When you can’t find the words

My calling is centered around language, as language is the way to communicate, to express. In my pastoral role, it is my charge to speak to the community and for the community — to express the experiences and life of the community and to help us all find meaning in our individual and shared experiences. But yet, for myself, I often lack words, I lack the ability to sufficiently translate my experiences into the limits of language. This is especially so in my attempts to speak with God.

Much of this Lent has been spent in the hospital, periodically standing on the boundary between this life and eternity. As I have recently written, nighttime was particularly isolating. When the doctors go away, when the tests and scans and procedures are done for the night, and all that surrounds me is the sound of monitoring machines and the hiss of the oxygen tube, I am left without anyone to which to speak or for which to speak. There is no communal life or experience to articulate. It is just me, overflowing with fears and worries and pain, none of which will abate, and I lack words to offer to God.

***

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
   my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also. 
For my life is spent with sorrow,
   and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
   and my bones waste away.  
(Psalm 31:9-10, NRSV)…

 

I’m over at That Reformed Blog today, come on over to read the rest…

When God sits at your bedside

I am a pastor. I spend time with people, not only preaching and teaching, but also checking in on them, visiting them in the hospital, praying with them and talking with them before operations about which anxieties are high. But in March, the day after Ash Wednesday, the tables were turned.

I spent almost three weeks in the hospital, one week of which was in intensive care. I was extremely sick, but for a while, none of the seven physicians could ascertain a root cause. I went through a significant regimen of scans and tests and exams and lab work and biopsies as I continued my downward decline. I was having difficulty breathing, was being pumped full of fluids continuously and in incredible constant pain. It was a scary time for my family, and it was a scary time for me.

It was a time in which, instead of caring for others, it was I who was being cared for by other pastors, and members of my congregation. I was cared for by members of my family. I was cared for by my beloved.

Night time was particularly scary. While I was hooked up to all different types of machines and nurses checking on me every couple hours, I was afraid of what might happen when I go to sleep. Would I stop breathing? Would my lungs continue to decline in their ability to absorb oxygen? Would my heart finally give out under the tremendous strain to which it was being subjected?

***

My beloved sat with me many days and every night. We tried to carry on some of our routines and watched Jeopardy every evening. But we could not follow our routine, and we both knew it, and we worried that we would not be able to return to our routine.

One night it was getting late and my eyelids were getting heavy. My beloved saw this and she took my hand and held it and patted it. “Go ahead and close your eyes,” she said to me, “and I’ll stay here and sit with you for a while.”

***

So often we wonder why, when sickness or tragedy befalls us, why didn’t God do anything to prevent this? Why doesn’t God fix this?

It’s a valid question. It is a question that I have asked many times.

But I also wonder if we tend to place our focus on the wrong thing. Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. What if the amazing thing about God’s presence in tragedy is not that God will prevent it or fix it, but rather that God simply sits at our bedside?

While I am careful not to deify my beloved, I do strongly believe that God works through people in the world. While the face and the voice was that of my beloved, I have no doubt that the words were God’s, “close your eyes, my child, and I will sit with you, and keep watch over you.”

I fell asleep and I know that my beloved did leave that night, but even though she left, it later became apparent that God never did. Sometimes God manifested Godself in tangible form: my beloved, a visitor, a chaplain, or a nurse who was concerned not only with my physical well-being, but also my emotional and spiritual well being.

This, I think, is the wonderful thing about God’s presence in our lives and care for us. It is not so much that God waves a wand and makes it all better, but rather, that God spends countless hours, and sleepless nights sitting in the chair next to the bed, allowing us to sleep because of the assurance that God will watch over us when we cannot watch over ourselves.

***

While my sickness was serious, I am thankful that it was not what they initially thought. It was treatable and the treatment should completely resolve it. I’m doing much better now, and at the same time that I am filled with gratitude, I grieve for those who are not as fortunate, and are diagnosed with something without a cure, or something for which the treatment is difficult and the outcome uncertain.

But I never cease to be amazed that in these dark hours, when things look bleak and the shadows seem to come ever closer, God remains in these hours. Sometimes working something more clearly miraculous, other times simply sitting at one’s bedside keeping watch.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

20140210-111100.jpg

Sitting at my window, I cannot make out what exists outside. The view is obstructed by the coat of ice on the interior of the century old windows in my century old flat.

