Monday, July 06, 2015

The Confoundingly Messy Mixture of Bad and Good- Lectionary Readings for July 12

This week's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29) can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary page.

We like things to be neat, to easily fit into categories. We want good news to be all wonderful, no "buts" anywhere. We want bad news to be total, as well. We might hope for a "but" in the midst of bad news, but if we're honest, it's easier to wrap our minds around something totally awful.

Scripture keeps confounding that desire by giving us a mixture of both. Sometimes the good and the bad balance each other out, but most of the time they sit side by side, somehow coexisting with no attempt to reconcile themselves. Only the most robust theological gymnastics can get us to a place where a passage fits our desired "all or nothing" mold.

In 2 Samuel 6, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. This victory parade marks his full ascension to the throne, the end of years of conflict where it looked like the end for him too many times to count. Yet in the midst of the victory parade, his wife, Michal, the daughter of the recently deceased former King Saul, looks at the parade and despises David "with all of her heart". And we know that David quickly gets complacent and bored on the throne, leading to misery for nearly everyone in his life. Good news and bad sit side by side.

In Amos 7, the news is mostly bad. Israel has been getting it so wrong for so many generations that it seems as if God has finally run out of patience with them (if that idea doesn't sit well theologically, it bears mentioning that like many other  Old Testament texts, Amos was compiled and redacted during and after the time of exile being foreshadowed- we simply have to consider the bias in the source). But we know that in time the people will return, that the walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, that Temple worship will happen again, for a time. Good news and bad sit side by side.

The New Testament texts are similarly messy. Paul waxes poetic at the beginning of his letter to the Church at Ephesus about how what happened in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the culmination of what God has been up to all along, how this beautiful cosmic symmetry is good news for you and I, and how it all makes sense in the end. But the means by which we get there, particularly the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and to a lesser extent the trials that the early church is facing and their need for this kind of encouragement from Paul make a hard road toward the happy ending. Good news and bad sit side by side.

It's pretty much the same story in Mark's gospel. We're told in a flashback how Herod Antipas is freaked out by Jesus because of his lingering guilt over what he did to John the Baptist. His insecurity and itchy trigger finger overcame what tiny shred of decency he had. His very opportunistic wife/sister-in-law and stepdaughter/niece (ewww...) manipulated him into showing how weak he really was. But John's exit from the stage makes room for Jesus. In another telling of the story, John himself says, "He must increase and I must decrease" (John 3:30). John's martyrdom is a piece of cake compared to what Jesus endures, so part of being the lesser of the two ends up being the better option.

Sometimes the good and bad news that come to us in these readings balance each other out in a Zen-like way. But most of the time, just like in real life, they exist side by side, sometimes having very little to do with one another other than proximity.

That's why the Bible is so frustrating. That's why the Bible is so wonderful.

The Bible is so human and so divine at the same time. All these things that seem like they couldn't possibly coexist do, just like you and me. And mysteriously, unexpectedly, God is somehow in the midst of it all, somehow making sense of this giant mess we have made. It doesn't fit neatly into our preferred artificial categories.

It's confounding. It's messy. It's real. This is our story.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Different Kind of Greatness- Lectionary readings for July 5

I'm going to try blogging again. I never made the decision to stop, but for about the last two years I've been so stressed and overwhelmed I just never had enough energy to flesh thoughts out enough to post. But now I'm in a new ministry context, part of a great staff team, and I don't have to solve every single problem that comes up!

The Staff-Parish Chair here at Christ UMC (who, incidentally I went to seminary with) asked me what was I "worried about" going from a Lead Pastor role to being on a staff. Nothing really "worries" me per say but the biggest change at the outset is not preaching every single week. So to get back in the swing of blogging, each Monday I'll post thoughts on the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday.

The readings for Sunday, July 5 can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary site.

In 2 Samuel 5, David takes his place as Israel's king after Saul's death, and as verse 10 tells us, "David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him." God's favor and David's greatness seems intertwined. But what did this greatness get him once he was on the throne? He murdered one of his most loyal soldiers to cover up a fling with the soldier's wife, his children fought him and each other constantly, and he died alone and miserable.

Contrast that concept of "greatness" with what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12, and how Jesus' hometown neighbors react to his teaching in Mark 6. Paul keeps asking God to remove his "thorn in the flesh", never elaborating on what it is, but God replies, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul is not impressing anybody on his own. Anything great that comes from him is clearly from God. It may be that Paul is the one who needs that reminder more than anyone else.

