FRIDAYS FROM FAIRMONT
Romans 10: 5-17
The early church had a problem: Jews–or more precisely the lack of them. God became incarnate in Jewish flesh to a very Jewish family in a Jewish village. Jesus grew up to become a Jewish Messiah fulfilling Jewish prophecy and law. All his followers were Jews and his brother James was known for being particularly devout. And yet, the church did not really catch on among the Jews. Instead, it caught on with the people they least expected, gentiles. So, what was going on? What was God up to? And even more unsettling, what did this mean for God promises to the patriarchs and Moses long ago? Was the covenant done?
Paul, a learned albeit sometimes slightly neurotic rabbi, directly addresses this question in the middle of his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 9-11 Paul lays out the relationship between God’s twin creations: Israel and the Church. Paul explains exactly what is up with Israel, its purpose and its destiny. And those answers are deeply intertwined in the mission and identity of Christ.
More immediately for our current predicament, lots of people are wondering where God is in the midst of this Pandemic. Paul has some concrete answers, promises so concrete, you can build you life on them.
July 24, 2020 – Romans 8: 21-39
Beyond forgiveness lies something even better: belonging. The “Good News” is not that we are forgiven or that the Kingdom of God comes near, or even that Jesus is the Messiah. The good news is more basic, more immediate, and more relational. We belong to God. Period. Full stop. No qualifications. This was the Good News, literally the gospel, that Paul shared two generations before the familiar Gospels were written.
Now belonging to God might not be such great news depending on the sort of god we are talking about. That is why Paul spends much of his letter to the congregation in Rome going over God’s resume and explaining all the wonderful loving things that God has done demonstrating God’s wonderful loving character (e.g. creation, the patriarchs, the Exodus, Israel, and most of Jesus’ self-giving love). This God we belong to keeps going out on a limb for us over and over again and on that basis has more than demonstrated that in this God we can find our home even though we may be alienated, cut-off and afraid.
The lists of threats and dangers are different for us. Few of us are at risk of famine (actually its opposite is a greater danger). Few of us are at risk of sword blows. But we are at risk of corona virus. We are at risk of isolation, depression, despair, and grief. And so, Paul’s message is the same for us as the struggling congregation in Rome. Yes, the pain and grief are real, but so too is your true identity in God. You belong to God. Nothing in this universe can change that. So, do not be afraid.
July 17, 2020 – Romans 8: 1-4; 12-25
“Who will save us from our wretched sinfulness!”
That is as succinct of a summary for the first seven chapters of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome as I can find! Honestly, some days I feel like the answer is “no one!” But grace upon grace is the answer the apostle Paul gives to the early followers of Jesus and gives to us.
Listen to these words again:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul wrote these words toward the end of his long and world-changing ministry. The book of Romans is belovedly known as Paul’s theological “last will and testament” and these words in Romans chapter 8 are the heart of the last words Paul wanted the early church and us to hear. We struggle each day with “life in the flesh” and with our inability to love God, love one another, and even love ourself as we should.
There are very few of us who need to be reminded, as Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What a predicament we are in as humans! We strive so to be who God has created and called us to be yet, daily, we hurt one another and we turn away from God. But “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and we do have hope in the midst of our despair; hope that God is making us a new creation in Jesus Christ. It may be hard to see but God has adopted us as God’s own children and we are loved! What does it mean to be “in Christ?” What does it mean to be children of God? How do we live a life in the Spirit and not in the flesh? Paul presents this struggle we live with as Christians and followers of Jesus, and gives us the hope we need to continue on.
We will gather again for live-cast worship this Sunday and together will hear Paul’s words to us that we are beloved children of God and heirs to all that Christ gives us.
July 10, 2020 – John 6: 56-69
The sermon did not go over well. 5000 people came to hear Jesus and 4988 wandered away confused and confounded. He turns to the twelve who remain and they become his disciples, but Jesus wonders if they too will go away. So ends Jesus’ longest sermon the Gospel of John, his most extensive presentation on who he is and what he is up to. And the people don’t like it.
I have always wondered, did the crowd abandon Jesus because they could not understand what he was talking about, or because they understood precisely what he meant? John, never one to eschew obfuscation, often presents Jesus symbolically like surrealist poet. But here maybe he means what he says. You must take my body, my blood, my life, my being, my substance and essence inside you. You must make me a part of you. Then, and only then, will you be alive truly, perfectly, abundantly, and eternally. That is a bit much for the crowds. It is a bit much for us. We prefer divine consolation with occasional sprinklings of ethics and rituals. But wholesale dispossession of the ego at the center of our lives? That is something up with which the people will not put!
It is hard to move yourself from the center of your world. All our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings eternally center on an intuitively presumed, but rarely examined “I.” Jesus is suggesting that the self is highly overrated. It tends to get clingy. Attachment to anything and everything that is not God leads us to suffering. The one way around this dilemma is to let go, which is far harder than it sounds. Prying loose the ego’s grip on our lives is both unsettling (indeed it would be the ultimate form of unsettling) and at the same time liberating because it creates space for something or someone else not of our making. Jesus demonstrates this metaphysical escape trick most perfectly in the cross. Only in self emptying of everything, even life itself, can one be found, embraced, lifted up, and made anew. When God does this in and through Jesus on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, it ruptures space time. But when we do it, realizing how disorienting it will be, we are not lost. We are found. We are held. We are lifted up.
Lord, to whom else can we go? You alone are the Word of life.
July 3, 2020 – John 6: 51-58
The Gospel of John has no last supper story. Instead, the entire Gospel is about what happens when you take Jesus into yourself. The entire book can be read as an extended meditation on who God is in Jesus and in turn we become when Jesus is in us. Sin and forgiveness are not of much concern to John. Sacrifice and punishment barely mentioned. Jesus dying for our sins is nowhere to be found. Instead, the main focus of John can be summarized by the nutritionists’ axiom: you are what you eat. So, what do you eat?
What do you take inside your body and inside your life? What do you make a part of you and your story? What give you life its vitality, energy, and potential? For many people it is the junk food peddled by our markets and media that define us all as commodities or consumers. Security, fame, power, money, charisma, sex, success, and prestige, are all pleasurable confections offered by the world. But none of them endure. None of them sustain. And none of them will help us grow to become truly human the way we were meant to be. Only one sustains. Only one builds us up. And He offers us nothing less than God life to nourish our lives.
For John, the Lord’s supper is really no different from the Lord’s work. He gives us new life. So, for John, the sacrament of communion is not so much a curious ritual with little shot glasses and bread cubes (or whatever form of the elements you may be using at home). For John communion is instead the continuous vital experience of divine exchange operating at the depths of our being, growing God life inside us. We do not “do” communion. If we really follow what Jesus taught, we actually become the communion of God and humanity. For John there cannot really be a “Last Supper” because Jesus nourishing his disciples in new life is happening right now, inside you and inside the life of every child of God. The communion that matters is the one we embrace right now.
June 26, 2020 – John 6: 35-51
This is a season for getting by. Parties are cancelled. Vacations are postponed. Restaurants are scary. And I am getting sick of my own cooking. My main entertainments are walking my dog and angst laden German Netflix series. It is not necessarily pleasant, but it is enough. You can get by for a long time on enough, but you will never thrive.
