Tag Archives: Hope

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

Not Always Calm and Bright

Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Matthew 2:1-23 | Oremus Bible Browser

The Magi have come and gone, it has been an unremarkable two years for the young child, but now, things are going to become challenging once again. It was a messy entry into the world for Jesus. Unexpected, painful, controversial, scandalous. Things have calmed down for this family in Bethlehem, a family who have found a home to begin their lives. The chances are great that Mary and Joseph still didn’t exactly know what was going on, not only because they have a child and no one is fully prepared for a child when the first one comes, but also because of the odd and difficult way that this child came to be.

While the visit of the Magi may have seemed like a welcome surprise of joy, with them comes unbelievable tragedy and fear and hardship not only for the family but also for all young boys in the region. You see, the Magi didn’t just come to visit the baby Jesus, but they also visited Herod, and brought to Herod’s attention a new king who was born in Judea. Herod didn’t know exactly who it was, but suddenly he is told that this new king was born.

So Joseph has a dream to flee to Egypt, to safety, to live as refugees because Herod is going to seek out the child and kill him. Egypt, of course, was the place of slavery, the place of danger, the enemy. But in a strange twist of events, Egypt becomes the place of safety, the place of refuge, while the promised land is the place of danger. I don’t think that this is just for shock value, but I think that this is significant to show that those who were assumed to be hostile were hospitable, but those who were supposed to be hospitable turned out to be hostile.

It is another act in the story of Jesus turning the world upside down and inside out.

This is not the story of Christmas that we like to imagine, we like to think of peace on earth, but there is no peace in this, in fact, what we have here is the exact opposite of peace.

Here we see a scared and insane Herod who is so afraid of the threat that this child poses to his rule that, when not able to find him, orders all the young boys to be slaughtered, in order to ensure that this child was also wiped out. An angel appears to them yet again to travel south to Egypt in order to flee from Herod’s wrath. So, not only did Jesus come into the world in a family of turmoil, he lived out his first years as a refugee in a foreign land. This certainly isn’t the image of Christmas that we like, or think of, and this certainly isn’t what is supposed to happen to the family chosen by God to bring into the world God-in-human-flesh.

We can truly see in Matthew’s account that Jesus truly did and continues to upset the broken order of the world. People are afraid, upset, frustrated by Jesus’ coming, and this will continue through his life and ministry. Jesus really upset the world. Far from the nativity scenes that we all have around our church, our homes, and other places.

We don’t have the same kind of experience of fleeing a mass slaughter of the innocents, but I wonder if the story is not so far removed from us after all. People have to flee their homes in Syria because of the ongoing war which gets closer and closer to home. Palestinian Christians are continually harassed and threatened by Israeli soldiers simply while they are trying to go to work, and home, and to visit family, and to the market, and other activities of daily living. There are people fleeing war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria and yet many of our politicians are openly refusing to offer refuge to these people in need, these people who are not that different from the situation that Jesus found himself in. Again we see the place that is supposedly hospitable turning out to being hostile. 

Even closer to home, we have to deal with children which are disappointed because we could not afford to purchase for them what they truly wanted, we have to deal without disappointments when our Christmas celebration was less than picturesque, when the family was fighting, Christmas dinner was not the spread that we wished it was, with another year of our lives seeming to continue to unravel. We deal with the deep sadness when a loved one is missing from our Christmas celebrations and no Christmas wish can bring them back. We have unarmed children-of-color killed and no one is held accountable.

You see, Jesus didn’t immediately eradicate sin and hurt and pain from the world. Jesus is part of God’s ongoing plan to do this, little by little. Whereas Herod seeks power and might and violence in order to retain power, Jesus chooses weakness, a family who was able to cross a border and live for a time as a refugee, as a stranger in a foreign land, in order to survive. But as we know, Herod died and Jesus lived. Herod faded away and Jesus took the spotlight, far greater than even the great Herod could imagine.

I think that this is one of the reasons why Matthew told this story, this story of fear, and worry, and insecurity, and unsettledness. I think that this is why Matthew told about all the troubles that Jesus was born into and that his family and he went through. You see, Jesus was born a king, but not the type of King that you and I think of. He was not born in a palace, he was born in a stable. The announcement of his upcoming birth was not heralded with great fanfare, it was whispered in the dark and almost caused a divorce. Jesus was not born privileged to rule, but he was, for the first years of his life, raised as a refugee in a foreign land.

You see, Jesus was not immune from the troubles that we face. Neither Jesus nor his family were kept from hardships or trials. Their life was not cushy, nor was Jesus born with a silver or gold spoon in his mouth. No, Jesus’ birth, in fact, brought about the slaughter of so many young boys throughout the kingdom.

This also gives us another piece of hope and comfort as well. Jesus came in the midst of confusion and turmoil, and difficulty, and if Jesus was present in all of that then, Jesus can be present in all of that now.

So many times, bad things happen, trials happen, and we wonder, why us? Why is this happening to us? Perhaps we may even fear that God hates us. Does this sound familiar? But here is the interesting thing, the circumstances surrounding his birth and his first years were very difficult and challenging. It may not seem that significant to us now, but these are issues of children out of a marriage relationship, infidelity, contemplation of divorce, fleeing for one’s life, and living as refugees.

I can imagine that none of this was really the Christmas gift that they really wanted, but it was the gift that they received. It was not what they planned for their lives, but it was what life dealt them. This is not what they signed up for, but is is what they received. It is like one of those terrible gifts that you just want to give back to the sender, but you cannot.

