On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Amen.

A peace that changes everything

Below is the sermon I preached on May 26, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while overseas on deployment. The readings for this Sunday were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5, and John 14:23-29, available by clicking here.

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

[singing]
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild. God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful all you nations rise, join the triumph of the skies …”

Peace on earth. It’s on our Christmas cards,
emblazoned on scented Christmas candles,
printed on large banners streaming across church entranceways
and lit up on household Christmas lawn decorations.

Peace on earth, the angels proclaimed.
“My peace I give to you,” our Savior promised.
Peace.

What does peace look like?

Last Sunday at the Morehouse College graduation in Atlanta, Georgia,
commencement speaker and tech investor Robert F. Smith
made a surprise announcement –
that he would pay off the student loan debt
of each of the graduates in the class.
396 students.
Millions of dollars of debt.
Paid!

If you’ve ever paid off a long-lasting debt, you know the relief.
If you’re currently paying off a long-term debt,
you can probably imagine the relief.

Mr Smith’s gift will radically transform the lives of these students.
It could change their career path,
being able to work for less pay in the short term
rather than go for a paycheck in a job that crushes their soul.
Graduates may more quickly settle down to buy a house,
not saddled with student debt.
 These young adults may now have the chance to live more generously,
able both to provide for themselves, give to church and charity,
and look after family without concern for that massive debt bill.

What a relief.
What a peace that has come upon these students.
It’s a peace that has changed their lives.
It’s a peace that allows them to live differently.

Peace. A peace that allows us to live differently.

Christ gives his followers such a peace.

“Peace I leave with you,” he says in John 14:27.
“My peace I give to you.
I give to you not as the world gives.
Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

This is a peace that allows his followers to live differently,
without trouble or fear,
without concern for how the world gives,
or the peace that the world promises
but which always. falls. short.
Always.
This peace is different.
The peace of Christ allows his followers to live differently.
We see that in each of today’s readings. Let’s take a tour

Today’s first reading comes to us from Acts 19.
A few chapters earlier in the Book of Acts – back in chapter 9 –
Paul experiences a conversion.
He once persecuted and attacked Christians;
but now he had received the peace of Christ
which allowed him to live differently.
He now proclaimed the freedom of the Gospel,
the promise of Christ.

So let’s go to the first reading, in the book Acts 16, starting at verse 9.
It begins with the Apostle Paul having visions of where to travel,
where to proclaim the Gospel.
These visions lead him to a Roman colony called Philippi.
On the Sabbath he goes outside the city gates to the riverbank,
where he thought there would be a place to pray.
Note here that
A) he didn’t really know if there was a place to pray or not,
and that,
B), he left the city gates.

In ancient urban design, city gates were barriers meant to keep
the good and proper and accepted in,
and to keep the bad, the improper, and the rejected out.
You were either in or you were out.
The wall was a visible reminder of that fact.

Remember that the rough-around-the-edges,
locust-eating, camel’s hair cloth wearing preacher John the Baptist
preached in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem’s city gates,
and baptized in the river,
not in a synagogue or the proper temple,
or the town square.
But God did something outside those city gates.

Remember that Jesus himself was executed on a cross
not in the center of town, but outside of the town, at the edge,
where such dirty and sundry things were done.
Outside.
But God did something outside those city gates.

And so here, again, we hear a cue – outside the city gates
and we realize that something of barrier-crossing, is happening,
that something to shake up the status quo, is about to take place,
because every time barriers are crossed by the Spirit of God –
with John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, or Paul of Tarsus –
something’s about to happen.

So Paul goes outside the city gates and meets some women by the river,
and he begins to talk with them.
Again, cue Jesus, who often spoke to women
and then was invariably questioned or even chastised
both by his disciples and by the Pharisees for doing so!
But Paul goes there, anyway, breaking cultural and religious norms
for the sake of the Gospel.

Among the women in the crowd gathered by the river was one named Lydia,
whom Scripture describes as a seller of purple,
and whom tradition has magnified into being a merchant of some means.

One scholar, Dr. Mary Turner of Pacific School of Theology,
suggests that the proper understanding of the original Greek
reveals that Lydia was less a wealthy merchant
than someone who actually made the purple fabric with her own hands,
a laborer, a craftsperson, an artisan herself, not a dealer.

And in those days, the making of fabric was not an esteemed job,
in part because it was an inelegant process.
Dye houses had a terrible odor
because the process of dying involved the use of animal urine –
thus, dye houses were placed outside the city gates,
because who wants to live or work near such a place?
Those who worked with the dye were marked, literally, by their profession;
their skin, their arms, were discolored,
and this condition stigmatized them as laborers doing menial work,
outside the city gates.

