Category: Theology


On Tuesday night I began to jot down a few notes about Mother’s Day.  I didn’t intend to post them…until Wednesday afternoon.  While eating lunch with several staff persons on Wednesday the senior pastor said to me, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you: You need to acknowledge the oldest and youngest mothers at the 9:00a worship service on Sunday.”  Before he could get out another word I responded in exuberant and honest haste, “You can forget about that!”  He laughed; I calmed down.  “I knew that would get to you,” he joked.  He was right.  (So below are a few incomplete thoughts…!)  

I grew up in a church with two Mother’s Day rituals: 1) the “oldest/youngest/most times a mother/most children present” mothers were awarded flowers, and 2) all willing and able men sang “Church in the Wildwood” during the special music moment.  The service always had a certain innocent charm.

But something seemed amiss.  You could see some women fidget in their seats.  I always felt a strange twinge of uneasiness during the service.

I always wondered how the celebration of motherhood affected some in the pews:

– the woman who desperately wanted a child but could not conceive?

– the woman who lost a child during pregnancy or delivery?

– the son or daughter who was celebrating the first mother’s day without mom?

– the child whose mother abused or abandoned him or her?

– the person whose memory of “mom” is more painful than heartwarming?

For people who have been told Leave it to Beaver motherhood is the norm (we’re looking at you, Hallmark), I can only imagine that they are not looking for the church to reinforce that myth.   How painful some silly celebration might be for those unable, though desperately wanting, to be a candidate.  (Is it not God, the parent of all, whom worship is all about anyways?)

Is eliminating such moments from worship too pandering, too much trying to meet the needs of all?  Perhaps.  And it’s true that the Church must say something meaningful and compelling about parenthood and families.  We should celebrate those who have nurtured and loved us.  But the reality is that parenthood and families are not one-size-fits-all entities.  Families are different, unique, and messy.  Mothers – and those who wish to be – come from a variety of social locations.  We must be aware that motherhood – or lack thereof – means different things to the women in the pews.

On Mother’s Day I like to think of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  She carried Jesus for nine months in her womb.  She was there when he was born…and when he died.  I imagine she held him, cooed at him, and giggled with him.  She taught him to talk and set the table.  I like to think that she corrected and reprimanded him when necessary.  She counseled; she loved; she nurtured.

When Jesus was young, Mary took him to the Temple where Simon told her that a “sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).  Can you imagine living with those words echoing in your mind?  Years earlier she told the angel that announced Jesus’ birth, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  Of course, at that moment she was speaking of her conception by the Spirit, but what trust, what faith, what commitment.  Think of the beauty of Mary’s openness to God to “let it be.”  (This is not a fatalistic “let it be.”  But rather, a trusting in the grace and goodness of God “let it be.”)

Very few words in Methodist literature are devoted to Mary.  If she is mentioned at all it usually comes in the way of saying, “See Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed,’ which state that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin.  Perhaps Mother’s Day is a day to think of Mary in all of her fullness and beauty.  To put aside differences in the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and to ponder in our hearts her commitment, obedience, and trust.  To be reminded of her openness to being a vessel for God’s glory.  I suppose it is some folks’ Protestant desire to not be Catholic that leads them away from spending time with Mary.  What a shame.  Thinking of Mary more often and more intimately would do our souls good – our longing, fearful, and thirsty souls.

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As the world continues to muse on the death of Osama bin Laden many questions, concerns, and curiosities remain…

Yesterday I received this e-mail from a fellow pastor and friend:

I stayed up late last night watching the news coverage of the President’s address and the reporting of the “killing” (and that is the way the media reported) of bin Laden. And I am struggling with images of Americans in the street outside the White House dancing joyfully at this man’s death.  I know he needed to be brought to justice.  But as a Christian my heart is breaking at the display of glee and joy among our citizens, so many shown in the news coverage to be of such a young age. You and I serve the church and the Christ.  We preach about justice and forgiveness and reconciliation.  And I, as well as you, know that many of our parishioners may be jubilant at the news of bin Laden’s death.  In this season of Easter, having just celebrated God’s forgiveness and reconciliation in the Resurrection of the Christ, it seems the perfect time to speak to the Christian understanding of justice and forgiveness and the difficulty, at times like these, to be Christian…to live into our baptism … to be Christian first, American second.  Where to begin? And do you think it wise to deal with this from the pulpit?

