Stay Awake! Snow is Coming!

Today I woke up to a white lawn. The sidewalks were slushy, the streets were salted, and my older kids wanted to build a snow fort. The residual heat of the world would reveal the lawn in a few hours. The sidewalks barely needed salting. It was beautiful this morning.

Snow comes suddenly!

I pondered the snow as I prayed my morning prayers. The gospel passage this morning included Matthew 24:36-42. Matthew 24 is a section of that gospel which is very eschatological. In simpler terms, Matthew 24 speaks of the events many Christians believe will come at the end of this age. Matthew 24:36-42 stuck in my mind and I contemplated it throughout my day. In the New Revised Standard version, Matthew 24:36-42 reads:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

As I contemplated the passage, I found reasons why this passage might have stuck in my mind. I am preparing for Advent, the beginning of the Christian year which follows the end of the Christian year in the cycle of the Christian calendar. As a result, every time I have approached questions of the end of days as part of the Christian year the weather has been cool. I have repeatedly read these passages while watching snow fall. The falling of snow marks the return to the theme of Christ’s return.

I also believe my mind stuck on this passage because of my anticipation of the first snowfall. Winter will become miserably cold and mucky. The first snowfall is still beautiful and wondrous. You never know when it will come until it is practically upon you. Sure, you can check the meteorologist’s predictions, but those predictions are not always reliable.

Regardless, my thoughts remained with this passage. I pondered how people continue to live their lives in an often misguided world. People still get married, still feast over normal things, and still live ordinary lives. Let me be forthright. I still enjoy a good meal, still live life as a married man, and continue to work through ordinary things. Life has continued on from one day to the next every day of my life.

Still, Christ’s words ring out. Stay awake! Stay alert! Shortly after this passage there are several more eschatological parables. There is a story of bridesmaids waiting for a groom with lamps. There is a tale of two servants entrusted with the running of a household. There is a parable of three servants entrusted with three different sets of funds. These parables ring out! Stay awake! Stay alert!

It can be incredibly easy to slip from the narrow path. It can be as easy as drifting out of a lane when driving while tired. We are called to stay awake. The lines on the road of life keep passing us by, the steering wheel sits easily in our hands, and the seat can be comfortable. Still, we must stay awake! No matter how many miles, no matter how many days, no matter how long the journey, we are called to stay awake!

A passage earlier in Matthew 25 marks this lesson’s importance. Jesus says in Matthew 25:6-8:

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various place: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

I see these foretold rumors and wars as a part of everyday life. I hear of potential schisms in my church, confrontations within my country’s government, and conspiracy theories regularly. In stressful times it is easy to forget our principles. We must stay awake and live in faith. We must stay alert and live in hope. We must stay alert and live in love. We must stay awake.

The snow of our lives may fall at any moment, so stay awake! Nobody knows the number of their days. Nobody knows the number of our days. Stay alert! Stay awake!

Wisdom at Chenango Bridge

Last night I went to an event hosted by my bishop at the Chenango Bridge United Methodist Church. Bishop Webb came to our district to discuss the proposals headed to the Special Session of General Conference scheduled for this February. As I entered the space, I was frazzled. I had believed the event started at 6:00 PM. I arrived on time because my wife is far more focused and capable of remembering times than me. I was tired and suffering exhaustion from a budget meeting after a morning of study and worship.

Let me admit that I was anxious about the meeting. I had hoped to sit with a friend who was unable to attend. I had hoped the meeting was later so I could relax over dinner before entering a space of shared anxiety. I came into the space tired on several levels.

Before I sat down to listen to the presentation, I said hello to Bishop Webb. He asked about my children. Bishop Webb has an excellent memory about such things. I may not agree with everything my bishop says or does, but I appreciate the way he expresses care to his clergy by knowing details about their family. We exchanged pleasantries. I took a seat where I could read the screen easily for the presentation.

There were a few minutes to kill, so I went through the library on my Kindle to see what might be interesting on my tablet. I recently replaced my Kindle. The library was sparse, but one downloaded book was a collection called “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner.

I recently have spent a lot of time going back to one of the more definitive translations upon which a lot of my Kindle collections of the Desert Ammas and Abbas rely. Benedicta Ward’s translation is normally a wonderful resource, but it is unfortunately not available on Kindle. I opened Paintner’s collection and went forward to the furthest place read. I read the next saying. I was surprised by the applicability of the saying. The next saying was:

“[Abba Nilus] said, ‘Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases, then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayers.’”

This ensnared me given the circumstances. I was in a room full of people who had gathered to listen to their bishop speak about a challenge before the church. There were people who did not know how they intend to perceive events in the years to come. There were people who knew their opinions and hold their convictions firmly. The saying of Abba Nilus was strong in a room filled with people who often want everything to turn out as they desire.

I know this was true of at least one person in the room. I am definitely from a place of personal experience. There have been many times I have sought to have things turn out in the way I desire. There are places I seek to have things turn out the way I desire. There are places I will probably seek to have things turn out the way I desire. I see this is a sign of my humanity. I do not pretend it does not exist.

Living in this self-knowledge, I found myself challenged by Abba Nilus from across the centuries. Do I need to seek that everything turn out as it should? When in a room with dozens of individuals, should I expect things to turn out the way I desire? Is it reasonable to expect that outcome?

More to the point, what is my purpose? Why do I seek to have my way? What if Abba Nilus is correct? What if surrendering my desire to God’s pleasure leads to thankfulness and peace in my prayers? Are those benefits worth more than having my way? Frankly, I believe these blessings are worth more than having my way.

The epistle known as Philippians has something to say about this reality. In the New Revised Standard Version, Philippians 4:6-7 says:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I entered the sanctuary of Chenango Bridge UMC with a sense of anxiety. Abba Nilus called me out on my attitude from across the centuries. As I reflected on the experience that call was confirmed by scripture and Spirit. I have already said I am not perfect in this blog post. Imperfections and all, I will seek to find that peace in these conversations.

I may not always find the peace perfectly. I will still seek that peace through prayer. When necessary, I hope that God will setup reminders to draw me back. Thank you God for Abba Nilus. May words from the past continue to draw me to You and to the scriptures.

IMG_3385.JPG

Today the blog was written on my Chromebook in front of the family aquarium, These Neon Tetras were very interested in reading about Abba Nilus. Maybe they’re kindred spirits?

The Value of Scripture

So, yesterday I posted a reflection on a verse from Psalm 57. I posted the reflection as my day had been improved by the time I spent in that psalm. I had been nervous and found comfort in that verse.

I found that verse within my morning prayers. On most days of the week, I listen to both the Morning and Evening Prayers broadcast through the internet from The Trinity Mission. I pray along with that podcast on a regular basis because it is a way I can enter into my devotions without using a set of eyes that can often become dry, irritated, and frustrating. I enjoy the time I spend listening to the scriptures and often find those prayers to be a wonderful way to start my day and a wonderful source of comfort as I rock my infant daughter to sleep in the midst of a cloud of prayer.

I often wonder if I am not clear enough in my ministry on the incredible value of regular immersion within the scriptures. On Sunday morning we do not have time to dive deeply into the scriptures and I often wonder if people think I believe that spending time in a passage or two each week is enough. Sometimes I wonder if they think those two or three small passages are all I spend my time studying each week. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I spend a lot of time in the scriptures. I do not share every passage I study, every chapter I read, or every thoughtful verse that I ponder. Like an iceberg, only a certain bit of what I spend my time studying, pondering, praying, ruminating, and reading comes to the surface. I often wonder if the analogy of a milk-cow might be fitting. The scriptures inform my ministry like the grass of a field fuels the milk that comes from the udders. Both are chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, and digested before coming to fruition in something to offer others.

Some of you might ask “Why go through all of that effort?” Would it be easier to just read a commentary or quote a blog? It would be easier, but the effort itself blessed others in my ministry and those who come across a person who is made better by his exposure to the wisdom of the scriptures. The scriptures and my time in them are a blessing.

Scripture is one of the primary means of revelation for the Living Word which we worship. The “Word of God” is often interpreted to be the scriptures, but the Bible is a revelation of THE WORD OF GOD revealed in Jesus Christ. It is incredibly important to spend time in the scriptures as they are one way that we have of coming to know the God of love. The more we expose ourselves prayerfully to the scriptures the more we can come to know God is ways that can affect our lives in powerfully wonderful ways. `

To be clear: The scripture is not God, but the scripture reveals God in the same way that the reflection in a mirror is not the thing itself, but a revelation of what it reflects. The scripture is an incredible tool and a wonderful means to know more about God, but the scripture is not the end goal of worship.

I found blessing and solace in Psalm 57 yesterday because I spend time in the scriptures regularly. Just as the power of the community of God grows through regular participation in the worship, service, and the rest of the life of the church, regular exposure to the scripture helps us to grow in faith, to find solace in times of need, and encouragement in times of blessing.

I recommend regularly engaging in Bible study, both together with others in community and in the lives of individuals as a wonderful and powerful means of grace! Times of study can be wonderful means to grow both personally and communally.

Under God’s Wings

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.”

—Psalm 57:1 (NRSV)

Tomorrow is election day in the United States. In our town of Maine, there are many choices to make between incumbents and challengers. With the political climate being as it has been lately, there is a lot of tension in many hearts and minds. What will happen if one candidate wins an election? What will happen if another candidate wins? Tension and anxiety are high.

I was pondering the reality of this election before entering morning prayer. The Psalm of the day in my prayers was Psalm 57. The first verse of the Psalm stuck with me. The imagery of the Psalm begins with the image of a petitioner asking God to be merciful as their soul takes refuge. This soul turns to God and seeks safety underneath the wings of God.

The imagery that stuck in my mind was one of a Parent providing safety for a child during a chaotic storm. Images floated through my brain of a robin spreading wings over nestlings during a rainstorm, a father penguin standing over his chick throughout a winter storm while his partner walks to the sea, or a mother goose protecting her goslings.

This imagery stuck in my mind when I finally reached my computer. I felt the urge to click on Facebook, to read the news, and do many of the things I told myself I would not do before Tuesday evening. I thought about what I might absorb from such an anxious world, thought of the imagery of the Psalm, and went about my day.

Tomorrow will be what tomorrow will be regardless of my anxiety. I will vote, I will pray, but I will not be afraid. God is greater than any storm and nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Tomorrow will come, tomorrow may end with me calling out, but tonight I shall trust that God’s wings are enough to shelter me.

IMG_3222

 

 

 

Two people named James on “Thoughts and Prayers”

I’m currently fighting a sore throat. I say this because the only medicine we had in the house was a “night-time” variety and my cough medicine is making things a bit hazy this morning. My office door is closed, I have disinfectant wipes at the ready, and I am here at my desk trying to sort through my thoughts.

The strange companions on my desk today. “Ugh drops” indeed… Clearly, the local store does not sponsor this blog. Actually, I’m the only one who sponsors this blog…

As a people, we live in challenging times. When I was a child, when we needed to learn something we had to talk to a teacher, go the library, or devise a way to find out on our own. My brother ran a dial up BBS (Bulletin Board System) in our home, but to be entirely honest, the BBS was more useful for playing video games than learning massive amounts of information. The internet may not have been in infancy, but it was certainly a toddler.

