Three Days

One week into recovery from open heart surgery and I am celebrating a New Year. It is a new year when I actually do get to turn 50, after all. And in just two days, I get to celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary. I don’t expect a lot of fireworks, but I would be surprised if there weren’t a whole lot of tears of gratitude. The tears have been epic throughout.

If you saw my previous blog post, you know I was given a Christmas Miracle. I have been quite out of it in the days after surgery, but today my head is beginning to clear and I wanted to share the rest of the story.

On Tuesday afternoon, December 26, I had open heart surgery. They had done a heart cath and an echocardiogram on the prior Saturday, after the symptoms had ceased. They had determined that my heart had sustained no damage from the blockages and they would do three simple bypasses and I’d be on the road to recovery. The doctor even said, “Yeah, it’s too bad it’s not Wednesday, we’d have had you on the table Thursday.” For a while, I was annoyed that I then had to wait through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for the surgery. “Even surgeons need Christmas,” I kept telling myself, but in my heart of hearts I just wanted to get this over with.

It was a hard discipline to wait three days for my surgery. When the day came, the surgeon ended up doing four bypasses instead of the anticipated three, and repaired my mitral valve. He was like a kid in a candy store. I was just waking up and groggy as can be, but I remember this: He stuck his smartphone in my face with a picture of what looked like a jellyfish. He explained to me in great detail (that fades on me a bit), that there was no apparent damage to my heart on Saturday, but that the mitral valve was damaged after they took the heart cath and echocardiogram, so they would not have known it if they had not waited for three days until surgery. And, he added, if they had done surgery too quickly, it would have eventually required a second surgery. He went on and on about how giddy he was to get to repair one of these suckers (mitral valves) because they usually just have to be replaced, but because my damage was so recent, the valve could be saved and he could simply repair it. I began to doze off again.

Three days felt like a long time to wait. Jesus and I had some very long conversations in there, and, of all people, he has assured me that he understands. It turns out once again that my agenda was flawed, that what I wanted was not exactly right. I am still learning to trust more deeply, to release more fully my life into the divine purpose. I don’t really know what to do with it all in the moment, which I guess is ok, because God has said simply for now, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), or as I festooned a number of years ago,

Be still. Stop your tireless striving. Let go of your desire to control. Release the world around you into my hands. Don’t you see what I do with it when you let me? You are not God. I AM. Let me be.

It is amazing to me how all the spiritual work I have been doing these past few years is not an accomplishment, but a necessary prelude simply to get me ready for this. And what comes after this? I do not know. I only know that today I am alive, and I am ever so grateful for God’s perfect timing, which, once again, has nothing to do with my preferences, but only with what God is doing. I am aware that there’s an awful lot of heart work ahead. The surgeons can only do a part of it.

Trust. Be held. Breathe.

The hospital time since is honestly a blur. I remember moments, and especially some very kind nurses who attended to me with great love, but much of the rest of it I’m happy to let fade into oblivion. I was released this past Saturday, December 30, the eighth day of my hospital stay. Biblically, the eighth day is the day of Resurrection. It is the day when creation begins again. It is the day of new birth. Happy New Year!

I’m so very grateful for the many of you whose prayers have sustained me this far. You are my Christmas angels.  Please keep praying as God continues this heart-healing work and I learn daily to release my life more and more into the divine hands. I really pray that I can get out of the way because I’m curious to see what God can do with it.

Posted in A New Heart, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Christmas Miracles

25 December 2017

Some of you are aware that I am to have open heart surgery tomorrow.  This is the first part of the story about how I have come to count this as a Christmas miracle.

But first, in the tradition of biblical lament, can I just say that it sucks to be in the hospital on Christmas Day.  It sucks to miss Christmas Eve worship for the first time in forever.  It sucks that I am not going to be leading a mission in Cambodia starting tomorrow, on what is now the day of my surgery.  It sucks that I had a heart attack at 49, with no history in my family, regular physicals, and a generally really good diet with a healthy amount of exercise.  Statistically, I shouldn’t be here.

On Thursday night I wasn’t feeling great, but it was just a general lack of energy.  Nothing specific.  I woke up at 4 a.m. Friday morning with chest pains.  Ok, that’s a clue, but can I just say, I’m not a likely candidate for this, I thought it would go away.  It got better.  Then it got worse.  Then better again.  I had to preside at Christmas Eve services in two days. I had to lead a mission team to Cambodia in four days.  I had stuff to do.

Not knowing (but somehow suspecting) what was going on, I asked God to show me definitively what I should do. So that afternoon we went to see Star Wars (great movie, by the way), but leaving the theater, I started getting cold sweats in the car and feeling a bit dizzy.  We pulled into the parking lot at Olive Garden where we were going to eat, but I just put my head in my hands and asked Elizabeth to take over driving, take the kids home and me to the hospital.  The lights on the cars were beginning to blur.  God had my attention.  Message to all of the men I know: if you have symptoms, don’t wait.  Go to the hospital.

I had not told Elizabeth about my symptoms all day.  On the way to the hospital, she told me, “I will get you to the hospital where they will help you get better.  Then I’m going to kill you.”  Message to all the men I know: if you have symptoms and you don’t go, at least tell someone you love so they can help you before it is too late.

