female theologians were definitely not the standard.

The second reason I struggle is that I am increasingly immersed in the early church. I enjoy reading through ancient sermons, ancient theologies, and reading about the lives of the leaders of the early church. Recently I was reading an excerpt from John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407 CE) in Amy Oden’s “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in the Early Church.” The excerpt was from Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12, which was published in 1889, and the version I share below is sourced from the public domain. I will say Dr. Oden’s version reads far easier. Chrysostom wrote:

“Knowest thou not that we live in a foreign land, as though strangers and sojourners? Knowest thou not that it is the lot of sojourners to be ejected when they think not, expect not? which is also our lot. For this reason then, whatsoever things we have prepared, we leave here. For the Lord does not allow us to receive them and depart, if we have built houses, if we have bought fields, if slaves, if gear, if any other such thing. But not only does He not allow us to take them and depart hence, but doth not even account to thee the price of them. For He forewarned thee that thou shouldest not build, nor spend what is other men’s but thine own. Why therefore, leaving what is thine own, dost thou work and be at cost in what is another’s, so as to lose both thy toil and thy wages and to suffer the extremest punishment? Do not so, I beseech thee; but seeing we are by nature sojourners, let us also be so by choice; that we be not there sojourners and dishonored and cast out. For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there. For the just, although having nothing, will both dwell here amidst all men’s possessions as though they were his own; and also, when he hath departed to heaven, shall see those his eternal habitations. And he shall both here suffer no discomfort, (for none will ever be able to make him a stranger that hath every land for his city;) and when he hath been restored to his own country, shall receive the true riches. In order that we may gain both the things of this life and of that, let us use aright the things we have.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12

Effectively, Chrysostom is referencing the teachings of Jesus about treasurers on earth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21 to avoid storing up treasures on earth. Chrysostom points out that one cannot take houses, fields, slaves (different time in history: not justifying the unjustifiable, but pointing out Chrysostom’s context), gear, or anything else out of this world. Chrysostom points out that we have been forewarned against building up our riches on earth or claiming the things of this world as treasure. We cannot take the things of this world with us. Indeed, it is only in the next life that we find ourselves growing into our true inheritance and riches.

What catches my eye in regards to the hymn and what causes me to ask deep questions is the line “For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there.” Chrysostom sees Christians as people on a journey through this life with a goal of reaching the next. If one stops to claim this place as one’s land, one will only have it for a moment. If one claims one citizenship to be in Heaven, then one has the freedom to both enjoy this world and move into the next without great loss. Indeed, a strict reading would say that one cannot move into the kin-dom of God by grasping tightly to a land, a nation, or one’s own goods.

Strictly speaking, the hymn we sang stands in opposition to one of the earliest Christian leaders because it claims that this is our land, our nation, and our space while Christian tradition teaches that we belong elsewhere. This world is a world in which we live in a fog. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to a community in conflict about the things of this world: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them to stop acting childishly and to quit dividing themselves over earthly matters. This is a place where we see the world, each other, and God dimly (like in a mirror from an age when a modern mirror would be a miracle). The world to which we belong and where we are headed is where we will see clearly and be seen clearly. The world to which we belong is one in which we shall come into our full being.

Thus, I am torn by the hymn. I love the hymn, the words of peace, and the seeking of understanding of other people. I also realize that Chrysostom might look at the differences between nations and see people whose eyes might rest better on the world to come than the goods and lands of this world. Neither we in this land nor those folks in other lands can carry the goods of this world to the next life.

This hymn may be one of those places where we must live in the tension between ideals. The older I grow, the more I come to see that life requires a bit more flexibility than I once carried in my idealistic youth. As a friend likes to say at church: “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”

Sermon: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises”

Message: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises”
Date: April 14, 2019
Scripture: Luke 19:28-40
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Luke 19:28-40, NRSV

We are entering Holy Week this morning and we hear that strange story of the palms and cloaks on the road into Jerusalem. We find Jesus entering Jerusalem and being hailed. We find angry religious leaders, excited disciples, and exuberant children of Israel. Today is a day of excitement and joy. We have been building up to this day since Jesus’ last liturgical appearance here. Jesus is born and enters the temple. Wonderful words of prophecy and hope. Going forth from next Sunday, we will see a new faith born out of the events of this week. There’s a reason this is called Holy Week. Holy Week is pivotal to the Christian faith.

“Palm Sunday in Spain,” 1873
by Jean-Georges Vibert French
Public Domain Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This week is pivotal not only in terms of church tradition but also it how it forms us. These stories change how we understand God. One of the reasons we encourage kids to attend Holy Week events is because they can change the way we see God and these stories in both their beauty and their sorrow teach us about the love of God.