These days, we are flooded with information. This blog will reach places that my brother’s BBS would never have reached without a great deal of effort. We have more access to information and misinformation than ever. Facebook, my social media of choice, is filled with information which goes from completely factitious to unfortunately real in the space of a few swipes of a finger.

The world of information has expanded exponentially in my lifetime and I am only in my thirties. There is so much to see, so much to grasp, and only so much emotional energy with which to process it all. My brain may still be the most powerful computer I own, but it runs off of a reserve of energy that is tied to things like my mood, my mental health, my stomach, my body, and all other parts of me. A sore throat might not lessen the amazing processing power of my mind, but my focus is certainly not on the mysteries of the universe when it hurts when I swallow.

In a world that is overwhelming and complicated, it makes sense that sometimes it feels as if all we can do is offer “thoughts and prayers” when things are going awry in the world. What can I do about a bigoted law named HB 1369 stripping the right to vote from Native Americans half a country away in North Dakota when I cannot even talk on the phone without being in pain?

It makes sense, but there’s some part of me that feels a need to push back, even as my throat burns. Ironically, in Benedicta Ward’s compilation and translation “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” which is attributed to Abba James, who shares a name with a letter which also says something on the subject. In her translation, Benedicta Ward points out:

“[Abba James] also said, ‘We do not need words only, for at the present time, there are many words among men, but we need works for this is what is required, not words which do not bear fruit.”

These words are reminiscent of the words from the Letter of James. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), James 1:22-24 says:

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

For me, these words from the Letter of James relate directly to the words from Abba James which were shared centuries later. The letter calls out at people to become doers of the words. Hearing is wonderful, but there is something powerful about moving beyond hearing to acting. As Abba James points out, there are many who hear, many who speak, but not enough who act. This sentiment is forcefully and famously restated in James 2, where its says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We must connect our words and our deeds. How does that look when you are sitting in an office with a sore throat and trying not to give anything to a church full of preschoolers, teachers, and paid/volunteer church staff? Well, that is my question to answer for today. How will you respond to a world which needs you to do more than simply speak?

Moving past the Milk

Today I was pondering the scriptures. One of my regular habits is to spend my Monday afternoon going through various books and passages seeking a word for myself, for a congregation member, or for the community. I was reading through a passage from Hebrews 6 and found myself caught up in verses 1-3. Hebrews 6:1-3 says the following in the New Revised Standard Version:

“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.”

Now, I found this passage was catching my eye, so I stopped to ask why it caught my attention. I slowed down and checked context. Hebrews 6:7-8 states:

“Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.”

Going further on in the chapter, Hebrews 6 states in verses 10-13:

“For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

So, looking forward through the sixth chapter, we see a strong correlation between the warning (do not stay put), with a checking on the results (what is growing in your field), and a reassurance that God will not overlook the work and love of the audience, which is tied to the full assurance of hope.

This ties together with what follows this chapter as a conversation of Melchizedek, the priestly function, and the completeness of the work of our High Priest Jesus Christ. Indeed, the conversation continues until a “therefore” appears in chapter 10. In chapter 10, Hebrews is translated as saying: (10:19-25)

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

So, we have a call to move beyond the basics, a call to good works and love, and ultimately a “therefore” that encourages us to live life assured of faith with clean hearts. We are called not only to have hope, but to hold fast to our hope in the belief that Christ is faithful. From that place of faithfulness and confidence, we are called to ponder how we might provoke each other on toward further good deeds and love. This call to community, good deeds, and love is where we are called to go from the basics listed in Hebrews 6:1-3.

This is challenging, because there are many times in life when it seems easier to focus upon these basic matters. As a United Methodist minister, I am questioned regularly about how many people I get to confess their faith, join my church, and be baptized. There are entire ministries whose only goal seems to be leading others to this place of basic belief (in the eyes of Hebrews), and then to move on to the next person. “Once saved, always saved“ is a motto of some of those who believe this is the only call of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews challenges this belief in my sight. The writer says (immediately preceding the call to move forward in 6:1-3) of those who he is addressing (in chapter 5:11-14):

“About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”

What we need to move beyond… (Image: Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons))

These basic concepts that the authors of Hebrews is addressing (matters which have concerned the church for millennia and have been the cause of war, debate, and suffering) are listed as the simple matters which should be understood by those who have not progressed beyond the basics. The writer of Hebrews even seems to imply that those who do not progress beyond a focus on such things have a bit of “dullness” around them.

All of this begs the question. Where is God calling the church? Certainly we do not abandon the foundation of what we believe, but where is God calling us? Is it to endlessly repeat the basic foundational principles or to move on toward something greater? Where do those building blocks lead us? Do our ministries spur us on toward good works and love? If they spur us on toward hate or self-service, is it time to consider retooling or scraping those ministries altogether?

There are many things to ponder and I do not offer answers, but the question should be asked? Are we moving beyond the milk? If so, where are we headed?

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”
Date: June 24, 2018
Scripture: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note: This is the manuscript that I am preaching on today. There’s always space for unexpected leadings of the Spirit. In other words, I often wander off script.

Once upon a time, there were three bored kids on summer vacation. They look all around and all they could find to play with was a single quarter. One of the kids started flipping the quarter.

“You know,” she said, “every time I flip this coin it lands on heads.” She flipped the coin three times and it landed on heads all three times. The second kid asked for the quarter, looked at it, and said “I bet every time I flip it, it will land on tails.” The coin was flipped three times and, wouldn’t you know it, it landed on tails all three times.

The third kid asked for the coin. He looked at it long and hard. He weighed it in he hand, flipped it around in his hand a bit, and made up his mind. “You know, “ the third child said, “it might seem funny, but I think I just made twenty-five cents,” put the coin in his pocket and walked off. Somewhere, their parents’ hair grew a little grayer as the arguing began.

Of course, that story is meant as a joke, but I tell it for a very serious reason. Three kids each looked at the same coin. Two of the kids saw that there were only two possibilities. They were bored, and the coin would land on heads or tails every time. The coin was a distraction on a boring day. The third child saw the coin and saw twenty-five cents. The way they viewed the coin changed the way they acted with the coin. Their outlook affected the way they acted.

As funny as our story was meant to be, it gives us a way into a very common fact of life. The way we interact with the world is affected by the way that we see it. One bad experience with a dog can make you less than thrilled with the idea of meeting a new dog. The words your parents used in your youth to describe your neighbors can affect the way you see them and their children today. We are affected by our worldview and our worldview has an effect on how we read scriptures.

Let me ask a simple question every Christian should ask now and again. How does your outlook on life affect the way you read the scriptures? How does the way you read scripture affect the way you look at life? The assumption of church is often that the scriptures affect the way we live, but do we ever stop to look at how our lives affect the way we read those scriptures?

Let’s take today’s reading as example. Most of us who are a certain age or older have an image of this story, the story of David and Goliath. The image was put in place when we were young by stories in Sunday school and church camp. For me, the image I grew up with was a giant man who was just covered in muscles. The Israelites were afraid of Goliath because Goliath was tremendous. In honesty, David did not stand a chance against the Goliath in my mind’s eye. Goliath was big, strong, and powerful. David was just the youngest child of a large family and didn’t stand a chance. David’s place was where he was as the story begins. David was sent to deliver cheese, because how much trouble can a small kid get into with cheese?

The image I took away from the story was one of David overcoming tremendous odds. What’s strange is that the scriptures themselves do not really line up with that image. At least, they don’t line up when you pay close attention to the science behind the story.

The tallest man alive, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is Sultan Kösen (K-ay-sen). He was, when measured in 2011, eight foot, 2.8 inches tall. The man named Goliath described in our scriptures had nearly a foot and a half on Mr. Kösen. He was really, really tall. Now what makes that interesting, is that every inch of Goliath has weight. There are several formulas used to calculate the proper weight of an individual by height, but assuming that Goliath was 25, Goliath should have weighed:

If based on the Robinson formula (1983), the ideal weight is 353.4 lbs
If based on the Miller formula (1983), the ideal weight is 301.1 lbs
If based on the Devine formula (1974), the ideal weight is 399.3 lbs
If based on the Hamwi formula (1964), the ideal weight is 445.1 lbs
All of this means, based on one healthy BMI recommendation, his recommended weight is 360.2 lbs – 486.8 lbs.

Think about that for a moment. Assuming the lowest ideal body weight, the body weight which would have the most muscle with the least fat, Goliath would have weighed more than 300 pounds, been carrying over 150 pounds of armor, had likely more than 20 pounds of weaponry with just his spear, and that isn’t counting other clothes, his leg-guards, his helmet, his javelin, or even his shield, provided his shield-bearer wasn’t carrying it, which seems likely as a shield would have really helped when David started launching stones.

What’s more interesting is when we apply another formula from modern science to the breastplate which Goliath wears. A study by the American Association of Physics Teachers suggested a surprising conclusion when studying backpacking individuals who carry large backpacks over a period of time. Let’s be clear, the weight would be carried on the back instead of the front in a backpacking situation, but the challenge of Goliath did take place over several days.

According to the article in “The Physics Teacher” entitled “Backpack Weight and the Scaling of the Human Frame” by Michael O’Shea, there’s a revelation about a common misconception. The misconception is this: one imagines that a larger person can carry more weight comfortably than a smaller individual. When a person at 220 pounds looks at a healthy individual whose Body Mass Index (their BMI) is not overweight, one would expect that they could carry more than a healthy individual with the same BMI who weighed only 132 pounds.

Unfortunately, the science of our assumptions do not add up. O’Shea studied people on intensive hiking trips for over twenty years and found that the 132 pound students on his trips tended to have an easier time carrying the weight than the healthy larger individuals who went into the woods. When he did the science, which I will not repeat here, he found that the weight of the individuals did not correlate with the amount they could carry. A person with significantly more musculature at 220 pounds than a person who weighed only 132 pounds struggled significantly with the same weight in their backpack.

You might ask how that could be. They have another 88 pounds which is composed primarily of muscle. How could they struggle to carry the same weight backpack as someone nearly two-thirds their size? The study showed that the extra musculature carried by the more heavily muscled individual decreased the amount they could comfortably carry and manage because the weight of their very muscles acted against them.

What does this have to do with Goliath? Goliath has people who can carry his armor for him, right? Consider the musculature weight needed to walk around with all of the equipment we’ve seen described. Think about how tall Goliath is described as being in the story. There are two possibilities here. Either Goliath carries all that weight because Goliath is an incredibly tall and incredibly lanky individual who uses his strength to carry all of that weight or Goliath is standing there taunting David because he likely has so little strength left that all he has left in his arsenal are verbal barbs.

When you look at the science behind Goliath, it is actually a strange story to have in our scripture. If you look at it in the eyes of a literalist, someone who believes the Bible is true word for word, you have a real problem. Goliath had to be not only freakishly tall but also freakishly strong. Goliath was so large, perhaps the word giant is the only way to describe a person who could carry that much weight with that height and still appear to be anything but a mess.

