“Teach Us to Number Our Days” (Psalm 90) [a Lent sermon]


I had the privilege of preaching the Ash Wednesday service at one of my church’s campuses a few weeks ago. As is appropriate to that Holy Day and this Lenten season itself, we sat with words that drew us into a meditation on our mortality and death.

(I also talk about my grandfather’s death. For more about that, you can read my reflections.)

I help lead a Bible Study and sometimes, when I’m feeling artsy, to help us start a discussion on a certain text from Scripture, I’ll ask my group a question: what color is this text? As in, what’s the emotional tone? When you close your eyes, and let its words sit in you, what color are the images that come to mind? For me, sitting with this Psalm before preaching it, I felt it was a dull, pale blue–or maybe more like a burlap grey. And I have found that “hue” marking much of my time this Lent.

So even now, a few weeks in to season, I find myself returning to the themes of this Scripture text. I hope it might lead you to engage all the more deeply into this Holy Lent. The text is Psalm 90.1-12, and here’s the sermon audio. Feel free to send me any thoughts, questions or concerns:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading

“George Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow [REVIEW]


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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
2010, Penguin Books
Kindle / Paperback

Along with so many of you, I have spent the past year-and-a-half poring over the stories of our Founding Fathers in response to the musical Hamilton. I admit it: I know every song, every lyric, and I’ve been fascinated by the subtle nuances and references to historical details behind the lyrics. Complicating matters, I was steeped in these Wikipedia pages and (the amazingly comprehensive) Genius lyrics annotations all while there was a heated Presidential campaign going on.

All these factors came together to give me a new life-goal: to read a major biography on every President of the United States. And so I picked up my copy of Ron Chernow’s fantastic book Washington: A Life (for Hamilton fans, you may recognize Chernow as the author of the book on which the musical is based).

Appropriately, I finished the book this past Monday, President’s Day (previously celebrated as Washington’s Birthday). It’s the longest book I’ve ever read (weighing in at 905 small print pages), but easily one of the most enjoyable. Continue reading

“Darkest Before the Dawn” [a sermon]


church-philly-bw-cross-market-eastDuring the Advent and Christmas season, my church did a sermon series going through the key texts of Handel’s Messiah.

I got to preach during that series and only recently realized I never posted it here.

I’m beginning to see that light and darkness are constant themes through my preaching, and in this sermon, those themes are explicitly in the text. God’s people have returned from exile to their homeland, but it still hurts. Things aren’t the way they remembered, and they keep encountering difficulties and old temptations at every turn.

And so God acknowledged the darkness, but promises light. Is that enough, though? How do we not just sit back and say, “yeah, yeah yeah–I’ve heard this all before” and then continue on steeped in our cynicism? In this sermon (as with others I’ve preached), I try to press more deeply into the darkness to see what God might say. The text is Isaiah 60.1-3, and here’s the sermon audio. Feel free to send me any thoughts, questions or concerns:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here are my notes for your perusal. Continue reading

Trump, Gorsuch, & The Supreme Court: Will Progressives Act in Good Faith?


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Democrats should hold confirmation hearings and approve President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, in a respectful, timely way. In other words, they ought to act in the way Republicans should have acted with President Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland. How Liberals and Progressives respond to this nomination will show whether their ongoing protests and anger are truly principled or are just aimless expressions of emotion.

Most every action Trump has taken since becoming President has been abnormal, irresponsible, immoral, incompetent, or counter-productive. He is, in my opinion entirely unfit for the office of President, and has not the moral, intellectual, nor executive substance that this office requires. Yet I am in the electoral minority. Donald J. Trump is the President now, and even if he does not treat the Presidency with the respect and dignity it deserves, the rest of us should.