I walked into the ER and my EKG was normal.  “See,” I said.  But my heart rate was 32.  And the blood enzyme that indicated a heart attack was significantly high.  I was pale and pasty.  They took me into CICU and gave me some medications to settle my heart.  It worked.  The next morning I was swept into a heart cath, where they discovered the culprits:  Of the three coronary arteries, two of them were completely blocked, and one was 80% blocked.  The doctor looked at me and said, “You are a lucky man.  Statistically, you shouldn’t be here.”

On the heart cath, they discovered something remarkable.  Despite two of the three arteries being completely shut down, my heart muscle was undamaged.  How could that be?  Apparently, the artery now working at 20% had reached out to embrace the other side of my heart, filling it with the blood and oxygen it needed to continue pumping.  It is a picture of divine love at work, embracing the dying and raising it to life.  It is a picture of the Holy Trinity, a community of  love that is all about self-giving, constantly seeking the well-being of the other.  For me, it was simply grace that kept me alive, and grace that grabbed my attention when all I wanted to do was ignore it so I could pursue my agenda.  “No,” God said.  “This isn’t about you.  It is about my life in you.  It is about my life flowing through you.”

Seven weeks ago I was hiking the Grand Canyon with my son and some friends.  Our mantra was “We will go down, but we will rise.”  How did I survive that trip on an injured heart but by grace?  Four days after the heart attack struck, I was scheduled to be on a flight to Cambodia.  What if the heart attack struck on the plane?  What if it had come while I was serving in a small, rural province in the countryside far from medical help?  I had a friend email me the same night of the heart attack telling me that she was prompted by the Spirit to pray fervently for me that day.  She even gave me a time stamp.  4 p.m. MST, which in Toledo correlates exactly to the moment I knew I needed to go to the hospital.  I am held by grace and pursued by angels.  Note to all my friends: if someone suddenly jumps into your mind, stop what you’re doing and pray for them.

It was not my timing to be out for Christmas Eve, but it was God’s perfect timing.  I am grateful to be here (existentially), and I am grateful to be here, at Toledo Hospital where they have the best heart team in the area.  The doctor called it lucky.  I call it grace.  It is my Christmas miracle.  It is God’s Christmas gift to me. “You can have your life back, but you can’t continue to live it on your terms.”

So tomorrow begins the rest of my life, forever shaped by a wake up call at 4 a.m. on a Friday morning and a prayer at 4 p.m. that same day that somehow pushed me beyond my willful resistance into the arms of grace.  I know I have a community of angels praying for me.  Some of them have faces I recognize.  Some have voices I know.  Some have a touch I can feel.  Some are unknown and unknowable, and yet have never left my side.

You, my friends, my family, my companions on this journey of life, my health care workers who gave up your Christmas to care for me, you are some of those angels.  And I am forever grateful for the way you have reflected God’s holy light into my life.  I am forever grateful for the songs of praise you inspire.  I am forever grateful for the ways you have touched me and connected me to a world, a universe like the one Jesus called the “Kingdom of the Heavens.” It is not some pie-in-the-sky-in-the-great-by-and-by thing.  It is real.  It is knowable.  It has held me in the arms of grace and given me a chance to live again.  We. Will. Rise.


Posted in A New Heart | 2 Comments

Dancing with Delight!

Trinity Sunday, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

On the night before I preached this sermon, I saw on Facebook this post from Episcopal Memes:


Thank you Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham.  I will risk it.

I am not a good dancer.  I am awkward in my body.  I am better at stepping on toes than cutting a rug.  I never wanted to go to dances in high school or college for fear of embarrassment.  The only exception to this is group dancing.  Oh, I’m still not any good, but if feels like in a group dance I’m not on stage.  It gives me space to follow along and learn as I go from those around me.  If I’m in a line dance, I always position myself at the center so I never end up in the front, but can always watch and do what the person in front of me is doing.

A few years ago on sabbatical we were visiting the Scottish Isle of Iona where Christianity first came to Britain.  We were invited to a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish celebration that includes storytelling, song and dance.  They had to be very patient with these two-left-footed Americans trying to learn new rhythms and new steps, but how much fun to join in the ever-encircling dance that wasn’t about partners and getting it right, but about celebrating community and finding our place in it.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given over not to a story but to a doctrine, specifically a teaching about the nature of God.  The Trinity is perhaps the most misunderstood and weird teaching of the church, that the One God is really three, but not three separately, three-in-one.  Wrap your mind around that!

People have tried to describe the Trinity in many different ways.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one way.  St. Augustine described the Trinity as the “Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that flows in between.”  I like that sense of movement.  Others have related it to the three states of water, liquid, ice, and gas.  All still water, but we interact with them in different ways.

My favorite description, however, is not static but dynamic, moving, swirling, twirling, bounding, leaping, freeing.  The image of God that makes my heart sing is that God is a dancing trio who are inviting me into their dance.  Though I do not know all the steps, they draw me in nevertheless, encouraging, clapping, sometimes moving my feet when I don’t know how, sometimes turning me ‘round to face one or another of them, or even to look out, to reach out, to invite others in.

There is a Greek word for this image of God, perichoresis.  It literally means “to make space around,” but figuratively it imagines a divine dance, constantly making space for one another, persistently opening up to welcome us in.