Jesus offers the crowd bread, the most ordinary of foods. It is enough to satisfy their hunger. But Jesus is not satisfied. He wants them to want more, look deeper, and become more. So he starts to unwind the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Jesus explains the bread of heaven, how God gave it to the Hebrews in the law at Sinai, how they received it in the wisdom of the Prophets, and now how they are receiving even more. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. If you accept my life as part of you, you will never die. This bread will be a far richer meal than they anticipated.
Some say that God always provides for our needs. That is not quite right. God provides much more. God does not want us to get by. God wants us to thrive. God does not provide us with just enough. God always gives us too much. And we call that curious, irrational generosity, grace.
June 19, 2020 – John 6: 24-35
One of my favorite memories as a young child is the smell of fresh baked bread wafting through my Grandma Kelley’s home. Even better is the memory of the taste of that hot bread smothered with butter. There is nothing quite like homemade bread, especially bread prepared with love.
As we continue hearing from John 6, the Bread Discourse as it is known, we will be “smelling” the wonderful waft of bread as we think about what it means to trust in Jesus, the Bread of Life.
We are hungry. Hungry for peace. Hungry for love. Hungry for answers. Hungry for community. Jesus understands our hunger. We as broken, sometimes desperate, human beings usually fill ourselves with bread that does not satisfy, bread that perishes quickly. Jesus calls us to what sometimes seems impossible: trust in him. What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of coronavirus and social distancing? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of virtual worship and Zoom fellowship? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of social unrest and the systematic scourge of racism? How do we will fill ourselves with bread that is eternal?
As the Body of Christ together, we long to be true disciples of Jesus and we long for the bread that truly satisfies. Come, let us worship together this Sunday as we hear John’s words to us about true bread.
June 12, 2020 – John 6: 1-21
Miracles are complicated. I don’t know how they work. That is sort of the definition of a miracle. For the next few weeks, we will be looking at one of Jesus’ miracles, the feeding of the 5000. We are going to be spending some time with it because Jesus spends some extended time with it. A loaf of bread is more than a loaf of bread. What it means for Jesus, for the crowds, and for us will be our consideration this Sunday.
One of the problems with miracle is that people normally think of them as supernatural events that provide us with the results that we want. Using that definition of miracle, God is essentially a vending machine. The Gospel of John refers to miracles as signs, an event that points us towards a deeper truth. Do not doubt the power of signs. A two-foot red octagon next to the road can cause my car to come to a screeching halt. The signs that Jesus shares point to a greater power.
We will be unpacking Jesus’ cryptic use of signs and to what or to whom they may point. And then we will consider what those signs do. Do they give us rewards for good behavior, or are they signposts pointing us forwards towards a destiny we cannot yet see? So, John poses the hard question. Do we trust God because of the things God can do that we want, or do we trust God because God is God? It is a test that every one of us will answer.
June 5, 2020 – John 15: 1-11
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, presumes an unsettling level of intimacy with us. For John, Jesus is not just the one who saves us out there and now waits at a comfortable distance presumably, “at the right hand of God the Father.” Instead, Jesus is in here, in us. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” may sound poetically comforting, but it is perhaps Jesus most provocative statement in the Gospel. If God is in some sense in us and we are in God, then all our assumptions about what a “self” is, indeed what life is, are wrong. Creator and creation are no longer quite so hermetically sealed off from each other. There is real connection and exchange. The vine gives the branch life, sustenance, and form. And the branch gives the vine its actualized expression and bears its fruit into the world.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” What would it mean for our lives, for our identities, and right now most of all for our communities, for us to conceive of all our lives both as completely interconnected and as the medium through which God expresses and gives form to infinite love in the world? This is the question that Jesus poses to all who would follow him. He is waiting for our answer.
May 22, 2020 – John 17: 1-11
In his last days with his disciples before his death on the cross, Jesus shares with the disciples all that he desires them to know for the living of their days. These powerful writings in John (chapters 14 through 17) are known as the “farewell discourse” and our passage this morning is the “farewell prayer” which is the benediction, of sorts, of the farewell discourse. Farewell prayers were known in Jewish literature in ancient Mediterranean times and thus were familiar to the intended audience of John’s gospel.
As we approach this beautiful and somewhat baffling scripture passage, it must be noted that John’s gospel is known for its sectarianism and, at times, seemingly exclusive writings. The gospel of John can be difficult to understand, especially as we read it through our “western society eyes” in the year 2020. Even so, God’s Spirit is ever with us, guiding us in our understating and interpretation of the scriptures. May it be so for this passage, too!
In this farewell prayer, Jesus prays to God for his beloved disciples and for all who trust in him, beseeching God to protect them and make them one as Jesus is one with God. These passionate words are for us, also, as we seek to know and love God and to love one another. At this time in history we so desperately need to learn how to be one with God and one with one another. Join us in worship this Sunday (link below) as we worship God and seek to understand how we can know the God of creation who has come to us in Jesus the Christ.
May 15, 2020 – Hebrews 6: 13-20
This week is Youth Sunday. With the last two months a blur of fear and isolation, it certainly does not feel like May. We are all struggling with the time lost, and our students are no exception. Sports seasons, science fairs, spring concerts, school year wrap-ups…activities and milestones that are so important to children and teenagers…all cancelled. The loss is particularly potent for our three seniors, as their last [insert any meaningful school activities here], senior proms, commencement ceremonies, Baccalaureate services, any kind of closure for their thirteen years of hard work in school, and summer plans and parties have all been taken from them. Even fall semesters of their freshman years of college seem to hang in the balance as institutions decide how to move forward.
In light of the grief associated with so much loss (and it is grief, and it is loss; make no mistake about the reality of emotional strain on our youth), it would be easy for these young people to slip into sulky defiance and anger at the unfairness of the world and their circumstances. In fact, that is probably what society expects of them. Instead, our youth have rallied in the face of more disappointment and anxiety than any student their age should have to maneuver. Their resolve is strong and their faith is stronger, and it is that resilient faith that they wish to share with you on this, the most peculiar of Youth Sundays.
At the beginning of the year, the PYC selects a scripture verse to drive Bible study and small group discussions for the program year. In September, the youth chose this verse excerpt from Hebrews chapter 6: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” Throughout the year, we have studied scripture and shared in conversation about what it means to have an “anchor of the soul,” and ways to remain anchored to our faith and to our God, especially in the midst of struggle. How fitting that they should get a chance to put into practice all they have learned…and all they already knew. Let them show you. Look to our youth, and let them teach you what it means to truly be anchored in your faith.
“It’s not the building that defines your relationship with God, it’s your own faith.” -Abby T.
“Though this free will created a whole history of sin and struggle, it allowed for a depth of emotion and love that would prove to be impossible otherwise.” -Cassie S.
“Being anchored means to be grounded. It means you won’t drift away. You stay in whatever you’re anchored in, from being anchored in faith to being anchored in a community.” -Max B.
May 8, 2020 – John 14: 1-17
Question: what is the difference between a fundamentalist Christian and an atheist? Answer: on a true/false exam about Jesus, the fundamentalist marks every question “true” and the atheist marks every question “false.”