Growing up, we were required at the Trinity United Methodist Church to go through a long confirmation process before we were offered membership. We were not alone as members of the church of all ages had several month process of education before you could join the church, but confirmands had to go through the whole Christian year together with their leaders before joining the church. We began in the fall during “Ordinary Time,” walked through Advent where we helped with Christmas programs for younger kids, took a retreat together in the season after Christmas, helped the church through Lent by taking part in helping lead Holy Week services, and finally entered membership on Pentecost.

The whole process was quite an experience, but in my memory this week was the most formative one. I remember trying to get my head around how you could receive such lavish praise one day and be crucified a few days later. When we stop to ask that question, there are a million and one reasons it might have happened.

  1. Was it a jealous religious leadership acting maliciously?
  2. Were the wrong people in Jerusalem the day Herod brings Jesus before the crowd?
  3. Was Herod sick and tired of dealing with the locals and literally washed his hands of them?
  4. Were Jesus’ teachings being heard by ordinary folks who realized they required a lot more than a welcome parade?

These ideas a few ideas of many and it may have been a combination of these things and more, but I remember looking on these moments of extreme difference and being puzzled.

I grew up near Buffalo during the years of Jim Kelly’s leadership of the Buffalo Bills, so I knew how fickle fame could be. Scott Norwood was a villain, Frank Reich was a hero, and the week before Norwood missed the kick during the Super Bowl he was awesome and the week before Reich led one of the greatest comebacks in history, he was riding the bench. I know that fame can be fickle, but this was more than that level of fickle behavior.

Something happens during Holy Week I have spent decades trying to figure out. In many ways, the curiosity and awe inspired by Holy Week led to me becoming a minister. I want to draw your attention to another passage. In Luke 20:17-19, we find these words:

“What then does this text mean:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

Luke 20:17-19, NRSV

Now, context matters, so this passage immediately follows a parable Jesus tells about the owner of a vineyard who leases out the property while he goes on a long journey. The owner sends to the people leasing the vineyard a servant after many years away. The tenants will not pay. They beat the servant and send him away. They beat the next servant who comes. Finally, the landlord sends his son. The tenants kill the son to try to benefit from the son’s death.

The religious leaders understand that Jesus is telling a story about them. They are furious and that upsets them, but what’s interesting is that old quotation. It comes from Psalm 118:19-22:

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;

the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

Psalm 118:19-22, NRSV

The religious leaders object to Jesus being given such praise on the day we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. The religious leaders question him and he refers to a coronation psalm. Jesus, being questioned about the goodness of his deeds and teachings, tells them that the gates should be open, that God’s salvation is near, and that the very thing the builders have rejected will become the chief cornerstone upon which salvation will be built.

Over the years, I have never really wrapped my head around all the events of Holy Week. I believe part of the Christian walk is this ongoing attempt to contemplate, ponder, and meditate over these days. I understand this though: today we celebrate the entrance into Jerusalem by Christ. Christ is who the people need and not who the people want. Jesus is the foundation of the future they need and a breaking from what the people imagined.

On this day, we celebrate Jesus entering a city built upon generation after generation of people doing their best. Jesus will enter a temple of ornate stone and beautiful worship. Jesus will smell the scents, see the people, see the abuses of the temple, and will teach. The very person the people need will be the one who is rejected. The very stone upon which the future will be built must first be rejected.

If this sermon seems like only a bit of the story of Holy Week, it is because this is only one part. As we enter Holy Week, I want to challenge you to come back to church before next Sunday. Come Thursday night and ponder Holy Communion over a meal. Come Friday to hear the story and empty the sanctuary. Come by yourself and read the gospel stories during one of the quiet days when Wide Horizons is on break and you’ll find Teagen and myself working away in our office. Interrupt me to ask questions. I promise I won’t mind as I may be pondering the same things myself. Grab your Bible and take a long walk with it. I invite you to enter further into the story.

