Friday, December 19, 2014

God Gives What We Need Most

          I wonder what the shepherds were talking about under that lone tree in the fields, as they watched their flocks that night.  You know they had to be talking.  What else could shepherds do as they watched their sheep sleep?  Perhaps one of them expressed worry about his son who was drinking his life away.  Perhaps one of them was worried about finances.  I imagine it was difficult to support a family on a night-shift shepherd salary.  Perhaps one was worried about his struggling marriage, which had grown cold after all those years.  The more he worked at it, the worse it became.  Or maybe they were pondering the recent census ordered by Quirinius and the heavy taxation soon to follow.
            I don’t know what the shepherds were talking about in the fields that night, but I know the sorts of discussions 2014 has placed on the table.  In this year, we’ve seen the rise of ISIS and the evil that can be inflicted by radical fundamentalists.  We’ve watched in horror as entire towns were held in their grasp and heads rolled.  We watched as conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine sent entire people groups running for their lives.  We watched as EBOLA spread and took lives.  We watched as racial conflicts destroyed the illusion of living in a post-racial society.  I don’t know what the shepherds were struggling with that night long ago, but I know the disturbing news which has sent us to our knees this year.
            Into the midst of their fears and anxieties, the heavens opened and angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, peace.”  Peace.
            It seems absurd to utter that word in our chaotic and fractured world today.  When there is animosity between the religions, tension between the races, division between the classes, and war between the nations how can we even think of peace?  To speak of peace in our day is either comical on the one hand or revolutionary on the other. 
            One neglected aspect of the Christmas story, at least in the way Luke tells it, is the Roman backdrop to this scene.  The whole story begins with the phrase, “In the days of Caesar Augustus.”  These were the days when Rome ruled the world.  Empire was having its way.  Might was making right.  And of course, Rome, like all empires, couched their control in the language of peace.  They called it the “Pax Romana” or “peace of Rome.”  But the peace of empire isn’t true peace.  It is subjugation and control, which only lasts as long as you are the big kid on the block.  It is not creation in the wyas of God, but politics in the ways of empire. 
            But when Jesus was born as a “Savior, Christ the Lord,” he was born as an alternative to the ways of Rome.  The peace from the angels that night was a different sort of peace from a different sort of Lord.  It wasn’t the peace that comes from subduing or killing your enemies, but the peace that comes from loving them and being reconciled to them.  It’s not the sort of peace that comes from controlling people by overt force and power, but the sort that comes from inspiring people with authentic love and service.  It’s not the sort of peace that comes from halls of power; it’s the sort of peace that shows up in mangers and fields.  It’s not the sort of peace that comes from silencing the other; but the sort of peace that comes from actually listening to them.  It’s not the sort of peace we achieve through military victory, but the sort of peace we receive through grace. 
            It is a pervasive peace, which begins deep in our own fractured and alien hearts and spreads from person to person, religion to religion, nation to nation.  It allows us to make peace with our own souls so that we live out of our true selves rather than our false selves.  We can be honest about ourselves and with ourselves.  This peace reconciles us to God, so that we need not keep looking for something else to worship or running from the One who can’t be escaped.  It brings us closer to people, even those with whom we disagree.  It unites and reconciles, bringing together shepherds and angels, heaven and earth, Rome and Bethlehem.

            So, as we reflect on this Christmas season and all that 2014 brought us, may we open ourselves to this peace.  It is this peace that that world longs to receive.  It is this peace which God longs to give.  It’s almost too good to be true…almost.  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth… peace!  PEACE!!!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How He Comes To Us

A Palm Sunday prayer for worship:


How He Comes To Us


So this is how he came to us. 
Slowly…Quietly…Peacefully. 
He came to us riding a donkey. 
There was little pomp and circumstance. 
No trumpets blew. 
No armor clinked. 
No stallions marched. 
No enemies chained. 
Just Jesus on his donkey. 
As far as kings go, this isn’t what you would expect.  Yet, this is how he came to us.

This is how he came to us. 
Born in a stable. 
Laid in a donkey’s feed trough. 
His nursery was populated with sheep and goats. 
He came to us with stories and riddles. 
He came to us with preaching and teaching. 
He came to us with powerful healing and radical welcome. 
He came to us washing feet. 
He came to us embodying sacrifice and service. 
He came to us with holes in his hands and feet. 
As far as humans go, this isn’t what you would expect.  Yet, this is how he came to us.