Why does it matter?  Well, our image of God matters quite a lot.  If we imagine God to be a judge waiting to condemn us, we will relate to him fearfully, or not at all.  If we see God as requiring purity of thought or action, we will strive to make ourselves acceptable to God and distance ourselves from those we think don’t measure up.  But what if we take seriously the image of God as a twirling-swirling, ever-moving community of other-centered love?  It matters to me that the very nature of God is love, the very nature of God is self-giving, the very nature of God is to make space for others, to make space even for me.  It matters to me that God is not static and definable even by our best systematic theologies, but God is ever moving in an unforced rhythm of grace that is not demanding but playful, that is not confining but freeing.

God is not self-absorbed, but takes sheer delight in keeping company together.  Because God’s nature is to love, God’s greatest desire is to invite us into the dance, to show us the waltz of the new creation, to teach us the two-step of eternal life.  If we are to become the people God desires us to be, we will have to learn to dance to the music of self-forgetful love.  Set free from worrying about getting it wrong or being self-conscious that we are not good enough, we are invited into the divine dance that will free us to find our best life by taking the divine lead, interacting and moving responsively in rhythm with the One who is making space for me and for you.

So if God is this ever-moving dance of self-giving love making space for us, what does it mean that we gather to worship as a church?  What would church look like if we were to become like this Holy, dancing Trinity?  We might dance more in worship, for one.  More importantly, we might become ourselves a community of other-centered love, delighting in one another yet always reaching out, always inviting others to experience the joy and release of being set free from our old ways of being to learn the dance of the new creation.  We would be God’s dance studio with music that doesn’t entertain us or make us feel good, but moves us emotionally, spiritually, even physically to respond with heart mind, soul and body to God’s loving initiative in our lives.  We would not worry when someone missed a step but would encourage them to respond to the Divine rhythm moving with us.  This is worship!  This is celebration!  This is becoming as God is.

When Jesus sent his disciples off with their marching orders in Matthew 28, he said,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  Look, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:19-20).

It sounds so formal and regimented, until you begin to think of the dance.  I used to think of baptizing “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” as a formula to use in baptisms, but I have begun to see it now as an invitation to the dance.  It is not a magic incantation, but an invitation to encounter the life God has promised for each of us not just individually but in community.  We are not just baptizing “in the name of,” we are baptizing into the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, initiating people into the kind of space-making, self-giving, other-centered, self-forgetful love that is the very nature of God and that makes us more like the God we worship.  We are teaching the responsive dance, following the lead of the God who wants to be with us.

At our General Conference last week, themed with this same scripture from Matthew 28:19-20, the tensions that have torn our unity were on full display.  There were moments that I was not sure our denomination could survive.  We seem captivated by the polarities and dualistic thinking that want to force us either toward scriptural holiness or toward social holiness.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught that scriptural and social holiness are not two things but one.

At one particularly tense moment when I was watching the proceedings, the presiding bishop called a recess.  The live stream cut off and I waited and prayed for what would happen next.  I looked on my Facebook and Twitter feeds to see if anyone would give me a glimpse of what was going on.  Then I saw it: during the recess instead of breaking into caucus groups, someone in the African delegation stood up and began singing “Hallelujah!”  Soon all the African members of the conference were on their feet singing and swaying, and the delegations from the rest of the world began to sing and dance with them.  It was a beautiful moment of self-forgetful love.

In the moments following, the General Conference decided not to try to legislate one another into a corner, deepening the divide, but referred the most contentious questions around human sexuality and the ways we order the life of the church to a special commission to be appointed by our council of bishops charged with helping us find our way through what seems like an impasse through prayerful conversation and listening discernment rather than contentious debate and divisive legislation.  It was a Holy Spirit moment if I’ve ever seen one, and I am convinced it could not have happened without the body singing and dancing praises to our creator, remembering who we are in relation to the One who dances in and among us, whose desire is to be One with us.

In Proverbs 8, Holy Wisdom is evoked as a witness to the creation, as a participant in the pushing back of the chaotic waters when they threatened to overwhelm.  If ever we needed Holy Wisdom pushing back the chaos in United Methodism it was last week.  The description of Holy Wisdom resonates beautifully the image of Christ as the “Word of God” in John 1, not only present at the creation, but coming to dwell within it.  Proverbs 8:30-31 reads: “I was beside the master of crafts, having fun, smiling, (giggling) before him, frolicking with his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

God’s primary work in creation was to create a habitat within which we all may live.  Creation is God’s way of making space for us.  God’s desire is to dwell with us, to have fun with us, to smile and giggle with us, to frolic with us in this inhabited world, to take delight in us.

Dallas Willard teaches that:

The aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at its center as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant (Life with God Bible, 1).

We see it Genesis 3 with God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening.  We see it in Revelation 22 with creation restored and God living among us, interacting with us freely.  We see it in John 1 when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and in Proverbs 8 as Divine Wisdom frolics in the whole inhabited world, dwelling and delighting with us.

If the very nature of God is making space for others, how can we do less?  If the purpose of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, should that not be our aim as well?  If God’s desire is to dwell and delight with us as Word and Holy Wisdom, our best response is to host a party, let’s call it worship, and make sure everyone, and I do mean every one, has a specific, personalized invitation to come and join the dance.

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Bound Together in Christ

John 17:1-23

As our United Methodist General Conference is convening, I find myself thinking a lot about unity and our oneness in Christ.  I’ve spent a lot of time with Jesus in the last week, letting his prayer that we may be One wash over me and become my prayer.