It is winter, I am not complaining. I am from Michigan and live in Wisconsin, long and cold winters are simply part of life. I largely appreciate winter, and the drastic change in seasons. But today, in February, I look out and all I can see are distorted shapes representing life.

Or rather, life in slumber.

I appreciate winter, but today it feels bleak. A city typically teeming with life seems desolate. Water, typically inhabited by ducks and geese is solid and empty.

Trees without leaves, sidewalks largely empty except for a couple of times a day. The only signs of life are the buses and cars which continue to carry people from place to place. But still, a meager sign of organic life.

***

I know that winter does not last forever, I have experienced many seasonal cycles, enough to know that winter will come to an end, the ice and snow will melt, birds will return, leaves will grow, and my city will once again be filled with life. I am looking forward to being able to go outside without a coat or boots, or without ice forming in my beard. But today, on this day in February, it almost seems as though this will last forever…

Today I’m over at That Reformed Blog. Come and Visit for the rest of this post…

The Fourth Magus

20140108-104139.jpgI think that next Epiphany, I am going to add a fourth magus to my nativity.

Why do we sing “We Three Kings…” and place three figures when we are never told that there were actually three? Why not two, or twenty?

Far from trying to be difficult, though, my desire to add a fourth magus has everything to do with my own experience of the story and the way that I can enter into the story.

***

Different people focus at different points of the story. Me? I am drawn to the very end, the post-script, you could say. There is, at the very end, a transition sentence. This sentence serves as a bridge between the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt. But this sentence is far more than simply a transition sentence, it could be, I think, the actual high point of the story.

“…they left for their own country by another road” (Mt. 2:12, NRSV).

The Greek word used here for “road” (NIV uses “route”) can refer to a literal road or highway. It can also refer more figuratively to a journey, and it can also be used to refer to a way of life ( for example, “I’ve been down that road before…).

I wonder what it was like for the magi, as they were packing up to leave.

Read the rest at That Reformed Blog

Autumn

Tree in autumn

As I walk through Humboldt Park in my neighborhood in Milwaukee, I make the corner around the lagoon and before me is a tree which is ablaze but is not consumed. I have an impulse to remove my shoes. After all, I am standing on holy ground. Not because this sight makes it holy, but God created this tree, this ground, this moment, and therefore it is holy. I wonder what Moses saw. I wonder if the miracle that he saw is anything like the miracle which exists before me. Nothing about this is unexplained or unknown. I understand how and why leaves change colors and fall. But the presence of an explanation or understanding does not remove the fact that this is supernatural. It is miraculous.

God has given two books, the book of scripture and the book of creation, both attest to God’s transcendence and immanence. God cares about everything, and God cares about particular things. God upholds the universe and God upholds this moment.

Read the rest of this post at That Reformed Blog

Stepping Into the Unknown

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

 

Faith. Hope. Assurance.

Christianity has its own language, its own vocabulary, and for those who are new to the Christian faith or new to the church, the vocabulary can be somewhat confusing, with terms that are used so often and so frequently and in so many different ways with little or no definition of the terms. Faith is one of those words. In fact, if you asked twenty Christians to define faith, you may well get twenty different answers.

But faith is what the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is all about, and in fact, in the first verse, we get a fantastic definition of faith that we would do well to spend some time and meditate upon. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

You see, many times we think of faith as something intellectual, something that we think. We are saved by faith. This is true, but when think of faith as what we think which is distinct from what we do, this becomes a problem. Faith is not just thinking, faith is not just in one’s head. We can’t claim to have faith and then go on with our merry lives. no, faith is not just thinking something. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is not just wishful thinking, we read here that faith is a confidence. It is the assurance of things hoped for, some translations even translate the term assurance as substance. Faith is not just wishing or hoping for something, faith is a something. Faith is not something that we just muster up on our own, faith is granted to us by God. Faith is not just looking forward to something — it is that, but not only that — but faith is something.

The writer of Hebrews allows us to linger on the life of Abraham and Sarah in order to illustrate faith.