Take time this week. Meanwhile, contemplate this: We often never know what we need until the moment is past. Like those people long ago, we may believe Christ is coming into our lives to do what we expect. If Holy Week teaches us one thing, it is that Christ comes and will be Christ. Let us welcome Christ into our lives. Let us pray…

“Foraging Hope” Sermon

Sermon: “Foraging Hope”
Date: March 31, 2019
Scriptures: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (lectionary)
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them…”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, NRSV

We’re in the midst of the season of Lent. This is a season of contrition, soul searching, and personal discipleship. As we have gathered in church during this season we have focused on looking at our approach to this season as being like a journey into the wilderness. Today we come across one of the more famous parables in Jesus’ teachings. What could this story have to do with a journey into the wilderness? How can it inform our journey? Well, let us look at these words to find a way into both the text and the season. Before we begin, let us pray:

Life-giving God, You are Parent to all of us. We come to today’s scriptures and find Jesus telling a story about a father. As our Parent, these words can teach us about You. Open our eyes and our hearts to Your wise Spirit as we approach these texts. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friends, this is a season of contrition and redemption. We come across a story today of Jesus spending time with the least of the least. Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, is spending his time with tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors worked for the oppressors of the Jewish people. The sinners were the people who did not obey the laws and teachings of the religious leaders.

We find Jesus being grumbled about by the Pharisees and the scribes–the people who taught the religious laws and the people who copied the texts. The people grumbling were the people who should have known God as well as anyone could know God. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, this is the group of folks who will spearhead the events of Good Friday.

Here in the season of Lent we find ourselves facing Jesus’ worst critics. We found ourselves in a strange place because Jesus responds to their criticism with a parable containing three perspectives. There is a selfish son who finds redemption, a loving father who is forgiving, and an elder brother who seemingly will not forgive and accept his brother home.

It begs a question: Who are we supposed to be paying attention to in the story? This parable, known as the parable of the prodigal son is further complicated by the evolution of the word prodigal over time. Prodigal once meant abundantly generous but has shifted since the phrase “prodigal son” was written into the title of the parable to mean either wasteful or errantly wandering.

The Prodigal Son, ca. 1496
Albrecht Dürer
Public Domain courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We could focus our attention on the younger son. His story is a story of redemption which fits well into the Lenten narrative. He has gone off into the world, made mistakes, and comes home with contrition and humility. This message is a good message for those of us who have been wandering the wilds of our lives in need of redemption.

We could focus our attention on the father. He waits at the road, sees his son coming from far off, and runs to meet him. He is a loving and forgiving father. He celebrates the return of his son. Surely, as Christians we should see this as teaching about the way God meets us on the road. Perhaps we even see the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday in grief, only to be met by the resurrected Christ who breaks bread with them. Surely, this would be a great message.

Either of those would be wonderful messages. I would ask a question with you: should we not stop to ask why this passage points out those grumbling religious leaders? Why are they here if the parable has such an obvious application?

Did you ever stop to wonder why the elder son was upset? The text stops to mention he has never even been given a goat to celebrate with his friends, but have you ever stopped to think about his frustration? The father has given his brother his share of the inheritance and it has been squandered. The father has reason to be mad. The brother has wound up in one of the lowest of the low places for a good Jewish boy–longing to eat the food of something shunned by his people. His brother has lost everything including his self-respect. What is making this elder brother upset?

We could say something to the effect of “being welcomed home means he will now receive another portion of the inheritance.” That might be true. We could also say the elder son is offended on behalf of his father. That also might be true. Both are reasonable responses and if that is what you wish to take away, please do so with my blessing.

I wonder if the issue is one of a scarcity mindset. If we are on a journey through life, I think we can all say we have had days when it feels as if we have barely made it through. I have had difficult days when it felt like I only made it to bed crawling on my knees. In fact, there have been days when I have only made it to bed that way when my back went out or was sick.

There are days when we go through the wilderness of life and finding it a bleak place. We look for figs on fig trees like the gardener in last week’s sermon but there is no fruit. We look for fish in the streams and we find nothing. We look for sustenance and it feels like we barely make it through.

Then we see them in the distance. The other people. We have scraped and saved while they have spent money, more money, and more money. We have fought to keep our family together and they party it up. We have tried to raise our children, have a few close friends, and maybe have enough to go get goat curry with our spouse every now and again when they come waltzing through the wilderness.

We see them in the distance and there may be part of us that jumps to judgment. We see them in the distance and we may wish to lash out. What are they doing here? Who do they think they are coming here? This is my house, this is my community, this is my church… We see them in the distance and it may tempt us to rush to grumble.

The Pharisees and scribes are often set up in Christian stories as terrible people, but let me ask you: should we always identify with the prodigal son? Yes, we may sit here as a forgiven people, but should we always connect with that part of the story? Should we identify with the forgiving father who forgives? Perhaps, sometimes we should. Is it possible we are being asked to connect with the elder son?