I wonder along with my friend: “Where do we begin?  What is the proper Christian response?  Is it wise to deal with the situation from the pulpit (or wherever you find your job or ministry)?”

Or do we say nothing?

I find these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics to be helpful:

“Some who seek to escape from taking a stand publicly find a place of refuge in a private virtuousness.  Such a man [sic] does not steal.  He does not commit murder.  He does not commit adultery.  But in his voluntary renunciation of publicity he knows how to remain punctiliously within the permitted bounds which preserve him from involvement in conflict.  It is only at the price of an act of self-deception that he can safeguard his private blamelessness against contamination through responsible action in the world.  Whatever he may do, that which he omits to do will give him no peace.  Either this disquiet will destroy him or he will become the most hypocritical of Pharisees.”

We must speak.

We must speak to, into, and through the situations of the world.  To not speak is to say that it does not matter to us, our faith, or to God.  We commit not a sin of activity (theft, murder, adultery, gossip, etc.) but a sin of inactivity, of saying nothing.  Complacency in the face of injustice is as fraught with sin as the unjust actions that are committed.  We cannot withdraw into a refuge of private virtuousness.  We cannot retreat into our own hearts and minds, proclaiming to ourselves what the world needs to hear.

However, when we speak we must do so compassionately and modestly.  Not with chants of victory and triumph, but with pacifying tones of humility and peace.  We speak from a position of faith and peace seeking understanding, not from a place of celebration through killing.

When we speak, our words must be wedded to our deeds.  Our words of humility must be matched by time spent on our knees in prayers.  Our call for understanding and mercy must be paired with hugs and embraces of those who are different.  We cannot sing songs lamenting the loss of any life, and at the same time find a dancing partner in pride and jubilation.  We must not do as Jesus accused the religious leaders of his day, of neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these, Jesus says, that they (and us) ought to do, practice, live, enact, and embody (Matthew 23:23).

Is it wise to deal with the situation?

Perhaps the death of bin Laden comes then as an opportunity for Christians…an opportunity to speak and embody the words of Christ…an opportunity to say true and compelling things about life and hope here and now through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection years ago.  We, as Christians, enter this moment with a unique platform to shout and gloat less, but pray and reflect more.  Perhaps we seize the opportunity to show the world that we, as Christians, act differently when we hear the news of death and uncertainty.

The sixth sense?

What would it look like to love God with one of the most precious gifts God has given – our body.   How might we engage our five sense in loving God?  Is this how we might embody Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind?  A few days ago we said something about our eyes; then our ears, then our hands and feet, then our mouth, then our nose, and now… a sixth sense?

“A sixth sense?” you say.  Well, yes.  But maybe not in the way you’ve typically thought of your senses.  We’ve covered the five senses you’re likely to find in medical journals and science textbooks.  But could another “sense” exist?  Is there an additional organ we might employ in our spiritual and social journeys?  What about the heart?  Perhaps that peculiar and vital contraption in our chest matters!

At first, we think of the heart as an anatomical necessity.  It is the hub of our livelihood, pumping blood to and from the rest of the body.  But we often attach other experiences and emotions to our hearts.  We personify our hearts when we speak of our heart’s desires.   We give our hearts legs when we become excited, proclaiming that our hearts are racing!  Our hearts swell with pride or love.  Our hearts burn.  Our hearts bleed.  Our hearts break.

Scripture is full of images, stories, and sayings about the heart.  When Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the people go we learn that Pharaoh’s heart was hard.  The Psalmist prays often for a clean and pure heart.  The wonderful wisdom literature of Proverbs suggests that a joyful heart is good medicine (17:22).  Jesus even says that the greatest commandment involves the heart: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

As Methodists, we celebrate John Wesley’s special heart moment in 1738.  Wesley, feeling lacking in his faith, went to a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate Street. After hearing a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Wesley wrote in his journal: “About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

In her brilliantly moving and touching novel Beloved, Toni Morrison tells of a slave’s heart.  Baby Suggs, an elderly woman who survived years as a slave thinks back to her years laboring under the sun.  Slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue.”  She says she had nothing left but her heart—which she put to work at once.

