Our Kind Of Story

I found myself talking with someone last week about stories, good stories, the kind we want to tell, and more importantly, the kind we want to live.

That’s the thing about stories – all of us have one, all of us are part of one, and stories, whether we like it or not, actually run our lives.

Today, we return again to the most intense part of the story we tell and try to live by. We call this part of the story Holy Week, and one way to tell it is as a story bookended by two crowds; two mobs with things to say and demands to make. But this story isn’t really about those crowds, because the wisdom we are looking for can’t be found in a crowd.

And so here we are, once again heeding Jesus’ instructions and preparing to make our way to a room to eat a meal and hear again what it is he would have us do. We are here once again, because even if we can’t remember all the details, we know a bit about trying to live out our faith in a new way and in the process getting a whole lot more wrong than right.

And that’s why we keep coming back to this story, because it is a story that is true in more ways than one. In it we discover what God is really like and in it we remember that we are a whole lot more than the dark details of our worst failures.

We follow the disciples to a table because we too know what it is like to misunderstand who Jesus is and what he is all about. We listen to Jesus teach about love because we know what it is to be in desperate need of it.

We walk behind Jesus on the road because we know what it is like to have tried to follow him and failed spectacularly. We stand outside by the fire with Peter because we know what it is like to disappoint those we care about most.

We follow Jesus up the hill because we know what it is like to stumble underneath the weight of carrying our own cross. We follow him all the way there and see it all again for ourselves because we know, that in the end, all of this is for us.

We are drawn to this story because it has become our story.

It reminds us that all of this is about God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It reminds us that God is willing to help us – even us. It reminds us that the road to our freedom is a road of suffering that we cannot walk for ourselves, but it is a road that Jesus walks for us.

That’s what Love does, it does the things we need that we can’t do for ourselves.

And so, this story is for those who know what it is like to be called a loser while the winners celebrate.

This story is for those who desperately want to fix a broken relationship but who haven’t yet found the path to healing.

This story is for those who know all too well what it is like to find yourself on the outside and away from Jesus.

This story is for all of us who know that something is broken but that the healing is going to have to come from someone else.

That’s why if you find yourself at church this weekend you are likely to see something interesting.

Because the people who are there aren’t there because they have it all figured out. And they aren’t there because they know every part of it beyond a reasonable doubt. They are there for the same reason you are – they know what it is like to need help and they know this is a story about One who gives it.

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Not Forsaken: Charlottesville, Faith and the Promise of the Psalms

Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

As I watched the news and tried to digest the images from Virginia on Friday and then again on Saturday, the words of Psalm 22 echoed in my mind.

It’s the Psalm we read in the church on Good Friday, the Psalm we pray with Jesus in the midst of his abandonment, the Psalm we hold on to in the midst of despair, and the Psalm that holds on to us as we contemplate darkness and death.

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” it begins, the words Jesus will later quote from the Cross. It’s a prayer from someone desperate for the world to look different. It’s a prayer from someone who feels alone. It’s a prayer from someone who wonders if things will ever get any better.  Ultimately, even on Good Friday, it’s a prayer of lament, a prayer of a person who both begs for God to act and trusts that God will show up and make a difference.

When the darkness rages, it’s always the Psalms. When the earth cries out in pain and anger, it is the Psalms that help me find a way to offer that anger back to God. When the sighs are too deep for words it is the Psalms that help me find a voice. When our lives lead us to demand, “How long, O Lord”, it is the prayers of the Psalms that remind me that the question isn’t a betrayal of faith in God but a testimony to it.

It is the Psalms because the Psalms are the best resource I know to remind me that what happens to the world matters greatly to God.

There’s a strand of Christianity that tries to teach us that the point of the Christian life is to escape the world. Such a view was declared inconsistent with the Gospel by the early church, but heresies have a way of sticking around.

You can’t really reconcile the idea that God doesn’t care about the world with the Bible. Genesis 1 tells us that upon seeing the world God had made, God called it very good. The most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16, which says the the gift of Jesus comes to us because, in fact, “God so loved the world”. The promised new Creation of Revelation contains the hope of no more tears and no more pain, because God actually cares about what you and I experience and grieves our pain. When we mourn, God mourns. That’s part of what it means to love, after all.

