Not What You Think (Luke 7:36-8:3)

We’re in the middle of a weird season in Nashville where someone you know, but not everyone is on spring break. It was this past week for some people. It’s next week for others. Some might even have it the week after that. If one of my students from Youth Group were missing in late April and I asked, “Where’s so-and-so?” and someone said, “Oh, they’re on spring break,” I absolutely would believe them.

This past week was spring break for our boys. We took them up to see some of EA’s family in New Jersey and took them into New York City for a couple of days. People ask me if we had a good trip. Yeah, it was pretty good. They got to hang out with their cousins, they saw the Statue of Liberty and a few other sights in the city. It was pretty good. One person asked me if it was a restful trip. No. My kids get tired walking around Kroger when we’re shopping for groceries. Getting them to traverse a city of 8 million people was a pretty big ask. They did great, but I think of “a restful vacation” the same way that I think about flying cars. Like I think it might happen somewhere way off in the future, but I’m growing increasingly skeptical that I’ll ever see it.  

People who haven’t been up to New York always ask “Are Northerners nice?” Which is weird, because there is no way that everyone in a densely populated area is going to act the same way. No one asks me “Are Northerners brunettes?” But people always ask if Northerners are uniformly nice. Some of them are. There were many helpful folks as we tried to navigate the city, individuals who commented on the adorableness of our kids as they skipped around the Statue of Liberty, or who gave that reassuring nod when one of them had a meltdown. There were plenty of nice people. 

But there was this one guy.

Earth and Wind

I love Ash Wednesday, which is admittedly an odd thing to love. The message of the day is that we are dust. We are frail. We are fallen. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” One might as well play the Sufjan Stevens song that ends with refrain “We’re all gonna die / We’re all gonna die / We’re all gonna die.” I heard that song once playing in a bookstore. I looked around to see if anyone noticed our mortality was calling to us over the P.A. system. It was one strangely dark moment.

Ash Wednesday is not that bleak. There is the promise of Easter and resurrection on the other side of the Lenten wilderness. And perhaps that, besides my nerdery about the church, is why I love Ash Wednesday so much. It is this collision between reality and hope, fallenness and grace, death and life, the end and the beginning. It is this beautiful, complicated paradox that for some reason seems truer than true to me.

So as a minister I am not always sure what to say when I take the ash and make a cross on someone’s forehead. This is only the third year in which I have had this honor and I have said something different each year. I do not want to merely say that someone is dust and to dust they will return. It is an essential reminder, but it is not the entire story on this day. And I do not want to merely remind someone that God loves them. For to ignore the reality that we are dust removes all the bass notes that grounds that amazing reminder.

Building a Village at the End of the World

The Zelda video games can be kind of hit and miss for me. I appreciate the franchise for the trailblazer that it is, but only a few of its entries—Ocarina of Time and Link’s Awakening—have truly grabbed me. But my brother has raved about Breath of the Wild for about a year and a half. I trust my siblings’ recommendations implicitly for they rarely if ever steer me the wrong way. The game has sucked me in; it is an astonishingly great play.

I am kind of in a holding pattern right now. I have recaptured three of four Divine Beasts—MacGuffin-esque weapons that will help me defeat the series antagonist Ganon—and my sons want to see me take down the fourth. We try to limit the time that they’re in front of a screen so when I play during the week it is usually after they go to bed. So I am just whiling away time exploring the vast and varied world, looking for shrines, and secrets, and side quests. During this meandering journey is where I found a story of Quixotic yet beautiful hope.

The Kingdom of Hyrule is on the precipice of calamity. It’s been a hundred years since Ganon’s evil has laid waste to those who dared challenge him. Civilizations were razed. Their technology was possessed and turned into murder machines. Literal monsters lurk around seemingly every corner. One person—the titular Zelda—has single-handedly been keeping this evil from consuming Hyrule for a century and time is running out. So I bought a house.

Holding on to Joy

This is one that I’ve been trying to digest for a few weeks. While driving one day, I was listening to a podcast featuring Rob Bell: pastor, author, and John Piper’s heretic. He was discussing this guy who once came to him wanting to be a speaker. So Rob let him follow him everywhere. Like everywhere; even to the therapist. Eventually this guy got some invitations to speak/preach/whatever. He had some thought-provoking points, great story, what he thought were good jokes. But it didn’t land the way he wanted. When they didn’t respond the way he was hoping, he collapsed. 

At this point, I am completely identifying with the guy. I have been there. You work on something. You put your heart and soul into it and you are just truly excited about it. Then you offer it up and it doesn’t quite stick. It’s sort of like a small death. It causes you to question all sorts of things about yourself, your calling, etc.

In talking to this guy afterwards, Rob said, “Oh, your joy was in their hands. You walked out and handed this roomful of people all the power. And you handed them your joy and you waited for them to give it back…and then you read their response as you weren’t funny, profound, interesting.”

Another Journal

Seven or eight years ago, EA started giving me these journals as encouragement to write and just get my thoughts out. A few years later she quilted a slip case to hold the present active journal. Green and with a pattern of stained glass windows, it is with me nearly every day. In these journals have been lines on which I have written devotional reflections, prayers, and weak stabs at poetry. They are littered with doodles and sketches and brainstorms for everything from games to worship services. As time has gone on, there have been an increasing number of sermons taped within its pages.