What if we looked at it differently though… What if the Bible is trying to make a point to us? Yes, Goliath is 9 and ¾ feet tall. Yes, he likely is carrying around enough weight that the ground, if not flattened by great use, would have likely sunk into the ground as he walked. Yes, Goliath is described in intimidating terms.

It also should be said that this gigantic man of inhuman proportions is dead at the end of the story. I hate to put it so bluntly, but the small shepherd boy kills Goliath. The scripture reading stops, but David walks up Goliath and cuts his head off with his own sword, presumably with Goliath’s shield-bearer just standing there slack-jawed. Goliath meets a brutal end at the hands of a young shepherd.

File:Guillaime Courtois - David and Goliath - Google Art Project.jpg

“David and Goliath” by Guillaume Courtois

So, what kind of coin is this? Is this a story out of the history of this man named David? Are we supposed to look at this image and say “Wow. I wish God were as present in my life as he was for David.” Are we supposed to look on a story like this with jealousy? Are we possibly willing to see ourselves as one of the Israelites who goes on after David to conquer the Philistines after Goliath falls? Are we seeing this story as an invitation to wait for our opportunity when our David shows up? Do we cry out to God for a hero as the Philistines stand there shouting out?

Such a response might be understandable. Look at the world we live in. There are children separated from parents within the borders of our own nation. Those kids are held by our own government. We sometimes think that it is not our problem, but those pesky scriptures keep popping up. Think of the words of Deuteronomy 10:16-21:

“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall fear the Lord your God; God alone you shall worship; to God you shall hold fast, and by God’s name you shall swear. God is your praise; Jehovah is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.”

We hear words like these and the connections are hard to miss. We might not have been in Egypt, but many of our ancestors only left Europe because life in those places was challenging. Who would have jumped on a boat and risk the ocean except to seek opportunity or freedom in a new land? How many of them kissed the ground when they got off the boat? There are some in this place who have the blood of the original Americans within their veins and their ancestors survived hardship, challenge, and difficulty in the wilds of history even before Europeans came to this land. Europeans did not exactly make it easier upon arrival. Those of us who are in this room have been given opportunity and blessing and it can be easy to want to hold onto those blessings tightly, but the words of scripture… God calls for circumcised hearts, even as our minds scream out that there’s only enough for us. Even if our hearts are not stubborn, our own self-interest is often very stubborn.

Yet, scripture is clear. God is not partial. God takes no bribe. God executes justice for the helpless and for strangers. The Israelites were called to remember that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt and a good memory would remind them of Abram coming with his wife out of Ur to begin the story of the people. They were called to remember God’s blessing because God blessed them in their need. Has God gone deaf? Has God gone blind? God is our God. Doesn’t that mean we should consider what the impartial God would want?

Yet, sometimes we act like those Israelites. We stand there and watch. If we wait long enough, David will come. If we wait long enough, there’ll be another revelation. If we wait long enough, we can distract ourselves. In college I was forced to read a book on the nature of popular culture. It was called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Maybe a fitting sequel could have been “Waiting Around with Ourselves to Death.” Yes, we believe God will bring justice for those strangers in our land. Yes, God will hear the cry of children. Yes, God will act. We just seem to be waiting for David to show up.

What if the whole point of stories like David and Goliath is for us to realize that Goliath isn’t what he seems? Yes, a strong man carrying that big armor at that height would be intimidating. Yet, could he really do anything to the people if they’d just gotten up and worked together? Who cares if he’s over nine feet tall if there are “two or three of you” gathered together? Who cares how much he can carry if he isn’t even wise enough to put the spear down and grab his shield?

What if we’re not supposed to wait for David? What if we’re David? What if you are David? You! Yes, you! Last week in this place, someone prayed for those kids. I won’t mention them by name, but I will say there were a lot of amens in the room. What if everyone who said “Amen” did something beyond just say “Amen?”

What if we insisted that those kids are cared for, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we know of how potentially hazardous it is to annoy a God who hears the stranger and cares about their well-being?

What if we didn’t wait for November, but we started pressing for change in the way our representatives act now. What if we wrote our representatives, shared our concerns, share that we are not interested in their political party, but insist that they work for change now? What if we showed up at the next event they hold in town and ask what they’re doing right now to help? What if we didn’t see such a huge problem and say “Where’s David?” What if we stopped and said “I am a child of God and this changes today!”

Do you know something, that story about the three coins at the beginning was meant to be humorous, but it also had several purposes. Did you laugh at that third child’s actions? Did you think he was being a bit unfair? If I was his parent, he wouldn’t keep that coin.

Someone is taking advantage of these kids. Someone has taken their coins. Whether these children are here seeking asylum, freedom, or are the children of parents who have broken the law, they are suffering. Heaven knows what’s happening to the elderly and the infirm who cross the borders out of fear or perceived necessity. It should cause us to act, for we were once a people who were strangers in Egypt, strangers on wilderness coasts, and faced with strange people from a far off land. We have been in their shoes and we should remember how God was present for us.

 

Let us Ramble: Trees

Today’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary contain a powerful teaching of Jesus. Jesus teaches about the fruit of each tree revealing the nature of the tree. Jesus teaches that a good tree does not produce bad fruit and a bad tree does not produce good fruit. I’m fairly certain Jesus isn’t talking a tree having a bad year due to inclement weather. In general, a person knows the reality of a tree by what it produces. If a tree consistently produces bad things, the chances of it producing something good is pretty poor. If a tree consistently produces good things, the chances are a bad harvest is a fluke rather than the rule.

Our church has a parishioner who owns an apple tree that produces the weirdest apples. The tree predates the parishioner, so when I visited at the home, I found myself confronted by weird apples. Interestingly enough, the parishioner took it to the local Cooperative Extension office and the apples are unidentifiable. They’re apples. They’re tasty. That’s about all we know about those apples besides one basic fact. Those apples are good apples!

IMG_0258.JPG

Think about that reality for a moment. There is no known ancestry of these weird apples. There are no known relatives. For all we know, the tree is unique. We do know the tree produces good fruit, so it is a good tree. Jesus’ teaching reveals something about the tree.

What does the fruit you produce say about you as a person? Are there things in your life that might need Jesus’ healing touch? Have you ever stopped to think about where your path is leading?

If you are in need of change, God hears prayer. God is able to work in us even though some of us are really stubborn. To begin that journey of change, pray to God for help. If you’re out of practice, begin by speaking to God as if you were talking on a phone. If you’re not comfortable with that paradigm, write God a private letter or email. When you’re done, sit with God for a while with an open heart.

When you are ready to go, seek a church community that can support you. If you’re in the area of Maine, NY, I would be happy to journey alongside you for a while. If you’re out in the greater world, ask folks you know if there’s a church or pastor that they’d trust. Get several recommendations or go try one out for yourself. If need be, gather with a few friends who are like-minded and see where the journey goes.

Let us Ramble: Lessons from Yogurt

I recently returned home from the Academy for Spiritual Formation. This last session we discussed the effects of things like stress and anxiety on the body. We practiced breathing techniques, experienced some meditative practices, and looked at various ways that we live our lives.

At one point during the week, I found myself pondering the concept of challenge and the spiritual life. I have always believed that a healthy spiritual life is one that does not shirk from challenge or adversity. There are lessons in the struggles.

The scripture teaches of this reality in Hebrews 12. Comparing our relationship with God to our parents on earth, the writer of Hebrews invites us to consider difficulties in light of the fruit it produces. The author of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:7-11, NRSV)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

I will admit that it can be hard to face the challenges of life. Sometimes the disciplining of God can be painful, even if it does correct broken or misaligned parts of us. Occasionally, challenges are legitimately less about correction and more about building up strength, but in general, I think the same response is necessary. If God is working for good in us, then we are called to either work alongside God or to willingly let God work in us.

Now, of all places the where I could find inspiration to understand this relationship with God, I found myself inspired in my reflection by a book that I am reading in my spare time. Unsurprisingly, it is a book about cooking. The book is “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. I was reading through the section on dairy that morning and working through the science of yogurt making, which my wife and I have done off and on over the years.

Effectively there are two parts to the making of yogurt. First, the milk being used is heated to a certain level for a certain period of time. McGee describes this process on page 48 of “On Food and Cooking.” Traditionally, this heating process helped to concentrate the number of proteins and to remove some of the liquid, which created.a firmer texture. This process also has the effect of pasteurizing the milk which become yogurt as milk is pasteurized when it crosses 145℉ for 30 minutes during the heating process. (On Food and Cooking, 22)

Even with the advent of the modern technique of adding dried milk powder to increase protein content, yogurt makers still raise the temperature of milk to 185℉ in order to denature the “whey protein lactoglobulin” in order to help the milk keep from coagulating. How? Well, “In boiling milk, unfolded lactoglobulin binds not to itself but to the capping-casein on the casein micelles, which remain separate; so denatured lactoglobulin doesn’t coagulate.” (On Food and Cooking, 20) Caseins, by the way, are the protein molecules that coagulate together to make cheese curd. (Under the right conditions, cheese can still be made from denatured milk. Indeed, almost all cheese is made from pasteurized milk)

Almost there…

What’s needed to move the milk from a pasteurized milk with denatured lactoglobulin is time and fermentation. Bacteria increases the acid content of the yogurt, which allows the casein to coagulate in particular patterns (as the lactoglobulin is blocking some of the connection points). Over time, the yogurt forms together, setting into a gelled mass with pockets for the moisture of the milk.

There’s a challenge in the process here. You may have noticed the milk’s lactoglobulin is denatured nearly 40℉ above the temperature required to kill off bacteria. In fact, yogurt bacteria can only survive temperatures up to between 104-113℉. There needs to be a cooling of the milk before yogurt can begin to be created.

So, here’s where I came to a realization the other day. I am often a lot like the milk I work to turn into yogurt. There are parts in my life that are filled with all kinds of nasty things. Sometimes the only way God can help me to break free of my own stubbornness is to turn up the heat. God knows what I can handle and like a careful cook, I believe there are times when my life is intentionally and carefully brought to a place where I can both begin to be free of the nasty stuff and begin to be prepared for new good things. In challenge I am both freed and given a chance for transformation.

When I am ready, the heat turns down, I am brought into a place where God’s goodness can begin to transform the parts of me that have been prepared. In those moments, there are a couple of things I can do to help the process.

First, I can be careful about my surroundings. Just as a dirty spoon could spoil the pasteurized and prepared milk, I can cause a world of trouble by diving back into the places where I no longer belong. There are behaviors in this life which are not helpful. It is good to move away from them and to stay away from them.

Second, I can practice humility. A lot of things in life can go in ways I do not prefer. Does that mean all of those challenging situations are bad for me? Sometimes humility requires me to be willing to accept circumstances I would not prefer or choose on my own. It can be very difficult to admit that I do not always know what is best for me, but in reality, most of us have blind spots and areas where we do not see things clearly. If I practice humility, there is a stronger chance I can work my way through situations that normally would be inescapable.

None of this means that I would necessarily prefer to face such challenges, but there is something to be said for realizing that there are moments when challenge becomes both inevitable and beneficial. May we all have the wisdom to know when such situations are before us.

