Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. — Luke 6:30
“Were you expecting two Muslim women at church this morning?” The question came from a curious church member yesterday morning about forty-five minutes before worship. I looked at her blankly. “Um, no, no I was not.” I had been just settling in to do the usual last-minute editing and printing of sermons and worship resources. It had been a full week in all kinds of ways and I was tired. I had been anticipating (i.e., desperately hoping for) a pretty straightforward Sunday morning. Alas, it seemed that a straightforward Sunday morning was not in the cards. Read more
Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people, close to home and from afar, comment that they’ve appreciated my reflections and stories that emerge out of Monday mornings spent at the jail. I’ve obviously appreciated the affirmation, even as I sometimes privately wonder if I’m dancing a little too close to the line of voyeuristically exploiting the pain of hard stories to make a bit of theological hay. In my more optimistic moments, I believe these stories need to be told to bring a bit of humanity into a place where stereotypes and casual dismissiveness abound, to shine a light on the glimmers of hope, to bear witness to the sadness, etc. At other times, I wonder if I’m doing little more than wordily rubbernecking as I pass the scene of a car wreck. Read more
Jesus makes his way from the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem around 33 AD to our city in 2019. Jesus can do this because Jesus is alive and because Jesus shows up behind locked doors and along roads to Emmaus and over breakfast with confused disciples. Also, because, well, Jesus is God. He walks around our city streets to see what he will see. Read more
To be a pastor is to regularly encounter people who find faith difficult. (It’s also to regularly encounter people who you suspect might find faith too easy, but that’s another post). There are all kinds of people in the post-Christian West whose faith kind of hangs by a thread. It retains a bit of nostalgic affection for Christian ethics, perhaps, and it craves the community embodied and offered, however imperfectly, by the church. It might even have an appreciation for mystery and a dim recognition that this life can’t be all there is. But it can often seem like not much more than a kind of half-hearted and undemanding openness to possibility. It’s a long way from deep conviction and bold faith in the great creeds of orthodox Christian faith. All that talk of virgin births and resurrection from the dead and judgment is too much to stomach. And so, faith often coasts along on the fumes of memory and vague longing, coughing and sputtering until it stalls on the side of the road. Read more
There are questions that I encounter as a pastor that haunt me. I’m not necessarily thinking about the “usual suspects” here. Questions about the existence of God or why we suffer or the challenge of pluralism or the historicity of this or that biblical story or the conundrums of interpreting this or that passage or doctrine. These all represent familiar enough terrain and present their own challenges to faith. But the questions I’m thinking about today are much more personal in nature. Read more
Many Sundays, our worship service ends with me or someone else saying three words to the congregation: “Go in peace.” These are good last words. They are words I like to speak and words that I like to hear before heading out into another seven days of God knows what. Peace for the going is surely what each of us craves, even if only in the substrata of our consciousness. Read more
Last night, I conducted my eight Ash Wednesday service. I still feel like an utter novice at it. It feels like I am playing make believe, engaging in rites and rituals that I have no business attempting. Last night, incredibly, I forgot my lines (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return… except, when you forget, evidently!). Each year, I make a mess of producing the ashes. I dutifully save last year’s branches from Palm Sunday, but in the process of burning and oiling them I usually end up with a chunky mess filled with inconvenient strands of palm branch. One year, on a particularly windy Ash Wednesday, I almost burned my back deck down. I’m only half-joking. All in all, not the most impressive Ash Wednesday record. Read more
I’ve mentioned (and quoted) Ben Myers’ fantastic little collection of line-by-line reflections on the Apostles’ Creed a few times over the last little while. I’ve been going through it again this morning as I reflect on the beginning of the season of Lent tomorrow and, ultimately, the staggering hope of Easter coming. There were a few passages I encountered today that I thought were too good and too profoundly hopeful not to share. Read more
I’ve spent part of this morning sifting through a week’s worth of difficult conversations. Several dealt with the trials and tribulations of parenting adult children. What do you do when the kids you have poured years of yourself into seem determined to walk down destructive roads, when they have little interest in your values or hopes for them? What do when you see nothing but trouble on the horizon but feel powerless to do anything about it? How do you sustain hope when it feels like you are failing or have failed at one of life’s most important tasks? Read more
Some further thoughts on death…
