vision, hymnody, and improbability
Philippians 2:6-11 holds one of the earliest pieces of Christian poetry still within reach, known commonly as the Christ Hymn.
As a musician, I’m partial to this sort of theological presentation because of art’s ability to connect beyond our rational processing. We can talk about faith in any myriad of ways, but the ways that make us feel the significance, that enable us to grasp the tangible truth, those kinds of communication foster inspiration within us.
Take, for instance, the vision of this hymn, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Such a hope seems incredible and yet improbable, practically impossible in our post-Christian world.
But sing this truth in something like the Christ Hymn, and the improbability becomes contextualized within the vision. In other words, of course it seems ridiculous that our sinful, imperfect world might come together in unity within the Kingdom of our Creator. Yet, that the dead might rise after suffering on a cross seems equally improbable. That God might descend from the heavens to become human and redeem humanity seems equally improbable.
Improbability doesn’t stop God from accomplishing the good work in store for all creation. The Christ Hymn doesn’t run from the improbability, but rather names it and places it precisely within the context of God’s vision for the world.
Belief does not mean denying the realities we see, but rather, seeing our reality through the lens of Christ. Art can help us to see the world in this way, to grasp on to God’s improbable vision and embrace the palpable hope that Christ provides for the redemption of this broken world.
This whole blogging project began as part of my Lenten discipline earlier this year, a discipline that also sought to encourage thankfulness through my writing process. I'd tried before to commit to this habit, but I struggled to stay focused.
What changed is that I've taken note that you, the people who happen to be reading this, actually continue to return and consider what I have to say. Whether about Scripture or society or something else entirely, I've been struck by your comments, your encouragements, your challenges, and most of all, yourselves.
So let me say, from the bottom of my heart, that I am deeply thankful for you and your willingness to take time out to read these words. I know there are just about a 5,062,382,123.44 blogs you could visit, so it means a lot to me that you choose to read this one.
So, here's a question few questions for you: Why do you read this? What kinds of content would you like me to focus on? What haven't we explored that you'd like to consider?
Once again, thanks for reading. Bless you.
In prepping for this Sunday's sermon, I read and reread Matthew 20:1-16, often called the Laborers in the Vineyard.
It's a dumbfounding passage.
Dumbfounding because the logic inherent to what the Landowner is doing - paying everyone equal wages for different amounts and sorts of work - appears incredibly inane in our cultural context. More work or more skilled work means more pay.
But that is exactly the point of this parable. Indeed, it appears that God's ways are not our ways especially in this case.
fThe incredible reality about what God is up to hear is that our inclusion in the Kingdom, our award of Christ's Christ, has absolutely nothing to do with what we do. It matters not how much we work, or the quality of the work, but rather that we were chosen as laborers.
And God is a gracious landowner, for in this parable, God invites everyone who wants to work into the fields, even those who came incredibly late in the day. To the landowner, it mattered not when you began your service.
The radical equality of the Gospel is that we are included solely at the behest of God's grace. God's initiative is to welcome us into God's work and to offer us the same reward regardless of the work we've done. That reward is Christ.
But that sort of equality inspires fear in all sorts of people because it means that the privileged will lose their places of precedence, that those with authority will find a level playing field, that those with power will no longer rule.
This sort of equality is not only a gift, but a radical reordering of society. When we receive Christ, we receive Him only because God decided to bless us, and nothing else. That makes us all citizens of the kingdom, coworkers in the Gospel and equals in every conceivable in relation to our standing with God. Different personalities, different gifts, different servants, but equal in our truest identity: Jesus Christ.
Many of us have read the entirety of Scripture. Once. Maybe. I know that I have, but it has been ages. Since then, I've been delving into my favorite parts, as well as those assigned by classes, by the lectionary, or by devotionals with others.
However, since I began my first call as an ordained minister, I have committed to beginning every workday with prayer and reading 3-4 chapters of Scripture.* Regardless of how busy the day might be, or how early the first appointment might be, I begin each day in conversation with God and God's written word.
