Transitions: From Philly to Auburn

This post has been long overdue for at least two months. I’ve avoided it because I wasn’t quite sure how to say what I wanted to say… and I still don’t. On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: Cassie, Isla, and I will be moving to Auburn, AL, this Friday, August 1st where I’ll soon begin working as Alabama Rural Ministry’s Director of Ministry Operations.

We’re so excited to be moving back to AL – to AUBURN – and I, personally, am beyond excited to be working with ARM – a ministry that has had such a big impact on my life and sense of calling thus far. For those of you who may not know, ARM extends the love of Christ in order to end sub-standard housing in rural Alabama through home repair and children’s ministries. I served on ARM’s summer staff as a construction site coordinator in Sumter Count back in 2005. While my new role will have me at ARM’s main office in Opelika, AL, I’ll also have plenty of opportunity to seek God’s kingdom back home in Sumter County. It’ll be challenging work for me in a number of ways but I’m so grateful to Lisa Pierce, ARM’s founder and executive director, for her vision and the opportunity to work alongside her.

We’re also excited to be back down south, close to our families, and a bit further from the “big city” 😉 On the other hand, it’s just not that simple.

I guess you could say we’re “moving back home” since we’ll be moving from PA back to AL (Cassie is from TN but… close enough). But saying that might imply that we’re not at home here, in Wynnewood/Ardmore, PA… and that would be wrong. We are home here. We didn’t expect it, but it happened. All we can say in hindsight is that God is so good.

We’ll be saying goodbye to so many people and places we’ve come to love: Six:Eight Community Church, our community group, all our friends at Linwood Park, our awesome neighbors, our friends from seminary, our co-workers… Leaving Wynnewood/Ardmore will not be easy at all.

All our excitement for what’s next can’t cover up the feelings of loss and grief that come from letting go of our life here in PA. We cannot thank God enough for all the people who have welcomed us into their lives. We southerners talk a big talk about hospitality, but I now know that hospitality doesn’t end when you cross the Mason-Dixon line. Cassie and I have been given such a gift in the friendships we’ve made here. In some mysterious way, we know that all those people, those relationships, will go with us as we move. We’re just not the same people as we were when we moved here 3 years ago. We’ve been changed by the people and the place we’ve come to know; and we can’t escape that – nor would we want to.

In a very real, yet mysterious way, I think Cassie and I have had an authentic experience, a foretaste, of God’s coming kingdom during our time here in Wynnewood/Ardmore – several experiences actually. Some have been at church, others at our community group, and still others at Linwood Park. God’s kingdom has been made real and tangible for us… and I’m in awe as I reflect back on its goodness.

So, transitions… we’re on the move once again, following the Spirit as little children who Jesus said would be the ones who welcome and enter the abundant life of God’s new creation. We hope to stay put for awhile in the Auburn/Opelika/Lee-Macon county area. We hope to be able to plant ourselves in a community in the way our church has planted itself in Ardmore/Wynnewood. We walk by faith – not by sight.

What can we say? Thank God and thank you – all of you.

And now, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Amen.

Genesis 40: Don’t Forget – You’re Not Forgotten

Slide1

[My sermon this morning at 6:8 Community Church continuing the story of Joseph. My thoughts on being forgotten, God’s hesed, and remembering others.]

We’re forgetful people: our keys, wallets, purses, phones (and wedding rings if you’re my wife). We forget all kinds of things. But the worst is when we forget another person… kind of like this: [show Home Alone “Kevin’s Not Here” clip].

Slide2

I used to think that clip was ridiculous. How could you forget your son?!?! After 8 months of Isla, I totally understand how it could happen. My memory gets worse every day. For Kevin, being forgotten turned out ok. He even enjoyed being alone. And, sure, he had to face some challenges but he made it. Of course, we know it’s a movie, and a comedy at that.

Slide3Reality is far less humorous. Being forgotten is a deadening experience – emotionally, spiritually, even physically. When we’re forgotten by those we know and love, we begin to lose our sense of belonging and purpose and, eventually, hope. When I forget someone, it means that, in some way, there wasn’t space for that person in my life. This happens to all of us in all kinds of way. We’re forgotten by our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even our church.

Slide4But we find ourselves on the flip side too; we often forget those we know and love. And then once we consider those outside our everyday social networks, our memory problems only get worse. Do we remember the poor? The hungry, the homeless, the widows and orphans – the prisoners, the immigrants and refugees, those caught in violent conflict or abusive situations? What about the elderly, the home-bound, the sick, and the intellectually and physically disabled? Or even single parents, the long-term unemployed, or those caught in depression? Remembering those who live in these kinds of difficult, painful, and sometimes even oppressive situations can be especially hard. It feels easier to forget. Even if that person is us; sometimes we’d rather even forget about ourselves. What does it mean for us to remember when remembering is so hard?