By mere coincidence, I hit the end of a journal at the close of last year, which means that I am starting this year with a book full of blank pages. Poetically speaking, it’s a bit on the nose. I have a natural inclination to resist the idea that fresh starts can only happen when the calendar flips to January. Time keeps things ordered, but I am increasingly finding that it doesn’t really play into how we mature. We grow up non-linearally; in fits and starts, in quantum leaps and circling back around. I look at my grandfather ahead of me and desire for his hard-earned wisdom. I look at my sons behind me and yearn for their childlike wonder and hope.

Brave New Day (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)

It is still Christmas. As such, we shouldn’t sprint past the manger quite yet. We are also in a time during which we are looking forward to the new year.

I don’t know if you are the type of person who makes new year resolutions. I don’t officially make any though I did sign up for a spring half-marathon in a potentially ill-advised attempt to get myself to eat better and exercise more. But as the calendar turns, many of us cannot help but think about what this next year is going to look like for each of us. Keeping Christmas and the New Year in mind, I wanted us to reflect this morning on how the former might inform the latter. How can the Christmas story propel us forward in being the kind of people God desires in 2019?

Mercy Wild

For the last month, our oldest has been belting out Christmas carols. It is sweet even as the lyrics are often not entirely accurate. A few weeks ago, Jim busted out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which is one of his go-to standards this time of year. This isn’t an accident because I have been heavily dosing the holiday playlists with the soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas for as long as he’s been alive. He started singing:

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king
Peace on earth and mercy wild

I chuckled a little and corrected him. It’s “mercy mild” not “mercy wild.” And then I immediately wished that I had not done that. A few minutes later I told Jim that I actually liked his version better.

There is little about the Christmas story that one can consider mild. It’s the story of God becoming incarnate as a helpless and vulnerable baby. The way I see it, the story reads like a desperate, last-ditch gambit to save the world. The co-conspirator with God is an unwed teenage girl who willingly agrees to this harebrained scheme even though her pregnancy could have cost Mary her life one way or another. She, an uncertain fiancé, and a ragtag group of shepherds stand on one side as the vengeful puppet king of the world’s foremost superpower stands on the other.

It is a story of refugees and late night escapes over borders. It is a story where Mary sings of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

A Refuge in Egypt

Per Wikipedia, Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville is designed in style of Egyptian Revival architecture. It is not a style you normally see especially for a church. But the good folks at Downtown Pres really went for it. The painted interiors, the oasis-in-the-desert stained glass windows, and even the crosses with Horus falcon-like wings evoked the banks of the northern Nile. As my brother and I sat in the pews staring at this church unlike any we’d ever seen, there was only one way that two kids born in the 1980s could compute it: “It’s like we’re in the desert world from Super Mario Bros. 3.”

The reason that my brother and I were crammed into a padded pew into downtown Nashville on a Friday night was we were attending The Liturgists Gathering, a two-day assemblage centered around the eponymous podcast on science, faith, and art. It was all kind of a head trip. I told Taylor as we walked back to our car the first night that I felt like I had just drank from a firehose. Not only was there myriad of interesting topics discussed, but the sheer diversity of the gathering—from conservative-leaning evangelicals to spiritually-inclined atheists to everything in-between—is unlike anything in which I have participated.

What is the common thread for such a motley assortment of people? As “Science” Mike McHargue, one of the podcast’s hosts, said on Saturday morning, it was rejection. Most of the people in that room had been turned away from or had to leave their church at some point. The reasons weren’t all the same nor was the intensity of that rejection. For some of us, we still felt comfortable in a church even if the type of church we attend is markedly different from our earlier homes. Yet for others that rejection was violent and there was no safe sanctuary to be found in a place of worship.

The Skeleton Key in a Doctor Who Recap

I don’t watch Doctor Who. It’s a show I’ve always intended to dive into, but the sheer volume of episodes is so overwhelming that I have done little more than sample. But I do read Doctor Who recaps on the internet because my siblings and their spouses are big Doctor Who fans and I want to be conversant with them.

None of this is really about the space and time traveling British hero. It’s about a random line in a recap of this past week’s episode (by Caroline Siede) which centered around a 17th century witch hunt:

Once you’ve murdered a couple dozen people under the auspices of doing God’s will, it’s hard to admit you may have made a mistake. So the only way forward is to double down, rope more people into your violent system, and do whatever you can to justify your twisted sense of morality—both to others and to yourself.

Reading that, I heard the click of an unlocking door. If you have known me for any period of time then you know that one of the things that has vexed and haunted me for so long is how people who claim to follow Jesus can commit all sorts of actions that are diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings.

In God's Country (Philippians 2:6-11)

It might be late November, but for the church calendar, this is the last Sunday of the year before everything starts brand new next week with Advent. Advent is a season in which we are thrown to and fro through time as we look back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the birth of Jesus, and towards a future in which we pray that God will make all things right. Yet before we get there, we have this last Sunday which is known as Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. I confess that this is one of those topics about which I immediately said, “I’m going to talk about that and I have no idea how I’m going to talk about that.”

Talking about royalty is difficult; especially in this country where we don’t have much of a frame of reference for kings. Not having a king is kind of our whole deal in the United States. That is where we started as a country and as such, I think we’re kind of resistant to the idea of any kind of authority.

Everything I know about kings comes from this strange mixture of Bible stories, U.S. History, the musical Hamilton, whatever the situation is with Great Britain and their royal family, Disney fairy tales, and the Super Mario video games where the king is apparently an absent father who perpetually permits his princess daughter to get kidnapped by a fire-breathing turtle dragon. In my mind, kings have either been silly or fictional or existed so long ago that it is a challenge to make heads or tails of them. How do you and I talk about Jesus reigning as king in our present context?