I wonder if there is something significant here. You see, Jesus came into the middle of a messed up world suffering the pains that it threw at him and his family, Jesus was not spared any of the ugliness of the world, but endured it just like us. But the thing here, is that isn’t not just a he-did-it-so-we-can-too, thing. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but was tempted in every way as us, but yet without sin. I think that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is that we also do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our problems and messed up lives, because he was, from his birth, subjected to the very same problems, and the same messed up life. The beauty of this is that, through this, we are not told simply to keep our chin up, but all of this helps us to understand that Jesus is right with us through our points of trial and turmoil, Jesus is right with us in our anger and sadness and fear and disappointments and insecurities. Jesus is right with us because he wasn’t sheltered from this in his life, but he was put into the thick of it.

Jesus was not just with these people in the ancient world, but is with us today. Even when things are difficult, hard, and seem almost impossible, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent from us, but it could mean that Jesus is right with us.

This is the good news of Christmas, that Jesus came into the world, that God took on human flesh to live with us, and through the holy Spirit, he continues to live with us and in us and through us. This is the promise that God offers to us today, that Christ promises to be with us in our times of fleeing, in our times of fear, in our times of insecurity, in our times of danger, in our times of despair. Christ promises to be with us. The church year starts with Advent and Christmas, and Christmas starts with a baby, but the story doesn’t end here. The story continues as Jesus grows, faces the Devil face to face, teaches, and heals, and shows grace, and calls to faithfulness, and sacrifices himself only to die and rise from the dead three days later. It is this grand story of redemption that we celebrate this year and every year, and this is why we do this each and every year and we ought never grow weary of it. Because God has taken on flesh, not simply out of curiosity or as an experience, but to live and dwell with us in the mess and muck of our lives in order to break us out of our circle of destruction and sin that we are caught in and from which we are unable to free ourselves.

So life contains happiness and joys and celebrations, but it also includes sadness and tragedy and pain and unjust rulers who slaughter young children. But God, in Christ, did not stand at a distance from all of this, but entered right into the midst of it, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. This is the promise and the hope that we have for Christmas. The call to us is to stay on this path that Christ has blazed, to keep the faith, and to join Christ in his redemptive work, and to be a foretaste of redemption for the world. We do this not because we are strong enough to do it, but we do it because we are weak, but Christ is strong, and it is through Christ that this all is able to happen.

Finding Hope Amidst Tragedy

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Mark 13:1-26.

How do we make sense out of tragedy? It seems that we have to deal with this with increasing frequency. If not a bombing, then a school shooting, if not a school shooting, then a massive natural disaster, and if not this then a movie theater shooting, if not this, then perhaps a series of attacks throughout Paris which left 128 people dead and at least 180 people injured. In lesser known news, roadside bombs also rocked Baghdad with at least 21 killed and 60 injured. There were also bombings in Beirut that killed at least 43 people and injured at least 200. All of this in the span of a couple of days. In our own nation, racial tensions continue to boil and it seems that, at any time, things could boil over. So how do we seek to make sense out of this?

Despair is the easiest and fastest response.  We can throw our hands up, give up. Stop caring. We can wonder if God is punishing us, or if God has abandoned us. Some will surely proclaim that this is a punishment for sin, that somehow this is God’s wrath being poured out on the world. These are easy responses. They are easy to understand, they are easy to find meaning. These are relatively neat and tidy.  Or, it is easy to blame an entire religion or people group, as we in the United States are so wont to do. But we are the people of God, and we must strive for what is faithful, not for what is easy or simple, or what fits with the cultural narrative which is fed to us.

So, while this is an easy response, I wonder if it is faithful, I wonder if it is hopeful. The answer to both is no. Our text today invites us into another way to seek to make sense of this, to seek to find meaning in this, to find a way to try to process this.

***

Today’s reading is from the so-called little apocalypse in the Gospel According to Mark. Apocalypse is a difficult genre. It is difficult because many of us have encountered gross misiuse of this genre. It is warped and sensationalized in popular works such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, and more recently in the Left Behind series. These are so popular and they are exciting, and we begin to focus much of our faith on these relatively few apocalyptic passages, and then we attempt to do all sorts of spooky, mystical things with the Bible to find out when the end is coming.

And, to be honest, I am always hesitant to preach or teach on these apocalyptic passages, largely because of the broad acceptance of this warped view amongst fundamentalist evangelicalism. But these passages are in scripture and we must allow them to invite us in. And I think that on a day like today, with the shock still fresh, with the blood still warm, with the confusing mixture of emotions still raw, on a day like today, a passage like this is fitting for today, not because it allows us to prognosticate about the future like some cosmic groundhog, but it invites us into hope. And this is what the popular warped interpretation is missing. It is missing the main ingredient in these apocalyptic passages: hope. 

***

Indeed, we cannot forget that the Greek word from which “apocalypse” is derived actually means unveiling or revealing. So while we tend to link apocalypse with death and destruction, this is not actually right.

The literary genre of apocalypse was inherited by Christians from the Jews. We see an example of apocalyptic literature in the Book of Daniel, and we see literature which leans apocalyptic in the prophets. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a fair amount of apocalyptic literature that are not part of the scriptural canon. We see little apocalypses in the Gospels and most famously in the Revelation to John.

