“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.’

And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.

- Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Nov 12

Which Path To Take?

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railroad tracks

Two hours of silence. That was the assignment at the Apprentice Experience last week. Two hours with no one to talk to. No phone to check social media. No books to read. No TV to veg out in front of. Just some good old fashioned

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railroad tracks

Two hours of silence. That was the assignment at the Apprentice Experience last week.

Two hours with no one to talk to. No phone to check social media. No books to read. No TV to veg out in front of.

Just some good old fashioned silence.

Jan Johnson gave some great instruction to begin our time, the most memorable of which was: “Don’t try to do anything holy, that will ruin it.”

So, I set out with the other participants and tried to find space on the retreat property to spend my time.

I didn’t know where I was going, no destination in mind (I hadn’t been on the grounds before).

So, I just walked, and walked. First along a pond, then I stumbled upon a sign “Nature trail this way.”

That didn’t sound too holy, so I followed the sign.

I just kept walking. One foot in front of the other.

Slow.

Measured.

Steps.

I had two hours to fill (with nothing) after all.

I did match a breath prayer to my steps (Show me your path; use me), which felt a little holy, but I justified it because it slowed down my pace.

Anyway, back to the trail. It was a winding path, first through a grass pasture. There were multiple forks in the path. With little thought as to where I’d end up (there wasn’t a map), I simply turned one direction or the other.

Groundbreaking, right?

Just making minor decisions. But I’m an indecisive person, ask my wife. I’ll spend twenty minutes in the toothpaste aisle reading all the different attributes of competing brands, just to make the “best” decision.

But on that day, I just walked.

Through out my time, I enjoyed some diverse settings. Different sections of the path were covered with a variety of berries and flowers. Tall trees here, simple grass there. A dried up pond.

And probably some things I missed, because I chose not to go down one path or the other.

As I reflected back on the time, I realized how freeing it was just to follow along that path. And how little I refuse to follow on this big path of life with God. Instead of just looking at the next choice or decision as what it is, a choice or decision, I make it into a life or death situation.

I’m more like Augustine, just before his conversion.

Augustine looked back at his life of pleasure and self-gratification, and you know what? He didn’t want to leave it. Not quite yet. The decision seemed to much. To pursue this whole life with God thing would force him to leave that other life behind. To choose one fork over another.

But, a voice called to Augustine, “Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have nor fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall.” (Confessions, quoted in Devotional Classics, Foster and Smith, 58)

Whatever the next decision I make today or this week, it isn’t the end of the story. Sure, I may never know what might have been along the other path, but it’s not the end of the road. After all, we follow a God who brings life out of death.

So, I’m trying to walk slower and with measured steps, allowing the decisions to follow to come more easily. It’s more art than science. More joyful than stressful.

I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I do know I don’t walk alone.

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Nov 07

A Week In Review

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Links at your leisure: Re-framing the conversation around singing/music styles in church: Sean Palmer, Singing as a Spiritual Discipline “If you’ve spent more than 10-minutes inside an American worship service, you already know how important singing is. Regardless of the worship style of your congregation, the

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Links at your leisure:

Re-framing the conversation around singing/music styles in church:

Sean Palmer, Singing as a Spiritual Discipline

“If you’ve spent more than 10-minutes inside an American worship service, you already know how important singing is. Regardless of the worship style of your congregation, the music is important, and usually done well. Music has power. It transforms moments and has the power to embed memories and stir emotions. We are moved by the singing and music in ways little else can or does. For most of us, the music and singing of our congregation is one of the major reasons we picked it.

And that’s the problem.”

On following Jesus when it’s not all butterflies and gumdrops:

Marlena Graves, God’s Grace Through the Pain of Pregnancy

“Lest I give the false impression that I am heroic during my pregnancies, let me assure you: I am not. Quite the opposite. Internally, I war against them. I’d like to think I am an icon of grace amid such suffering, a matronly saint, but it’s simply not true. When I am sick, tired, isolated, almost immobile, and feeling useless—I resent it. I get angry and irritable. Impatient. My husband suffers. My children do, too. These are some of my worst moments.

And yet it is here that I see the hand of God.”

Where in the Bible is the “sinner’s prayer?”