A little authorship note for those of you who may find meaning in this fact. Luke and Acts are often considered to have been written by the same author. If they were written about the same time, we have learned something important. The scribes and Pharisees are a part of a Jewish people. The Jewish people who came to faith in Christ became one part of a multicultural faith that had begun to spread over the world. Acts records the apostles heading out into the world and they do that quickly. Some people note that apostles reach out to the ends of Asia, throughout Africa, and out into Europe. The entire eastern hemisphere is beginning to hear about Jesus.

We look at the scribes and Pharisees and we see bullies, but by the time this book is written… Scholarship tells us Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees and scribes are effectively homeless, and the Jewish faith is going through a massive re-envisioning. What if they are not the bullies? What if they are not the only ones who do not understand?

The thing about the elder brother we rarely notice is that he has his own story. He sees his brother go, he sees his brother come, and he is upset. Has he ever known deprivation? Chances are he has never had to suffer intensely. You only have a fatted calf if you can afford to have a fatted calf. He and his father are not living in a place of famine like the land where his younger brother travels. The younger son has been humiliated but when he shows up, there are extra robes and rings just waiting for him. If you can afford to have such luxuries lying around in an agrarian or farming culture, you are not in want.

The older brother is furious, is standing outside the circle of blessing, and is grumbling in the fields. All that the father has is his elder son’s, but the story ends with the father pleading for his son to come home to celebrate. The scribes and Pharisees may grumble in this moment, may celebrate as Jesus suffers, but by the time this book is written… They must find their own way.

A few years ago a movie came out called “The Passion of the Christ” and one of the great fears is that it would stoke anti-Semitism. It was a powerful portrayal of the crucifixion story which took liberties, but one reality is that texts like the statements before this parable have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. People see it and say “Look! They’re grumbling! They must hate Jesus.”

I think we miss something here. The elder son has his own story to live out. By the time this book is written, there are likely sections of the church who look at the Jewish people with all the scorn they see in the actions of the scribes and Pharisees: “They had a chance! They could have done better! What a bunch of fools! First, they kicked us out of synagogues, sent out people to arrest us, and now their temple is gone and now they’re the ones who have no place to go.”

The thing is that throughout Christian history, we have often forgotten that the gospels were recorded not just as histories and not just as teachings, but as living stories. We miss warnings in plain sight. Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

By the time these stories were collected, the Christian people are the ones who have begun to have their own communities and belief. By the time the church gathered to formalize some of their theology in 325 at Nicea, the Jewish people have been without their temple for nearly 180 years. By today, it has been almost 1,950 years since the temple fell. If we look at this text and we find a reason to justify anti-Semitism, we have failed to learn the same lesson offered to the elder son. We have failed to understand love, compassion, and grace.

The challenging thing is that the faith is still growing. United Methodists, some of our struggles come out of the fact that our faith is growing in places with different cultures with different values. Do we stand there grumbling in the fields? I know it is more complicated than that generalization, but we still should ask ourselves if we are standing in the fields.

Friends in the UCC, your denomination has been battling for inclusion and openly aiming to welcome LGBTQIA+ folks to the table. You are battling racism and seeking equality and justice. What of the conservative voices and people who do not understand what you are talking about? Do we stand in the field when they come home to God both dazed and confused? As the culture shifts around, are there times when you realize the doors have not been as open as they should be or the welcome not as exuberant?

Progressive Methodists, we should ask the questions I pose to the UCC folks. Conservative UCC friends, we should ask how we stay in ministry with those of a radically different culture or mindset from your own. Not a single one of these questions is not a question I do not ask myself.

It has been nearly 2,000 years of life for the Christian Church. We have had rough moments but there has always been food out there in the wilderness. We may not have always received the goat to celebrate with our friends, but our faith, our community, and our kin-dom has survived through thick and thin. We are a people who have been blessed for generation upon generation. Can we throw open the doors to the next generation? Can we be so bold as to see each other in the wilderness and have faith that there is enough hope out here for us all? Let us pray…

Sermon: “Wildness”

Message: Wildness
Date: March 17th, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:31-35
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Today we’re headed further into Lent. This season we’re looking at the season like a trip into the wilderness. We established last week that the wilderness is not always a place of deprivation. There is wisdom to be learned out there in the wilds.

Today we are looking at one of the harder realities of wandering into the wild. In the real world, the wild can be a dangerous place. In our own hearts we can come across some frightening things sometimes. What does Jesus’ journey teach us about those moments? Hopefully, we will glean some wisdom this morning, but first let us pray a prayer that is most appropriate for today. This particular version is from a book called “Irish Blessings” which I purchased in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is one of the many versions of St. Patrick’s Breast Plate. I invite you to pray it with me:

Christ be with me,
Christ be within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

St. Patrick’s Breast Plate from “Irish Blessings

We are looking today at the concept of wildness. I live here in the town of Maine and I have been walking around a lot praying recently. I am not walking as a part of my Lenten devotions. I have simply had a lot to pray over with the events of the world and in my denomination.