The same counter-intuitive definition of "greatness" shows up in this week's gospel reading. Jesus is astounding everyone with his teaching, but the people in his hometown can't get past the fact that he used to play baseball with their little brother, or that Jesus took their cousin to the prom (he brought her home before curfew, of course). In their minds a great rabbi should have his seminary degree from Jerusalem and wear fancy robes. The t-shirt and jeans guy I used to wrestle with on the playground can't possibly be a great teacher.

God's definition of greatness looks a whole lot different than ours. Great things from God come through the means we don't expect. It has to work that way because we human beings are so thick-headed we'll come up with any reason to explain why something happened. "That guy's just really smart." "Wow, what a crazy coincidence. You sure got lucky!" It's easier that way, because if it's all up to us, if our definition of "greatness" really is true, then we have some measure of control.

The scariest thing, perhaps the most faithful thing that we can do when something unexpected happens is not rush to explain it away, but to sit back, look around, and say "huh, maybe God's up to something here..."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Prayer for Those with Mental Illness

I came across a prayer this morning in Laurence Hull Stookey's This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer (a daily prayer guide I'd highly recommend). In light of Robin Williams' tragic death and the resulting conversations around mental illness, I thought this would be appropriate to share today:

You, O God, are the author of peace, 
and in you is neither confusion nor disorder.
In Jesus you showed your compassion 
to all who suffered with troubled spirits.
Therefore look mercifully upon those whose minds are confused, 
to whom this world seems a jumble, 
or who live in a world that does not exist.
In their times of agitation and anguish, calm their spirits.
In their times of clarity, grant them happy memories 
and joy to their present lives.
Give wisdom and gentleness to those who take care of them, 
especially to those who knew them in better times 
and now feel helpless and anguished.
Grant them all the promise that in the end 
you will restore order and peace within your eternal home.
Through Jesus, the Healer

Sunday, May 18, 2014

An Emotionally Exhausting Day (the good kind)

Today was simultaneously a great day and a tough day at Arlington.

This morning at 10am we had five new people join the church. Four of them were baptized, and the other reaffirmed his baptismal vows. Each one of these new brothers and sisters have had negative experiences with church in the past, feeling unwelcome, judged, etc. Each of them said that Arlington was the first place they felt loved and accepted for who they were.

Their new commitments to Christ today are a testament to the love of God made known through the people of our church, who welcomed in people who were taking a big step by even walking into a building with a steeple on top. They showed their love over the weeks and months in ways both big and small, helping these people grow comfortable enough to enter into the communal journey of discipleship. Today was one of those days where the church was living into what God believes we can be, and I am very proud to serve as their pastor.

Today was also tough because tonight was the last service of The Road, at least for a little while. We're taking a summer hiatus, with the goal of returning in the Fall in some form.

The Road was our project almost from day 1 at Arlington. When I was first projected here and had my first meeting with the congregational leaders, they mentioned that they had had energy around an alternative worship gathering for a number of years. I replied that I had had experience birthing such a service at Crievewood, so very early on such a new service became our goal. A team of folks spent the better part of a year studying and visioning what it would look like together, and the first Sunday after Easter in 2012, we launched The Road.

Since then we've had good times and hard times. We've had big crowds and done worship just for the team that makes the service happen every week. Lately it's been more of the latter, which is why we're taking the break for the summer.

Having invested so much of my time, energy, and passion into The Road, it's very hard not to take the reality that the service is not effective in its current format personally. Intellectually I know that's not the case, of course, but my humanness keeps pulling me back into a frame of mind where it's all about me.

As we worshipped tonight, there was a good energy, and yet a strange sense of finality, like it was all over. I'm simultaneously relieved because I'm exhausted and need the break, and yet I'm also very sad because part of me feels like we failed. I know that's not the case, of course. We can tell stories of many people who have been blessed by what God has been doing through The Road, but that's my lesser self creeping in again.

So the great joy of the baptisms this morning and the disappointment of the hiatus beginning this evening sit side by side. Neither cancels the other out (which I suppose is a sign of progress, because my tendency is to let the negative win the day), but the end result is that all my emotional energy is spent, and I'm turning to blogging- a form of expression I haven't utilized much lately-to express it as best I can.

