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On Pilgrimage

From January 6 to 17, I’ll join a number of clergy colleagues, classmates, and pilgrims on an 11 day class and experience to the Holy Lands in Israel and Palestine.

I hope you will pray for me as I undertake this pilgrimage.

This is not a vacation but a learning experience. I will be engaged in conversation and prayer, walking where Jesus walked, hearing the experiences of the people of the land, and trying to understand the beauty and conflict in that part of the world. It's going to be a life changing experience, and I'm thankful you give me the opporunity to keep growing through this Doctor of Ministry coursework.

We don’t always use terms like “pilgrimage” in our faith. Sometimes, we joke about going on pilgrimage to a famed sports stadium of a beloved team, but I usually don’t hear any of you talking about taking a “pilgrimage” out to Bethany Beach for a church retreat. And yet, we are each taking pilgrimages every day of our lives - especially when we venture into the unknown and learn something about who we are.

That’s the ancient meaning of this practice that goes back to the earliest Biblical witness.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” - Genesis 12:1

In my first Bible as a youngster, I remember thumbing through the maps at the back of it. One of them showed the routes that Paul might have taken on his own pilgrimages and journeys to support churches and share the startlingly good news of Jesus. I didn’t get it. Why couldn’t Paul just stay in one place and let the people come to him?

How easy church would be today if we could just sit back and let people come to us!

Rather, Paul’s journeys, I believe, aided his message. He had to be creative and fluid. He had to listen and learn and adapt. His journey placed him into communities and lives that were desperate to hear some good news. Paul’s journeys took him and the gospel into the unknown, and the church grew.

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. “ - Ruth 1:15b

From my life experience, journeys to some place new almost always stretch us. We learn about different customs and cultures. We experience sacred space in different ways. Our lives are changed by encounters with neighbors and the opportunities to humanize distant communities and practices. We see that we are all the same and all so different. The world becomes both larger and smaller.

The Christian practice of a pilgrimage mirrors the journeys of Abram, Ruth, Elijah, and the early church. We go into a foreign place where we must learn new words and practices to get by. We recognize, even if we are coming from a culture of privilege, that we are outsiders now. In the process of feeling clumsy, of messing up, we rely on the hospitality and grace of others.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” - Matthew 28:19

What if 2020 became a pilgrimage year not just for me but for our entire church?

Some of you are beginning this year in new jobs, planning trips to take you into unfamiliar territory, or looking for experiences to stretch and grow. You are already on board with this, I bet. But sometimes, we get comfortable with status quo. Some of us would rather talk about church bulletins than evangelism. What if we took this risk together to embark into the unknown and discover something new about who we are and who God is calling us to be?

As a church, especially as we continue our Epiphany process, we are likewise being asked to stretch and grow. We know our future as a congregation does not mean doing what we used to do better. Being the church at the intersection asks us to be open, not just to those passing by, but invitations to go deeper into our community and rely on the hospitality of others. Faith and spirituality is changing. The needs of the world press in all around. What will University Christian Church look like in ten years? How do we get there?

Let’s put on our walking shoes together… and see.

Please join me in prayer for the journey ahead:

God of this New Year, you are calling us to be on the move. You are calling us to walk paths into places we have not been, to meet strangers who we need to hear, to create relationships that we never thought were possible. Challenge us to take risks. Stretch us. Use us. Shape us into something new. Trusting in your guiding, we ask your blessing on this journey ahead. Amen!

(posted January 3, 2020)

Peaceful Joy

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-15 Matthew 1:18-25

Friends, we are here - on the doorstep of Christmas.

I will be real as your pastor - I was so looking forward to this season of Advent and had mentally prepared all the things I was going to do to make it especially heartwarming and fun and… well, it’s almost over. And it still feels like so many things need to happen between now and Christmas Eve.

It never fails. No matter the hard work or preparation or inspiration to do things differently, to worship more deeply, to get the task list done, to write up the Christmas cards back in November, to be more generous - something always goes wrong at this time of year.

