Communion at Home during a Pandemic: an Addendum

My prior post was the letter I published online for my congregation addressing our acts of worship and communion during the current pandemic. This current post is an addendum responding to discussions being held online among clergy colleagues and leaders of the church.

Addendum:

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has said that this pandemic might be a time for fasting from the sacrament. And, the worship resources posted on ELCA.org/publichealth recommend that congregations do not administer Holy Communion during online worship gatherings.

The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 39, states that “the gathered people of God celebrate the sacrament. Holy Communion, usually celebrated within a congregation, also may be celebrated in synodical, churchwide, and other settings where the baptized gather.” Furthermore, Application 39A: “Authorization for all celebrations of Communion in a parish setting where there is a called and ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is the responsibility of the pastor in consultation with the Congregational Council.”

Parishes around the country are currently “gathering” as an “assembled” people of God across the pixels and network cables. Our extraordinary gatherings in this time recall the great canticle, “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you. Let this be a foretaste of all that is to come when all creation shares this feast with you” (As the Grains of Wheat, ELW 465). By God’s grace we continue to gather as the scattered grains of wheat. These virtual assemblies of the scattered are no less legitimate than in-person gatherings.

Many of our parishes are assembling at an appointed time via livestream or Zoom videoconference. Worshiping at the same time and in the same way reinforces the unity of their assembly despite the physical distance.

Certainly gathering in this manner is not ideal, and in contagion-free times virtual assembly certainly would not be the preferred method of coming together as God’s people. The normative practice of the living Body of Christ is and always will be to gather together in person. Yet a “normative” or “preferred” practice need not be the exclusive practice of the church. Exceptions prove and are derivative of the rule.

Our church teaches that “Holy Communion is celebrated weekly” (UMG Principle 35). We celebrate communion frequently “because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church’s fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained” (Background, 35A). As we meet through digital means, parishes can continue the church’s practice of gathering weekly at the Lord’s Table in response to “Christ’s command, his promise, and our deep need” (Background, 35A).

Even as we gather online, “Holy Communion is consecrated by the Word of God and Prayer” (UMG Principle 43), and “a pastor presides at the Holy Communion” (UMG Principle 40). Authentic gatherings of God’s people through digital means provide for a pastor’s leadership, the proclamation of God’s Word, and the elevation of our prayers.

I respect the preference spoken by our Presiding Bishop, some of our church’s theologians, and many of my peers. Refraining from administering the sacrament during these times is a faithful means of waiting with hope-filled anticipation for that day when parishes can gather again, in person, as the Body of Christ. It is a waiting that reflects our faithful waiting for the promised Day of the Lord when the world will be set to rights.

And perhaps the wisdom of Ecclesiastes applies here, that there is “a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces” (3:5b). Certainly we are avoiding our in-person embraces during this pandemic. Maybe the same goes for our sacramental embrace.

Ultimately I have made a different pastoral decision, one that seeks to continue our parishes’ need to hear those most important words of the sacrament: that Jesus is given “for you” (Small Catechism). I think there’s room in our church for different and faithful responses rooted in pastoral care for our congregations and trust in the living, sacramental Word which dares to come to us in our fear, nourish us, forgive us our sin, and make of us a body gathered together not in any given location but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

May the God who is Spirit and Truth continue to bless and keep our church in these days.

Amen.

[Image by Michael Schwarzenberger from Pixabay]

Holy Communion Amidst the Coronavirus Disruption

A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation

The coronavirus has ushered us into a time of disruption. Our home lives are disrupted. Schools are disrupted. Business and the economy are disrupted. And most certainly, the medical community is disrupted.

The church, too, is disrupted. We’re scattered in our homes, unable to come together each Sunday “at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave.” We are missing out on greeting one another with God’s peace, singing and praying together, sharing our Lord’s supper of grace and mercy, studying Scripture together, and enjoying fellowship around coffee and conversation.

Ours is a Social and Physical Faith

It’s not just a human need for companionship that is met when we come together, but also a spiritual need. Christianity is inherently a social faith and a physical faith. We were made in God’s image for relationship, just as the Holy Trinity itself is a divine relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saint Paul describes the Christian community as a body of believers of many interdependent spiritual gifts – we need each other to be the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). In Genesis 1 God declares that it is not good for us to be alone.

