Choice

(This is dedicated to the gifted musicians who have jump-started the beautiful #TakeTwoKnees movement. God used your courage and integrity to make the first cracks in my own paralysis. Thank you.)

taketwoknees

“The Gentle Healer came into our town today,” repeating on a loop. No! Spirit recoils, mind reels. Sentimentality and soft melodies rasp, fingernails on slate. A different Healer strides into our town today. Nail-scarred hands—brown hands—outstretched, to heal and hammer and break and mend.

nail-scarred-hand-edward-ruth

Authoritative footsteps, firm tread. He stops before our paralysis, reaches down, pulls us to our feet. Paralysis just won’t do! Sharp command—pick up your mats of fear and confusion and helplessness and ignorance. Choice. Roll them up, toss them aside—in the dumpster, no retrieval—and walk! March!

Holy spit in the dirt of our unholy mess. Holy mud, smeared across blind eyes. “Go and wash!” Choice. Only those who know they are blind get sent, get healed, get commissioned to speak truth to blind power.

Divine fingers probe our deaf ears. Unhearing, numbed by cacophonous lies, deadened by insidious complacency. He pulls out twisted wads of ugliness that plugged our ears, holds them out to us. They lie dully alongside the cicatrices on his palms. He asks if we want them back. Choice.

He commands our mute lips to speak—to wail, lament, roar. Choice. Refuse to speak at his command, with his voice? Our endless words will continue to be unintelligible noise, meaningless hum.

In his presence we finally acknowledge that our “little bleeding problem” is a gushing sin hemorrhage.  Denied for too long in silence, it consumes with voracious, insatiable force. We reach out tentative, trembling hands to touch the hem of his garment. His stern gaze whips around, challenging our timidity. “What took you so long?” Challenge, then commission. “Go in peace.” Choice. Be shalom, be the blessed peacemakers, rightly called children of God.

He strides into the places where Legion has run rampant. Corroded minds, shrill deceit, shackled spirits. Cemetery dwellers. He restores us to our right mind and sends us out to proclaim mercy. Choice. Right-minded, to love mercy—mercy received and mercy given. Right-minded, to do justice—in the places where justice has been absent or scarce or twisted beyond recognition. Right-minded, to walk humbly with our God. Humility, justice, mercy—the Healer has been here.

Blazing eyes, sternly compassionate mien. He turns full circle in the city square, no corner left unpenetrated by piercing gaze. Every pretense of righteousness stripped bare. Choice. Scramble to re-clothe in dirty rags of silken privilege? Acknowledge shameful nakedness and welcome pristine linen from his hand?

The Healer has come to us. No coddling. No gentle sentimentality. Pentecost blaze, refiner’s fire. Extirpating scalpel, radical intervention. Choice.  

 

Worship Cancelled??

I am a keen watcher of church signs, bracing myself for the eye-roll-worthy, “cheesy” Christianese or the cringe-producing, sledgehammer-style preachy slogans. It’s always interesting to try and discern something about the community (or at least the sign-keeper) behind each sign. Every now and then I’ll run across a clever pun or even something that sounds like Jesus could have said it (oh rare and glorious moment!), but most of the time it seems like they should have stopped with the church name and service times. Which brings me to today’s observation! In this COVID-19 era, with public gatherings on hold for the foreseeable future, I’ve seen a bevy of church signs in our area with the message “Worship Cancelled” or “No Worship.” Wait! What?

Worship cancelled

It seems to me that there’s a huge difference between “Worship Services Cancelled” and “Worship Cancelled”—and it’s not just that there weren’t enough letters or space available on the sign for the word service. The former phrase simply points to the lamentable reality that, in our current battle against a deadly pandemic, corporate, face-to-face worship gatherings are not happening. That latter phrase, however, ranks right up there with the ever-popular “get my worship on” in its capacity to irritate and trouble me, because of the way the two expressions reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of worship itself. Worship is not our gathering in a particular space; it is what we do when we gather. Worship is not singing particular songs or having a particular “experience” while doing so; singing is part of what we do as we worship, along with prayers of confession and intercession, active listening and response to the proclaimed word, and generous giving of our time, talents, and treasures. And while I think there probably ought to be a whole lot more “experience” of the Spirit’s active presence in the midst of our worship, the fact that I might come out of corporate worship without an emotional high or without having once raised my hands does not mean I didn’t “get my worship on.” (Please, please, please, let’s wipe that phrase out of our lexicon!)

Worship, after all, is not ultimately about us or our experience or our location or the instruments and means available to us. Worship is our response to God, who is, as Marva Dawn puts it, both the Subject and the Object of our worship: “God is the Subject of our worship, for he is the one who makes it possible for us to enter into his presence; God is the one who gives us himself in the Word, the water, the supper. . . . God is, of course, also the Object of our worship, so we do properly ask, ‘for whom is worship?’ too. We respond to the Trinity’s wooing, give thanks for the Creator’s grace, praise Christ’s name, ask for the Spirit’s empowerment. Unless we see God first as Subject, however, we cannot really answer with true adoration.”[1]

Worship is, as Dawn also points out, the act of the community of believers, and we are being forced to find new ways to engage together as a worshiping community despite our physical distance from one another. For those of us whose Sunday sermons and prayers are broadcast live, I think it’s important for us to gather in synchronous unity as much as possible, scattered across many households but united at the same moments in time, just as we would be in the sanctuary. Watching the service alone at a later time, as if it were any other video floating around on Facebook, is better than nothing, but lacks the element of corporate engagement. Because of licensing issues, many churches can’t include music on their live broadcasts, but the pastor and worship leader can work together to provide links to songs that fit the theme of the morning; liturgical responses (call to worship, opening prayer) can be provided for families to use before the broadcast begins, to prepare their hearts for being active listeners and willing responders to the Word; after the message, the pastor can invite members to prepare their offerings together, whether by clicking an online giving link or writing a check or setting aside cash in an offering envelope. Practicing this kind of intentional community now may just be preparing us for a more intentional kind of worship “on the other side” of the current crisis. Perhaps we will come through this will a more robust understanding of what worship—and the worshiping community—is.

