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Monday, November 27, 2017

I Never Knew That

I’m trying pretty hard not to be a church calendar snob.  Honestly, I don’t even know how I got to be this way… how I began to care about the church calendar, at all (about which I knew nothing for the vast majority of my life).  I think, in some ways, it is a classic case of learning something new that resonates deeply and wanting everyone else in the world to have that excitement, as well.  But let’s return to…  I’m not too fond of being a snob (period), and it certainly doesn’t sit well with me to be a snob in the Christian/Church sense.  That just never ends well for anyone!  (But please take note of the fact that my seven year old is really upset about crosses popping up at nativity scenes.)

I did, however, have an exciting moment several weeks back, and I want to share it. 

I was sitting at a table, sharing a meal, and talking about the lectionary (because that’s totally normal, right) when a friend of mine who has been a part of the church community for a lifetime said, “I never knew that God’s people all over the world were studying the same Scriptures, week after week, until you started teaching us about that!” 

We’re talking a matter of days, here, friends!  She had been in church her whole life, and she had never heard anyone talk about the shared study of Scripture, across the board… across geographic and cultural and denominational boundaries… until a few days earlier!  And let’s be real, up until a few years ago, neither had I.

She was excited!  I was excited!  And it’s not because I have some legalistic need to dictate which Scripture should be used at all times by all people.  It’s because this is community!  This sharing of the same words (and the same Word) allows us to connect with people… globally… every single week (and dare I suggest every single day, if we also consume the daily office).

Someone else at the table chimed in…  “Just our denomination, right?”

Um… not quite…

“But not Catholics, right?”

Insert the part where I try not to die, because yes… definitely Catholics…


Now let’s be clear…  I’m pretty sure the RCL (publically released in 1994, although preceded by others and tracing the history of reading common texts all the way back to the early church) is not synonymous with salvation (sigh of relief for all the people who were born and died before I was in high school), but I do want to underscore the significance of commonality in community, because we live in a culture steeped in individualism, and I think there’s something to the idea that God might actually be saying the same things to all of us. 

This helps to dispel the “us and them” myth.  It brings us together as one people.  It makes us a village as opposed to an island.  Maybe it even fosters compassion for the other, because it’s more difficult to turn away from our brothers and sisters when we’re looking at their faces, and we do that when we’re gathered in the same sacred space—physically present or not.  Maybe that’s (at least part of) why continuity matters…

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sunday Sermon, November 26, 2017

The link below is for the sermon I preached at Asbury United Methodist Church in Portland, IN on Sunday, November 26th.  Just as a side note, I began this sermon by waiting in silence for about 30-40 seconds...  That context helps to make sense of the first few lines...  I'm also planning to wear contact lenses in the future when I preach, because apparently I feel the need to push my glasses up every 3-4 seconds...  whatever...


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Creeds: It’s Almost Advent

We are so bad at waiting.  And by we, I mean me… but I also mean you.

So, it’s almost Advent.  Every time the liturgical season changes, I find myself saying, “This season is my favorite time of year!”

I say it about Lent and Christmas and Easter and even Ordinary Time.  Advent is no exception, and I’m laughing at myself just a little bit, because even though I claim to be a realist in theory and sometimes measure up closer to a pessimist in practice; as it turns out, I really do love the whole year!  I’m thankful for the changing of liturgical seasons to remind me of this. 

Today, I’ve been working on a sermon for November 26th, the Sunday before Advent begins.  My local church has opted to extend the Advent season a bit in order to utilize a very beautiful art series, which requires a couple of extra weeks.  It seems we’re not waiting for the waiting!  Ironic.  With this in mind, it made sense for me to move on to the next phrases in the creeds, fully submersed in my own thoughts about how the conception of Christ came to be. 

The Apostles Creed:

“Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,”

The Nicene Creed:

“For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.”

Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, God incarnate, born to a virgin.   

Stop for a minute and think about that.  I mean, really think about it.  Don’t just skim over it, because that’s the temptation for a story so familiar.  This is unbelievable stuff!

Mary is totally perplexed and presumably terrified (the angel says, “Don’t be afraid”), and can we really blame her?  Yet I’m always amazed that she doesn’t say, “No.”

I want to be exceedingly clear that I think she could have.  Who are we to know if others did?  We have Mary’s narrative, because instead of running from what must have, undoubtedly, been the craziest thing she had ever experienced in her short life; she asked a question that seems to seal the deal.  “How can this be?”

Some translations go on to tell of the lack of impossibility with God, and I like those words.  They’re good words.  But there’s something particularly endearing about the NIV when the words are interpreted, instead, “No word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37, NIV).

Sometimes I’m not sure we can wrap our minds around impossible things, but I feel fairly confident that we can embrace the tension between failure and success, knowing full well that neither tends to look like anything we ever could have expected.

The word… or perhaps, the Word (Jesus) will not fail.

And with that, Mary offers consent.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV), and the rest is history… and theology… and salvation… as God and humanity work together to birth redemption into the world.  (But not yet…  pause in the time of waiting that is quickly approaching to remember what it is to anticipate…)

Monday, November 6, 2017

My Feet Have Walked this Path Before

I’m not sure that I’m really a creature of habit (I’m definitely not awesome at routine… still…), but I do like to revisit places I have loved.  The past two days have been pretty good for that.  This has given me time to reflect on the passage of time, itself, which is always a difficult concept around which to wrap my mind.

As an example, two (plus) years is seemingly a long time, but if you put that much space between trips to the same shore or the same prayer labyrinth on the edge of a cliff; when you arrive you might find that they are largely unchanged.  In that sense, maybe two years isn’t a long time, at all.

I, however, am not largely unchanged.

