Andrews Blog

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Of Wills Free and Bound

Whenever I lead a group of teenagers, somewhere over the course of the conversation, no matter the topic or scripture or theme of our time, someone asks the question about whether our will is free or bound.  It happened last night in our back home group at the Montreat Youth Conference.

Sometimes I just skirt the question because it feels like a tangent that derails the conversation.  Other times I try to entertain it and talk about the paradox that is human will in the Christian tradition.  I chose the latter last night.

We began with the idea that nothing happens outside of God’s will.  I asked the kids, “What does it say about God if everything that happens is God’s will?”  Eventually someone said, “Then God is the cause of all the bad things that happen in the world.”

Usually someone else jumps in with a purposeful idea of God’s providence (they don’t know that’s what their doing), “Maybe we just see something as evil or bad, but God has a plan for everything, so God is doing something good through the bad thing.”

And without fail, “If God has to cause tragedies or pain or suffering in order to do God’s good will, then God isn’t very good.  I’m not sure I want to worship that God.”

At this point I chimed in, “So while the understanding that God’s will orders all things affirms that God is in charge (God is sovereign), it brings into question God’s ultimate goodness because of the suffering we see around us.”

“So let’s consider the alternative.  Let’s say humans have free will and can act on our own outside of God’s control.”

And our bright young people reply, “Then that means that God isn’t very powerful and we are capable of thwarting God’s plans and designs.  In that case we can say that God is good but God isn’t powerful enough to bring about that goodness.  In this scenario we are sovereign.”

So is God sovereign but not good or good but not sovereign?

Perhaps this is where understanding the person and role of Jesus and his incarnation can help us understand both God’s goodness and God’s power.  We can say, by looking to Jesus and especially his willful death, that God chooses to limit God’s power by coming in human weakness and subjecting Godself to the depth of human suffering, that God is sovereign but that God makes a choice not to practice that reign as a harsh dictator.  A relationship is essential to God’s way of acting in the world.  The relationship is most important.  God chooses to partner with humanity (this isn’t just in Jesus, think about Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Esther, Ruth, and on and on) in order to enact God’s purposes.

God invites us to be part of the creation of God’s goodness into the world.  God, who could rule without us, chooses to work with and through us to bring about God’s way in the world.  Does the Holy Spirit work within us causing us to choose to partner with God or do we freely make that decision?  As Presbyterians we tend to lean toward the Spirit’s work, but experientially it feels like a genuine decision on our part to move toward the God who has chosen to come so close to us in Jesus Christ.

I wonder why teenagers are always asking this question.  I think it has to do with their developmental state.  They are growing up into decision makers, wielding more freedom, spending less time under their helicopter parents, and some are moving away to a freedom they have never before experienced.

Is God still at work when they are beginning to feel so autonomous?  That autonomy is both exhilarating, but I imagine that shortly after the exhilaration is an incredible fear that they will make poor decisions, stray from God’s way, find themselves off the “straight and narrow path” and unable to find the trail again.  Is God still there?  Is God still leading?  Do I get a say in the matter?  Yes.  Yes.  And yes.

Across Generations

If you read any blogs about church culture today, you hear over and over again how we have segregated out our age groups within the church.  New church plants try to attract the elusive “young families,” urban congregations reach out to the “young singles” living in their revitalized downtowns, suburban mega-churches try to attract all ages through specified programs and worship services for each age group, and some traditional churches have forgotten what it’s like to have anyone under seventy years old in worship.

One of the strengths of our congregation is that we have all ages and stages of life represented in our community of faith.  Our community coming together as one was no more evident than yesterday.

As worship began, our children and youth chimed in the beginning of worship and led us in the prelude.  Then three of our elementary school children took baskets of palm crosses and passed them out in the opening hymn as we sang, “Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang!”  Following our prayer of confession, four different children came forward to take colorful mixing bowls to collect change from the congregation for our monthly five-cents-a-meal offering.

