Something about Humility (175)

[Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Mark 10:35-45]

Most people today do not have spiritual conversations—at least not very often. We don’t talk much about God. We don’t talk much about prayer. We don’t talk much about theological virtues. Most of us are not comfortable with spiritual language. This is all according to a study outlined recently in the New York Times.[1] Continue reading “Something about Humility (175)”

Tilling, Working, Naming (174)

[Genesis 2:15-20; Psalm 8]

What are people for?

Some of you will recognize that question from the title of a little book by a farmer-poet. That’s the first place I can recall seeing the matter put this way. It’s a good way to ask the question, isn’t it? What are people for? The question upends things.

We have recently welcomed several new babies into our congregation. At the same time a number of us have said a final “goodbye” to someone we love. And some of us are going through the torturous process of wondering if it is our turn for such a goodbye. Birth and death are the bookends. But what about the time in between, where we all are, soaked in the bliss, the pain, the boredom. What is that? What are people for?   Continue reading “Tilling, Working, Naming (174)”

A Meaningful Life, Even if it Doesn’t Make the Forbes List (173)

[Esther 7:1-6, 7-10; 9:20-22]

Every week we are given several possible texts that might anchor our worship service. One of options this week is a passage from the book of Esther. At a point in time when the public conversation keeps looping back to the ways many women have been mistreated by men in positions of power, it would be strange not to take this opportunity to sit with the story of Esther. This is the story of a woman who chose to step off the path her life seemed to be on. She chose to take a risk, and not a selfish risk, not a risk for herself, but a risk for others. There is a lot we can learn from Esther’s story, but one thing is surely how to live a life of significance—even in very difficult circumstances. Continue reading “A Meaningful Life, Even if it Doesn’t Make the Forbes List (173)”

An Impending Storm and the Odd Parallel with the Biblical Concept of Heaven

“Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different.” Those are the words of an official explaining the seriousness of the hurricane currently swirling in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm is predicted to hit the eastern seaboard sometime on Thursday or Friday. The weather oracles are talking about a possible storm surge of ten feet, two feet of rain, a recovery that takes weeks, multiple states impacted . . . . People in the storm’s path are scrambling to get prepared. The rest of us are looking on with a mix of concern and fascination that keeps us glued to the news.

A storm is a real thing, a very concerning thing in this case . . . what could it possibly have to do with the old crusty topic of heaven? Well, probably not what you think. Continue reading “An Impending Storm and the Odd Parallel with the Biblical Concept of Heaven”

Gifts to Each (172)

[Mark 7:31-37; James 2:1-8]

One of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century described God as “the One who loves in freedom.”[1]

That’s the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, writing sometime around 1939. At that point in his life Barth had been forced to give up his teaching position in Germany and leave the country because he was unwilling to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. This sort of political consciousness wasn’t new for Barth. Earlier in his life, when he was a pastor, he was well-known as an advocate for the rights of factory workers. The vitality of his theology was prompted by a crises of faith he experienced during the First World War when he saw many church leaders and intellectuals support the violence without question. They simply assumed that God backed the nationalistic agenda. Continue reading “Gifts to Each (172)”

Until the Day Breathes (171)

[Song of Solomon 2:8-17] Earlier this summer my family and I spent six days canoe camping. Over the past few years, we’ve been working our way up to spending a whole week in the backcountry. It always takes a few days to adjust to being so exposed to wind, sun and rain. Our six days this year were what I would call “honest.” By that I mean the weather was a mixture of rain and sun (with a few odd thunderstorms); the bugs were not unbearable, but they were present; our food was good, but we had to hang it in a tree at night; our sleeping bags and tent stayed dry, but we had to pack them carefully, carry them over the portage and paddle them across the bay. Continue reading “Until the Day Breathes (171)”

Why I Stopped “Following” Jesus

This isn’t quite how the conversation unfolded, but it’s pretty close: I was sitting across from a fellow pastor in his forties, a man who — unlike me —was hip enough to look like he belonged in the minimalist cafe where we met. We were talking about the pastoral challenges that come with yet more public failures from religious leaders. While I was deeply impressed by my conversation partner’s commitment to the local community, I noticed a peculiar pattern as the conversation unfolded. Continue reading “Why I Stopped “Following” Jesus”

A Shameful Week to Be a Member of the ‘Clergy’

I have never liked the idea of being a member of the ‘clergy’. Most weeks I’m not sure why that is. This week, though, it’s obvious. Just a few days ago a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in that state. The report wasn’t only about the abuse itself, but also about the way members of the clergy worked to protect priests who perpetrated these crimes, drew attention away from these matters and generally made prosecution difficult. As helpful as the report itself is, it appears that there will be few, if any, new criminal prosecutions or civil suits. This, despite the fact that there are more than 1000 victims. The crimes simply happened too long ago for perpetrators to still be legally vulnerable. Continue reading “A Shameful Week to Be a Member of the ‘Clergy’”

Worship and the Ways it Forms Us

One of the things about worship I remember from my high school years was the sense that it was mostly pointless. I don’t recall ever making a big deal about not wanting to participate, after all it was a good time to see friends, but I would have had a hard time making a case that worship was valuable. What “participating” in worship probably meant for me then was sitting in the back, standing when absolutely necessary and singing only at Christmas and Easter. The lowest points of worship for me were the responsive readings and the recitation of the creeds from the back of the worship book. At the time, these were new, cutting-edge resources for worship leaders in those church circles. To me they were, and here I quote my younger self, “mindless incantations.” If I valued worship of any type as a high school student, I valued what felt like genuine self-expression. It had to authentic, from the heart, to have any value at all.    Continue reading “Worship and the Ways it Forms Us”

Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)

In the biblical world hyssop was used for both medical and ceremonial purposes. It’s an aromatic plant, a bit like sage or mint. It was prescribed for sore throats and upset stomachs. The ancient Hebrews used it in purification rituals. That’s what the poet in Psalm 51 has in mind when he asks to be “purged with hyssop.” He has confessed; he’s hoping to be cleansed and forgiven.

The most famous advocate in our own time for the power of confession and forgiveness must be Desmond Tutu. In 1986 Tutu was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. The job came with an official residence in an area known as Bishopscourt. At the time black folks like Tutu needed special passes just to enter that part of the city. Archbishop Tutu declined to apply for such a pass. He decided he would live in the archbishop’s traditional residence with or without the approval of a racist government. Tutu did not lack for courage. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he spent his first night as a free man in that residence, hosted by the archbishop. Continue reading “Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)”