In a Few More Hours (Part II)

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emptytomb“And behold, a severe earthquake had occured….”

Darkness and stillness reign, but….

In a few more hours….
The first rays of dawn will warm the land,
the sky adding light minute by minute.

In a few more hours….
The first sounds will split the silence
They rise to resonate the world over.

In a few more hours….
The first guards will rub the sleep from their eyes
and encounter a sight no man has seen before.

In a few more hours….
The first angel will descend to earth
and place his holy hands on the cold stone of the tomb.

In a few more hours….
The first footsteps will be heard
from inside the tomb and behind the great stone.

In a few more hours….
The first fruits of a New Creation will bless the Earth
And the glory of the heavens will sing again:

HE

Oh Death where is your victory?

IS 

Oh Grave where is your sting?

RISEN!!!!!

Christ is the King and Victor!

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In A Few More Hours (Part I)

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1cruciSurely this man was the Son of God…..

In a few more hours…..
The Master will seek a place to eat the Passover
He will gather with his closest friends one last time.

In a few more hours….
The King will wash the feet of his subjects
His subjects will not understand.

In a few more hours….
The Rabbi will share a meal
The meal will become an eternal rite.

In a few more hours….
The Teacher will go to the Garden alone
He will suffer alone while his students sleep and snore.

In a few more hours….
The Human One will be betrayed by his friend
All will watch as he is marked with a kiss.

In a few more hours….
The Son will be questioned by those in power
Those in power will not comprehend.

In a few more hours….
The Gentle Healer will be beaten bloody
His body tormented to nearly the point of death.

In a few more hours….
The Lamb will be nailed to a cross
While he forgives those who wield the hammers.

In a few more hours….
Darkness will engulf the land
And the sky will crack with his final words.

IT….

The Christ will die.

IS….

His body will be placed in a tomb.

FINISHED….

The Temple veil will be torn in two.

In a few more hours.

Palm Sunday 2018: “If You Only Knew The Things That Lead To Peace.”

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jersweep“As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, ‘If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.'” Luke 19: 41-42 CEB

As I write this, people all over my country are literally gathered around their television sets and mobile devices watching an adult film star talk about her affair with the man who would become President. One side of our political spectrum sees this as the smoking gun to bring him down. The other side sees absolutely zero issues with the hypocrisy inherent of giving such a man a pass while other politicians have been maligned and exiled for much less.

There is no peace.

A little over a month ago a young man walked into a high school in Florida and slaughtered 17 students. Yesterday millions of students and their supporters marched through the streets of the world, in cities great and small, to protest the fact that weapons of mass killing are easily available to people who would commit these acts. These people are ridiculed by people who feel like the only thing that guarantees peace is their “right” to wield and use such weapons.

Yet there is no peace.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem all those years ago he stopped and wept. He wept because despite the celebrations, despite people acclaiming him as the Son of David, those same people didn’t realize who he really was and what he had come to do. Really the whole thing was lost on them, even on his disciples.

They missed the point. As Pastor and author Brian Zahnd said today via Twitter, they missed the illustration that Jesus was making when he rode into town on a dusty donkey instead of a great warhorse. Even as he hung on the cross 5 days later the people wondered why he didn’t come down and save himself seeing that he had exhibited so much power beforehand.

They thought the basic equation was “power=peace.” It was not true on Palm Sunday, and it was not true on Good Friday either. Even though Christ’s resurrection from the dead vindicated his very different equation, to this day we human beings largely follow the first dictum that power means peace, or as it has been said, “might makes right.”

If we could just get our favorite politicians in power, we could have peace. If we could just get this one law passed we would have peace. If we would just give more people weapons and show them how to use them, we would have peace. If we just win this next war, we’ll have peace.

Politicians don’t mean peace.
Laws don’t mean peace.
Weapons and War certainly don’t guarantee peace.

Now, does that mean that none of these things can ever contribute to peace? No. I don’t think there’s really a sane argument to be made saying that the current administration wants peace. In fact a lot of folks on both sides agree that they really don’t. This administration seems to thrive on mistrust, fear, and dissonance. A different president (of either party) would probably do things very differently. Personally I feel like restricting access to certain kinds of weapons and weapon modifications would reduce the chances of disturbed individuals getting their hands on them, though I know that there are those who vehemently disagree. One can certainly argue that any number of wars have been the right thing to do to preserve or reinstate peace, and some feel like their ability to possess and wield weapons will intimidate others into peace.

Yet none of these things ever produce a lasting peace. We always end up needing different politicians, new laws, more weapons, and at least one more war.