The problem is not the questions or the answers. The problem is presuming that faith is a true/false exam.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” (NRSV John 14:1). Sounds pretty simple hunh? Affirm some list of propositions about Jesus and voila you are good to go. For many people that would be their functional definition of the Christian faith, a true/false exam. Unfortunately, it sort of misses the point and that point is faith.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” It is a problematic translation due to the deficits of the English language. In Greek the word faith has a noun form that we translate as “faith” and a verb form that we translate as what? There is no verb form of the word faith in the English language. You cannot faith something. So, we substitute another word, but in doing so subtly change Jesus’ meaning. We say we “believe.” But belief is not quite the same thing as faith. Belief is more of a head thing. Belief is something I do all by myself. When we say we believe something what we normally mean is that we give our intellectual assent that some proposition is true and correct. I believe that the sun rises in the East simply means that I believe that is true and valid statement. But Jesus is not a statement. God is not a proposition. Any attempt to treat them as such is idolatry. And any attempt to reduce faith to belief ignores most of what Jesus seems to be concerned about, namely trust, relationship, belonging, and life abundant.
So, I would propose a well-merited edit, a better substitute until we can introduce a verb form of faith. Trust. Trust in God, trust also in me. Trust is always relational, always dynamic. Trust always has a past and a future. Trust is not just about ideas, it is about character, caring, and commitment. Trust demands risk, not mere assent. Trust transforms us over time, changing the way we look at other relationships and the world. And best of all, I can trust someone I do not understand. Indeed, the people I trust most in my life I will never completely understand. We call that love.
Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. It is not that hard. It takes a bit of risk, but so do all our important relationships. And if you extend that trust, I promise you it will never be ignored. If you extend that trust, it will change you.
May 1, 2020 – John 10: 1-10
I never much liked gate keepers. College admissions boards, committees on ministry, performance juries, and hiring teams all perform important tasks, maintaining boundaries and standards, but no one finds their work pleasant. Whenever I hear about Jesus as a gatekeeper, I tend to recoil a bit with traumatic flashbacks to being the last one picked for junior high gym class teams.
My surprise came when I realized I had been misreading this passage all along. Jesus does not call himself the gatekeeper, the evaluator, or judge. Jesus says I am the gate. Jesus is the way into the belonging and security of the sheepfold and Jesus is the way out into green pastures and good waters out in the world, not the one excluding us from it. Jesus is not talking about letting some in and keeping others out. He is talking about providing an abundant life for the sheep.
Sometimes we get so obsessed with judging and evaluating both ourselves and others. Something innate in human nature likes to build walls and define who is in and who is out. But not Jesus. Jesus invites all who recognize his voice to follow, not just follow into the sheepfold, but into abundant life now.
Friday, April 26, 2019
One of the great gifts of scripture, among many, are the post-resurrection narratives found in the gospels. Luke gives us one of the most beloved accounts known as the Road to Emmaus. This will be the only post-resurrection story we will look at during our Easter season at Fairmont because beginning in May Pastor Brian will be preaching on the ultimate resurrection story found in the book of Revelation!
This Sunday we will take a long walk with two bewildered and devastated followers of Jesus who had believed so passionately that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah – until he was crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. How quickly and wonderfully their sorrow and disappointment will turn to unbelievable joy as the resurrected Jesus – still unrecognized by the two who are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus – walks along side them and teaches them about all that was to be and to come.
There are so many moments in this endearing story where we can so easily enter in and become part of the narrative. We have all known times when God was ever present in our lives and yet we did not recognize God. Times when we needed to know God’s presence and yet felt so bewildered and alone, and then God comes to us in unexpected and surprising ways.
Friday, April 19, 2019
It all starts in pain and fear. Fear of failure and the sharp pain of grief. There is nothing sentimental about the Bible’s portrayal of resurrection. Instead scripture lifts up the fear and pain of these three days as the epitome of human experience, where all our hopes go to die. We are all intimately familiar with where resurrection begins.
But then the Bible’s account heads off in an altogether unexpected direction. This Jesus, abandoned by his disciples, reviled by the crowds, condemned by the religious officials, and crucified by the Romans would not stay dead. After being really truly dead he was now really truly alive. Resurrection is the most unnatural thing in the universe, indeed it is the refutation of our nature and every human expectation. If the dead can no longer be counted on to stay dead, then we are are living in an altogether surprising universe where what we always expected turns out to be plain wrong.
The women, Mary from Magdala and the rest, are the first to imagine the possibilities of what this might mean. They hear the testimony of the angels and begin to re-imagine everything he taught them and everything they experienced with the aperture of their hope now wide open. The run out to re-narrate the disciples memory that had been so corrupted by fear and shame. The women use the story to re-narrate the disciples’ lives and in doing so set them free. And Jesus’ disciples have been at it ever since.
This weekend, instead of wishing others “happy Easter,” or instead of proclaiming, “he has risen indeed!” consider sharing in the work of Easter. Consider doing precisely what the women did that first morning. Go and tell someone the story and more importantly retell them the story of their lives reframed as a part of Jesus’ story and a part of God’s story. And then get ready for something amazing.
Friday, March 15, 2019
The Gospel of Luke mentions the city of Jerusalem more often than any of the other Gospels. For Luke, Jerusalem is almost like another character in the story. But it is a decidedly conflicted character. Jerusalem is the locus of divine holiness on Earth, the object of pilgrim’s yearnings, and the center of Israel’s religion. It is the city that will one day welcome the Messiah with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And it is ground zero for God’s great transformation of resurrection. But Jerusalem is also the city that kills God’s prophets and turns its back on God’s way. Jerusalem is the city that turns faith into a business and sells the priesthood to the highest bidder. Jerusalem is, in other words, a stand in for us in all our confusion and contradictions.
It comes then as perhaps no surprise that Jesus will not be delayed or distracted from his mission to Jerusalem, even if, especially if, it requires his death. Where we are confused by our mixed motives and ceaseless rationalizations, he will be single-minded in his mission. And in Jesus’ determination we can take comfort that no matter what, he comes for us.
Friday, March 8, 2019
Our culture has a hard time with temptation. Desires, it is presumed by our markets and media, should be satisfied, not repressed. Indeed, suppressing one’s desires is viewed as somehow pathological. And of course, most of what we call temptation is simply a matter of choice between alternatives. But the story of Jesus’ temptation takes us much deeper to the very heart of the matter asking not what do you want, but rather the question that lies behind it: who are you?
Notice how subtly Satan introduces the condition, “If you are the Son of God . . . “ He is not asking about Jesus’ hunger, he is inquiring about Jesus’ identity. Exactly what sort of Messiah will Jesus be? And to make matters worse, Satan offers the opportunity to do good, to end hunger, reform the world political order providing peace and justice, and to enact scripture and publicly demonstrate Jesus’ divine authority. None of those things are inherently bad. Real temptation is never to do bad. Real temptation is to do good for the wrong reasons, reasons that will deny your true identity. Jesus knows who he is and it does not come from the power he wields. Jesus knows whose he is and will not be the Messiah without God. Temptation cannot touch him. Frustrated, Satan will bide his time for a more opportune moment in a Garden called Gethsemane.
