I’m really looking forward to doing a happy sermon sometime soon. But alas, I find myself preaching on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday this year–not the happiest of Church Holy Days.
And yet there is hope.
It’s fashionable to emphasize the narrative nature of God’s work in the world. And yes, it’s true–there is a progressive nature to Redemption, with a beginning, middle, and end.
But God’s work is also often cyclical, with certain rhythms and movements that return, repeat, and fold within one another.
I had this in mind as I went into this sermon. Yes, we ought to press into the darkness and doubt of the Cross without just quickly comforting ourselves with the Resurrection–we have to sit there for a bit–and yet the Church Calendar gets into our bones and souls to such an extent that it transforms the darkness. We can never sit in the Cross’ forsakenness without feeling the spiritual muscle memory of previous Easters gone by. And in that is hope.
This realization led me to largely do away with my notes (which you can find below) when giving this sermon and largely ad-lib, speaking from the heart as I wrestled with this stuff in real-time. The text selections came from Matthew 26-27, and here’s the sermon audio. Feel free to send me any thoughts, questions or concerns:
…fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide…
Both viruses and people get themselves into us, infect us, surprise us, and change us–both for good and ill. And when they depart we are left with that most complex simplicities of emotions, asking simply: what was that? The story, the episode, that previously seemed to exist with such continuity now seems so disjointed from all others that “the purpose” seems our only thought.
…When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, abide with me…
We wonder, we wander, seeking our Home, our Rest, our Selves. We recast our history in the eyes of this present trial, this present pain, this present darkness, and feel the twitch and fear that comes whenever we seriously consider all we’ve done before and all it represents within us–all the trials caused, the pains committed, and the darknesses within us.
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:
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.
Today 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.
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.
I wrote recently about how, for my 31st Birthday, I’m asking people to give money to Charity: Water to give people clean water in developing countries. I recently did the math, and this is actually quite attainable.
All it would take to accomplish my goal of giving 31 people clean water would be for 31 of you out there to give just $31 through my Campaign Page.
To me, that’s more than reasonable. I’ve even given the first pledge! This is the time of year where we ought to be thinking of others. We will already be spending for more than $31 on people we love. But what of the people whose loved ones don’t have even $31 to their name?
They deserve love also. And not just a sentiment. Not just sympathy or prayer. They deserve tangible expressions of love that actually add to their quality of life. And there is probably no more basic tangible need for such quality than clean water itself.
It’s so fundamental, so elemental. What better symbol may there be for the most essential aspect of what it means to be an embodied human in this world? Giving water is one of the most beautiful was to give ourselves for others. And it’s easy and simple.
Just go to my Campaign Page and give $31 in the next week to give someone the gift of clean, drinkable water. Thank you.
[TL;DR: Instead of gifts for my birthday, I’m asking for donations to Charity: Water to give clean drinking water to those with none. Give on my Campaign Page.]
The picture on this post is from my trip to Israel earlier this year. It’s from En Gedi, an oasis in the the desert, near the Dead, Masada, and the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It is literally a random spring in the middle of the vast Israel wilderness.
I thought of this image as I was listening to a recent episode of The Liturgists podcast on suffering. They offered interviews, art, music, and poetry about the pain and injustice which exist on a global scale.
They lamented that many such programs leave us with no ability to do something in response. But they offered a way. They interviewed the founder of Charity: Water, a non-profit that focuses on delivering sustainable clean water wells in underserved parts of the world.
One of the best ways they have found to raise money is to ask others to donate their birthdays to Charity: Water. Instead of getting gifts, people would encourage others to give that gift-money to Charity: Water.
This is a beautiful piece by a friend of mine, Aisha Monique, from my previous church. She is a wonderful spoken word artist who wrote and performed this a couple of months ago as a way of prophetically processing the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and hwo they fit into the broader narrative of the Black experience in America. I recently found myself watching it again, and I thought I would share.
Like the biblical book of Lamentations, this is a raw cry from the heart wrapped within the rhythm and boundedness of poetry. So grab some coffee and a quiet place and watch this. Let it sink in and sit with it. And most importantly, especially if you are part of the majority culture, just listen.
Last week I led a prayer service of lament at my church for the racial injustice and violence experienced in our country. I put together the below order for the prayer service and it ended up being a helpful expression for us. I wanted to share this with anyone else interested in using it in their own contexts.