At least several times a week, I don my trusty hat, head lamp, grab a couple of plastic bags to attend to my dogs’ needs, and head out around the block. Normally we go around three times: once for each dog and once by myself.

I sometimes wonder if the dogs get bored with smelling the same places, marking the exact same spots, and being forced to sit on the cold ground each time a car comes by in the dark. I wonder if they tire of the same dogs barking desperately from the same yards, but we keep on walking the same path.

Why? I would love to head up into the hills, but I have been warned. When I first got here, there were stories of wild cats up in the woods above town. I do not know about that, but there are hungry creatures out in those woods, and my sheltie would be an easy snack for most of them. He isn’t the most vicious of creatures. Let’s be frank: the dog is a pushover.

Not exactly the toughest dog…

We stay in the valley because it is fairly safe. Besides the occasional loose dog, car driving a bit fast, and that one rabbit that keeps driving my dogs crazy, the valley is a fairly tame place. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were to go off into those hills.

I pondered this as I read this week’s text. We’re looking at the season of Lent as a journey into the wilderness. We are not talking about the wilderness outside ourselves. Lent is a journey into the wilderness of the soul. Just as Jesus wandered into the wilderness for forty days, we set aside these forty days to wander into our wilderness.

Here’s a simple truth: a journey into the wilderness will lead to personal challenge and difficult things. There are places in our souls that are often well worn, safe, and generally familiar if not routine paths. When we intentionally step out of our comfort zone, there are wild parts in all of us.

Let me give an easy example from my own story. Friday night I lay awake in bed. I am following John Wesley’s example and fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays this Lent, although I am doing a partial fast. I do not eat chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, or pork on those days. I also try to eat a little less than usual on those days.

Friday was a long day, and I found myself laying in bed dreaming of hamburgers. I lay in my bed with my phone and found myself googling recipes for potted anchovies to put on crackers. I was that hungry! I had eaten a few slices of cucumber as a snack only a few hours before bedtime. Surely that should have been enough, but my stomach growled. I wanted meat, and I wanted it right then. Enough of fasting, I wanted protein and I wanted it now. I was ravenous. I was hungry.

When we wander off of our normal paths by doing simple things even as small as cutting back, we find ourselves to be far wilder than we expected. If that’s what cutting back on a little extra food does to me, can you imagine how hard it can be when we come across the parts of ourselves that growl in our wilderness.

What happens when we come across a place in ourselves that needs to forgive? If a little of hunger can come across as an angry little sheltie barking at me for sacrificing something so small for Christ, what do you think the wolf of anger looks like as it slobbers in our wilderness? It takes a little more than saying “I need you to let it go” when those sharp teeth start slobbering.

The journey into ourselves will bring us across parts of ourselves that are not easy to deal with on our own. I am reminded of the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. Carl Sandburg wrote the following poem called “Wilderness:”

“There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.”

Wilderness” by Carl Sandburg

There is a wilderness inside all of us and the Lenten journey can bring it out. In the terms of Carl Sandburg, we run the zoo inside ourselves. To be honest, one of the reasons I believe that Lent is an important season is that it brings us into contact with that wildness inside us all. Lent teaches us about ourselves which is important because of a simple truth.

Everyone in the scriptures from Eve and Adam, to Sarah and Abraham, to Job, to Ezra, to Nehemiah, to King David, to Elijah, to Deborah, to Esther, to Paul of Tarsus, to Simon Peter, to Timothy, and even Jesus all faced moments where they had things go terribly wrong. We do not have records of all of those moments, but they all faced their challenges.

Deborah the Judge had to lead a nation unaccustomed to women in leadership. Esther was faced with decisions that could cost her life in order to save her people. Peter had to deal with shame after running after the cock crowed. Paul had to deal with the fact that he came to faith in Christ and was nearly shunned by his newly beloved family which he had harmed deeply. Each had moments where everything went wrong and it was by faith that each found their way through. Let’s be clear, sometimes they did not make it through without failure. King David clearly didn’t do well with women or the husband of one whom he sent to his death.

If the people of the Bible struggled with their own wolves, bears, and tigers, shouldn’t we expect the same? Lent is a season when we begin to explore the wilderness of our souls because sooner or later we will come across events that will shove us out of our valleys. When we come across the hungry wolves in our hearts, it can literally be life saving to have taken time to practice and learn our own strengths and weaknesses.