Why? Well I think Solzhenitsyn had a good take on it:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The things that lead to peace seem foreign to us. We all want power. We all want to be right. We all want to be recognized. We all want to win, and there is a streak inside of you, and me, and every one of us that would stop at nothing to make that happen.

That’s why The Way of Jesus seems so antithetical to us. Most of us would rather take a long walk off a short peer than to turn the other cheek, to give of all that we own and are, to love our enemies, or to lay down our lives for others.

We are what matters. Even the best of us at times covet our own power and position. Yet we have the example of Jesus who says the opposite. He says that other people are what matters and he stepped down from the ultimate power and position in the universe to show us the things that lead to peace.

If Christ rode into our country today, would he weep for us?

 

Book Review: “Becoming A Welcoming Church,” by Thom Rainer

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welcomingchurch“Becoming A Welcoming Church,” by Thom S. Rainer. Published 2018 by B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

I was first introduced to Thom Rainer a year or so ago when I stumbled across his blog. The particular entry that I read was about the dreaded “stand and greet” time that seems to be ever present in worship services. As someone who is fairly introverted I look forward to stand and greet time in the same way that other people look forward to root canals. Sometimes I just can’t help but stand around and look awkward. Still, after many, many years of going to church I’ve generally learned to deal with it.  In some ways it’s helped me come out of my shell a little bit. However, to this day, it’s quite uncomfortable for me.

Imagine my surprise when I read that Rainer, who doubles as both pastor and church consultant, said that his research had found that a lot OTHER PEOPLE feel the same way that I do about the stand and greet time! I was not alone! In fact he says that as many as 6 in 10 church members don’t care for the stand and greet, and when he surveys guests and visitors that number goes up to 8 in 10. Wow. So then why do we continue to do something that as many as 60% of our members and 80% of our visitors don’t like?

Now this is a review of the book, not a hit piece on the stand and greet. I just use this as example of the things that Rainer challenges us as church members to think about and reevaluate. Many of us love our churches. Even though we sometimes have relatively minor disagreements (about things like stand and greet) we are generally satisfied with the way things run. In other words, we are comfortable.

Sometimes when we get comfortable we often get blind to things that others notice. Sometimes these things can be pretty obvious to others. A number of these things have to do with our physical facility–the church building. Are the restrooms clean and well stocked? Is the carpet clean? Are there any physical safety hazards? Are there places with peeling and aging paint? Are the pews or chairs covered with stains from spills? Are there piles of clutter sitting around: things like old hymnals or Bibles gathering dust? For most of us that are there every week, we tend to miss those things. They may even seem petty, but with visitors and guests the old saying is true–you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Rainer suggests that many first time visitors decide if they’re going to return or not in the first few minutes.

It’s not all about physical facilities though. Rainer suggests that the attitudes of members also have a big part to play. Part of the premise of the entire book is that church members usually think they are friendly. You can go to any number of church websites and find the proclamation that “we are a FRIENDLY church!” But how does that assertion square up with the perceptions guests have when they actually arrive? Rainer suggests that if we are truly open to asking the hard questions, we might not like what we see. Two of the biggest issues that visitors often have with the stand greet time are that first off, many of the greetings they get do not seem genuine, that the reason people greet them is that they are expected to. Second, it often comes across as a ritual for members only. Again, it can be hard for us to see that. He’s not necessarily saying that we mean to come across as fake or forced, or that we mean to stick with our friends. Naturally we want to see our friends and fellowship, and we don’t necessarily mean to exclude others, but that’s the perception we give off. He talks a lot about what he calls “Holy Huddles.” This is where of  groups two, three, or more members are scattered throughout the facility talking to each other and ignoring visitors. We don’t necessarily see that as bad because we’re with our friends in our community, but Rainer says that if we’re not careful these holy huddles and other issues can make our guests feel as if they’ve crashed a private party to which they weren’t invited.

This book was chuck full of good, practical ideas on these and other issues. He also talks extensively about what your church’s online presence should look like as well as how to create a clean and safe environment for children. Rainer says that churches ignore that at their own peril, as child sex abuse has been the biggest litigation issue for churches in recent years. Many of these issues can be taken care of by having background checks performed on ANYONE in the church who works with children. He tells some real horror stories about this and I think that every church should read them. Making safety and security a priority protects kids and the church and should be one of our number one jobs as followers of Jesus Christ.