This bizarre and unwelcome season of separation may also be offering us the opportunity to become a different kind of people, in a posture and a condition more conducive to true worship. As we were finishing up our Lenten journey through the Book of Psalms, Psalm 81 poked and prodded at me about this. The psalm opens with someone (probably the choir director, mentioned in the superscription) calling the people to “Sing!” Three times he calls them to sing, accompanied by a variety of instruments and festival horns (vs. 1–3). It’s a picture of noisy, exuberant corporate worship; the tambourine suggests dancing and, since that was likely an instrument played by women, the full engagement of the full community. But when God takes his turn as the speaker in the psalm the imperative is no longer “sing,” but “listen!” Four times in verses 8–13 the verb “listen” appears. Failure to listen to Yahweh has gotten Israel into its current predicament, the result of following “their own stubborn desires, living according to their own ideas” (v. 12). But God longs for them to listen, and promises that if they only will lay aside their little divided loyalties and idolatries, he will subdue their enemies and feed them with abundant, delicious, satisfying “sweet honey from the rock” (v. 16). Perhaps this season of enforced corporate silence is our chance to sharpen our listening to the Spirit. It is a chance to name and reject our little loyalties and the false gods in which we have trusted, so that we can offer the Lord undivided hearts and unhindered praise. If we can do this, I suspect we will come back to corporate worship a changed people, and that our times together will be more purposeful, more joyous, and more transformative then anything we have experienced previously.

So, my friends, worship is most definitely NOT cancelled! Let us worship with intentionality, creativity, and fierce commitment to community during this season. Let us embrace the enforced silences and separations, do the hard work of self-examination, repentance, and confession, and prepare ourselves for a new, vigorous, Spirit-guided, robustly participatory worship when we gather once again.

 

[1] Marva J. Dawn, A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 152–53.

Of Forsythia, Freedom, and Faith

Yesterday it finally happened. . . I saw the first forsythia in bloom. That’s the crucial, long-awaited moment every year, the definitive pivot point between winter and spring. The daffodils and crocus come earlier, of course, and they gladden my heart, but it’s that first forsythia sighting that says, “No matter that there is frost on the ground or that the forecast is for days of unrelieved grey, the hope of spring will not disappoint.” There’s just something about the gloriously concentrated sunshine of those petals, alongside the soft green of the early leaves, that releases a well-spring of joyful anticipation in me.

forsythia

My definitive (and sometimes defiant) response to the appearance of the forsythia is to liberate my feet. Yes, foot freedom—an act of hope! As soon as I got home yesterday, I gleefully bundled up the contents of my sock drawer into a packing cube and dumped it into a winter storage bin. I’ve always disliked wearing socks (as a child and teenager, shoes and socks came off even before the coat most days when I got home from school), and one of the things I loved most about living in the tropics was year-round foot freedom. Dump the socks, pack away the boots, contemplate a new color of toenail polish—all ways to joyfully celebrate the not-yet-experienced banishment of winter to fading memory by the one-two punch of spring and summer.

Because I’ve been on a multi-layered journey in the Book of Psalms during Lent, it occurred to me that the banishment of my socks to a storage bin in the basement before spring has fully arrived is an act of faith that provides a pale analogy for the robust and radical faith move that is the turning point of so many psalms. Especially in the psalms of lament, there is a crucial moment when the poet turns his eyes from contemplation of the undeniably bleak “winter” of his current circumstances (enemies, adversities, illness, the threat of death, the sense of abandonment) and makes the choice to exercise “holy memory.” There is a deliberate halt, in order to turn his gaze backward to the memory of God’s past acts of rescue and deliverance. Psalm 77:11 is a great example of this choice: “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old” (NRSV). Over and over again, this intentional exercise of sacred memory—an exercise performed in the midst of as-yet-unresolved suffering and hardship—reshapes the psalmist’s view of his present and renews his faith in the future. The memory shapes the prayer, as in the words of another great Hebrew poet: “God, I’ve heard what our ancestors say about you, and I’m stopped in my tracks, down on my knees. Do among us what you did among them! Work among us as you worked among them. And as you bring judgment, as you surely must, remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2, MSG).

There is a certain cost to this kind of praying—because, in the short term, it can increase the pain. Remembering God’s mighty acts on behalf of his people can serve to highlight the seeming absence of those acts in the present. But the memory of last spring’s eventual triumph over winter gives me the courage to pack away the socks, even though my mom would say it’s still “sock weather,” and the hope to believe the forsythia is but a small glimpse of beauty to come. In the same way, the memory of past deliverance by an unchanging Savior gives us the courage to choose hope in the midst of our painful present crisis. We are fast approaching the celebration of the greatest act of deliverance the universe has ever seen—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Perhaps there’s never been a better season than the one we’re all fumbling our way through right now, for the deliberate exercise of sacred memory. May the glorious victory of the empty tomb and the wild empowerment of Pentecost fill us with holy awareness of God’s presence with us in the mess and holy expectancy for his deliverance from the mess.

I don’t know what your equivalent of “sock banishment” is, but I hope you will carry it out with bold and courageous faith today!