This is one of those foundational beliefs that shapes how we live, how we work and how we pray. It’s impossible to pray Your Kingdom, Your Will Be Done and live out a faith that avoids the pain of the world. You can’t live in faithfulness to the God who loves people and ignore the injustices that damage and destroy people that God loves and Christ died for. To love God is to love the world that God loves.

The Psalms both teach and show us how to be in relationship with a God who is not silent. Again and again the Psalms teach us how to pray in the conviction that we do not make our way in the world alone. We are not agents of transformation working by ourselves to make the world look the way God intended. The underlying belief of the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, is that we are not striving against injustice on our own, but are fighting the good fight in partnership with the God who will not sit on the sidelines.

Consider the words of Psalm 31, which I received, appropriately enough, on Saturday.  “Praise be the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege.” Bible in one hand, screen in the other you might say.

We should stamp Psalm 33 on our doorposts, words we need to shout as loud as we can when we want to give up, promises we need to hold on to when evil never seems to stop and hate-fueled violence appears as the inevitable outcome of a world gone mad. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations, he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

The message of the Bible is that God will not be deterred. From Genesis to Revelation we read how God is working to unite the entire human family. The distinctions and differences that we hold on to are the things that no longer define people in God’s new creation. The walls are being torn down and God will not rest until everyone is together at the table.

So keep working for God’s justice. Don’t give up on the Beloved Community. This is the heart of God. And God will not be deterred.
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Two Words To Find Our Way

I was scanning the room, making a mental checklist of what I needed to do before I could leave.

My church hosts a Thanksgiving Day Dinner for our community and has for years – just one picture of the way God can work hope out of tragedy.

It had been a great day, one of those days that reminds you why you do what you do. But the day was drawing to a close and I was in a hurry to get from one Thanksgiving meal to another. My wife and I were celebrating Thanksgiving by ourselves this year and there was a slow-cooker full of ribs with my name on them as soon as I could make it home.

About that time a church member came rushing into the room with an urgency normally reserved for news that isn’t good.

My first thought – those ribs better not get cold.

“Daniel – you’ve got to see this!”

There usually isn’t much use arguing with this particular child of God and there certainly wasn’t going to be on this day.

I walked across the hall into a classroom packed with clothes – some on hangers, some on tables, all given so that moms and dads might find some coats and clothes to make the winer a little less harsh for their kids.

But she pointed not to the clothes, but to a wooden bowl against the wall, normally reserved for a Sunday’s School class’s offering. In the bowl was a wadded up piece of paper.

A closer examination revealed that it was more than paper, but a dollar bill, left by a mother with a message for us. Snuck between the wrinkles and the lines sat two words in fresh black ink:

Thank You.

I was reminded of that message this week. We’re getting ready to host the dinner again – turkeys and pies being prepared, clothes being organized, people giving their time and their gifts for the reason that this is just who we are and this is just what do.

These simple words of gratitude from a woman, like so many in Scripture, whose name we’ll never know. This mom, who would have given anything to have enough money not to need our generosity, giving us the kind of gift money can’t buy.

And to think how close I came to missing it.

It’s not hard to miss things these days, in the days and weeks after our votes have been counted. They told us life would return to normal after the election, but normal feels a long way away.

I attended graduate school with many friends who take pride in calling themselves progressives. I serve in ministry with many friends who would take great offense at being called the same.

And so, like many, my Facebook feed is filled with point and counterpoint. I could spend, and admittedly have spent, days swimming in outrage and self-defense, trying to keep my head above water in the midst of analysis and accusations about why things are the way they are and just what they expect me to do about it.

It’s exhausting. And as anyone with kids knows, when you are tired you miss things.

I wonder how many gifts all this point and counterpoint has blinded us to. I wonder what grace we don’t have the eyes to see because we just can’t take in anything else. I wonder how many times Jesus has walked right past us while our eyes were watching something else.

I’ve come to realize in the last few years how so much of faith and discipleship is resisting the temptation to blindly settle into the categories people want to squeeze us into – rich and poor, blue and red, young and old, urban and rural just to name the most obvious.

Most of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as resistors. It might be because we’ve been conditioned to be skeptical of them. I suspect, however, that the real reason is that in the midst of work and family and church and everything else we don’t have a whole lot of energy left for resisting.

But what we need, now more than ever, is to summon the courage to resist and to find a better way to live our days. The good news is that as we turn to Thanksgiving and prepare to watch and wait through Advent, the path of resistance might not be all that complicated. It might be so obvious that even a beginner can find it, it might be right there on a wadded up dollar bill.

