i am not my own (Abide with Me)





…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.

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“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

“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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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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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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Dyeing Tulips: Calvinism, “Free” Will, & Losing Our Religion


Rembrandt-Return-ProdigalWell, this little miniseries on Calvinism has been fun.

We’ve talked through a bookthe history,  and reframed the traditional “points” of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and Limited Atonement. Today, we will look at the final two emphases of Calvinist belief.

I hope you’ve been challenged to evaluate Calvinism in broader and deeper ways so that, if you already agreed with it, you were challenged in the complexity and nuance of the issues here; and if you did not, that you found Calvinism a bit more inviting and interesting.

For more on just how broad and diverse Calvinist thought it, I can’t more highly reccomend Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology or the book that initiated this whole discussion, Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. Continue reading

Tweaking Calvinism: Universal Limited Atonement


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UPDATE: I’ve finished this little blog series. We talked about a book, the history, and TULI-P. Enjoy!

I recently offered some proposals on some “less intense” (yet still Reformed) articulations of Calvinism (see above). The election (of a different kind) derailed those posts for a bit, but I wanted to pick it up today, by talking about the most controversial of the “points” of Calvinism: Limited Atonement.

This is the most controversial of Calvinism’s points, but it’s also the most logical. The least charitable way to explain it is to say that Jesus only died for Christians and not others. The more charitable way is that there is not a drop of Jesus’ blood that is shed in vain. God accomplishes what he sets out to do. So traditionally, the belief is that Jesus’ atoning work on the Cross was “limited” to cover only the sins of people that would become Christians.

There seems to be only two options, here, right? Limited or Unlimited? Particular or Universal? How can we approach this in a more winsome and erudite way while still calling ourselves Calvinists?

Atonement is NOT Salvation

This is really important. In my last post, I pointed out that God’s Election is more about our life here-and-now, and less about our future eternal destiny. The same can be said of Atonement.
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Calvinism: What it Is, and Why it’s Crazy


John_Calvin_by_HolbeinUPDATE: I’ve finished this little blog series. We talked about a book, the history, and TULI-P. Enjoy!

This month, our Theology Book Club is going through Richard Mouw’s remarkable book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, in which he articulates a vision for how Calvinists might understand and hold their doctrinal convictions.

But first, what is this “Calvinism” thing I’m talking about?

Every school of thought has some core foundation on top of which they build every thing else–some assumption that guides and shapes the rest. In that sense, Calvinism is a cluster of beliefs that are centered around the idea that Jesus is Lord, or (in more traditional language), that the Triune God is uncompromisingly sovereign and has no competition in this area. That is the center of Calvinism from which everything else fans out. As Mouw summarizes:

“Unlike other traditions, Calvinism rigorously guards this emphasis on divine sovereignty by refusing to allow any other theological point to detract from it. [So] when Calvinists get around to attempting to explain the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, we are so concerned to protect the former that we are willing to risk sounding like we are waffling on the latter rather than to imply in any way that God’s power is limited.” (p.27)

If you’re only somewhat familiar with Calvinism, you likely think it was some archaic belief mainly held by cranky medieval Christians and Puritans that said God was in absolute control of every little thing and human free will was largely an illusion. Further, you may also have some vague sense that it’s super depressing, focuses almost entirely on how bad and useless humans are, and had some role in creating the American work ethic.

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“The End & The Beginning”: On Houses, Wise & Foolish [sermon]


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A couple of weeks ago, I got to finish up our church’s series going through the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon was such an experience to prepare and give. For one, this was my first time ever preaching two weeks in a row (if your pastor does this regularly, give him or her a hug for me–it’s hard!)

Second, this was my firs time preaching on a text I previously preached on. This text was the same as my first ever “real” sermon. It was the oddest experience diving back into this text and it feeling so new–as if I’d never read or studied it previously.

And lastly, this is the shortest set of verses I’ve ever been able to preach on–5 verses! This gave me the freedom to slow down, and experiment with how I wanted to structure this and go about writing the sermon.

This sermon tries to serve both as a summary of the entire Sermon on the Mount as well as a conclusion and call to action for those of us who have sat under it all Summer. If that piques your interest, feel free to listen to or read the sermon below. The text is Matthew 7:24-29. Here’s the audio:

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

“Do Unto Others”: The Golden Rule of God’s Kingdom [a sermon]


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As part of my church’s series on The Sermon on the Mount, I got to preach this past week on the Golden Rule, as well as Jesus’ call to action at the end of the Sermon.

For many of us, when exploring Christian faith, what we’re really looking for is what makes Christianity distinctive. What does it have to say that any other perspective on existence doesn’t—or can’t? I can imagine many people see Jesus offer the Golden Rule and think that he is acting as just one more ethical teacher repeating this ethical principle that most anyone who wants to be a nice person knows about. And it’s true: much of what Jesus says is, technically, not new in human history.