After the sermon, our youth exited the sanctuary to begin hiding Easter eggs for our annual hunt that was to commence after worship.  These youth, who as children themselves, benefitted from previous youth hiding eggs for them, now take their place as the hiders for a new generation of children.

As people spoke to me at the door, they told me how glad they were to hear our daughter Joanna’s “squeaks” during worship on her church debut as well as the occasional cry of the other babies and toddlers in the service.  No one was concerned with being “distracted,” but they were grateful to have everyone present.

Following worship, people of all ages gathered in the fellowship hall for hotdogs, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and cake.  I always watch these gatherings, to see if everyone has someone to sit with and talk to them.  I’m always working to make sure any visitors are not alone at a table.  I needed to have no anxiety this week.  I watched as new visitors were welcomed to tables of long-time members.  I saw college students getting to know our senior adults and new young couples at tables with folks who could have been their grandparents.  One of our members who is beginning a new Sunday school class in two weeks was going up to those newer to our congregation who may not participate yet in spiritual formation and was explaining what she was leading and how she hoped they could make it.

Then we moved outside, where the children took off hunting for eggs, with parents, youth, and other adults helping them find more carefully-hidden eggs.  Other adults just watched with laughter and talked with one another in the sunshine.

In the back hallway one of our visitors, the mother of one of our members, said to me, “I just love how in this church you can see all the ages coming together.”  It truly is a gift, a witness, I believe, to what God intends the kingdom of heaven to be like.  I am grateful for all those who gather to worship and praise our risen Lord, and I hope anyone who is looking for a church family to nurture them from birth to the grave and all mixed up together might discover who we are as followers of Jesus as well.

O My God You Guys

Many people in our church and community recently saw Jefferson County High School’s production of Legally Blonde.  The satirical musical is based on the 2001 movie of the same name that stereotypes sorority girls, Harvard law students, greasy lawyers, and what skills it takes to be successful in life.  The opening number of the musical is called “O My God.”  Opening much like the first song in Bye Bye Birdie, a series of sorority girls burst through the doors of the Delta Nu house singing about the upcoming engagement of Elle and her boyfriend Warner.

The refrain of the song repeats and again and again the phrase, “O my God you guys.”

I’ve had a couple of questions from congregants about my feelings on this particular song.  I suppose the concern is whether the song itself is a violation of the Third Commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses His name that way.”  If you’re like me, you learned in early elementary school that we break the third commandment when we say “O my God.”  God’s name is to be used with respect and reverence and not in casual conversation or as an expletive.

And I would still argue that as Christians we do well to avoid using “O my God” as a common phrase, as it is disrespectful and trite.  What I would also hope, however, is that as we mature in our knowledge and faith we gain a fuller understanding of what the commandment is about.

The Third Commandment

First, the phrase we render in English “make wrongful use” comes from a Hebrew word that might just as faithfully be translated to mean that we should not evoke God’s name if we are lying, or as empty, useless, vain, or to no purpose.  To break the third commandment is to do something “in the name of God” that is not worthy of that name.  Frivolousness is one of those criteria, but so are any actions we carry out “in the name of God” that are not faithful to the God of Scripture.

Second, how do we know when an action is faithful to the use of God’s name and when it is frivolous, a lie, or empty?  God reveals the divine name to Moses but remains veiled in mystery beyond the name meaning “I am who I am.”  What this tells the Hebrew people and us is that if we want to know who God is we have to look at what God does.  God liberates the people from slavery, God provides for them in the wilderness, God gives them a law to order their existence in peace, God guides them into a Promised Land, and God forgives them over and over when they are disobedient.  If we want to use God’s name faithfully, we invoke God’s name when we work in the same manner- to liberate the oppressed, to care for the downtrodden, to practice relationships of peace, and to forgive.

As Christians we are told in our baptism that we “have put on Christ.”  We are actually bearers of the divine name, so it is not only when we officially say something is “God’s will” but it is every word, action, feeling, and thought that we have that is actually done in God’s name.  Our lives are to be testimony in all areas to the honoring of this command, this claim on us.