But luckily, I’m not alone. Like this family in Austin, TX, who setup their Christmas decorations in an attempt to win their coveted neighborhood competition, and well, added some extra drama to people’s lives in a way they did not intend:

Watch the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyaNQK4oOAQ

I’ve mentioned it before, but National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of my faves. I’m not ready for the season until I’ve sat down and watched it. For me, it captures both the beauty and insanity of this time of year in American culture. And really, I can’t get into the spirit of the season without watching this movie.

In this movie, Clark Griswold, described by his co-workers as “the last true family man”, desires nothing else than to have a good old fashioned Christmas - and for him, that means being with family. It means a big Christmas tree. It means extravagant Christmas decorations. It means food and gift giving and memories and gratitude and love. But, since this is a comedy, nothing goes right.

The family gathers from far and wide and go about annoying each other and griping and complaining. The turkey is too dry. Their Christmas tree catches fire. A squirrel gets loose in the house. A SWAT team breaks through the windows. There’s even a sewer gas explosion. On and on.

I think this movie is popular because it speaks to all of our own desires to make this season special and the reality of how difficult it can be. How, no matter our meticulous planning, no matter how thoroughly we think things through, no matter how hard we pray, the unexpected will happen. Our plans will be disrupted. It won’t necessarily be silent and holy and joyful and peaceful.

At the end of the movie, as he watches his Santa Claus lawn ornament hurtle through the air following the sewer gas explosion, Clark finally finds a bit of peace when he seems to finally accept that Christmas is here - messy and chaotic, sure - but it is here.

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Maybe this is true of each of us in someway.

Maybe you were looking forward to this season, to the Christmas cards and music, to the opportunities to be with friends, to the fun of gifts, to the sights and sounds of our church gatherings and prayers.

But, so many things haven't gone to plan, have they?

Instead of hope for the future, we have been treated to another chapter in our nation’s ongoing leadership crisis, a crisis that bitterly divides us in a cauldron of fake news and uncertainty and bitter partisanship.

Instead of a fount of joy, too many of us have been stained by grief and heartache, longing for loved ones to be made whole, struggling to navigate dysfunctional and shattered families, overcome by tears and despair.

Instead of experiencing an abundance of love, we are anxious - anxious about the loss of healthcare, anxious about the inability to get a single job interview, anxious about our bills, anxious about our children and grandchildren. Anxious about the Mary and Joseph’s without a place to call home.

Instead of a glimmer of peace in this season from perpetual conflicts around the world, we see more lives uprooted and snatched away by war and violence, protests being squashed, voices crying out for justice silenced.

So despite our plans, despite what we may have prayed here we are - on the doorstep of Christmas - still waiting for peace - looking to the sky for a sign. Looking for God to speak to us in all this mess and chaos.

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I think Joseph knew what we were experiencing too, and in fact, Joseph would have felt a little kinship to Clark Griswold.

All the scriptures tell us about Joseph is that he was a descendant of the line of King David and that he was righteous. He came from a royal family, although, there wasn’t a lot royal about them anymore. He was a carpenter, which was honest and decent work, but certainly didn’t put him in the top tax bracket. As a righteous man, Joseph wasn’t perfect, but he followed God’s ways as best as he could, fearing the Lord, living with integrity and honesty. His Twitter account, if he had one, would have been blessedly free of meltdowns and tirades and insults.

So, maybe it’s just my own imagination, but I think Joseph, as he became engaged to this young dynamic woman from his village named Mary, probably didn’t ask for much. He probably didn’t ask God for anything more than a normal, ordinary family and to be able to be the best parent he could be to his future children.

But then the most shocking news came - Mary was pregnant, and she and Joseph hadn’t even held hands yet.

That’s not how this is supposed to work.

After praying about it for a long while and thinking about what would be best for Mary and for him to walk away from this engagement quietly and respectfully, Joseph had one of those hard nights of sleeping, tossing and turning, one too many Christmas cookies in his belly, with the kind of dreams that you can’t forget. I’m going to go on record that I don’t think angels were the soft, white robe, feathery winged creatures like we see depicted around. I think angels were probably terrifying - beings of might - who caused you to take notice, which is why their first words were always, “Do not be afraid!”