I picked this book up because our church is really trying to redefine our welcoming ministry. For the first time in a long time we have a person in our church who’s big focus is on making sure visitors feel welcome. She is then training others to do the same thing. It’s a cool thing to watch! I started this book last Saturday and then really tried to pay attention to guests at our service on Sunday. I found myself actually going up to some visitors and introducing myself–on purpose! Not bad for an introvert! I would really recommend this book to any church member, but specifically to those who are taking part in or starting welcoming ministries.

*I did not receive a review copy or any compensation for this review. This is all me. I really do suggest that you check it out!

Museum or Triage Center?

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Museum1“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30 CEB).

I think that in my entire short and unremarkable preaching career I’ve had two, maybe three, lines or illustrations that have stuck with folks. Honestly, I’m thankful for that. When I get the opportunity to preach, I always pray that God’s message delivered through the imperfect medium of my brain and voice will touch at least one person. A wise man also once told me that every sermon I ever preached needed to point back to Jesus. He told me that 18 years ago and it still sticks with me.

So maybe I have two or three hits. However, there is one that people mention to me more than any other. Last year during one of my sermons I told those who were in attendance, and still awake, that the Church at it’s best is place for broken people. I went on to list several things that people struggle with, and after each one of those I said, “If you’re here and you’re struggling with that, you’re in the right place!” I did my best to paint church as a hospital where people who are hurt, struggling, suffering, in pain, and full of sorrow could come to the feet of the Master and find rest, but not only that, where other people who are part of the body of Christ can reach out to them (and each other) in very real ways to provide grace, love, and mercy. About a month or two ago one of the ladies in the church said that when she heard that sermon her family was church shopping, but when she heard those words she knew that she wanted to stay because she was “in the right place.”

That totally knocked me over that someone who doesn’t even know me all that well would remember that a year plus later. But I’m not mentioning that to give myself a pat on the back. After all, that wasn’t an original idea by me, it was inspired by author Rachel Held Evans and her wonderful book “Searching For Sunday,” which I suggested that the people there that day read. I suggest that you consider reading it too. Anyway, I don’t mention it to prove my preaching prowess, I mention it because I absolutely believe it.

This was brought home to me again yesterday. I was attending a district gathering of United Methodists from Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. We had over 1,000 United Methodists gathered at 15 locations around those 4 states listening to an excellent keystone address by Rev. Christian Peele of the Riverside Church in New York and a sermon plus worship led by our very own Bishop Karen Oliveto. It was the first time I’d had a chance to hear Bishop Oliveto preach, and boy, I’ll tell you what I’m not on the same planet or even in the same universe as she is! She was all at once inspirational, moving, and thought provoking. I know there are a lot of folks out there who think women have no business preaching, but man, you’re missing out!

Bishop Karen asked a couple of very good questions about our churches, and one hit me right in the heart. She asked if our churches were museums or triage centers. I’d ask you to think about that question and how it might apply to your particular church before you read further.

Why would she suggest that some of our churches were more like museums? Well, far be it from me to put words in her mouth, but this is how I thought about it. Have you ever been in one of those old, stuffy museums? You walk in and you immediately notice the stillness of the air. You walk around the place and look at these old, sometimes priceless, artifacts that are encased in glass with big signs that say DO NOT TOUCH. There’s also often some burly security guard types who are hanging out and making sure nothing gets too wild or nobody gets too close.

Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE museums. I’m a history buff. They have their place and are certainly useful in their context. I’ve been in many museums and have been in awe of the fact that I’m standing in the presence of history. Our churches can be like that in some ways as well. I’m a traditionalist as far as worship goes. I love to be able to walk into a quiet church building and feel the presence of God and kneel in awe. It’s special to me, but I don’t think our churches can, nor were they meant to stop there.

What happens if an ordinary person, or someone who might really be hurting, walks into a church that stops there? Everything is quiet. They’re afraid to touch anything or make too big a noise because they might disrupt something. Our beliefs, and often our Gospel, are encased behind glass labeled DO NOT TOUCH. They are there to be revered, but not often are they interacted with. Our churches often have our own “security guard” types too. These are the people who cast the evil eye on someone who has a crying baby, someone who brings a thermos of coffee into the Sanctuary, somebody who comes in not dressed as we would like, or God forbid, a newcomer who sits in the deacon’s favorite pew.

Is that a church that hurting people want to come back to? No, I don’t think so. However, I think a lot of our churches are like that sometimes. My church can be like that sometimes. In his new book, “Becoming a Welcoming Church,” author Thom Rainer suggests that most churches think they are a friendly church, but often when given a chance to give feedback visitors often say that they are not.