Let Us Preach: “Shepherds Act”

For two weeks in a row, people have asked me to put the text of my message online. This week I did a little extemporaneous preaching in the midst of this manuscript, but these are the bones upon which the sermon was based.

Date: April 22, 2018
Title: Shepherds Act
Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

We’re gathered in the season of resurrection. We’re gathered not in the shadow of the cross but in the light of Easter morning. The good Shepherd has come, has laid down his life for God’s flock, and has risen from the grave.

We are called to follow Christ not only through the season of struggle leading up to the cross but past the cross into resurrected life. We are called to lives of more than just speech. We are called to lives of action. Indeed, what does John write to us this morning from across nearly 2,000 years? In his gospel, John records Christ as stating:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

John records the words of Jesus as Christ lays out a vital part of who he is and what he will do. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but take note. Jesus is talking to a collection of the chosen people, the children of Abraham and Isaac. Jesus is talking to a group of people who have belonged to the flock of God for generations. Before the 23rd Psalm was the world’s psalm, it had been their song for generation after generation.

The people of God gathered with Jesus that day were told that the flock must grow. The people of God were told that Jesus was going to reach out to people who were in other folds of sheep. They didn’t know it then, but some of those people would speak Greek and not a smattering of Hebrew. Some of those folks would speak the roots of what would become English, French, Gaelic, and German. Others would one day speak Russian, Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. Some would one day speak Spanish, Portuguese, and the language of countless Indigenous tribes throughout Africa and the Americas.

I somehow doubt that the children of Abraham understood what Jesus was saying that day, but in hindsight it is incredibly powerful. The good shepherd will lay down his life and will take it up again. Jesus is claiming mastery over his own life, his own death, and proclaiming that he will take up that life again. He has been sent to care for the sheep who will respond from across the world.

This is a proclamation that should have rattled people. This is a proclamation that did rattle people. This is a proclamation that was bolder than bold. So, why doesn’t it shake us today?

Yesterday, the United Methodist Church throughout the majority of NYS and in two Pennsylvania towns gathered as the Upper New York Annual Conference to begin a journey. To be honest, I was dreading the meeting. I had no idea what was going to happen, what was expected of us, and I frankly assumed the worst. Call me a pessimist or call me a realist, but I have been to too many meetings where we talk being politically correct without choosing to do anything concrete. I believed in the intention of the meeting, but I was really nervous about how a church could change things.

Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church fought against alcoholism and helped to power the temperance movement. Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church preached the gospel out on plantations and caused riots and lynchings for teaching the “property” of slave-owners to read. Once upon a time we empowered Sunday Schools to teach children to read when they were forced to help on a farm or in a factory on every other day of the week. We have had a legacy of power and change, but honestly it has been a while.

I walked into a room believing that nothing good could come out of that meeting, especially on a subject as broad and powerful as racism. I have to confess to you that I may have jumped to the wrong conclusions. I saw something as powerful and overarching as bigotry and wondered how we could ever even begin to face it. I lost hope for a moment yesterday. I admit that and confess my own sin.

So, I confess I was more than a bit skeptical as the leaders led and told us about heartfelt conversations that they had participated in while wondering how we could begin to face such challenges. The leaders told us about how there was no way a mandate could ever force churches to be different and that there was an understanding this had to come from the people. So, the leaders began to talk about their own journey of discovery, even admitting that at times they would assume this was everyone’s problem but their own. I saw reflected in their faces a struggle with something that was bigger than any one of them.

My heart broke a little bit as I realized that this was the church being sincere. I heard echoes of the passages I had studied all week and was convicted. If we are a people of many folds, if we are a flock of many ethnicities, if God has called to all of us, then should we not seek to live at peace with other people in the fold. When they hurt, don’t we hurt? When they struggle, shouldn’t we struggle? When they cry out, shouldn’t we hear?

John wrote in his letter “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I heard leaders speak about how we have done wonderful work at saying the right words, but rarely have followed them up with concrete action. It remained to be seen how we could do something concrete, but I heard John’s words echoed. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

So, we’re gathering to begin to talk about racism, privilege, and what we face. Soon, Pastor Dave from Union Center UMC, Pastor Taylor from Nanticoke and Killawog will gather with pastors and laity from Apalachin, Newark Valley, and other surrounding areas to start to look at how we can work together to begin to see beyond ourselves. Soon, I’ll be headed up to Syracuse to help lead the sessions in our group, partially because I was the one in our group willing to go and partially because it gives me tools to later have those conversations in churches. This will give me tools to bring here.

Soon, we’ll begin a journey which is intended to not just inform the clergy and active laity on how to see what’s going around us, but to bring that knowledge home to our churches. Soon, there’ll be opportunities for you to join in our work, and this is a work I believe can change the world because it starts at the right level. This is a work which begins with the journey for people to open their hearts, to learn tools for their daily lives, and to begin to work together.

These are the kind of movements that have changed the world in generations past and we are capable of doing right. We are the people of God, called in the image of the one who lays down his life for the sheep, and we, with Christ, can pick up our life and enter into the ministry with Jesus.

In his book “Strength to Love,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a chapter named “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” He wrote in that chapter on Matthew 10:16, which read in the King James Version he preferred “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Rev. Dr. King wrote that good Christian people need to work to have a heart that is tender enough to love others and treat them like people and a mind that is tough enough to realize the difference between what is right and righteous from what is undeniably wrong.

Speaking on the need for us to have strength of will and solidity of mind, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following: (pg. 5)

“There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

Friends, we are a resurrection people. We believe that God is in the process of remaking our hearts and minds. Can we have the courage to be like the good shepherd and live with both conviction and love? Can we have the will to look in the mirror and ask difficult questions of ourselves, our society, and what we receive without realizing it? Can we be brave, bold, and love with more than words? Can we become tough-minded enough to break our shackles even as we remain tender-hearted enough to love?

I invite you to be in prayer with and for me over the coming months because I know this will not be easy personally. I invite you to be in prayer for what God might be calling you to do in the coming months. I invite you to hear the call of God and to respond.

Let us Ramble: Approaching Ten Years

Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.

Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.

Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.

taize-silence

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:

“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”

I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.

Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.

I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.

If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.

That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)

“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.

The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.

“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”

We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.

The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.

To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.

Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:

“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”

Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.

In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:

“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”

Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?

There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.

Let us Ramble: Strange Praise Music…

Recently, I picked up an anthology of poetic translations of the Psalms named “The Poets’ Book of Psalms” as compiled, edited, and introduced by Laurance Wieder. I have an affinity for collecting alternative translations of the Psalms. I have enjoyed Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” for several years now. I was recently introduced by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat to “Psalms in a translation for praying” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

In the newest part of my collection of alternative translations to my tried and true New Revised Standard Version (the Wieder collection) there is a poetic translation of Psalm 150. Psalm 150 is part of the Revised Common Lectionary reading for today. John Davies, who lived from 1569 – 1626 CE translated this particular version of the Psalm. Here, from across the centuries, is John Davies poetic translation of Psalm 150:

“To him with trumpets and with flutes,
With cornets, clarions, and with lutes,
With harps, with organs, and with shawms,
With holy anthems and with psalms,
With voice of angels and of men,
Sing Alleluia: amen, amen.”

Some basic background on Sir. John Davies can be found here. To summarize, Sir. Davies was more than an Irish poet. Sir Davies was an attorney with a somewhat motley career which included being one of the most respected attorneys of the Emerald Isle and also being disbarred at different points. He has a very interesting political career both in Ireland and in England.

Regardless, in my corner of creation, Sir Davies’ poems are what most catch my attention a few centuries after their original publication. His work, while understandable, draws attention to various areas which a modern translation might miss.

My copy of “The Poets’ Book of Psalms.” Also pictured, the citrus tree my family gave me for Christmas two years ago and the Peace Lily which was a gift given to my family by a nearby church when my family moved to Maine, NY from Boonville, NY. Also, an essential oil diffuser which is a very calming addition to my home desk.

I enjoy this poetic understanding of Psalm 150 as a result of the way it draws attention to a timeless truth which I have come to understand in my own path through life. Let me point out the instruments used in the praise of God in this poem. God is praised with cornets, clarions, lutes, harps, organs, and shawms. I must say that I hear organs in worship on a regular basis due to where I serve and I do enjoy the harp when it is played well, but I do not hear much music on the radio played on cornets, clarions, or lutes. Upon first reading the translation, I did not even know what shawms might be, but after a quick google search, I did learn that it was a flute-like instrument. Shawms are not very popular on the radio these days.

The timeless truth these strange things point out is that the praise of God is greater than any instrument. There are no guitars, drum kits, d’jembes, or any of the instruments you might find in most modern praise bands. Still, in Sir Davies’ day, people praised the Lord with their own happy music. Holy anthems and psalms of Sir Davies’ day might be different from from any radio singles or YouTube praise chorus that might be produced today, but it seems that both types, although separated by centuries and cultures, praised the Lord.

Praise of God is greater than the instruments we use. When praise comes from the heart, it can be shared through a piano, a snare drum, an organ, some shawms, a bass guitar, a lute, a lyre, a harpsichord, a shofar, a bodhran, or a cowbell. I am thankful that this timeless truth is pointed out through paying attention to a very old poem from an Irish attorney.

Let us Seek: “All that is required…”

In pondering today’s scripture reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, I found myself thinking back to “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies” as first printed in the 1808 Discipline under the heading “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” In reading the description of the societies which gave birth to churches, there is much to ponder.

The classes which comprised each society consisted of individuals who would meet with a leader weekly to talk about how their own faith journey was progressing, find what was needed for life (whether that be encouragement, reproof, advice, comfort, etc.), and to collect what each was willing to give for the relief of their preachers, the church, and the poor. Each week (or (as I understand it) as often as possible in a circuit where the preacher would travel long distances), the leaders would meet with the minister to talk about challenges, which challenging class-members needed individualized attention from the minister, and to give funds to the stewards of the society. Those were different times with different understandings of what was expected of church members.

Having now given a, extremely basic overview of what classes were within the societies of yesteryear, I will share why I was thinking about the General Rules while pondering the reading for today, which is 1 John 3:10-16. There’s a line in the General Rules about how a person could become involved with those societies which sticks in the mind. The line says:

“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”

The General Rules go on to talk about how those who wish to continue in the societies that they evidence their desire to be saved through following guidelines on how to live life in terms of doing no evil (don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t profane the Sabbath, don’t engage in drunkenness, don’t engage in slaveholding, don’t quarrel, don’t buy or sell illegal goods, don’t charge unlawful interest on others, don’t speak evil of others (especially governmental leaders and ministers), etc.). doing good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, exhorting all souls towards God, helping others within the household of faith, being frugal, having patience, etc.), and attending on the ordinances of God (go to church, spend time with the word, take communion, pray, fasting, etc.).

Some of these concepts are a bit foreign to us. A lot of our churches would be in trouble if we felt that speaking poorly of governmental leaders or our pastors was grounds for expulsion or reproof. We might raise an eyebrow at someone for drinking too much, suggest counseling, invite them to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or simply pray deeply, but to expel someone from the church for even buying an alcoholic beverage is not a common standard for expulsion from church membership these days.