And yet, by the peace of Christ, Paul goes there.
He goes outside the city gates,
crossing barriers and breaking taboos for the sake of the Gospel
and the sake of those whom God so loves.

This is what the peace of Christ does – it calls Paul, and all of us, to live differently,
to go beyond the walls of human division,
to break down the barriers that would separate God’s people,
and to seek peace, community, and fellowship with others,
particularly those whom society would reject.

And not only does Paul go to Lydia and the women there,
but he receives her hospitality to stay in her house –
which is quite possibly that urine-stenched workshop I just described.
This gesture was more than mere kindness on her part,
but instead extending hospitality was a tenant of faith
and a sign of fellowship with God
in ancient Jewish and Christian communities.
Paul accepts this gift, and communes with Lydia and with God there,
outside the city gates, with the stench of urine wafting in the air.

The peace of Christ calls us to live, and to live differently.

The vision of the New Heaven and a New Earth
is certainly different than the vision of how we live now.
Turn to Revelation, in the back of your Bible, chapter 21,
starting at verse 22, and going into the next chapter.

John the Seer, the recipient of the vision that makes up this book,
describes a “new heaven and a new earth,” starting earlier in Chapter 21.
A New Jerusalem is coming down out of the heavens,
and a loud voice announces
that God’s dwelling place is with humanity.
Any separation that people once felt from God has been taken away.
Death will be no more, and God will wipe every tear away from our eyes.
The former things, the former ways of living, have passed away.
All things are made new.

In today’s reading we see that this city has no temple –
which was the cornerstone of Jerusalem,
the promised dwelling place of God.
But this New Jerusalem requires no such temple,
because the Lord God Almighty himself will be the temple,
and his glory will shine so bright that no sun or moon is needed.

And – here’s where we get to that part about living differently –
the nations will walk by this light.
The gates to the New Jerusalem will never be shut.
There will be no night, nothing vile, nothing deceitful.
That just sounds amazing,
and it stands in stark contrast to this world-that-God-so-loves
yet which is, in places, sadly broken and marred by sin.

The vision of the peace of Christ, the vision of God’s promised future,
is one of a life lived differently,
of a world, of the nations, living differently,
at peace with one another.

Life, lived differently, because of Christ.

Lastly, let’s turn to our call to worship, to Psalm 67.

As the nations stream into the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22,
I imagine them singing Psalm 67
in a grand parade of joy and celebration
streaming into the city’s open gates, led by the light of God’s glory.
For this is a song of praise that is filled with the hope
that all people would know the salvation of our God,
the blessings, the promise, the bounty, the goodness of God.

“Let God grant us grace and bless us;
let God make his face shine on us,
so that your way becomes known on earth,
so that your salvation becomes known among the nations …”

Jumping ahead a few verses,
“Let the people celebrate and shout with joy,
because you judge the nations fairly
and guide all nations on the earth.”

All the nations of the earth are there, guided by God,
pouring into the New Jerusalem,
living differently in the peace of Christ.

Oh, we who work in the warring profession,
trained to take up arms and defend neighbor and nation
against any that would harm us,
we – especially you have been there,
in the pressure of the battle –
we know, you know,
that this vision of Psalm 67 and of Revelation 21 and 22
is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in this region
over the past 16+ years.

So, do we dare to believe the words of Scripture,
do we dare to trust in the promise of what will be,
that a life lived in the peace of Christ changes us and the world,
allowing us to live differently and create, by God’s grace,
a different kind of world?

Or, do we trust what our eyes have seen,
what our ears have heard,
what our hearts have felt,
and our souls have suffered
about the cost of war and humanity’s brokenness?

Do we read the roll call of battle buddies lost to war
and expect more of the same,
or do we dare believe that there is a scroll of life in that New Jerusalem
bearing the names of all of God’s beloved
and showing forth the promise of a different kind of formation,
a different way of living,
in the Kingdom of God?

Yes, and yes.

Dear friends in Christ, we live between these two worlds –
the world as it is, and the world as God promises it will be.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19,
we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
This is our highest loyalty. This is our ultimate destiny.

Yes, we resist the ways of the world,
yet we are called by our Lord to be as wise as snakes
and as innocent as doves for as long as we are in it (Matthew 10:16).
We engage in this craft of waging war
not for the sake of seeking what the world gives,
because that’s an empty promise,
but to minimize the worst of what the world has to offer,
and to make room for our neighbors and nation
to see the world at some semblance of peace
so that they might know the greater peace of Christ our Lord.