 

 

“Ancient Words, Ever True”

 

There’s nothing more discouraging than a March snow that covers up the burgeoning signs of spring. (Well, I guess an April snow might be even more discouraging. . . please, let us be spared that one!) Today’s snow didn’t cancel church services (COVID-19 had already taken care of that), but the last Ohio snow storm nearly a month ago did that, barreling in on Ash Wednesday afternoon and dumping a messy mix of rain, ice, and snow. I’d been preparing to preach that evening, and the words of the liturgy and sermon text have stayed with me. Psalms 41 and 51, Isaiah 58—these are ancient words, “holy words, long preserved for our walk in this world” and they “resound with God’s own heart.” (Are you humming the tune yet, or hearing Michael W. Smith’s voice in your head?) These ancient words invite us to submission—to come to Scripture with open hearts, to be changed by our encounter with the Word and with the Lord of the Word. (I invite you to pause and read those two psalms and Isaiah 58.)

ancient words

The ancient words that began my journey through Lent this year (Isaiah 58) came first to a people who found themselves in a decisive, future-shaping moment in their life together. The dreadful darkness of exile was over, they were back in their land, and as the process of physical rebuilding was moving forward, they faced an identity crisis. Just what kind of people would they be? What kind of corporate life would they build? Would their life as the people of God be shaped by the ancient words, or by the free-floating anxieties of their day and the worldviews and habits of the surrounding cultures? Would their walk in this world resound with the music of God’s own heart?

In that decisive moment, the ancient words come to Israel first as judgment (vs. 1–5). It’s not unusual for an Old Testament prophetic message to begin with a thundering call to attention. But here it is not the prophet who shouts, but the Lord himself. He calls for a shofar—the instrument used to announce urgent warnings of impending disaster. This crisis, however, is not military, not an external threat, but internal. Yahweh is making a public announcement of his people’s spiritual condition: “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins (v. 1b, NRSV). This dreadful divine diagnosis is made more shocking by what follows. We expect to hear a description of gross, overt turning away from the Lord—but instead it’s a snapshot of an extremely religious people who seem to be devoted to God. And yet the Lord diagnoses them as rebellious and sinful. What is wrong in this picture?

Their true condition, from God’s perspective, is a result of distorted delight. Delight is the passionate direction of one’s heart toward someone or something. It is the deep, genuine pleasure you take in something valuable, precious, and cherished. It is what grandparents feel the first time they hold a new grandchild. It’s what lights up the groom’s face when he catches that first glimpse of his bride at the back of the church. It’s our little dog Coco when she figures out it is Friday morning, which means a w-a-l-k in the p-a-r-k, and her tail is wagging furiously and every hair in her scruffy coat seems to come alive with happy energy. Sheer delight!

 

with Mommy

On the surface, the religious life of the people seems to indicate that they have an appropriate and well-placed delight: “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways” (v. 2). In fact, they’re so devoted that they have become annoyed that God isn’t more impressed with their devotion, especially their fasts. They ask petulantly: “Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?” (v. 3, MSG). In other words, “Where is our reward for doing the right religious behaviors?” It seems that their “delight” in worship has become a pragmatic and self-focused means to an end. There’s a tiny key phrase that reveals the distortion in their delight. It is found in the second half of verse 2: “as if.” Israel seeks God and delights in his ways as if they were a righteous people, as if they were committed to God’s justice. The implication is that they are not, in fact, that kind of people. And Yahweh responds with severe frankness to their whining about his lack of response: “I’ll tell you why [I’m not impressed]! It’s because you are fasting to please [delight] yourselves” (v. 3, NLT). Their delight is displaced and therefore distorted.

There’s a deep disconnect between the people’s highly satisfied self-evaluation of their religious behaviors and Yahweh’s assessment of them. The Lord says to them, “Your fasts are nothing more than ‘going through the motions of penance’” (v. 5, NLT). And how has the Lord made this diagnosis? What are the presenting symptoms of their disease? “Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling?” (vs. 3-4). Injustice in their civic and social life, bitterness and vicious disputes in their communal life—these things negate the sincerity of their worship. Tragically, there is nothing in their life together that sets them apart from the larger culture, nothing that marks them as a people after God’s own heart.

In his infinite grace and mercy, the Lord does not leave his people in their deplorable condition, but offers them a solution to the problem of their distorted delight. He says to them, “Let me define for you the kind of worship I want from my people” (v. 6). If you sense a bit of an edge in the Lord’s voice at this point, it is perhaps understandable—what he’s about to tell them is not new information! From Moses to the pre-exilic prophets, God’s spokesmen have detailed over and over again what Yahweh is about to say—and Israel’s previous failure to live this way is what landed them in exile in the first place.

The Lord offers the solution for their distorted delight in a series of three IF-THEN sequences, detailing both his expectations and his promises. Interestingly enough, it’s not until the third sequence (vs. 13–14) that the Lord touches on overtly “religious” behavior (Sabbath practices). In the first two sequences, God calls them to reverse their current social practices and their current internal dysfunction. On the “if” side of the ledger, we see what true worship (true delight) consists of: (1) IF (implicit) you practice my kind of fasts: “to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. . . sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families” (vs. 6–7, MSG). (2) “IF you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out. . .” (vs. 9–10). (3) “IF you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy (delight!), God’s holy day as a day of celebration, if you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there. . .” (v. 13).

If God’s people choose this kind of God-pleasing worship, THEN we will experience the full, abundant, delight-full existence that he longs to give us. Listen to the catalogue of delightful descriptions found on the promise side of the solution to distorted delight: salvation, healed wounds, protection (v. 8); answered prayer (v. 9); light to replace darkness (v. 10); constant refreshing and abundant vitality (v. 11); the chance to be rebuilders and restorers of brokenness (v. 12); and (wait for it!) delight in the Lord (v. 14)! This is a new word, even more intense and “delightful” than the one used previously in the chapter. It has an almost playful sense to it—to delight luxuriously, to revel in something or someone, to laugh and enjoy. This is Coco’s joy in her Friday walk magnified exponentially!