Richard Beck, Be Baptized

“The proclamation of the gospel is an apocalyptic event. The gospel isn’t a sales pitch. The gospel is news. In Jesus something happened. The gospel is a revelation. A revelation–an apocalypse–that a new reality has broken upon us in a way that breaks us, a new reality–that the  Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in the person of Jesus–that interrupts and disrupts everything that we thought we knew about ourselves, our world and the cosmos.”

 Counter-intuitive advice on the church:

Scot McKnight, Expecting Less, Discovering the More

“The paradox of real church life is yearning for love and holiness in the midst of sinners who will not this side of eternity ever be fully loving or holy. Hence, the paradox is that we are both saints and sinners — that’s what the church really is. The now of the kingdom is no different.”

 Yeah, you’ve heard about it before, but hear it afresh:

Rob Bell, The Reason Why People Miss the Point of the Good Samaritan Story

“Do you see why I began by talking about the point of the story? You can make it about roadside assistance, which is fine, and maybe even helpful, but Jesus is calling us to something way bigger and higher and deeper and transcendent. Jesus is calling the man to love like God loves. Which means everybody. Even those you hate the most. Jesus is challenging the man to extend divine love to those who are the most difficult to love. That’s where it’s at. That’s the answer to the question. That’s where the eternal life is.”

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Nov 03

All Saints

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A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, preached at Chapel Hill UMC. Revelation 7:9-17 Matthew 5:1-12 Revelation is a peculiar reading for All Saints’ Sunday, don’t you think? When we think of saints we often think of individual men and women who have done particularly great

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A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, preached at Chapel Hill UMC.

Revelation 7:9-17

Matthew 5:1-12

Revelation is a peculiar reading for All Saints’ Sunday, don’t you think? When we think of saints we often think of individual men and women who have done particularly great things. St. Francis who was in such communion with creation that he preached to the birds. St. Teresa of Avila who experienced a dramatic mystical connection to God and who gave her life to reforming the Carmelite Order, building 17 convents in Spain. Mother Teresa, who made caring for the sick and left out of Calcutta her life’s work. These are heroic gestures, they come to mind when we think of saints.

But the New Testament has something different to say about saints. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” ( 1 Cor. 1:2). “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia” (2 Cor. 1:1). “To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1). “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi (“Phil. 1:1). “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col. 1:2). Paul seems to think this whole saint thing isn’t an isolated me-and-Jesus journey, there isn’t a saint, there are saints.

Which makes sense, if we’re called to imitate Christ (who showed us the ultimate love of God and neighbor), then we can’t do that alone.

Back to Revelation, In our reading we get a glimpse of apocalypse (not a very saintly word, right?). This apocalypse isn’t full of zombies or whatever else Hollywood throws into the word. That’s not apocalypse. Apocalypse means the curtain is pulled back, and we can see things as they really are. It’s like a sneak peak.

And what do we see in John’s sneak peak? A great number of people—too many to count from every race, nation tribe, and language–worshiping at the throne of God, their shepherd. Where there is no more hunger or thirst and God gives the water of life in place of tears.

As he’s standing there, someone asks John, “Who are these people, dressed in white robes, and where have they come from?” John dodges his question, “You can tell me, sir.” Then the elder replied, “These are the people who have been through the great trial; they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb.”

These saints have gone through the trial, and come out sparkling white on the other side, thanks to the blood of the Lamb. These white robes aren’t to distinguish us from you. We wear these to remind you of your identity. In baptism, your robes are made white in the blood of the Lamb. You are called to be saints.

Notice what the text doesn’t say: it doesn’t say there will be no trial, but in Matthew, Jesus names blessing even in the place of trial. “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sale, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

These saints have been brought through the trial into communion with God and neighbor. What is the trial for you? This time of year it might be making it to Wednesday without breaking your tv because of all the campaign commercials. Trying to write this sermon was a trial with a newborn at home and the random crying and unusual sleep patterns that come with her. Maybe you’ve experienced the death of a family member or friend. maybe you’ve had a relationship severed. Or lost a job. Or had a health scare. Or lost your hope or joy. For you, on this All Saints Sunday, our image from Revelation is good news. This is how the story ends for the saints.All-Saints-Icon

Celtic Christianity, where we get St. Patrick, has a concept of thin places. These are places where the barrier between heaven and earth seems incredibly thin, even possible to be bridged. We might call these places holy ground. The communion table is such a place. Even though we know where the saints’ story ends–the throne of God–we don’t have to wait to experience it. Every time we gather at this table and join our voices with the company of heaven: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.” Every time we do that we experience the communion of the saints. It’s not just us gathered at this table, but all saints, from all times and places.