Elizabeth and I got married in January of 1998 and proceeded to move to Minnesota.  Winter, as you might imagine, is not a good time to move to Minnesota.  I was writing my dissertation and walking 1/2 mile up a hill every day to the library at St. John’s University.  When the wind blew from the north, it felt like the trek was uphill both ways, the snow and wind were unrelenting.  We were ready that year for Spring.

As soon as the world around us melted, (it was May before we saw grass), we set about exploring the state whose weather had held us captive during the winter.  One of the places we visited was Itasca State Park.  We were given directions in simple Minnesotan: Drive up Brainerd, turn left at Babe (the giant blue ox), follow the river until it stops.  The river, of course, was the Mighty Mississippi.

3-Mississippie River Headwaters 2

Growing up in Arkansas, the Mississippi River defined the geography and culture of half our state.  It was the major source of commerce, and agriculture revolved around the silt-infused bottomland where the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers came together.  Crossing the Mississippi could only happen on high bridges that spanned more than a mile in length from one side to the other.  And here, in Minnesota, we could just step across it.

That this dinky little thing that was less than a creek could at some point be called “mighty,” seemed unfathomable.  We were thousands of miles from the Mississippi I knew, which raised my awareness of the fact that this river would never be called “mighty” by itself.  What would the Mississippi be without the Ohio, the Wabash and the Tennessee?  What would it be without the Illinois, the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Red?  Without the waters of these river systems pouring in from 29 states and two Canadian provinces, the Mississippi would be just another river.

Richard Foster describes six different expressions of Christian faith and life across the generations from the New Testament to today as “Streams of Living Water” (Foster, Richard J., Streams of Living Water, HarperOne, 2001).  Each stream has its own watershed that feeds it, yet they all ultimately feed into one River of Life.  These streams of Christianity can appear quite foreign to one another, and may seem as far apart as Pittsburgh and Bozeman, yet they all carry life in them, and they all flow toward the same end.

When we think of the diversity of the church, we tend to see it as a polarity between conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and progressives.  We tend to draw our battle lines more along political lines than any other.  Foster has helped me see and appreciate the depth of our many expressions not only for how they are different, but also for what they share.  The six streams Foster identifies are: the contemplative stream, which expresses itself as the prayer-filled life, the holiness stream, which leads to a life of virtue, the charismatic stream in which we see Spirit-empowered lives, the social justice stream filled with compassion, the evangelical stream centered around the Word of God, and the incarnational stream as an embodied expression of sacramental living.  Even those descriptions are far too simple because it is not like evangelicals don’t know compassion or social justice sorts don’t pray.  Virtue is not exclusive to the holiness folk nor the sacraments to the incarnational stream.  It is a matter of how they are fed, not about dividing lines.  When streams come together, the waters become one.

Our United Methodist church comes out of the holiness tradition.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, brought people together who were looking for a new way to live and taught them how they could be better together by helping each other live lives that glorified God through scripture study and prayer, Spirit-filled, sacramental worship, and justice seeking relationships with neighbors.  A life of virtue could never be lived on our own, Wesley taught, we need each other, in all our diversity, to make our world look more like the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed.  More than almost anyone else I know in Christian history, John Wesley bridged the streams and helped them feed into and off of one another, creating in the process a mighty movement called Methodism.

Today, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is convening in Portland, Oregon.  The General Conference is made up of clergy and lay representatives from every annual conference around the United States as well as countries around the world.  Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, we have no Pope, no singular authority figure in United Methodism, no one person speaks for what the denomination believes or how we act.  Only the General Conference can speak for the denomination and establish the rules we agree to live by.  We decide it all together, which makes for sometimes awful political debate and sometimes amazing, awe-filled moments of recognizing the Spirit alive in one another.

Our denomination is held within a flawed, human system in which people sometimes try to score points on one another and prevail through politicking.  Yet within that system I am convinced that the Holy Spirit still moves, if we can stop grinding our axes long enough to listen.

Just as our country has undergone tension over various expressions of human rights in the last century, so our church has struggled to learn how to welcome and appreciate women’s leadership, how to receive the incredible witness of the African-American community, how to embrace the contributions of the disabled, and how to celebrate the gift of human sexuality even as we hold one another within a covenant that moves us toward greater holiness.

As Christians, at our best, we tend to approach these issues differently from the culture at large.  In our American legal system, we work to establish the “rights” of various minorities.

In the church, we ask a different set of questions such as, “in whom does the image of God dwell?” and “how can we nurture that image into its fullest expression in each life, and in our life together?”

For instance, being clear that the image of God dwells in African-Americans meant that we had to oppose slavery, as John Wesley did, because it kept us from seeing and celebrating the fullness of life together as children of God.  Of course, as many other churches divided during the Civil War, so did ours.  Our division came from our inability to see the image of God in one another, or to receive one another with all our different faces, our different experiences and cultures, even our different pieties, as a gift to one another.

As we approach General Conference this year, more than any other in recent memory, there is talk about division and irreconcilable differences.  The polarity is set up, much as it is in our political culture, between conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and those who seek social justice.  It is, in my mind, a false dichotomy based on caricatures of one another that pretend social justice advocates have no grounding in the prophetic witness of the scripture and evangelicals have no compassion for their neighbors.