Another benefit of this service is that the contemporary prayers below are not mine or any other white males, but were written by women of color and slightly modified for our context. I hope this acts as a helpful outlet to give voice to our hearts as brothers and sisters.
Encourage other voices that are not typically heard at your church to read the Scripture sections. In the times of silence, encourage open prayer from those sitting in the pews. Allow space for up to 5-10 minutes of silence, and be sure to let people know beforehand to expect such long silence.
The past few weeks (heck, the past several years) have exposed so many fissures in the fabric of American society. It has shown how power, politics, and the invisible structures and systems around us have attempted to paper over real divisions that still remain. Last week, especially, showed us how these divisions can overflow into violence and cut to the core of the American psyche.
And the Christian Church ought to be there to give voice to this pain.
Tonight at 7p at Liberti Church‘s Center City Campus (17th and Sansom St), I will be leading a service of lament for our country, our cities, and our hurting black communities experiencing injustice. There will be time to hear Scripture, reflect, sit in silence, and also offer prayer from those in the pews. We will ask hard questions, sit in the pain, and not settle for easy answers. It is open to the public and all are welcome, no matter your religion, political persuasion, or personal opinion in this national discussion. I hope to see you there.
I had the honor of giving the reflection at our Good Friday service this year. For the service, we did a series of extended readings, from Luke 22.39-23.56, from Jesus praying in Gethsemane to his burial.
Preaching on this passage was a unique privilege for me, having recently returned from Israel. I walked these very steps that Jesus takes in our story. I prayed in the shade under the Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. I walked down the Kidron Valley to the place where it’s actually quite possible Jesus was imprisoned overnight, beaten, and mocked. I walked through Old City Jerusalem to the fortress of Pilate. Our hotel was right outside the old city walls near the place of Crucifixion.
This passage therefore, especially in light of that trip, was so rich with meaning throughout. Nevertheless, the focus of my message was living in the darkness and tension between Good Friday and Easter.
One of the smartest and funniest women at my church, Alyssa, has this great blog you should all follow. In it, her observations on life, cities, and spirituality are whip smart and hilarious. Several weeks ago, she put up a post asking “Is Trump America’s Lent?” She writes:
For the purposes of this argument, let’s call Lent an annual wake-up call, a reminder that we aren’t as good as we think we are….Trump’s success so far is a wake-up call in itself, like a large-scale Lent: maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are. Apparently, as a country we’re actually more racist and fearful than we thought we were just a few months ago, when people laughed at the thought of him actually standing a chance. The land of the free might just be okay with building that wall. The home of the brave is actually pretty scared of Muslims.
This is incredibly insightful, and I think it turns our national “Trump-versation” to a helpful place in the Lent season. Rather than trying to understand “the Trump voter” on a micro-individual level–a level full of misunderstanding, prejudice, and judgmentalism on all sides–we might turn our gaze inward to our nation as a whole. Looking at the bigger movements and structures of our society, we can ask the hard questions that you can’t really ask when staring another individual in the face.
Each year during Lent, I press all the more deeply into a motif that appears throughout the Bible: that in some mysterious way, the God of the Universe has had a “slain” and “suffering” aspect to his nature for all eternity–even before the world came into being.
When this world did come into being, the Bible says that it came to exist “through” this suffering and slain Jesus. Therefore the rhythms of Christ’s own nature and life are written into the very DNA of the world. All of our history is an echo of Jesus’ life, both from eternity past and while on earth.
This is the reflection I wrote for my Church’s Lent Prayerbook this year. Its about Ash Wednesday, but its Lenten themes remind us of the spirit of this season, as we move into Holy Week next week.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the time in which we turn the volume up on the dark whispers and hauntings in our souls that we spend the rest of the year trying to drown out. It is the season where we feel the gravity of our weakness and finitude. And Ash Wednesday particularly focuses on where we are most weak and most finite: our mortality.
Hundreds of millions (perhaps billions?) of people will gather today to take on what I feel is one of the most packed symbols of the historic Christian faith: the placement of ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead. We are called in the ashes to begin this process of mourning our seeming slavery to Sin and Death. In the Ash Wednesday service, we hear the words, “remember from dust you came, and to dust you will return.” Ashes are a symbol of suffering, lament, tragedy, repentance, and mourning. Continue reading →