To use God’s name faithfully, therefore, goes far beyond saying “O My God” but how we actually seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  To avoid wrongful use of God’s name we must be truth speakers and love sharers and offer forgiveness.  To say that we belong to God and to live otherwise is to break the third commandment with far greater severity than saying “O My God.”

Song in Context of Musical

So what do we make of a song titled “O My God” in a musical theatre production?  Is this a breaking of the third commandment?  First, let me reiterate that I’d prefer that we as Christians strike this phrase from our speech as frivolous use of God’s name.

In the musical Legally Blonde I sensed no malic behind the use of the phrase.  The song is not intended to denounce a particular religion or beat down a particular theological viewpoint.  The use of the phrase is actually an exaggeration of the reality around us every day.  Try counting in the next couple of days how many people say “O My God” around you.  Watch a couple of hours of HGTV home renovations and you’ll hear it just about at every reveal of a renovated home.

The repetition of the phrase over and over in the opening number of Legally Blonde satirizes west coast sorority girls, and so in a way reveals just how frivolous the phrase is.  By using it over and over again, perhaps we as the audience are to recognize how silly it is to speak this way and perhaps find more creative ways of talking in our own lives.

Aristotle thought that all art should teach.  It might appear that Legally Blonde is about getting people to laugh, but perhaps the show, with its over-the-top stereotypes, asks us each to question how much we try to fit a particular “mold” and calls into question whether that’s the healthiest way for us to live.



The order of worship in the Reformed tradition is a theological statement to what we believe.  Every form of worship tells a story through the songs sung, the liturgy read, the prayers offered, the scripture read, and the offering collected.  Each piece plays a part in a larger narrative.

Some worship traditions offer more flexibility than ours, others less.  Some adapt convention that feels more comfortable for Christian seekers- high energy music transitioning to a more meditative song and the sermon as the climax of the service.  Others concern themselves with logistics over story.  I heard of a pastor who served a church that did all parts of the liturgy that required standing at the beginning of worship so that people wouldn’t have to get up and down so much over the course of the hour.  Still other forms of worship incorporate many spontaneous acts of singing and dancing and speaking in tongues.

Our worship, however, tells the story of our biblical faith.  Like the beginning of scripture in creation, our worship begins in praise of the triune God, and that knowledge of God’s majesty and love causes us to take a closer look at ourselves.  Seeing the truth of our disobedience, we confess our sin, both the sin of our individual lives and the larger sin that surrounds us in the world to which we are complicit.

After our confession we hear again the Good News, that “in Jesus Christ you are forgiven!”

Everything that comes after the Assurance of Pardon is then directed toward how we live out the grace we know in Jesus.  Scripture, sermon, creeds, offering, prayers for the world are all borne out of the grace of God made manifest in the cross and in resurrection glory.

Recently on a pastor’s retreat one of our leaders spoke to us about the processes of writing and crafting worship liturgy.  He told us that once he has figured out how to composes the Prayer of Confession, the rest of the service, including the sermon, falls into place.

The confession is the moment of truth, the moment we’ve spent six days hiding from, the moment when we must be honest with ourselves.  And then the assurance is the reminder, again and again, that God’s grace comes to us anew, continually renewing and reclaiming and redeeming us.

Our leader told us that the Assurance of Pardon is, he believes, the climax of worship.  “It is to hear that God is for us, that God loves and accepts us, that draws people to worship on a Sunday.  What could I possibly say that is more important than that?”

So even when it feels like tired routine, even when you find your mind wandering and you’re just going through the motions, remember that when we worship, the climax of our story is the assurance:

Who is in a position to condemn?
Only Christ.
And Christ died for us.
Christ rose for us.
Christ reigns in power for us.
Christ prays for us.
For anyone who is in Christ, there is new creation.
The old life is gone.
A new life has begun.
Know you are forgiven, and be at peace.