Spiritual formation may be over there… In the snowy woods…

So, how do we go about facing those challenges? I believe the first thing we must do is to stick to the course. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) that: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Our challenges, whether they be yappy shelties that want something to eat or wolves of anger–there is nothing so wild that it is unique to our lives. Some of the things we face may seem beyond our capability, but ask yourself this: What if Paul is right? What if you can overcome? What if we all could overcome?

Look at what Jesus is facing in today’s scripture reading. The Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him that Herod, the local king, wants him dead. They tell him to flee. First off, let’s be clear. This is coming from the Gospel of Luke and in Luke 23:8 we are told that Herod had long wanted to see Jesus so he could perform a sign. He and his soldiers mock Jesus along with the scribes and Pharisees, but Herod does not seem to want to kill Jesus at all. The Pharisees are lying to Jesus.

Jesus says he cannot die outside Jerusalem, mourns for Jerusalem, but still continues on his way. In the gospel of Luke it will be a long time until he reaches Jerusalem. He has a journey ahead of him, is already facing opposition, and will need to walk right into it.

One of the key truths passed down by the church is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. What that means in this case is that Christ is experiencing a human life. Do you believe that Jesus would not have faced his own worries in these moments? Do you wonder if he wouldn’t like all that power offered as a temptation in the wilderness when the very people he loves are trying to deceive and threaten him? As a human, I know I’d want that power in that moment. The wilderness temptation would ring in my ears like a gong.

So, here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t give in to desire or fear. He continues on his way. If Lent is the season of following the footsteps of Jesus, then we should note a few things about where Jesus’ journey goes from here:

First, Jesus remains committed to love. Even as he knows Jerusalem will be his end, Jesus is depicted as loving that city. She will be his end and yet Jesus longs to cradle her like a mothering hen cradles her chicks. Jesus does not react to those who will harm him with anger. Jesus responds with love.

Responding with love to a broken world is hard. When we go on our Lenten journey there are places where we will come across parts of the world, our neighbors, and even ourselves which seem dead set to foil us. Jesus responds with love. Should we seek to do anything less?

Second, Jesus goes forward despite the challenge: he doesn’t give up. There is a good deal of his journey ahead of him. He will face more trials and more tribulations. Despite the fact the pharisees threaten him, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. In chapter fourteen, the very next chapter, we find Jesus going to share a Sabbath meal with one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Jesus does not surrender to his fear but stays the course.

Third, Jesus remembers his journey isn’t a journey that he takes alone. Jesus walks the path with his disciples, who are not a perfect bunch of people. Jesus makes the journey with a community of faith and that is important for us to remember. The journey of Lent can often seem a lonely journey, but that is a misconception. It is easy to give in to the temptation to feel alone, but we are called to remember that we were called into community.

It seems strange to say, but one of the most important things we can do as a community during the season of Lent is to be together as a church. I am not simply talking about being together Sunday morning. Sharing a cup of tea with the person from another pew, praying for that neighbor who is struggling with cancer, or even stopping by the church office for a cup of tea with your pastor. All of these things can be important things we experience on this journey of faith through Lent.

I advise us all to remember that one of the worst things we can do on this journey is to cut ourselves off from others. I have seen many beloved family members in Christ either disconnect from community, become apathetic about remaining with their spiritual family, or “pick up their toys and go home” when life or community becomes difficult. Those approaches have almost never led to anything good for either the community or the individuals. The spiritual life is far better in community. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV) reminds us:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NRSV

Now let’s be clear, this is a season where we find the wild parts of ourselves, but the wild will come into our lives even outside of this season. These simple ways of following Christ’s example can be lifesaving ways of being even outside of these moments. So, even after this season, when the challenges of life snarl in your direction:

  1. Don’t react with panic–as much as possible respond with love.
  2. Stay the course despite the challenges
  3. Don’t isolate yourself: remain connected to God and church.

We all must face our own challenges. To go back to the source of our opening prayer and reference a likely apocryphal story, we may find ourselves in a land full of snakes. Like St. Patrick we are sometimes asked a question: Will the snakes drive you out of your island or will you drive the snakes out? As beloved children of our Creator, as followers of Christ’s example, and with the good counsel of our Advocate, the choice is before us.

Let us pray…

“Her forehead” Poem

A few weeks ago I sat with a sick infant in the depths of night. Wet cloth cooling a fever from the now rare chicken pox. I rocked and contemplated what we would do if the fever spiked again. It was dark in that room in more ways that one.