Ours is also a physical faith. Jesus didn’t come to this world as a disembodied spirit but as a man in flesh and blood. God made the world and saw that it was “good;” when God made humanity, he declared it “very good” (Genesis 1). The created world gives praise to God in the psalms (Psalm 148), Saint Paul writes of the resurrection of the body (Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15; etc), and Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth joined as a physical, tangible new creation (Revelation 21). Jesus calls us to care for the bodily needs of our neighbors (Matthew 25). And, on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and wine and bid us to receive it as his body and his blood. Our central rituals as Christians – baptism and holy communion – are inherently tactile, physical experiences through which our Lord promises to bless and hold us.

In Lutheran churches this tangible meal of God’s grace and mercy – Holy Communion – is administered within the body of believers by an ordained minister. In obedience to our Lord’s command the church gathers for the Eucharistic Meal, the pastor retells the story of our Lord’s Passion, the congregation lifts up its prayers, and God’s people share in the promised presence of our Lord in the bread and cup – the body and blood – of his holy meal. This has been the practice of the Lutheran church for 500 years, and for our Catholic predecessors for more than a millennium before that.

Worship Disrupted by COVID-19

Out of concern for the health of our neighbors, the public at large, and ourselves, and in observance of the Governor’s stay at home order, we cannot gather together to partake in the banquet feast of our Lord’s grace and mercy. Fundamental to the character of holy communion are the prayers and gestures we share, the proximity we keep while receiving the sacrament, the Word proclaimed and present, and the common bread and cup we share in this sacred meal. At the beginning of this crisis we extended the communion table from New Joy into our homes by delivering bread and wine from our altar to many of our New Joy households, striving to faithfully adapt the Christian church’s longstanding practice to these unique circumstances. Under the current public health protocols, we are unable to do so again.

Prevented from gathering as Christians normally do for communion, do we suspend partaking in the sacrament? During Lent do we now add Holy Communion to our list of Lenten fasts? This is the decision some of the historic Christian churches are making. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, and many Episcopalians are refraining from communion during this crisis. Our church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – is not of one mind on whether or how we should continue sharing Holy Communion as a church that gathers online rather than in person.

Keeping Communion While Keeping Distance

During these extraordinary days New Joy will continue to share in the communion feast together from our homes, joined together “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) as we worship together. Now, more than ever, we need to hear and receive the promise that Jesus Christ is given “for you.”

Over the coming weeks as we continue to gather together in our homes for worship I invite you to use bread and wine (or grape juice) from your pantry to celebrate holy communion in your homes in concert with your dispersed sisters and brothers at New Joy. This is certainly not the norm of Lutheran practice, nor of the Christian tradition. But these are not normal times. With reverence, grace, and promise, we will continue to share in our Lord’s Supper even as we keep our necessary social distance.

To maintain the unity of our Lord’s table and to nurture your own preparation for worship, I urge you to continue observing, as much as practicable, our shared worship time of 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Wake up, get dressed as you might for church, and prepare as if you were heading out to church. But rather than get into the car, I invite you to set up your computer or smart television or mobile device. Prepare bread and wine (or juice) for our communion meal. Print out the bulletin posted on the website, or view it on another screen in tandem with the livestream. If you can’t join in the livestream, use the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing in your household.

Setting up Holy Communion at Home

It might feel odd to celebrate communion at home, but don’t let that get in your way. Your home is a sacred space where God is pleased to dwell! Set aside a special place as your home altar. Place a linen cloth on a coffee table or your kitchen table as a corporal, the cloth on the altar on which we set the bread and cup for communion. Spread another cloth overtop the bread and cup as a veil. Paper napkins can work just as well if linens are not available. Mark this space as sacred by setting up a small cross, lighting a candle, or placing a bowl of water to recall your baptism. Purple fabric is appropriate for our current season of Lent. When it’s time for Easter, bring out some white or gold fabric to make it festive with a celebration of resurrection life.

Any plain bread will do for Holy Communion. There’s no need to keep it small, however. The small portions we share at church are largely a practical concern of how to serve so many people at once in our ritual meal. In the intimate gathering at home let the communion meal more resemble the extraordinary heavenly banquet feast that is to come! On a grocery run before Sunday purchase a French or Italian loaf from the bakery section at the grocery store, or share home-baked bread still warm from the oven. Break off a piece, share it as the body of Christ, and allow the sensory experience to complement the spiritual promise of this meal. Familiar sandwich bread or crackers can be used, too.