Now this isn’t another liberal, hippy, left leaning, progressive hit piece on the Church. I love the Church. I love my Church. We are certainly not perfect. We are the Body of Christ that is composed of human beings with different motives, agendas, thoughts, emotions, styles, and views. Yet isn’t it remarkable that Christ still uses us to do his work in the world?

I want to imagine where Church might go from here. I want to think about the challenges that we face. I want to think about how the Church can bring Christ’s model of amazing grace and unfailing love to a world that so desperately needs it.

That’s where I come back to the church as a hospital, a place for broken people to come and be healed. A place where people can experience what Jesus mentions in the verse above, where they can find rest from their worries and burdens. This is kind of where I think Bishop Karen was coming from when she talked about church as a triage center.

In college I had a professor who worked as a first responder to various disasters. He was there in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the tsunami of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He talked a lot about what triage was like. In addition, one of my favorite subjects to read about is military history. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about World War I. The descriptions of what we would call triage type areas in the immediate vicinity of battles are mind numbing. When I read them I picture a hellscape that I’m not sure how anybody could endure.

What might you see, hear, and smell in a triage area? I have a few friends who are nurses who have painted some pretty vivid pictures. There’s often a lot of injured people (which is why they need triage). Everywhere you look there are people who need help from various types of injuries and other people who are doing their best to help them.

Triage1

Triage areas can be messy, They are noisy. They are bloody. They are chaotic. Sometimes the conditions can be so difficult that even the healers themselves experience trauma.

Why on earth would anyone want to go to a church like that?

I’ll tell you why. Because that’s where the need is. That’s where there is healing to be done. That’s where people come when they are seriously wounded and have nowhere else to go. That’s where the love and grace of Jesus are at their most potent.

I don’t know that I would paint the current state of our world as a mass casualty incident (at least not yet). But people are hurting. People are struggling. Despite all the advances in our modern world we have yet to eradicate the forces that do some of the worst damage to God’s children: hate, anger, vitriol, judgment, and of course FEAR.

In our world today our cell phones, our newscasts, and our social media keep these forces in people’s faces at all times. Various parties and organizations have realized in the the 2010’s one of the most effective ways to get people on your side is to inspire fear. Now that’s not a new tactic, but it’s something that has been honed and refined with our modern communications technology.

People are afraid. People are lost. People are angry. People are weary of existing in a constant state of being “woke.” I also think that people are getting tired of being constantly told that people who don’t agree with them 100% are their enemy. It’s easy to paint life as a battlefield when people are obsessed with “the enemy” being behind every tree or around every corner.

And I think that’s where the church can really shine. If we are open to being authentic, to being vulnerable, to truly loving the same people that Christ loved, and to retiring just a few of our museum pieces, our churches can be that space where people can step away from all that is going on in the world and be healed. Then they can in turn help heal others.

It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be chaotic. We’re not going to win every battle. We’re not going to be able to take everyone’s pain away. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying, from pulling the Gospel of Jesus Christ out from behind the glass case and infusing it back into people’s lives and the life of our world.

Just imagine what we could do!

On a final note I want to talk to people who have gone to a church seeking that healing and that community and have come away wounded even more deeply. I know you’re out there. I’ve been where you are. Fortunately I found a church where yes, we do have some museum tendencies, but where people were ultimately willing to accept me for who I was and experience the love of God anew through them. I would encourage you to keep trying. There are people out there who care for you.

If you’re not in that place where you can do that, that’s ok too. Maybe start here: God loves you more than you could ever imagine and I promise you that there is nothing you can do to change his mind. There is no wound too deep for him to heal. Hold that in your heart and in your head and seek him. If you need help, reach out to someone around you. People care about you. I care about you.

God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Faith Tracks: “Adoration” by Matt Maher

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JesusFaceOnCrossI’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of a lot of contemporary Christian music these days. I’m not saying it’s bad, far from it. It just tends to not be my style. I was a worship leader when I was in college in the late 90s and a lot of the stuff we did was just these “praise choruses” that repeated themselves over and over. It was one thing if there were verses too, but often there weren’t. I know, I know, I heard all the stuff about “well, if it’s just a simple chorus people can just focus on the Spirit moving without having to think about the words.” Problem was, I kind of thought that you should listen to and take seriously the words that leave your lips, but anyway, it’s mostly a stylistic difference.

However, at the same time that I was leading worship at my own Christian Reformed Church, I was also spending time a few blocks over being a cantor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church here in Ogden. I loved every minute of it, and not just because they paid me. I fell in love with liturgy. I fell in love with the ancient traditions of the church. I fell in love with their music as well, which were usually beautifully written songs that would sound at home in either a traditional or a contemporary service, and they often were totally based on scripture, like the hymns I grew up singing and love to this day. I was thrilled when I saw that the United Methodist Hymnal contained several of these songs!