A few weeks ago I sat with a parent in grief over an upcoming surgery. A sweet child in need of care. I contemplated her struggle and prayed for more than just the child. I prayed for my own forgiveness because I was grateful my child was not the one in need of that care.

A few weeks ago I sat and ate elementary school spaghetti. It was exactly how I remembered it. We sat, laughed, talked, and even danced as we tried to support some friends’ family in their hour of need. I could stomach school spaghetti far easier than letting my friends feel they were alone after caring for a baby who spent a lot of time in the NICU.

Yesterday I saw the ash on her forehead and I realized that she was mortal too. Today she is well but one day she will be in God’s hands. My heart broke as I realized a truth that had been walking through the edges of my soul.

On the day of ash
We contemplate our own path
Down through our life’s end.
Easier to see your own
Than on your daughter’s sweet face.

“Her Forehead” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Preparing for Advent

I am slowly entering the season of Advent. I know that Thanksgiving is still a week away. I am aware that the first Sunday of Advent is December 2nd this year. I know that today is not even halfway into November. I am still getting ready for the season.

This Advent I am planning on working through two devotionals from Upper Room Books. One devotional I am planning on working through is “Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent” by Pamela Hawkins. I am planning on spending time with Simply Wait in my personal devotions. Thoughts that are borne out of my time with that book will probably find a place on my blog.

Digital and Print Devotionals

I am also planning on working through “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer: A Simply Centered Advent” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner with both my family and the Adult Sunday School class. Effectively, it is a book with a lot of coloring and prayer involved. Most of the time I spend in this book will probably end up staying with me.

I share my plan with the world for a reason. I do not intend to brag. My intention is to prepare myself for the journey ahead. I also share my plan with the world hoping someone might begin to think about how they plan to spend their Advent season. If you’re blessed enough to have the resources to get a book, now may be the time to order a book, find a book, or even find a reading plan for the season.

I grew up hearing about the five P’s of planning: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Occasionally a sixth P would find her way in with the other five P’s if I was in a more informal setting (Boy Scout camping trips in the woods). As much as I do not believe in burying one’s thoughts too deeply into the future, there’s wisdom to the five P’s. If you need time to plan, this is a reminder to get ready!

Let Us Ramble: On Hymnody

This past Sunday in church every parishioner was handed two poker chips. Do not fret, my friends—we are not running a gambling ring in the Fellowship Hall. Each parishioner was given a white chip and a red or blue chip for a straw poll. Six jars were set out in the Fellowship Hall and people were invited to place their chips in six jars. The jars were labeled: Tradition, Social Justice, Daily Practices, Historical Context, Personal Practices, and Theology.

The white chips were statements that they were really interested in a subject and would like to hear more about the subject in the months to come. The red and blue chips meant that a person would like to hear more, but not as much as the jar in which they put their white chips.

The poll ended up as follows:

pubchart

What was fascinating about the poll was that there were a ton of “white chip” requests for information on tradition. In the case of this poll tradition was described as: “Where do the things we do as a Christian people come from? What stories rest behind things like hymns, traditional prayers, or even what in other traditions we might call the ‘smells and bells’ of worship?”

So, I am starting to look deeper into things like the nature of the music we sing. A few years back I picked up a book by Richard Mouw and Mark Noll entitled “Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History & Theology” (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004). Sadly, I have not taken the time to read it through. I picked up the book, found it fascinating, started to read it, and became distracted by work matters. I lost track of my progress in the book during the reappointment which was the distracting event, but as there is sincere interest in how our hymns came to influence our worship, I have finally begun to take the necessary time required to properly digest the book.

In the first chapter, which is entitled “The Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism,” Mark Noll begins by sharing the contents of a letter from 1731 which was written by Philip Doddridge to Isaac Watts. Writing on the events of a midweek service, Doddridge shared how tears were shed over a hymn written by Watts entitled “Give Me the Wings of Faith to Rise.” According to “Wonderful Words of Life,” Doddridge wrote “I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it.”

According to Noll, the key to the power of hymns was that “Ordinary believers had begun to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song” (p. 4). I find this interesting because of a number of characteristics and generalizations that I have heard and sometimes agreed with about hymns.

First, hymns are theology heavy. Theology, if you go deep enough into the etymology, is “an account or discussion of the divine.” Coming forward through time, theology ties itself into concepts like a philosophical study of the divine or the scientific study of how the divine interacts with humanity, but all ties back to a basic concept. Theology is essentially an account (or a collection of differing accounts) of how the divine relates to humanity.