Open a bottle of red wine and pour into glasses for those sharing. Grape juice may be used as well. You may share the cup by intinction – dipping the bread in the cup – or by drinking. Again, enjoy a robust glass of this drink of promise. No need to keep the amounts small.

The communion we share together while dispersed in our homes is the same promised presence of our Lord Jesus that we receive at church. Jesus promised that the bread and cup of this holy meal were his body and blood. Martin Luther wrote that the most important words of holy communion are, “for you” (Small Catechism, Explanation of Holy Communion). The body and blood of Jesus is given for you, especially in these times of social distancing and public concern.

The bread and cup of communion bring God’s promised presence to us. Handle these elements not superstitiously but reverently and with thanksgiving. At the conclusion of the service eat and drink any remaining bread and wine. You may also return the bread and wine to the earth, preferably not down the drain or in the trash can but outside to be received by God’s good creation.

Avoid sharing holy communion apart from participating in the livestream (live on Sunday mornings, or replayed later), or apart from using the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing. Communion is the highpoint of a worship that includes confession and absolution, hearing God’s Word, singing God’s praise, offering our prayers, and sharing and receiving Christ’s peace.

God’s richest blessings to you as we continue to be God’s people gathered not together in person but together in spirit and truth. Please do not hesitate to contact me or the church office via email, social media, Zoom, or phone. Let me know how I can support you during these challenging days.

Blessings,

Pastor Chris

Sanctuary

For many Christians, the word “sanctuary” refers to the space in which they gather for worship. It’s a holy space, set apart for the radical, intimate encounter we have with our Lord when his Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments are shared with God’s people.

Parroquia San Germán de Auxerre, San Germán, Puerto Rico

A sanctuary is where God’s promise is revealed to us most clearly. A sanctuary can be a centuries-old Gothic cathedral, a simple church building built ten years ago, a living room, or the hood of a humvee for Soldiers deployed overseas. If God’s promises are proclaimed there, that space becomes a sanctuary – a place of holy encounter with God.

Some Christians, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, emphasize that our bodies and our lives are a sanctuary. A popular praise song intones, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.” I first sang these words at a church camp I attended as a young adult. Perhaps you’ve sung this tune at camp or at worship. “With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

What does it mean to be a living sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true? We often connect these ideas to worship, devotion, and prayer; and, often, to how one behaves in their interpersonal relationships. If we listen to the prophets, we hear in their cry that worship and sacrifice is nothing but vacant, blathering words without actions that honor God by caring for people who suffer.

In Isaiah 5 we hear the prophet sing a love song about God’s tender care for his people. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and describes how God tilled the ground, built the watchtower, and cared for the vineyard that is his people.

Yet despite all of the care that God has given the vineyard, it yielded rotten grapes rather than an abundant harvest of good grapes. The prophet laments that God’s possession had failed, and thus speaks God’s promises to destroy the vineyard. But just a verse later the voice shifts from judgment back to lament. You can hear the prophet’s sorrow and weary disappointment in these words:

“The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!”

God expected justice, but there was bloodshed.

Earlier in Isaiah (chapter 1, verses 10-17), the prophet puts an even finer point on it:

Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.
    Listen to our God’s teaching,
        people of Gomorrah!
What should I think about all your sacrifices?
    says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts.
    I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from you,
    this trampling of my temple’s courts?
Stop bringing worthless offerings.
    Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
    I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
    They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
When you extend your hands,
    I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
    I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
    Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
    Put an end to such evil;
    learn to do good.
Seek justice:
    help the oppressed;
    defend the orphan;
    plead for the widow.

The prophet here quite literally calls out the prayers and sacrifices that take place in the temple – in the sanctuary – as inadequate without the accompanying works of justice. That work is clearly defined as helping the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow (vs 17).

It is not enough to pray when your hands are stained with blood and your lives betray the grace that has been given to you.

Words are not enough in the face of human suffering. Saint James tells us that words of faith aren’t worth a hill of beans without faithful action (James 2). Christians are called to action that flows from faith in the One who defied how things are done in this world, and calls us to follow him in a life of faithful defiance.