We who are given the peace of Christ,
whose names are written on the scroll of life in the New Jerusalem,
who are emboldened by the peace of Christ and by Paul’s example
to break the barriers of this world,
we have a call and a duty to know the promises of God,
of what is and what will be,
to not forget
what the peace of Christ means for us and for the world,
how this peace enables us to live differently,
and how this peace changes everything.
Yes, we have a duty and a call to hold onto this peace,
even as we, with great reticence,
are at times compelled to wage war.

This peace is nothing of our doing, but instead is a gift.
Note what Jesus says back in John 14 – my peace I give to you.
There are no conditions.
There are no five steps to earn this peace.
No boards to pass.
No test to take.
No top block to grab.

Nothing. This peace of Christ is a free gift,
given to you and to us
in a way that is entirely unlike how anything in this world works,
with all its conditions and strings attached
and distorted sense of merit.

No. Christ is different. His gift of peace is different.
And it changes everything.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding,
keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord,
the One whose life lived differently
makes possible a different way of life
for us and for this world that God so loves.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Let us pray:
Gracious God,
we give you thanks for this gift of peace.
Grant that we who have received this promise
would steward, would care for, would nurture this gift,
so that,
in how we live and work, speak and serve,
your Son’s peace would shine forth from our lives
and extend to those around us.
O God in heaven,
make us instruments of your peace,
and renew us again and again as
dutiful, honorable Soldiers called to defend, protect, and sacrifice
not for ourselves, but on behalf of our neighbor and nation.
Guide us always by your light,
write our names on the scroll of life,
and give us, at the last, the promise of your salvation.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

Easter, delayed.

It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.

Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.

Dad holding my son, Naaman, 13 months-old at the time, at my ordination in 2008.

When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.

On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.

There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.

The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.

You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God. Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.

The predawn sky that received my anger and grief on that morning run,
and responded to my shaking fist with a gorgeous array of color.

I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.

I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.

Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.

Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.

EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN!!!

Seen today:

  1. disses my beloved East Coast, but whatever.
  2. a Pew Research Center study showed that only about 17% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis; thus, most Colts fans aren’t rushing home from church to watch the game.
  3. if they were rushing home from church where the Gospel of grace was proclaimed, and the free gift of our Lord’s presence was shared, Colts fans would bristle at the false Gospel that EVERYTHING WILL BE EARNED. Instead, they’d clamor that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN!!! Believing with all their heart that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN, these fans would live in the EVERYTHING WILL BE EARNED world with a transforming dissatisfaction seeking to reshape the world according to the promises of God’s capacity to give rather than our capacity to earn.

It’s a t-shirt. But, it’s a little more than that, too.

Peace.

Soccer and school and Holy Week

At Christmas time many Christians decry that Christmas has lost its religious identity either by retailers who do not wish customers “Merry Christmas,” or by the lack of a Christmas tree on a town hall lawn, or by the presence of Santa Claus and reindeer, or by the consumerism which surrounds a holiday dedicated to One who calls us to give not to the point of debt, but to the point of death. It’s a familiar, if wearying, annual tradition.

At Easter time we don’t hear a similar cry, even though Easter is the more important holiday on the Christian calendar (without the cross and the empty grave, the birth of Jesus means nothing). Easter Bunnies will hop at shopping malls, and our shopping goes on with hardly a protest. On Maundy Thursday my daughter has an orientation at the high school for rising 9th graders, and on Good Friday evening my other daughter has soccer practice. And each of my children will be at school on Good Friday, even as Wall Street pauses for the day that Christian societies had for centuries marked with prayer and fasting.

And this is fine with me. Christianity, and in particular the historic forms of Christianity that shaped the calendar of western society for more than a millennium, no longer holds sway over our society as it used to. However incrementally, our society is moving into post-Christendom. And we who live the Christian faith do so with marginally fewer “helps” from culture. School, youth sports, and other extra-curricular activities heap increasingly high expectations and expenses on children and families. Work hours extend into times and places that used to be considered personal. Sundays are “fun days” in the cultural vernacular.

Christians can certainly continue practicing the faith even if the broader society no longer helps us out by setting aside time on Sundays and holidays where other activities are prohibited. It is hardly oppression for my family to wrestle with the schedule conflict of school events and worship services. It is what millions of religious people who practice non-majority faiths do every day.