Our Lent begins with the hardest question of all that will define your temptations and your response to them. Who, precisely, are you?
Friday, March 1, 2019
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story of Jesus appearing to a select group of disciples not as familiar Jesus of Nazareth, but rather as something, someone else, Jesus the Christ. The Gospel authors reach the end of their vocabularies as they simply describe him as “other.” But that otherness turns out to be interconnected with the deep purposes of God and God’s work in the world. Indeed, Moses and Elijah, the superlative prophets of the Old Testament, show up to discuss his own departure (literally exodus). It is all very impressive and very mysterious.Normally on Transfiguration Sunday we focus on the special effects: Jesus revealing for the first time part of his full majesty. But this Sunday I am less concerned with what the disciples saw (which they apparently had a hard time describing) and more concerned with how they saw it.
You can run right over the clue if you are not paying attention. It is there in the very first line. Peter, James, and John went up to the mountain with Jesus to pray. They did not go up to see a miracle. They went up to share in a time of prayer and everything that follows in this passage is all about what is revealed to them through prayer. Apparently they were up there for quite a while because they were falling asleep in their prayers. Nonetheless, through prayer they catch a glimpse, if only for a fleeting moment, of Jesus in the full glory of his true identity.
So if prayer is a way, perhaps the way, to see Jesus, now comes the uncomfortable question. Do we want to see Jesus?
BESIDE STILL WATERS
August 4, 2020
From Lament to Hope . . .
This afternoon I sat on our little front porch with Lisa talking about the Women’s Gathering at Fairmont this fall. The theme is, “From Lament to Hope.” While it was chosen more than a year ago, it seems oddly prescient for our current predicament. The tricky thing is that there is no direct pathway from lament to hope. We all want to go from whatever mess we are in to the outcome that fulfills our desires, which we call hope. Such a wish is understandable, very human, and very misguided. We, of course, want to assert our own solutions, self-help programs, self-control, resilience, and planning, as we deftly navigate time and chance to reach our preferred destination. But that is not the way life or this universe works. We are in charge of far less than we presume.
People who encounter real suffering and loss know the vanity of our assumptions far too well. Some losses cannot be overcome or gotten over. Some losses become a part of us. And one such loss that comes for each of us in time is the hard lesson that none of us is really in control. It can be a painful and certainly a humbling lesson, but it need not destroy us or our future. The lesson is simply one more fact that makes us human. The lesson helps teach us how to live.
There is a river in time and circumstance that carries us to places we would not choose to go on our own. There is a pattern in events woven into the warp and woof of this creation that shapes us, not the other way around. We can and do of course deny it, curse it, cajole it, and occasionally attempt to bribe it, but the river carries us despite our tantrums and entreaties. And the interesting thing about a river is that it has its own curious course and currents quite independent of anything or anyone floating along in it. You cannot directly cross over a river in a straight line. You hit eddies and tidepools that detour our progress. When you finally do get to the other bank in the shortest line possible it is never where you intended to land on firm ground. It is always someplace new, unexpected, and unchosen.
I want to get out from lament and move directly to hope. I particularly wanted this yesterday as I found myself flooded with anxious static emotion, a restlessness that comes from trying too hard to rest after working too long. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, I found my home and my life oppressively small. I wanted to get out. I wanted to get all this Coronavirus induced grief behind. I wanted to get to the other side as quickly as possible. But what the benevolent one was trying to teach me once again was the value of surrender. Instead of kicking and pushing against the current, all I needed to do was let go and surrender to it. If you float along, it may carry you quite some distance, but you will in due time but not in your preferred time, reach the other side.
The strange land called hope is out there. There is a future and it is marvelous. But the way to it cannot be navigated by human desire or agency. Jesus taught us that the way into that future was not found in resisting, striving, or dominating, but only in surrendering and letting go, knowing that the current will carry us to a new home and a new life. So, stop paddling so hard. I know it is hard and I know it is sad. Let yourself be sad. Let yourself be lonely. Let yourself be scared. These are not afflictions to be overcome; they are part of being human. If you do that, if you just let yourself be, the other side will find you, who you become will become more true, more steady, more hope-filled that you can imagine from here. –Brian
July 28, 2020
with apologies to Saint Augustine and Marcel Proust
Lately, I find myself reaching for my calendar more than ever before. I rely upon it both to help me orient myself—exactly what day is it? —and to help remember and in remembering construct some sort of narrative of memory. In this season of canceled . . . everything, I find that one day blurs into the next without much distinction or difference. Work, sleep, eating, chores follow a constant rhythm forming a pattern that extends not just from day to day, but now from month to month. Memory has flattened and without the familiar topography of change and circumstance, I begin to lose those distinct moments upon which to attach perceptions. So, while time passing goes on much the same as before with its varied moments of idleness and industry, recent time passed has become a blurry absence in memory. Like a long drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we know we have travelled, but cannot really say for how long or where we have been in the mile after mile sameness of it all.
I think that some of us are suffering from minor (or in a few cases major) depression caused by short time memory failure. The problem is not forgetting. The problem is that in this season of shutdowns, lockdowns, isolation, cancellations, and aloneness, new memories are not being created. Many of us have only the most fleetingly tenuous grasp on the present and none whatsoever on the future, so we tend to rely on the past as our reservoir of meaning, purpose, and feeling. Our past is never really past because every experience, perception, and emotion is shaped by our memory of the past. Memory is the mind’s unreliable narrator that makes sense of the present. And while memory is a notorious deceiver, at least it is comfortingly accessible. Without its orienting navigational overlay onto the present, we begin to lose track of not just where we have been, but where we are, indeed perhaps even who we are.
Since March, many of us have been experiencing essentially the same day over and over again. Without my calendar I could not tell you when it started (March 13). And no one knows when it will end. So, we are confronted with the tyranny and the invitation of the now. One can of course numb oneself to the now (Netflix and daiquiris anyone?) or pretend that nothing has changed by trying to replace memory with endless doing. Or one can face it directly. The fleetingly insubstantial moment of now is normally squeezed almost out of perceivable existence between the tectonic pressures of our nostalgia/trauma of the past and desire/fear of the future. But absent the defining compression of future and past, the extensive moment of now reveals its true nature. Now, without future and past, is what we call eternity. The eternal moment of now is always inviting us into not just a new way of perceiving, but a new way of being, one that we usually discard as ephemeral in our headlong rush into a future that we never seem to reach. Before considering your “next” thing, consider that for God, or indeed anyone living into eternity, perception of time would coalesce into an ever-present moment of now.
I am haunted by the some of the most enigmatic verses of scripture, the part of Ecclesiastes that follows immediately after they Byrds’ lyrics. “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. . . I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” Ecclesiastes 3: 11, 14-15. In this ground state of Now, Now as eternity, past and future are not irrevocably lost, they are perfectly present.