Thank You.

These words might be the clearest path beyond the categories that fuel our outrage and our defensiveness.

It’s hard to feel superior to the person across the table when you remember that everything you’ve been given is a gift. It’s hard to convince yourself that you have it all figured out when you look back on all your mistakes that somehow in grace weren’t terminal. It’s hard to judge the person who thinks differently when you are reminded of the things you used to think.

At least it is for me.

Because no matter what gets our blood pressure rising, we all have have received much from the God who has chosen to give it to us. No matter whether our bubble is an urban one or a rural one, we all have much to be grateful for. No matter what we want to say to that one family member, if we are honest, we can all find one place to say but for the grace of God go I…

So, how can you survive Thanksgiving Dinner this year?  What is the way forward for us all?

The answer might be the same.

Begin with two simple words.

Thank You.

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The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office

I hate this place.

They do their best to make it nice. They know you are nervous when you come here. They know you are doing everything you can to hold yourself together. They know your family hangs in the balance while you wait to hear your name called.

So they smile. They put you in nice, comfortable chairs – as nice as you can have in a doctor’s office. They invite you to look at the pictures, big black and white pictures – of moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. Smiling. Enjoying. Living.

This could be you – that’s what they want you to think. The pictures are supposed to put you at ease, to make you feel better about being here. They are here to help you believe.

But the pictures and the faces also confront you. They are of other people. They are of other families. These are not pictures of you.

The nurse calls our names and we look at each other, hearts racing, blood pressure skyrocketing. She walks back and I sit, waiting for another person in white to walk out and call her name.

Why is it always white? Everything here is black and white. It’s all celebration or despair, nothing in between. Everybody comes here to walk the tightrope of joy and tragedy, heartbreak and relief, praying against death and desperately hoping for new life.

We hear her name and look at each other again. Can’t avoid it any longer. We walk into the room – we’ve been here before. A familiar room and a familiar face.

She doesn’t remember us. We’ll never forget her.  She was the one who delivered the news that broke our hearts. Her words brought the grief that wouldn’t go away.

No heartbeat. 

This might not happen for you they told us. You might need to consider other options. And we have.

We’re as surprised as anybody to be back here for this, back in this room waiting, back here sitting and staring at a screen, back here trying to make sense of it, back here waiting for a verdict that will change everything, one way or the other.

She talks to us, asks us the usual questions, and then she gets a big smile on her face. We can’t go there yet.

We don’t smile when we come here.

“Your baby has a good, strong heartbeat.”

Our shoulders drop. We finally smile. We hug and we laugh and we cry, different tears than we’ve ever cried before.

“There’s your tax break, Ogle”, my wife says almost immediately with a wry, Chicago smile.

“Will this be your first?” the nurse asks us. Yes, we smile.

We tell her our story, about how this room is the last place we expected to be, about how we were learning about “other options”, about how pretty much is a really important metaphor when placed before impossible.

For nothing is impossible with God.

It turns out this office is full of preachers.

“I’ve worked here a long time and I’ll tell you that sometimes God knows more than the doctors. When God wants you to have a baby you are going to have a baby!”

I can’t help but think about our friends – women who would be great mothers and are still waiting. Has God decided something different for them? I hold it down, there are some days for theodicy and some days for celebration.

They take us into another room and we sit for about three minutes before another staff member – one who gave us our options and cared for us so well the last time we were here – comes bounding in with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so happy. I’ve got to call your doctor – she will be so excited.”

We tell her our story and she can’t help it either. “Sometimes God knows things that the tests don’t – you all are going to be great parents.”

For nothing is impossible with God. 

We look at each other again, eyes bright with hope and relief. We know there will be more trips here and more things to worry about. Every trip to this place, a friend will tell me later, is a chance for them to tell you what might be wrong with your baby. But not today.

Today we hope and dream for the life that is just starting to grow. Today we laugh about changing diapers and early morning feedings.  Today we know we’ll be spending a whole lot less time and money at Barnes & Noble and a whole lot more at Buy Buy Baby.

And we remember. As scary as this place is, God is here. Of course God is always here, has always been here. God is here with us today and didn’t leave the last time we were here.

God weeps with the ugly cry weepers and rejoices with the new parents celebrating life and dreaming dreams.