At the conference I attended last week, our attention was drawn to an article from a few years back where Thomas Lynch, an undertaker, was interviewed about changing funeral practices in the postmodern West. We are increasingly uncomfortable with actual bodies at funerals—too morbid, too grim a reminder of our own inevitable fate—so we deal with them before the service, often in private ceremonies attended only by close family and friends. That’s if we even have a service. Many don’t anymore, preferring to slip away quietly, not wanting to burden people (financially or existentially) with their death. Others prefer a “celebration of life,” which often amounts to an extended eulogy with only saccharine references to God and the afterlife or none at all. This is how, increasingly, we are choosing to die and to deal with death, both inside and outside of the church. Read more
Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not my own, necessarily, although I do think about that more than I probably ought to. But just death as a phenomenon. Both of my grandmothers have died in the last six months. Several people in my orbit could well be approaching this threshold. I just returned from a pastors conference about death, funerals and the Christian hope. Death has been a hard thing to avoid lately. Read more
Funerals often produce interesting conversations. Especially when the funeral follows the tragic and unexpected death of the matriarch of a massive family with deep history in and connection to the local community. This was the case with the funeral for my grandmother last week. There were so many interesting conversation topics—everything from the ethics of assisted dying to eccentricities of family history to Trump to atheism to, of course, the life that my grandmother lived. But one theme that popped up over and over again, indeed seemed to weave its way through most of the others in some form or another, was a deep sense of nostalgia. Read more
My grandmother died this morning. Suddenly and in tragic circumstances. She was ninety-two, but probably in better health than many people thirty years her junior. She was still very much full of life and love. Her loss feels massive in a way that I can’t really articulate. She was the anchor of our large and unruly herd, the glue that held us together. She was the common, persistent, faithful thread that wove through all of our lives. Read more
Each year around this time, I find myself remarking to my congregation that the songs of Advent and Christmas give us some of our best theology. I’m sure they’re getting weary of hearing it by now. In my meagre defense, after a while one runs out of new things to say. At any rate, it’s no less true for my repeating it endlessly. Aside from just being a delight to sing, these songs give us marvelous lines like:
- Oh, love beyond all telling, that led thee to embrace, in love, all love excelling, our lost and troubled race.
- Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
- Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today!
- Hail the incarnate deity; pleased with us in flesh to dwell; Jesus, our Immanuel!
- Son of God, Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
I saw a couple standing in their driveway this morning on my way to work. They were young and clearly enraptured with one another in the way that young lovers are. They stood close together, their faces inches apart. They smiled and laughed and shuffled their feet. It was, in some ways, an ordinary moment surrounded by all kinds of ordinariness—winter jackets, half-melted snow, some gaudy Christmas lawn ornaments, an aging SUV, yesterday’s recycling. But it also struck me as extraordinary. Or, at the very least, heartwarming. A bit of romance at 8:30 on a Friday morning. Who would have thought? Just as they had almost receded from my view, I saw her lean in for a kiss. Read more
Most Christians I know have a complicated relationship with the doctrine of hell. Many have grown up with a caricature, with gruesome images of an eternal fiery torture chamber with a horns-and-pitchfork devil presiding over the conflagration. This is deemed intolerable by most. Indeed, I am highly suspicious of those who retain this view. They often seem a bit too eager, not to mention selective, in their appreciation of God’s judgment. The rest of us struggle with hell in various ways. Those who accept the possibility of hell wonder how a merciful God can allow it. Those who reject hell outright often still implicitly long for, even demand, some kind of a final justice for those who have done great evil. We hate the idea of hell but we can’t quite let it go. It’s complicated. Read more
There are at least two reasons to like the Nashville Predators hockey team. First, the yellow uniforms. Obviously. You have to admire a team that cares so little about the intimidation factor that they’re willing to skate out in mustard yellow. Second, the Preds fans have (had?) this delightful tradition that follows each of the home team’s goals. They begin by serenading the opponent’s goaltender, chanting his last name in a kind of whiny, mocking voice, and punctuating the ridicule by screaming, “It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault!!” It’s great fun—at least if you’re on the right end of the score. I watched a bit of a Predators game last night before heading out to my own beer league hockey game where, as it happens, half of the goals our team gave up were, well, all my fault. Luckily there aren’t many fans at beer league hockey games and the few who do show up can’t be bothered to summon the requisite energy for mockery. Read more
The season of Advent approaches and with it the ever-present temptation to dwell in the saccharine, the safe, the sanitized—harmless images of God’s coming that trouble us far less than they ought to. I feel this temptation every year. It’s easy to prepare for the coming of a harmless child that is with us but demands little of us. It was and is all too easy for earth to receive her king poorly. Read more