In fact, apocalyptic literature is not really about the end of all things. The word that we read as “end” in verse 7 carries with it a sense of completion, of perfection, of accomplishing, it refers to the end goal to which a movement is being directed. It does not at all carry the sense of destruction, which we all tend to assume.

***

And this is the background of apocalyptic literature, why it is written and why it is engaging. This experience is universal to the human condition. Apocalyptic literature is often the result of external chaos, pressure, the sense that the world is falling apart. This is why the apocalyptic genre has continued into the modern world, with film series like The Matrix, or Mad Max, or films like Waterworld, or The Book of Eli. It continues today with books turned into films like Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games, or The Postman. This continues because we see the nature gone astray, we see poverty on the rise, we see insane people running countries, and wars that never seem to end, we see bombings and shootings which appear suddenly and leave wide swaths of devastation in their wake.

The world seems to be caving in on itself and we find it hard to make sense of this. What is the meaning in this? What is the point? And this is likely what Mark’s community was struggling with as well. The first century in Palestine was a tumultuous time, it began to pick up again in the early 20th century, but the first century was a time of great conflict between the Jewish zealots and the Roman Empire. Even beyond the biblical narrative, there were a series of wars between the Jews and the Romans, the Jews striving to gain independence. Both revolts were failures, and the result of the first Jewish-Roman war was the destruction of the temple.

So you take this tumultuous context, mix it with the fact that around this time, Christianity was beginning its split from Judaism, it must have seemed like the world was imploding. Wars and rumors of wars, claims of messiahs to turned out to be failures, famines — it must have seemed like fire was raining down upon them from the heavens as their cities and their homes were burned and destroyed.

The temple was supposed to stand forever, especially this one which was far grander even than the first. This was probably the most amazing thing that they had ever seen. Not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Romans come in and destroy the temple. Did the Romans defeat God? Was this all a hoax? How could this happen?

And so, this is the soil in which apocalyptic literature grows — it seeks to provide a meaning for the sufferings that one is going through, and it places it in the context of a conflict — a struggle — between good and evil. Every modern-day apocalyptic work also follows this. The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and so forth. There is a cosmic struggle between good and evil and that is the reason for the sufferings and struggles which we experience.

And this, I think, is the gift that we can glean from apocalyptic literature. This is not something in which we are abandoned and lost, this does not mean that we have necessarily done something wrong, this is not necessarily signs that God is angry with us. This also does not simply mean that we are on a long march to destruction and oblivion. Because when we become taken away by all the sensational things in passages like the one that we read this morning, we miss two key things.

Lets listen to the first part of verse 7, “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed…” (emphasis added). Do not be alarmed. Do not be disturbed. This may be the cognate of the common biblical line, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be alarmed, Jesus tells us. Secondly, verse 26, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” You see, this does not lead up to a destruction, but to the coming of the Christ who will bring restoration and redemption to all creation, who will set things right, where evil will finally be destroyed and where the good will reign.

So perhaps apocalyptic literature isn’t so much about the future, as it is about the now. This helps us us to try to place our experiences within a meaningful framework, to help us to make sense of it. To help us to see that our experience does not mean that all is lost. This allows us to continue to operate in the world, to continue to follow Christ, to continue to live into the calling that God has placed upon us, while the world seems to crumble around us. It helps us remember that ultimately God is in control, that ultimately God’s purposes will prevail, and that we need not be disturbed or alarmed, or afraid, by what we see around us.

Perhaps it is big things like the wars which never seem to end or the famines which continually plague the earth. We can continue to work for peace and justice and wholeness even in the midst of this turmoil because we can trust that there is more at work that we can see, and that God is not absent from the world. And this is the problem with seeing apocalyptic literature about the future. That we spend so much time looking to the future that we forget that the point of this is to help us to live in the present.

So perhaps our alarm, our disturbance, is large scale. But perhaps it is small scale. Perhaps this can help us in our church as well. Most of you are well aware that our church is but a shell of what it once was. It seems to be crumbling. Many have left, some have felt that we should allow it to crumble. But what are we to do? Are we to fear? to be alarmed? to be disturbed? Or, are we to trust that our church, our lives, our world, is not headed for destruction, is not left to flounder, is not meaningless or pointless, but we are all within the grand narrative of the life of faith. We ought to stay awake, yes, we ought not slip into a hopeless and disillusioned state. But we are to continue to live into our calling, to be transformed in mind and body, in heart and action — indeed, in all of life — because this is not random, this is not pointless, this is not meaningless. Things don’t always make sense, things don’t always seem right, things don’t always happen as they ought, but we can trust that ultimately, all things will lead to the redemption and restoration of all things.

In the year 66-70, when the Romans finally destroyed the temple, did they defeat God? No way. Was that all a hoax? Of course not. And we can know that the difficult life of discipleship does not mean that God has been defeated by the enemy, nor that God is not powerful, but rather, perhaps something else is going on that we cannot see or understand.

And so, Jesus comes to us and counsels us not to be alarmed, not to be disturbed, not to be afraid. Do not be led astray, but continue on the narrow path, through the wicket gate. Because it is in this that all of creation will find its completion, its goal in cosmic restoration and redemption.

And it is this hope, that allows us to continue to live faithfully in the world. To continue to work for justice and peace even when it seems like a lost cause. Hope allows us to grieve, to feel shock and pain and sorrow, and it allows us to remember that “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

***

A couple of days ago, I watched an interview from a few years ago between Bill Moyers and the theologian James Cone.

JAMES CONE: So, you can look anywhere. There’s always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?