In fact, this cultural shift moves Christian believers, however modestly, toward the experience of Christians in the first few centuries of the faith, who practiced their faith not in societies where they held power and wide influence, but instead in societies that variously ignored them, benignly acknowledged them, looked askance at them, or even persecuted them.

As we turn to the cross and the empty grave of this Great and Holy Week, may we be renewed to live our own death and resurrection every day, trusting in God’s promises that sin and death do not have ultimate power over us. And may we find support for our lives of faith from the Body of Christ itself, the church and its richest traditions, that recall for us the mystery and power of our Lord’s Passover from death to life.

For our Lord did not come into the world to condemn it, but instead that the world might be renewed through him.

On Angels and Devils

I’ve been working on Christmas sermons and chasing references about angels throughout my Bible. Seeing few references to wings and flight. Or to halos. Or to sweet singing. Apart from apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Revelation), it is rare in Biblical storytelling that the angels perform extraordinary deeds of great power. Angels are often standing. They appear as humans. They bring powerful messages. Indeed, that’s what angel means – messenger. And their message is often surrounded by an awe-inspiring, even terrifying, experience of God’s glory.

I get that angels are divine-ish beings. That’s what Scripture seems to describe. Angels seem to occupy a different spiritual space than we humans do. But I can’t help but imagine – I want to think – that angels are simply ordinary people who show up at the right time, speak the right message, sent by God however briefly, to bring Good News to people who really, really need some Good News. And in that encounter the ordinary people involved in the telling and the hearing of Good News are surrounded by the extraordinary glory of God.

Speaking of angels … Scripture says remarkably little about the devil, often thought of as a fallen angel. Satan as a fallen angel is described in 2 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal text that no Christian group considers canon. The idea that Satan is a fallen angel developed within early Christianity as a way of explaining the existence of the devil in Scripture. If God created all things, surely God created the devil we read of in the Gospels … right? So, where did the devil come from? Got to come up with an answer. (Or do we?)

In the Book of Job Satan is an accuser in God’s heavenly court, but not the evil fiend of popular thought. In the Gospels Satan is an evil adversary of Jesus. In Acts and the epistles, Satan is a tempter and troublemaker. In Revelation Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world,” a personification of evil in a wild spiritual warfare seen as characterizing Christian living until the Time to Come. But that’s about it for the Bible and Satan. Indeed, most of what we think of as the devil comes from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” not the Bible itself.

Biblical descriptions of Satan are not consistent, and there is no systematic theology of Satan in the Bible (or even in the Christian tradition). Christians have variously feared, mocked, given credence to or all but ignored the idea of an evil being named Satan over the centuries.

But this much is clear: evil is real. Evil and brokenness and sin exist in the world – writ large, in societies and groups of people, and in individuals. Indeed, it is in response to such evil that God sent Jesus into the world, to show us a better way. The Bible, at times, calls this evil Satan and describes it as a quasi-heavenly being at work in the world. Demons, too, have been described as Satan’s emissaries, evil forces at work in the world. But efforts to explain the devil’s origins or to clearly describe the devil’s nature go beyond the Bible’s scope, and lead us into some unBiblical directions.

But the work attributed to Satan and his legion of demons – the corruption of creation and the tempting of humanity to defy God’s intent for the world – is clearly a reality. To face the reality of evil we need neither to accept nor deny that a “devil” exists.

I don’t know how I feel about “spiritual forces” – angels, demons, and so forth – but I certainly acknowledge that what they often stand for exists. Evil lurks in this world. But so does goodness. Love is more powerful than hatred. Healing is more powerful than brokenness. Our faith, as Christians, is in one who comes as Love incarnate, looks sin and death and the devil in the eye, and tells it to screw off. The stone is rolled away. Death is defeated.

And so in this season of angels bearing Good News, let us listen for their news once again. Let us resist evil, be it the devil or ill will of any form. Let us listen and look for angels in our daily lives. Let us be angels to one another, messengers bearing good news for all people.

Angels may we be, angels may we receive, in this season of Good News.

7+ Years In, Preaching Anew

More than 7 years into ordained ministry, and 19 years since I first entered seminary, I have renewed my practice of preaching – both delivering and preparing the sermon.

I had always preached with a manuscript

Most of these manuscripts were not paragraph’d pages looking as if they belonged in a book, but a more free-form movement of phrases written not for reading but for speaking. I took pride in my words, in the development of my argument, and in the construction of these manuscripts that helped me to speak, I thought, naturally.