And this is how he comes to us. 
Slowly…Quietly…Peacefully. 
He comes to us in the most unexpected ways. 
He comes to us in the embrace of children and the tales of the elderly. 
He comes to us in the ears of friends and the eyes of strangers. 
He comes to us in bread and wine, in sermon and song, in prayer and giving.  
He comes to us in small acts of love, genuine acts of hospitality, authentic acts of forgiveness. 
He comes to us in the least of these. 

He comes to us whenever we come to Him. 
He comes to us whenever we reach for peace instead of war, truth instead of ignorance, welcome rather than exclusion. 
He comes to us when we have no idea where we are going. 
He comes to us amidst our tears, our fears, our doubts. 
Over and over again, he comes to us. 
As far as gods go, this isn’t what you would expect.  Yet, this is how he comes to us.


He does not come to us in the shouts as much as in the whispers.  This is how he comes to us… TODAY… NOW…so listen…

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ashes on the Altar

Tomorrow night, my church family and I will participate in the ancient Christian ritual of Ash Wednesday.  It will be a time to confess our sin, name our unrighteousness, and reflect on our lives.  As an act of repentance, we will impose the ashes on our foreheads, reminding us of the frailty of our humanity and the power of God's forgiveness.

Of late, however, I've been thinking about the sins of the corporate church.  Recently, I had a friend ask me if the church had ever publicly denounced and repented of the rampant racism of its past.  What a novel idea!  Thus, I've been thinking about what it would look like for the church to walk down the aisle only to have Jesus impose the ashes.  What would it sound like if the church confessed her sins in this age?  How would the confession read?

I humbly and self-critically offer the following as a place for us to start:

- We are sorry for the times we've reduced the gospel to cold rationalism or heated emotionalism.

- We are sorry for the times we've named Jesus as Lord but refused to allow him to set the agenda.  We confess the times when our issues had nothing to do with Jesus' issues.

- We are sorry of the times we've worshipped Jesus without listening to him.

- We are sorry we've turned worship into cheap entertainment and evaluated a worship service through the lens of "what speaks to me" or "what I really like."

- We are sorry for the pastors who have lorded it over their congregations and the congregations who have allowed it.  We confess the abuses of ecclesial leaders who have tried to lead through means other than a towel and basin.

- We are sorry for the times we've run from the truth rather than search after it- for the times we've pitted science against faith as if all truth is not God's truth, wherever it is found.

-We confess the times we've turned people into a means to an end rather than an end in and of themselves.

- We are sorry for the times we've politicized the faith, as if the full measure of discipleship was exhausted at the ballot box.  We confess the times we've allowed the gospel to be manipulated by partisan loyalties and the times we've confused the universal Kingdom of God with national interests.

- We are sorry for the times we've privatized the faith, as if our relationship with God made no impact on how we treat our neighbor or how we strive for justice in the neighborhood. We confess the times we've rounded off the sharp moral edges of the gospel to ensure it never so much as pricked our finger.

- We are sorry for the times we've placed glass ceilings over women, as if the first heralds of resurrection good news were not women.  Since "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female," we confess a sexism that is as destructive and oppressive as racism and classism.

-We confess our explicit and implicit racism, since Sunday morning remains the most segregated time of the week.  We confess the dehumanization, distance, and ignorance that stems from valuing the color of one's skin over the content of one's character.

- We are sorry for the times we've prized profits over people and allowed the invisible hand of the market to slap the poor in the face.

-We are sorry for our functional atheism- living as if God was not an active participant in this world.

- We are sorry for the times we've been willing to pay the price of war because we were unwilling to pay the price of peace.

- We are sorry for the times we've used the Bible to support our stances- for the times we've used individual verses as proof texts while we ignored the broad strokes of the Bible- for the times we've cared more about being "biblical" than Christ-like.

- We are sorry for the times we've shut doors in the name of the One who tore down walls.

- We are sorry for the times we've complained about the specks in other people's eyes because we were blinded by the logs in our own.  We are sorry for the times we have, like the Pharisees, swallowed camels but choked on gnats.