BILL MOYERS: And?

JAMES CONE: It does not. There is always hope. Anybody who loses hope and gives up in despair, they die.

And this is that into which this text invites us. It does not invite us to fear or to despair, or to closing our eyes to avoid the pain of the world. No, our text today, with all of the scary sounding stuff, invites us into hope.

This is the root of such apocalyptic literature. This is the way that we are to make sense of tragedy. We are to look to the light that shines in the darkness and remember that the darkness has not, will not, cannot, overcome it.

Bring Me Your Nothing

Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 14:13-21

 

Jesus caught word that John the Baptist had been executed, complete with his head presented on a platter.

We may assume that Jesus was grieved as the gospel writer records that Jesus went off to be by himself. Much of the story of Jesus was him going off by himself and the crowds following him. So, when they heard this, they followed him. Jesus was quite popular at the time, and everyone wanted to hear him speak and for him to heal people who needed healing. Jesus took a boat, and when he came ashore, he saw the crowds, and while he may not have been thrilled about having them there — after all, he was trying to have some alone time, we are told that he had “compassion for them and cured their sick.”

Jesus stayed until evening and at that point, the disciples begin to worry because they had a large crowd of people and it was getting late, and these people needed dinner. I’m not sure if you have been around a mass of hungry people when there isn’t any food, but it is not a pretty sight. So the disciples do the prudent thing and ask Jesus to send people home so that they can get their own food. Sounds reasonable, right?

“Not so fast,” Jesus says, “they don’t have to go anywhere, you ought to give them something to eat.”

Can you imagine the feeling that disciples must have had? They have a responsibility to these people, and they simply don’t have enough, and what are they supposed to do? So they look around them, find all that they have — and find that they only have enough for them, it doesn’t really amount to anything at all, so they may as well not even have that.

“We have nothing,” they replied to Jesus shrugging their shoulders with their voices dropping, “nothing except these five loaves and two fish.”

Perhaps we may expect that Jesus would look to the ground, figure that it wouldn’t be enough, and finally do the prudent thing and send them away to get their own food. “That’s not enough,” we may expect Jesus to say, “go and find more food for them.” But he doesn’t, he tells them to bring them to him, to bring him the bread and the fish, but also because the word “nothing” is so emphatic, he asks him to bring their nothing to him.

So they bring their meager offerings, their not enough, their nothing to him.

And it is when Jesus has these items that they become more than simply the sum of their parts.

Bring them to me. Bring me your nothing.

I can imagine that they also would have had a bit of stage fright, feeling on the spot with over five thousand people looking at them — five thousand hungry people, hungry for food, yes, but also hungry for something more, perhaps something which they cannot even name. So many people looking to them for direction, that they begin to focus on what they lack. They don’t have enough, they can’t feed everyone, they focus on scarcity.

We hear this from the world constantly. So much is done based on what we don’t have, what we lack, what we are short of. The ever-present — “We don’t have enough money” and so we make our decisions based upon what we don’t have rather than what we have. Our vision, our values, are principles, these all come from a perspective of scarcity.

Jesus said to them, “you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here… but five loaves and two fish.’”

This also infects the church as well. We don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough energy, we don’t have enough resources, our building isn’t big enough, we can’t do enough, we can’t be enough.

“We have nothing here…but five loaves and two fish.”

This is a part of who we are. We so often live out of scarcity. But just because it is nature does not mean that it is good. Jesus never operates out of a theology of scarcity, but always abundance, not necessarily an abundance of material things, but an abundance of the goodness of God. While this may seem to be semantics, the framework from which we operate drastically impacts how we live out our faith. The disciples were focused on what they lacked — We have nothing but these few loaves of bread and a couple fish. They began with what they didn’t have rather than what they did have.

Jesus, however, began with a theology of abundance, Jesus began with what they had, with the gifts that God had provided, meager as they were. The disciples never would have thought that what they had would have made any difference whatsoever, after all, they reported to Jesus that they have nothing. But Jesus saw that maybe, just maybe, those five loaves and two fish are more than simply the sum of their parts. And it is in this space, this beginning with the abundance of God, whatever form it may come — it is in this space that the miraculous becomes possible.

***

At our church, I wonder, do we operate from a place of scarcity? Do we begin with our not enough money or not enough people or not enough energy or not enough time? Or do we begin with the abundance of God, even if it is not made manifest in a way that appears to be abundant?

Now, this isn’t some sort of naïve optimism, or some sort of power of positive thinking. This is rooted in the hope that the body of Christ is more than just the sum of its parts.

When we operate from a perspective of scarcity, we often lose sight of the gifts that God has given, and we begin to think like the disciples — we have nothing.

But Jesus calls us to bring what we have, even if we think that it is nothing, even if it is meager, or not enough, even if we think that it cannot amount to anything.

The disciples said that they had nothing and Jesus asked them to bring it to him, and when God is involved, things are more than just the sum of their parts. Are people going to miraculously appear or time be multiplied? Maybe, but most likely not. But maybe our nothing isn’t really nothing at all, but perhaps it is the very stuff that God will use to accomplish God’s purposes.

***

The disciples focused on what they lacked, while Jesus focused on what they had, and in the end, the people were fed.

Sisters and brothers, as we go about our life together as a church, let us strive to operate from a theology of abundance — abundance of God’s gifts, God’s grace, God’s mercy — rather than from a theology of scarcity focusing on what we lack. When we come from a perspective of scarcity, we will never have enough, but when we come from a perspective of abundance, in Christ we are enough.