In my heart and mind and life, I can tell you I am grateful for those who taught me to love with a fuller heart beyond the boundaries of my experience, and I am grateful for those who continue to press me to find how my life can more fully be shaped by the witness of scripture.  I am grateful for those prayer warriors whose contemplation of the mysteries have taught me to trust in a God who is bigger than my little agenda, and for the Spirit-filled leaders who remind me that I can’t define or limit where the Spirit moves any more than I can stop the wind from blowing.  I am grateful for the witness of John Wesley who calls me to a life of virtue that can’t be measured from the outside in, but can only be lived from the inside out, and for those who relentlessly live the sacramental life, reminding me that in our brokenness, we are still one body in Christ.

At the last supper, Jesus prayed for his disciples, and he prayed for us and all who would come to find life with him because of their witness:

“I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.  I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.  I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one” (John 17:21-23a, CEB).

It is of great comfort to me that Jesus is praying for our unity as the children of God, that we will come to see in one another the very likeness of the One in whose image we were created.  The great sin of threats of schism is that we cease to see one another as we are, we fail to receive the gifts we offer one another as part of the whole body of Christ.  Our unity is not something to strive toward, it is something that is already accomplished in Christ.  Our failure to recognize that unity is the log in our collective eye as we continue to twitter and tweet about the speck in another’s eye.

My friend Trevor Hudson, a Methodist pastor in South Africa where they know a thing or two about division, once said this to me:

“If you want to welcome Christ into your life, just remember that you’ll also have to welcome and receive all the friends he brings with him” (Trevor Hudson).

I like that image.  When Jesus comes into my life, he brings a wide array of friends I would never have thought to embrace, and yet we become one because he has loved each of us into a life that is bigger than the one we left behind.

In these days of our General Conference, will you join me in praying with Jesus for us to discover our greater unity even as we receive the great blessings of our diversity?  Will you pray with me that we will see in one another the image of God, and know how to nurture that image into its fullest expression in Christ?  Will you pray that the political aspects of our General Conference will become means for the Holy Spirit to move instead of ways we grind our axe on one another?  Will you pray with me that a spirit of gratitude will well up in all those who represent us, gratitude for one another, even in disagreement, gratitude for our church’s world-wide witness, and gratitude for Christ, our head, who binds us together, and whose love that is bigger than any of us flows through us all?

After all, what would the Mississippi be without the Ohio, the Missouri, the Arkansas and the Red?

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I Do Not Know the Man

Matthew 26:69-75

Powerless.  That’s how I feel every time a bomb goes off in an airport or subway station, every time gunmen attack the innocent whether it be on a beach, in a nightclub or school, an office building or movie theater either in the US or anywhere else in the world.  Violence and hate are everywhere, stirred by apocalyptic proclamations that misunderstand God’s intent for the world, stoked by fear of the other, enflamed by those who would make themselves big by making others small.  In the face of it, I feel powerless.

I come into this Holy Week in prayer and fasting, asking God how to find myself in this story and whether he can teach me something about living in a death-dealing world.  As I walk with Jesus through this story, I pause with Peter in the courtyard.

I wonder what it must have been like for him?  I imagine him standing in that courtyard, warming his hands over the fire as Jesus was being put on trial, feeling immensely powerless.  He had spent the last three years with this man.  He got out of his boat, left the fish behind to follow him.  He learned his ways, and even saw him transfigured into the glorious image of what he always imagined God was like.

Peter was the one who first called him “Messiah,” anointed One, Savior, Son of the Living God.  Oh, how good it felt to be commended by Jesus for his declaration.  “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you, but my Father in heaven has shown you.  From now on I’ll call you Peter, because on this rock I will build my church.”  Peter thought he understood Jesus.  He was the Messiah.  Messiahs save.  They are the military heroes that throw off the yoke of oppression and set people free.  Peter was the first to see it, to say it, to declare it publicly.  He would, from then on, be Jesus’ right-hand man, ready to lead the charge.

Of course within five verses, Peter went from being the Rock upon whom Christ’s church would be built to being a stumbling block for Jesus.  When Jesus talked about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of his own people, it simply did not compute for Peter.  Messiah’s don’t suffer.  They don’t die.  That is not part of the job description.  He would be welcomed, heralded, acclaimed as king with palm branches waving.  So he took Jesus aside to rebuke him and school him a little bit on his role as Messiah.  He can’t talk like that.  It is discouraging for the troops.

Jesus turned his back on Peter and said, “get behind me, Satan.  You are a stone that could be a stumbling block for me if I start to think that way.  You are thinking in terms of human kings and kingdoms.  I’m talking about an eternal kingdom that you have only begun to glimpse.”

Chastised, Peter played along until again Jesus began talking about his death, predicting they would all flee.  Peter boldly proclaimed, “Not me!  I’m with you until the bitter end!  I’ll defend you and even if I have to die with you I will not quit.”  Jesus looked at him sadly, as if to say, “after all this time, you still don’t get it.”  Then said with compassion and clarity, “before the cock crows tonight, you will have denied me three times.”

To prove his resolve and zeal, it was Peter who drew the sword in the garden and struck off the ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus sharp rebuke: “Enough of that.  If you want to live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword.”  Peter was dismayed.  This is where the insurrection was to begin.  This is where the battle was to be joined to propel Jesus to his rightful throne.  The crowds had demanded it just a few days before, extolling him with palm branches waving as he entered the city.