Fast forward to last year. I was listening to “The Message” on SiriusXM and heard a song that our choir had done at church a couple of times. It was “Lord, I Need You,” by Matt Maher. I liked his voice and then a couple of days later I heard another one of his songs, so I decided to check him out on Spotify. I loved it. He has a great voice, his songs have a lot of depth to them, and check this guy out:

mattmaher
I have to get my eyes checked soon, and I was pretty sure I wanted Adam Hamilton glasses, but I don’t know. I think I might go for the Matt Maher specs! Also, my beard is starting to get more gray in it than I’d like, but if I could get it to look like that I’d be set! I’ll never have that much hair again though.

Kidding aside, he’s a great musician and the more I heard, the more I liked. Then the other day I was listening to a new playlist of his stuff on Spotify and heard the little gem “Adoration.” The old cantor in me quickly recognized the tune “Tantum Ergo,” which I sang countless times at St. Joseph’s when they held Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I used to love that. Growing up as an evangelical protestant, I didn’t believe in transubstantiation, the changing of the communion elements into the literal body and blood of Christ, but I definitely believe that Christ is palpably present whenever the Christian rite of Holy Communion (or the Eucharist) is celebrated. Holy Communion is actually one of only two sacraments that we recognize in the United Methodist Church, the other being baptism, but I believe that Christ recognizes whenever his followers remember his sacrifice in bread and wine (or, um, Welch’s grape juice for us Methodists.)

I looked into Matt a little bit and found that he was a practicing Catholic. No wonder I connected to his music! So many of his songs give me the same feeling I used to get when I worshiped with my Catholic brothers and sisters. In “Adoration” Maher takes the beautiful, traditional song used in the rite and infuses it with a modern chorus:

Jesus, Lamb of God
Saving love for all
Lord of heaven and earth
Father’s love for all
I bow to you
Jesus, Lamb of God
Saving love for all
Lord of heaven and earth
I bow to you, bow to you, I bow to you

christvictorIsn’t that the message of Christ distilled into almost it’s purest form? I think it is. My confession is this: That Jesus the Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. His saving love is for all. I will bow to him and gladly submit my life to His love and grace.

“Pour upon us, Lord of mercy
Spirit of thy selfless love
Make of us one true heart yearning
For the glory of thy Son
Jesus, fire of justice blazing
Gladdening light forevermore”

I couldn’t find a good video of Matt performing the song live, but below is the live track version from his album “All the People Said Amen.” Check it out and check out more of Matt’s music on whichever listening platform you prefer. This truly is one of the songs I closely associate with my faith journey.

Ash Wednesday 2018: Lent As a Journey

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Bethany1Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained,  “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12: 3-5 CEB)

Ah, it’s Lent again! Are you giving anything up this year? Most of my coworkers, though not Christians, must know when Lent starts each year because they always ask me what I’m giving up. When they do this they often look at me like some strange, exotic animal who willingly put myself in a cage at the zoo. Its kind of….odd. At first I thought that this might be a good thing because usually after I tell them what I’m giving up, they usually ask me why in the world I would give up, oh, say candy and Coca-Cola, which is basically my life blood. Then I can talk to them about Lent and sacrificing and self examination before we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. It’s a witness moment!

But is it really? Maybe (probably) they just think I’m a weirdo. Now being a weirdo for Christ is perfectly ok. In fact I think I’ll start a new Twitter hashtag #weirdosforChrist. But is it possible that maybe over the last few years I’ve made Lent more about what I’m giving up and tracking my progress than about following Jesus on his journey to the Cross? Have I made Lent into a project?

The idea comes from the book “40 Days of Decrease” by Alicia Chole. It’s a book that challenges the reader to not just give up coffee and chocolate for Lent, but to give up things like complaining or other negative actions or thought processes. On the first day she challenges us to give up Lent as a project.

See, I’m a progress/achievement oriented person. In my job I have goals that I have to track each day, each week, and each month. Looking at the reports and checking off the progress makes my heart so warm that even John Wesley would be jealous (gratuitous Methodist reference). Tracking goals and evaluating performance is a project. According to Chole, we can end up looking at Lent like that too. How long did you make it before you cracked that first Coke open, a week? Did you make it all the way to Easter? How many pounds did you lose in the process? Did you actually manage to finish the devotional book?

I realized that often my Lenten observances are just like that. I get so busy checking off the boxes along the way that I forget where Jesus is in the midst of all of that. I get so busy tracking the physical objective that I lose track of the spiritual journey.