One day Abraham, actually, before he was Abraham when he was Abram, was doing what he was doing living in Ur in Mesopotamia. However, God had a plan for him and his descendants that Abram didn’t know anything about. So God told him to get up and to leave his home, and to travel to the land that God was going to show to him. God promised to Abram that God would make a great nation from him. Now, when he and his wife Sarai were young, this would not have been an unheard of promise. But Abram and his wife were old, and while it may still be possible for Abram to father a child, the idea of Sarai mothering a child was pretty much unheard of. I can only imagine that Abram had a lot of doubts about this promise, but there must have been something within Abram — or rather something that God planted within Abram — that caused Abram to believe God, to have some sort of confidence about this.

Now, getting up and leaving one’s country in the ancient world was a bigger deal. There was no internet, no telephone, no postal mail. There was no Craig’s List to find an apartment. So Abram was leaving all that he knew, probably all that his father and his father’s father knew and he set out for who knows where on nothing but a promise from a God whom he didn’t knowingly have a particularly long history with — there was no Bible at the time — and he packed up his home, and loaded up his camels with all of their worldly possessions and left their home and headed west toward the setting sun, unsure of where exactly they will land.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that they lived in tents. In fact, for generations they lived in tents. They lived in tents because they were always strangers. Always sojourners, always travelers. They lived in tents because they were always journeying, never quite home. They lived in tents because they were never led to the place where they are able to stake out property and build a permanent home. They were always foreigners in a foreign land. A land which would become home to their descendants, but never home to them. It was a land in which Abram — who would become Abraham — would never see, would never have any tangible evidence of, but he lived in a tent and never arrived home to the “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

At some point, Abram says, “Wait a minute there God. You’ve made all of these promises to me, of being a great nation, but if you haven’t noticed, a great nation begins with a single descendant, but I don’t have any descendants, so I suppose that my great nation will have to be born from a servant in my house?”

But God, not one for clear and simple answers, takes him outside, outside of Abram’s tent and God points him to the sky. God says to Abram, “Do you see all of these stars? Count them if you can, because this many will be your descendants.” Abram, I can imagine, was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars which filled his eyes — it would have been magnificent. Those of us who live in the city can’t really quite understand what they view could have looked like, we have streetlights which obscure our view, but for Abram there would have been nothing else, save a fire to cast light which would have dimmed the brilliance of the stars that seemed to completely encircle him on the desert plain. God planted something within Abram much earlier, and we are told that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Even though Abram and Sarai were old, even though she was barren, even though there was no child to be the next in line for this great nation, Abram believed the LORD, and we read in Genesis that the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness, that this faith this belief, this assurance, confidence, the substance was enough. It was enough to allow Abram to move into the future that God was calling him into. Abram could have said, “That’s enough, I’m going back to Ur.” But he didn’t. He continued in the future that God is unfolding, a future that Abram will never see with his eyes, it is a future in which seeds are being planted but are not yet popping through the soil. It is a future which exists but is not yet evident. For Abram, then, this faith that he had was not just hope for something that he would possess in the future, something that he would have in the future. No, for Abram, this faith was the substance, it was the thing, it was what he had.

Abram would eventually have a child, Isaac. It would be through Isaac that this great nation would continue. Unfolding over time, piece by piece, little by little, and in fact, it is still not finished. Even after Abram became Abraham, he wouldn’t get to see the nation of Israel. He wouldn’t get to see Jerusalem. He wouldn’t get to see his descendants at home in this land that God was giving to them. He wouldn’t get to see “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

***

Although Abraham was the main story which is here for reflection, Abraham wasn’t the only ancestor of the faith who lived this kind of life. We can see it similarly with his son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Even before Abraham, God was not absent for Noah believed God when God instructed him to build an ark for God was going to send a flood.

You see, God called each of these out of their homes in one way or another. God called them out of their home, out of what they knew, and charged them with entering into a future into which they would never really enter.

When we think of this, we must ask ourselves, was their faith in vain? Did they live in a hope for nothing because they never saw the fulfillment of their hope?

We may think so. After all, faith and hope are supposed to be fulfilled within our lifetimes. We hope for something because we want it to come to be. We have faith, and we expect a pay-off for this faith.

Not at all, the writer of Hebrews tells us.  It is true that they they did not see the this-worldly fulfillment of what was promised, we read that “from a distance they saw and greeted [these promises]” (Heb 11:13). Faith is not just something which gets us something, faith is a form of courage, as we can see in the stories of our spiritual ancestors which launches us into a future with God, a future where we don’t know where it will lead, a future which might be uneasy, a future which we might not completely see, knowing simply that the future belongs to God, the future is one that God is unfolding.

