Every Seventh Day a Miracle


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Shabbat 9.30.2017

Some reading for this Saturday. The brown leather journal is our newest addition to our Shabbat practice. Everyone invited to our Friday evening meal is invited to sign it and leave prayers, stories, hi’s and low’s, words of thanksgiving, and or quotes.

It is a beautiful Saturday morning in the fall. Over the past 3 years, my wife and I have begun living into what we have termed #aPastorsShabbat which begins every Friday evening and continues until Saturday evening. What started out as an “etch a sketch” type of practice in our home has begun to take on new shape, color, and brilliance. It has taken me over 20 years of ministry to figure out how in the world, and how in a clergy work week, a pastor can receive the gift of Shabbat.  Once our family began to rediscover this buried treasure in our Jewish/Christian family story, we became newly resolved to make sure we never again shun, ignore or forget the transformation and restoration this gift offers.

breakfast 9.30.2017I am hopeful that I can begin to use this blog as a place to periodically reflect on Shabbat, along with other musings about life and ministry. For today, I wanted to leave a gem from today’s Saturday morning Shabbat reading. It comes from the one book on our ever expanding Shabbat shelf that can never be read too many times:

Every seventh day a miracle comes to pass, the resurrection of a soul, of the soul of [person] and of the soul of all things. A medieval sage declares: The world which was created in six days was a world without a soul. It was on the seventh day that the world was given a soul. This is why it is said: ‘and on the seventh day He rested vayinnafash’ (Exodus 31:17); nefesh means a soul.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath




Incarnation as Charge and Challenge

pregnantGod became flesh. Incarnation – derived from the Latin in caro – to be made flesh. That is the miracle we celebrate at Christmas. Yet we hear the Christmas story so often that we speed right past the scandal of it. Imagine for a moment that you had never heard the story of Jesus. You have lived on an island somewhere your entire life. You have a concept of God that includes things like how God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), omni-present, beyond time, eternal, without beginning or end. You also have a clear understanding of what it means to be human, with all of the accompanying frailty, limitations, and frustrating ups and downs. Now imagine someone comes to you with a rather fantastic and outlandish story. Someone dares to tell you that God, with all that makes God, chose to become flesh with all that comes with a body like yours. Imagine.

older-handsImagine how God would descend to endure a body with the indignity of hiccups and indigestion. God would take on bodies like ours, that so readily disappoint us time and again. Bodies that can gain weight, age quickly, suffer allergies, succumb to infection and disease, quit producing insulin, and suffer any number of dangerous reactions to temperature, trauma, and environment. Bodies like yours and mine – that fumble through life experiencing all kinds of aches, pains, bruises, and wounds. Imagine.

What does this mean? God takes on a body at Christmas. God becomes flesh. God becomes a baby. What does that say about bodies? My body? Your body? Other people’s bodies? Think about it a moment.

wheelchairWhat does this miracle say about

… unborn bodies still in the womb?

… little bodies – children, full of energy and vitality, but who are often shushed, dismissed or ignored?

… incarcerated bodies in our jails and prisons?

… immigrant bodies?

… black bodies? … white bodies? … brown bodies?

… trafficked bodies?

… disabled bodies?

… hungry bodies with little or no food?

… naked bodies without sufficient clothing or shelter from the elements?

… wounded bodies in need of healing and care?

… aged bodies that are failing and in need of assistance and compassion?

God became flesh and dwelt among us. God came in flesh so that God could redeem all flesh. That is the scandal, the miracle, and the great promise of Christmas.

The Christian year revolves around three main events – those three long “tion” words that pop up around Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter – incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But perhaps we should remember that without incarnation, the crucifixion would be a kind of non-event. So what? A man died by execution of the state some 2000 years ago. That is not news. That is certainly not new. Unfortunately, that is a story we have already heard over and over and over again. What makes this one execution different – what makes it so shocking, so amazing, and such a radical moment to transform all other moments is that the man who hung on the cross was not only fully human – he was also fully God. God in flesh. The crucified God.

There is reason in this holy season to sing carols, bring offerings, worship, and celebrate this incredible event that took place in Bethlehem so long ago. Yet, as we journey together this Advent, I invite us to reflect deeply as we peer around the tree, unwrap the presents, drink wassail and eat special treats. Let us not fail to remember the radical miracle that is present in the child born to Mary. And let us never fail to remember the implications that this holy mystery has on our own physical bodies and the bodies of every man, woman, and child in our family, church, community, and world. The incarnation is not just about Jesus, it is also a challenge and a charge to every single one of us who would come to adore and worship this child born of Mary. Our charge? Our challenge? To welcome, to embrace, to stand with, to advocate for, and to defend with our lives and our bodies the dignity of every single beloved treasure that God has so generously and miraculously placed in these – our bodies – these very earthly, fragile, yet magnificent and beautiful “clay pots.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

I leave you with this poem on the incarnation by Luci Shaw, titled “Descent:”

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.
And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.

