You Are Enough

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.


Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 1:8-14 ; 3:1-15

A  couple of weeks ago, I was going about my  business as usual, and preparing to preach on Sunday, when something happened that changed everything.  You see, as a pastor and a public speaker, there are a lot of variables that I have to consider when I prepare to speak–what will I say?  How will I grab the attention of my audience?  How will I convey the emotional force of God’s Word?  But there is one thing that I always take for granted: my voice.

But one morning i woke up, and my voice had left me.  Like Paul, or Zechariah, I found myself unable to depend upon my own body to do what I needed. For two, three four, five, six days, I found myself deprived of the one thing I could count on—make that two things—my vocal chords. Every morning, I woke up, expecting my voice to “show up.” And every morning, for over a week, I was disappointed.no_voice I wonder whether this is what the Israelites felt like in Egypt. In our last conversation, we heard the story of Jacob wrestling a divine being, of a God who was so close we could practically touch him, but a lot has happened since then. The people of Israel have found their way out of their own land and into Egypt, where they have been treated as welcome guests. But over the generations, the welcome becomes less warm. The Egyptians begin to fear these “foreigners,” even though many of them were born there.

Slavery_In_Egypt_1153-21-Vol_2As our Scripture picks up here, we find the Israelites with their back up against the wall, as their welcome in Egypt turns sour. But they cannot simply pick up and leave, for the Egyptians have conscripted them into heavy labor. Their bodies have been colonized, and even Hebrew children find that they aren’t safe here any more. It is as though the Israelites have lost their voice. Where is God in all this darkness?

For what a dark time this must have been. To live in a world where to be born is to be put at risk. To live in a world where your body is treated like property. Where you were prohibited from worshipping your God freely. Where you had no access to adequate water, or food or rest from your labor. To live in a world that does not seem to want you.

And yet, we live in a world that is exactly like this. This very second, thousands of men and women and children just like the Hebrew people find themselves at risk: of being enslaved, of being murdered, of being starved, imprisoned, of being stripped of their dignity and their voice. The only difference is, the people who at risk are not us. We find ourselves in a position of security, looking out into a world that is populated by people near and far who are suffering, hurting, and in need of hope.

Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 21 August 2015. Macedonian police clashed with thousands of migrants attempting to break into the country after being stranded in no-man's land overnight, marking an escalation of the European refugee crisis for the Balkan country.  EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 21 August 2015. Macedonian police clashed with thousands of migrants attempting to break into the country after being stranded in no-man’s land overnight, marking an escalation of the European refugee crisis for the Balkan country. EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI

So where can we find ourselves in this story in such a time as this? Certainly we aren’t like Pharoah. For we have not made the policies. Our fingers are not on the trigger. And we aren’t his army—I haven’t noticed any Ivylanders out there enacting violence on behalf of the state. I wonder if perhaps, instead, we are like the thousands upon thousands of Egyptian people, or perhaps their neighbors down the Nile, who looked on, who heard the cries of the Hebrew people, who watched their bodies break and their children starve as they cried out to their God.

Consider the fact that currently millions of refugees across the globe are crying out for freedom. Even more are captive in countries where their children are fodder for drone attacks and mortar shellings, where those who survive are promised inadequate medical care and poor access to food and education. Even our own children are not safe: we were reminded this week that not a single week has gone by this year, or the year before it, or the year before that, in which there wasn’t a mass shooting on a school campus.

And though not a single one of us is launching missiles or building walls to keep refugees out, though none of us are consciously depriving others of the right to worship or to live safely, or educate their children, the truth is that we have stood by as others do. We have seen their faces; we have heard their cries. We cannot claim that we do now know we are far from God’s Kingdom. And our silence becomes an answer that echoes in the ears of the oppressed, saying “You are not our problem.”

Moses knew something about this. You see, when he was confronted with his own heritage, his own identity as a child of the oppressed, of the foreigner, of the outcast, his first instinct was to get angry. So angry that he lashed out in violence against the enemy, an Egyptian soldier. His reaction so frightened him, and his fear of justice was so great, that his second instinct was to run far, far away, as far as his legs could take him.

burning-bush-2But fortunately for us, Moses learns that no hideout is so distant that God cannot find you. In the land of Ur, far from any Egyptian or Israelite, God reveals himself to Moses. And in a moment of brilliance, the light of God shines upon this wandering child of God and reveals to him a third way, a new opportunity to bear witness to God’s justice in the face of a dark dark world.

God shows Moses right there in the middle of nowhere that sometimes the bravest thing that we can do is to turn around and dare greatly, to bear witness to the suffering of our brothers and sisters with our greatest weapon: our testimony. Even at the risk of our own life.