Walter Brueggemann sums up nicely the call of these ancient words: “The true delight (v. 14) does not follow from our interests (v. 13). Judaism is invited to give up little interests for the sake of large delights.” Not just ancient Judaism, but every one of us who submits to the ancient words is invited to this—and especially during this season of Lent—to give up distorted delights and small interests for the large delight of following Jesus into cruciform living, dying, and living again. First, we must see clearly and name boldly the “little interests” that are “sin and rebellion” in the eyes of God. Whether it is our toleration of injustice and oppression in the social fabric of our culture, or our tendency to quarreling and slander within the community of faith, or our willingness to allow distorted delights in our personal lives, the first step is to acknowledge those things and to see them through God’s eyes for what they are. Brutal, no-holds-barred honesty is required of us, rooted in a complete submission to the illuminating light of Spirit and Word. Second, we must match that honesty with true repentance. The mark of the Cross that we received to open the Lenten season must be made manifest in conduct that is aligned with the will and character of God. The words that were spoken as ashes were imposed, “Repent and believe the gospel,” invite us to much more than mere intellectual assent to some theological proposition. They call us to a life transformed and re-shaped by the cruciform gospel of Jesus.

 

 

 

“All That Glitters. . .”

I’ve never been a very good consumer of “devotional” literature or “women’s Bible study” curricula. There are a lot of reasons for that, some having to do with my own idiosyncrasies and predilections, others with the character of the literature itself. But the main reason is that I get so readily “distracted” by the Scripture passage (you know, the obligatory chapter-verse reference at the top of the page or in the margin, the one that the devotional reflection or lesson may or may not focus on). I am constitutionally incapable of leaving that passage unread, and time after time, the biblical text grips my imagination and pulls me in. (Is it really a “squirrel” moment if it’s Scripture that is distracting you?) By the time I surface from that “distraction,” there’s often no time left for anything more than a quick skim of the writer’s commentary.

This happened again last week. I can’t tell you a thing about the particular lesson from the Bible study curriculum for that day, but the biblical text itself stopped me in my tracks, with its chillingly relevant portrait of leadership choices made out of sheer expediency and self-preservation, and the catastrophic results when the people of God were seduced by that leader. A lot of glittery promises were held out—but not all that glitters is gold!

all that glitters

1 Kings 12:25–33 narrates the initial acts of King Jeroboam I, whom Yahweh allowed to be anointed ruler over the ten northern tribes of Israel after the death of Solomon and the division of the kingdom (12:1–24). After some city-building projects to launch his reign (what is it with powerful men and the urge to build things?), Jeroboam’s first royal move is a shrewd, coldly calculating strategy to consolidate and conserve his power through manipulating the religious rituals and narratives of his people. Fearful that their loyalty to him will be undercut by pilgrimages to the southern kingdom to worship Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem (v. 27), Jeroboam deliberately leads his people into idolatry. To be sure, he cloaks it in very different terms, twisting the historical and theological narratives at the heart of Israel’s faith to present himself as the “true interpreter” of that faith, “an Aaronic restorationist maintaining the true tradition of Israel’s worship over against Mosaic and Solomonic innovations” (i.e., law and temple).[1] What need will the people have of the temple after he presents them with two golden calves, proclaiming, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (v. 28)? Rather than a clear-eyed discernment of the distortion at the heart of this royal move, rather than a collective recognition of the echoes of Aaron’s sin in the desert (Exodus 32), the people respond with blind loyalty, allowing the king’s fear-driven strategy to reshape their worship. The narrator is blunt: “This thing become a sin” (v. 30).

1 kings 12 28

When that initial strategy proves successful, with apparently no pushback from either the religious leaders or the common people, Jeroboam goes several steps further in his plan to use religion as the hedge that would keep him in power. He coopts pagan shrines (places so antithetical to the worship of the one true God that their destruction had been commanded as part of the conquest of the land), gives them a superficial makeover, and offers them to the people as places to worship Yahweh (v. 31). He pays particular attention to wooing the common people, enlisting them as the priests of his syncretistic new religion (v. 31). He institutes a festival that imitates a true, divinely-ordained festival of Israel and he himself, with fearless audacity, takes the priestly role in that celebration (v. 32). Two phrases in the description of that festival (v. 33) highlight both Jeroboam’s hubris and his skillful strategy to manipulate a religious but undiscerning populace. The narrator tells us that Jeroboam did these things “in the month that he alone had devised” and that Jeroboam (not Yahweh) “appointed a festival for the people of Israel.”

Yahweh’s own estimation of Jeroboam’s strategies and his unilaterally appointed altar is swift and dramatic. The altar cracks and the ashes of the sacrifices pour out from it (1 Kings 13:1–5). Yahweh’s response to the people of Israel, who so quickly and without protest were seduced by Jeroboam’s tactics, takes longer to play out but is devastatingly catastrophic. Two hundred years later, the northern kingdom is overtaken by the fierce Assyrian empire, never to be reestablished.

Peter Leithart’s insightful assessment of Jeroboam I highlights the startlingly contemporary impact of this biblical narrative. Jeroboam, he says, “understands the community-building power of ritual and sets out to exploit it, manipulating religious images to maintain social and political cohesion and attempting to harness the forces of worship in support of his political power.”[2] But it isn’t really Jeroboam I of Israel or the narcissistic, fear-driven, power-clutching Jeroboams of our day (wherever they pop up on the political spectrum) that struck a chill in my heart as I read and pondered this text. It was Israel. The people of God, without a single recorded qualm, not even a squeak of protest, allowed themselves to be swept along by a distorted narrative and a twisted interpretation of their history. It was the defining moment that would set course of the northern kingdom—and their lack of discernment and facile seduction set them on a course toward destruction. I fear that the church in the United States is at such a defining moment. It is tempting to qualify that as “the evangelical church” or “the conservative church,” but no one gets a pass—every corner of the church is going to have to discern its Jeroboam and stand against the particular brand of distorted narrative that is being offered to it. The questions press hard against us all. Will we be seduced by those narratives and their alternative gods and rituals, or will we remain fiercely and exclusively faithful to the one true God, the only source of our salvation, the Lord who brought us up out of slavery, who transferred us from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light? Will we be resolute in letting the grand story of Scripture shape our story and our worldview, or will we allow the little talking heads to reshape our understanding of truth? Will we persevere in prayer so that we can, as Spurgeon put it, discern between “right and almost right,” between truth and almost truth? I truly believe that this is a decisive moment for the church in the U.S., and the choices we make in the face of the Jeroboams of our day will have sweeping and enduring consequences. May God have mercy on us all!