Today is a kind of thin time. We remember and grieve those saints in our lives who have gone on to that heavenly multitude. We grieve their absence because of the impact they had in our lives. The love they showed us, the wisdom offered, the times they listened when no one else would. One morning while our daughter was up early, we watched Les Miserables, and a line from one of the last songs goes, “To Love another is to see the face of God.” We grieve because those saints in our lives have pointed us to the face of God.

But we also give thanks for the saints who surround us here and now. Those who continue to walk with us through the trial. And we remember that we are called to be saints, to follow Christ wherever we find ourselves.

And more than that, we remember the One by whose name alone we can be called saints: Jesus Christ our Lord. For saints are not those with super human abilities that call attention to themselves. No, saints are those who humbly submit their lives to God. They point us to the lamb whose blood has washed our robes to a glistening white. To the one who gives us life and who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

And isn’t it funny the thing Jesus left us to do in remembrance of him was eat together? When I was in divinity school I had an internship at Efland UMC, a small rural church. When someone died in the community, the church would surround the family of the deceased with love and support. After the funeral and graveside service, all who wanted to would return to the church for a delicious southern potluck served up by the saints in Efland: pinto beans, fried chicken, rice pudding, and sweet tea were some of the staples. And those in mourning and the rest of the church would sit and eat together, sharing stories and more than just a meal. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Whatever trial you find yourself in, know that you are not alone. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, visible and invisible. And the good shepherd will lead you to this table where the saints have always found bread and wine for the journey. That meal and fellowship which alone can satisfy. It’s easy to come to this table in auto-pilot, receiving the elements individually. Tonight, look around at your fellow saints, give thanks for them. And, if you can, look through this thin place to where that great multitude is gathered and get a foretaste of that eternal celebration, a foretaste of heaven.

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Oct 31

A Week In Review

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keyboard

Links at your leisure: Because it’s Halloween: Shauna Niequest, Why I’m a Halloween Person “My husband Aaron and I were never really Halloween people; we’re not into zombies and tombstone decorations. We’re not pumpkin enthusiasts. I’m not a fall person at all—not a ‘can’t-wait-to-break-out-my-sweater-and-boots’ person,

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Links at your leisure:

Because it’s Halloween:

Shauna Niequest, Why I’m a Halloween Person

“My husband Aaron and I were never really Halloween people; we’re not into zombies and tombstone decorations. We’re not pumpkin enthusiasts. I’m not a fall person at all—not a ‘can’t-wait-to-break-out-my-sweater-and-boots’ person, not a pumpkin spice latte lover. We never boycotted Halloween. We never turned off our porch lights and hid inside, but we definitely didn’t put cobwebs in our trees or fake spiders on our porch or skeletons holding machetes in our bushes.

At least, we didn’t until two years ago.”

Brian Zahnd, Halloween: A Search For The Sacred

“So how do we move beyond the trite sentimentality of kitsch Christianity or the bland utility of pragmatic Christianity? How do we recover the awe and wonder of sacred mystery? I’m convinced it involves a thoughtful reintroduction of ancient forms of Christian worship. Liturgy, Creed, Eucharist, and the hallowing of time through an observance of the church calendar. These ancient forms are like a gothic cathedral — they are full of holy mystery and communicate a sense of the sacred, which is what a secular society sadly yearns for every Halloween.”

On formation and worship:

Scot McKnight, When Worship becomes Formative

“Here is the issue: many American Christians are convinced set patterns in worship are ruts we need to jump rather than rhythms we need to indwell. Everything then needs to be thought up anew by each generation and each church and each pastoral change so that today many think the major formative elements of worship and the major accomplishments of worship … well, these things are not thought about because we go to church to hear sermons. We sing and we think that’s worship. OK, these are all important but when they are divorced from the church’s wisdom about a properly ordered time of worship as a gathered church they do form us: into passive watchers and in-takers.”