I’ve met a handful of people who are all too easy for me to forget. I want to tell you about one of them. About 7 years ago on a mission trip to Liberia, West Africa, I met a shy little girl on a beach. I noticed her staring blankly at us white folks, watching in the distance as we played joyfully with other Liberian kids. I could tell she wanted to play too so I stopped to talk with her. I found out that, like many in Liberia’s capital city, she was a fisherman and was out selling her catch; probably 8 or 9 years old. It’s hard to stop and play when you know what not selling those fish could mean for you and your family. She told me her name… but I forgot.

Slide5I conveniently forget about this little girl because her life holds up a mirror to my own. In it I see God’s unquenchable desire for justice, righteousness, and comprehensive peace for all people. I see my complicity in sinful social structures that desecrate her life and deny the abundant life that Jesus desires for her. I see that she is my neighbor and, whether I realize it or not, I need her just as much as she needs me. My story is incomplete without hers. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”

Slide6When I forget that little girl’s story, I forget myself. Whenever we forget about others – rich or poor, strangers or loved ones – we all end up a little more forgotten, a little more lost, a little more alone, a little farther from God’s dream of justice lived out in diverse communities. No one should be forgotten. But we’re sinful people, wounded people: we all forget and, in differing ways, we’re all forgotten.

So let’s take a few minutes to remember Joseph’s story. At this point, Joseph reminds me of the lyrics of that Chumbawamba song circa 1997: “I get knocked down! But I get up again!”

Slide7He’s a natural born leader who gets sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers. But he gets back up and becomes the head of Potiphar’s household! He gets knocked down again when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of raping her and he gets thrown into prison. But he gets back up: he’s appointed as the head prisoner. Joseph seems to keep landing on his feet… for now. Follow along as I read from Genesis 40 about what happens next to Joseph in the prison:

Some time later, both the wine steward and the baker for Egypt’s king offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officers… [and] put them under arrest with the commander of the royal guard in the same jail where Joseph was imprisoned. The commander of the royal guard assigned Joseph to assist them. After they had been under arrest for some time, both of them… had dreams one night, and each man’s dream had its own meaning. When Joseph met them in the morning, he saw that they were upset. He asked [them], “Why do you look so distressed today?”

They answered, “We’ve both had dreams, but there’s no one to interpret them.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Describe your dreams to me.”

The chief wine steward described his dream to Joseph: “In my dream there was a vine right in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. When it budded, its blossoms appeared, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, so I took the grapes, crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

Joseph said to him, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and return you to your position. You will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just the way things were before when you were his wine steward. But please, remember me when you are doing well and be loyal to me. Put in a good word for me to Pharaoh, so he sets me free from this prison. I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here too I’ve done nothing to be thrown into this dungeon.”

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “It was the same for me. In my dream, there were three baskets of white bread on my head. In the basket on top there were baked goods for Pharaoh’s food, but birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

Joseph responded, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three baskets are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and will hang you from a tree where birds will peck your flesh from you.”

The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a party for all of his servants. Before all of his servants, he gave an audience to the chief wine steward and the chief baker. He returned the chief wine steward to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had said would happen when he interpreted their dreams for them. But the chief wine steward didn’t remember Joseph; he forgot all about him.

Joseph doesn’t land on his feet this time; he’s face first. How do we know?

Slide15First, we notice the repetition of the word “dream.” It appears 65 times in the Old Testament. 22 of those are in Joseph’s story and 10 are in this chapter! Ten repetitions in the same story mean that dreams are a big deal! Up until this point in the story, dreams have been dangerous. Remember what happened when Joseph told his family about his dreams? His brothers wanted to kill him! His dreams have gotten him into this mess. When we hear “dreams” 10 times in Genesis 40, all our warning lights should be flashing red. We know what happened last time. Trouble is coming.

Slide16Second, we hear Joseph’s desperation as he pleads for help from the wine steward and laments his situation. He’s been stolen, kidnapped – a victim of human trafficking, a slave with no rights. And he’s a Hebrew in the land of Egypt – a foreigner, a stranger, one who doesn’t belong.

Slide17And one who’s easily forgotten. Joseph begs the wine steward to remember him, to be loyal to him. But when the wine steward is restored to his position in pharaoh’s court – just as Joseph said – he forgets to tell pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph gets knocked down, and he’ll spend two more years in prison before he gets up again.