Biblical Sibling Support

A couple of weeks ago I preached on Jesus calling the first disciples (Mark 1:16-20), and something jumped out at me in the reading of that text that I chose not to incorporate into the sermon for the week, but it is an idea that continues with me several weeks later.

I don’t believe, for all the sermons I’ve heard, that I have heard any pastor reflect on the fact that the first four disciples Jesus calls are brothers- Simon and Andrew, James and John.  These are men who have known each other since birth.  There are have fights over favorite toys, questions about which parents loves which child more, pressures to live up to expectations set by the older broth or to change the reputation of the family the older brother has set.

As adults, rivalries (surely still present beneath the surface) are put aside as they enter into their co-ventures as fishermen in Galilee.

So when Jesus calls these two pairs of brothers, I’m left wondering both some practical questions and some deeper theological ones.

Practically, did the ability to have his brother along for the unknown journey give each man the courage to step out of the boat and into the line with Jesus?  Often we don’t want to take risks alone but have more courage to do so if we are with someone who knows us well and who we can trust to have our best interest at heart.  Is that one of the reasons Simon and Andrew, James and John were willing to take this risk?  They would not be journeying alone.

The second reflection has to do with Jesus’ later words about biological families.  There’s his own harsh words he offers when told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, “Who are my mother and brothers?… Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:32-35).  Or in Matthew when Jesus calls a man to follow him, and the man requests to go bury his deceased father first.  Jesus replies, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22).

So much of Jesus’ ministry is about a redefinition of family beyond traditional biological ties and ethnic culture but the new community formed through his witness to the Kingdom of God and later through baptism into the new life of resurrection.  If this redefinition of family is a central part of Jesus’ message, then why begin his family with two sets of biological brothers?

There may be a point that familial ties are not our primary identifiers once we belong to Jesus and his Kingdom, but our biological families are welcome to witness to that kingdom with us.  Simon and Andrew, James and John may show us how families can witness through their common work to the ministry of Jesus.

Finally, I hear this call of these two sets of brothers and I think of all the other sets of brothers in the Bible and their less than ideal relationships.  You have Cain who murders his brother Abel because God prefers meat to Cain’s vegetables (Genesis 4).  Then there’s the whole debacle with Noah’s sons shortly after the flood waters recede(Genesis 9:18-29).  You have Ishmael and Isaac, both sons of Abraham by different mothers who are separated by Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be banished to the wilderness (Genesis 21:1-21).  You have Jacob who tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright and impersonates his hairy sibling to win the blessing of their father (Genesis 25:27-34, Gen. 27).    And lets not even get into the issues that David’s sons deal with (2 Samuel 13 thru 19).

Based on previous performance, it wouldn’t look like God would call a pair of brothers to carry out God’s new heaven and new earth mission.  But perhaps that’s what grace looks like, redeeming the very relationships that have sullied our human relationships so much.

As a new parent to two children (though a son and a daughter, not two sons), I am drawn to these sibling narratives in new ways, and I think these stories tell us that siblings can be both trusted and helpful travel companions on the journey of faith or they can lead to our destruction, isolation, resentfulness, and anger.  Who remains at the center of our sibling relationships may be the key.  For Simon and Andrew, James and John, service to God through their work with Jesus is what bonds them together and will eventually empower their greater witness through the early church.

May the brothers and sister we know cultivate these same relationships of mutual focus and concern on the ministry of our Lord, that God’s will might be what binds us, heals us, empowers us, and calls us continually to serve.

Architecture of Judgment

While I was in New York in January, my peer group of pastors met with two area ministers to talk about the minister’s role in crafting and leading worship.  Our purpose was less to focus on the act of preaching but to look at the overall arc of worship and the role worship plays both in the identity of a church community and how the pastor most faithfully dedicates time and energy to creating worship.