God’s call to Abraham and Sarah was unique, but God’s call is general. While we won’t all have to get up and go to a far of nation and be told in our seventies that we will be the progenitor of a great nation, we are all people who are on a journey. We do not dwell in tents always moving to one place or another, but we don’t live with true foundations, we don’t find our true home in any particular place other than the city where God is the architect and builder.

Faith is the way by which we can hold fast to the promises of God, even if we don’t see the promise fulfilled with our own eyes. Faith is the way in which we boldly step out of our complacency, out of our selfishness, out of our comfort, our of what we know to be familiar and into the future that God is preparing. Faith isn’t simply expecting things to get better for us, faith is the assurance, confidence, substance that we are a part of God’s future which has been unfolding for longer than we can imagine and is continuing to unfold.

It is fitting, I think, that the writer of Hebrews speaks at some length of the story of Abraham and Sarah, a story with which all the original hearers of this story would be familiar. It is a story of a journey, a journey which never truly ends but where the end is always envisioned. It is the story of a promise in which fulfillment is certain, but never within a lifetime. It is a story in which people, are emboldened and encouraged by God to boldly step into God’s future with little other than the confidence that the future belongs to the trustworthy and faithful God.

Where can you relate to this? Perhaps you are not far from where you grew up, where you consider home.

I wonder if Abraham felt like he was wandering aimlessly. I wonder if Abraham felt like he was feeling out his way in the dark. I wonder if Abraham felt like turning back. Returning to what he knew, to what he could experience, to that with which he was familiar. But this is the thing that we can know that Abraham couldn’t. He made it to where he needed to go, even though he didn’t know where that was. He had a child, which he didn’t think was possible. He was the ancestor of a great people, a people of which, in Christ, we are a part. None of this Abraham saw, but when we read of this story, we can see his role in God’s continually unfolding story, God’s continuously arriving future.

You see, faith is not just wishful thinking. Faith is the thing that we grasp hold to when things don’t make sense. Faith is the thing which we grasp hold of when we feel as though we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Faith is the thing which strengthens us to take a step in a new direction, a direction which might not be clear, but a direction in which God is calling us. Faith is the home that we have when we don’t have our true home. Faith is the assurance, the confidence, the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

So what do we do when we feel as though we do not have faith? We pray for faith.

What do we do when our faith is less than consistent? We pray for a more steady faith. God is faithful and God is trustworthy. You see, God doesn’t leave us to our own devices to do this on our own. God provides the way, we simply have to take a step into it.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Choosing the Better Part

Christ at the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez (1618)

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42

Having people over is very enjoyable, but it can also be a lot of work. The apartment has to be cleaned, and depending how long people are staying, a guest room may have to be prepared, even if it is a make-shift room. food has to be planned and prepared, often more than one typically is used to preparing. Additionally, if you are anything like me, I much like to prepare better fare than I typically have. While I’m fine with rice and beans, I like my guests to have something a bit more exciting, tasty, a bit more intensive. While I am satisfied with spending an evening reading, having guests often means making plans. A lot of work, for sure, but important work, worthwhile work, hospitable work.

We see something similar in our reading today, but first, where are we in the story?

Jesus is traveling again. This passage comes right on the heels of the story that we read last week, when the lawyer asked Jesus exactly who is my neighbor, the one that he needed to love, and when Jesus told him, love even the person you grew up to hate, the person of a different ethnicity and religion, love the foreigner. Immediately after this, we have our story of Jesus visiting these two sisters, Martha and Mary.

We’re not sure if Jesus just showed up at their doorstep or if he told them in advance that he was coming. So Jesus came, and the Middle Eastern codes of hospitality required them to care for Jesus. We typically think that hospitality is offering coffee or tea and cookies or something. We see it as just being nice, but in first century Palestine it was a serious matter, life or death. Remember, this is largely a desert and if you don’t care for people who come to you, chances are they will die. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all put a large emphasis on the importance of hospitality, and this continues today.

So, Martha is busy making preparations for Jesus’ stay. We aren’t told exactly what she was preparing, but we can probably safely assume that it was a meal.