Slide18The wine steward forgets. Joseph is desperate and forgotten. What’s God doing in all of this? At first glance, nothing! Joseph mentions God but we don’t hear God’s voice. But God is present and working for Joseph’s well-being. We can see it in v. 8 as Joseph boldly declares that interpretations belong to God.

Slide19Then Joseph takes a risk on this truth by offering himself as God’s dream interpreter. And guess what? God is faithful. Joseph’s interpretations are right on the money. This proves the intimacy of Joseph’s relationship with God. It also gives Joseph a reputation as an expert dream interpreter with a person who is very close to pharaoh.

What’s God doing? God’s remembering Joseph. In Genesis 39:20-21, just a few verses before our story in Genesis 40, right after Joseph is thrown into prison, we read that “the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him” in prison. God’s loyal, steadfast presence enabled Joseph to be in a position of caretaker where he was given this opportunity to interpret dreams. God is loyal once again by giving Joseph these interpretations. God has not forgotten Joseph.

But Joseph is still rotting in prison! What gives God?! Joseph is doing everything right, but nothing changes. And all because the dang wine steward has a bad memory? Gimme a break God! Haven’t You forgotten Joseph too?

Slide20Let’s slow down. Remember when Joseph pleads for the wine steward’s help? He uses a very important word. Joseph begs the wine steward to “be loyal to me.” It’s the Hebrew word hesed. And, it’s the same word that appeared in Genesis 39:21, the verse we just read, to describe God’s “loyalty” to Joseph. God shows Joseph hesed in the prison and now Joseph asks the wine steward to shown him hesed. Why am I telling you this? Because this word hesed is the key to understanding how God is at work in Joseph’s life and in our own.

Slide21Let’s zoom out for just a bit to talk about hesed. It’s translated in a number of ways in the Old Testament: “mercy,” “kindness,” “steadfast love,” “goodness,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” Basically, it’s God’s unrelenting love for God’s people which brings them back into right relationship. It’s the love that keeps God pursuing after us even as we continually reject God and run the other way. God is not distant from us – God created us because of God’s overflowing hesed for us; God continues to be with us because God is full of hesedfor us!1Hesed is God standing in solidarity with us through all our sin and suffering, refusing to leave us, always pursuing us, and always making a way for us to return home to God’s love. Hesed means that God NEVER forgets us.

So, let’s zoom back in to Joseph. God has shown Joseph hesed by empowering him to interpret dreams. In doing so, Joseph is given a potential way out of prison. BUT… Joseph can’t go anywhere unless the wine steward reciprocates God’s hesed. Without the wine steward’s willingness to identify himself with a Hebrew slave in front of the king of Egypt, Joseph is stuck. God remembers, but the wine steward forgets. God shows hesed; but the wine steward refuses to stand with Joseph. This leads us to hesed’s second dimension.

Slide22It’s not just about God’s relationship with us: it describes the way God intends our relationships to be with others – faithful love, mercy, kindness, solidary. It’s the heart of our community. God’s hesed for us empowers us and is made complete when we reciprocate it through our hesed for others. We see this dimension in none other than Micah 6:8, “[God] has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”2Do you hear it: “embrace faithful love” or “love mercy”? That’s hesed. It’s inseparable from doing justice and walking humbly with God and others. As God stands with us and for us, we are called to be partners in God’s hesed and to stand with and for others as a community that tangibly, visibly embodies and enacts God’s hesed.

Slide23Now we can answer the question: if God doesn’t forget Joseph, why is he still locked in prison? Because the wine steward didn’t share in God’s hesed. He therefore failed to bring God’s desire for Joseph’s freedom and justice to fruition. The wine steward could’ve participated in God’s hesed by standing with Joseph and giving him an audience with pharaoh. But he forgot. God is full of hesed for Joseph but this hesed must be extended and shared in a mutual relationship between Joseph and the wine steward. It’s incomplete because it’s unreciprocated.

Slide24As we turn now from Joseph’s story back to our own, I want to be sensitive to the fact that some of us here this morning may feel a lot like Joseph: desperate and forgotten. Even if no one here feels that way, we know that our world today is full people who do. We actually don’t even have to think outside our own city limits to find desperate, forgotten people. Others of us may be more like the wine steward. Life is no piece of cake, but we probably wouldn’t describe ourselves as forgotten. And we may even admit how we struggle to remember others. In reality, I think we’re all a mix of both Joseph and the wine steward – both forgotten and forgetting others.