Which brings us to the reading above. Normally we don’t hear about this until Holy Week, but in her book, Chole picked this one for today. I think I see why, at least for me and what God wanted me to take from it.

Chole asks the reader to insert themselves in the story and think about the sights, sounds, and smells that you might experience. So I entered into the story of Mary anointing Jesus at Bethany.

I was reclining with Jesus, the disciples, and Lazarus, there at the table. I smelled the wonderful food that Mary and Martha had prepared and could taste the wine on my lips. I pictured myself taking to Lazarus about what it was like to be dead. I mean, come on, you wouldn’t? Out of the corner of my eye I see Mary enter the room. She walks up to Jesus carrying a huge jar of expensive perfume, which she proceeds to dump on the feet of Jesus. Then she dries his feet off with her….hair.

What in the world?

The scent of the perfume quickly fills the air in the room. I start to cough at the strength of the smell, along with the disciples and Lazarus, Geez, couldn’t she have waited until we were done eating? I guzzle some wine trying to flush the scent from my palate. Finally, the man sitting on my right side bolts up from the table, coughing a bit, and then says in a strident voice, “What is she doing? That stuff was expensive! Do you know much that is worth? We could have sold that and given it to the poor! How could you allow that, Jesus?”

That man is Judas. The scripture says the reason that he’s so upset is really because he wants to pocket some of the money for his own gain, but the disciples didn’t seem to realize that, so in this story, I don’t either.

In fact, I actually find myself kind of taking the side of Judas, which is a bit of a tough thing to admit. Come on, we definitely could have sold that and used it for a better purpose. We could have used the money to give to the poor sure. We could have have used it to further our ministry in any number of ways. I found my thoughts drifting back into my own time. We could have used that for Family Promise. We could have used that to make up the shortfall in the budget. We could have put that into the building fund, we could have bought a year’s worth of Sunday School material or bought supplies for the church community garden. In short, I could plug that money into one of my projects.

I find myself rising to speak and agree with Judas (yuck) but just as I pull myself up, Jesus speaks. It isn’t a scolding. It’s a look of pity on his face and his voice betrays the fact that he knows I still don’t get it. He looks into my eyes, the eyes of the Human One* stabbing into my soul. “Brandon, you will always will have poor people to help. You’ll always need extra money for the Sunday School Program, you will always have things at the church that need to be fixed. You don’t understand what an act of love this is. You don’t understand what’s going to happen on this journey.”

I sit down, baffled, unsure as what to say or even think. What does he mean?

There will always be another project, another goal, and often those goals and projects are perfectly noble, some even give glory to God. But what if I’m so busy keeping track of my projects and my ministry that I forget Jesus, that I forget that my life is a journey of following him and emulating him?

I do that. I do that a lot.

In just a few hours I’ll be attending Ash Wednesday services. Maybe you will be too. I invite you to join me in being fully present in that moment, that moment when the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday branches mark your forehead, and listen to the words that are spoken. Part of what we say at my church is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Take this moment to let the Gospel fill up your heart and mind, then you just might hear the voice of Jesus again saying “Come, follow me. Come with me on this journey. Lay your projects and other cares aside and walk with me. You may not understand where we’re going, but I promise I’ll be with you.”

May God bless us all as we undertake our Lenten journey

*Human One is the Common English Bible’s rendering of Son of Man.

New Year’s Covenant Renewal

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WesCov“As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. Do this because you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn’t. This seed is God’s life-giving and enduring word.” (1 Peter 1: 22-23 CEB)

So has anybody made any resolutions yet? Yesterday at worship my liturgist asked that question to our congregation and my unspoken answer to that was, “No, but hey, I still have a few hours to think on it.” Some of the things I’ve been thinking about might be some of the same things that have been on your mind. I mean, everybody wants to lose weight and become more healthy, right? After all, I turn 40 this year (shh, don’t tell anyone) and I’m starting to get to the point where my body isn’t quite as good at overcoming my mind’s bad habits as it used to be. I could stand to lose ten pounds, or you know, fifty. Anywhere in there would be a start. In 2016 I bought a Fitbit tracker. Much to my dismay, despite the fact that I wear it day in and day out, it hasn’t magically made me lose weight. Imagine that! Funny, I have a gym membership that I pay for every month, but there hasn’t been any magical miracle solutions from that either. Maybe it’s time I try out one of those TV preachers, you know the ones who populate the basic cable channels at about 3 AM, right after that show with the dude who tries to sell you knives and Katanas. Surely if they can conjure up some miracle spring water or a magic green handkerchief that makes people rich, they can help this poor guy lose a few pounds. It’d probably only cost me a few thousand bucks.