Why are we so unwilling to go there, or then? Why do we run away to our plans and reminiscences? I suspect because it is so vulnerable. Being in the Now deprives us of all controlling and defining narratives of memory and desire. Now makes us shed both defining traumas and nostalgias and the unspoken wants that drive our lives. Now may contain all truth, all belonging, every memory and hope, indeed may be the holy ground where we meet God, but it leaves us naked, stripped of defining identity and reassuring agency. All you can do is behold, which is distinctly underwhelming to most of our egos. But in that beholding of the Now is not just the invitation into, but an actual experience of eternity.
Put your calendar down. Actually, you are going to need to set down quite a bit more. This is hard, really hard for so many of us. Stop worrying so much about doing . . . anything. Breathe. Feel yourself planted on the Earth. Feel your heart beating. Do not try to think. Do not try to do. Instead, simply feel. Not in this moment, but this moment of now itself is nothing less that God giving God’s own self away in love for you and me and this pattern we call creation. Now is God-love given away for us and for our being in and as this moment. And it only took me a pandemic and a global shut down to notice. -Brian
July 21, 2020
I heard on the radio over the weekend about a new endeavor by lemonade company Country Time. The mega corporation has decided to provide one hundred dollars to anyone under the age of twelve whose parent applies on their website, the premise being that children are unable to have their usual lemonade stands in this summer of pandemic. Country Time intends for the little bit of money given to each of these families to help stimulate the economy, stating on their website their hope that the money will “help kids preserve the values of lemonade stands, honest work, and entrepreneurship, while putting a little juice back into the economy.” Presenting their case that even the littlest entrepreneurs should get the same treatment as the “big guys,” they are calling this new endeavor “The Littlest Bailout.” More information about the program can be found here: https://www.
While at first glance the idea may seem silly and unnecessary, the message it presents is much deeper. What might this pandemic society look like if we all took it upon ourselves to “bail” one another out? How might things look different? I have a hard time keeping my critical eyes, ears, and mind out of the way when I interact with fellow humans these days. Everyone seems annoyed with everyone else, and no one seems to be meeting others’ expectations of how they think we should all behave. I find myself frustrated when I go out, frustrated when I stay home, and frustrated when I participate in any conversation surrounding current events. I do my best to keep my judgement of others’ behavior reigned in under the premise that we are all struggling, lonely, frustrated, angry, annoyed, and the list goes on…but I am far from perfect. There are days I absolutely wish someone would come along and bail us out, and not just with lemonade stand cash. We need help.
But here’s the thing: when I step out of my frustration and criticism and judgement, just for a moment, I remember that we have been bailed out, long ago, by one who loves and cares for us more than anything in creation. Long ago, on a cross, we were more than just bailed out. We were given new life. And when I remember that, I can remember to show a little more patience, a little more forgiveness, and a little more gratitude in my day to day living right now. How are you showing this kind of sacrificial love to those with whom you disagree, especially right now? How are you living this kind of grace-giving life even when you are angry with your church, your grocery store, your neighbors?
I cannot bail out all of creation, all of the world, or even a few hundred children with lemonade money. But I can bail out one person at a time – my neighbor, my Target cashier, the Winans barista – with kindness, grace, and understanding that are universally understood and appreciated. And so can you. Country Time may be on to something here. There is something to be said, I think, for making lemonade out of…well. You know. ~Rachel
July 14, 2020
But now thus says the Lord, who created you…do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. Isaiah 43:1-2
As these long, hot, and somewhat undefined days of COVID summer creep along I find myself in need of some simple spiritual practices in order to keep my mind and spirit in the right place. Especially when I go to the grocery store or any of the few essential trips that I must take these days and I see someone not wearing a mask or not social distancing or not washing their hands, I am grateful for a simple prayer mantra which allows me to pray rather than “preach at” some poor soul! Silently, I begin to chant and pray Kyrie Eleison which means “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, have mercy on me” as I judge another human being, “Lord, have mercy on them” as they risk their health and that of others, “Lord, have mercy on us all” as we walk through these hard days together.
Emotions are raw and edgy these days, as we all know. In our world, in our country, in our own homes, we are in need of God’s presence to go with us throughout our days so that we might “pass through the waters” and not be overwhelmed as the prophet Isaiah promises us. God is with us. We belong to God. Do not fear.
Any simple prayer mantra can be a safety net for us when we are feeling vulnerable or angry or impatient or without hope. Just muttering the word Shalom under our breath when we are anxious or tired invites God’s peace to be with us and with our neighbors. Maybe the simple words My God and My All prayed continually by St. Francis of Assisi speak to your heart and bring calm to your spirit. Or the prayer Maranatha, “Come, Lord.”
In the Gospel of John which we have been studying and preaching since the beginning of the pandemic, we hear Jesus’ invitation to his followers and to us to drink more deeply of the living water, Jesus the Living Water. How do we do that? How are we drinking more deeply of the living water of Jesus during this time of drought and depression and isolation? I know there is no easy answer to this question as each of us are struggling with our own grief, fatigue, loneliness, and angst during this time apart but Jesus promises us that if we drink of this living water, we will live.
My prayer for each of you is that you will drink more deeply of the living waters of Jesus, and my prayer is that even the simple prayer mantras of Kyrie Eleison, Shalom, My God and My All, or Maranatha might allow you to take even just a sip of that living water in this time of thirst.
Peace and love,
July 7, 2020
Everywhere I seem to turn, whether it be at Kroger’s, watching TV, at the gas station, the General Assembly of the PCUSA, or even at church, I encounter our present golden age of grumpiness. Allow me to define my terms. By grumpiness I mean the interconnected behaviors and assumptions of a general dissatisfaction that the world is not the way we wish it to be combined with assumption that this unfortunate state of affairs is the fault of others, others whom we assume to be either negligent or bearing malign purpose. It is not simply sadness about how things are. It is sadness redirected outward into prickly madness.
Everyone seems grumpy now. Since early March we have been living under the shadow of fear which cannot be contained, mitigated, or predicted. Moreover, our sense of control over our “normal” lives has been pulled from under our feet with social distancing and all the normal pleasures of life cancelled. Compounding all of this is our collective incomprehension decoding the emotional cues behind our masks. Is that person smiling or smirking at us? Without our near constant flow of non-verbal emotional cues, we revert to our feral instincts assuming ill will behind every face mask. And what is the result? Lack of trust, the break down of relationships, institutions, and cooperation, and, of course, ever increasing grumpiness feeding its own growth.
Grumpiness is not all bad. As I mentioned, it is comprised of two components. First, we are disappointed, unsettled, anxious, and saddened by the way things are. That sadness is an honest and authentic response to pain. Normally, all by itself, we call that form of sadness, grief. Grief is the necessary experience of every mortal creature who loves life, beauty, and other creatures. Grief always arises because this world is touched by a pall of darkness from the very beginning that tinges every joy with the melancholy of inevitable loss. That is what this life and this world are like. Things do not always work out. We lose those we love. Everything mortal ends.
Given this reality of loss, the ancient answer of the church is not to deny or ignore the pain, but to sit with it and ultimately step through it. The pain is the embodied experience of letting go, letting go of our dreams, letting go of our loves, and even letting go of life. The curious thing is that in letting go, we finally find ourselves held. In letting go (a great metaphysical maneuver to bypass mortality that Jesus demonstrated on the cross) we finally liberate ourselves from all those attachments that kept us bound for so long. In letting go we finally find ourselves to be not only free, but in a reality more beautiful, loving, and rooted than anything our frustrated desires could dream of.
