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”

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)”

A Terror and a Blessing (169)

Here in II Samuel 6 we have another difficult biblical passage. It is allegedly a simple story of David moving the ark of God to a more prominent location. Earlier in the week, when I sent out the electronic version of our church’s order of service, I mentioned that I was having trouble with this passage. One person wrote back and suggested that I just follow David’s example . . . and dance.

Given the difficulty of this passage, I couldn’t help but take the suggestion seriously. Liturgical dance was a thing when I went to seminary. I didn’t take the class, but I’ve seen it done. However, in giving the idea some thought, it occurred to me (as it may have just occurred to you) that what got David in trouble was the fact that he danced in nothing but a linen ephod. Our denominational code of ethics doesn’t actually deal with this specific situation, but still . . . instead of dancing with this story, I think we are better off wrestling with it. Continue reading “A Terror and a Blessing (169)”

He Saw a Great Commotion (168)

The fourth chapter of Mark ends with the great story of Jesus calming the storm. What we don’t always notice is that when they were caught up in the storm, Jesus and his disciples were heading toward a part of ancient Palestine known as the Decapolis. It was the “other” side. The Decapolis was a group of cities culturally distinct from the area Jesus and most of his disciples called home. This area was so deeply influenced by Greek culture that many devout Jews would have considered it morally suspected, or possibly even depraved. For them it was the kind of place, that if you went at all, left you feeling contaminated.

As soon as they got out of the boat on this side of the lake a naked man with broken shackles and chains rushed at them. This would have confirmed the darkest of the disciples’ suspicions. Yet Jesus met the man, spoke to him, calmed him . . . and healed him. The locals were intimidated. They asked the group to leave. Our reading (Mark 5:21-43) comes right after this. When Mark says that Jesus and his friends “crossed again” it meant they were coming back to their side of the Galilee.      Continue reading “He Saw a Great Commotion (168)”

David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)

What do we do with some of these Bible stories? If you happen to be at a place in life where you are looking for kid’s toys, you have probably seen about a hundred different versions of Noah’s ark. All the sets are brightly colored. They have fun little boats and all sorts of wonky animals. Yet if you’ve ever actually sat down and played with one of these with a child, you’ve probably found yourself in an awkward situation. Maybe you were pushing the boat across the carpet in the living room and narrating the story in a funny voice . . . and then you suddenly realized what an awful story it is. The narrative involves all of humanity, except for one family, being drowned! Almost all the animals drown. You close the cute little door on the ark with all the animals on board, Noah’s family is peaking out a portal—and the rest of humanity is screaming in terror. Most of us skip that last part. Yet for some reason the story of Noah’s ark persists in being one of the first that we tell to children: “Welcome little one to the beloved community, let me tell you about the time God killed everyone.” And we wonder why some kids hate taking baths. Continue reading “David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)”

People who “Get Things Done”

We have probably all heard someone described as a person who just “get things done.” We give and take that line as a compliment. Last week I had the chance to dive back into one of my ongoing writing projects. Thankfully, the church I serve lets me set a bit of time aside each year for this kind of work. My goal last week was to wrestle a long piece of historical work into publishable form. The essay–which still isn’t “done”–tries to show how a particular non-profit organization became involved in a colonialist project. I have a lot of data. There are lots of dates and names to keep strait, lots of related government agencies and other political structures . It’s difficult to keep it all straight. Yet what I noticed is that one particular individual kept surfacing throughout the story. In network speak, he had a high level of “betweenness centrality.” He was known as someone who “got things done.” Continue reading “People who “Get Things Done””

Not Driven to Despair (165)

It is election season here in Ontario. That means it’s hard not think of Sunday’s New Testament reading (II Cor. 4:5-12) in terms of Paul having an image problem. Might that bring to mind one or another of our political leaders? Whether it does or doesn’t, it was true for Paul. He did have an image problem. Commentators tell us that two things dogged Paul’s relationship with his constituents in the city of Corinth and beyond. Continue reading “Not Driven to Despair (165)”

Holy, Holy, Holy or Whatever (164)

In the beginning of Isaiah chapter six we find an account of the prophet’s vision of the heavenly throne: Isaiah sees the Lord, he hears the seraphs, he is cleansed and called. I wonder how you experience reading a biblical passage like this. My guess is that many of us love the majesty and the smoky mystery of the vision. At the same time, we find it hard to take the actual substance of the claim seriously. Isaiah saw God? Isaiah was called by God personally? It may seem more like an excerpt from a fantasy novel than a historical report. Continue reading “Holy, Holy, Holy or Whatever (164)”