 

 

[1] Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 97.

[2] Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 97.

Of Typos and Trauma and Trust. . .

**This is primarily for my Methodist tribe, but I hope it will speak to anyone who’s ever had a “churching” stomach. (Read on!)

 Anyone who writes on a keyboard for many hours each day and has done so over the course of many years knows that there are typos—and then there are typos! There are the recurring ones—those words that you could type a million times and make the same letter switch every single time. There are the “Freudian” ones—those inadvertent misspellings that make you laugh—and perhaps cry—at their unexpected appropriateness. And, of course, if you’re typing on a tiny screen, there are Siri’s insistent “corrections” that can lead to great embarrassment if not detected before you hit “send.” Today I’m thinking of particular examples of the first two kinds of typos, and how pertinent they are for those in the Methodist tribe who are walking through church-related trauma while clinging fiercely to trust in the Lord of the church.

White-out

Decades ago, in another lifetime, I spent some time filling in for the secretary at the UM church where my husband was the associate pastor. As you can imagine, there were endless opportunities in that setting for typing the words “United Methodist Church.” Unfortunately, since this was in the days of typewriters, White-Out and carbon paper, long before the ease of a “delete” button, I simply could not type those words correctly. Every time, what landed on the paper was “the UntiedMethodist Church.” Every. Single. Time. In the years that have followed, nothing has changed. Unless I look at my fingers while I type those words, using a slow-mo, letter-by-letter method, what comes out on the screen is “the Untied Methodist Church.” It is a sadly accurate moniker for our beloved denomination’s current reality. We have become untied from one another, untethered from a common standard of discipline, loosed from a shared theology and practice. It’s not a new reality; the condition has building almost since the birth of the “United” Methodist Church in 1968.[1] But the “untied” nature of our union has reached a tipping point, a point of no return, and almost no one expects to reach the end of this calendar year without a massive upheaval in the structure and life of what is currently the UM behemoth.

The other unforgettable church-related typo is of the second kind, the “Freudian” mistakes. A year or so ago, a senior saint in our former parish suffered a break-in and robbery at her home. The perpetrator was apprehended, and as part of the sentencing process, the prosecuting attorney asked this dear lady to write a letter to the judge, describing not just the material loss but the emotional and mental anguish she had suffered as a result of the crime. Because this sister doesn’t have a computer and limited vision makes it hard for her to write a long letter by hand, she asked for my help. So we sat on my couch and she dictated a letter to me, at one point describing the “churning stomach” she experienced every time she entered her house after the break-in. When we finished, I printed out the letter for her. As she was reading, a puzzled look crossed her face, and she asked hesitantly, “What is a ‘churching’ stomach?” My instinctive response was laughter—dratted typos!—followed quickly by the sad realization that a “churching” stomach was exactly what I had every time I walked through the doors of the building during that particular season in the local congregation’s life. A cognitive and kinesthetic error had revealed an underlying and mostly well-hidden trauma.

There are a lot of people with “churching” stomachs these days, as the “Untied” Methodist Church moves seemingly inexorably toward structural changes that will reflect its actual theological and connectional reality. Late Sunday afternoon, the magnitude of the collective anxiety hit me in a visceral way. I usually spend Sunday afternoons in what are restorative activities—sewing, listening to a variety of podcasts, and time at the piano. The last podcast I listened to Sunday was an interview with Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary, about “the Indianapolis Plan,” a proposal that seeks to guide the division of the current UMC into three separate “expressions” of Methodism.[2] As I sat down at the piano and tried to play through a new book of worship music, I felt an overwhelming weight of anxiety settle over me. I’ve had anxiety attacks in the past, but this was different—it wasn’t my own anxiety that was camped out like an elephant on my chest, but a sudden and palpable awareness of the massive anxiety that is spreading throughout the UM world. As we all face a future of innumerable unknowns and uncertainties, clergy are anxious—how will they inform and lead their congregations through this upheaval? What will happen to their appointments to the places they currently serve, and how will they find places of ministry “on the other side”? Lay people are anxious, to varying degrees, as it becomes apparent that no congregation is going to get out of this mess without making some tough decisions (because even taking the path of least resistance and doing nothing is a decision that will have far-reaching ramifications, even if it’s later rather than sooner). I sank down into my reading chair, pressed into a posture of wordless lament, and gradually through the joy-killing fog of anxiety came a single whispered word, “Trust.” Just that. Nothing more. “Trust.”

trust 2

In the face of the unknown, we can trust the God who holds the future. As we contemplate a multitude of uncertainties, we can trust the God who is the unchanging Rock. In the midst of anxiety about the potential loss of security and stability, we can trust the God who is our Refuge and Strong Tower. In the midst of grief over a “failed experiment,” we can trust the God who is the Redeemer of our failures and who is in the business of making all things new. So, to my dear brothers and sisters in this great tribe of the “Untied” Methodist Church, with its many tents and clans, let us choose the path of trust as we walk into and through this time of “churching” stomachs and out the other side to the new thing that God is birthing in our day. Let us confront our collective anxiety not by lashing out at each other but by praying for each other. Let us keep our eyes and our hearts and our minds fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, not forgetting that there is a great cloud of witnesses that cheers us on as we run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1–2). A lot has happened in the world of Methodism that has not been God-honoring and there’s been a lot of Methodist-to-Methodist behavior that has been anything but Jesus-shaped. Let us deliberately reverse that now. In what is likely to be the final lap for the UMC as we know it, let us choose to trust God and to love each other in such a way that even our separation process will be a worthy reflection of the grace, mercy, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation that have been lavished upon us by God in Christ. May “Untied” Methodism give way to “Unleashed” Methodism—released and empowered by the Spirit to be agents of the gospel in the world. May our “churching” stomachs be replaced with rejoicing hearts, as we learn to walk with bold trust into God’s new thing.

