I really debated on writing this post. Those most intimate of place between my soul and my Creator are too often converted in my mind into sermon, blog, or conversational thoughts. I tend to be quite promiscuous with the details of my relating to God.
Yes, for many, it is helpful, valuable, and “authentic” to be let in to the inner sanctum of one’s spiritual processing. But it comes at great cost to my own vibrancy. I recall a critique I heard once of the great mystic monk Thomas Merton that he “never had an unpublished thought or experience”.
I can relate.
So what am I talking about? When you read this, I will be on a bus from Holland, Michigan to Kalamazoo. A monk will meet me there and will take me to St Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers for a week-long silent retreat where I will disconnect from all electronics and means of communication. I won’t read anything but prayer books, poetry, and my Bible. No phone, email, texting, kindle, news, podcasts, or anything. Continue reading →
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.
During 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:
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.
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.
Ruler and King of all, our nation is now entering into such a delicate time. Many emotions are being felt very deeply after this election. It was a hard-fought fight that many had much invested in. Would you be with us as the immediate emotional aftermath of the election occurs?
Lord, hear our prayer.
O God of peace, you do not desire that we would be filled with anxiety, fear, or gloating, as if our greatest joy or pain would be the result of this one election. You have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, into your presence, where we may be still and know that you are the God who is the sustaining Presence in all nations,
O Lord our truest Ruler and King, many words have been said these past months leading to this election day. Far too many of these words have been hurtful, fearful, divisive, angry, and anxious. Being able to see our nation’s policies so tangibly, it is far too easy to equate this nation with your Kingdom, and so act as if this election were of supreme eternal importance.
Lord, forgive us, we pray.
Bless the leaders of our land–those currently in office and those elected today–that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth. Let this be the conviction of every leader as they model for us, however imperfectly, political relations amongst both their fellow countrymen and citizens of the world. Continue reading →
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.
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:
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:
We live in a time and place that is happy to tell us all the things we need to do to be the kinds of people we want to be. And churches are good at telling us more things to do and occupy our time with in order to live in greater closeness with God.
But there are some parts of being human and knowing God that don’t involve doing more, but rather stopping and doing less.
At my church, over the summer, we want to try and create space where people can come and just stop; to experience silence, reflection, prayer, meditation, and a little guidance in those things. This is a spiritual muscle we don’t exercise much, but it’s an essential one to work out if we are to become more human and know God more deeply.
So starting tonight, from 6:30-8pm and every Thursday in July and August, we’ll be having an open, unstructured time for prayer, reflection, contemplation, journaling, and meditation.
A few times I’ll get up and read some Scripture, but outside of that, it’s a space people are free to come and go, lie down, walk around, sit on the floor, or whatever they need to connect with themselves and connect with God. No matter your church home, religious tradition, or lack of belief, feel free to use this space in whatever way you need.
So feel free join us at 17th and Sansom St in Center City Philadelphia between 6:30 and 8, and each subsequent Thursday.
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.
During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments. People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them. The classes were small and sporadically attended…. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses. They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough. So I offered more Bible and still no one came.
Finally I got the message. “Bible” was a code word for “God.” People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.
The above quote was so insightful and helpful to me. At my church, we’ve spent years hearing people talk about wanting more “meat” or wanting to be “fed” more. When they say that, they often are thinking they need to feel cognitively challenged and stretched by information about the Bible or Theology.