Times have changed over the centuries, but I continue to believe that there are still standards which we hold as church that continue to evolve. In some ways, we continue to struggle with some of the original concerns of the United Societies, but our role in the world has called us to be more vocal on other concerns.

Forgetting our identity as those who seek to live in this life as God’s people has proved disastrous in the past, such as when we forgot our call to avoid slavery as sin in the midst of the centuries that have passed since those rules were recorded in 1808. Forgetting our identity led to massive quantities of evil and suffering for those who were enslaved and in the souls of those who enslaved others. Forgetting our identity led to a grim chapter in our history which still has an effect today.

It is just as easy to forget our continually changing identity in the present as it was for those folks who struggled with slavery in bygone years. Reflecting on this reality, I pondered the scripture deeply in light of upcoming events.

This Saturday, April 21st, the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will kickoff the “Imagine No Racism” Campaign. We are gathering as a Conference to seek to imagine a better world without racism and (hopefully) with equity, and this gathering came to mind as I read today’s scripture. 1 John 3:10-16 reads this way in the New Revised Standard Version:

“The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What does it mean to desire to flee wrath by fleeting towards God? What does it mean to evidence that continuing effort by doing no intentional harm through our actions? What does it mean to do what is right in a world that is marked by racial injustice?

The very first message we heard, according to the writer of this epistle, was that we should love one another. First and foremost, the message was to love. How can we claim to live in love if we see people around us suffering due to their genetic composition? If Christ laid down His life for our lives, are we not called to do the same for each other? Does the need have to be as drastic as a life and death situation for us to be called to act?

I know many people who grew up with racial biases who would have nonetheless laid down their lives in order to save the lives of people (that they thought less of due to their ethnicity) due to their own moral, religious, and even political beliefs. To lay down one’s life is often a momentary decision and many individuals would have the courage to make that sacrifice in a moment.

I would love to say that those brave folks would lay down their privilege, their comfort, or their well-being over the long-term for those who are suffering from racial injustice, but I am not always certain that they would do the same over the (much more challenging) long term. In honesty, I would love to say that I know that I am perfectly laying down self-interest myself, but there is something to be said for the fact that moving away from “thoughts and prayers” for racial justice towards courageous acts to reassert equilibrium requires more than a moment’s courage or conviction for those of us who have privilege. I seek the courage and endurance to do so perfectly, but I often fall flat on my face. These words don’t come from a “holier than thou” stance. I often do not know how to move forward myself.

To move towards equilibrium will require more than most of us, including me, currently possess. It will require… imagination! Movement towards that equilibrium will also require the courage and character to do more than imagine, but it is hard to do anything but spin our wheels until we have an image of that more perfect (united) society in our collective mind and heart.

Although I hate to bring in my readings for The Academy for Spiritual Formation into yet another blog post, I am reminded of the writings of George Govorov. Theophan the Recluse (yes, that’s George Govorov) taught that growth in prayer must go through stages. I won’t quote a specific paragraph, because (as a friend put it) that particular chapter (the second) is kind of like a broken record.

  1. Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
  2. Prayer of the Mind: Prayer that has a resonance in the mind. There are no absent actions here. The prayer of the body is caught up into conscious thought and action through the mind. Each word is pondered in the mind, each movement is done with intention, etc.
  3. Prayer of the Heart: Prayer moves beyond word, thought, and deed to a place where it comes from the center of our being. Prayer of the heart does not preclude physical actions or pondering words, but goes deeper. In Bishop Theophan’s view, prayer of the heart is at the center of true prayer.

In Govorov’s view, moving through each stage of prayer takes time, effort, and dedication. For some, the place where they belong is in practicing with their body until rhythm is established. For others, there is a moment for letting the words rattle through their minds until it takes root. For other, true prayer requires the heart to work in concert with the body and mind. A person united in body, mind, and heart could truly enter into God’s presence through prayer until their soul was set alight through the Holy Spirit!

It is my hope that we would continue to go on towards Christ through events like the gatherings this Saturday. I pray we move past dwelling in the midst of death into living in a place of love. For some, that may mean learning new words and new actions. Prayers of repentance in the body might mean learning new ways of living, new ways of acting, and even new ways of speaking. For others, this may be an opportunity to connect our mind to things we are already doing. What does it mean to speak out for justice with words that are not platitudes but are deeply pondered? What does it mean to ponder the words of others instead of just listening with one ear and letting those words pass out the other? For others, this may be a moment to let the heart take hold of deep truths.

I am not certain where I fall in that realm of prayer for repentance. In some areas I am likely in one place and in another place in other places. Regardless, as I ponder the scripture today, I am reminded of my desire to flee the wrath that comes from living in the midst of death. May God give me the courage to have open ears this Saturday and to enter more deeply into a prayer which may take a lifetime or longer to comprehend.

This church in Sawmill, AZ helped me to grow as a person as I faced my own racial biases while on two United Methodist Volunteers In Mission trips. I cannot tell you how much I was blessed by the people of this small but mighty Diné church.

Let Us Ramble: On Split Animals

So, after the busyness of the Lenten season and a week taken away to provide childcare for my three children during their spring break, I am back in the saddle again. In the next few weeks I will be preparing for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and then it is time to prepare for Annual Meetings, so you can guess the direction of posts as those events draw closer.

In the meantime, in between changing diapers for my smiler and breaking up youthful hijinks between the two elder gooseballs, I have been pondering a passage from the Book of Genesis. In particular, I have been thinking about the nature of covenant.

As a pastor, I am surrounded by covenantal relationships. I have a covenant with God in my own personal spiritual life, a covenant with my wife to remain faithful until death parts us, a covenant with God to care for the children I have been entrusted with as a parent, a covenant with God to care for the people I minister with in my appointment as a minister, a covenant with the Maine Federated Church to support this local church, a covenant exists between the United Methodist Church and the Maine Federated Church that sets the guidelines for how the church cares for me and the parsonage in which I live, a covenant with the United Church of Christ to minister on their behalf in this community, a covenant between myself and other United Methodist Elders in my Conference’s Order of Elders, a covenant between myself and all pastors and deacons that serve within our common denomination, and finally a covenant with myself. Like I said, there’s a lot of covenant relationships in my life.

If that run-on sentence above doesn’t prove the point that it makes sense that I think about covenant a lot, then let me just assure you that I do think seriously about covenant and covenantal requirements often. Covenants are often conflicting and challenging. Which covenant takes priority on a daily basis? Do I spend another night away this month at another meeting or do I spend time with my children who sometimes don’t really see me except an hour a day some weeks? Do I sit in the office and wait for someone to come by the church or go visit people who cannot leave their homes? Do I blog about the nature of covenant or do I spend another few hours writing letters to church members? Covenants are complicated.

Genesis 15 lays out a sign of the covenant that is quite gruesome. Animals are split into two pieces and in the midst of the night a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot pass between the two lines of animal parts. It seems a bit gross, but the reality behind the imagery is even more frightening. In covenantal language, the promise is made. May I become like these animals (split in two) if I break this covenant. The severity of the response to a break in covenant is intentionally graphic, intentionally troubling, and intentionally recorded for the people so that they understand the importance of their covenant with God.

So, being surrounded by covenants, what do we do? Do we look at our relationship with God as being so important that we might be divided in two if we were to break it? Do we look at our relationship in the marriage covenant as being so powerfully binding? I have never been divorced, but many of the people I know who have been through the process refer to it as being a traumatic and spiritually violent process—almost as if they were torn in two. Do we look at our relationships we share with our beloved family in the church the same way? I know few places where a falling out can be as traumatic as in a church. Hearts break in those circumstances.

In honesty, where I found myself pondering covenant a lot this week was while thinking about the United Methodist Church. Are we facing a breaking in covenant as a whole? Have we been so brutally biased in our approaches to each other, to the looming conversations, and in our application of church politics that we have missed basic concepts such as loving each other? Has a lack of love led to a breaking of covenant? Are we tearing ourselves apart in some literally testimony to the concept that broken covenant leads to torn relationship and a torn body split in two?

As we go through this season of resurrection, what does it mean to go forward in covenant with a God who moves past death into life? There is much to ponder this Eastertide. I pray that we all go forward with love and peace.

Poem: Cracked Cisterns

The following poem is based on Jeremiah 2:1-13. I wrote my poem based on the New Revised Standard Version of the texts. I chose to write on Jeremiah 2:1-13 as it is the reading for the Second Tuesday of Lent in Year One of the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer.

Cracked Cisterns
Based upon Jeremiah 2:1-13

I recall days of years long since passed:
Singing songs, sharing sodas, and spending time.
Loving life with a pace both furious and fast,
As memories were created beautiful and sublime.

I remember laughter and gladness.
I remember sorrow and sadness.
I can see our steps stretched side by side.

Now we drink from different wells.
Water gushes from a cracked wall.
I watch as dried lives become shells
As the people once so close grow small.

I feel cold rain on far off shoulders.
I feel warm wind on riverside boulders.
I can see where we once were near.

Dry, parched lips seek something new.
In truth, they may need something old.
I stand with an extra cup—no idea what to do,
As hope’s light grows dim—flickering and cold.

Poems: Rev. 16:1-7, Psalm 123

I returned late yesterday from the most recent session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. My wife had sent me a text and I completely misunderstood the urgency. I rushed into town expecting to head to the hospital. I was mistaken.

While at the Academy I began to explore writing poetry again. It has been several years since I have engaged in writing poetry on a regular basis. I brought a book of poetry to help me to pass the nights in silence. I fell asleep the first night of the Academy with a stanza of poetry ringing through my mind. I awoke after a night full of beautiful dreams remembering why I loved poetry.

When a particular time in reflective silence inspired me to attempt to write a poem the floodgates were flung wide open. I started scribbling, scribbling, and scribbling some more during my free time. I spent an hour reflecting in poems, prayers, and psalms before heading to bed that night. I felt as if a long dormant part of my personality was finally breathing after years of holding a breath.

For the next 18 months (at least), I have set poetry writing based on the daily readings from the Revised Common Lectionary to be a part of my ongoing covenant to grow closer to God. Why? First, you cannot write poetry on a passage without reflecting upon the passage first. Second, most of my poems are shaped around prayer language. Third, it allows me to keep that part of my soul breathing.

To be clear, I am not always going to be sharing poems that I write. As a matter of fact, I wrote three poems today and the first one that I wrote is not for public consumption. Sometimes the poems will just be bad. Occasionally, I am going to take time off. On rare occasions, the poems may not be appropriate, like the poem I wrote based on the Judges reading today. With that being said, I do not mind sharing poetry on occasion.

Today’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary include Revelation 16:1-7 and Psalm 123. I will share the Revelation poem followed by the Psalm poem.

Pointless Bowl

A voice calls out from the temple:
“Pour out your bowl into the sea!”
So, I pour into brackish water.

A face watches from the shore.
Nothing moves, jumps, or tries to flee.
Eyes behold a sea of slaughter.

He wrote these things down at Patmos long ago.
He did not understand all of the things he did see.
This devastation came as humanity’s daughter.