What about your spiritual life? Have you made any resolutions there? Maybe you got a new Bible or devotional book for Christmas. Maybe you’re like me and you picked up a shiny, neatly pressed copy of “The Upper Room” yesterday at church figuring that this is the year you’re gonna make it through all six issues. (Mine is currently still sitting in my bag upstairs with the Bible I took to church and yesterday’s worship order. I’m not off to a good start there.)

How often do we manage to keep those resolutions? If you’re like me, and a lot of other folks, not very often. Why is that? I have a couple of thoughts. First, I think our motivation starts to lag as we get back into our normal, daily routines. It’s easy to think about making changes while you’re off work between Christmas and New Years. You look at that brand new calendar. You see all of that “New Year, New You” advertising on TV and at the store. Maybe you did get a new Bible or piece of workout equipment for Christmas. For the first little while, it’s easy to get up everyday and hit the Word or go to the gym. Then maybe you string a few days together and feel pretty good about it. But then, then you head back to the office. Then you have to get back into the swing of getting the kids ready for school. Those everyday things eventually start seeping back into the time you’ve set apart for those resolutions. Then you miss a day, or two, or three, and before you know it, it’s back to the same grind.

Maybe it’s not that. Maybe you’re afraid that people will judge you. After all, social media is full of jokes and memes about people who only come to the gym for the first few weeks of the year. If you’re like me maybe you walk into the a place like that and feel everyone looking at you, and you imagine those exact jokes and thoughts going through their heads, whether they are or not.  Or maybe you were planning on going back to church this year, but when you got there on Christmas or New Years you saw a smarmy sign on the marquee that said “We’re not just open for Christmas and Easter!” Maybe you heard somebody make a snarky comment like, “Well, it’s been nice, I guess we’ll see you at Easter!”

Or maybe the task ahead just seems too daunting. Maybe you feel like you’re lacking in so many areas that you just don’t know where to start. I get that, I really do, and you know what? I’m not sure that we can generally pull off these kinds of life altering transformations on our own.

Which is why I love United Methodism, which focuses so much on personal transformation and the grace needed to accomplish it. For those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, New Years Day is a big deal. It’s on this day, or the first Sunday after, that we are generally called to renew our covenant with God. It isn’t meant to just be a prayer or liturgy that is recited without thinking either. The “United Methodist Book of Worship” recommends thorough preparation for this service including self-examination, study, and prayer.

It is a serious business. Various parts of the service talking about giving ourselves totally over to God, about renouncing our own wisdom and will, about putting our necks under his yoke, and about ordering our whole lives to his direction.

But even this must be intentional. Much like the devotional book won’t read itself or my Fitbit won’t help me to magically lose weight, this service, these words, won’t mean anything unless we continually use them and continually respond to God’s covenant with us.

It’s not always easy either. When you first start to lose weight you often find that the more you work, the pounds come off pretty quickly, but then you hit a plateau. It is the same for our walk with God, we get back into it and we can feel invigorated in those early days, but eventually we hit a plateau. When we hit a plateau in our physical exercise the solution is to keep working with purpose and intent, and I believe the same solution applies to our spiritual “workouts” as well. Sometimes you have to feel the burn before you see the results.

I am going to leave you this evening with the words from John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, which is a big part of the covenant renewal service. My hope for myself and for each one of you in this new year is that we all plug into the power that is Christ and his Spirit, and through intentional effort we will not only enrich our lives but those around us, therefore building His Kingdom as we become obedient to the Truth and love one another deeply and earnestly.

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Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth? (Advent Week 1)

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Joseph1When he came to his hometown, he taught the people in their synagogue. They were surprised and said, “Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us? Where did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13: 54-56 CEB)

For our Adult Sunday School Advent study this year, we’re working through Adam Hamilton’s new book, “Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph.” When we Christians think about the Christmas story, obviously we first think of Jesus. After that we probably think of Mary, especially our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Then we probably think about shepherds, angels, wise men and such, but what about Joseph? Where does he fit into all of this?

Admittedly the New Testament doesn’t give us much to go on at all. There is not a single line of Holy Scripture attributed to Joseph! Luke mentions that Joseph is still around when Jesus is separated from his parents at age 12, staying in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-51), but again it is Mary that asks the young Jesus why he stayed behind and worried his parents half to death.