Toward the end of our time together, one of the pastors we met with talked quite a bit about the message our worship space communicates.  He pastors Broadway Presbyterian Church on the north side of New York City near Columbia University.

broadway-pres-organThere is a giant organ at the front of the chancel, donated by the original minister of the congregation (his wife was a NYC debutante), and emblazoned across the front of organ are the words, “We Preach Christ and Him Crucified.”  I found this a powerful expression of Pauline theology.  We live in an age of prosperity gospel preaching and Christianity as self-help, so I thought this powerful reminder prevented any worshiper in that space from forgetting the uncomfortable reality that we worship a savior who died.

The pastor went on to tell us, however, that these words were put there by the pastor in the midst of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy as he took on Harry Emerson Fosdick of First Presbyterian Church, NYC for preaching a gospel of modernity and not the true gospel.  The connotation of those words in the chancel were thus to be read, “We Preach Christ and Him Crucified (unlike those other churches).”

Space and its organization send powerful messages to a congregation.  In many ways they give us our identity.

We were asked as a group in this sanctuary to consider what a Protestant sanctuary might look like to an unchurched person who wanders in.  He drew the analogy to the setting of a courtroom.  Here are lined pews faces toward the front.  In front, behind a large podium stands a man or woman in a black robe.  Behind that person is a group of individuals, normally around twelve, who make up the choir/jury.  Sitting in that space may very well bring an uncomfortable feeling that we have arrived to hear God’s verdict on our sinful lives.

And perhaps in a time when the church is being viewed as more judgmental, our architecture is reinforcing stereotypes.

worship-backIf any worship space plays out this image of the sanctuary as courtroom, it would be ours at First Church Jefferson City, with our elevated central pulpit, our center aisle dividing prosecution and defense teams and our choir sitting in the elevated jury box.  Is there anything we can do, then, to break through the air of judgment so that a word of grace made radiate through?

I believe we already do some things, and I think we do well to experiment with some more.  Some things we do now include our children’s moment which is normally pretty rowdy, and it’s wonderful that a congregant leads that time, giving voice to someone other than the man in the black robe.  We also hold hands during the prayer after the children’s time, creating a sense of intimacy one wouldn’t expect in a courtroom scene.  I believe hearing prayer requests creates a deep sense of caring between people as well.

Some of the things I try to do to create this deeper sense of grace include leading the Prayer of Confession from the baptismal font.  If there’s ever a time in worship when the judgment of God could be overwhelming it is in that moment of honesty before our Creator.  Instead of standing above the people, I stand at the font, which is our reminder of God’s love that is poured out for us.  On occasion I also try to come out of the pulpit in preaching or solicit congregational response to questions from the pulpit in a sermon to create a deeper sense of community and less the picture of the judge pronouncing a sentence.

Yet there are more ways to create these sense of communal belonging and grace.  I hope in future weeks to continue to think about how we adorn our space to fit the theme of worship.  Last Sunday we had nets strewn about the communion table, pulpit, and font as we heard the call of the first disciples.  I hope to do more visual imagery this way.  I also plan to begin leading the Prayers of the People from the floor instead of the pulpit.  These are our prayers, not my prayers on the people’s behalf.

There may still be other ways for us to communicate through our space and ritual the elaborate grace of God that reaches through our pain to capture our hearts and lives.  My prayer is that our worship space creates a reverence for the holy, a delight in the divine, and  joy in the new life we have in Christ Jesus.  So let’s explore together!