Silenced Hope

My soul has had her fill.
Scriptural words make hope lie still.
Look at my heart and give dreams to me.
The only Source of light that I see,
Break apart contempt and pride.
Lead us to life–be our Guide.

Creative Commons License
This work by Robert Dean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Let us Seek: The Mourning Faithful

I decided to tackle a difficult subject in today’s blog post. One of the sets of readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary includes Genesis 49:29-50:14. This passage is one of the more poignant moments in the relationship between Joseph and his father Jacob.

Jacob had loved Joseph dearly as a child. The coat which Jacob gave to Joseph is the inspiration behind one of the most popular musicals of the last century. The affection of Jacob for Joseph was pervasive and powerful enough that it inspired artistry from ancient times until the modern day. Their separation had been ended after a period of grief and mourning after circumstances led them together again as a family in the context of a famine in the land of Jacob and abundant stockpiling in the land of Joseph’s servitude in Egypt. The struggles between Joseph and his brothers led to Joseph being able to provide for his family in a time of need. God blessed Jacob and his family through even the rough circumstances endured by Joseph. Joseph’s faithfulness saved his family. Today’s story is about the next separation between Jacob and Joseph.

Joseph was faithful. Joseph’s father still died. Jacob did not live forever. The affection and love between the two moved from a daily reality into a matter of memory for Joseph. Joseph still experienced lost despite all of his faithfulness, all of his goodness, and all of his fidelity to God.

Even faithful people experience loss. Many people see the loss of a parent, a friend, or a child as a punishment from God. Sometimes loss can feel like a punch in the gut and I would never belittle or berate someone for feeling grief. Still, it must be said that for now death is a reality which all people must face in time.

Scripture is filled with the faithful of ages past and almost every single person in the stories of the scripture experienced death both in their immediate family and eventually in their own experience. Were it not for Enoch in Genesis 5 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2, every single person in the scriptures who have been described as dying or would have died by chronological inevitability, including Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Yes, Jesus died. Yes, Jesus rose. Yes, Jesus will come again.

One of the promises in life which is clung to by many of the faithful is that death will eventually be no more. I look forward with anticipation to being with my mother and my grandparents again on the distant shore which I will reach when I have passed from this life or Christ comes again, but neither of those moments have yet to pass in my life. For now, death is a reality which we all must face, whether we are Jacob, Joseph, or even my own children.

I believe that Joseph’s journey can teach us some things about our own journeys of grief. First, I think there is something wise in the concept of leaving room for our own grief. Joseph not only goes about the task of preparing his father’s body—Joseph enters into grief. He takes time to go on a journey to the land of Jacob and he spends time there in mourning. He accepts his sorrow, laments what has happened, and spends seven days in grief. He does not simply rush through the motions—Joseph takes time to grieve.

Second, Joseph does not shun his loss or pretend it does not happen. Joseph goes to Pharaoh, explains his promise, and takes time away from his responsibilities. Joseph did not live in a time where he earned paid time off for his service to the Egyptian monarch. Joseph had to intentionally ask for space. His request could have serious consequences (like those experienced for rejecting another man’s wife earlier in his life), but Joseph is willing to risk the consequences because he has accepted the value of what must happen. His grief might have a cost but Joseph is willing to pay the cost, even if it causes him influence, pride, or even prestige.

Third, Joseph eventually returns to life. In time, after he has paid all due respect and has cared for his responsibilities, Joseph goes on with life. Joseph returns to Egypt and resumes the tasks which have been set before him by the Pharaoh.

In time, we all enter places of grief. In time, we all struggle. Even the most faithful of individuals eventually has to face the journey to the other shore, whether in the life of a loved one or on our own journey. As you inevitably face grief, I pray you find the tenacity, courage, and eventual ability to move forward that was modeled by Joseph.

Let us Seek: “If it had not been…”

One set of today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary includes Psalm 124. Psalm 124 is one of my favorite psalms from a rhetorical perspective. I adore the repetition of the phrase “If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side.” The phrase is used twice in the first two verses of the psalm. They are only separated by the phrase “Let Israel now say” in an attempt to compel the people of God to join in the chorus.

The psalm reminds me of countless worship services, concerts, and festivals where I have heard a singer invite the audience or congregation to join in the music. While this is not a call and response situation, the power of the phrasing brings to mind the same compulsion to join in the song of the faithful. Robert Altar notes that he shares this impression in his translation and commentary “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Altar writes: (443)

“The second of these two versets is a formal exhortation, probably on the part of a choral leader, to the community of worshippers to chant the words of the liturgical text that begins in the first verset and continues in verse 2 through to the end of the psalm… The Hebrew, with its abundant use of incremental repetition, has a strong rhythmic character that would have lent itself to singing or chanting”

I am glad Altar agrees with my reflections and my tendencies with this psalm. One reason that I am glad is that I always appreciate being verified in my assumptions by a respected scholar like Robert Altar. The second reason that I am glad is that psalms like this psalm always strike me as invitations.

What if this psalm is an invitation to look at our own perspectives and experiences with a similar lens? The Psalmist claims the help of the Lord in the midst of challenges within this psalm. The Psalmist looks at the circumstances of challenge in life and notes God’s presence has made a difference in the life circumstances of the congregation. This invitation is especially powerful when we consider that the community as a whole is invited to join in the proclamation.

If I were a Hebrew man who was joining in this psalm, what might I think about as I talk about the powerful and salvific presence of God? Surely, I would consider the events of the Pentateuch and the salvation of the Jewish people, but I might also consider the times when I was sick and I felt God draw me out of the darkness. Surely, I would consider the events in the lives of the prophets, but I might also remember the times I stood by listening to my wife screaming as a child was brought safely into the world. There might be many thoughts on my mind as I joined in the psalm if I were a Hebrew man in the great congregation of the faithful.

So, what do I think of when I consider this psalm today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be healthy and safe? Surely, I am blessed by the world where my children live, but let us be clear. My children bear my genes and often my idiosyncrasies. I am surprised enough to have survived my own silliness and to have lived into the life I now lead. I am even more surprised it appears to be happening again! If it were not for the Lord, would I be here today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be safe and happy? I believe God has had a role in the lives of my family. If it were not for the Lord, my own silliness might swallow us up. Thanks be to God!

Where do you feel blessed by the Lord? What places in your life might have turned out differently if it were not for the Lord?

Let us Ramble: Transients

I struggled to finish my sermon this weekend at the Maine Federated Church. The subject was challenging, but I was prepared. I struggled to finish my sermon because the cold of the previous week had beaten my voice to a pulp. We were preaching on baptism and how baptism was opened to people of all races. We shared that God loved all people. I publicly declared that God does not think of one race as superior to another. We spoke of deep things even as my voice started to crack.

Sunday night, I watched my Facebook feed explode with statements from pastors and committed Christians from across the spectrum. The vast majority of them were incredibly clear. “Racism is bad.” “God loves all people.” A few of the statements were provocative. A few statements seemed more concerned with politics than with what was actually happening. My public statement on Facebook was to reblog a “Litany against White Supremacy.” I will admit, I was still exhausted by my cold, so I was willing to let that stand for a day or two until I could get a good night’s rest.

Well, I am rested now. I have a cup of hot coffee to sooth my throat muscles, I have spent some time centering myself in my daily devotions, and I am prepared to enter into my pastoral role as one of the resident theologians in my community. So, let’s lay out the theological argument I wish to make. I will not be pulling punches today.

  1. It is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility
  2. It is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus
  3. White Supremacy should be considered an abomination

I believe that it is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility. I believe that is a belief that long predates Christianity, has been passed down from our Hebrew forebearers, and should be passed along from generation to generation. I believe that pride has been an issue for the church for nearly the entirety of our history and must be fought with all sincerity.

In my own studies I have been reading through “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings,” which is a translation by Maxwell Staniforth (revised by Andrew Louth) of some early letters of church leaders. One letter translated was from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth. It was written by one of the early church leaders in Rome named Clement and is generally considered to have been written during the last decade of the first century with a high probability of having been written around 96 CE. A passage from this letter from one church to another strikes me as fitting and applicable: (¶30)

“Since then we are the Holy One’s own special portion, let us omit no possible means of sanctification. We must bid farewell to all slandering, lewd and unclean coupling, drinking and rioting, vile lusting, odious fornicating, and the pride which is an abomination. God, it says, opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble; so let us attach ourselves firmly to men who have received this grace. Let us clothe ourselves in a mutual tolerance of one another’s views, cultivating humility and self-restraint, avoiding all gossiping and backbiting, and earning our justification by deeds and not by words… Self-assertion, self-assurance, and a bold manner are the marks of men accursed of God; it is those who show consideration for others, and are unassuming and quiet, who win His blessing.”

So, Clement was very opinionated. Clement uses several words and makes several claims that I am unwilling to make throughout his letter, especially on the role of women in their homes. I am very glad that this letter is not a part of our scriptures for several reasons, but there are some gems to be found in this old letter.

First, there seems to be a strong opposition to pride in Clement’s worldview. In some places, such as Clement’s insistence on quiet obedience of women, the adoption of humility as a driving force of church life is less than ideal in a modern context, In other places, such as the passage above, there’s a real sense of force behind Clement’s words. Looking through the list of sins Clement lists, the one which is singled out for being especially onerous is pride. Pride is the thing which Clement nails over and over again throughout his letter.

  • ¶16 “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of God’s Majesty, was in no pomp of pride and haughtiness—as it could so well have been—but in self-abasement…
  • ¶35 “Wickedness and wrongdoing of every kind must be utterly renounced; all greed, quarreling, malice and fraud, scandal-mongering and back-biting, enmity towards God, glorification of self, presumption, conceit, and want of hospitality; for men who do these things—and not only men who do them, but men who consent to them—are held in detestation by God”
  • ¶39 “Men who have no intelligence or understanding, men who are without sense or instruction, make a mock of us and ridicule us, in their wish to raise themselves in their own esteem. But what is there that anyone who is mortal can really effect? What force is there in anyone born on this earth?”

Clement was very clear in his letter that pride was a serious issue. It can be inferred that Clement speaks out of the worldview of the early church. The conception of pride being an issue and the value of humility was nothing new to Clement or the church in which he lived. We can head back to the end of 1 Chronicles to see King David share similar sentiments. David says in 1 Chronicles 29:10-18: (NRSV)

“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours’ yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. I know, my God, that you search the heart, and take pleasure in uprightness; in the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts towards you.”

At this moment in the story of scripture, David has prepared the way for his son Solomon to build a temple in Jerusalem. David has accomplished a great deal in his life and is approaching the end of his reign. David has led imperfectly but is completing his reign in peace, which is a blessing few of his descendents would know as the generations would pass. Here at the end David gives thanks to God through an honest lens that gives thanks to God and puts his life in perspective.

David sees himself as a transient in these words. He does not claim the right and power over all that he had done and all that he has gained. He seeks humility. He states that all of God’s blessings are from and ultimately are for God’s purposes. He lives out the humility that Clement claims we must seek. Clement is echoing David’s statement on human transience in this life when he asks what real effect the proud can have in this world. The people of God are here in this world for a moment. The people are being invited to live in humility by both Clement and David.