Our Lord defied death and rose from the grave. He defied illness by healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus defied hunger and oppression by filling the famished with good things, and by including those whom society excluded. Our Savior’s words were defiant against those in authority, and generous for those who suffered. As followers of this defiant Prince, we are called to lives that reflect the values not of this kingdom but of the coming Kingdom of God. As citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), our priorities come not from man but from God (Acts 5:59).

Perhaps this is what sanctuary looks like. Pure and holy, tried and true, any who seek to be a living sanctuary for our Lord do so by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outsider, healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and defying the forces that degrade human dignity. That’s sanctuary.

My church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – recently declared itself to be a sanctuary church at its triennial Churchwide Assembly. In this case, the term refers to the historic practice of churches being places where fugitives could find safe haven from apprehension. Offering “sanctuary” has been a ministry of the church since medieval days. In our own country churches have extended sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad sheltering African Americans fleeing (legal) slavery, and defying northern laws requiring the capture and return of escaped slaves. More recently, congregations opened their doors to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars and political persecution in the 1980s.

This calling to be a place for fugitives – from the Latin fugitīvus, fleeing – places the church in a unique position in society. Called neither to be beholden to the shifting opinion polls of society, nor to be a tool of governing authorities, the church fixes its gaze on the vulnerable who flee unfathomable horrors and it seeks to offer its balm in obedience to God’s command to care for people who suffer.

More than many churches, the Lutheran Church in the United States has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. As an immigrant church whose faith and practice came to this land from Northern and Western Europe, North American Lutherans had for generations reached across the Atlantic to help their families and coreligionists make their own journey of faith to a new land.

After World War I, Lutherans began organizing to support refugees fleeing war in their ancestral homelands. Their work expanded with the massive refugee crisis spurred by World War II. Throughout the 20th century – from Cuba to Vietnam, Hungary to Uganda, Central America to the Balkans – Lutherans partnered with the federal government to resettle refugees and help them find a welcome home in the United States of America.

Care for the immigrant is, at its core, a practice of faith. Besides all of the examples of Jesus calling us to care for “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31-46, among others), the Hebrew Bible is filled with exhortations by God to his chosen people Israel to honor immigrants and strangers, “because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:34

This construction – “because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” – shows up at least five times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, extolling the Israelites to treat the immigrants as one of their own. Leviticus 17:8 and 10 call for the equal punishment of Jew and immigrant if they bring the sacrifice before the Lord in an unworthy or unholy manner. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells us that the Lord “loves immigrants,” and Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18 call for the Israelites to protect fair pay and legal rights for immigrants. In Leviticus 25:23, the LORD even tells the Israelites that they, too, are immigrants. “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”

What does it mean that the ELCA has declared itself a “sanctuary church”? The details are still being worked out, but at its core the declaration by the Churchwide Assembly is an affirmation of our church’s longstanding commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee as an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ.

More, it is an affirmation of our church’s 2016 AMMPARO mission strategy of accompanying and supporting migrant children and their families with legal, humanitarian, and advocacy support; and, of working with partners in the United States and in Central America to understand and advocate for resolutions to the systemic violence and poverty that prompts so many families to risk everything to leave their homes in the first place.

Does “sanctuary church” = “sanctuary city”?

The sanctuary that our church offers is not the same kind of sanctuary that some “sanctuary cities” are offering – namely, a refusal by local and/or state law enforcement agencies to partner with federal agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Making the comparison between “sanctuary cities” and our “sanctuary church” is nonsensical – the church in this country never has been, and never will be, a governing body nor a law enforcement agency. Our church simply does not interface with the federal government in the same way that cities and states do.

The call by our Churchwide Assembly declaring the ELCA a sanctuary church is not a call to break laws, but instead is an invitation for agencies, congregations, and members of the church to care for the immigrant with steadfast faith, love, and sacrifice. It is true that some congregations might welcome undocumented immigrants, house them in church buildings, and provide legal aid. Others will provide financial and in-kind support to relief efforts along both sides of the US-Mexican border. Others will advocate for changes in immigration policy or funding for refugee resettlement. And yet others will commit themselves to prayer for families fleeing violence and poverty, and for leaders in the United States and in Central America whose words and deeds will have significant impact on the welfare of millions of people for years to come.