[1]I strongly commend to you this essay, “A Failed Experiment in Methodist Unity,” by church historian Dale Coulter, of Regent University, which clearly and concisely sets the UMC’s 52-year existence into historical perspective. Caveat: Asbury Theological Seminary is not a “Methodist” seminary in the sense that it is an official seminary of the UMC, but it certainly trains a high number of Methodist pastors each year. Read Dale’s article here: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/01/a-failed-experiment-in-methodist-unity?fbclid=IwAR3dlUrLUsBrj28SfeLcQ4EmYIXCc7jt_P9Y-qDV8VvVfUzMyDH65jN-YmY

 

[2]You can listen to that interview at “Plain Truth: A Holy-Spirited Podcast,” http://plaintruth.libsyn.com/website

Even If. . . .

Even If. . . .

 Rachel Coleman

Disclaimers and caveats:

  • The views and thoughts contained in this post are wholly my own; they do not represent or speak for any other person or organization. I am fully aware that I have brothers and sisters in Christ, deeply committed followers of Jesus, who hold vastly different views and are asking a different set of questions. I hope that we can offer each other mutual respect and perhaps even have some mutually fruitful conversations.
  • I grew up in a “gun culture,” so I am not traversing wholly foreign territory. But the culture of my childhood was very different than our current context; perhaps it would be better described as a “hunting culture.” We had guns in the home, but I never once heard my father speak of using them in any context other than hunting; weapons were stored safely out of reach of children and were not kept loaded for a “just in case” scenario. With the exception of groundhogs, we ate what he shot. (I really hope my memory is correct and we did not, in fact, eat any of those groundhogs!) Dad taught me to shoot, and for a time I was pretty good at knocking clay pigeons out of the air.
  • This piece is unashamedly directed to Christ-followers, and the questions it poses arise from the sacred writings of Christianity. I do not presume to speak a prophetic word to people in other faith traditions or to know the kinds of questions their sacred writings might prompt them to ask.

even if

This is not the essay I intended to write today. I planned to write a reflection on my 2020 “word”: dangerous surrender.  But this is the piece that is burning within my heart, piercing my soul, keeping me awake, and causing my spirit and gut to ache. This is where the Holy Spirit has hemmed me in, refusing to allow me to “enter Bythinia”—that is, to take the path that looked best to me (Acts 16:7).  So perhaps this is the first act of obedience in a year that I hope will be shaped by a disposition to dangerous surrender.

We are all deeply and naturally troubled by the tragic reality of life in a time and place where houses of worship can be invaded by violence and death. We Americans, however, must be honest—if we can lay aside our narrowly nationalist lenses, we’ll see that this horrific “new” reality is and always has been el pan del diario vivir (the daily bread) for worshipers in other parts of the world, particularly for those who offer their loyalty to King Jesus. The worshiping community that bears Jesus’ name has always been vulnerable to the violence of empire, and a close reading of the New Testament makes clear that this should not surprise us. But acknowledging the reality of our vulnerability does not make the concrete manifestations of it any less horrific or tragic or hard to bear.

So as human beings, it is natural and fitting that we are troubled by recent events. As Christians, however, I think we ought to be equally troubled by some of the responses to those events that have arisen from within the body of Christ. There is a swelling crescendo of calls to arm the church as an appropriate answer to armed violence against it. In all honesty, this is disturbing and repugnant to me, but I realize that it is a very complex issue with no simplistic, black-and-white solutions. (There might be simple responses of faith, but they won’t be simplistic, sound-byte answers.) Unless we bury our heads in the sand, there’s no way for local bodies of worshipers and their leaders to avoid the difficult, complicated conversations around this issue. My concern is that those conversations be conducted in the light of some hard, pressing questions from Scripture, rather than from pressure exerted by ideology or culture or fear. I believe that the decisions we make around this challenging issue will reveal our fundamental beliefs about God, about the Lordship of Jesus, about the world, about the church, and about life itself—not what we saywe believe, but what we truly believe, the beliefs that shape our actions. So I write this post, not to offer answers, but to set forth some questions rooted in the sacred scriptures of Christianity that might guide our corporate wrestling with a kingdom-shaped response to the madness of our times. Whatever decisions are made, my prayer is that they will be reached through honest engagement with questions like these:

  • What does it mean for the church to serve a crucified Lord, a King who bears for eternity the marks of his self-sacrifice on our behalf, who is at once the Lion of Judah and the slaughtered Lamb (Rev. 5:5–6)? What does it mean that our songs of worship for all eternity will be directed to the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:11; 7:10; 19:6–9)? And what does it mean that we are called to be imitators of God and of the self-sacrificing love of Christ (Eph. 5:1–2)?
  • What does it mean for us to serve a King who sternly reprimanded his followers for taking up a weapon to defend him and themselves against physical danger (Matt. 26:51–52; Luke 22:51)?
  • What does it mean that the great gallery of faith in Hebrews 11 climaxes with the martyrs, those who “were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection, [who] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, [who] were stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword” (vs. 36–37, NRSV)? What does it mean that they are described, incredibly, as those “of whom the world was not worthy” (v. 38)?
  • What does it mean, in the climate of fear that was spawned by 9-11 and that has grown into an insatiable monster fed by the media and special interest groups in the decades since, that God has not given to his people a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7)? What does it mean that one of the most consistent words of God to the people of God, all across the Christian canon, is, “Be not afraid, for I am your God and I am with you” (e.g., Isa. 43:1–2; Matt. 28:19–20; John 14:27; 1 Pet. 3:13–15)?
  • What does it mean to exercise a faith like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? These courageous men of faith told an enraged tyrant: “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16–18, NIV). What does it mean to live out an even if kind of faith?
  • In Revelation 2–3, Jesus speaks messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor, who were in the throes of life as a persecuted minority. What does it mean that the message of the Living One to those churches is: “Hold fast, endure patiently, do not be afraid, be faithful—even unto death”? Each church receives a promise of eternal reward for conquering—and Jesus makes clear the nature of that conquering: “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21). How did Jesus conquer? Through the cross. What does that indicate about the cruciform nature of the church’s victorious living?
  • What does it mean if we say, “Well, that’s all very lovely and idealistic, but it’s not very pragmatic in our current context”? What does that say about our view of Scripture and of the God whose will and ways are revealed in it? If we must talk about pragmatism, let’s go back to Hebrews 11 and its definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). “Things” in the phrase “things not seen” is prágma, from which we get our word “pragmatic.” It means actions, deeds, undertakings, events. What if the only truly “pragmatic” acts are those happening in the unseen realm, the undertakings of the God who is active behind the scenes? What does it mean to stake our very existence on faith in that kind of God?

No quick answers. Just questions. But these are questions that take seriously some very fundamental Christian teaching, truths that transcend time and place and circumstance. My prayer is that all conversations about “arming the church” will be undertaken within a deep and deliberate consideration of these questions and others like them.

 

 

 

 

Tidings of (Dis)comfort and Joy

Tidings of (Dis)Comfort and Joy

Rachel Coleman

In the course of a single week during Advent, I heard two senior saints, people with long lifetimes of active faith, offer distinct and seemingly incompatible perspectives on the nature of preaching. On a Sunday morning before I preached, a retired pastor prayed over me the words that a “feisty, fuzzy-haired” matriarch used to pray over her on a weekly basis: “Lord, let her speak truth, and let the chips fall where they may!” Just a few days later, at the Christmas luncheon of a group of seniors, a gentle, tranquil man, someone whose life shines with the obvious polishing and refining of a long faith journey, also commented on the role of preaching in the church: “It seems to me that people love Jesus and know what he expects of them, so sermons are just gentle reminders of what they already know.”

chips fall

Now, I’m not going to lie—one of those perspectives resonated strongly with me, and the other made me uneasy. (Those who know me will have no difficulty discerning which is which!) After several days of mulling over both the statements themselves and my reactions to them, one thing became clear. Taken in isolation or accepted as a monochromatic mantra, either of these perspectives could distort the preaching task and stunt the growth of both preacher and congregation. On the one hand, an exclusive embrace of “let the chips fall where they may” boldness could become a verbal and theological club in the hand of a preacher who is tone deaf to the need for “gentle reminders.” On the other hand, there is equal risk if the preacher operates under the blithe assumption that her listeners do indeed know what Jesus expects of them (biblical literacy) and are already actively engaged in doing it (daily obedience). Dwelling exclusively in a homiletical landscape of easy assumptions and gentle reminders robs the congregation of the gift of a prophetic voice and stifles the Spirit’s tendency to disrupt settled routines, disturb comfort zones, and disquiet ways of thinking and behaving that run contrary to the kingdom. The Gospel has always been, after all, tidings of both (dis)comfort and joy, and good preaching must reflect the full scope of that good news.

reminder

Taken together, as an integrated understanding of the preaching task, the two words of wisdom are liberating and challenging, both for the preacher and for his listeners. A close look at the great preachers of the Bible, from Isaiah to Jesus, from Jeremiah to John, from Ezekiel to Peter and Paul, reveals that God’s Word to God’s people has always been an interweaving of the two strands. Isaiah calls out in sharp and unrelenting boldness the nature of Israel’s twin offenses—idolatry and injustice—but also offers some of the most beautiful words of comfort in all of Scripture.[1]And while we are comforted and encouraged by Jesus’ prayers and promises, who among us is not deeply discomforted by the demands of kingdom living that he lays out in no uncertain terms in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49)? Biblical preaching, it seems, is always a balance of reminder and challenge, of confirmation and confrontation.

Moving into a new year, I will take with me into each preaching opportunity the wisdom of both these saints. And I will approach the sacred text daily with the expectation of hearing the Spirit speak tidings of (dis)comfort and joy.

 

 

 

[1]Compare, e.g., Isaiah 2:5–3:17; 5:8–23; 10:1–11; 28:1–29; 58:1–59:19 with Isaiah 40:1–44:8.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit. . . (this one’s for my sister-preachers)

We’ve been in our new location for about four months, so the congregation and I are getting comfortable with each other in my occasional preaching role. The very first Sunday I preached, however, I was quite nervous—and probably over-dressed for the occasion and the context. (The professorial black skirt suit, severely elegant and probably safe from any wardrobe criticism—ladies, you know exactly what I’m saying here.) My “fan club” (i.e., Mom and her entourage!) showed up unexpectedly to the first service. They’d left eastern Ohio very early to get here, so I took them over to the parsonage during the Connection Hour between services to give them a chance to rest and relax. Since I was there, and since our second service is contemporary and more casual, I switched out the skirt for black trousers, which, in turn, required a change of shoes. It wasn’t part of a plan, it just happened in response to circumstances. Sister-preachers, I know y’all are already writing the script for what happened next! Four different people who were at both services said to me afterwards, “I noticed you changed your shoes.” Really? You noticed my shoes? What about the fact that a skirt had become a pair of slacks?