Peter’s resolve thickened.  “I will not leave him,” he thought to himself.  So he followed along and, trying to keep a discrete distance so he would not be noticed, warmed his hands over the fire while Jesus was put on trial.  It was there in that moment, that the questions and the doubts began to arise.  Why would he not let me defend him?  Why will he not accept the crown that is rightfully his?  Why is he willing to undergo such abuse and scorn by the powers?  Peter was asked by a servant woman whether he was with Jesus, but he denied it, saying simply.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  He was so caught up in his own thoughts, he did not even notice the first denial.

Peter watched as Jesus was tried and how he remained silent.  “Why doesn’t he speak?” he wondered.  “Why doesn’t he defend himself?”  Anguished, Peter went over to the gate where another person recognized him and said, “You were with Jesus, the Nazarene.”  Peter pledged an oath: “I do not know the man.”  Then plunged back into his contemplation.

“He is the Son of God.  Where are the angel armies?  Why does he just stand there as if he is powerless?”  And then came the horrifying thought: “What if he’s not the Messiah we’ve been hoping for?”  A third time some one came up to him and said, “your accent gives you away.  You are with the Galilean.”  Then he cursed as he realized his folly: “I really don’t know the man,” he confessed.  At that moment, the cock crowed, and Peter ran out weeping bitterly.

We always give Peter a hard time about denying that he knew Jesus.  We usually treat him with scorn for his duplicity.  If he had been a real man, he would have owned up, we think.  But let me suggest another way to read this.  What if instead of lying about knowing Jesus, Peter was telling the truth.

His words are clear and spoken with emphatic force.  “I do not know the man.”  What if Peter, at this crucial moment, begins to realize what Jesus had been telling him all along?  What if Peter was telling the truth.  “I do not know the man.”  I thought I knew him.  I thought he was to be Messiah.  I thought he was the Son of God.  I thought we would go into battle together and I would die by his side before letting him be taken, but here he is on trial and not even offering a defense.  He made me give up my sword.  He turned away from violence.  And here he is being mocked and spat upon.  I thought I knew him.  I thought he was the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel.  Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I really do not know the man.

FullSizeRenderAs I stand with Peter warming my hands in the courtyard, I wonder why God does nothing to stop the violence in our society and world.  I wonder why the army of angels is not raining down fire from heaven on those who perpetrate violence.  Then I realize that we have created our own army of angels to rain down fire from heaven.  We have taken on ourselves the role of vengeance-taker and executor of justice.  We believe in the power of shock and awe and have assumed for ourselves the powers of the Almighty and Righteous Judge.  God does not act because we have left God no room.  I confess with Peter, I do not know the man.

I look at the terrorists and I recognize the face of Barabbas.  I see the insurrectionists of Jesus’ day who were intent on provoking Rome, the world’s mightiest military power, into an apocalyptic battle.  I turn and I see the Prince of Peace being mocked, belittled and spat upon for his powerlessness as the angry crowds cry out for more violence, more hatred and I find myself wanting to cry out with them because this One’s cause is so obviously impotent.  What can he do?  We hold all the power.  I confess with Peter, I do not know the man.

I look on our streets and see a collective decision to arm ourselves, to be able to defend ourselves or execute our own brand of justice at any given moment.  I wonder, have we in our fear come to reject of the crucified One because we’ve come to believe he has no power here?  As long as I’m in charge, I have no need of You.  I confess with Peter, I do not know the man.

Yet it is in that powerless moment that Jesus comes to meet us.  It is in that moment when we’ve nowhere else to turn that he turns to us.  It is in that end of the rope cry of desperation that we can release ourselves and the world around us into his hands.  Do we dare trust the Crucified One?  Do we dare lay down our arms at the foot of the cross?  Do we dare place our hope in another way?  Do we dare release our lives and the life of our world into the hands of One who has the power to save as no other?

Can we claim here, at this table, a new kind of faith that says “I know the man” because he knows me?  I know the man because he entered into my darkness and brought with him the light of life.  I know the man because he came into my suffering and took it on his back.  I know the man because he caught me when I could no longer hold onto the end of my rope.  I know the man because here he embraces my life as part of his body, taken, blessed, broken and given for the life of the world.  I know the man because here I find a life more full and abundant than any life I could imagine much less make for myself.

Peter had to confess “I do not know the man” before he could ever truly find life.  He had to let go of his pretensions to discover his possibilities.  The only way we can come to the altar is powerless, bringing our fears, our broken world and all our intercessions with us, crying out, “Lord, save.”

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How the World Changes

As the horror of Friday night unfolded in Paris, I felt a profound sorrow, a quiver under my feet as the earth shook once again under such heinous violence.  I had flashbacks to 9/11 and to the terrifying moments of uncertainty that followed, moments filled with fear and vulnerability as well as defiance and resolve.

I’ve learned in moments like these that the best place I can turn is not to the TV or internet, to let the images and commentary mark my soul, but to the scriptures, to speak my fear to God and to allow God to speak both comfort and strength to me.

Because we were giving out Bibles this week in church, I have been going through children’s Bibles all week, marking some of my go-to passages to give them courage and strength in the midst of life, and a pathway forward when they don’t know where to turn.  I simply want to share some of those scriptures with you this morning because they are words of comfort and strength not only for children, but for us all.