That night, the angel of the Lord spoke in Joseph’s dreams, “Look, I know this is not what you planned or dreamed of, but Mary IS pregnant and her child - your child, is special. You will name him Jesus, and he will save your people. He will even be called, as the prophet Isaiah said, Emmanuel, God With Us.”

Can’t you imagine Joseph waking up in a cold sweat and wondering, couldn’t I just have a good old fashioned Galilean Christmas?

Can you imagine the drama set off in Nazareth, the tongues that were wagging, the accusations that were whispered?

Can you imagine the word from cousins and neighbors and friends who were suddenly unavailable during the upcoming wedding celebration?

There's a viral article going around once again reminding us that the original Christmas was anything but silent. There was no symphony orchestra playing softly in the background. There was no room service long ago.

Rather, Jesus came to a young couple who were likely scared out of their minds
    came into a world filled with tyrannical, egotistic, vicious lords and leaders
        came into a world of violence and war
            came into a world of injustice and grief and trouble
                came into a world where children and families were at risk
                    came into a world where peace seemed a pipe dream…

So can you also imagine the incredible courage of Joseph and Mary as they accepted this strange news with courage, trusting in God?

Can you imagine the peaceful joy that must have overcome them to face the difficult road ahead… together.

Into this mess and chaos, God came.

Christmas happened anyway.

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Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the meaning of this gift of peace when he said, “Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.”

When the prophet Isaiah dreamed of a leader coming to save the Hebrew people, he said the child would come from a young woman - and he would taste “curds and honey”, a symbol if you remember from our study of the Book of Joshua of the promised land. The Promised Land wasn’t just a literal place, a plot of land, or a singular nation - the Promised Land was an invitation to live fully into God’s abundance, to live into right relationship with the earth and all of humanity in such a way that even the nations of the world came to learn and study war no more.

This is the peace that Christmas offers us - the same that Mary and Joseph no doubt relied upon - the peace of our God who loves us so much to break into the mess and chaos of our lives, into the courts of corrupt leaders, into the dysfunction and violence of our world and families.

An invitation to tastes the "curds and honey” of God’s shalom - of wholeness for me, for you, and for all humanity.

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Father Elias Chacour, in his book Blood Brothers, tells the story of the first parish he served in the hills above Nazareth. When he showed up on his first day, the place was a mess. The church doors were hanging off their hinges. Someone had stolen the communion cup. The benches were warped. There was no bed in the rectory for him to get a good night’s rest. And furthermore, the church was divided, seen as untrustworthy, sparsely attended, overcome by conflict.

The one person in charge of keeping the affairs of the charge was a nasty old man who stalked after Father Chacour wherever he went, told him where he was allowed and not allowed, and barred access to the church to certain people in the community who he didn’t like.

And beyond that, in the village, there was strife daily. One family of brothers hated each other so much, that when their mother passed, the brothers couldn’t even be in the same room together. There were violent feuds between neighbors. There were accusations. The people had no use for the church, no longer saw the gospel as good news because it seemed the church over the years had gone out of its way to foment conflict more than seeking peace.

For months, Father Chacour labored courageously, going door to door, knocking on houses, sharing coffee, getting to know the neighbors and inviting them to worship - but progress was slow. Every effort seemed to face resistance. The people were angry and bitter. Many wanted this priest to go back to where he came from.

So finally, Father Chacour decided to do something drastic. Out of the whole year, the only time the church had a large crowd was Palm Sunday and Easter, so that year, on Palm Sunday, they gathered, standing room only, in the little village church. Worship was lifeless. People sang listlessly, not from their hearts. Father Chacour struggled with fear throughout the worship, preaching one of his worst sermons, fearful that what he was about to do could cost him everything.

Finally, at the time of the benediction, Father Chacour, rather than offer parting words, took a deep breath, asked God to give him the strength, and then marched silently, all eyes fixed on him, to the church’s entrance. There, he took a chain and padlock out from a hiding place, wrapped it around the doors, and locked the doors shut. The temperature in the room seemed to rise.

He turned around to address the congregation:

“Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other - gossip and spread malicious lies. What do our Muslim neighbors and the unbelievers in our village think when they see you? Surely, that you religious is false. If you can’t love your brother that you see, how can you say you love God who is invisible? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced.”