All of the Opinion pieces I’ve seen so far that have argued for Democratic obstruction of the Gorsuch nomination, do so on two primary grounds: the Republican travesty of blocking Obama’s pick for the past year, and the Conservatism of Gorsuch. Both of these reasons come up short.
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“Damascus” (a poem for the Feast of Paul’s Conversion)


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A troubled heart troubled still as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death but Im the shadow of that valley as I strike them with one rod while another comforts them why wont they die as I strike them with My Left as your right upholds them all Ill kill them inhale Ill kill them exhale Ill kill them inhale so on and so forth I walk as the dust of My sandals covers their face while Mine is clean Mine is pristine following none but MySelf on this dusty Damascus road and
then—
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George Washington & How a Truly Great Man is Inaugurated


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“It has occasionally occurred to me when in [Washington’s] company, that if a stranger to his person were present, they would never have known from anything said by the president that he was conscious of having distinguished himself in the eyes of the world.”
Bishop William White on Washington’s refusal to boast

The following is excerpted from Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life:

Though the Constitution said nothing about an inaugural address, Washington, in an innovative spirit, contemplated such a speech as early as January 1789 and asked a “gentleman under his roof ”—David Humphreys—to draft one. Washington had always been economical with words, but the collaboration with Humphreys produced a wordy document, seventy- three pages long, which survives only in tantalizing snippets.

In this curious speech, Washington spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime. He denied that he had accepted the presidency to enrich himself, even though nobody had accused him of greed: “In the first place, if I have formerly served the community without a wish for pecuniary compensation, it can hardly be suspected that I am at present influenced by avaricious schemes.” Addressing a topical concern, he disavowed any desire to found a dynasty, pleading his childless state.
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George Washington: A Guide for Immigration Policy (or is he?)


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I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and it is astonishingly good (I believe the proper word is “magisterial”). In the book, I’m currently in the late 80s (the 1780s, that is), in the odd period after the War, but before he was drafted into Presidential politics. He’s having old friends visit him at Mount Vernon while he’s doing renovations after its long wartime neglect.

One of those friends was Washington’s first real biographer, David Humphreys–an aide of Washington’s during the War. He liked Humphreys so much that after the British defeat at Yorktown, Washington had him take the British flags from the fort and deliver them in person to Congress as the sign of victory.

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A Beginning, a Middle and an End


A beautiful reflection on the theological and poetical aspects of crafting a sermon.

Unknowing

If you don’t know where that comes from, read Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle was a great marine biologist who had an eye for the middle of anything. He was, as we Platonists know, not so great at epistemology, but he was a diligent observer and not altogether misleading in his remarks. He observed that dramatic works need a beginning, a middle and an end. This unilluminating observation turns out to be very necessary. It is good to start with the obvious before proceeding, and you can often count on Aristotle at least for the obvious.

I say it because it was brought to my attention in studying homiletic theory that there are at least three frames of reference for considering a sermon: the theological, the rhetorical and the poetical. In mainline circles, the theological is not always considered. The poetics, in the sense of the drama of your approach, a…

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christianity does not make me (or anyone) more moral.


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this is a great struggle for me. i am constantly comparing and elevating myself; most times without even thinking about it. it is the sin of the Pharisee – “I thank you, God, that I am not like he”. the further i walk the Christian path, the worse i get. The more moral I become the less I can be united to Christ. It is only through the shame of the cross and my utter lack of morality, that I can be saved.

without God, there is nothing to restrain my morality. it becomes force against force – my good vs your good.

God, help me.

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Demand a Miracle (Merry Christmas) [from W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being”] 


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This is from the Advent portion of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. The full text is under copyright, but it’s in this book, if you’re interested.

From Part I:

[T]ime never moves and nothing can ever happen:
I mean that although there’s a person we know all about
Still bearing our name and loving himself as before,
That person has become a fiction; our true existence
Is decided by no one and has no importance to love.

That is why we despair; that is why we would welcome
The nursery bogey or the winecellar ghost, why even
The violent howling of winter and war has become
Like a juke-box tune that we dare not stop. We are afraid
Of pain but more afraid of silence; for no nightmare
Of hostile objects could be as terrible as this Void.
This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.