Sisters and brothers, over five thousand people were fed from five loaves of bread and two fish. If God can do this, certainly God can do great things with us and what we bring. Instead of looking around and seeing what we lack, let us bring what we have, and what we lack to Jesus, and allow him to do with it, things beyond our imagination.

 

Leaning into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the claim from the heavens that Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted.

While we may see these as different events, they are all tied together in one long narrative by the gospel writer to show Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

The wilderness has a significant role in the story of scripture.

One day Moses was caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, and he led them through the wilderness, to the far side. It is there that he sees, out of the corner of his eye, a bush that was on fire but did not appear to be consumed, and Moses thought to himself, I need to step aside, take a detour from where I am headed, and see this amazing sight. And it is here that God spoke to Moses and changed the history of the people of God.

As the people of God made their way to safety from oppression and slavery, they ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be the people of God. The desert was a time of challenge and temptation, but also grace and revelation. It was through this time that the people of God learned what it meant to be the people of God, not only for them, but also for future generations as they passed on these stories.

After the showdown with the priests of Ba’al at the two altars, Elijah gets word that he is going to die, and he goes into the wilderness and sits down beneath a solitary tree and asks to die. For forty days and nights he passes through the wilderness until he reaches mount Horeb, or Sinai, and there he meets God and he is given a new mission from God.

And it is in the wilderness that Jesus is led immediately following this statement by God. Until now, Jesus doesn’t really do much, he doesn’t gather disciples, he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t do miracles. These forty days in the wilderness is Jesus’ preparation as he, perhaps, learns as well. After all, Jesus was fully God, but also fully human.

Just as Jesus’ baptism is an extension of the epiphany to the Magi, his time in the wilderness is an extension of his baptism, the preparation for his ministry.

Jesus fasted for forty days, was tempted by the tempter and resisted and the angels came and waited on him. Just when we think things will let up a bit he leaves the desert and goes home to Nazareth to learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves home and settles northeast by the Sea of Galilee in a village called Capernaum.

***

The temptation story also shows us what kind of redeemer, what type of king, what type of leader he will be. Even at his weakest moment, he will not embrace power, but will turn it down. He will let nothing stand between him and his mission. It is a mission which began in turmoil and will end in death, and ultimately a resurrection. Jesus does not exist for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. He will not turn stones into bread for him to eat, but later in the story he will multiply bread for the people to eat. He will not take power over everything for himself, but he will offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who follow him in righteousness.

The Gospel writer notes early on that he will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us (Mt 1:23), and this shows how Jesus is with us, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of identification. Jesus not only lived among us, but could identify with us. Neither Jesus’ heritage, nor his identity, nor his calling would keep him from the experience of  humanity, from the experience of life, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the joys and the pains.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, but without sin. (Heb. 4:15).

This is a transformative experience for Jesus, and one which will stay with him throughout his ministry. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus will face temptations of various sorts, including the temptation to cut and run when his arrest and death was imminent. But this time of preparation in the desert, this will help him to understand his mission and to what he is called.

***

As God’s people we too are led into wilderness experiences. Not necessarily a physical wilderness, but a spiritual wilderness. We may not be abstaining from food, our wilderness experiences often make us feel a hunger, a deep hunger, as though we are not being nourished as we ought. It is a time of loneliness, isolation, fear, longing, hunger.

The wilderness experience of the ancient people of God was not a result of rejection by God, but rather, because they were God’s people. Jesus’ wilderness experience is not a result of rejection by God, but rather an extension of being claimed by God.

So often we may think that our wilderness experiences may be a result of rejection by or a turning away by God but perhaps this may not always be the case. Perhaps it is a part of being God’s people, perhaps it is a time to help us learn what it means to be God’s people, and perhaps these wilderness experiences help us understand what it means to be claimed by God.

But the best part about this is that we do not enter into these wilderness experiences alone, Jesus joins us in these wilderness experiences. Jesus joins us in the solitude, in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst. Jesus joins us in the struggle and striving with God. Before Jesus leaves the people after his resurrection he promises to them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). and this is a promise that holds true today, a promise that holds true for you and for me. That even in these barren and lonely and hard times, we do not trod them alone, but we trod them with Jesus, who went through these experiences himself while on earth.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, the wilderness is a part of life with God, a part of struggling and striving with God. In the wilderness lies growth, learning, an epiphany even, if we live into the wilderness experiences into which we may be led. But we do not enter into the wilderness alone. Many times we have other members of the body of Christ who can journey with us if we allow it.  But even more, we have Jesus who has walked in our shoes, who has lived a life like ours, who has experienced every piece of human life and can sympathize with us.

 

Fear or Hope?

Munch, The Scream

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church, New Berlin, WI. Text: Isaiah 36:1-37:7

The Kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrian war machine. The focus now turns more singularly to the kingdom of Judah. Now this is not a match of equals, Assyria is the superpower in the region and Israel and Judah are quite small. Both sides knew that the war’s days were numbered, and both sides knew, in their heart of hearts, that chances were good that Assyria would win.

So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent the Rabshakeh, a high ranking official in the empire, to bring a message to the king of Judah, Hezekiah. As he came, Eliakim, the head of the palace; Shebna, the secretary; and Joah, the recorder. Hezekiah was still a king, and kings don’t go out to receive messages, they have people to do that for them. So, the Rabshakeh gives them a message for Hezekiah, telling him that he cannot win.