But Martha can’t just prepare any meal. Jesus is a well known and well respected (by some, greatly hated by others, of course) religious leader. In fact, here, Martha calls Jesus “Lord”, so the chance is great that she had an inkling at least that he was more than just that. So she can’t just make any meal. She likely wants to prepare the best meal. So she is working really hard to show the best hospitality to Jesus, but what is going on?  Her sister Mary is just sitting, listening to Jesus. Martha, overworked and underpaid, as the colloquialism goes, gets fed up with having to prepare the food, set the table, and make a nice and welcoming environment and in all her running around, she sees her sister, not helping. One thing leads to another, every time Martha passes the entrance to the room, she sees her sister sitting there while she continues to run around. Finally, she can’t take it anymore.

She slams down her utensils on the counter-top removes her apron and stomps out into the main room where Jesus and Mary sit.

“Lord,” she addresses Jesus respectfully, but we can sense a bit of impatience and frustration under her voice. “Don’t you care that my sister has abandoned all of this work to me alone? Tell her to come and help me!”

With Jesus’ reply, we can put two different inflections to it which give two different nuances to the words. We can see it as a chastisement, a reprimand, a rebuke. Or we can see it as an invitation. The best reading, I think, is to see it as an invitation.

Notice, what we have here with with Martha and Mary is not a contrast between good and bad. Martha didn’t really do anything wrong. She was being hospitable, something that Jesus certainly appreciated, after all, the importance of hospitality is plastered all over the pages of scripture from the very first book to the last.  No, Martha wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong, which is one of the reasons that I don’t think that this was a rebuke. No, she wasn’t doing anything particularly bad, she was doing most things right, she was just missing one piece.

Hospitality is not just about providing things for guests, which is important, but the foundation of hospitality is to care for those whom God brings to you. Therefore, an important piece that Martha was missing was not in her work, but rather in her neglect of paying attention to their guest, to Jesus.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say anything about her being busy, he said that she was worried and distracted by many things. She was worried and distracted by many things. Jesus was not yelling at Martha, but rather offering an invitation and showing concern for Martha.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “You are worried and distracted by many things.”

The issue here is not at all that Martha was doing anything wrong by making preparations for Jesus’ visit, it was that in her preparations, she seems to have forgotten what she was actually doing. She became so engrossed in what she was preparing, that she seemed to have forgotten who was sitting right there in her living room.

Some have used this to argue that a contemplative spirituality is superior to a working spirituality, that somehow sitting still at the feet of Jesus is superior to work, to being busy to getting things done. But this is not at all.  Nowhere does scripture ever downplay the importance of doing things. I mean, where would the church be without people who do things…without people who connect with God through service?

No, this is not at all, but it says something important. It says that while we work, regardless of what we are doing we need to do two things, first, we must listen to the voice of God, and second, we cannot lose focus of the fact that God is always here with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. Martha lost track of the fact that God was sitting in her living room while she frantically ran to and fro to get things ready, but in the process, she lost sight of who she was with, of the whole point of hospitality.

I wonder if any of you can resonate with this. Do you ever feel like you get so busy with things, that you forget about God? Do you ever get so worried and distracted by many things that you find that you didn’t pray, that you didn’t have a chance to read scripture, that you didn’t have the opportunity to, even for fifteen minutes, listen to what God might be saying to you?  Now, I don’t say this to make you feel bad. People who are busy don’t need lectures about how they need to pray more, or how they need to read the Bible more. While this is often accurate, guilting ourselves or each other into this is not the point.

Rather, see this as an invitation.

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite brother in France in who lived in in the middle of the 17th century. Brother Lawrence worked in the kitchen. He prepared food for the other brothers and he cleaned up afterwards. Day in and day out. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Day in and day out. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. What helps us remember Brother Lawrence, however, was not the food that he cooked or his ability to scrub pots until they shined. No, the reason that we remember Brother Lawrence, but throughout all of his mundane work, he developed the discipline to experience the deep and abiding presence of God even in the four walls of his kitchen with stoves burning, pots clanging, and dishwater smelling.

You see, Brother Lawrence grew in the ability to be both Martha and Mary at the same time. He kept his hands busy with important, albeit mundane, repetitive, and tedious work.