Slide25What is God saying to us today? First and foremost, we are not forgotten; you are not forgotten. No matter what kind of prison our lives have become – nothing separates us from the faithful love of God. Does this mean that the doors to our prisons will suddenly swing open? I don’t think so. What I think it does mean is the same thing it meant for Joseph: God’s hesed is providing a way out for us but we have a role to play too. Like Joseph, we need faith to take a risk on who we know God to be. Joseph knew God as the giver of dream interpretations and he took a concrete step of faith based on that truth. Who is God to you today? Is there a step of faith you can take with God?

But notice also that Joseph would’ve never been in a position to interpret those dreams had he not cared for the wine steward and baker first. He noticed they were upset and asked what was wrong. Could it be that the way out of our prison actually begins with caring for others? How might God be empowering you to care for someone else? Maybe the healing for our forgotteness begins when we remember others?

In any case, what we trust and believe is that God’s hesed– God’s faithful, steadfast remembrance of us – always come first and isn’t dependent on our actions. It’s a gift of grace: God has not forgotten you.

Slide26For the wine stewards, what does it mean for us to remember others, especially those we find it convenient to forget? When the wine steward is restored to his position of authority in pharaoh’s court, he’s given the opportunity to influence pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world. At this point, we might think that Joseph needs the wine steward to be his “voice” before pharaoh. You know a “voice for the voiceless.” We hear that a lot when discussing how to help forgotten people living in desperate situations. But that’s not it. Joseph has a voice! The man interprets dreams! He’s not voiceless. Let him speak for himself! The wine steward didn’t need to be Joseph’s voice. He needed to use his own voice to get Joseph an audience with the pharaoh. See the difference? Why stand in someone else’s place when they can stand for themselves?! Open the door for them and stand beside them! Don’t be their voice… be their audience!

This is what it means for us to remember others: we make space for them beside us. We become an audience, ones who listen, a people who show hospitality, whose hearts are open to the pain and suffering of others, and share that burden with them. This morning, you might just be a “wine steward” to someone else. You may be the person positioned to partner with God’s hesed to bring someone else one step closer to the redemption, healing, and wholeness God desires for them. Who are we forgetting? Who in our lives needs an audience? Who is God calling us to remember?

I want to end by saying that we, as a church, are already doing this. We remember and partner in God’s hesed every time we collect items for the Ardmore Food Pantry as part of our communion celebration. We remember as we serve with organizations like Chore Connection who put us in relationship with the elderly and home-bound, people like our friend Owen. With each game of bingo at PALM and every day of work with Six:Eight Cares, we remember. Every time we gather with our neighbors at Linwood Park, who knows – maybe we’re listening to a Joseph who feels desperate and forgotten? When we take the opportunity to remember, we make space for the kingdom of God to break in; for God’s hesed to be made tangible and visible.

Slide27These intentional practices of remembrance over the past five years have rooted us in this community. We’re tied to this place by the bonds of hesed. Through our roots of remembrance here in Ardmore, God is now preparing a way for us to link ourselves with communities on the other side of the globe. As Jason mentioned this morning, we’re now exploring a partnership with Vineyard churches and ministries in Indonesia – a place that we probably don’t remember very often. It’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, plagued by political and social upheaval, struggling against various forms of poverty; a place where Christian communities face real suffering for their faith. Part of the work we’re being invited into is to listen, to be an audience, to stand with our Christian sisters and brothers, remembering them with arms linked together for the journey into God’s global kingdom.

Even though we forget each other, the God of Joseph has not forgotten us! We’re invited as a faith community to be partners in God’s faithful, saving love, to stand in solidarity with one another and all those who are forgotten so that all people – in Wynnewood, Ardmore, Havertown, and Indonesia! – would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are remembered, that they belong, and that God loves them more than they can know. So now may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

1 See Psalm 136, Exo. 34:6, and Jer. 9:24 for examples of the centrality of hesed in Old Testament theology.

2 See also Hosea 6:6 and Ruth 1:16-17.

Lent, Fasting, and Learning Our Limits

This post originally appeared on the 6:8 Community Church blog. Click to read the original.

In just 2 short weeks, billions of Christians around the world – mostly those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but some Protestants too – will be on the cusp of beginning their yearly 40 day pilgrimage with Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and, ultimately, to the cross. You probably know this 40 day season as Lent. It is a season of prayer and fasting in preparation for the greatest celebration of the year (no, not Christmas)…Easter.

We’ve probably all had different experiences with Lent in the past. Growing up as a pretty strict Baptist kid, I had never heard of Lent until I went to college and got involved in the United Methodist campus ministry. Maybe you know about it through Catholic or Orthodox friends or from those in more liturgical faith traditions – Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others. You’ve probably heard that you’re supposed to “give something up” for Lent. More or less, that is true, but there is so much more to know. The notion of “giving something up” refers to the ancient Christian and Jewish practice of fasting and it has held a very special place in the church since our very inception.