The Lutheran Church’s commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee predates the current global migrant crisis. Our commitment to the immigrant and the refugee is born out of our own experience as an immigrant church, and is rooted in the command of God and example of our Lord Jesus Christ to care for the outsider and seek the welfare of our neighbor in need.

9 months to race day

Only (only?) 270 days remain until the Carmel Marathon. I have never looked ahead to a race so far out. Perhaps that means I’m taking this race more seriously … or perhaps it’s just a function of the longings of deployment life. Either way, my sights are set on April 4, 2020, when I will run through my adopted hometown and, God willing if I do all the hard work and perform as I think I can, qualify for the 2021 Boston Marathon.


God willing?

So, I crossed out God willing, above. I first typed it because that’s what one says. It’s what I often say. “God willing, X or Y will happen.” But I will run a good marathon on April 4, 2020 not if God is willing, but if I do the work, if my body doesn’t break down, if I don’t get deathly ill, if the weather is not horrible, if I don’t get mauled by an alien panda along the course, and so forth.

Of course, in the classical sense of a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent and omnieverything, God can will that Chris Duckworth run a crappy race. I guess. And God can will that galloping unicorns shoot glitter laser bolts at evildoers of all kinds, too. But God doesn’t do such things.

My reading of Scripture reveals that God is much more concerned with the human heart, the faithfulness of those who call on God’s name, and the well-being of the poor than God is concerned with how a middle-aged guy runs a race. What does the LORD require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). There’s nothing in there about running a marathon. If anything, my intermittent obsession with running risks becoming a trip down vanity lane and an exercise in self-idolatry.

And more … if we say “God willing” or “thank God” for everything that is actually a function of our own work, we get into dicey territory of claiming that our achievements are God’s will. And if my achievements are God’s will, then shoot … I’ve just made God in my own image and so closely aligned myself with God that my actions and his are indistinguishable. Bam! Idolatry again. And idolatry is dangerous for how we relate to God, to each other, and to ourselves. But more on that another day.

Here’s the deal: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t give a hill of beans if I run a fast marathon … but I do. And that’s good enough for me.

So, does faith have anything to do with running?

I am grateful to God for the relative gifts I have as a runner, for the introspection that running inspires within my heart and mind, and for the challenges that running presents to me. I avoid definitively declaring God’s will in my life. But I do give thanks for God’s blessings, if that makes any sense. Running is a blessing.

And more. God calls us to care for ourselves and others. Running is one of those ways that I care for myself. And, at times running has deepened friendships and fostered new relationships. Such relationships and friendships are sacred places of mutual trust and care – a real blessing.

Running buddies as sacred? Yes. Let me explain.

At the least, if I fall down in a ditch on an early morning run, I’m trusting that my running partner will help me up. But more. There’s something vulnerable about sharing in and enduring a physical struggle with someone else. It’s an odd kind of intimacy, of opening yourself to the limits of your own physicality, facing your own limits and daring to share and push those limits with someone else … all while they share the same with you. In my experience, that kind of mutual sharing of vulnerability is humbling, holy, and encouraging – and in my book, that’s a blessing.

Finally, I’m a better human being when I run. That, perhaps, is the best reason for me to run. It makes me a more pleasant person, a more faithful pastor, and a better husband, father, and Soldier.

OK. So faith certainly plays a role in my running. But I’m not going to say God’s will is for me to run a Boston Qualifer. That’s a claim too far for me.

Back to the boring running part of this post.


So, I have 270 days, approximately 9 months, until the Carmel Marathon. I outlined how I got to this point in my last running blogpost, a few weeks ago. This post is more of a long, boring status update on running – shoes, mileage, and weight.

Shoes

When I was home two months ago on emergency family leave I picked up two additional pairs of running shoes – my standard Brooks Glycerins, which I’ve been running in for years, but also a pair of Hoka Bondis.

The Hokas feel like I’m wearing a platform shoe. I had a great pair of stylin’ platform shoes back in the late 90’s, and these remind me of them – at least in the sense of lift they give me. And running on them for the first time this morning felt really awkward for the first mile or so … but then I forgot about them and ran as normal.

Currently I have two pairs of Brooks Glycerins that I’m wearing – one at 320.5 miles, and one at 277.9 miles. Based on my past history I will need to replace both of these pretty soon. I’m trying out these Hokas to see if I like them, and if I want to order another pair. Otherwise, I have one more new pair of Glycerins with me, and can switch to them and order additional shoes for the next few months. At the mileage I’m running, I’ll need a few more pairs of shoes for the deployment.