Of course, Moses isn’t sure at first. “Why me?” he cries, or rather, “Who am I?”

To which God answers: “Why Not you? Who else?” Perhaps Moses has forgotten that he is in fact the perfect person for this task: as the adopted son of the Pharoah’s daughter, he is both an insider and an outsider to Egypt. Moses is perfectly positioned to bring the voice of the oppressed to the seat of power. And yet, in the face of God’s call, he falls mute.

But God will not accept Moses’ weak excuses. If you do not speak, who will? When God calls us to speak into the void of injustice, who are we to say no? To call ourselves unfit to the task? To say, “This is not my problem…someone else can handle it.”

Friends, when you have found that your conscience is set ablaze by the devastation of today’s reality, pay attention. It may be that it is God’s voice speaking to you. When you see the suffering of the other, and recognize it as your own, as the suffering of God’s creation, that is God speaking to you. That is God saying: “This is your problem. Go do something about it.”heres-your-sign

Perhaps our problem is we are so afraid of the risk, that we have forgotten our fear of God. We have forgotten our story: that once upon a time, we were foreigners, we were outcasts, we were slaves, and we were brought in and given a family in the Kingdom of God. We have forgotten the strength of a God who has the power to set our hearts ablaze with the fire of God but not consume us. We have forgotten the awesome power of the one whom the cross could not kill and the grave could not hold.

And it is to us, In the face of a world filled with fear, that God offers a simple message to us all:

Turn, and follow Jesus. Follow Jesus into the world, in all of its suffering, in all of its pain. Bear witness to the light, with your testimony, with your body, with every gift that you have that God has given you. Pay attention to the ground one which you stand, for when you do this, you may find yourself standing on very holy ground, indeed.

God would have us remember that God doesn’t need much to change the world. All it takes is one person willing to take a stand, whether it is a woman shielding her baby, or a man speaking truth to the Pharoah. Perhaps all God needs are the souls in this room. We are enough.

Enough for what, you may ask? Enough for a revolution of love. Enough to speak to the eternal truth that all of of the God-created beings of this world deserve care. Enough to shine a beacon so that others might see: this is holy ground on which we stand.love1

Who are you? You are God’s instrument. And that, brothers and sisters, is enough.

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God is in the Struggle

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger” is one of those “power sayings” that often get bandied about in polite society, a sort of talisman against the challenges of daily life.

In fact, the phrase has its origins in the work of Freidrich Neitzsche, who includes it in a list of aphorisms in his work entitled Twilight of the Idols.  In fact, the phrase in its entirety reads thus:

Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me makes me stronger.

In truth, there are many things in this world that can destroy us, and those that do not succeed do not necessarily strengthen us. That which doesn’t kill us has the power to alter who we are, not only for better, but for worse. It may not kill us, but it may embitter us. Or we may find ourselves immobilized by trauma and fear and scars that will not heal.

There is much in the world to be afraid of, and that which threatens us physically is just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider this story of Jacob from the book of Genesis:

22 The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[b] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[c] for you have striven with God and with humans,[d] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[e] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

In Genesis 32, we encounter a lonely man, agonizing on the edge of his homeland. For here Jacob finally finds himself face to face with the past from which he has been running all of his life: a past in which he earned his name, which means “trickster and supplanter,” by stealing his hard-working older brother’s birthright and tricking his father while he was on his deathbed. A past in which he tricked and cheated his way into wealth and riches. But no amount of games and trickery can save him now, for if he wishes to come home, he must face what he has done.

Pen and Ink "Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God" by Jack Baumgartner, 2009
Pen and Ink “Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God” by Jack Baumgartner, 2009

Poor Jacob! How great is his sense of dread! He cannot possibly know that the same brother whom he once shamed with his games, the same Esau who pursued him to the limits of their land seeking vengeance, is a different man. Jacob cannot possibly know that something in Esau is softened. That his anger has ebbed, that forgiveness is possible. All that Jacob knows is his violation. His fear. The adrenaline that coursed through his veins as he ran from his brother. His conviction that he deserved to be chased, to be hunted, to be condemned.

Jacob, who has made a life for himself, who surrounds himself with evidence of his own success, suddenly seems not to feel so strong. No amount of wives, or children, or goats can still the rushed beat of his heart.

Because no matter how much wealth or family he amasses, he cannot change his reality: He is a hunted man. He cannot shake his past. And he can scarce imagine a future in which he will make it through this reunion unscathed.