In the Jewish world, fasting had 2 purposes: expressing repentance for personal/national sins and inward preparation for receiving God’s grace in order to be faithful in completing a specific mission for God. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness just after he was baptized in order to prepare for his 3 years of ministry, which would end in the crucifixion and resurrection. If you recall, Jesus was tempted by Satan while he fasted in the wilderness. Do you remember the first temptation?

Satan knew Jesus was hungry, so he commanded him to turn the stones into bread. Jesus refused and quoted a phrase from the end of Deuteronomy 8:3, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This verse was apparently on Jesus’ mind while he was fasting and we’d do well to pay attention and see what we can learn from it.

Notice the references to hunger and food as the verse begins. Traditionally, fasting has been associated with abstaining from eating. Some fast during the day, or only during one meal, or only certain types of food, and in several other ways. Why food? Because it’s a basic necessity of life. When we choose to go without a basic necessity like food, we are humbled. We come face to face with our limits as human beings.

Think back to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God gives them all the fruit of the garden to eat except for one fruit; God gave these humans one limit. Of course, we know what happened. Adam and Eve refused the limit God had given them. They had plenty of food to eat; it would be difficult to believe that this one limit on their choices represented any kind of hardship to their diet. They were not going to go hungry because they couldn’t eat from one tree. So, why did they do it?

They didn’t want life with limits. They didn’t just want some of the fruit of the garden – they wanted it all. Again we can ask, why? I think it has something to do with dependence. Look back to the end of Deuteronomy 8:3. Limits teach us that we are dependent – absolutely dependent – on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Fasting is about returning to and honoring our God-given limits, which is a way of returning to and honoring our dependence on God as the Source and Creator of our lives. Just like Adam and Eve, we refuse to live within limits. We want it all. Our lives are driven by compulsions to control, to succeed, to be free from others, to enjoy pleasure, and to fight for our own security.

Fasting is not so much a season of joyless, gloomy faces – Jesus actually taught against this sort of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.  Fasting is about returning to life the way God intended it to be. Is it challenging? Of course! We are sinful people and we like the way we do things! We are created to live in communion with God, with others, and with all creation, but that life is impossible for us to receive when we refuse to acknowledge our dependence on God. We are not in control. Fasting recognizes God’s sovereignty over our lives and all creation. And guess what?

This is GOOD NEWS! Fasting is about restoring life, restoring joy, restoring peace, restoring justice, and restoring love. We can’t do it all and be it all and have it all. Rather, God is our ALL IN ALL.

Remember, God wasn’t calling Adam and Eve to go hungry in the Garden by placing one limit on their menu. There was an abundance of food to enjoy. Fasting is not about rejecting the goodness of God’s creation, or even about rejecting pleasure. It’s about putting pleasure in its place and restoring a right relationship to creation by loosening our stranglehold on everything we think we need to build successful, secure, and pleasurable lives on our own apart from God. Using creation in this way actually destroys it. Fasting recognizes the sacred value of all creation as we learn to embrace our limits and worship God instead of ourselves.

Fasting can take many forms though. Our lives are filled with things we over-consume, that keep us from a relationship with others and with God, and that eventually consume us. One great food alternative for fasting is media – TV, internet, radio, those flat, crinkly things called “newspapers”, and all our little gadgets and devices. Two years, my Lenten fast was to uninstall the Facebook and Twitter apps and disable the email accounts on my smartphone as a way to let go of those constant distractions, which are really just shallow, selfish ways for me to measure my importance. You could fast from things like judging others or judging yourself. Maybe you need to fast from an over-packed schedule?

The question to ask is: What do I do to excess? In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson reminds us that “what we do to excess reveals our inordinate desires, our compulsions, the attachments that have control over me. They are precisely the areas of our lives that need the freeing lordship of Christ rather than our own abysmally ineffective efforts at control.” Anything coming to mind for you?

I hope this post has got you thinking a little more about the upcoming season of Lent. God is always calling us deeper on our journey of spiritual growth. How will you respond? In the season of Lent, we find an invitation to return to a good life of limits; a life dependent on the grace and goodness of God. Does your life have limits? Are you living on “bread alone” or on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”? That is the question Lent asks us to answer.

Sabbath People

Our sermon this morning was on keeping the Sabbath and I’ve been thinking about it all day. In the fall of 2012, I led a small group at our church through a book by Lynne Baab on keeping Sabbath – and then proceeded to keep the Sabbath ZERO times. Sabbath is hard.