The problem is that this process of letting go or self-emptying can get misdirected. Grief is the greatest teacher of wisdom, but only if it does not get distracted towards others and transform into grumpiness and anger. We are afraid of looking inward and asking the hard questions, so we start hurling our grief outward onto others hoping that it will somehow stick. The shortest and most dangerous separation in the human heart is between grief and anger. Grief always wants to conceal itself as anger so it can go unnoticed, unprocessed, and unhealed. So, we ascribe fault to others. We push them away. We blame, accuse, and judge. And then we find ourselves ever sadder and more alone.
I look around our nation and often into my own heart to see the vast seas of unprocessed grief in which we paddle our lives. Time does not heal all wounds, it only conceals them as they sink down and become a part of us and for too many, become us. This danger befalls not just individuals, but entire nations.
There is another way, but it is hard. Job posed this same challenge and Jesus supplied the answer. We can face our pain. We can befriend it. We can walk through it. My pain is my pain and belongs to no one else. Blame will not remove it. Accusation will not lessen it. The pain is simply a part of being mortal. But if I listen to it and loosen my need for control and predictability, I find myself upheld from somewhere else, from someone else.
The present crisis is not fundamentally a question of virology, public health, cancelled vacation plans, deferred gatherings, personal freedoms, collective responsibilities, civil rights legislation, family expectations, or even national character. The present crisis is simply asking us whether we can face our own feelings and grow up. -Brian
June 30, 2020
With the need to find more outdoor and socially-distant hobbies this summer, one that I have become particularly fond of is river kayaking. Feeling the burn in my biceps and on my sunbaked skin, the cool water sprinkled on my legs with each lift of the paddle, trusting the gentle current to carry me to my destination, all against a backdrop of bent and ancient sycamore and birch trees (whose low-hanging branches I admittedly try to avoid for fear of spiders in my hair). It is a lovely new outdoor recreational activity, and typically a somewhat leisurely one.
A few weeks ago, I was kayaking with my friend Alli on the Great Miami River. It was a wonderfully pleasant afternoon; we could not have asked for better weather or friendlier water. Twenty minutes from the pull-out point at the end of our three-hour trip, the fluffy clouds were replaced completely and without warning by a menacing sky and driving rain. Alli and I pulled onto a beach on the riverbank as we debated what to do. With no way to view the radar and no perceivable break in the unannounced monsoon, we decided that our most beneficial and logical (albeit perhaps not safest) course of action would be to keep paddling toward the pull-out point. Back on the water, the lenses of my glasses became immediately covered in gigantic rain droplets, like windshields without wiper blades. Unable to make out anything but blurry water molecules, I took off my glasses and shoved them into my bag. Though I am legally blind without them, I concluded that fuzzy vision was better than no vision at all. I pulled my boat up alongside Alli’s and informed her that she should take the lead as I could not see more than a few inches in front of my kayak, and I would follow right behind her. And so we made our way slowly down the last mile of the river, Alli confidently navigating around every rock and eddy as I (quite literally) blindly followed, trusting her judgement and the water’s flow.
Much like learning to walk in the dark, navigating a river blind requires a great deal of awareness and trust. You must learn how to read the water not visually but physically. You need to feel the current beneath you and hear the bubbling of white water around the sharpest hidden rocks. And when those senses inevitably fail, you need someone who can guide you around the hazards that you cannot see.
These waters – the waters now in particular of Montgomery County and the waters of our world – are anything but still. The good news is, we have a guide who doesn’t just show us the way. Our guide IS the way, and the truth, and the life. And so we paddle. ~Rachel
June 23, 2020
This is getting harder. People are still getting sick. People are frustrated. People are angry. You can see it in the news from the streets and the mood of the nation. We are moving towards a partial church reopening that, while it is the least bad option available, really makes no one happy. Everything now seems to be making do. Amid all the frustrations, compromises, and indefinitely deferred futures, I just get tired. Maybe, you do too.
So, I went for a walk in the woods.
Amid ash and oak, elm and walnut, I am surrounded by icons of truths far below words and beyond my endless spinning thoughts. A giant maple, with a trunk more than a yard in diameter, has silently stood watch on that lawn for a century. Her canopy nearly touches the earth forming a shelter from innumerable storms and changes. From the eternal twilight beneath her boughs, I watch as branches mighty and minuscule bend and wave in the rolling wind. She has stood there far longer than I have been alive, and by the grace of God, will likely stand long after I return to dust. And her key to majesty and beauty is not strength but resilience. She bends before the wind, but always returns to her true form following a pattern locked deep inside her genes. I lean against her trunk gazing up into the verdure in wonder, gratitude, and awe.
On Sunday morning I had a related moment of wonder, gratitude, and awe listening to Judy Bede’s prelude on the old Shaker hymn, Tis the Gift to be Simple. Normally, the tune is played in A Major with bright consonant tones. But that is not where Judy started. After a brief introduction, she introduced the main theme in clashing dissonant chords that hinted at the form, but none of the content of the ultimate conclusion. In her musical offering, Judy enacted and demonstrated the lyrics without uttering a single word:
‘Til by turning, turning, I come ’round right.
Always returning to the same simple form, Judy allowed the dissonances to follow round and round in their own unhurried pace as the melody bent and bowed to intruding flats. But the pattern held steady and strong finding at last rest and resolution in the tonic conclusion, there resolving into precisely what it was meant to be from the first note.
Bent, bowed, but unbroken, we trudge on through chance and circumstance. The world does not care a wit about our preferences or bend to our wills. Instead, it is we who learn from the book of creation, beauty, and grace. In its pages lie the deep wisdom of the trees and mystery behind the music. True strength lies in gently yielding while always knowing your true form. True beauty lies not in the absence of pain and discord, but in their tender interweaving into deeper harmonies we could never have imagined without them.
So, I make do, not as failure and compromise, but rather as the essence of being a creature growing in and being shaped by this creation. The Creator’s themes are long and winding and we have only our few measures to play. But the great theme is not merely beautiful, it is beauty itself and it is Truth. And we, even we, even now at this moment amid our fear and frustrations, are an absolutely essential part of it. Because we know who we are in the vast intention we call God, we bow and we bend, but we will not break. –Brian
June 16, 2020
Learning How to Walk in the Dark
Like a lot of people right now, I am not sure of where I am going or what I am doing. There are so many uncertainties swirling around us right now—is it safe to go out in public, is corona virus growing or receding, how should I respond to racial injustices and civic protests around me? Last February the way forward seemed so clear. Now, not so much.
I remember as a child learning how to walk in the dark. You open your eyes wide, but they provide no useful information. So, you reach out your hands to feel your way along. You cannot tense up your fingers, lest you jam them on a wall. You need to reach out ever so gently trying to sense presences before actually running into them. You need to move slowly, paying attention to subtle body sensations–a change in the patterns of air movement, or the creak of a floor board near the center of the hall. You strive brush against the world, not smash into it, and you can only do so at the speed of careful perception.