When I say that hymns are theologically heavy, they speak a lot about concepts of the relationship between humanity and the divine. Let’s look at the hymn by Isaac Watts which we have already mentioned. One verse of “Give me the Wings of Faith to Rise” states: “We ask them whence their victory came: they, with united breath, ascribe their conquest to the Lamb, their triumph to his death.”

In this verse we see references to the conquest of the Lamb of God, imagery used heavily in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 5 reveals the Lamb of God and is filled with praise for God. Revelation 5:9-10 states: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered nad by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Watts’ verse ties heavily into the concepts of Revelation and especially into concepts like those in these verses of scripture.

These concepts are deep concepts tied into a deep reading of scripture. The lamb of God is referenced many times in scripture and by tying in the conception of Jesus as the lamb of God, the hymn ties into that legacy and modality of scripture. The richness of theology in just a few lines shows in many way exactly how deep hymns can be in their expression of conceptions of how God relates to humanity.

Second, hymns move quickly over concepts which are very rich. Let me connect this idea with a concept in enjoying food, which I know will be a huge surprise to people who know me or this blog. I recently had the pleasure of sharing my first piece of Limburger cheese with my wife. Limburger has a bad reputation. I found the cheese to be aromatic, if not outright pungent. The taste was complex and required a slow enjoyment to get all of the flavors and notes out of the cheese. Enjoying the Limburger took time, slowness, and the desire to enjoy something I have heard disparaged most of my life.

In my opinion, it would be nearly criminal to take a big piece of Limburger, shove it in your mouth, and swallow it down with a big gulp of something to mask the flavor. If you were to do that, I would hope that the food police would come and give you a citation for doing something in poor taste… Why, yes, that was a dry and terrible pun.

IMG_2119.JPG

I will happily accept free samples of other Limburger brands… I’m shameless when it comes to tasty cheese!

Hymns are full of flavor like a fine cheese. They have richness and depth which cannot be rushed. It is hard to miss the depth of a praise chorus where a single line might be repeated forty times in a single worship service, but if you blink you might miss some of the depth found in one of the hymns.

This depth makes sense when you consider the context of a lot of these hymns. Families might own a Bible if they were fortunate, but the hymns they might sing came out of a hymnal which was often printed and shared with folks on a regular basis. In an age before radio and television, they might sing hymns after dinner, sing hymns at the midweek prayer service, and sing hymns on Sunday. While our hymnals live in the church and are often opened only on Sunday morning, the hymnals of the time which Mark Noll writes about were hymnals that were used often. Even if folks did not own a hymnal or could not read it, through regular repetition the deep theology would be shared and taught in deep rooted ways. Even the least literate church members would learn their faith through slow enjoyment of something which was sung regularly and deeply.

Third, hymns were methods of education. We’ve already touched on the how these hymns taught deep concepts. What I am trying to express here is that these hymns were intentionally designed as tools to educate folks about more than just theological ideas. Hymns were sung and tied into the Christian year in ways that mutually assisted teaching about the Christian year. Every spring the church would sing songs of Lenten concepts and then resurrection. Every winter the church would sing songs of Advent and Christmas. The concepts taught in the church tied into the concepts sung by church members. Together they would educate folks about the Christian year in a mutually beneficial way until it became second nature.

This is still true in a lot of traditional churches. Is it Christmas Eve if we don’t sing Silent Night? What does Silent Night tells us about God? What does “Silent Night” teach us about our relationship with God? Does singing Silent Night change the way we live around family members who may make us want to be less than silent and less than filled with heavenly peace? Is it Easter if we don’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? Can it be Palm Sunday without “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”?

What’s interesting in all of this is Mark Noll’s conception. Hymns took off in popularity because they gave voice to ordinary believers and helped them to express their beliefs through song. Strangely enough, one of the criticisms I hear most about hymns is that they are not accessible to ordinary people. Their language is often filled with strange terms, their pace is too fast, and they are sung to sheet music, which is often something only accessible to people who have had access to an education with music as an emphasis. In many ways, the original strength of hymns is now the challenge.

When the most popular praise songs can be heard on Christian radio twice an hour and we might sing the same hymns two or three times a year, hymns lose their ability to be the songs of the people. So, why do we stick with hymns? Perhaps it is stubbornness, but I tend to believe it is because there are those who still enjoy the depth, the legacy, and the history of hymns. Perhaps, with time, we will find ways to instill hymns back into the regular life of the church. Until then, perhaps they should be appreciated as what they remain—a connection to a vibrant and deep past.