- We are sorry for the times we've only accepted what (and those) we understood and reduced "reality" to what fit our paradigms.

- We are sorry for the times we've engaged in culture wars in the name of a God who is reconciling all things to himself.

- We are sorry for the times we've shouted at the sinner rather than befriending them, all the while pretending as if we no longer exist in the category of "sinner."

- We are sorry for caring more about going to heaven than heaven coming to earth.

- We are sorry for the times we've cared more about the institutional survival of the church rather than the vivacity of the Kingdom.

-We confess using instruments of fear to motivate people towards a God of love.

- We are sorry for our carefully calculated loves, which were permitted only when it didn't cost us anything.

- We are sorry for reducing the wonder and sacredness of creation to a shallow utilitarianism.

- We are sorry for overlooking the poor, the children, the elderly, and the ostracized in our pews and down our streets.  We are sorry for caring more about the Bachelor than the Ukraine, Syria, etc.

- We are sorry for our fear of speaking truth to power because we doubted God's power.

Before the ashes are placed on our foreheads tomorrow night, they will rest upon the altar.  This seems about right.  Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The King and Dr. King

Yesterday, my family, church, and I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day by helping update the cafeteria of the Salvation Army in downtown Little Rock.  On a daily basis, this room feeds the hungry and homeless breakfast and dinner.  Throughout the day, I thought about Dr. King's words about racial reconciliation, peacemaking, and economic justice (by the way, why do we so clearly remember what he said about racism but neglect his preaching on nearly every other subject?).




In Arkansas, however, Dr. King shared the day with Robert E. Lee.  How one day can hold that ironic juxtaposition of figures together, I'll never know.  I guess someone thought the day was big enough for the both of them.  Chalk it up to one more example of how the south is trying to make peace with the ghosts of our past, although the ghosts make for awkward dance partners.

Both Lee and King cared passionately for their causes.  However, one sought to bring about change through proclamation and the other sought to prevent change through force.  One used the raw materials of language and dreams.  The other employed guns and cannons.  One was willing to pay the price of war.  The other was willing to pay the price of peace.

And yet, one could argue that both were engaged in a sort of warfare.  Lee's warfare was physical, involving blood, guns, and cannons.  And yet, while the Civil War changed our country in innumerable ways, it did not, and could not, address the depths of the issues that remained until the civil rights movement a century later (and some would argue remain today).  Truly, the battlefields of the Civil War were not where the real battles took place.  Instead, the Civil War was the result of years and years of a dehumanizing ideology that seeped into the politics, economics, religion, and social structures of the day.  This ideology shaped "reality" in those days, so that people couldn't even imagine an alternative way of living.  The powers and principalities had a grip on that society in ways that people couldn't even see.  Slavery didn't exist simply because the wrong people were in control; slavery existed because the wrong people were telling the stories- or they were telling the wrong stories.

That is, until a preacher became a drum major for justice and peacefully spoke truth to those powers and shattered the paradigms of his day.  Dr. King's dreams did more to correct the injustices than all the battles of the Civil War.  His sermons pulled back the veil of "reality" and revealed the lies for what they were, naked affronts to the truth of God's good news.  A preacher did what years and years of violence and bloodshed couldn't do, and never will be able to do.

To be completely honest, there are days when I wince when someone finds out I'm a minister (or even worse, a preacher).  All sorts of loaded and false expectations arise, and the conversation either ends at that point or it shifts towards some fake, say-Jesus-in-every-sentence sort of direction.  I think part of my discomfort stems from the fact that ministry has become a sort of harmless vocation.  We preachers bless little children, give nice talks, and say nice things when the elderly die.  Ministers simply speak to captive audiences, drink a lot of coffee, and pray behind stained glass windows.  For many, ministry is an exercise in banality.   Meanwhile, the real movers and shakers are those who get things done:  doctors, lawyers, politicians, generals, financial planners, etc…   

Occasionally, however, I'm reminded of the sheer potency of the spoken word.  In Genesis 1, God speaks creation into existence.  In many of the other creation stories in the ancient world, the deity creates the world through an act of violence, but in Genesis, God peacefully speaks reality into existence.  Last week I was reading in Mark 1 (verse 38 to be exact) where Jesus, in the midst of numerous acts of power, declares, "Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for."  Preaching was primal for Jesus, as he sought to announce God's ultimate reality amidst all the other false realities.  And yesterday, while painting walls at the Salvation Army, I was reminded that MLK's words shaped our country more than Robert E. Lee's troops did.  Dr. King's dreams captured us in a way that no general's commands could.  In a way reminiscent of Genesis 1 and Mark 1, Dr. King stood high on that mountain, looked to the other side, and pronounced a new reality into existence.