After that, Joseph pretty much disappears. The Synoptic Gospels all have some version of the scene which I quoted above, though only Luke mentions Joseph by name in this scene (Luke 4) and Mark just says that Jesus is “Mary’s Son” (Mark 6). The Gospel of John mentions Joseph by name in a similar incident in John 6: 41-51. That’s it! Everything else is either church tradition or apocryphal in nature.

What the Bible does tell us is that Joseph was a carpenter. As a skilled worker, it’s likely that Joseph would have had some means. However, as Adam Hamilton points out in his book, the Greek word that is used to refer to Joseph is tekton, not the word architekton which would have designated him as master carpenter or master builder. In all likelihood Joseph was just simple carpenter building things like doors and furniture, not someone in charge of  a large shop or other workers.

Which brings us back to the scripture I quoted above. In this scene Jesus is teaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The people are impressed with his wisdom, but they’re not sure how he came by it. The question is asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Can you hear the slight intended there, the incredulity of the people? “Who is this guy anyway?”

But I want to ask you, can you blame them? I don’t think I can. I kind of thought about what it might be like if somebody that I went to high school with ended up being President. With a very few exceptions, I think I’d probably look on them with same kind of incredulity: “Really? HIM, or HER?” There might even be a hint of jealousy there! At any rate, I would certainly forgive anyone who asked the question “Can anything good come of out of Northridge High in Layton, Utah?”

And that is the same question that is asked about Jesus. It is the question posed in John 1 by Nathanael to Philip when Philip tells him that he has found the one spoken of by the prophets. Philip says that this special man is Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. Nathanael (who is likely the apostle Bartholomew mentioned in the synoptics) asks Philip point blank: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Think of it this way.  If you ruled the universe and formed it with your very words, if you had that kind of power at your disposal, and you decided to come to Earth and walk around in human skin for a bit, how would you go about it? If you wanted to have a quick impact and have everybody notice you, you’d probably want to show up as the child of a king or emperor. Or you’d want to be born to a noble family, maybe even as a relation to a mighty warrior!

Do I think any of you who read this would choose to be born to a teenage girl and her simple carpenter of a husband in a manger, in the middle of some poor animal’s dinner? Nope. Fat chance.

Yet that’s how it happened. Try to wrap your mind around it. The incarnation-God himself becoming human-takes place in an animal stall to two people of no note or significance, to a woman who was shown to be with child before she was properly married.

It still blows my mind to think about it, and to me, that’s what makes the story ring true. I would never have expected it to go down like that.

Then I stop and think about so many Christians in our world today, particularly in the USA. If Jesus were to show up in those kind of circumstances today, would any of us even notice? I doubt it. What if Jesus’ parents looked like this:

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If you can’t picture that happening, then I respectfully ask that you go back and read the Christmas story, because I’m not sure you get it. This is entirely possible, and this would be just as scandalous in our world today as Mary and Joseph were back then, maybe even more so. Heck, I can imagine that if Joseph and Mary (or Jose y Maria) looked like that today, a lot of American Christians would want them run out on the rails. What does that say about us?

Yes, it would be scandalous, but Jesus is scandalous. He showed up in an unexpected way, did unexpected things, and turned society on it’s head, elevating the poor over the rich and the last over the first. As someone on Twitter recently said: “Jesus said it was extremely difficult, near impossible, for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, and the Church has spent the last 2,000 years trying to explain why he didn’t mean it.”

What if he did? What if we’re just as bad at missing God in the poor and humble as people were 2,000 years ago? They missed him then, and I think we are in danger of missing him now.

The first Sunday of Advent, and the candle we light, traditionally represents Hope. You know what else is scandalous? In this day and age when hate abounds, when the night seems as dark as it’s ever been for many of us, the scriptures, our identity story, ask us to place our hope, all of our hope and all of our dreams, in the baby born in that manger 2,000 years ago. We are asked to wait patiently, but to wait ACTIVELY for him to return, and we hope that when he does, he will restore God’s Shalom on Earth as it is heaven. In the meantime, we’re supposed to help make that happen by serving God in the form of the poor, the sick, the diseased, the dying, the orphan, the widow, the homeless, the people without health insurance, the immigrants, and even our enemies.

As scandalous as that might be, it is what I believe, and it is where I place my hope.

In the Carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

Your 2017 Christmas Funnies!

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If you follow the blog you know that every so often I throw in some posts full of funny pictures and memes, because we can’t take ourselves seriously all the time. In fact, I’m pretty sure that God wants us to laugh our butts off on occasion. So here’s some Christmas pics, some religious, some not, from around the interwebs that just might give you a laugh or two as we launch in to December 2017!

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