One of the many blessings about this practice has been a sort of rediscovery of fantastic scriptural stories. I began in Ezra, and have since read through Nehemiah and Esther. I began with these books because I wanted a biblical perspective about what faith looked like in exile, as well as how to rebuild a community within the promise of God.
But within this books lay an incredible about of detail about Judaism and Christianity. Ezra reveals the origins of Samaritans, as well as the age-old tensions between those people and the Jews. Esther holds the origins of the festival of Purim. Nehemiah gives a theological perspective on the reconstruction of Jerusalem's walls, as well as a historian's look into how the gates were restored.
This process has been fascinating because I have begun to see so many similarities between my own faith community and those within the Bible. Even more so, I have come to see how God's faithfulness reigns, even in the most unexpected places. That is a word we need today.
With this in mind, I encourage you all, and especially those church workers not already in this discipline, to join me on the journey of (re)reading the Scriptures in their entirety. You may want to do this from cover to cover. My process will be much more piecemeal, because I know that I love to read the Prophets, Gospels, and Revelation, but I will also need some of this reading I love to spell my reading of Leviticus. That's just my process. You will need to find your own.
Point being, in my first year as a pastor, I want to read the entire Bible apart from my Sunday sermon preparation. This not only ensures my own personal development as a person and as a pastor, but keeps me engaged with God each day, so that my participation in the days events will flow from the fount of every blessing. I pray that you all might find this time for this kind of devotion as well, and find the abundant life within it.
*Thanks to one of my professors, Robert Wallace, for being the most recent in a long line of mentors to encourage this practice as a grounding facet of vibrant ministry.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the professor as David Wallace. That mistake has been corrected.
lifting, snakes, and crosses
So, I've never really understood lifting. Of course, I comprehend that lifting weights helps to tone and build muscles, but I've never been one whose been invigorated by the activity of lifting.
RP, though, is sold out for lifting. This guy, my friend from Columbia, SC, finds an incredible amount of life through lifting. He likes to lift with friends.. From the burn and sweat to the achievement of new personal bests, RP is driven by the act of lifting.
This Sunday, many churches will celebrate Holy Cross Day, or the Festival of the Holy Cross. This commemorates the role of Christ's Cross in God's work of salvation. Yet, the 1st Reading commended by the Revised Common Lectionary is Numbers 21, where people are healed from the poison of snakebites by staring at a bronze serpent Moses made and raised on a staff.
Except that, as many throughout church history have understood, this is a prefiguring of the work of Christ. Just as God healed the Israelite people through a snake raised on a staff in the wilderness of their journey toward the Promised Land, so too God heals all people through a Son raised on a Cross in the wilderness of our sin.
When RP lifts, he finds life through the continual raising of a weight. It strengthens him. Tones him. Invigorates him. But it is his work.
When God lifted Christ on the Cross and then lifted Christ from the tomb, it strengthened us, shaped us for the Kingdom, invigorated us with the life of Christ. The key difference between the gym and the Cross is that our work eventually gives way. The muscles we build will eventually atrophy, even RP's, though not for a very long time with the way he works out. But the lifting that God does, the lifting of the Son on the Cross, is eternally significant. That is a work that does not fade away. The cleansing of our sin is done once for all, a reality forever sealed in the blood of Christ.
So, this Sunday, give thanks for the Cross, because in a world that places infinite demands on you, God lifts up two hands and does it all for us instead.
"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you, so that you may bear fruit - fruit that will last."
This weekend, amongst family and friends, God and the church chose to ordain me for ministry. This was an incredible experience, one for which I am thankful and one I will not forget.
Part of the imprint in my memory is the charge that forgiveness or retention of sins goes hand in hand with the pastoral office. That's a sobering reality, one for which I feel woefully inadequate. It is simultaneously an honor and incredibly overwhelming to receive this commission from God.
Yet, the words of John's Gospel carried through the service. Jesus spoke these words to his disciples the night of his execution at the hands of the Roman empire. Facing the Cross, Jesus reminded the disciples, those who he first gave the apostolic and prophetic ministry of pastoring, that we did not choose Him. Rather, Jesus chooses us.