The anger in the room began to rise. The old man who stalked the priest looked like he was about to explode, but Father Chacour continued, “I have tried for these months to help you, but I have failed. So, now, the only one who can help you is Jesus. Now, I will be quiet and allow Him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we will stay locked in here, and I will do your funerals for free.”

Father Chacour said it felt like an eternity passed as no one spoke, as the people stood silently. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. He wondered if he had failed, if it was all for naught.

And then, suddenly, the eldest brother of one of the feuding families rose to his feet. In a shaking voice, he looked out at the church and began to ask forgiveness, for the hatred in his heart, for the violence he wished upon his own family, for the anger he held at the priest. And suddenly, his three brothers, moments before separated by years of distrust and vitriol, rushed to him. They embraced.

Father Chacour said that suddenly, the church erupted into chaos - but not a chaos of fistfights and shouting matches - but of tears, of apologies, of hugs, of confessions, and of forgiveness. Of a glimmer of shalom, peace on earth and goodwill to all. God With Us.

Friends, we are on the doorstep of Christmas, and there is still messiness and chaos ahead. Perhaps the gift you might bring in this season is to embrace the mess and chaos add some of your own. Maybe you don’t need to do anymore shopping - the gift you might offer is peace - to offer grace, to offer an apology, to seek forgiveness, to start again with someone estranged, to embrace the stranger. Maybe it is our call as a church to find the peace God is offering us in the chaos and confusion of our life so we can be a witness in troubled times.

And maybe - Christmas will come. Christmas will happen anyway.

And then, we will be able to sing with joy, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

(posted December 23, 2019)

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 3:1-3

Today, I want to invite us to continue our journey in joy by… singing.

Verse 2 of Isaac Watts famous Christmas carol goes:

Joy to the earth! the Saviour reigns:
let all their songs employ
while fields and floods rocks hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

Despite the reality that singing in public in front of strangers is far less popular in our country in recent years, Christmas is the one season where we dare repeat the sounding joy. We turn our radio dials to Christmas stations. We put on our favorites in the background. We hum along walking down the grocery aisle. Even if we are sick and tired of Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, once it starts, it’s almost impossible to get it out of our head.

There is something inseparable about Christmas and singing.

In this clip from the 2003 film, Elf, Buddy the Elf insistently teaches one of his co-workers that singing lifts our spirits.

"The best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing loudly for all to hear”.

What is it about Christmas? What is it about this season of Advent that moves us, often begrudgingly, into an attitude of joyful noise? Even though the world might be going into chaos around us, even though there are so many grieving and hurting, even though we long for justice for our city streets, why does the Christmas story move us into melodies and harmonies of wonder and beauty?

And what did Isaac Watts mean in Joy to the World when he dared suggest that even the earth around us would echo back our praise?

In our passage from the prophet Isaiah, we discover a serious “why” that answers what we do in this time of preparation.

According to theologian Gene Tucker, these opening verses from chapter 11 are a little unusual amidst the rest of the book of Isaiah. For one, they are not a typical prophetic announcement. Often, those kinds of announcements would name places and people and call for judgment for the ways the people have strayed from God’s way. But this passage isn’t just a nice little piece of poetry. Isaiah is not jotting down some elegant and quaint words for us to enjoy.

Isaiah’s verses here are more like a dream - but not just any dream - they are God’s dream for the world. God’s dream for our lives. God’s dream for you and me.

If you remember how I defined joy last week, joy, unlike happiness, is not a temporary short term pleasure - joy comes in response to some unexpected, gratuitous goodness.

This passage, likewise, is “unqualified good news”.

It’s good news because Isaiah calls for a new kind of leader to emerge, a leader that God is going to send.

For the Hebrew people, this new leader would come from the line of David and remind the people of God’s covenant that stretched far back among their ancestors. This leader would thus represent a continuation of God’s faithfulness with the people.

But there’s more - this leader would not simply be a decent person. This new leader would not just win the majority of the popular vote and electoral college. This new leader wouldn’t just dodge scandals and impeachment trials and bad tweets.

This new leader would be blessed with a spirit of knowledge and wisdom, which I heard from a colleague means they would be smart and know what to do with those smarts.