Christian Community for Introverts

“Outside the Church there is no salvation,” wrote John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Christian movement in Geneva in the sixteenth century.  In this statement, the reformer emphasizes the communal nature of those who belong to the Christian faith.  Salvation, for Calvin, was not a private matter between the individual and God but a communal life carried out in the Church. Calvin’s emphasis comes from his reading of scripture.  Looking through the Old Testament we see God’s continued call to the people of Israel as a covenant community which far exceeds individual callings (Genesis 28:10-15; 2 Chronicles 7:13-16; Isaiah 43:1-4 to list a few).  That communal emphasis continues strongly in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul, where the apostle describes the Church as a body (1 Corinthians 12:12, Romans 12:5, Ephesians 4:4 to name a few places).  Each member has a unique identity and role, but that role can only be carried out in the context of the larger community.  The other popular image for the Church is a family (Galatians 3:26, 1 Timothy 3:15) which is also a communal image, one built on relationships across generations and genders. What does this mean, therefore, for introverts, those for whom social interaction is more draining than life-giving, where reaching out and meeting new people produces deep anxiety, where being told you need to start attending a Bible study or coming to more fellowship events elicits feelings of guilt and shame?  Even more poignantly, what does this mean for those with diagnosed social anxiety “disorders” (not a great name by the way) which necessitate medication and psychotherapy? I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, how a church community can include those who, by the shape of their personality or because of diagnosed conditions, are not able to participate in the hand-holding, hugging and kissing, laughing and eating social structures of the church.  I’m afraid we commit a grievous sin if we continually pull and prod and push these folks into communal religious settings where a deeper relationship with God is farthest from their minds and the nearest exit doors are their primary focus. I admit my struggle to contemplate this truth because I am one who draws great strength, comfort, and energy from the communal elements of Church.  I leave worship or fellowship activities or mission events energized about all the people I had the chance to speak with and hear from.  It is counterintuitive to my nature to leave quiet people alone, trusting that they are comfortable on their own and that my presence is more intrusive than helpful. But my former college professor of theatre theory, Dr. Dave Mason, wrote a recent blog post regarding the struggles some experience when trying to engage the transcendent in communal worship.  Reflecting on his own personality and his experiences among Hindu communities in India, Dr. Mason writes, “The imaginative (re)vision of the cosmos that religion offers does not reside, essentially, in Sunday socializing.  Indeed, often the Sunday socializing and the conformity that it demands obscures the genuine encounter with eternity that religion offers.  The social structure that church imposes on us too often makes us deaf to creation’s music.” (Read more: I will admit that is not my experience.  I encounter eternity in the hugs and laughs and meals and stories and meetings and services of the Church.  At the same time, though, I know for others that those social structures inhibit a true encounter with the Divine, and in the case of mental illness actually drive people deeper into depression or chronic anxiety. And so I confess that I do not know how we hold to a robust theology of Church as a “body,” a communal representation of Jesus Christ to the world and acknowledge the struggle of the quiet ones among us and those struggling with social anxieties.  I’m not sure how we minister together well in that diversity.  For now I’m trying to begin with respect, recognizing that some people need space, remembering that many people need time to process new ideas for themselves, and there are people struggling with mental illnesses that require them to be physically removed from the community for their personal well-being. I would encourage us all to consider how we participate collectively in the community of Christ in such a way that all God’s children find space, welcome, encouragement, and love.

The Prayer of the Children

When we present a child for baptism in worship, it is an event of great celebration.  Often parents purchase a special outfit for their little one for the day.  Grandparents drive in from other states to sit on the front row and sneak pictures with their smart phones.  Almost always the child does something to elicit laughter from the congregation.  A scan of those gathered shows a plethora of smiles and a few teary eyes of joy.  We celebrate God’s abundant grace, we make promises to raise this child in the faith, and following worship the family often gathers for lunch.

And from that point forward, in varying degrees of faithfulness, the church and the family go about living out that covenant of grace together, guiding that child in the ways of Jesus and hopefully toward a profession of faith in adolescence.

What we do not fear in our baptism celebrations is that in the ritual of water, thrice poured over the child’s head in the name of the triune God, marks that child for slaughter by armed militant groups that threaten to overtake our community.  You may have heard that in recent days, ISIS, the terrorist group gaining power and control in Iraq, took over the city of Mosul.  The few remaining Christians in the country who reside in that region, have been forced to flee, while others have been executed.  Some reports have stated that ISIS has targeted Christian children to kill.