There’s also a book on the Sabbath by Walter Brueggemann I would really like to read (oh, also the one by Abraham Joshua Heschel) called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It was released in January so I haven’t had time for it, but since its Brueggemann I know its worth reading. The title connects to the thoughts I’ve been having today on the Sabbath.

During the sermon, our pastor described the Sabbath as a law that brings freedom; a kind of protective cage that gives us space to rest and be replenished emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It made sense to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Is Sabbath just a matter of regularly marking off space in our lives for rest? Surely that would be a good thing but, as the title of Brueggemann’s book suggests, Sabbath runs deeper than “discipline”.

Sabbath is about identity.

We see this clear as day in the Deuteronomic version of the Sabbath command:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:12, 15).

The Sabbath command is directly linked to Israel’s memory of how God liberated them and thereby transformed their identity from oppressed slaves to God’s covenant community. 1 Peter 2 brings this identity forward and applies it to an early Christian community: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” God’s Sabbath-people that is.

Sabbath-keeping cannot be merely a discipline that we apply to ourselves externally – as if it were something that existed outside of us that we could grasp. Sabbath is who we are – not just something we do.

This is what makes Sabbath so hard for me (and maybe you too). If it were just something I could do, I doubt I would have much trouble with it. I struggle to keep Sabbath because Sabbath means letting God be God and recognizing that I, ultimately, do not and cannot sustain my own life. Sabbath is realizing that only God can save me and set me free for new creation life.

It’s a change in identity.

This change happens in two dimensions. We’ve seen the first already. Sabbath is being set free from the sin that keeps us enslaved to evil and death. There is no rest in Egypt; we are commanded to produce (or consume?) more and more with less and less. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God is leading all creation out of this restless, suffocating slavery in Egypt. We’re headed to the promised land. God’s liberation is for a purpose: to create – or re-create – covenanted community.

We’re freed from the forces of sin and evil but we’re freed for covenanted community. This takes us back to Sabbath’s first appearance in the Bible: creation. Sabbath was, first and foremost, something that God did which is perfectly reflected in God’s being. God’s created the world and then God stopped and rested and thereby named (created) the Sabbath. God kept Sabbath because God wanted to enjoy communion with creation, to take a stroll as it were through this new home. Being-Sabbath means being a creature, specifically one created in the image of the triune God who exists as a personal community of Parent, Christ, and Spirit. Our promised land is the new creation, the reign of God, in which humanity fulfills its original vocation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Sabbath people are liberated slaves who cultivate and sustain flourishing community with God and all creation.

Yes, Sabbath is something we do and maybe that’s where we have to begin. Lord knows we need help stopping and resting. As we do that, let’s not forget that Sabbath-keeping is not just a “discipline” that we can choose to practice – it’s who we are.

 

 

Story Matters

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

This is an essay I wrote for a class on church renewal and evangelism responding to the question: What are the characteristics, elements, approaches, as well as practices to avoid, in telling our faith story? I’m posting it now after experiencing the power of story firsthand over this weekend. During a meeting of community group leaders at my church, we took about an hour to hear each others stories. Two people shared their stories and, after each one, we sat in holy silence simply to revere and regard what they had shared. We then offered words of encouragement and held a time of prayer for each person. In light of that experience, I thought I would share why I think story matters.

Our stories are valuable because they reveal God’s personal presence in our lives and the way God desires to be in redemptive relationship with all people as they communally share in the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit.

As the Trinity of Parent, Christ, and Spirit, God’s life affirms relationship in communion as the ground of all being. The Persons of the Trinity exist in eternal relationships with one another in which each co-inheres and interpenetrates the other such that it becomes impossible to conceive of the Trinitarian Persons apart from their relations.

However, even in the mysterious depths of these relationships, each Person maintains their unique, ineffable identity; without their personal otherness, the dynamic community of Trinitarian relations would collapse into a static mass of uniformity and sameness. This Trinitarian life is the One who is always reaching out towards others in grace and inviting them into God’s communion. God as Trinity is the God who is for others and all creation.

God’s life as Triune Persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond all our stories; it is the “big” story in which our stories find their origin and meaning. Our stories need to be told because they narrate our unique otherness which constitutes our personhood and enable us to be in loving relationships with God and others.

In his book True Story, James Choung develops a very helpful paradigm for telling God’s “big” story. It uses four circles which represent the four major turning points in the narrative of God’s salvation: (1) God created the world good; (2) Humans marred the world’s goodness and introduced brokenness into their relationships with God, each other, and the planet when they rebelled against God so they could be in charge; (3) In Jesus Christ, God comes to restore this brokenness and inaugurate a new way of abundant life for all creation; (4) God calls those who follow Jesus to be sent out together into the world to work for its healing and restoration by the power of God’s Spirit.