Going back further we see a real sense of a call to humility from the earlier tales of faith. When Abram was called in Genesis 12:2-3, the following words are shared (in the New Revised Standard Version) with the one who would become Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”

From the very beginning, the call of God comes with an understanding that the blessing that will come to Abraham is for the very purpose of Abraham becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. His call is to head out into the world as a transigent. His call, the call to create a nation, will begin with him being an immigrant in a strange land. The call of Abraham is not into a castle or highly advantaged place in society, but to live as a stranger in a strange land.

Throughout the scriptures, God calls the humble time and time again. Even figures like Jacob, who was not humble, had to go through humbling circumstances before they were fully ready to take their place in the story of God’s life-bringing and grace. Being a Christian is a call into a tradition which has been marked by a strong need for humility. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 26 about an employer who hired servants throughout the day and paid each the same amount to each. The ones who began earliest in the day believed they deserved more, but it was the employer’s choice to be generous. All who follow Christ are called to understand that by God’s choice the first may become last just as the last may become first.

I also believe it is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus. When Jesus came across the other, Jesus acted with compassion. It is true that Jesus called people to repentance and expressed extreme disappointment and occasionally foretold woe for cities that refused to repent like those in Matthew 11:30-34 and the Samaritan village in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus also expressed hope for those of other races than those of Jewish descent when we shared the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, shared a story of a faith-filled Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5-12, and told the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42. Jesus seems less concerned with where people are from than how they react.

Jesus’ love was not bound to one race or one people. The very call of Acts 1:8 is to make disciples by witnessing to the ends of the earth. The very call of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is to go out and make disciples of all nations. The call of God is to reach out to all people because God called for all people. Jesus’ compassion was for every people of earth—that is why are were sent out to share the good news in the first place.

This should go without saying, but this love informs us. If we want to live a life with Jesus, we will be remade through and like Jesus. Paul wrote to the church of Romans in 8:9-12:

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Later on the effect of God’s Spirit and Christ’s love is further laid out by Paul in Romans 10:10-13:

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says. ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek—the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him, For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

So, let’s be clear on these points. Our life, our eternal life, comes from God. Jesus’ Spirit comes into us and gives us life. The Spirit of Christ who loved faithful people of different backgrounds has opened salvation to all who call on the name of the Lord. The God of the Jewish people is the same God as those who are Greek, Roman, African, Asian, or any other form of human.

With all these things in mind, I have to say that I firmly believe that white supremacy is an abomination which must be resisted with all of our strength, all of our willpower, and all of our heart. White supremacy claims that one race is superior to other races, but God has called us to humility. To claim an inherent greatness for people of one skin color is to walk in the exact opposite direction of where Jesus walked. To claim an inherent inferiority for people of other ethnicities is abominable for many reasons, but especially because it stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.

In Luke 14:7-14, the following is shared by Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith:

“When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

When teaching on humility, Jesus first told people to choose the worst places at the table. To be certain, there is a chance that this is a story about practically putting oneself in a place where someone could be honored by the host when they are asked to move up, but there’s also a real sense of Jesus noticing what is happening around him and inviting people to a place of honest humility. Jesus states that a person or people will be humbled when they seek to their own exaltation.

Is there any more clear description of self-exaltation than to say that your race is inherently superior to all of the others? Is there any more clear way of looking at this situation than as an invitation to being humbled for your actions? Is there really something so special about being white that leads people to believe that they alone are exempt from the call to humility? As a white male, I have to say that whites are no more exempt from this rule than men—any attempt, whether based on gender or race, to say that my people are superior to other people (either as men or as people of European descent) is foolhardy and an abomination.

Who should come to the banquet of celebration? The other is to be invited. We are called to humility and hospitality in life, Events like those in Charlottesville this past weekend are incompatible with Christian teaching. People who live out their faith through terrorism and violence do not exemplify the Christian life and they are certainly not acting on behalf of Christians who hear our call as a people to humility, repentance, and community.

Let us Seek: Do not be alarmed!

I was out in the world this morning. Cold or no cold, there are some appointments that cannot be put off. I had an appointment with a specialist that I had scheduled weeks in advance. I went to my appointment on cold medicine, advised everyone I was in contact with to wash their hands, and we made the best of things.

My appointment today was for a simple non-invasive type of treatment which took a few minutes. The doctor and I sat alone talking while she was going about her work. We began to talk and things went to deep matters in a few moments. I was not surprised. People often open up to me–I do not advertise that I am a minister, but I always seek to be polite and courteous. It can be amazing how quickly people come to trust you when you always say “please,” “thank you,” and tell them that you are grateful for what they are doing for you. I also believe that most people just want someone to listen.

She started talking about what she had heard in the news. She was afraid of what was happening in the world. She talked about intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and the idea that someplace as nearby as Washington could be struck, although she did not rule out New York City. As medicated as I was at the time, I wondered aloud about the fact that people feared nuclear attacks on the Hoover Dam and the dam at Niagara Falls during the Cold War. We talked about how frightening things are, how strange everything seemed, and she wondered what she would do if a war broke out. She was frightened. I commiserated, listened, spoke very little, and prayed for her fears in my heart.

The conversation reminded me of a passage in Matthew about the end times. Discussions of nuclear winter, nuclear fallout, and global conflict often remind me of the passage found in the twenty fourth chapter. Matthew’s gospel reads in verses three through fourteen: (Common English Bible)

“Now while Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.’

 

Jesus replied, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the Christ.’ They will deceive many people. You will hear about wars and reports of wars. Don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be famines and earthquakes in all sorts of places. But all these things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end. They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name. At that time many will fall away. They will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because disobedience will expand, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations. Then the end will come.’”

I first came to know this passage well through the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. In that translation verse six says “…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed…” These verses have all taken a vital place in my lived theology within this world of global information and easily spread global panic, but verse six has always rung out the loudest in my mind. As I lay on the table, I could almost hear a palpable voice repeating in my heart “you will hear wars and rumors of wars…” alternating with “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” 

My doctor was afraid this morning. I chose not to be fearful, but to be compassionate. What is the good news? In this context, I believe it can be best expressed earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. In verses twelve through fourteen in chapter eighteen, Jesus tells a parable: (CEB)

“What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one who wandered off? If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.”

I invite you to think about the promise which inherently sits within this parable. My doctor, like many individuals, has an uncertainty about the future. The world seems to be less than the ideal many of us were taught as children. Most of us lose a sense of the innocence of childhood as we grow into the world, and I personally believe that there’s a correlation between this loss of innocence and the traditional drop in church attendance that tends to happen at around the same time. Losing our innocence hurts.and events like those depicted in the news can send us back into our grief over our loss even if it has been decades since we first realized the world is broken. The world can seem to be a confusing place and our fear can isolate us.

Into those moments of fear, there is an ancient promise embodied in the person of Jesus. God does not want to lose one of those little ones. God cares about the lost sheep of the world. Even when it seems that the world does not care one bit for our fears, God does care and will walk through the valley of darkness to lead us all home. There is space for us at the table, there is space in the flock, and there is deep grace despite our fears for all people. God has come near, God has shown compassion, and eternal life will come to those who follow the Shepherd. As Matthew records in the twenty ninth verse of chapter nineteen, “…all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.

Friends, be at peace. God does not give as the world gives. Know that the path of a Christian is not an easy path, but there is a place of peace that awaits the end of our journey. Go! Be a blessing in a world of fear! Fight for justice and grace! Share the Good News! Walk with the lost sheep! Please, be compassionate

Let us Look: Jesus is Condemned

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.

While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.

I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”

It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.

Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.

Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.

Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.

I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?

Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.

So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.

“Jesus is Condemned to Death” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.

Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.

As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?

As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?

Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.

How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.

If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.

Let us Seek: Sovereign God, part deux

Sometimes, I argue with myself. My habit to write the next day’s blog post and schedule it for 9:00 AM the following morning. On occasion, I find inspiration to continue with a previous line of thought. Occasionally, I find myself arguing with both myself and my blog entry for the day.

This morning I posted about a reflection on the sovereignty of God. My post came about after reflection on scripture as seen through the light of a book I am reading for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. That book is “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer. In the book, the argument is made that the sovereignty of God is a sacrosanct concept. Adonai reigns so our world is seen in a different light.

I made the “mistake” of spending time in my devotions this morning, which is always a risky affair. I was working through one of my favorite resources, which is Upper Room’s “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” (henceforth, “Guide”) This resource is the very resource which led me to consider applying for the Academy in the first place. Before finding the Guide I had always seen Upper Room as that tiny little book which I took to individuals when I visited or handed out to folks when they wanted something to read to go deeper. The Guide was deep, methodical, and practical for me as someone who likes structure in their prayer life to balance out my lack of attention span–there is a reason my blog uses the phrase “Distracted Pastor.”

Quick aside, one of my colleagues at the Academy recommended that I take my new Worship Book to the artist formerly known as Kinkos to get it bound with a spiraling ring to make it easier to use. I took my Guide there and for less than nine dollars it is now far easier to use and has nice protective covers to keep it safe. Getting my devotional book bound with a ring was a great idea as I now don’t have to weigh the pages down while taking notes in my journal.

Look how easily it sits flat!

The plastic cover is a nice protective touch…

Anyway, back on subject, I made the mistake of working through the Guide and found myself reflecting on a passage that was the exact opposite of what our good Rabbi Miriyam Glazer stated. Mind you, the author whom the guide quoted is a Christian, so that is somewhat to be expected. Still, the cognitive dissonance has been bothering me as I attempt to stay with both readings.

The following excerpt is stated to be from “Prayer” by Simon Tugwell, a Dominican historian and author. The excerpt is found in the readings for reflection for this week.

“[God in Jesus] does not come in strength but in weakness, and he chooses the foolish and weak and unimportant things of the world, things that are nothing at all, to overthrow the strength and impressiveness of the world. As we saw earlier, he is like the judo expert who uses the strength of his opponent to bring him to the ground; it is the art of self-defense proper to the weak.

This is why, if we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispense or all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.”

I imagine most people can see the dissonance between these two sets of conceptions. On the Rabbi’s side we have a God who reigns. Adonai reigns; therefore, we have hope that the future can be a place of blessing. On the Dominican’s side we have a God who has entered the form of Jesus. There is a sense of a self-imposed weakness. God has nothing to give except himself in the form of Jesus. God has nothing to give except himself; therefore, we should not see God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire.

I have to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately side with Rabbi Glazer. My fear is that my reaction is very human. How could God do something so very foolish? Well, God does what God does. In the most ancient of addresses, God claims the name “I am who I am.”

The challenging part in the midst of all of this chaos is the reality that the Reading for Reflection in the Guide does not stand alone. The psalm of the week is Psalm 105. Psalm 105 is not a psalm of passivity. God acts deeply, thoroughly, and completely in the psalm to assert the placement of the people of God. A few examples:

  • The psalm invokes the actions of God in a time of famine through the servant Joseph. (Ps 105:16-23)
  • The psalm invokes the action of God in establishing a covenant with the immigrants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which will never be forgotten. God protects those immigrants with might (Ps 105:7-14, 42-45)
  • The Psalm invokes the powerful and sometimes brutal story of the Exodus (Ps 105:24-45)

The actions claimed in the Psalm are not the actions of a passive God of weakness. The Psalm claims the power of Adonai. Adonai reigns! All of this begs a simple question. Why did Bishop Job and Pastor Shawchuck, the compilers of the Guide, choose to include this passage for reflection? Was it merely to inspire there to be interesting thoughts in the minds of those who sought God this week? Even without Rabbi Glazer’s contribution to this conversation, Psalm 105 and this reflection seem at odds with each other.