Today is perhaps a microcosm of what the totality of life and ministry are all about. Tomorrow's sabbath rest is sorely needed, then it's back unto the breach once more...

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Shameless Self Promotion- Chuck Knows Church edition

Easter is right around the corner, and our friends at Chuck Knows Church have produced an amazing short film, Resurrection, that would be a great addition to your worship service if it includes video, or just to share with your family, friends, and congregation.

It shows how Christians get so hung up on Jesus' death and forget that the core of our faith is Jesus' Resurrection, and that it brings us joy! WE ARE EASTER PEOPLE!!!

OK, yes, the first and last parts of this film were filmed in my church, and got to I play the pastor (I've never had to stretch more as an actor), but my obvious bias aside, this is pretty darn good.

If you're not familiar with Chuck Knows Church, it's a web series where the main character, Chuck (an actor named Josh Childs who is as friendly as he seems on camera), talks to the camera and explains quirky things we do in church like liturgical colors, different holidays, the funny stuff clergy wear, etc.

Happy Easter, Easter people.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Return of the Roundtable

The Sermon Roundtable is returning.

For four years in Clarksville, every Tuesday night was a time when you could come and discuss the scripture passage(s) we would be reading at Bethlehem UMC the following Sunday. Those that participated ended up being much more engaged in the sermon on Sunday, since they had been part of the preparation process. Those who came on a regular basis really became theologians in their own right, growing in their ability to read the Bible critically in conversation with others who brought very different life experiences to the table.

I wrote an article about this gathering a few years back in Circuit Rider magazine, Collaborative Preaching and Holy Conversation, which you can read on Ministry Matters.

I have wanted to bring this method of collaborative preaching to Arlington, but I could never really find a time to do it with all the other things I did each week. We're starting this now because over the last three years, all the mid-week Bible study formats we've tried have not worked, so we're trying something new outside of the church walls.

Arlington's Sermon Roundtable be meeting on Wednesdays at 6pm at the Starbucks in Nashboro Village (2308 Murfessboro Pike, Nashville).

We'll be discussing the text(s) that we'll be reading at Arlington 10 days later. This week we'll be reading John 20:1-20, which is the Resurrection story in John's gospel that we'll be reading on Easter Sunday, April 20.

There are no rules at this Bible study other than to respect one another. There are no dumb questions, no bad ideas, even if we disagree. This is a fun format where we can explore in a more relaxed environment than we usually experience inside the walls of a church building.

The title "Sermon Roundtable" is taken from the title of a book called The Roundtable Pulpit one of my seminary professors, John McClure, wrote, describing the theory of incorporating multiple voices in proclamation.

For those that may be wondering, I haven't given up blogging altogether. I've had lots of thoughts and feelings in the last few months, I just didn't think that this was the best medium to share them as I am thinking through issues of church, faith, and my own understanding of how God is calling me in ministry.

I'll try to post on a semi-regular basis, but I don't know when or if I'll ever be a regular blogger again.

In the meantime, if you're in Nashville and inclined to engage in some free form spiritual conversation, come join us on Wednesdays at 6pm.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Shameless Self Promotion: Christmas in the UK Edition

Want proof that the internet has made the world a whole lot smaller?

About a month ago, I got a Facebook message from Richard Corrie, the Faith Producer for BBC Radio Cumbria (Cumbria is in Northern England. Yeah, I had to Google it, too), asking if he could use some material I wrote for their Christmas Eve broadcast.

They used some monologues that I wrote for a chapel service a number of years ago at Vanderbilt Divinity School, imagining what it would be like for Mary, Joseph and one of the shepherds, respectively, to tell about their experience of the Nativity story.

I published these monologues on Ministry Matters a couple years ago, along with some thoughts on how churches could produce their own such material, in an article called The Christmas Story in First Person. (The folks at the BBC only used Mary and Joseph. The Shepherd was my personal favorite, but oh well.)

If you're so inclined, you can go to the BBC's website to listen to the Christmas Eve Service from St. Andrew's Church in Penrith. The service is an hour long and the whole thing is worth the listen, but if you just want to hear the monologues, Mary starts at 18:57, and Joseph at 32:50.

I hope everyone had a blessed and peaceful Christmas, however you chose to spend it. Thanks for reading, and as always, any feedback is greatly appreciated.