Brother Lawrence writes, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him… It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

His work, his unspiritual and tedious work of preparing meals and scrubbing pots, but he always worked to always have a sense of God’s presence. He chose the better part.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence. It took him years to develop this. It didn’t bring him notoriety within his lifetime, it was his writings that brought him fame long after his death. But fame wasn’t what we was seeking, he simply wanted to be able to pay attention to God while he prepared things for God’s people, while he did his work, he simply wanted to be able to choose the better part in his work.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence, and it likely won’t be easy for us either. It is not easy, but it is important, it is worthwhile, it is the better part.

Be aware of God’s presence where you are. Listen for God’s voice among the clamour of your daily life. Work is good, and there is nothing wrong with being busy, but remember that God is right with you, and we cannot ignore this fact. Perhaps the story here of Martha and Mary isn’t to present us with an either/or, perhaps it is a both/and.

I want to close with a prayer generally attributed to Brother Lawrence. Whether it was actually written by him, I do not know, and it does not matter, because I think that it describes well what we all strive for:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,
Since I have no time to be
a great saint by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming Heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
Forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food
in room, or by the sea,
Accept the service that I do-
I do it unto Thee.

Hump Day Hymns: Welcome, Sweet Day of Rest

Hymnal

Welcome, sweet day of rest,
That saw the Lord arise;
Welcome to this reviving breast,
And these rejoicing eyes!

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

One day amidst the place
Where my dear God hath been,
Is sweeter than ten thousand days
Of pleasurable sin.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.
-Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

As a child, I dreaded Sundays. I did not like going to church, I did not like that the whole house slept in the afternoon, and I did not like that I was so mind-numbingly bored in my very small town whose streets rolled up on Sundays.

I recall hearing stories from my parents on their Sunday restrictions. Could ride bicycles, but only to the end of the block. Could play catch with a baseball, but no bat, because at that point it became a game. I remember being thankful, at least, that my parents were a little more liberal with their understanding of Sabbath rest. But, the importance of rest was still there, and the belief that working — particularly when one did not absolutely have to was to be avoided.

When I was young, my parents also avoided going into town to stores that were open on Sunday.

“Why?” I would ask.
“Because we are making them work.” they would respond.
“But they will be there anyway!” I protested.

But my protestation’s didn’t matter. I was the child and I followed the rules, I did not make them.

As I grew older, my schedule grew busier. Between school, band, theatre, employment, and trying to have a social life, Sunday rest became more difficult. No longer was it just boring on Sundays, it was a disruption in my life, a day which did not allow me to be productive, a day which surely must have been designed for a simpler and easier life of yesteryear. Surely when God gave the Sabbath commandment, God didn’t realize all that I had to do.

***

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss. (Emphases mine)

For me, being a rural Dutch Reformed Midwesterner at heart, sitting is difficult.

“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”

“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10a) is difficult. I am much better at “stay busy and try to remember that I am God.”

Sitting is hard, particularly when there is so much to do. I have been a busy-body all my life, and if there is a time when I do not need to do something, I make sure that I remain doing something, to ensure that I stay busy. Rest brings guilt.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the whole point of Sabbath rest — to be an interruption. To disrupt the rhythm of life, to throw on the emergency brake while speeding eighty miles-per-hour on the interstate. Perhaps it is supposed to feel the tension between resting while still having so much that needs to be done.

***

My spiritual director repeatedly encourages me to take walks in the middle of the day.

“Walk to the lake, take a stroll through the park, it doesn’t matter, but do it,” she tells me.
“But I have so much to do! I have to stay working,” I respond.
“Exactly,” she tells me. “You need to do this for two reasons. First, because you don’t have time, and that is precisely the reason to do it. Second, it is work, because it is reminding you that you are not in charge of everything, that everything does not lie on your shoulders. God is in there too.”

***

Sabbath still remains difficult for me. It is an interruption, and it requires trust and faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

I have a difficult time seeing how taking a day off — even going for a walk during the day — is going to work through the problems I face or the stresses that I bear. But perhaps that is the point.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).

I need to rest not because I can, but because I cannot. The Kingdom of God breaking into to the world is not painless and smooth. Perhaps the point of Sabbath is not to wait until you can stop, but rather simply to stop, and let God take care of some things. It is to remind us that we depend ultimately not on the work of our hands, but on God (who uses the work of our hands).