I have been pondering these differences for several hours and I am brought to a place where I once again go back to things I learned way back in my philosophy classes at Roberts Wesleyan College. Yes, I was indeed the student who insisted with all of the depths of my heart that I believed that God could do the incredible. I believed that God could make a square circle.

The concepts was simple. Could God do something that was logically impossible? Could God create a rock so heavy that God could not lift it? That concept never stuck within me. I was obsessed with the square circle. Could God make an object that was fully a circle and fully a square? Such a logical fallacy seems impossible.

To say that I received a bit of mockery, ribbing, and even disdain at the time for the strength and consistency of my view is to put it mildly. I have since learned to live into that tension, especially as I lived into theology. Can God truly be fully human and fully divine? Can God really be the One God as expressed in trinitarian theology? Can God really care for humanity to the extent that God would come into the world in the form of weakness to engage in an act of strength that would help Jesus emerge as the victor who would break down the division of sin that had lasted for ages past? There are all sorts of paradoxes in Christianity. There are many koans to be considered.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? I have no idea. How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine? I have no idea. How can God create a square circle? I have no idea. How can God move in weakness and foolishness to save the world? I have no idea, but I believe that Jesus has done this thing quite beautifully.

What are your thoughts in regards to this contradiction? Do you have any ideas or reflections?

Let us Ponder: Sovereign God

Yesterday in the blog I was pondering the concept of knowledge. What does it mean for any religious or spiritual knowledge to go beyond being informational in nature to being transformational in nature? What does it mean for us to understand a text, a revelation, or a message from so thoroughly that it changes the ways that we authentically engage with the world and her creator? These were the sort of questions I was considering in my heart and in my soul yesterday.

As I read for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, I found myself entering into a new book from a new perspective. We were invited to read four books for the upcoming Academy and I decided to begin with “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.

I was considering the introduction to the book and Rabbi Glazer’s discussion of barriers that can interdict themselves between us and these works of an ancient faith when something caught my eye on the sixth page. Rabbi Glazer pointed out that “One barrier may be especially present for us Americans, who are unaccustomed to accepting, or even contemplating, images rooted in monarchy.”

The phrasing and content caught my eye as I had been considering the idea of what it might mean to be transformed by an understanding of the text. I was away last week and was disheartened by the news when I had returned. I was disturbed by the national conversations inspired by events on issues such as “How does someone speak appropriately as a leader to youth and children?” and “What does it mean to treat someone as innocent until they are proven guilty?” I read stories of foul-mouthed politicians and was disheartened. I truly regretted the state of affairs that awaited me in my news feed, but could I really see the power and possibility behind a Sovereign? I am not a fan of some of our elected officials, but surely the heart of democracy and the power of the social contract dwell deeply within my worldview. What could it mean to consider a Sovereign as a welcomed authority figure when I struggle to trust the officials we sometimes elect?

In the midst of these struggles I pondered the very Psalms being considered in the book I was beginning to read. The words that I read truly did come from a very foreign worldview. In truth, the foreign nature of the texts are sometimes what gives those text their strength. Consider the first four verses of the second Psalm: (NRSV, alt.)

“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Sovereign and the anointed, saying ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ The Sovereign who sits in the heavens laughs; the Sovereign has them in derision.”

In a nation where it seems like every political party is conspiring and plotting, it can be invigorating to consider a Sovereign above such matters. In a world where there is earthly power and might in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals, it is comforting to think of a God who considers such earthly might and power as being worthy of laughter. The very foreign nature of the texts presents a Sovereign that can be powerful in ways that are unimaginable in the midst of the plots and conspiracies of modern politics. Consider Psalm 19:7-9: (NRSV, alt.)

“The law of the Sovereign is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of Adonai are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Sovereign are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Sovereign is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Adonai is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Sovereign are true and righteous altogether…”

What if the reason the Sovereignty of God is so foreign is because it has become unimaginable to see a decree or a law that is not immediately shot down as insufficient or askew by another political party? What if the very wisdom of God is what makes God so foreign to us as a people? When was the last time any of us saw a politician and had the first word we would use to describe them be “righteous?”

I found myself moved to think about many Psalms as I thought about Rabbi Glazer’s assertion about the barrier between words of sovereignty and American principles. There are many other good examples of the foreign yet beautiful concept of God as sovereign besides those listed above. I found another passage in Rabbi Glazer’s book to be particularly moving: (pgs. 6-7)

“Despite the reality of terrible evil, despite the chaos and bloodshed that all-too-often beset human life, and despite human suffering; in the view of the psalms, it is because Adonai reigns that we can trust that justice and goodness will triumph in the end. To believe that God is ‘sovereign of the universe’ is to have the faith that, if not in our own lives then in the lives of generations to come, the blessings of peace will indeed someday spread over the face of the earth.”

This is a text written from a truly Jewish perspective, but I find comfort in the words. Evil and chaos are rather prevalent in our world. There are times when the news seems to deliver messages of injustice and resultant shock. This world and this nation are not at peace, but if Adonai reigns then there is room for hope. If Adonai reigns, then there is a possibility for a better world for our children. If Adonai reigns, perhaps we can move forward with the faith that justice will return and peace will overcome.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty that is transformational could really change the way a person reads the news, prays for the world, and seeks justice. It is interesting to ponder, but it is my prayer that such an understanding would first transform my heart and then the world.

Let us Ramble: Silence isn’t always Silence?

Yesterday I posted on questions of silence. I was still deep in thought on the subject of silence when I began to work through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through a meditation on Psalm 148 in “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. As I read a portion relating to the Psalm stuck out to me: (40)

“If the fruit trees, the cedars, and even the hail are to give praise, then it follows that there is a way of praising God in which the spoken word is unnecessary. There is a Word that differs from the spoken kind. Sometimes it flows forth in the simple silence of being as shown in the mountains and hills. There is a Word that leaps up in the crackling of the fire, it rides in on the moaning of the wind and in the roar of the wild beast. Could this too be praise? Could all of creation be drawn like a magnet to the divine?”

Could there be a deep truth here? When I think of silence I often think about not speaking, not talking, not singing, and simply keeping my mouth shut. What if there’s a voice that speaks louder than my voice? While Sister Wiederkehr is speaking of the praise found in creation, is there a place where we are called to praise God through presence? As we listen to these wise words, is there a call by God to change the subject?

The 68th Psalm establishes that God is known to be a parent to orphans and a protector of widows. God cares deeply for the desolate and the prisoners. God is the one who is present in the lives of those who are often considered voiceless. If we are to love those whom God loves, are we not called to speak with both our voice and our presence?

Consider the words of James 2:15-16: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” What good are our words if they are not backed up by our presence? What good is our voice if we are not speaking through our deeds?

The fire crackles because the fire burns by nature. The wind moans as it blows through the trees because that is what the wind does when it passes through branches. The fruit tree grows fruit by nature. All of these things engage in their behavior by nature. If we are being called to be remade through the power of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t our voice be raised with love for all the people Jesus’ loves? Shouldn’t our voices crackle, moan, and grow like the rest of creation that reaches out in praise?

Let us Seek: “Confidence and Pride” or “On Lectionary Usage”

“Why do we use a lectionary?” “What use does a lectionary have for a minister in the church or for the community at large?” “Wouldn’t life be easier if you just picked out all of the scriptures?” One reason we use lectionaries as communities and as pastors is because they force us out of our own comfort-zones into scriptures we would ordinarily glaze over. I have been preaching out of the Narrative Lectionary which comes out of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I post blog entries based off the Revised Common Lectionary as provided through the library of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. I use both resources to help round out my teaching as a preacher and teacher of the Good News. I also occasionally wander off and do a series based on a particular book or concept, because even a crazy United Methodist minister like me has freedom of the pulpit and it can be cathartic to exercise that freedom.

For today’s reading I decided to use the complimentary daily readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. In those readings I was struck by the reading from Hebrews. Hebrews 3:1-6 says: (NRSV)

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also ‘was faithful in all God’s house.’ Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.”

The first question this passage raised was the obvious question for anyone who studies some selections of scripture. What is the “therefore” referring to in the previous section? The second chapter of Hebrews refers to: (Hebrew 2:17-18 NRSV)

“Therefore [Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(Sidenote: Hebrews is a logically organized book with a lot of “therefore” statements, so I will allow you to dig into the “therefore” of the previous chapter if you are inclined. Be forewarned that there are two more therefore statements with a significant amount of explanation in the second chapter before this particular “therefore.”)

In my opinion, the content of the “therefore” of the first verse of chapter three brings light into the reading, especially the sixth verse. Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. We are a part of that house if we hold firm to the pride and confidence that come with hope.

Why would we have pride? We are part of a people for whom Jesus intentionally entered creation. We have a merciful and faithful high priest in Jesus. Jesus came in service, sacrificed to bring atonement, and was like us in every respect. We are a people who have lived in futility but Christ has come into the world. We are part of the people which were blessed by Jesus’ presence. We are a part of the household of God due to the faithfulness of our brother and high priest Jesus. While pride is often a word used with negativity in church circles, there is surely some blessing and joy to be found in the reality that Jesus chose to become a part of our human family. There is a pride that does not come with smugness, but with peace. This is the pride that comes with the fulfillment of hope and faith.

The fulfillment of hope and faith are also behind our confidence. The legacy of the Christian worldview is a legacy marked with perfection in creation shaded by sinfulness, tranquility in a garden overshadowed by ejection from utopia, calling into community tainted by broken sovereignty and nationhood, and voices crying out from the wilderness drown out by earthly concerns. Throughout the history of the Christian and Hebrew journeys towards God there has been continual frustration marked by the stubborn refusal of God to give up on the people. We have confidence because Jesus has come to be our high priest.

Ancient promises, hopes, and dreams are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ as our high priest. Furthermore, we are brought into the family of God through the incarnation of Jesus Christ into humanity as our brother. We have pride and confidence because Jesus has willingly done these things with us and for us as a people.

Why do we use lectionaries? I had no intention of writing a blog post on a high priest or on the legacy of hope this morning. We use lectionaries because they lead us out of ourselves into God’s realm where the unexpected can happen. Making a choice to step beyond our comfort zone can be a blessing, but let’s not pretend that taking a risk is always easy. It takes confidence to believe God can meet us out in the wilderness where we relinquish control and it takes humility to listen for a word that we do not expect.

I hope this explains in part why your minister may or may not use a lectionary. There are many other reasons to use a lectionary, but I personally believe that this logic holds well. When I bake bread, I proof the yeast to make certain the yeast is alive and will help the bread rise. The lectionary tends to be full of life in my experience and sometimes the bread we need is not the bread we have in the pantry.