Mileage

I ran 155 miles last month, and I expect that number to climb through the summer and into the fall, as least incrementally. Over the past few weeks I’ve run anywhere from 33-42 miles/week, and I’m feeling great. In the past I’ve only cleared 25 miles/week when I’ve been in a formal marathon training program. At nine months out from the marathon and running this kind of mileage – with two weekly speed workouts, a long run (currently at 12 miles, with a 14 miler scheduled for this weekend), and easy runs – I’m getting stronger and building more of a base than I ever have this far in advance of a marathon. I’m excited.

I broke my consecutive days streak at 50 days, and have since taken two days off. Two days off within a week was too many, even if it felt nice to sleep in one day (the other day my schedule wouldn’t allow for a morning run). I like running every day, even if it is an easy, slow 2-3 miler on a rest day. I imagine I’ll take a day off here and there, but otherwise I don’t see many days off in my future.

Weight

I’ve dropped probably about 25-30 pounds since the start of the deployment five months ago. I say probably, because I was so ashamed of my weight back in January and February, just prior to the mobilization, that I wouldn’t even step on a scale. I was 242 somewhere in late January, when one day I mustered up the will to weigh myself. Lordy, the pre-deployment stress eating was intense!

I last weighed in at 214.6 lbs. To meet my Army weight, I still have about 12-15 to go (203 lbs is the max weight for my height, gender, and age that doesn’t require the Army’s “tape test,” a body mass index-type of measurement). I attribute my weight loss to the structure of Army life where I have less ready access to a box of Goldfish crackers or Cheez-Its, increased physical exercise (both through running and lots, lots of walking), and to some modification of my diet. But to reach my weight goals – to get under 200 lbs and stay there – I’ll need to make more significant, and lasting, changes to my diet. That’s my next step in this process. It’s not something that will come overnight, but it will come.

Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”

Ouch.

What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

Been Running Lately

I’ve been running lately.

In my deployed setting I have both time and opportunity for fitness. In fact, fitness is part of my responsibility as a Soldier. But I realized early during the deployment that these months overseas are the best chance I will have to get into the best running shape of my adult life.

And so I run. A lot.

Back history:

In 2010 I was inducted into the Haverford High School Sports Hall of Fame. It was a thrill to see my coaches Jay Williams and Mike Ahlum again.

I was really fast in high school, but certainly did not maximize my potential. I ran a 4:23.1 1600m as a sophomore … but never got under 4:25 after that. My head got in the way – teenage angst and all. My 400m and 800m times improved throughout my high school career, and as the lead-off leg for the 4×800 I helped my team win states in 1993 and get a school record. To this day that state championship is one of my most cherished accomplishments.

Regrettably, I didn’t run in college. I didn’t even run local 5Ks. I just stopped. Again, teenage decisions. Sigh.

But many years later I got back into running when a member of my church encouraged me to sign up for the 2010 Army Ten Miler. “Pastor, registration opens in two days, and it usually fills up within a day. I know you talk about how you used to run a lot. Maybe this is your chance to get back into it.” Without much time to hem and haw, and with her encouragement, I registered.

Jessicah and I began running on April 6, 2010. In fact, April 6 is on my Google Calendar as our “Running Anniversary.” We sometimes trained together, but usually we ran separately so that one of us could be home with the (then quite little) kids while the other ran. I would eventually get into long runs on Mondays with my dear friend Christine, a pastor who also took Mondays as her day off. Jessicah ran several mornings each week at 4:45am with a great group of women in our neighborhood.

Couch to 5K got me to a 28:00 5K effort (9:01 pace) in Chestertown, MD, on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010. I ran through the summer, endured a shin splint injury, but got to the starting line of the Army Ten Miler in October. What an inspiring race! So many people running for friends who were killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many injured veterans themselves running on prosthetics. This was my longest run up to that point, and I ran it in 1:41:03 (10:07 pace).

I ran the Richmond Half Marathon just a few weeks later (“what’s an additional 3.1 miles,” I thought?). Christine, again, was a great encouragement, and she ran it with me (well, she was way ahead of me, but she drove us down and was very supportive). I ran 2:04:52 (9:32 pace).