My process for writing manuscript sermons usually involved a reading Scripture, perhaps a commentary or two, and reflection, all geared toward finding that thread, that hook, that angle for my sermon. I would then spend hours sitting at my computer and writing the manuscript, usually over two or three sittings. With my thread for that Scripture set, I would work in a more-or-less straight line fashion from start to finish. Most of my sermon-prep time was spent on that manuscript, on that thread that got the ball rolling, on one particular insight into the text.

Army chaplaincy changed my preaching

7+ years into my ordained ministry, and many more years into my experience as a preacher (I preached several times/year prior to ordination), I went to my final phase of training at the US Army Chaplain Center and School for my Basic Officer Leaders Course as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard. In addition to preaching for classroom assignments, I was given the opportunity to preach for a Holy Thursday service during our class five-day capstone field experience.

2016-03-22 11.10.08While at the Chaplain school, where I heard from experienced chaplains and had the opportunity to preach in a variety of training settings, it became clear to me that preaching to a very small group of Soldiers huddled around a Humvee in the field required a different method. For one, my computer-based writing process was all but impossible in the field. But more, delivering a polished manuscript sermon for a small group of Soldiers in the field who are experiencing the fatigue of training – or deployment – seemed to miss the mark. A manuscript designed for pulpit preaching wouldn’t work for such a setting.

I heard fellow students – mostly from traditions fairly distinct from my Lutheran church – preach. I found myself jealous as many of them proclaimed effortlessly without notes. I learned that the context of military preaching may require impromptu “Word of the Day” messages, or unexpected words of comfort spoken at a moment’s notice to a group of battle buddies grieving a fallen Soldier. No manuscripts for these settings, either.

Given these experiences and insights I committed to leave the manuscript behind – in my military ministry setting, but also in my civilian ministry. I had considered this years ago, wondering if the altars and pulpits in our churches served, unwittingly perhaps, as barriers between people and pastor. Making this decision to set aside the manuscript resonated with my earlier concerns about the relationships between worship leaders and the congregation of worshipers.

To be sure, the first few times trying this manuscript-less preaching in my civilian ministry were rough. My baseline for sermon preparation was still the manuscript, and I was trying to replicate my manuscript-writing process for my manuscript-less sermon. What resulted were very detailed, almost manuscript-like, notes prepared on my computer. As I tried to pare back my manuscript, I found myself almost vomitously uneasy just prior to preaching.

Journaling as sermon preparation

2016-07-30 23.36.39But then I bought a notebook and a good mechanical pencil and began journaling the Sunday texts by hand. I first write the text in the notebook, leading me to give more attention to each word than I ever did by simply reading the text. After writing the Scripture in my notebook, I simply write. Disconnected phrases. Questions. Insights gained from reading commentaries or other Scripture. Parallels to my life, to my congregation’s life, to my community and country. Connections to music or film or television. Anything. There is no structure yet. There is no thread I’m trying to weave. Just reflections and thoughts and questions. I do this for several days.

By Friday or Saturday I pull together a rough outline, prepare some slides to accompany my preaching (using Canva), and write a “Good News Statement” that concisely defines the point I’m trying to make, the Good News I’m trying to proclaim. Some or even much of what I had journaled in the past few days ultimately gets set aside.

It is not until Sunday morning that I actually rehearse. I’ll run through the sermon 2-5 times on Sunday morning before worship, focusing especially on my opening, transitions, images, and conclusion. Very little new material makes its way into my sermon at this point, but sometimes that happens.

And then I preach. I preach perhaps with a few notes in front of me, but also perhaps with nothing in hand at all. I preach with that outline and projected slides guiding me, and days of journaling, reflecting, wrestling, praying supporting my proclamation. I have a comfort level with the entire passage that I never had in my earlier manuscript method, which too early in the process narrowed my message down to a single thread or angle that perhaps wasn’t ultimately fruitful. And, free from the precision of a manuscript, I am able to add last-minute insights or images, perhaps that were noted only as I greeted people on their way into worship 20 minutes before I begin preaching. Again, my comfort with the Scripture text and the outlined movement of my message allow me to make such adjustments on the fly.

I have received very positive feedback since making the switch. “Pastor, your sermons without notes are 20 times better than when you use notes,” one church member said to me recently. The feedback is consistent – I’m more natural, “myself.” In this way, I’m more effective as a preacher, which is the goal. 

For any who have made their way through this post, I hope that perhaps my experience can be helpful for you if you’re working on renewing your practice of preaching. Or, I hope that my example might help any clergy considering reserve component chaplaincy to see just one of the many ways in which the military ministry can positively impact your civilian ministry.