black pumps

None of the comments were made in a critical manner, so we laughed about it over lunch. I was only half laughing, however, when I asked Randy, “How many people do you think would notice if you changed your shoes or your tie between services?” He offered to make the experiment, which he did this past Sunday, switching from dress shoes in the first service to casual loafers in the second. It was the perfect Sunday for the experiment, since his message focused on the putting on/taking off clothing metaphor in Colossians 3, and his opening illustration was all about his own wardrobe choices. (There was even a passing mention of What Not to Wear—I knew he’d be grateful someday for the times I made him watch that show!) So, if ever people were going to be paying attention to his clothing choices, it would be this Sunday. Well, ladies, I think you can guess the answer to the question, how many people commented on his shoe change? Exactly zero.

what not to wear

Whether you are shaking your head, shrugging your shoulders, raising your eyebrows, sighing, or just throwing up your hands with a laugh, I know that every sister-preacher who is reading this has a reaction—and you probably have a wardrobe story of your own to share. The reality is, when we make our way to the pulpit our choices of clothing, jewelry, footwear, hairstyles, and make up are going to get mentally reviewed (and occasionally commented upon). And sometimes those choices will get added to the “too” list—you know the one, the list of reasons why you shouldn’t be using the gifts God gave you. You’re “too” something—too female, too emotional, too young or too old, too pretty or too unattractive, too bold and assertive, too ______. So it’s an easy step to add wardrobe items to the list—the skirt is too short, the jewelry is too visible, the hair is too long or too short, the makeup is too heavy, the colors are too bold or too boring. . . And the list goes on.

Here’s my word to you today, dear sister-preachers. Be sensitive to your context, yes. Be thoughtful and prudent in your choices, of course. But most of all, be who you are! God gifted and called you—in all your lovely, unique personal style. In my case, I’ll probably never preach in jeans, because I wear them every day of the week as I sit at my desk working, and when I have the privilege of preaching, I dress into it as an expression of gratitude; there will always be some kind of bright color livening up my outfit, even if the base palette is neutral; and the only way I’ll take off a bold piece of jewelry is if it happens to interfere with microphone placement! Whatever your style, whoever you are—don’t try to hide that inside the box of others’ expectations. I am thankful for each one of you, and pray that the “too” lists of others will never get between you and the awareness of God’s “well done” when you have honored him with faithful, obedient proclamation of his Word for and with his people.

“The Sound of Silence”–Attentive Ears Required

Rachel Coleman

I went through a Simon and Garfunkel phase in high school, captivated by their haunting, memorable melodies. “The Sound of Silence” was always my favorite, with the irony of its subtly piercing social critique hidden under a deceptively nostalgic and soothing tune. That song has been back in my inner soundtrack recently, as life’s circumstances have forced me to consider the voices that speak only in the silence and thus require carefully attentive ears to hear.

sound of silence

The past couple months have been a rather difficult journey, in terms of physical health. I’ve been navigating a long, persistent, sometimes debilitating and anxiety-producing set of symptoms related to digestive issues. The package ranges from annoyance to discomfort to severe pain, coupled with the challenges of finding new docs, battling with the insurance company, and having multiple rounds of tests in search of answers to what is currently still a mystery. Suffice it to say, not only has this been a drain on physical energy, it has managed to occupy a significant amount of emotional and mental space as well. It took a “sound of silence” last week for me to realize just how noisy the whole thing had become.

In the middle of the mess, I had a routine and unrelated yearly screening. The next day, I got a phone call from the Women’s Wellness Center. Every woman reading this knows that you want to get a letter, not a phone call, as the follow up to these screenings! No matter how purposefully gentle and cheerful the voice on the other end of the phone, the call means only one thing: “Dr. Coleman, we need you to come back for more images.” As I await that follow-up test tomorrow, which has the potential to be simply a precautionary look at a “new normal” or a revelatory glimpse of a troubling abnormality, the thought that keeps creeping into my mind is, “Wow, with all that energy and attention focused on the noisy, tumultuous gaggle of symptoms, you may be stopped in your tracks by the silent, unnoticed voice of an altogether more serious matter.”

phone

In the days since “the call,” I’ve been pondering how this is an apt analogy for much of life in our moment in history, particularly for those of us who are followers of Jesus. We live in a noise-filled, tumultuous time, and the presenting “symptoms” make daily demands on our time, energy, mental focus, emotional well-being, and spiritual health. But what if the shrill chorus of anxiety, discomfort, and pain on the surface of our corporate and individual lives is a clamor so loud that it masks the deeper and more urgent sounds of silence? What if the anger that characterizes so much of our social discourse keeps us from hearing, recognizing, and repenting of the root cause of that anger—a deep-seated, unacknowledged fear, resulting from misplaced trust and a distorted view of the world? What might happen to the anger if the fear were faced, named, rejected, repented of, and extirpated? And what if we’ve become so comfortable with the seemingly unstoppable bombardment of loud and divisive rhetoric that pits one “kind” of people against another, so willing to accept this as our painful new normal, that we are unable to hear the silent sounds of a refusal to acknowledge the imago Deiin “those people”? What might change if that sinful refusal were faced, named, rejected, repented of, and extirpated? What if we attuned our hearts to the sound of silence, stepping out of the chatter to sit quietly in the presence of God, willing for the Holy Spirit not only to reveal the silent menace of unacknowledged sin but also to wield the radical laser of removal?

cacophony

Come, Holy Spirit! As we purposefully quiet “the wanton, warring madness” of the voices around and within, speak to us out of the silence. Reveal the unacknowledged ills that are eating away at our lives, unseen and unheard under cover of the cacophony of presenting symptoms. As we respond in repentance, restore us to wholeness and flow out of us in an unchecked river of healing for our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.