(Read more in the New York Times)

If you’ve followed the news, you know that President Obama has authorized the use of military force against ISIS as well as sent humanitarian aid to the victims of the crimes.  I must confess that as a Christian, use of military force is always something that makes me uneasy, as I believe Jesus himself advocated a nonviolent way of life, suffering himself at the hands of an oppressive regime.  I am also reminded of his teachings and the letters of Paul and of John’s Revelation and stories throughout the history of the church where the martyrs suffered death for their faith without taking up arms.  The “peace that passes all understanding” can never be achieved through bombs and air strikes and drone missiles.

At the same time, it is difficult to believe that standing aside and watching a mass genocide would be a more faithful response, and so I struggle, and I pray for our president and for the people of Iraq, and I pray for ISIS members, that they might be blinded by the truth that what they do honors no god.

I also remind myself in these days that ISIS does not represent all of Islam, and their actions should not allow Christians to devolve into oppressive actions against Muslims in our own country or abroad.  This is a small sect of radical extremists who take particular teachings of their holy book and twist them for their political gain.  Christians have done this in our history, too, and so we are wise not to paint a broad brush of an entire world religion based on the violent and evil actions of a small group.

And finally, I am led to examine again just how important my faith in Jesus is to me.  I live in a world where the largest threat to my Christian practice is indifference or a minor verbal jab decrying the ridiculousness of religion.  My baptism never marks me for slaughter.  How do I take advantage of that opportunity, therefore, to practice my faith openly?  Is it not an affront to those suffering death for their faith when I claim I don’t have time to pray, when I hoard my resources, when I belittle others, when I refuse to offer forgiveness?  People in other countries are dying because they bear the name of Jesus.  I feel as though the least I could do in solidarity with them is try to live like a faithful Christian in my own context and place my faith identity at the center of my decisions and actions and words.

So let us pray, and hope, and witness for the sake of the sufferers, for the sake of the sufferer whose death has birthed in us a new way of life.  Can you hear the prayer of the children?

Learning to Be Ourselves

I have had the great privilege of pilgrimage the past three weeks in Montreat, North Carolina.  Over this time I have chaperoned high schoolers for a youth conference, worked with senior high Bible study for the Worship and Music Conference (a big THANK YOU to the session for granting me that opportunity!), and spent hours with members of our own congregation who attended the Worship and Music Conference as well.

These weeks also afforded me the opportunity to encounter many of my heroes of the Church, people who have shaped my Christian identity and who continue to shape the person I wish to be in Christ.  They are former pastors in my life, mentors, preachers whose words have reshaped my vision of God’s work in the world, and friends who have grown up into ministry with me.

And so as I sit by the waterfall at Lake Susan outside the Huckleberry Snack Shop, I am left pondering what it is that causes us to welcome people into our lives as heroes, mentors, and friends.  What do we look for in people when we need someone to look up to or someone to listen to us or someone to guide us?

The common denominator among the cloud of witnesses who I have been surrounded by this week is their constancy of character.  They are men and women who strive to be people of honesty, who live by their values in private as well as in public.  Learning to be who we are consistently, I think, is one of the lifelong challenges of the Christian life, and these people I have been with this week have reminded me of the great opportunity we have as children of God to cultivate our truest lives.

That requires trust in God’s good word of creation, that we are made in God’s image.  If we trust the poetry of the Psalmist that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” then there is something in each of us that God has crafted for God’s glory.  Our task, therefore, is to immerse ourselves into discovery of how we grow into the people God has crafted us to be.  That can be a challenge when outside pressures, feelings of inadequacy, unforeseen family crises, or major life transitions seem to create giant potholes that must be navigated along our journey of faith.

Yet that is the gift of the Church for each of us, a place to encounter our fears and our shortfalls, to hear a word of grace, to hear again from God that we are “very good” and to grow into people whose lives become a consistent Christian witness.