The second thing you need to do is have a very clear sense of your own body, your own kinesthetic sense of up and down, left and right. Normal visual cues will not aid you in the dark. If you want to remain upright walking down a dark hallway, you need to be tuned into and trust your own sense of balance.
Finally, you need to have some sense of your own motion through space without actually watching yourself move. You need to be aware of where you have been–how many steps, how have you drifted or staggered, and how far have you come?
If you do all these things with gentle, attentive perception, you can walk in the dark. You will never walk quickly, but you will get to where you are going. What matters is not speed, but careful, observant attention to the signals from around you and to the signals arising within you.
I do not know where I am going right now or precisely where I am doing. What I do know is how to get there. I need to remember to relax my anxious responses and my tendency to reactively clench as if to receive a blow and instead reach out with gentle hands, a gentle mind, and a gentle heart. I need to spend less time worrying about what ifs and more time attending to what is, here and now. Perceptions, rather than anxious imaginings, provide the useful clues. I need to know myself, especially my perennial habits of wandering off into self-doubt, projections, and attachments. I need to be exquisitely attentive to my own sense of value, meaning and purpose. Finally, I need to know where I have been, the commitments, consequences, and follies of a lifetime that trail off into the wake of memory.
The odd thing is that I have never really known my destination. It has usually been a projection of my desires. What has changed me and shaped my life are those moments when I have attentively walked in the dark. In those moments, and not when I presumed to know where I was going, have I been found.
Maybe it takes walking in the dark to make us pay attention and realize that we are not alone.
Maybe it takes walking in the dark to get anywhere at all.
June 2, 2020
In this season of Easter now drawing to its close, my imagination has been haunted by bodies–bodies tortured and resurrected, bodies recognized from their wounds, bodies transformed by grace, bodies empowered through the breath of God, and bodies embraced in ascension as part of God’s own identity. And then I think about other bodies–brown bodies, white bodies, police officers’ bodies, bodies frightened and in pain. Seeking to follow a curious God incarnate in a first century Palestinian peasant, one cannot ignore God’s clear focus on the human body as both an expression of divine creativity and grace and the medium through which both divine truth and judgment are revealed. The Gospel of John in particular focuses our attention on bodies because for John it is through and in bodies that the truth is revealed and humanity is presented with a choice, literally a crisis. Do we see in one Jesus of Nazareth a mangled insurrectionist dying on a cross or in him do we see both truest humanity and truest God?
I do not know what I do not know. But I know my body knows more. I know my body seems to retain the hurts, shames, and anxieties of not just my life, but my ancestors as well, even when I cannot articulate them. And I know that my body grants me access, privilege, deference, and respect in so many environments, even if I cannot tell you how, why, or when. If this is true for me, I assume it is true for others. Conversely, I suspect that the traumas of generations reside in the flesh of many of us. Maybe you too have had hints at this sort of knowledge that is literally in our flesh and bones.
Something has shifted in our world. Maybe it was the pent-up anxiety of pandemic restrictions. Maybe it was the unprecedented economic carnage experience so disproportionately by communities of color. Maybe it was simply the pent-up rage of a people who have been forced to endure too much. The constant parade of African Americans killed by the agents of the state in our country—Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephen Clark, Botham Jean, and Breonna Taylor, to name but a few—threatens to numb our sensibilities and reduce tragedy to mere statistics. But then the shocking film of George Floyd brought something new to our collective conscience—horror and compassion. George Floyd should not have died. He was handcuffed lying prone on the street. And you could hear him beg, begging for a breath of air from the officer kneeling on his throat, and begging for his mother, “Momma, I’m through.” What I did not know was that Floyd’s mother died two years ago. Seconds before his own death, he cried out beyond his own anguish for his mother, a primal plea that comes up deep from within our bodies moments before their destruction pleading for rescue, release, and mercy. You cannot hear Floyd’s anguished plea and not hear its echoes across time and mortality all the way back to the cross. You cannot hear Floyd’s pleas and not be haunted by them.
The Gospels’ vision lesson works in two dimensions. Vertically, it challenges us to see God in Jesus. Horizontally, it challenges us to see that same God present in every person, every neighbor, just as in our selves. The failure to see in either direction is the essence of Sin. John in particular goes further claiming that the failure to see constitutes eternal judgment upon ourselves. The unfortunate truth however is that it is far too easy to fail to see that which we do not wish to see, far too easy to justify, rationalize, ignore, or obscure. As a white man in America–ridiculously overeducated, protected and content, safe behind all my clever words and connections–it is far too easy for me to not see the pain and suffering in my neighbors, my literal neighbors here in this community, one of the most economically segregated in the nation. But a dying man calling out for his mother, that even I cannot ignore. Nor should I.
So, what should we do? Pray for peace? Certainly, but prayer all by itself is a lousy substitute for action. Peacefully protest? Always a good thing, but history suggests it not terribly effective method for producing lasting societal change. The truth is that our current predicament is the consequence of millions of discrete choices, choosing against black bodies, for many centuries. No action, no reform, no prosecution, or policy could undo centuries of harm, even if we knew what we should do and we do not. Moreover, the deepest hurt is not in our law codes, or even our culture (although it is abundant there), but in human bodies testifying to centuries of trauma.
Or perhaps we should issue a statement, a proclamation decrying racism, oppression, and brutality. My inbox is littered with institutional censures of structural racism and prejudice, some curiously from institutions that at one time actually owned slaves. But if our commitment to our common humanity, justice, and human compassion must be proclaimed in a press release rather than simply demonstrated in our collective and individual character, then such words are obscene lies. So yes, racism is evil. White supremacy is a corrosive lie rooted in sin. Extra-judicial killings of unarmed, handcuffed men are atrocities. And there is something deeply malignant in our society that continually metastasizes our national original sin of violence towards people of color. But what should we do?
I do not know what I do not know. And my knowledge of the life experiences, hopes, and pains of people of color is minuscule. Perhaps, right now it is best to avoid declarative sentences altogether and simply listen. That is how Fairmont responded in the past, hosting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1968. Those panels expressed discomforting truths to more than 400 in the audience, convicting testimony that has never disappeared, only waited for verdict. Before I was born, a few hundred white people at Fairmont were simply willing to lean into the discomfort and listen. Maybe right now I should just listen, with all my anxiety and all my discomfort when I would rather turn away (recognizing we are all anxious and uncomfortable). But then we cannot merely listen, we need to bear witness. We need to listen compassionately to the truth of others and then point the world to that testimony. As good news bringers (aka evangelists) this should be an old habit for us. We are not particularly good at saving the world, but we can point to the truth. And the truth, if we are brave enough to bear and share it, may yet set us free.