Part II, Chorus:

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

My Grandfather’s Passing (Hope in Death?)


peep-paul-dance-2Today is the sixth anniversary of my Grandfather’s death. I am reposting this reflection I wrote at the time.

This past Sunday, the day after Christmas, I watched my grandfather die. This is the first death I’ve experienced of someone very close to me. I’ve known people who had died, sure, but no one as close as this.

This man walked with me and I with him for my entire life. I sat on his knee and was tickled by his hands. I grew up hearing legends about him, and I walked in a general sense of awe and disbelief when in his presence.

His name was (is?) Lester Travis Williamson, or as I knew him for most my life: Peep (a mispronunciation due to the first grandchild’s toddler lisp).

Peep represented for me a tenacity and determinedness of love that great stories of tragedy and triumph are built upon. As their old pastor said during the funeral, he was a man that if you asked for a crumb would give you the entire loaf and then chase you out the door to give you another loaf for the road.

But this is not to be confused with the contemporary pictures of the sentimental, gratuitously giving man–cheerful, talkative, jocular, and always-optimistic. If Peep was anything, he was the quintessential man of his generation–America’s vision of a “real man”–quiet, determined, and strong. He spoke with intention in every syllable, meaning what he said and saying what he meant.

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Global Clean Water Access: Staggering Statistics & A Call to Action


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For my birthday this year, I’ve been trying to raise money through Charity: Water to give clean water access to those in developing countries. At the time of this writing, we’ve raised nearly 60% of my total goal! That’s crazy to me.

I recently wrote about uniquely Christian reasons to care about this issue, but today, i want to make one last appeal and explain why everyone, regardless of personal belief system ought to care about the lack of clean water globally.

The Problem

I admit: “Social Justice-y” issues are in style. As globalization and social media collide, our global neighbors are feeling ever and ever closer, and our awareness to global issues is rising. Everyone’s got their own specific concern. What’s yours? Women’s rights? Children’s rights? Animal rights? Education? Poverty? Global Health? The Environment? Global conflict and wars? As Charity: Water points out, this clean water access issue is a primary factor in all of the above areas.

1 in 10 humans on earth don’t have clean drinking water. Unclean and unsafe water is the primary cause of 80% of all disease and it kills more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. 90% of all of these deaths happen to children.

Many global wars, including the humanitarian disaster in Syria (and also Darfur), can find their root in water access. Notice I didn’t say that the conflicts only bring about lack of clean water (though they do)–the poor water access is part of the cause of these conflicts in the first place.

Further, the hours spent finding, carrying, and distributing water–and not going to school or working–are so numerous that it is a major source of poverty in the world. It severely limits women’s rights, political integrity, and social upbuilding due to the constant time and attention devoted to water rather than other socio-cultural needs. Indeed, there are even more implications for this most basic of issues. Clean water touches everything.

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A Theology of Clean Water, Christmas, & Advent


Tomorrow is my 31st birthday, and instead of any gifts or Facebook Wall well-wishes, I’m asking people to give $31 on my campaign page at Charity: Water to give access to clean water to those in developing country.

But it is also Advent and Christmas season, giving an even deeper and fuller reason to give, especially if you would call yourself a Christian.

Yes, as Christians we ought to care about the pain and suffering of the world no matter what chapter and verse we can cite on a particular issue. But water, however, is uniquely theological and full of meaning.

A Theology of Water & Advent

Water is an essential and mystical part of the Christian story and message, giving us unique motivations and resources for addressing the issue of clean water. The Israel story begins with God creating the world out of the murky depths. The Israelite people are set free from bondage to a prince of death and find their redemption by passing through a Red Sea, which would have held certain death and return to bondage; they enter the Promised Land in a similar fashion. God promises to sprinkle clean his people with the waters of redemption. It is by more than one water well that Patriarchs find their wives and Christ finds a woman in need of redemption. It is in the world to come that the Tree of Life is seen once more, and a River of Life flows from its roots offering life and salvation to all who drink.

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