A few months later we sit in our living room. It’s a wreck now, nothing compared to the chaos it will become in a few weeks. Our house is littered with stuff, contraptions and must-haves only an entrepreneur could dream up. We’ve painted a room purple and jammed more pink into it than we ever imagined possible.

We smile and we wait, full of nerves and anxiety, wondering what we haven’t done yet and certain of all the ways we aren’t up to this.

We look at each other again and we remember – that even here, in this mess, we aren’t alone. God is here too. And that is enough.

That’s what we learned at The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office and from the preachers in scrubs.

God is up to something and new life is on the way.

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Finding Old Words to Heal Fresh Wounds

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Well, maybe. We can hope.

Election 2016 has been rough on us all. It has been hard and painful to watch the worst within us on full display, the decay we like to keep below the surface exploding out for all to see.

If there’s anything this year has taught is that we don’t agree on much, maybe the only the thing being that we haven’t enjoyed the view.

This year has been hard on a lot of people. It’s definitely been hard on the church, and no election in my lifetime has made me more seriously consider the wisdom of a holy separation – not so much for the nation’s benefit as for the church’s.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, and much of the damage we’ve received this year comes from being forced to deal with questions about the essentials on terms and in a context that are both unfamiliar and unhealthy.

We’ve been asked to define evangelical – one of our most important words – in the 24-hour news cycle and, even worse, on Twitter. We’ve watched so-called Christian leaders on both sides speak for us in ways and take positions that we would never defend. We know we are being judged for it even if there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

Church and politics: it’s an age-old question that has always seemed to confound the faithful. What to render to Caesar and what to give to God, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, where and how do the two kingdoms meet, and just what is the right dance for fidelity and policy?

But now, with Election Day finally drawing near, we’re beginning to ask what feels like an even more important question. How do we come together when we’ve spent so much time ripping each other apart?

The bitterness and the destruction seemingly all around us has turned us into overwhelmed voyeurs instead of the engaged citizens a democratic republic requires.

And so, we’re searching for the right phrases to help us find unity after a year that has felt like we’ve never been more divided. We’re looking for words to bring healing for communities and a culture that has advertised its brokenness.  We need both a vocabulary and a path to chart a better way.

We are tempted to search for new words and flashy turns of phrases. But the words we need aren’t new at all.

The words that will help us, the words that will lead us, the words with the power to show us that better way, or return to it, we’ve been saying them in some form or another for as long as there has been a church, as long as there have been people willing to show up for a holy meal.

And so our work begins on Sunday as we celebrate the mystery of God’s incredible grace that comes in ordinary ways and especially in bread and wine (or Welch’s).

Before we can celebrate, we’ll begin with confession.  We’ll confess that we don’t have it all right, no matter what we’ve said on social media. We’ll admit that we haven’t lived up to our commitment to fully open the church to people of all ages, nations and races the way we promised we would in our baptisms.

We’re going to ask forgiveness for the ways we have not always represented God well in the world and how we haven’t always resisted the spiritual forces of wickedness around us.  After all, we’ll remember our belief that our battle isn’t so much against flesh and blood but evil powers and dark principalities.

We’re going to seek grace for the ways, regardless of how we vote, that we have allowed other people and parties to set our agenda instead of listening to God’s priorities and lived into a more holy agenda.

When we don’t what to do, repentance is always a good first step – turning from our own ways towards the ways of God. And so that’s where we’ll start.

As we tell this story, the story of God’s love and faithfulness that has become our story, most fully realized in an Upper Room and on a Cross, we’ll commit ourselves to that turning.

We’ll say things like we who are many – in zip code, in racial identity, in tax bracket, in ideology – are one body.

We’ll rededicate ourselves of being the body of Christ – hands and feet for a broken and weary world.

We’ll promise to be what the Church is supposed to be – agents of grace for a world desperate for it.

We’ll march out of one holy space into another with the charge to be people of hope in a culture overwhelmed by despair.

Those are big words and audacious promises. We know, both by our theology and our history, that we can’t keep them by ourselves. And so we’ll ask God for help, that some how and some way, in these ordinary grocery-store bought gifts we’ll experience the presence and power we need to find and share a better way.

Old words get a bad rap. We convince ourselves that if the words we need are to be found we’ll have to make them up or find them somewhere we’ve never looked before.

The good news, evangel, that word that we can’t get away from this year, is the words we need are the ones that were given to us a long time ago.

Those old words still have the power to heal fresh wounds. And that oft-told story still points us back to the right path.

 

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