Evangelism – bearing witness to the “good news” of God’s story – can be understood as an invitation to God’s story through the telling and living of our personal stories. Telling our stories is a profoundly powerful act and one which must be done with care – both for ourselves and others.

First, stories need to be told in way that recognizes and celebrates our unique, yet limited perspectives. Our stories are not the whole story, but that does not make any story less valuable. Second, our stories should attempt to reveal the common ground between ourselves and those who listen. If our stories are totally strange and foreign to others, they will not understand who we are and our relationships with them will be strained. Third, when we tell our stories, it is important that we be honest with ourselves and others about our intentions. Our stories do not reveal the God who welcomes all just as they are when they are told for manipulative reasons. If our stories are told in ways which belittle others or glorify ourselves and our achievements, they will be of little use for inviting others into the story of a God who emptied Godself to become a servant to all.

Finally, we need to understand and articulate how our stories are being shaped and guided and transformed by the “big” story of Trinity lest we lead others down a path that ends with our limited experience. “Our” stories are not just about us; they are about all the others in our lives who have made our lives possible – most notably: God. Because God’s life is the source and destination of our lives, our stories can become means of grace that open up and put flesh on the story of God.

Amos, Over-Realized Eschatology, and the “Here and Now”

This morning at church we introduced a new worship song to be our “anthem” for the coming year. It’s called “Here and Now” and it was written by Eddie Kirkland out of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s a great anthem song… just take a listen:

It’s got that “Let’s go change the world” kind of vibe right? If there’s one word I would choose to describe this song, I think it would be: confident… possibly too confident. Just read the chorus:

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found

Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

That’s a bold claim: heaven come… right now! If that line sounds familiar, it’s because Kirkland borrowed it from Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about how to pray. In Matthew’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus tells his disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven,hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). When Kirkland sings “heaven,” he’s using a shorthand version of “[God’s] kingdom come, [God’s] will be done.”

But, what do we usually think of we think of the word “heaven”? Most Christian folk would probably think of angels, clouds, harps, no tears, perfect peace, life with God, etc, etc… They might also think of the “opposite” of heaven, ie hell, fire, brimstone, judgement, eternal punishment, and all the rest. When we ask about heaven and hell, we’re asking about what happens when we die;  will we exist throughout eternity and what will that look like? Basically, we’re asking this: “what’s the end game here? when I come to my end (ie death), what happens next?”

In the wide and wonderful world of theology, these are questions about eschatology; personal eschatology to be precise. So, how do we make sense of these personally eschatological questions about heaven and hell in light of this song? It seems like the song has a different understanding of “heaven” since the lyrics are asking God to bring “heaven… in the here and now” – not when we die. For those who sing this song, “heaven” seems to be a reality that is experienced in normal, everyday life. God’s mercy and hope, grace and peace, God’s love is here – right now! Why wait till your dead to start living right!?!?!

The theological perspective behind this song is what most theologians would call a “realized” eschatology. Instead of thinking that eternal life with God will only be real some time in the future, after death, eternal life can be “realized” today, here and now. We can see it and touch it and feel it; life with God can be “real”-ized, ie become real. Personally, I think this is a great approach. Eternal life begins now. Nowhere is this clearer to me in Scripture than in Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, there’s a lot of great stuff in this verse, but I want to focus on that last phrase: “the year of the Lord’s favor.” One important thing to note is that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah; mostly Isaiah 61:1-2 and some other phrases pulled from other parts of Isaiah 40-66. Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet and who was writing to God’s people as they were exiled in Babylon. In chapters 40-66, Isaiah is proclaiming a hopeful vision; God will bring Israel home; a new end was in sight for Israel, a new day was dawning – the “day of the Lord.” You could say that Isaiah 40-66 is all about eschatology. Israel’s future is at stake and they need hope. When Jesus quotes this passage, he’s saying that the “day of the Lord” has arrived, the “year of the Lord’s favor” has come, Israel’s hope was to be “realized” in him! This passage is a cornerstone for those who espouse a “realized eschatology.” You can see strong influences of this passage in the lyrics of “Here and Now.”

So, this is all great stuff but what’s the point? Realized eschatology is cool and all – “Heaven come! Now!” – but it can go too far. We Christians can sometimes get so fired up about how powerful and loving and just God is that we get a bit over confident. Our eschatology becomes over-realized. In our zeal for “the day of the Lord” to come, we forget how God became vulnerable, emptied himself, and overturned all the expectations of God’s people for a quick, catastrophic overthrow of the Roman empire and a triumphal return of Israel and its king. We forget that Jesus was murdered on a Roman cross.