Now, the three who were sent to receive the message asked the Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic, a language that they, being educated, knew but that the soldiers of Judah wouldn’t understand. They were, after all, trying to help keep them from becoming demoralized in an already difficult situation. But the Rabshakeh instead called out loudly in Hebrew, so that everyone would understand, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria…”  He proclaims that Hezekiah cannot help them, that God will not be able to help them. “For thus says the king of Assyria” — make peace with me and you will have peace and prosperity. The Rabshakeh then goes through the list of nations who trusted in their gods, and were defeated by Assyria. None of these gods were able to save their nations — so why should yours?

Holding their tongues, the three men went back into the safety of the walls, they tore their clothes, which was the cultural sign of grief. So they go in to see Hezekiah, and already he knows that it is not good news. Hezekiah tears his clothes, as a sign of grief and put on sackcloth as a sign of mourning, and as does the king, so does the kingdom. The servants of Hezekiah come to Isaiah, the prophet, and Isaiah says to them, “Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid.”

The Rabshakeh tells them, “Thus says the king of Assyria, be afraid.” Isaiah tells them, “Thus says the LORD” Do not be afraid.”

This whole part of the story hinges on fear, and what we do in response to fear.

***

Few things are more powerful than fear. The great philosopher and Jedi master, Yoda, communicated this: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” But even more significant than Yoda, scripture addresses fear over and over again, primarily with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

God comes to Abram, “Do not be afraid.”

God speaks to Hagar, “Do not be afraid.”

God shows up to Isaac, “Do not be afraid.”

God speaks to Jacob, Moses, and Joshua with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

An angel appears to Elijah with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

Gabriel shows up at the foot of Mary’s bed, and begins with “Do not be afraid.”

God speaks to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus was walking on the water and tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”

When Jesus was raised, and the women come to the tomb, they find an angel  who greets them with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

From the beginning of scripture all the way through the end of the written word, we are consistently told not to fear.

So here the people of Judah stand, nearly encircled by the political and military superpower and they are told to fear Yet Isaiah reminds them that although they have steamrolled other nations, God is indeed greater than Sennacherib.

While we are not in the same situation as Judah with an empire attacking from without, fear still plays an important role for us today.

***

We, too, regularly and frequently, are visited by the Rabshakeh, only the Rabshakeh takes different forms We have many voices speaking fear into our lives — sometimes the Rabshakeh comes in the form of Fox News or MSNBC. Recently we were visited by the Rabshakeh who came in the form of politicians and television and radio ads and mailings and canvassers. Sometimes the Rabshakeh speaks from within and speaks fear directly into our hearts. Regardless of the form, the Rabshakeh always has a task — to instill fear within us.

So the Rabshakeh calls to us to fear many things — immigrants, Muslims, cities, Ebola, people who look differently, think differently, believe differently. The Rabshakeh calls us to fear other cultures or languages or different economic system.s But fear is only the first step in the Rabshakeh’s plan, the next is to convince us to capitulate to the powers.

In our story the Rabshakeh was instilling fear in the people of Judah  so that they would capitulate to the Assyrian empire, so that they would abandon their trust in God, and trust in Sennacherib. He offers them hope if they will do this, but only a dystopic future if they do not capitulate to power.

So in our world, the threat is just as real, but in many ways it is more insidious. The Rabshakeh is not the captain of a foreign empire seeking to destroy our home, but the Rabshakeh that we encounter looks like us and talks like us and comes from within our borders. They are more familiar, but the function is the same: to fan the flames of fear so that we, too, will capitulate to the powers.

Notice here that Isaiah did not promise that nothing bad would ever happen, he old them not to fear, not to abandon trust in God and bow to Sennacherib.

So we are here, thousands of years later and on the other side of the world, and the problems that we face are quite the same. Will we give into fear, or will we trust in the promise of God?

You see, earlier in the Book of Isaiah, we read this:

In days to come
  the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
  and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
  Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
  to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
  and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
  and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
  and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
  come, let us walk
  in the light of the Lord(Is 2:2-5)

***

The Christian faith is an irrationally hopeful faith. But our faith is not hopeful in the abilities of humans or politicians or armies. Our hope doesn’t come from fear, our hope comes from the promises of God through Christ.  Our faith is founded on the fact that God continues to sustain, uphold, and provide for creation, God is not a clock-maker that winds a clock and leaves it alone.

This is why are are told not to fear. Because, as VeggieTales has taught us, “God is bigger than the bogeyman.”

The phrase of going to hell in a handbasket is ever-present in our culture, but it is not, in the slightest, a Christian idea.  Christianity is an irrationally hopeful religion, not because we believe that nothing bad will happen or that things will always turn out perfectly, or even well, for us, but our hope is that ultimately, God’s purposes will be accomplished and the fullness of the kingdom of God will unfold.

Now, I am realistic enough to know that Isaiah’s words in chapter two will likely not come to fruition in my lifetime, but we must remember that they are true, and we must orient our lives to that truth.

When we live out of fear it is fear of something or someone that drives our lives. We are guided only by a negative. But this is not how we are to live. We are to be guided by the calling and promises of God.

After all, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a).

The world has enough fear and it is the calling of the church to point to Christ which means turning away from fear and toward the hope established, founded, and centered in Christ. In fact, if the church cannot herald this irrational hope, we may as well pack it in and go home, because we don’t have anything to offer the world any longer.