This new leader would act with justice and compassion, especially for those who are poor and struggling. And those who are wicked, who exploit the weak and cause chaos and confusion, would face a reckoning and consequences.

As Isaiah’s dream gets better, so do the images. Now, it’s not just a strong and decent leader - it’s now a new vision of life together, a world where prey and predator snuggle up together for a bedtime story, where a child has no fear from the venomous creatures around, where Creation is at peace and rest. This shalom emanates from God’s holy mountain, thick with the presence of God.

What’s clear about this pronouncement from Isaiah - it is worthy of joy. It is good news. Isaiah does not offer this as an instructional text, like here is step one two and three if we want to achieve world peace. This vision describes how God desires our lives to be. God desires our world to be at peace. God desires nations to lay down their weapons. God desires the earth to no longer groan in subjugation to powers and principalities. God desires for there to be no more dividing lines, no more US/Mexico borders, no more South/North Korea, no more distrust and hatred.

All of this gifted to Creation - through the sending of God’s blessed leader, one we might call Prince of Peace - all through God’s action.

So, I hope you get why Isaac Watts had the nerve to write, “Joy to the world!”

There is something to be joyful about!

As Christians, we read Isaiah and we see glimpses of the one we call Savior, Jesus, the one who came to bless us with life, to move us into the work of loving neighbor and peace making in our neighborhoods, in expectation that God’s dream is already unfolding, bit by bit, right here and now.

It’s as Kelly Brown Douglass said at the beginning of our worship time - God is coming to us, always coming to us, so we are challenged to join in that freedom work until God arrives.

And so we sing - we sing as people of faith - we sing in the midst of grief and sorrow - we sing when we are uncertain about our future - we sing when things seem bleak - because God’s dream is still coming for us and this world. That’s why we spend these days preparing for Christmas morn. That’s why we make room within and without. That’s why we continue to give and hope in expectation that God is still on the way.

I think Isiah’s words here are a dream, and while dreams can be written down and spoken outloud, they are much better made into music, aren’t they?

Music can capture these dreams in ways that mere words or proclamations cannot.

Music, especially in this Christmas season, can help us dream and help us pray. They can flip the script on who is in and out, who is enemy and who is friend.

And likewise for us: our carols become more than just tunes that make us happy. They become our response, our trust to Gods movement.

We all have a song to sing.

EVERYONE HAS A SONG - Zechariah had a song when the angel came to him and told him he was going to have a son John, who as we heard in our scripture, would show the way out of the wilderness into abundant life.

EVERYONE HAS A SONG - Mary said yes to Gabriel and God to be co-partner’s in this work of incarnation, and she had a song to sing that spoke of justice for the weak and oppressed, God’s way breaking in. “My soul magnifies the lord!”

O come all the faithful becomes a fight song, a protest. Proclaiming triumph before the battle!

Angels we have heard on high proclaims that God is speaking over the consumer culture of credit cards and sales, saying Gloria! 

Silent night becomes a lullaby to a new world that is God creating.

I want to encourage you to find that song that for you will point the way to God’s coming. You don’t have to do what Buddy the Elf did and stand up in the middle of Macy’s and bust out a few bars. But you can hum it at work. You can ground yourself in its words to start your day, asking for joy even when things are hard. You may even need to write your own Christmas carol as you face conflict or what seem like insurmountable obstacles.

What is your song as you respond to this good news of Christmas? How will you respond to this good news?

I truly believe everyone has a song to offer in response to what God is doing in our world.

This is what God is doing right now and in the days to come - GOD IS GIVING US SONGS TO SING. 

Can you imagine it?

God loves us so much - that God wants us to live in peace.

God loves us so much - that God would send God’s own son to be our example of love.

God loves us so much - God gifted us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to get through each day, even the hard ones.

God loves us so much - that God desires all of Creation to be restored and whole and at rest, from the mosquitos to polar bears.

And so, we praise God. We rejoice! We spread Christmas cheer loudly for all to hear.

Our Lord is coming. Peace is just around the corner. Hope is on its way. Love… is here.

If there is anything worth singing about it, it is this:

Joy to the world
to all the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me.
 

(posted December 10, 2019)

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