From Summer Malaise to Missional Motivation!

dog days 1

from malaise …

Malaise – a condition of general bodily weakness or discomfort; a vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness and lethargy.

Something happens to many of us in the dead heat of summer. We sometimes call this season the “dog days of summer” or the “summer malaise.” We slow down. We try our best to stay cool, near water, under shade, or tucked inside rooms with well-conditioned air. It is hard to think, hard to focus, and hard to move and stay motivated. Churches experiences similar things. Summer attendance in worship wanes while people travel and engage in other summer activities. Ministries continue but with irregular schedules and often less energy and excitement. How might the church turn some of this summer malaise into motivation? Taking some insights from others in the business world, here are a few suggestions (thanks, Chris Myers):

Revisit Expectations and Goals

This year we have set some big ones at FUMC Graham. The first is our “Removing Barriers Campaign.” We are currently in the middle of one of the biggest renovations of our church in decades, seeking to make our ministry facility more welcoming, accessible, and modern. A final push to complete the first stages of this project is coming soon, including some exciting news about how to meet some of the financial contingencies that have arisen. Stay tuned for more! Secondly, our goal of revamping our website, streaming our services, and reaching more people in the larger community for Christ remains our central vision and mission. This fall, stay tuned for new ways to connect through small groups, bible studies, LIFE groups, and even a possible off campus gathering for unchurched seekers.

Stay Focused on the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff

Focus. That is the key word. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ through love and service. Our vision for how to do that in Alamance County is by becoming a loving and diverse community meeting the real needs of our neighbors through spirit-filled worship, inter-generational discipleship, and caring service. It is not complicated, but we can and do get distracted. The public square and our national discourse has become shrill and divisive. Violence, terror and fear continue to threaten our lives and, more importantly, our higher ideals of love, forgiveness, and unity. The world has never needed the Church more – called as we are to witness to a different way of being, loving and serving. Now is a time to stay focused on our calling, our purpose, and our Lord.

Staying focused and keeping our eyes on the larger mission and Gospel goals of God’s kingdom also requires a third thing …

strength to muscle through.

... to missional motivation!

… to missional motivation!

Fortunately, our strength comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. Hear these wise words from Proverbs 4:20-27: “My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them escape from y our sight; keep them within your heart … Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. Do this and you will thrive. Do this, and you may also turn summer malaise into missional motivation!

Harsh Words (sermon 3 on Job)

Remembering the Context

job friendsThis sermon is the third in our series on Job – Weathering the Storm. First – lets recap a bit. Do any of you remember the scene in Job chapter one and two? The action is fast, furious, and unrelenting:

  • First messenger comes – Sabeans have attacked Job’s field hands who were watching the oxen (500) and donkeys (500) … they killed the servants and stole the livestock. While that messenger was still talking …
  • Second messenger – a bolt of lightning, fire from heaven, stuck Job’s sheep (7,000) and all the servants watching them. All are reported dead. While that messenger was still speaking …
  • Third messenger – Chaldeans set up 3 companies and raided Job’s camels (3,000) and killed the field hands. While that messenger was still speaking …
  • Fourth messenger – Job’s 7 sons and 3 daughters were in the home of his eldest son eating. Strong wind hit the house and it collapsed. All dead. While Job is still processing all this news …
  • His body is struck all over with severe sores and he is reduced to scraping himself with shards of pottery.

Place yourself for a moment in Job’s shoes. Who in the world can weather that kind of a storm?

Bible Thumping in Job

To add insult to multiple injuries, the three friends show up – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and after sitting shiva with him for 7 days and nights, they proceed to do a little Bible thumping. Anyone heard that expression before? It has been described as the act of aggressively and relentlessly promoting your understanding of Christian faith and practice to convince someone to believe and think the way you do on the matter. Listen to how one friend warms up for his version of Bible thumping: “If you were truly wise, would you sound so much like a windbag, belching hot air … I’ve a thing or two to tell you, so listen up! I’m letting you in on my views …” (Eliphaz in Job 15, the Msg) After all this windy, judgmental, and unhelpful talk from Job’s friends, it is Job’s turn to respond, and what comes out of his mouth might surprise you.