 

Eventually, Judah would fall, and Isaiah knew this. His point was not that nothing bad would ever happen. Isaiah told them that they did not have to fear because God is greater than Assyria.

Eventually both kingdoms fell and many are taken off into exile. This should have destroyed a people and relegated them and their religion to the annals of history. But instead, the exile spread the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob around the world. Now, no longer is the people of God restricted to a nation in the Levant. Instead, the people of God are spread throughout the world. What would have happened if the people of Judah capitulated to the might of Assyria? Chances are good that we would not be sitting here reading this story and following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Rabshakeh may tell them to fear, but God tells them to not fear.

This fear-mongering continues today, and to this fear-mongering Isaiah also brings us the word of God with a resounding, “no” “do not fear.”

So, sisters and brothers, let us not capitulate to the modern-day Rabshakeh. Let us not give in to fear. Let us remember that we are not given a spirit of fear. As individuals and as a church, we must proclaim hope, not fear. We must live out of a spirit of hope, not fear. We ought not increase fear but to cast it out. The Rabshakeh comes knocking with convincing arguments, that is sure. But we follow Christ, and Christ brings hope for the world.

“Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.”


Blessed are the Autumn Daisies

Long after the trees have dropped their leaves, and the canopy of green becomes a jagged collection of branches reaching upward toward the disappearing sun, long after the geese have ceased honking and the birds have stopped their morning songs, long after the bushes begin to blaze but are not yet consumed, long after the patch becomes nothing but green stems without any sort of beauty, the autumn daisy blooms.

***

Autumn has always been a significant time for me. It is a time of transition. The leaves die and fall off, and the trees, which not long ago were thriving, look dead. Once the leaves have fallen it is nearly impossible to look and tell the dead trees from the live trees.

Flowers which brought forth color into the world have all wilted and died, leaving nothing behind but stems and a corpse.

Autumn is a time in which it is evident that we are in the midst of a broken world. The colors are beautiful, to be sure, but the beauty is fleeting, as each leaf which turns into brilliant reds and yellows and oranges are in throes of death. It is a transition that happens every year, and while I know that spring will be coming, and these very trees will bud and the flowers will once again bloom, there is a long and cold winter filled with ice and snow which covers all with which to contend.

Yet in the midst of the cooling temperatures and the ever decreasing sunshine and the clouds which cast a gray haze over all, something unexpected occurs, in the midst of the daisy patch when all of the flowers have given up their energy, one more blooms.

***

I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the natural order. Trees which have cracked and have fallen down continue to grow and bloom, small and comparably weak blades of grass can burst forth through the concrete of a parking lot which has been vacant for only a short time, and dandelions, although they are mowed over again and again, are determined to finish their mission and go to seed.

And when all the other daisies have bloomed, when the bees are gone, when the temperatures turn cold, and there has already been a layer of frost, when the sunshine can no longer be reflected in its golden centers and white petals, a daisy shines like the sun in the midst of a gray autumn day.

***

There are days when I find it hard to face the world, days when I can relate to the trees which have let their leaves die and have dropped them, and they hunker down, and prepare for the lang haul. When the light lessens and the darkness grows, I, too, have the instinct that the rest of nature has as it begins to den and hibernate for the duration.

But I cannot do this, even when the days are difficult, even when the darkness is difficult, even when the world which I must face is harsh, I catch a glimpse of the daisy beaming in all of its glory, amid the dead leaves.

Blessed are the autumn daisies, for they point to life when it is difficult to find.

Future Glory

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Romans 8:12-25.

Henry was a fellow that I knew on the South side of Milwaukee. Henry lived outside, underneath an overpass which went over the Menominee Valley. Henry was a good guy, he had a good heart. He, of course, had demons with which he fought. He drank to excess, he was almost always in a some state of drunkenness.

Henry smelled bad, due in part to the fact that he lived on the street, and due in part to the fact that after a bender, he would sleep where we fell. He had no one to bring him into bed, or to pull him into a bathroom, or to change his clothes. He wanted to give up drinking, he really did. But he didn’t. In the winter it is hard to sleep, and so Henry, like so many other people in a similar situation, finds that drinking helps him get some sleep at night when the mercury drops dangerously low. Additionally, things were so incredibly miserable for him, that drinking is the only way to numb himself to the pain of it all. So in trying to escape his problems, he caused a whole new set. And in doing so, he entered into a cycle of destruction from which he would never escape.

He would spend his days going canning, that is, going around the city collecting cans into big bags, he would have a couple of secret places to hide his stash, and then when he had enough he would turn it in for scrap. Some times it would only be enough to buy a 40, but there were many other times in which he would have some left over and he would usually give it to the church.

Typically we only think of the cold when we know of people who stay outside, but that isn’t even the most dangerous part, the most dangerous part is the continual risk that one is at when they sleep outside. Every night Henry would try to sleep not knowing if he would get mugged or robbed or killed during the night. He would often keep a club next to him while he slept in case he was attacked during the night. Several times this would happen, and he would find that his ID card and his money was gone. We can lock our doors at night, but when you sleep outside, there are no doors to lock.

Henry was also an easy target for people who go out looking for trouble. On days when he gets some money and he drinks, his reactions are slow and he would often get beat up, sometimes to steal from him, other times just for the sick enjoyment out of it. But in spite of all of this, Henry would walk around with his snow shovel in the winter and shovel walks in the neighborhood, and especially of people he knew, and during the fall he would often find a rake and rake leaves for others.