The hard work of changing the world lies not in changing our laws but in changing ourselves. That can only happen when we let the truth of others break open ours. This requires us to look inside us to places we prefer not to go. It requires us to look outside ourselves in compassion (which literally means to suffer with) to perceive and testify to others’ truths. But I suspect that if we learn to see God in a man dying on a cross, we will also be able to see our neighbor in man calling out to his mother with his last breath. And when we can hold our witness to both in truth, loving our God and our neighbor, then I suspect we will be getting closer to the answer we seek. –Brian
May 26, 2020
I heard a prayer this morning that stopped me in my tracks. In his deep southern, South Carolina accent, beloved professor and theologian, William Willimon prayed these words, “God, I praise you for your great, glorious turning toward us.” God’s great and glorious turning toward us…
I am so drawn to these words. In all my fumbling and fickle attempts to really know and love God, I always come back to the painful awareness that I am lacking and unworthy. Which in the end takes me back to focusing on me and my actions, and all that I have or have not done to know or love God.
God’s great and glorious turning toward us is God’s action of love and redemption, initiated by God, completed by God in Jesus, and sustained by God through the Holy Spirit. There is no “me” in the ultimate work of salvation. God turns toward me. God turns toward us. Even when we are fumbling and fickle and failing. It is God who turns toward us to redeem us and love us and call us.
Hold that image in your mind, that image of God turning toward you, toward us. In the presence of the great and glorious God, all of who we are melts away, even our failures and fumbling. Of course, we are unworthy and lacking. We all are. God knows that yet turns in love toward us to redeem us and heal us and call us. This is the nature of God. Love.
I have many fragile and false markers I use to define who I am:
-the mistakes and the successes in my life
When my great and glorious God turns toward me, I can only see God and God’s love for me, and not those false markers I create for myself and others.
As I pray for each of you during these days of being together-but-apart, I imagine you at home alone or with your family, in your yard pulling weeds or planting flowers, in your makeshift office at home juggling work and children, or venturing out for the weekly grocery shopping adventure. I also imagine you tired, frustrated, short-tempered, and anxious, and at other times joyful hopeful, grateful, and content.
My prayer for you during these long and uncertain days of this pandemic is that you will see God turning toward you with love and redemption, and that you will simply and wonderfully receive God’s turning.
May 19, 2020
One of the hardest lessons of faith is that we are not in control. The universe does not revolve around us, nor does it care about our intelligence, industry, cunning, or craft. We camouflage over this hard truth with our strategic plans, risk assessments, and long-range forecasts. In “normal” times we are able to maintain the charade. But not now. Now we simply respond to what happens according to our best knowledge and values, knowing full well that our best knowledge is woefully inadequate. It is profoundly, sometimes embarrassingly humbling.
But curiously, it is precisely in the humbling that we find a solid truth to stand upon. Humble and humiliation both derive from the Latin word humus: the earth. To be humbled is to be brought down to earth, which is of course our home, from what we are made, and where we live and love. To be humbled is to learn who we truly are, creatures made by a Creator around whom this world unfolds. Once humbled, our lives can at last learn to bend with all creation to the Creator’s love and care in the great cosmic dance. We were not made to be autonomous, self-defined, or in control. Indeed, that was the essence of the problem in the garden long ago. We were made for a relationship defined not by us, but by our Maker. And in that embrace, is peace, bliss, and belonging beyond anything we could every dream or do.
I am just a little person in a big world and so are you. But we belong to someone who loves us and weaves time out of love for us simply as a place for belonging together. Today may not be a good day, nor even tomorrow. But God makes time for us, and on that day we will dance.
May 12, 2020
This is going on a long time, much longer than I expected. I do not mind the closed shops or even the closed restaurants. For me the hardest thing is the disappearance of the future. Beyond a few days out, everything is now indeterminate. Plans, events, celebrations, even deadlines have blurred. The presumed certainties of the calendar have collapsed into mere functions of probability. We simply do not know what will happen or when, and so we are forced by circumstance to content ourselves with an endless repetition of now.
For those of us who derive much of our self-worth and identity from future oriented industry, this can be a devastating loss. Goals, deadlines, and plans have all become fuzzy and porous as waves of pandemic wash in and out eroding all our assumptions. The once presumed road ahead is now more like trackless grassland extending out in all directions. You can see a long way, but the prairie covers your track and everything to the horizon rolls in motion before unseen winds. You know you are still standing, but cannot see your feet, let alone the trail.
One of the few genuine gifts of this moment in our history is precisely this moment. Social isolation, the slowing of doing, and the clouding of every moment except this moment forces us to look down and pay attention to this and only this moment. A quick inventory reveals that we are in fact stably grounded, breathing, reasonably healthy, and reasonably sane. So why are we all so afraid of living into the eternal now of this moment, which is of course the only point in time which we will ever occupy? Why do we endlessly yearn for the faraway horizons of the future that are, of course, mere projections of our desires?
I am here now. Where else could I ever be? I feel the air moving in my lungs. I feel the weight of my body pressing though my feet into the good earth. There is only one moment in time in which God can reach any of us and it is now. And there is only one place in all creation where God can reach any of us and it is here. The whole mystery of the incarnation made the here and now sacred as the sacramental vessel where the divine and the mortal meet, mingle, and dance. The past is utterly inaccessible to me. My memory is already hard at work re-editing it. The future is beyond my grasp. It will come as it will regardless of my plan and anxieties. But right here, right now God is giving away God’s own self to me in creative love in and as this very moment. Not soon, but now. Not close, but here. Welcome to the sacred crucible of now.
May 5, 2020
People ask me lots of questions for which I do not have answers. When are we going to open the church? Will older adults return to worship? What is going to happen? My problem is not that I have neglected to consider these questions. My problem is that the answers to these and many others are unknowable at the present time. Lack of knowledge and lack of control make me feel alternatively anxious or incompetent. I try to bury those feelings through busyness and talking to people, but I know they will come back. Perhaps you too have felt some of these critical, worried voices popping up inside your head and heart.
The most common human response to these darker feelings is avoidance. The nightly news recites an account of daily infection statistics and then ends the newscast with some human-interest story about a puppy. If we really are in control and we really do define our own identities and outcomes, then that is the best we can do. Science, politics, and culture will provide the only answers we can cling to, even it they don’t provide much. In such a world, the only rational response is despair or avoidance, hence all those puppy stories.
In an odd way this whole pandemic mess is strengthening my faith by weakening everything else that I might depend on. I am daily confronted by my own ignorance and anxiety and I can hear it behind all the talking heads on television as well. Daily I am reminded how little agency I exercise over my life and my community. And even more personally, I am reminded how I cannot generate my own feelings on demand. I do not have the freedom to create myself, let alone my world. The beautiful thing is that I do not have to.
The first and greatest freedom of a Christian is the freedom not to have to create yourself or your world. We are instead created. The second freedom is closely related. Who we are and what we do is not the product of our skills, knowledge, or achievements. Rather, who we are is the result of an encounter. Our lives are defined by a relationship, not by ourselves. I am defined by a relationship with one who loves me despite myself, a relationship with one who adopted me despite my running away, despite my anxieties, and despite my incompetencies. None of my stuff really matters, only the relationship. Only God.
If all your hopes lie with humankind and our skills and knowledge, then today is a day to despair because all those hopes eventually end in the grave. But if you believe in a God who is meeting us as us in the middle of this and every mess, then you are now free to teach the world how to live . . . and how to die . . . and how to live. The first commandment—you shall have no other gods before me–is the greatest commandment not because it forbids idolatry, but rather because it points our way beyond ourselves to freedom and to life itself. B.