Praying with Raw Emotion

Hear again Job’s harsh and anguished prayer:

God has surely worn me out … his anger tears me and afflicts me; he slashes at me with his teeth … I was at rest, but he shattered me, seized me by the back of the neck, dashed me into pieces; he raised me up for his target. His archers surround me; he cuts my kidneys open without pity and doesn’t care, pours my gall on the ground, burst me open over and over, runs against me like a strong man. I’ve sewed rough cloth over my skin and buried my dignity in the dust. My face is red from crying, and dark gloom hangs on my eyelids. But there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure. (Job 16)

Harsh words. Lets put aside for a moment the notion of Job’s incredible “patience.” Lets talk about how angry he was. How frustrated. How anguished. How much in pain he was. Words cannot describe the depths of his anguish, but he gave it a good try … and when the words came, WOW … they came, pouring forth in waves of utter agony.

crucifixionEver thought about praying like this before? This is an example of one type of prayer taken straight from Scripture. And if you are ever afraid to pray like Job, might you consider praying like Jesus? Yes, Jesus taught his disciples the “Our Father” prayer in Matthew, but he also taught us to pray in the way he lived and died. Listen to how Jesus prays in the moments before he takes his last breath – with raw emotion from the depths of his suffering: “From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 46 At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:45-46 – Jesus’ words were the first line of Psalm 22, one of many psalms of lament in the Bible’s prayer book)

One thing we all need to learn from Job and from Jesus is that we need our prayers to get more honest. Fortunately, we have a long tradition of prayers that are offered up in the midst of suffering, trial, and despair. They are called prayers of lament. You can find them in the book of Lamentations and in the Psalms. They are prayers that express a cry of need in a context of crisis. They are prayers that appeal for divine help in moments of great distress. They are raw. They are real. They are honest. If you want a real relationship with someone, it has to be a relationship based on authenticity, honesty, and love. Should that be any less true of our relationship with God? Job, among other things, wants to teach the church how to lament again.

Learning to Lament

The best way to learn how to lament is to just do it, so lets give it a try. Some can’t bring themselves to say the words they feel. That is OK. When in doubt, just start by praying Scripture. Let saints and sinners who have gone before us give voice to the things we fear to name:

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
3 Look at me!
Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
5 But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
6 Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)

There you have it. A Prayer? Yes. Heresy? No. Harsh words? Absolutely. Biblical words? Certainly. But notice something else about most lament prayers. They start with where we are in the midst of suffering, but they almost always begin to turn just a little near the end. They begin to point us toward something better … something beyond … something on the other side of our pain and despair. That something has a name in our Christian faith. It is called HOPE.

Christian “Get-Back-Upedness”

get back upDr. Kavin Rowe at Duke Divinity School has written and taught on the subject of resiliency. In a recent post, he recalls experiencing the song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba on a trip to Europe. The song, which went on to become an international hit, had one simple phrase that everyone seemed to know. The refrain keeps people all over the world coming back for more: I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never going to keep me down! … Getting knocked down is as basic as being human — life just does this to us — and so is the desire to get back up. The legend of the phoenix, for example, is a story about resilience: when the phoenix dies, it is reborn out of its own ashes. All human beings are knocked down, and all long to get back up.”

Resiliency is the ability to get back up again … and again … and again … and again. Again, as Kavin puts it: “Resilience isn’t, however, the typical quality we ascribe to leaders. We think instead of charisma, intellectual prowess, rhetorical skill, political savvy, financial success or something along these lines. Christ shaped leadership is resilient leadership … and it is grounded hope in God’s permanent faithfulness. It is not inner strength or self-confidence.” NO. When we get knocked down, even to the point of death … we still hope in the one who conquered sin, death, and the grave. Resilience is not toughness … is the response of hope. Kill hope and resilience will die with it. Kavin goes on to suggest three recalibrations that are needed to help cultivate resiliency among Christian leaders and followers of Jesus Christ:

  • First, we need to acknowledge that profound difficulty is a part of life. Contrary to popular opinion, we not entitled to a good life.
  • Second: establish sites of hopefulness in the midst of despair (like here in worship, like AA meetings, Life Groups, and spiritual friendships fostered in Christian community)
  • Third: Resiliency is best learned in community – it is not a matter for us to tackle alone as individuals.

Kavin’s insights go a long way towards grounding believers in what I might call the Christian “get-back-upedness” of our faith. We get back up again as followers of Jesus, not because of our resolve or strength, but because of our hope and trust in God’s faithfulness, even when we are surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

One song I have used over the past 20 years of my volunteer work in jails and prisons is an old Gospel song titled Victory is Mine. I close with it today, but share it with you because of where I have experienced this song’s power the most – in prison. In other words, in circumstances that have a lot of evidence contrary to hopefulness. Every time I sing the refrain, I imagine the many inmates who have become friends and brothers in Christ. I have witnessed how this song and our worship together creates a space for hope to endure in the midst of alienation, self-doubt, unanswered calls from family and friends, and fear about never being physically free again in this life. Even when one is surrounded by nothing but concrete walls, electronic doors, and nothing but time that could be used to wallow in self-pity, space can be created for Christian hope to flicker, burn, and shine in the darkness.

Victory is mine, victory is mine, victory today is mine

I told satan, get thee behind,

Victory today is mine.

Joy is mine … Peace is mine …

Hope is mine, hope is mine, hope today is mine.

I told satan, get thee behind,

Hope today is mine.