We too put our hearts to work.  When the rest of our body, or senses, feel broken and weary we offer our hearts.  To those who are hurting or lonely, we offer the solidarity of our heart.  When others’ hearts break, ours break too.  When the hearts of friends and neighbors rejoice, our hearts rejoice also. We offer our hearts in prayer, longing to connect our heart with God and the world.  How amazing to think that your heart, my heart, and the hearts of those across the globe share similar rhythms and longings. One of my favorite hymns, “O God of All the Nations,” begins with this opening verse:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

a song of peace for lands afar and mine;

this is my home, the country where my heart is;

here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:

but other hearts in other lands are beating

with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.


Those with hearts let them share God’s heart.

What would it look like to love God with one of the most precious gifts God has given – our body.   How might we engage our five sense in loving God?  Is this how we might embody Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind?  A few days ago we said something about our eyes; then our ears, then our hands and feet, then our mouth, now our nose… 

The nose is an interesting part of God’s creation.  Some noses are large with twists, crooks, and humps.  Others are petite, unobtrusive, and barely noticeable.  All noses, however, serve wonderful and important purposes.  Our noses inform us that a delicious meal is cooking in the kitchen.  We use our noses to enjoy the pleasure that comes from fresh-cut flowers.  Noses alert us to danger such as smoke or gas.  For some, noses fulfill a role that only they can – our noses hold our eyeglasses in place.

When we read the story of Jesus’ anointing we can engage our noses in the scene.  We can imagine the smells emanating from around the table (Lk. 7:36-50).  The small of fresh baked bread rises from the table.  The salty and cool Mediterranean breeze fills the house.  Perhaps the men are sweaty from a laborious day of work.  And then a woman enters with an alabaster of jar of ointment.  As she cracks open the jar and pours the contents on Jesus’ feet the sweet aroma wafts up from the dust.  The smell is strong but sweet, intense yet pleasing.  However, she seems to be wasting the expensive perfume.  She pours more and more upon Jesus’ feet, weeping and kissing his feet.  The aroma is overwhelming and attractive.  Those gathered around the table are indignant at the seeming wastefulness of the woman, but they are nonetheless drawn to the sweet smell.

Sweet smelling things draw our attention.  We are attracted to pleasant fragrances.  What if we, Christians, were like a sweet smelling fragrance?  What if we, the Church, clothed ourselves with the aroma of Christ in a world polluted by sour and stingy odors?  (Have you smelled the stink of corporate greed lately?  Or the repugnant scent of prejudice?  Or the vile fumes of violence?)

Quite interestingly, Paul calls us to be just that, the aroma of Christ.  Paul writes to the Corinthian church, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.  For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15-16).

We, the Church, are the aroma of Christ.  We take in the lovely fragrance of the candles, hymns, and words of worship on Sunday mornings, and we go into the world emanating that same scent.  Through our actions and voices we give off a pleasant and acceptable aroma.  God calls for our business decisions, our relationships, and our day-to-day living to cast an aroma that draws, and does not repel, people to Christ.  God wishes to woo all people to God’s self. Perhaps we too, the Church, are the pleasing aroma that woos, entices, and attracts a sullied world.

Let us be the aroma of Christ.

What would it look like to love God with one of the most precious gifts God has given – our body.   Is this one way to embody Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind?  A few days ago we said something about our eyes; then our ears, then our hands and feet, now our mouths…

Taste and see that the Lord is good

In one of his most important works, the 20th century German theologian Karl Barth wrote of the “strange new world within the bible.”  He suggested that we should not read the bible like we read the daily newspapers or the New York Times bestsellers.  Yes, the bible is only a book, but yet it so much more.  The bible contains the words of God, words that tell of God’s love.  The bible reveals God’s heart, a heart that is most visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

When we read scripture we often think, “How pleasant.  How lovely.  How uplifting.” And the Bible certainly is!  Jesus speaks of rest, redemption, forgiveness – the very things we need so desperately in our world.  But then we read further and think, “How demanding!  Is Jesus serious?”  Jesus says wonderfully comforting things like, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32).  And then he immediately adds in the next sentence, “Sell all your possessions, and give to the needy” (Lk. 12:33).  Jesus comforts the tired and weary, and then demands cross-bearing of all disciples.  Jesus offers rest and then calls us to action.  The words of Jesus are so sweet, and yet after further digestion they seem bitter, daunting, and challenging.