And so he does what any shrewd person would do: he plans. He schemes to protect his family, to dull the edge of his brother’s rage with gifts and displays of power. And then he does what all of us do when we feel we have nothing left: he prays. Out of options, Jacob lies vulnerable on the dirt with his heart opened to heaven and begs for mercy.

That sleepless night, waiting for the morning light of justice to shine on his life and determine his fate, Jacob discovers that sometimes our demons are right there with us, when we least expect us.

At least, we think it could have been a demon. We do not know. Perhaps it was Esau himself, come to meet his brother under the cloak of darkness. Or perhaps it was a numen, an ancient divine power brought up from the deep of the river itself. We could spend our whole lives wondering and never discovering the truth of exactly who this stranger is.

But whomever it was who rose out of the darkness that fateful evening, it is Jacob who finds himself locked in a battle between life and death, light and darkness, curse and blessing on the banks of the Jabbok, a river whose name means both “a place of passing over,” but also “to struggle.” The very geography bears witness to the spiritual battle within Jacob—he has chosen to face his past, to stop running, to turn and face the consequences of his own making, and now he must struggle with what that means.

Because that is what this story is about. It is about a man who, from his first breath, was defined by his flaws: he was a supplanter, a trickster, a heel. He was the one who stole, who cheated, who knew how to look for loopholes and exploit them with abandon. And now, this one has chosen the more difficult path of accountability, of reconciliation, of struggle.

It is a choice that will both mark and bless Jacob for the rest of his life. As the dawn breaks, he emerges, not exactly victorious, but marked by a new sense of who he is—no longer is he Jacob the trickster—he has become Israel, the one whom God protects.

Jacob does not emerge unscathed—changed, but also wounded, crippled, forever marked. It is what Fred Beuchner called, “The magnificent defeat. A defeat because he limps. Magnificent because he prevails. And he limped every day afterward to show others (and himself) that there are no untroubled victories with this Holy One. He lives, with new power, but also new weakness.” God answers his prayers, but in ways that he could not possibly have expected.

I wonder if perhaps the news that we need to hear at this moment, in this place, is that our faith in God will not grant us victory in all things, nor will God promise that we will not emerge wounded from battle. Perhaps, instead, we are meant to understand that even when we struggle, even as we enter the thresholds that separate our past from our present, even as we are wounded, or wracked with fear, that God is with us. And that God is not only present, but that God bears witness to the power of these moments to change us so fundamentally that we emerge with a new identity, a new sense of who we are and what we can endure.Joshua1-9

How could Jacob have known what would happen when the light blessed his bruised and shaking body? Even so, perhaps that struggle, interior and exterior, gave him the courage to trust that God would be with him as his brother Esau rushed to greet him, wrapped him in his arms, and called him beloved, brother, and friend as tears of blessing fell upon them both in the light of a new day.

May it be so for us, as well.

South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo get emotional as they met during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again. (AP Photo/Korea Pool, Park Hae-soo)  KOREA OUT
South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo get emotional as they met during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again. (AP Photo/Korea Pool, Park Hae-soo) KOREA OUT

Que Será Christians

In my family, my parents liked to give each of their beloved children a “theme song.”  And so it was that, growing up, my sister was haunted by family members singing “Rocky Raccoon,” and I found myself treated to regular group-singings of Doris Day’s mid-century hit, “Que Será.”

I found myself thinking about that song this week as I contemplated this week’s installment of our “Ask Anything” sermon series on Predestination. For a lot of people, Predestination sounds an awful lot like the unsung 5th verse of that song—

When I was just a little child, I asked my pastor: where will I go?

Will it be heaven, will it be hell? God is the one who knows…

Que será, será whatever will be; the future’s not ours, you see.

Que será, será, what will be, will be.

A very informal poll of some of my colleagues in ministry across the denominations revealed that for most of them, predestination is an unsavory doctrine that the Episcopalians and Lutherans were quick to blame on us Presbyterians. Which is funny, because technically nearly all of the Protestant denominations affirm this doctrine. In the early years of the Reformation, Martin Luther spilled far more ink on the subject than John Calvin, and both of them were simply quoting another ancient thinker, Augustine, who was writing on the subject in the 5th Century. Nonetheless, it is a doctrine that has come to represent, and for some, even define, the DNA of the faith that we as Presbyterians share with the worldwide Reformed church.

So what is it? And why does it matter?

The basic idea behind predestination is this: it is a doctrine that speaks to the will and intention of God as the driving force behind human destiny.

To understand it, we need to consider some other, far more important, ideas about God.

  • The Sovereignty of God

The Westminster catechism states that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” The sovereignty of God affirms what we see in the Bible—that the God who created us is, in the words of St. Patrick, not just with us, but “before and behind us, in us, beneath and above us, at every side, with us when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, there is nothing that can happen in this world that God doesn’t know about. Because God is sovereign.