Easy to think about, hard to do.

Each day I understand a little better that Sabbath is not about what we can and cannot do, but rather, it is about experiencing the good that the world has to offer, it is about taking time special for God, it is about experiencing a little bit of the already in the midst of the not yet.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.

Turning Faces

Sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Luke 9:51-62

This passage contains one of the most significant lines in the entire Gospel of Luke. It is pretty well hidden, though, you may not have recognized it.

“He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

This is how the New Revised Standard Version reads. The New International Version in the pews reads, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” The meaning is essentially the same, but the NRSV provides us with an image, something to picture, it provides for us a hinge in the narrative which we can not only observe, but enter into.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.

This is the hinge point of the Gospel of Luke. Up until now, Jesus has been preparing, the Devil tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, but he did not fall for it. He called disciples, he performed miracles, and he taught. Our passage today, begins Jesus’ long and somewhat slow journey to Jerusalem, and to the humiliation and execution and resurrection which awaited him there.

This journey continues for another fourteen chapters, so it wasn’t a direct route, and it appears that Jesus wasn’t in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. No, Jesus wasn’t in a hurry, but he wasn’t avoiding it either. You see, Jesus’ purpose on earth was not just to die, but to show us how to live as well through his life, teaching, and ministry. His death was part of that, but not the whole thing. Jesus, then, wasn’t in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. He knew that he would get there, but first he needed some more time to show God’s people what God desired, how God wanted them to live, to show us what a perfect human life is like.

He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Jesus comes down the mountain from the transfiguration, when he was changed, his skin glowed and his clothes became dazzling white — a foretaste of what would happen in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus comes down the mountain and he casts out a demon from a young boy which his disciples could not do. Jesus predicts his death, but no one quite understands what he means. Jesus then deals with some exclusivity within the disciples. First, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest, and then John the disciple gets upset because he saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who was not one of them. Jesus continues to try to teach them. The least among you is actually the greatest, Jesus said. Which I’m sure was met with confused looks. Jesus then reminds them that his mission is not for an exclusive few, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” You see, Jesus is for everyone, not just for the twelve disciples.

Here, there is an abrupt pause, and Jesus turns his head, southward from where he was, and looked across the flat plain. The disciples wonder what is going on, why is he gazing southward?  But Jesus knows what is happening. Jerusalem is there, and now he begins his journey to Jerusalem. The NIV says that he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” which is a way to interpret Jesus setting is face to Jerusalem. In this action, Jesus makes it known that everything that happens following will be geared toward the final part of his mission, his death, resurrection, and ascension in Jerusalem, the culmination of his life and ministry.

The Gospel writer wants to make it clear to his reader, Theophilus, that what happened in Jerusalem, his death and resurrection was not simply something that happened by chance. It was always a part of Jesus’ life and ministry, and he always knew that it was a part of his life and ministry, and that Jesus embraced this.

He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Here, Jerusalem is not simply a location. It is that, but it is more than that. Here, Jerusalem is not simply a city. It is that, but it is more than that. Jerusalem is symbolic. It is symbolic for the final stage in Jesus’ calling, it is symbolic for his death and resurrection. It is symbolic, here, for the culmination of Jesus’ message and the values of the kingdom of God.

Now, this passage speaks a great deal about discipleship and what it looks like to follow Jesus, but even more, I think that it speaks volumes of the all-encompassing love of Jesus.

After Jesus sent messengers into a town in Samaria — Samaritans were the much hated cousins of the Jews — they did not receive Jesus. We don’t know why, but something related to the fact that Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem. Now, James and John, to disciples who were very zealous and they really had, I think, decent intentions when they asked Jesus if they should call fire down onto the town and destroy it, perhaps bringing to mind when Elijah did something similar. But Jesus rebuked them. You see, even the hated Samaritans, even the hated Samaritans who did not receive him were not beyond the reach of Jesus’ all-encompassing and transformative love which is broad enough to even include the Samaritan village.

This transformative love of Jesus is much greater than any human understanding of love. The love of Jesus transforms how we understand our enemies, and those with whom we may disagree. The great love of Jesus transforms how we understand friendship, family, how we think of priorities when it comes to those things which are most important.