A view of Patmos from the cave where tradition says John wrote Revelation

John, writing the book of Revelation from the island of Patmos has a similar response to the words offered to him by an angel.  He writes, “So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’  I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour” (Rev. 10:9-10).

Why might the words of scripture, even the words we cling to in tough moments, seem unsettling over time?  Perhaps the change comes when we realize that the bible doesn’t simply say back to us the things we think we know.  So often, we fashion its words in ways that are pleasing and acceptable to us – sweet to us, we might say.  But then we realize that the strange world of the bible doesn’t simply echo back to us our own prejudices, biases, and presuppositions.  The bible provides us new words, new meanings, and a new way of speaking and living.

Like John, we take in the words of scripture, chewing on them, digesting them, allowing them to transform our lives.  And then, as Barth wrote, “The spirit of God will and must break forth from quiet hearts into the world outside, that it may be manifest, visible, and comprehensible…The Holy Spirit makes a new heaven and new earth and, therefore, new [wo]men, new families, new relationships, new politics.”

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”  – Psalm 34:8

Yesterday, we asked…What would it look like to love God with one of the most precious gifts God has given – our body.   Is this one way to embody Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind?  Yesterday we said something about our eyes; today we turn to our ears…

Those who have ear let them hear

In the book of Revelation John provides an interesting image of God’s voice.  For John, God’s voice is something to be heard and seen.  John hears God’s voice “like a trumpet,” but then he turns to also “see” God’s voice speaking to him.  What must it have been like to hear the voice of God?  To see God’s voice?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we are often skeptical of God’s voice.  How and why would God speak to us?  We’ve never heard, much less seen, God’s voice.  At the very least, we relegate God’s voice to ages past.  God speaking was something that happened long ago.  God spoke to Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  God called out to Mary and Paul.  But God’s voice – whether seen or heard – was for some other people in some other place at some other time.

But has God really stopped speaking?  Has the voice of God gone silent?  Has God’s voice, both it’s sound and it’s beauty, really been lost for our day?  Surely not.  Perhaps it’s not God’s voice that has grown quiet.  Maybe it’s our ears that have failed.  Could it be that our ears are directed elsewhere?  Are our ears too full of the noise that surrounds us?  Are our ears too busy?

If you’re like me, everywhere you go noise is being pumped into your ears.  The radio in the car blasts music and ranting talk show hosts.  The television in the living room drones with noise.  The cell phone (or bluetooth headset) is held tightly to our ears and mouth.  The iPod earbud wires dangle from our ears.  We are “plugged in” people.  We are people with busy ears.

Could it be, we are so “in touch” (with one another) that we are not “in touch” (with God).  We are so plugged in to our social and professional networks that we are not plugged and tuned in to God.

God wishes to speak to us.  God calls us, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly.  At times God’s voice comes as a loud trumpet, echoing in our ears and springing us into action.  Other times God’s call is subtler, gentler.  It is as that favorite hymn proclaims, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.”  God desires to reach us; to let us know God is thinking of us; to let us know God loves us.  God is our calling shepherd, and we are God’s listening flock.

Those who have ears let them hear.

Lent 4.5 – Water

How do we use God’s gift of water more faithfully?

How do we take serious Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 41:17?

Did Jesus really mean what he said in Matthew 10:42?

“The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the LORD will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.”

– Isaiah 41:17

“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

– Matthew 10:42

Marketers and advertisers frustrate me.    They are brilliant in their jobs.  Over and over they convince me to want (and buy) something I never knew I wanted.

We’re consumers.

Or maybe…

We’re being consumed.  We’re consumed by television commericals and newspapers ads.  We’re consumed by a culture that tells us we need and want the next, latest, greatest thing.  We’re consumed by a desire to keep pace in the house/car/toys race with neighbors.

But…

What would it be to be consumed by God?  By a love for God?  By a love for God’s people, our neighbors?

Lent 4.5 – Food

Have you thought about your food lately?  What you will eat?  When you will eat it?

Have you ever wondered where you food came from?  How it traveled to your plate?

It’s amazing how food connects us to the world.

I love what Thomas Merton wrote:  “From the moment you put a piece of bread in your mouth you are part of the world.  Who grew the wheat?  Who made the bread?  Where did it come from?  You are in a relationship with all who brought it to the table.  We are least separate and most in common when we eat and drink.”

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