Of course, this seems entirely absurd. The beginning of Luther's sacristy prayer sums up my feelings about this: "Lord God, you have appointed me as a pastor in your church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago." Why would Christ choose anyone, especially me, to shepherd his church?
I'm not certain, though I am certain that God has chosen us in order to bear fruit in the world. Daily, I know, I am in need of God's help. Scripture and prayer, through people and through all creation, God is at work and inviting me and all other pastors - indeed, all other Christians - to come alongside that work.
We are called to bear fruit, to nourish the world. The pastoral office is one of Word and Sacrament, to help proclaim God's good news, to help nourish with world with God's Body and Blood, and to help renew the world through water and the Holy Spirit.
I'm excited, and terrified, and so thankful for all of you who helped not only to celebrate, but to encourage me in this difficult calling. And so, on my lips today is the end of Luther's prayer: "Use me as Your instrument, but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all."
Psalm 119 is long. Really long. The longest psalm. The longest chapter in the Bible. So, reading it can become a bit daunting.
But like a good meal, when you bite of small chunks and savor the content, Psalm 119 offers some incredible fodder for faith. Consider verses 36 & 37: "Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways."
In our world we see people grasping for life out of a number of areas. In war, we grasp for security by taking the lives of others. At the grocery store, people grasp for the latest health fads. At home, we grasp for stability through entertainment. On the internet, we grasp for meaning through social networks.
In each of these ways, though, it seems like we grasp for life in our ways rather than asking for life in God's way.
The psalmist here gets at the heart of life's conundrum. We all too often equate life with selfish gain rather than the kind of life that the Holy Spirit breathed into our desperate dust. In the psalmist's words, life apart from God's life is vanity, and nothing more.
This is a hard pill to swallow in the U.S. where we still buy the myths of self-made humanity. Our culture tells us to build or buy our own lives rather than to seek the life God has in mind. Rather than being active creatures of our Active Creator, society tells us to become gods of our own domain, to idolize not only money or the American dream, but indeed our very selves.
Now, of course I am not saying work is bad. But the kind of work we do matters, and how we do that work matters as well. Perhaps we ought to spend less time acquiring stuff and more time accepting the gift of God's life. Perhaps we ought to spend less time trying to become someone we're not and instead learn to love in the image of God, that force of life given to us in creation. Perhaps we ought to worry less about our own security, and instead foster a society that seeks peace for all God's creation.
But to do this, we have to give up the idea that we are the ones who know what true life looks like." Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways." We must put this prayer on our lips.
Many years ago, I began to play in the worship band for a church service called New Beginnings. At a local United Methodist church, this represented my first explorations of worship outside of traditional mainline liturgies and theological expressions other than Lutheran (ELCA).
After a long journey where I explored worship expressions in Wesleyan, Brethren, Vineyard, Charismatic, Evangelical, and Orthodox communities, I recommitted to life in the ELCA, and began the ordination process.
Tomorrow comes another new beginning: my first day as the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Radford, VA. This call pulls on my experiences not only with Lutherans but from across the church, largely because Christ is a congregation in search of a new identity, of their own new beginning.
One of my favorite phrases from my days with the Brethren is this: "We are a church, reformed and always reforming." This places us on a trajectory of relying upon the work of Martin Luther but continually seeking to participate in the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in in the present day. Beginning tomorrow, only twelve hours from now, we together will give thanks for our traditions and look toward the new beginnings God has in store for us.
In Revelation 21, John has a vision where Jesus shouts from the throne of heaven, "See! I am making everything new!" This phrase is a bastion of hope for me because, in the midst of change, we may be sure that God is in the business of redemption, of refreshing the stagnant, of reviving the dying, of healing the sick and of rebuilding the broken.
I also take solace in this because this will happen in God's time. John saw a vision of the future rather than a present reality. We are in the midst of transformation, so not everything will be new tomorrow. In the meantime, we are in process. God is in the midst of making us new, and has called us together to be a part of that newness.
I'm excited, anxious, and already a bit overwhelmed, all at the hands of the Maker who makes things new. Thanks be to God.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.