Prayer labyrinths are kind of funny (though not ordinarily humorous).  The one I walked, today, requires you to begin on a straight path that looks as if it could lead directly to the center, but… of course… we all know that’s never the way it goes.  Before you know it, we’re twisting and turning and just as we seem to get a little bit closer to the goal, we’re spinning around again.  If we “stay the course,” we will eventually get to wherever we’re going, but it takes more time than most of us are willing to commit. 

The first time I walked this particular labyrinth, I was completely alone for the vast majority of the walk.  Occasionally, I became aware of a curious presence, but most people simply do not have the patience for this kind of activity (even in the middle of a secluded garden that requires a significant elevator ride to reach it).  Today was different, because others joined in on a fairly regular basis, as I circled… and circled… and circled…  As reverent of an experience as I wished this to be, I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit at how hopelessly lost some of them got, traipsing through the middle of the maze, refusing to follow the meticulously laid out path.  The truth is, one misstep can take you right back to the beginning, and although I’m not sure that’s great theology; it made for some interesting reflection.

So, as people got lost and eventually gave up on the path, altogether, just running into the center to snap a selfie (admittedly, I’m guilty of the selfie thing, too, although I did get there honestly), I tried to keep my eyes on the ground. 

Keep your eyes on the ground?  Who gives that kind of advice?  Apparently… today… me…

Two years and two months ago, I lamented…  “It’s soaking wet and I’m freezing and I can’t remember how I got here!”  Today I think I know, but I’m not sure it matters anymore.  What does matter is that I have no desire, whatsoever, to be in the same place in another two years.  I was holding tightly to some stuff the first time I made this walk.  I was holding tightly to some stuff that didn’t come to pass, and maybe to some stuff that shouldn’t have come to pass, and I’ve grieved all of it so deeply that grief became my default.  I had a moment, this weekend, where I realized that in passionately grieving the past and present, I had actually begun to grieve the future, as well, and that’s just ridiculous!  I refuse to do that anymore.  “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” right?  Realism… (see Matt. 6:34).

I recently acquired a new favorite quote:

“She remembered who she was and the game changed.”
 -   Lalah Deliah

Remembering can be very, very good.  Revisiting can be very, very good.  Readjusting can be very, very good. 

New game…  Same goal…  Watch out…  This time, I know what I'm doing...



Thursday, November 2, 2017

Jesus Ranks in the Top Ten...

A Thursday Theology guest post by, Phil Michaels:

“…you thought that I was one just like yourself…”

---Psalm 50:21b (inspired through Asaph)

Maybe there’s no God. Or, if there is a God, maybe that God is nothing at all like I thought.

But…for just a moment, if you will, bear with me, and let me go with the presumption that the Scripture that says, “God created humans in the image of God” is descriptive of a truth about all of us: We are like God. Most Christians, Jews, many Muslims, and a good number of other people ascribe to this as a truth, so I’m not alone here in going with a presumption that as much of 2/3 of the human population believes to be true (and no, that consensus doesn’t make it true (consensus never does)…but, let’s just go with it for a moment…)

This is not the same as saying we are God-like. It is to say, as the Scripture does, that we are made in God’s image (The precise Hebrew is “צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים‎,” or transliterated, “tzelem Elohim” – in Latin that’s “imago dei”; and for those who speak English, “the image of God”). We are “like God” but not “God-like.” There is much in us that bears the stamp, the image, the likeness of God…but there are also some qualities we do not bear. There is a difference, an otherness, between Creator and creation, between God, and us. We are the same, yet different.

Being human, we all make mistakes, and sometimes the mistake we make is the same one Asaph speaks of in Psalm 50: We think that God is just like us.

God is not just like us. God is not just like you. God is not just like me.

But oh, how often we wish that God was, even if we don’t realize it.

God is not in the image of a pastor.

God is not in the image of a professional athlete.

God is not in the image of a political leader.

God is not in the image of a published book.

God is not in the image of Phil.

So…what is God’s image?

One Word: Jesus.

I could be wrong about this. Perhaps no human can show God’s image. Perhaps no thing can show what God is like. Perhaps there is no God, at all.

But…if we can point to any human who has lived as being God’s image, I cannot imagine any clearer picture than that of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

And if I am honest, Jesus is not anything at all like me. Jesus is not a reflection of who I am. I know who I am. I know who Jesus is. And Jesus, quite decidedly, is not me! I am not God-like.

And yet…somehow…just maybe…in spite of this, it is possible for me to become like Jesus. To become like God. I’ll never be God (we should all be thankful…I can’t imagine how badly I would mess that up…wait, maybe I can…). But maybe there is a possibility that I could be like God? Like…Jesus? More like Jesus than I was when I was born? Or when I was a child? Or an extended adolescent? Or…today?

Most days it seems I cannot even live up the very minimal requirements of the roles I have and the person I should be as a human. How could I expect myself to ever be like…of all people…Jesus?

I think it has to start with acknowledging, not only with my mind, but with my heart and soul, that Jesus is not like me. Jesus is not “one just like myself.” I am not the starting point. Jesus is. I am also not the ending point. Jesus is. This is probably why Scripture says that Jesus is “the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.”

Again, Jesus may or may not be your ‘#1’, but on any list of “Top 10 Best People of All Time,” Jesus Christ of Nazareth is going to be right up there, right? I mean, from all that we know of him, it’s pretty difficult to find fault with the guy!

For me, I think I need to acknowledge that Jesus is, indeed, ‘#1’. And I am not. If this all sounds pretty generically evangelical at this point, I apologize…sort of…but, not really. Maybe it is time to stop getting hung up on what things sound like, or what labels people (myself included!) might put on things, and simply acknowledge what is true:

Jesus is God-like.

I am not God-like.

But…thanks be to God…Jesus is transforming me and making me more like…Jesus…