Two days later I was running on the W&OD Trail in Arlington, VA and another runner asked, “Whatcha training for?” I was wearing a shirt with the words “IN TRAINING” emblazoned on the back that I had picked up at a discount table at the Richmond Marathon race expo. “Oh nothing. Just doing a seven mile recovery run after Saturday’s half.” “Seven mile recovery run after your first half? You should run a full! We have a great full in March downtown – the National Marathon. You should run it.”

I don’t know if my seven mile recovery run was particularly impressive, but his flattery seemed to have worked. I signed up for the marathon, and trained using a free plan I found online. Weekly long runs with Christine, some speed work on the W&OD trail, and lots of miles got me to the starting line. Jessicah trained all this time, too, and ran her first half marathon on the day I ran my first full. The weather was perfect that day, and I ran 3:52:12 (a 8:52 pace).

I ended up going Couch to Marathon in just under a year. It was great.

We then moved to Minnesota, and two years later to Indiana. Training got interrupted. In Minnesota I ran few half marathons, but got injured and did not start a full for which I had registered. I ran the TC One Miler, a one mile road sprint in 6:03.9. It was so much fun! I topped out my half marathon time at the Med City Half Marathon in Rochester, MN (1:41:55, a 7:47 pace). That same weekend we announced to our kids that we were moving to Indiana.

In Indiana I hit the ground running, and improved my marathon time by 26 minutes at the 2014 Carmel Marathon (3:27:24, 7:55 pace). Shortly after that effort, however, I found myself with new work and new priorities, and running took a back seat. Chris (a buddy from church) and I have run together on and off for years, pushing and encouraging each other. More often than not, though, I found myself putting on too many miles too quickly, resulting in injury or illness.

Fast forward to early this year. My National Guard unit gets put on Active Duty Orders. After nearly two years of very low mileage, I laced up my shoes on my second day at the mobilization station and began running. I logged 39.7 miles in February; 65.5 in March; 102.4 in April; 117.3 in May; and I should log approximately 150 in June. And while I’ve had some aches and pains, they were mostly early in the training and back in the states. Since arriving overseas I have felt great, despite the heat.

And yes, it’s hot here in the desert. It is anywhere from 83 to 91 degrees every morning, with winds out of the west that range from kinda/sorta refreshing, to full blast hairdryer in your face life-suckingly hot. Dehydration, dry mouth, a blazing sun that rises before 5:00am, and running routes that are mostly packed sand or gravel are all factors to contend with.

I’ve run every day since May 10th, my first day after returning from Emergency Family Leave. On some days I’ve run as short as 2 miles; others as long as 8-10. During this time I realized that my initial goals of simply building a base and getting into decent shape were too modest. It became clear to me that I had the chance to get into the best running shape of my life here. Best running shape of my adult life? Ramping up the goal gave me a new kind of motivation, and helped me think in a new way about the possibilities.

That realization prompted me to sign up with Matt Ebersole at Personal Best Training in Carmel, IN, for coaching as a look to hit new running goals. I now receive weekly training plans from him and shoot emails back and forth, all in an effort to get me in my best shape for the 2020 Carmel Marathon and a possible Boston Qualifier in 2020 (either at Carmel or later in the year at the Monumental). The BQ time for my age is 3:20, though I’d like to run even faster than that. I’m sure I have the talent to reach this goal – now its time to do the hard work to earn my spot on the starting line at Hopkinton.

But the goal of running Boston aside, running on deployment has given me a big non-Army goal and activity to look forward to each day. And, as I continue to grieve my dad’s death in April, and handle the stress that comes with being a deployed Army chaplain, the daily runs are truly a life-giving ritual of prayer, reflection, discipline, and camaraderie (I run with a group several days/week, and am so grateful for Allison and Ken as running partners, but also as colleagues and friends). Running, more than pretty much anything else, will get me through – and help me thrive – on this deployment.

I’ll never quite know what kind of runner I could have been, but I’m grateful for the runner I’m becoming now. Still, I realize that my current running routine is only a few months old. I have miles and miles to go before running shifts from being a much-needed deployment therapy and fitness goal to being an essential lifestyle.

In fact, the true test will be when I get home – will I keep running even as I get back to family and church and home responsibilities? I sure hope so, because I imagine that I will need the life-giving ritual of running when I get home just as much as I need it now while deployed.