So I'm going to begin paying more attention to my words.  I'm going to guard them as if they are as potent and explosive as cannonballs.  I'm going to pay more attention to dreams, for a dream is nothing short of a down payment towards a new reality.  And today, I take new pride in my vocation, in the hopes that all of us would-be-preachers speak a new reality into existence Sunday after Sunday.  I'm even beginning to believe that those whom we allow to mold our notions of reality (cue the poets, musicians, writers, and artists amongst us) carry greater weight than those who control us from positions of power.

Yesterday, Arkansas honored a general and a preacher.  While the general captured the enemy and shaped the South, the preacher captured the imagination and shaped our consciousness.  Lee's influence, while significant in his day, has come and gone.  King's voice echoes on because he tapped into a power that outlives him.  To be sure, preaching is a strange, baffling, and mysterious reality in which we participate- but so is the Kingdom of God.  And our words have a power that power knows not of.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, "To pray is to dream in league with God."  For Dr. King and Jesus, preaching was doing the exact same thing.  

Today, I give thanks to the King for Dr. King…and for all preachers everywhere who preach the truth in love.



Monday, December 16, 2013

The Great Advent Scandal

Dom Helder Camara, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

For the last couple of weeks, I've had the Magnificat on my mind- Mary's song in Luke 1.36-46, which she sings after receiving the news of her miraculous (yet scandalous) future.  Mary was a lowly peasant girl, living in a man's world.  Many scholars believe her to be a young teenager at the time.  Most of us wouldn't have trusted her to baby-sit our children, yet here God is placing the redemption of all creation in her womb.  Mary runs off to see her old aunt Elizabeth, who is dealing with an impossibility of her own.  It's a magnificent scene of unthinkable impossibilities becoming reality.

And so, Mary bursts out in song.  She praises God for choosing her in her low estate.  She celebrates a God who lifts up the humble and brings down the proud.  She claims that this God will feed the hungry and send the rich away empty handed.  It reads, not like a normal Christmas carol, but like a song of social subversion and reversal.  To be sure, some people spiritualize this text and others dismiss it altogether, but the gospel of Luke doesn't allow you to do that.  In Luke's gospel, salvation has EVERYTHING to do with economics, and while Jesus was concerned with more than money, he wasn't concerned with less.  In Luke 4, Jesus returns to Nazareth and proclaims good news to those who seem far removed from good news:  the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.   He was reading from the prophet Isaiah, but you get the feeling this truth could have easily been transmitted through the umbilical cord.  In the sermon on the plain in Luke 6:17-49, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor" (not the poor in spirit as in Matthew), and he says "woe to the rich."  Compassionate justice seems to be the core issue of the story of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31), and salvation comes to Zaccheus' house shortly after he claims to right fiscal wrongs (see Luke 19:1-10).  Social and economic justice are front and center in the gospel of Luke.  Mary is simply the first one to give voice to it.

Just last week, a political talking head accused the pope of being a Marxist because of his concern for the poor and his call for economic justice.  But it's not Marx who prompted the Pope to call for justice.  It's Mary, Luke, Jesus and the long line of saints from Ur of the Chaldeans to Rome to Little Rock to cities across the world who believe that God's Kingdom is an alternative reality indeed.  Mary's song also indicts those who so quickly cry about an imagined "war on Christmas," but are so slow to see that our blatant social injustices are more of an affront to this season than any, "Happy Holidays," greeting from the 18 year old girl working the Target check out line.

Truth be told, whenever I hear sweet little Mary singing her song, I can almost feel the ground rattle under my feet.  Some people, whose only lens is politics, will claim this song is scandalous.  Others, whose imaginations have been suffocated by "reality," will claim this song is impossible.  Maybe it is.  But so is the pregnant virgin singing it.