But here’s the trouble: as a human race, we’ve had a lot of practice with the Golden Rule. It’s in us. It’s in our laws. It’s in our societies. It’s in our intuitions that guide and shape how we move through the world. It shapes our sense of justice and morality. And yet we still fail it every day. We’ve had so much practice legislating it, commanding it, manipulating it, teaching it, and hoping for it. And yet it is not the predominant reality in our world or relationships.

That’s why when Jesus comes on the scene, it’s not enough for him to simply repeat the same old teachings in the same old ways. We need more than that if we have any hope for living his vision out. And in this sermon I argue that what Jesus offers here is an entirely new framing and context of the Golden Rule. What Jesus offers here is so much more than a simple ethical maxim. It’s not even Ethics at all! Further, if we see Jesus as just one more religious authority trying to tell people how to act, then we’ve profoundly missed Jesus’ point and what he’s trying to offer us here.

So feel free to listen to or read the sermon, and let me know what you think. The sermon text is Matthew 7:12-23. Here’s the audio:

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

Who has a brand new Masters of Divinity degree? This guy.


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After going to seminary nearly 8 years ago, dropping out after a year, and then returning 5 years later, I have now graduated with my Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies program at Western Theological Seminary. (Sorry for all those links.)

I was also proud and humbled to have been voted by the faculty to receive the Stanley A. Rock award in Pastoral Care and Counseling, “for outstanding work in pastoral care and counseling courses and formation for ministry assignments”.

So what now? Well, first I have to finish my last six weeks of classes before actually getting my actual degree. Then I will need to finish my requirements for ordination as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. After that? I’m still figuring it out.

I’ll still be in Philadelphia. I won’t be looking for a ministerial job outside my own church. I’ll continue my job in social work while other opportunities work themselves out. I still hope to do Ph.D. work in the future, but I’m taking a breather for the immediate moment.

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For Lent: Free Music, Readings, & Devotionals


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I’ll be honest, one of the reasons why I love Lent and the Church Calendar is because it is a helpful corrective for my own personal lack of personal discipline. I’m not especially skilled at putting together my own structure, and so I really flourish when structure and pattern is placed on me from the outside.

This is especially true with spiritual practices. To engage with a Church season like Lent, I often need to give myself a blog series to keep me thinking on a theme for the season (see above, under “Lenten Posts“). I really do well with reading plans, prayerbooks, music albums, etc. If you find yourself in the same boat, here are some resources for this year’s Lent that some of you may find helpful.
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Advent and… (the series)


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This is the dedicated post page for the Advent series “Advent and…”. In it, we looked at the various ways Advent connects to seemingly unrelated parts of our life and existence.

Welcome to Advent, 2012.
This was the series introduction. I looked at how Advent speaks to our whole selves, including a whole host of “un-Christmas-y” kinds of things.

Advent & Sex: we are holy ground
When you think of Christmas time, you don’t often think about sex. This post talks about the implication of Christ’s arrival for our sex lives.

Advent & Sex-lessness: here’s to singleness & celibacy!
The Advent story is a notably sex-less affair. What this means for us is huge. This was by far the most widely read post of this series, and in the top five most widely read posts in this blog’s history.  Continue reading

Psalm 23: My Translation


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For my Hebrew class last year, I was asked to write up a super literal translation of Psalm 23 (below), and then build off of that to create a much more dynamic, creative, contemporary translation. This was the result.

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A Psalm in the spirit of David.

The LORD is tending to me
I want for nothing
He has me lie down in pastures of fresh, new grass
Beside the waters of rest
He gently guides me
He brings the life back to my soul
He leads me into the grooves of life well-lived because of who he is.

And yet—
Though I truly die in the depth of darkness,
there is no evil that I fear,

You are truly there with me
Your staff and your support: they comfort me
You host before my face a table opposite all that stands against me.
You clean me with oil over top of my head.

Overflowing abundance is my cup.

Surely, goodness and steadfast faithfulness will chase me down
for the whole of my life’s days

This will be my story:
I will return into the dwelling place of the Lord and stay—
for lifetimes upon lifetimes.

______________________________________

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Happy 27th Birthday to my little brother Matthew & his attempted beard.


This is a post I put up every once and a while on October 20th, my brother’s birthday. It’s an essay I wrote a years ago during an intense time of doubt and skepticism when I realized just how much a sustaining force he was in my life. I still love him to death. I’m just sorry I can’t be with him and my family this year to celebrate. Oh, and I usually accompany these posts with unflattering pictures. In love. Enjoy! Here’s the piece:

My Brother’s Keeping