  • Election

When we hear the word election, most of us tend to think of ballot boxes and political parties. We associate elections with choosing someone to be our leader.  The biblical doctrine of election is a similar idea, and it is directly related to the notion that God is sovereign.  The Doctrine of Election teaches that the initiative in matters of faith and human destiny is always God’s initiative. Our relationship with God isn’t like buying a car– we don’t go into the sacred supermarket and pick a God for ourselves.  Rather, our faith (and our beloved-ness in God’s eyes) is a gracious gift from start to vanish. It is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited. In originates in God, and finds a home within us.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we have been taught in American culture. I grew up surrounded by people constantly telling me to “make something of myself” and affirming that “I could be anything” as long as I tried hard enough.  Well, according to the Bible, there is at least one thing that I can never do for myself, and that is deserve the grace I receive. Election reminds us that, at least where our faith is concerned, there are no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up by. We are not masters of our own fate or captains of our own destiny. We cannot buy, or educate, or negotiate our way into salvation. Instead, “Twas grace that taught our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieved.”bootstrap01-1

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on how election works.  Basically, there are three major camps that seek to make sense of how God claims humanity:

  1. Universalism: all are included–none of us deserves it, but God chooses everyone, because God is love and God would never say no to one of God’s creations.
  2. Pelagianism: This approach to election attempts to affirm God’s action but makes it contingent upon our accepting the grace God offers us.  Which, when you think about it, sort of threatens the idea that God is sovereign, doesn’t it?
  3. Double predestination: some are included and some are excluded.

This is the view that Calvin took—and there are a few things we need to know about this.  First of all, this doctrine was the source of great discussion and argument in Calvin’s day.  Calvin observes in the beginning of his own discussion of it that “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination very confusing and even dangerous” (3.21.1).  Why so dangerous? Because this doctrine has to do with the mind of God, and none of us, by virtue of our humanness, has full access to God’s mind.  We cannot probe its depths, nor can we make any definitive claims about it.  We can only look to Scripture.

Second of all, we have to understand that this was a doctrine intended to comfort the afflicted and persecuted church. This is a hard thing for those of us who enjoy the privilege of worshipping without fear of losing our home, or our church being burned, or our lives being forfeit. But for early Reformed Christians, who saw their brothers and sister martyred and murdered all over Europe, it was a way of making sense of the carnage and suffering that followed their decision to follow Jesus in this way. It was something to cling to: God choose me.  God loves me.  I am not suffering for nothing.  But there was just one tiny problem: time went on and reformed Christians stopped being martyred, their perspective on this doctrine changed. You know how, when you are a kid, you might have a favorite blanket, or a soft, stuffed rabbit, something that brings you comfort, that you hold to help you go to sleep at night? Well how many of you have noticed that those same objects of comfort can, in an instant, become a weapon against a sibling? I know for myself, and I know in my home, that there is a fine line between a blanket as a blanket and a blanket as a hammer. Well that pretty much sums up this doctrine: Some Christians stopped seeing this doctrine as a blanket, and started using it as a hammer against other people.bbe1738a6187d68058f02ffeb6160113

Finally, I think it is important to point out that even John Calvin found this doctrine difficult to accept at times.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the notion that God might “give to some what he denies to others” (Institutes 3.21.1)  However, as a reformed thinker, Calvin privileged the Bible as the source of information and wisdom about God, and when he looked to the Bible, he saw both evidence of God’s mercy and of God’s judgement.  For him, this was evidence that God must have the freedom to choose.  However, he framed this theology in the context of the salvation of God.  At the end of the day, predestination had everything to do with the gift of God’s grace received in Christ.

In all of this talk about God’s sovereignty, and God’s election, perhaps it has occurred to you that there may be a problem, and that is this:  I don’t know about you, but I look around me, and it is hard to ignore the evidence that people seem pretty free in many of the decisions that they make.how do we reconcile human freedom with the sovereignty of God? How do we affirm that God is all powerful and the ultimate author and arbiter, while also affirming the importance of Human decisions?

And here is the truth that we would probably rather not hear: we are less free than we like to think. There is a lot of research being done these days exploring the line between nature and nurture, and it turns out that much more of our lives than we might like to admit depend upon things we have no control over: where we were born, the wealth and education level of our parents, our race. And so much of our experiences and our perspectives, it turns out, are shaped by forces beyond our control: DNA researchers point to epigenetics or the way our genes are expressed, sociologists point to community cultures, psychologists explore the realities of persistent bias. All these and more play an incalculable role in the way we see the world and the way that other people see us. We may be the land of the free, but what is freedom, really?