One of the places I marked is Isaiah 43.  “But now, says the Lord—the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, Iw ill be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flam won’t burn you.  I am the Lord your God, the whole one of Israel, your savior” (Isa. 43:1-3a). Written to the people of Israel held captive in Babylon, Isaiah speaks a word of promise to a people who may have felt forgotten, abandoned, vulnerable.  “Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, who formed you:  Do not be afraid.  I have redeemed you.  You are mine.”  God speaks the central truth of identity that gives me courage.  I belong to God.  And because I belong to God, I do not need to be afraid.

Last week I spent time emphasizing the first part of the blessing I speak over you week after week: “you are a blessed, beloved, beautiful child of God in whom Christ dwells and delights.”  This week, I really need to hear the second part of that blessing, that “by the power of the Holy Spirit, we live safely and securely in a kingdom that has no end.”

God never promises that we will not face trials and tribulations, floods and fires that threaten to overwhelm us, but he does promise firmly, clearly, unswervingly to go through the floods and fires with us.  He did this most personally through his own beloved son Jesus, who endured the pain of a violent death intended to invoke terror so that we would learn by the power of resurrection that there is nothing in this world, no force of violence or hate that can consume us when we trust our lives to Jesus and to his way.  I need this good news today.

Another scripture I marked is one of my favorite psalms, 46.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.  God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;  he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Today I need to hear verse 1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear.”  And I need to hear in vv. 4-5 that “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…God is in the midst of the city which shall not be moved, God will help it at the dawn of the day.”  In the waters of the Seine that surround the cathedral of Notre Dame, God’s love flows.  God’s love flowed in the streets through the first responders, those who disrupted further violence, and through countless acts of hospitality and care for both victims of the violence and those who were fleeing it.

I have spent a lot of time in this psalm.  So much so that God has helped shape it into a prayer that I speak out of my heart.  Here is the way that prayer gets reflected back in vv. 8-9:

In the wake of such odious acts as we saw in Paris my instinct is to join the fray, to pulverize someone, to seek seven-fold vengeance.  But it doesn’t take long looking at the trajectory of history to see how violence begets violence in a never-ending cycle.  ISIS is a manifestation of evil that foments hatred to incite violence that evokes terror.  They must be resisted; they must be disarmed.  But ISIS is only the latest face of the enemy.  The real enemy is hate.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “darkness cannot throw out darkness, only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  Meanwhile President Hollande, in retaliation, has pledged to be merciless and unforgiving (his words).  I know where he is coming from and the need for defiance in the face of great evil, but as I hear the words “merciless” and “unforgiving,” my heart grows cold.  When will it end?

God would you speak again?  Speak your word of peace that melts hard hearts.  Speak your word of shalom that teaches us to trust in you, not in ourselves or in our own power.  Lord, will you teach us how to resist evil without becoming what we abhor?

I wonder to myself how to do this and the Holy Spirit leads me to another of the passages I highlighted in the kids’ Bibles.  Romans 12:9-13 says: “Let love be real.  Resist what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Rejoice in hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer…Contribute to the needs of the saints and welcome strangers into your home.”

One of the signs of extraordinary grace and love extended Friday night in Paris was the Open Door movement that sprang up instantly on Twitter.  People would post their own home address with the hashtag “Porte Ouverte,” to signal anyone fleeing the violence that there was an open door, a safe haven, a place to find help.  Was it a risk?  Yes.  My instinct would be to lock my doors and hide, but that is not what the Parisians did.  They opened their doors in the face of violence to create places of refuge in the storm.  That is love made real, love made manifest, a physical, embodied resistance to evil that gave over neither to fear nor to hate.

But then the next verse in Romans (12:14-15) reads, “Bless people who seek to harm you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.”  I can rejoice and I can weep, but blessing those who seek to harm and not cursing them, that is hard!  I don’t know how to do it.  And Paul concludes this chapter with: “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (Rom 12:21).  In saying this he is echoing Jesus’ own words from the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a)

There are days with certain passages that I wish Jesus would just keep his trap shut.  This is one of them.  I’d like to dismiss what Jesus said because he never met an enemy like ISIS or Al-Qaeda.  But then I remember he had his share of enemies like Caiaphas and Pilate, and even his own follower, Judas.  He knew what he was talking about.  He knew it personally.  And then I see him hanging from the cross praying for his enemies and even forgiving them.  It is all too much.  It is not the way the world works, I think cynically to myself.  Then Jesus whispers in my ear, “no, it’s not how the world works, but it is how it changes,” and I am driven to my knees.

I was supposed to talk with you about how much the church needs your money, but that message seems too small.  Jesus doesn’t need your money, he needs your life, redeemed from the cynicism of the world around us, saved from the violence that ever threatens us, released from the fear, the anger, and the hate that keeps us from the fullness of life only he can give.

So I want to invite you simply to pray.  Light a candle and pray for the people of Paris and Beirut, the families of those on the Russian airliner, the people of Iraq and Syria, and if you can muster it, pray for our enemies.  If you cannot, would you ask Jesus to help you?

As you watch the flame flicker to life, will you consider how God may be calling you to be a light in the midst of this sin-darkened world?  Will you consider how the church can be an incubator for the life that Jesus most desires for you?  Will you ask the Spirit to help you become more like Christ, to live more like him, to pattern your life after his, to love more like him, to forgive like him?  Will you join me in asking God to take my fear, my anger, and my hate and turn them into a love that is beyond my ability to bear?  Will you pray with me for the grace to become the kind of church that illumines the darkness with the light of Christ’s love?  This is not how the world works, but it is how it changes.