On the slow nature of spiritual formation:

Casey Tygrett, Why I Believe It Takes Time

“The reason it is key for us to take the long distance mentality is because without it we give up. We walk away. Or worse, we blame ourselves. Our theology won’t let us believe something is wrong with God (which is correct) so if things aren’t happening according to our timeline (big mistake) then there’s only one person who can be at fault.

We either give up out of impatience or out of guilt.”

 

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Oct 29

Spiritual Jealousy

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We often read passages such as Hebrews 11, the Hall of Faith, and wish we could be like those heroes. We might even look at other Christian VIP’s, authors, speakers, and the like and think to ourselves, “Man, they have it figured out.  Why can’t

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We often read passages such as Hebrews 11, the Hall of Faith, and wish we could be like those heroes.

We might even look at other Christian VIP’s, authors, speakers, and the like and think to ourselves, “Man, they have it figured out.  Why can’t I be like them?”

Anyone on a faith walk or journey has these moments of spiritual jealousy.  And, on the one hand, maybe it’s a good thing.  After all, if we are that concerned with being spiritual and being an exemplar of faith, then maybe it’s good that we struggle with it.  Of course, it is obviously dangerous.  Such jealousy is hardly representative of a loving God.

Paul says in Philippians to work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.  This often scares people as if Paul is really trying to frighten them and their relationship with God.  But, that is not an appropriate reading of the passage.  Rather, Paul means you have to work at your relationship with God.  And, in that, be in awe of who He really is.

Faith is not a destination.  It is a journey.  And, everyone is on the same journey.  In fact, the trembling signifies that we might get scared once in a while.  We may have moments of doubt and weakness.  And, that is okay.  But, we are to have faith.

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard wrote of the knight of resignation who looks admirable and may be compared to a Stoic in the face of adversity.  How we admire those who can look unshakable during times of great trial and distress (perhaps at the loss of a job, death of loved one).  But, being Stoic is merely being detached from the world.  Where is the commitment, though?  Where is the faith?

Abraham, virtually the father of faith, should have been frightened to some extent when asked to give up his son, Isaac.  But, as he had worked on his relationship with God, he was considered righteous and faithful.  Isaac was not taken from him but given back, restored to Abraham.

As a man of faith or, as Kierkegaard refers to him, a knight of faith, Abraham should have worried while being obedient.  How could God ask for such a sacrifice?  In our world, that sacrifice would be considered murder.  Indeed, in the time of Abraham, it would have been considered murder as well.

The Knight of Faith, however, knows that anything and everything could be taken from him at a moment’s notice and, perhaps, at the command of God Himself.  But, the Knight of Faith is certain that all will be restored to him by God.  There is no detachment or doubt but utter faith and reliance upon God.

There is a lesson here about our walk with Christ.  Our faith may be irrational at times to trust in something that makes no sense in our everyday world.  In fact, some of God’s requests and plans seem so contradictory that it almost appears that God has no consideration of good and evil.  And, maybe He doesn’t.  And, maybe that’s the challenge.

How can God forgive all if even He has a rating system?  How can He ask us to forgive all and welcome all to the table if we rate and rank others?  It must have been frightening to watch Jesus welcome the prostitutes (how can she do that?), the tax collectors (how can he live with himself?), and make promises to a thief on a cross.  How much more disturbing to forgive those who nailed Him to the cross as a guiltless, sinless man?

As Christians, we should not just know this forgiveness but practice this forgiveness.  Our faith should at once tell us and exemplify the fact that we have lost everything and it has been restored by Christ’s death on the cross.  Could you ever repay such a debt?  Do you know how much God has given back to you?

In Christ’s parable from Matthew 18, the master who forgave the debt was forgiving, by today’s standards, billions of dollars.  Do you have billions of dollars to repay?  I don’t.

We have erred easily into the billions and God has written it off and said you must do the same.  Our showing of forgiveness is our demonstration of our gratitude to God and, in some sense, it shows that we have not forgotten, that we are forgiven and that we have faith.  

So, here is our salvation.  Our faith walk is one of fear and trembling.  We should be in awe, in fear of the judgment not rendered.  We should tremble, but not falter for He is with us.

Remember our heroes of the faith.  They stand out to us as giants because of what they faced often without sin or guilt before God.  We should be thankful, not jealous, that God has not asked us to tremble as much. But, if He does, remember there is faith, there is salvation, there is Jesus welcoming us no matter what.

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