Henry was the last person to leave after lunch after the service. Many times he would fall asleep and sometimes this would be frustrating, but as I reflect on it, it became apparent to me that it would likely happen because in the church he felt safe, he knew that there were people watching over him, and he could rest in relative safety.

But we would have to wake him, and so often I was the one who would be charged with that task, and I would help him up the stairs, not only because he was intoxicated, but also because being in his late fifties and being on the street for the last decade, it took a toll on his body.

As we would walk up the stairs toward the door to send him out into the world, he would express his frustration at the way that he would try to help people and in return they would steal from him (he would carry around all of his worldly possessions in a ripped backpack) or beat him, or some other way take advantage of him.

He would express his sense of utter hopelessness, that he wasn’t sure if there was a future for him, and if there was it likely would not get better. Henry had a lot of demons with which he battled, but the most significant one was this sense of utter hopelessness.

Henry was in bondage to decay, as the apostle phrased it.

There are roses outside of my office window here at church, and I greatly enjoy looking at them. But after too long, they begin to darken, and it seems that they have been ravaged by insects and they can’t keep going. The roses which were once beautiful become wilted and eventually the petals fall off.

Buildings which are vacant for even a short time begin to fall apart, literally decay before our eyes.

We have experienced, in the recent past, very personal examples of how we are in bondage to decay. Our congregation has lost several people recently. We have lost friends and family members in our own lives.

When we are sick or hurt, and family members and friends try to cheer us up by assuring us that things are going to turn out okay, but you still have that ever present realization that you are in bondage to decay.

“For the creation waits with eager longing,” the apostle writes, “for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

All of creation is in bondage to decay, and in some way, the earth knows this, the animals know this.

Not long ago I was standing by the kitchen window and there was a spider web outside right in front of the window. An insect had the misfortune of finding itself stuck in the web and it struggled to free itself from the sticky web that it cannot even see, to no avail. As it struggled, the spider masterfully walked along this web and approached the insect, and injected it with paralyzing venom, and once the thrashing stopped, the spider grabbed the insect and began the process of wrapping it in the silky fibers of the web.

Studies have shown that plants have a defense mechanism that releases chemicals when they are being chewed on that change the taste of their leaves so that they no longer taste pleasant. Recently a study was released that showed the same response when a recording of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf was played to the plant.

While this may sound strange, I think that the creation knows that it is in bondage to decay and it groans. The earth rips itself open with earthquakes, it hemorrhages lava from volcanoes. Hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and droughts damage and harm all that is, but these pains are not death pains, no they are birth pains. The creation groans.

And it groans because Creation waits with eager longing.  You see, it is not just humanity that suffers from the broken state of the world, but the creation itself suffers as well. In the third chapter of Genesis, which we often refer to as the Fall of Humanity, but it is not just the fall of humanity, but the fall of creation. In the curses that are pronounced on the serpent, the woman, and the man, God says to the man, “cursed is the ground because of you…” Adam and Eve sinned, but all of creation paid the price.

The creation is groaning in great pains, but they are not the pains of death, but the pains of birth.

The creation groans because it waits with eager longing. It may seem odd to think of birds and ants and trees looking forward with longing, but is it so strange?

In scripture trees rejoice (Ps 96:12), floods clap their hands (Ps 98:8), the wilderness can be glad (Is 35:1), mountains and hills can burst out into song (Is 55:12), and stones can shout (Lk 19:40. Why should not birds and trees and roses and insects look forward with longing?

The creation groans, but not only this, but we also groan inwardly while we wait for redemption, for restoration. After all, our bodies are still subject to death.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” the apostle writes, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

You see, it is not just the sorry state of our present condition that the apostle so beautifully speaks, if that was all he was trying to get across, he would be preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. You see, Christians live in a world between worlds. Sometimes theologians will refer to this as the “already but not yet” It is the idea that with Christ redemption has already come and restoration has already begun but these have not yet fully arrived. It is a time of tension, it is a time of upheaval, in a true way, it is a time of cosmic revolution.

And it is important that we live in this tension, and neither become too “this worldly” that we forget that there is something more than what we can see or touch or experience, or become too “other worldly” that we forget that this life has meaning, this life is not just a waiting room, but this is the only life that we have. After all, this is not waiting for the main event, this is the main event. The new heaven and new earth is not the goal, it is the rest which comes after a life well lived, a race well run, a journey well trod.

So we must remember the hope that the apostle gives us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

So while it is true that this is the only life that we will live, and this life is in bondage to decay, we must also remember that this is not all that there is from a cosmic view. There will be a point of restoration and redemption when all of creation will be loosed from its bondage and will be granted so great a glory, of which all of the great sufferings in this present world cannot even compare.

***

I wish that I could tell Henry that things would get better. There were times when he would sober up and clean up, and it was wonderful to see him in a better condition, but he couldn’t stay that way for long. I wish that I could tell him that if he sobered up that things would get better, but I didn’t know that. It was very likely that Henry would stay in this destructive cycle and eventually it would be the death of him.

And it was. After years of living on the street, of drinking so much, of being in and out of the emergency room from freeing cold, illnesses, and all the rest, he ended up dying after a short stay in intensive care.

And now, he can live into the hope that I had for him, that beyond the sufferings of this present time there would be immense glory, and there would be a time when he, along with all of creation, would be freed from this bondage to decay and can be restored to the glory for which we were originally intended. And this is what is in store for each of us, and the roses and insects and plants. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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…

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.