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Living with Gratitude for Those Who Have Gone Before

All Saints Day 2015

John 11:38-44

“Nnn–yello” That’s how my friend Julie’s mom used to always answer the phone.  “Hi, Tom, how are you?” she would ask, honestly, openly, truly interested, really wanting to know.  After several minutes of warm-up conversation, she would amiably pass the phone along to her daughter, but not without finding out how I was and what was going on in my life first.  I’ve never heard anyone say “nnn-yello”  like she did. It was as distinctive and upbeat as she was, a voice always filled with love.

LaDonna had sparkling, inquisitive eyes that could never take in enough of the world around her.  She had an infectious spirit that made her an outstanding teacher.  She had a down-to-earth demeanor that was never surprised by the struggles of everyday life, and a hopeful, forward-looking disposition that never missed an opportunity to celebrate the joy of living.  She had a way of calling out the best in people.  I don’t know whether it was the piercing sparkle in her half-moon eyes, her lilting speech, or her broad, inclusive smile, but she could make a fox and a hen relax, set a spell, and enjoy one another’s company.

LaDonna was the chair of the pastor-parish relations committee in my home church when I came before them at a charge conference to request their endorsement as a candidate for ministry.  She, along with many others in my home church, cultivated my life in Christ and helped me begin to see myself as God sees me.  Without her and many others like her who asked discerning questions and spoke words of encouragement into my life, I’m not sure I would have ever been ready to hear or respond to God’s call.

You see, that’s what saints do.  They call out the best in us.  They remind us, and sometimes teach us who we really are and why that matters not only to them, but also to God.  Saints journey with us, listen to our heartbreaks and hopes, and never miss an opportunity to help us find our true selves with Christ.

Saints are seldom the people you think they might be.  They are rarely the winners, the top dogs, the “successful” ones.  They tend to be ordinary people, teachers, artists, factory workers, librarians, nurses, merchants, chefs and bakers, carpenters and masons, people living ordinary lives with extraordinary grace.  Saints do not become saintly by trying to become better than anyone else, but by becoming fully, authentically, truly themselves.

When I read today’s gospel story, it is easy to get caught up in the miracle of bringing life out of death, the wonder of calling Lazarus back from the grave.  The story teaches me so much more, however, when I let it speak to me about my life.  I think about how much of my life has been caught up in things that do not bring life.  I love Martha’s quip to Jesus when he tells them to open the tomb.  “But Lord,” she said.  “It stinketh.”  I think about the stinks I have made in my life and how it is simple evidence of the sin that rots me from within.

I think of Lazarus getting up from the tomb and coming out bound hand and foot by burial cloths that were meant to hold his bones together.  “Unbind him,” Jesus said, “and set him free.”  What is binding me? I wonder to myself.  What is keeping me from living the life Jesus is calling forth in me?

Then I realize that I cannot simply take off the grave clothes.  I have to rely on my community, the people who love me and want me to become my truest, fullest self to unbind me and set me free.  I need my church family, saints like LaDonna and so many others to help me become who Jesus is calling me to be.

In John chapter 10, Jesus teaches his apprentices that he is the good shepherd, and that the sheep listen to his voice and follow him because they know and trust his voice.  He calls them by name and leads them out.  “My sheep listen to my voice,” he says.  “I know them and they follow me.  I give them eternal life.”  Just one chapter later, Jesus calls one of his sheep, Lazarus, by name and tells him to come out of the grave into the fullness of life Jesus promised.

Jesus calls to me; Jesus calls to you, beyond time and eternity, beyond the boundary of life and death, beyond the margins of heaven and earth.  He calls us by name; we know him because he speaks our name with love.  It is a love that reaches beyond our sin, beyond our failings, beyond our shame, beyond our pain.  It is a love that reaches beneath our grave clothes that bind us and calls us into the fullness of life with him.  Love is stronger than sin; love is stronger than death.  Love wills our well being.  Love calls forth what is beautiful, what is lovely, what is of God.  Love sets us free to become as God intended.

This morning, we’re remembering the saints of our lives who have spoken our names with love and helped us discover who we really are.  I remember LaDonna, who died last year at far too young an age.  Even though I hadn’t seen her in 15 years, my world was diminished by her death.  She was a light bearer, a saint who helped illumine my path.  I wonder who was a light bearer for you?  Who helped illumine your path?  I invite you to think of someone who spoke your name with love, who willed your well-being and helped you find your real life, who saw beneath the the grave clothes of your sin and called you to life with Jesus.  Do you have someone in mind?

Now I want you to think of someone in your present circle of relationships, someone who remains caught up in sinful patterns and behaviors, or held captive by family dynamics that smother and control, or trapped the throes of addiction or violence that keep them from becoming the person God made them to be.  Do you have someone in mind?

With thanksgiving in your heart for the one who illumined your path, who called you by name and help you find your way, will you pray for the second person, asking God to send someone into his or her life, to love them beyond circumstance, to free them from all that binds?  As you linger in prayer, ask God whether you are the person who can love them to life.

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Living a life with gratitude means recognizing all those whose love has shaped my heart and my life.  It is from this source that all kinds of other gratitude flows.  Join me this month in 30 days of gratitude because all that you are is no accident.  God has desired you into existence and sent saints to shape your life after the heart of Christ.  How can we do anything else without first saying, “Thanks.”

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