I mention Amos in the title of this post. I think this prophet has a good word for us to remember as we long for “the day of the Lord”

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

Amos wrote these words to a group of people who had lost sight of what it meant to live as God’s people. Even though they “worshiped” the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, injustice had become the norm in their society; the poor were trampled and sold for a pair of shoes. For this people, Amos says the “day of the Lord” – the day when justice rolls down like a mighty river and righteousness like a rushing stream – will be a day of reckoning, a day of emptying, of crucifixion. These folks just didn’t realize that God actually despised their worship.

As I sing this song at my church over the next few weeks, the words of Amos will be looming large in my mind. Can I really sing it with authenticity? Do I really understand the cost of following Jesus into the “day of the Lord”? If “heaven” does come, will it be “as though [I] fled from a lion only to meet a bear”? The world I live in is very much like the world of Amos; violence, injustice, and suffering seem to rule the day while I live in relative comfort and security. In other words, I have a lot to lose. Realized eschatology is great, and I’ll still sing this song, but I must remember and begin to live as if I really believe that God’s grace, this experience of eternal life that I can see, feel, and touch right now, is not cheap: “[Grace] is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

May God continue to lead me, to lead us, on the downward way of Christ. May I decrease, so that Christ may increase. May God’s light shine into the darkness of my heart and my world to expose the ways I bring “hell” to myself and others all while praying for “heaven” to come.

Welcoming Hope [Romans 15:13]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

As I meditated on this verse, one phrase kept jumping out at me: “as you trust in Him.” I thought about it a bit more and it seemed to beg the question: “for what? What is the goal, the end, the vision that Paul is wanting the church at Rome to trust in God for?”

I started thinking about the whole letter of Romans to put this verse into context. Among the many theological nuances and levels of thought weaved into this letter, Paul is, on the whole, addressing a situation of deep disunity and distrust among Jews and Gentiles trying to be God’s people in Rome. The first 9 chapters lay the theological foundation for the new community in Christ that he envisions in chapters 12-15. However, this is not just any community but the “body of Christ”:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Romans 12:4-5

This is the vision Paul has been developing when we arrive at Romans 15. In this chapter, Paul is really driving his message home loud and clear. Verses 5-7 really capture, for me, the main reason he has written this letter:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[Welcome] one another, then, just as Christ [welcomed] you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:5-7

So, what is Paul instructing the church at Rome to “trust in God” for? Becoming one mind and one voice, having the same attitude of Christ towards each other, knowing and experiencing God’s gracious welcome and then welcoming others in the same way. This, I think, is what Paul is asking us to trust God for: unity that is experienced in community, the specific, unique – even holy – community of the body of Christ.

So, we’re trusting God for community in Christ, but how is that related to hope? It’s interesting to me how Paul asks “the God of hope” to fill his readers with joy and peace – not with hope. Paul wants them to overflow with hope, but he doesn’t ask for hope directly. Why not? Why ask for joy and peace if he wants the church at Rome to be filled with hope?

As Christians, what is the source and ground of our hope? The simple answer, for me, is Easter: the empty tomb, the risen, resurrected, reigning King, the Lord, Jesus Christ. When Paul asks for joy and peace, I think he’s trying to remind his readers of their only real source of hope in the one who has defeated death and overcome evil. Jesus is alive and Jesus is our hope. But here’s the key: Jesus isn’t just up in heaven somewhere. Jesus is alive and well yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How? Through God’s people, “the BODY of Christ,” the community of men, women, and children that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed them. This community is – by and only by the power of the Holy Spirit – the resurrected body of Christ!

We welcome hope when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. Our hope is found in the community enlivened by the Spirit to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ to us. Our hope is real because we know it by name, we can touch it, be hugged by it, and hear its voice.

Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:13 reminds the Romans that they need God’s joy because community is can sometimes be discouraging. It can be confusing and even upsetting, so we need God’s peace. As we trust in God for this provision, we experience the Holy Spirit’s power to “stay at the table” with each other and welcome one another even in the midst of our pain, confusion, and imperfect attempts to love one another. Then, I think, one day, we’ll be able to step back and say, “Here is my hope. In these people, in this place, as we come together and trust in God to fill us with joy and peace by the power of the Spirit; I have hope because I’ve known Jesus, I’ve felt his touch and heard his voice. He’s alive.”

Of course, this hope is experienced incompletely, inadequately and in ways we can’t plan or control. These experiences and moments of hope may be fleeting. The phrase “trial and error” comes to mind. “Community” does not “equal” hope and not just any “community” can claim to be “the body of Christ.” So, we move forward humbly always taking time to discern the Spirit – because, without the Spirit, we’re as good as dead.