But what most clearly shows the love of Jesus for the world is that he set his face toward Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem to endure things that we don’t have to. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem to show us the values of an upside-down world when death is really life, when what appears to be loss is actually victory, when the last will be first, and the first last.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, so that we don’t have to. We, however, set our face toward Jesus. This doesn’t mean that following Jesus is easy sailing, this doesn’t mean that we will never have hardships. After all, following Jesus requires a similar singleminded determination, it often means that we will always be a sojourner, we will always be nomads, we will never have a true home here on earth. But, and this is a big but, these always follow our experience with the incredible, incomprehensible, earth shattering love of Jesus.

It is after this experience of the love of Jesus that we can understand that calling down fire to destroy a town, that going back after being called is not the way to respond to Jesus’ call, is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus can love even those who all of his family, friends, religious leaders, and culture hates. Jesus loved even those who wouldn’t receive him, who wouldn’t accept him, who didn’t understand why his face was set toward Jerusalem. Should we destroy them, they asked. But no…do not destroy them. This isn’t the point, Jesus told them.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, and while Jesus seemed to be less obsessed with Jerusalem in Luke than in the other Gospels, this point marks a significant orientation to the rest of his life.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. We set our face toward Jesus. Just as Jesus’ whole life and ministry is focused on the object of his gaze, our whole life and ministry is focused on the object of our gaze. For Jesus embraced the death and resurrection that was to come, but we have love, wholeness, grace, fullness of life as the object of our gaze. Jesus looked at death as he continued on with the trials of life and ministry, we look forward to life as we continue on with the trials of life and our own ministry.

This story begins with God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, love so great that he embraced the cross for the good of the world. It is only when we can perceive and experience this love that we can set our face toward Jesus and follow with a commitment.

This brings to mind a gospel hymn written in the 1920s, and the refrain goes like this:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

This is our response to God’s grace in Christ. Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem with determination. And we turn our eyes upon Jesus, and when we do, the things of earth — vengeance, violence, self-centeredness, other distractions, will grow dim we can focus on Jesus and following him wherever he leads.

It is when we perceive and experience this love that we can begin to live into Jesus command that we love one another just as Jesus loves us (John 13:34).

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, and because of the immense love of Jesus to set his face toward Jerusalem for us, we set our face to Jesus.

Deep seated pieties

As I closed my eyes, I felt moved to a different time, and a different space.

In becoming familiar with our denomination’s new hymnal, Lift Up Your Heartsthere was a hymn sing at the annual gathering of delegated Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Elders from the entire denomination from around the United States and Canada.

***

My faith was nourished by a steady diet of rural Midwestern Dutch Reformed fare. We take religion and faith seriously, and we take the church seriously. We sang hymns. At the time I hated it. I loathed the hymns, I did not appreciate the simple faith of my farming community. The organ was ancient, the practices were dated, and nothing reflected what I estimated to be a lived Christian faith.

My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
for thee all the follies of sin I resign;
my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

Ever since I have gone to seminary, I have not particularly appreciated the personal language when it comes to Jesus, I have come to learn that perhaps the language of Jesus as “mine” is not always the best way to think about our relationship to God. I often find myself trying to avoid hymns like this, as I find them theologically lacking, and simplistic in piety.

The hymn-sing selections where chosen to represent different types of pieties, of which this hymn is one. It is a familiar hymn, it was a hymn that felt like Sunday evenings in my Christian Reformed Church.

I love thee because thou hast first loved me
and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

The hymn was being accompanied by a piano, and I could hear people behind me harmonizing. I closed my eyes, and I felt that I was moved to a different place and a different time. For a moment I stopped singing and simply listened to the intimately familiar words of the hymn.

I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death,
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath,
and say when the deathdew lies cold on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I could hear the organ in my childhood church, and I could see the see the familiar faces who formed my faith. As I looked around my small country church, I saw a host of simple people, unrefined people, people of deep faith who loved God in their glorious ordinariness. At the time I wanted nothing more than to be rid of my church, but this hymn, reviled at the time, functioned almost as my heart language and brought me into deeper communion with the divine.

Despite how much I had desired to flee from my church of upbringing, rural Midwest Dutch Reformed pietism is so deeply imbedded into my very existence.

The piano began to crescendo in preparation for the final stanza

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

As I returned to my time and my particular place, tears streamed down my face as I knew not what else to do with my deep experience with God.