Rabbi Zusha, an eighteenth century Hasidic Jewish luminary, is quoted as saying, “When I die and come before the heavenly court, if they ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not Abraham?’  I’ll say that I didn’t have Abraham’s intellectual abilities.  If they say, ‘Why were you not  Moses?’  I’ll say I didn’t have Moses’ leadership abilities.  For every such question, I’ll have an answer.  But if they say, ‘Zusha, why were you not Zusha?’ for that, I’ll have no answer.”  May we strive to grow into the people God has made us to be, discovering our goodness, celebrating our unique identities, and growing into our truest selves which glorifies our Lord and makes God smile.

Careless Grace

This week I’m accompanying ten high school students from Holston Presbytery to the Montreat Youth Conference in North Carolina.  During this week, students are exploring what it means to be rooted in Christ and reaching out with his love to the world.  There are 1,100 high school students at the conference, filling up all the lodges and private homes in Montreat.  Church vans can be seen from Charleston and Chattanooga, Grand Rapids and Tallahassee, Cincinnati and Tuscaloosa.  There are students from mega-churches and students here as the only youth from their church.  And they’re here for a week in the mountains to grow in God with each other.

10367186_500942716673346_1417969141440860559_nEach day in morning energizers and keynote presentations, recreation events, small group study, and daily worship, conferees explore scripture together and connect it to their lives and the world around us to see how our rootedness in Jesus nourishes us to reach out to the hurting, lost, and lonely.

On Monday we explored Jesus’ parable of the sower.  The keynote presentation reinterpreted this parable in light of contemporary horticultural knowledge.  Often we read this parable as a parable of soils, that God (the sower) casts the Gospel (the seed) on all different kinds of ground (humanity).  The seeds that fall on rocky ground are eaten by birds.  Some seeds take root and spring up quickly but without enough water and deep roots, they wither and die of scorching heat.  Other seed grows up with weeds that choke out their life.  And finally the seed that lands in the fertile soil yields a great harvest.

In the keynote, however, we explored how some seeds, like raspberry seeds, have to be ingested by birds and released through their digestive tract in order to be able to be planted in the soil and grow.  And Sequoyah seeds must be scorched in order to open up and enter the earth.  The point was made, then, that just because a seed is eaten by birds or scorched as a young plant doesn’t mean that the soil it was thrown on is worthless.  Perhaps the Gospel can only take root through those times of bird digestion and scorching sun.  Maybe our lives are like that too, that God’s grace becomes real to each of us in different ways and at different times.  Instead of some soils simply being non-responsive to the Gospel, their simply embody the Gospel differently.

In small groups we talked about the character of God that is revealed in the parable of The Sower.  I’m always reminded in these settings why I love studying scripture with young people, because there is no pretense, not need to protect the Bible, no fear that they’ll be “heretical” in what they say.  I often find in adult studies that folks just tell me what they already thought before we began studying, and I sometimes feel we lack the openness to receive something new from God.

In this youth study, the students said the sower seemed random, throwing the seeds all over the place without careful planning.  They labeled the sower as “careless” to throw out that seed in places where it couldn’t take root.  Why not just carefully place all the seed in the fertile soil?

And that peaked my imagination.  Because really, at it’s heart, isn’t the Gospel of God a careless act?  God comes to us in Jesus, lives, dies, and rises to bring us to the realization that we belong to God and our life is shaped by the sacrificial love God gives us in Jesus.  And God lives this costly life and death and resurrection without the guarantee that we will respond.  God casts the Gospel through all the world through the church with seeming carelessness, not planting in the most “fertile” places but in rocky places, dry places, and weed-infested places.

Grace as gift is by definition careless.  It doesn’t fit into our categories of efficiency or profitability.  The sower just throws that seed out there and will make use of whatever elements it requires to bring us to the realization that we are loved not because of our soil pH but because of God’s grace.

Grace is free. Grace is random.  Grace is careless.  May that grace capture us, that we might welcome that news into our soils.

And finally, watch this video used in worship last night to see what a life of careless grace can look like (It’s a life insurance commercial but beautifully illustrates the point):