Now, the Bible affirms the importance of human freedom—on the edge of the promised land, Joshua calls the people to choose whom they will serve. In our scripture this morning, God does not direct, nor can he prevent, David’s choice to commit adultery with another man’s wife. The truth is that we are “called to make significant faith choices that grow out of the character and moral fiber of our lives. We make a choice to follow Jesus. But our choice is secondary to the decision that God has already made in Christ to love us and call us to service.” We love, says 1 John, because God first loved us.

At the end of the day, I wonder if perhaps the doctrine of predestination can help us understand the paradox of both our freedom and our lack of it.  Because, at the end of the day, predestination affirms the notion that, while we may not be free, in God we find freedom from the constraints of the world. In God we discover that all of the things that limit or define us in contemporary culture are wiped away. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither woman or man, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”s-1

In Presbyterian theology, this comes down to the notion of “freedom within constraints.” Have any of you ever gone to a restaurant and they handed you the menu and there were about 2 thousand options? And the freedom to choose anything—it turns out that it is difficult to make any choice at all. A menu with only 5 options turns out to provide the most freedom of all—we are able to make the choice that works for us, and enjoy our meal. The doctrine of predestination just takes a few options off our menu, constrains us with the “sovereignty of God” and the knowledge that God’s choosing us came first. Within that framework, we are more free than ever to follow Christ.

But what about other faiths? So often predestination quickly moves from being about us to being about “them,” the other who doesn’t worship God like we do.  Helpfully, our reformed heritage has some pointers for the usefulness of this doctrine in addressing the Other.  In his classic Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie offers these three guiding principles:

  • God’s Love: just because some people don’t live as thought God loves them doesn’t mean we can decide that God has written them off. We ought to remember that we know something about them that they do not: that God loves them too.
  • God’s Judgment: we must acknowledge that as long as there are forces out there which oppose God, there must be love expressed as judgment against them. But that does not give us license to judge others. God alone is judge.
  • Our Responsibility: we need to share what we know without judgment. Not so that they will love God if they believe and obey, but because God already loves them.

Which leaves us with one question:  what about us? Predestination frees us from the notion that we can earn salvation, or find confirmation of our saved-ness in ourselves. We can instead spend our lives wrapped in the blanket of grace that we have received in Christ Jesus as a gift. You know Linus from Peanuts? We can, like Linus choose to bring our grace blankets into community with others, because we know that sometimes, blankets are best shared—and when you are willing to share your blanket, you are building community. Finally, this blanket marks us—we have become those called to take our grace blankets out into the world. We aren’t in some special club—our blankets are markers of exclusivity. They are instead an invitation for all. They are a reminder that we have been chosen to serve. And we are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world.

Ask Anything: Why Don’t Presbyterians Kneel When We Pray?

When you pray do you:

-pray a prewritten prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23?

-did you have to learn how to pray, or did you always know?

-do you follow a pattern or use a specific order?

-do you say whatever is on your mind?

-do you say anything? Or are you quiet?

-how do you situate yourself? Are you standing? Sitting? Lying down?

-when do you pray?

vendaprayersWhen I was in seminary, I knew people who used prayer wheels, people who prayed out of a book, people who believed the only true prayers were ones made of your own words, people who insisted that the ancient prayers of our faith were the ideal, and people who believed that the prayer that was pleasing to God was one offered in the holy tongue of angels.

I knew people who believed that prayer was something you could learn, like Spanish or Math, and advised others to take their handy four-week course in order to learn how to pray, and people who believed that prayer was a natural language, a spiritual gift beyond words and therefore beyond teaching.

What is true about prayer is that people have been doing it as long as there have been people. Whether you believe in one god or many, or simply in the ingenuity of the human spirit, it would seem that the human tendency is towards looking beyond what is, and speaking into the mystery of the universe in which we are guests.

And like anything important, prayer is one of those practices that humanity has spent a lot of time and effort arguing over how to do right.

Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby.

“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one.

“No,” another contended. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”

“You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”

The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, ” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”

GPL-1Which gets me to our question today: one of you all was curious: why don’t Presbyterians kneel when we pray in church? It is a good question, one that I suppose could have as much to do with comparing our practice to other traditions as it might have to do with wondering whether there is a right or wrong way to pray in our tradition.

So let’s talk about it.

When the question was posed, I initially thought to myself that there very well may be an “argument against kneeling” in our history. I often hear kneeling referred to as a “catholic practice.” The reformed church, which had its beginnings nearly 500 years ago in Europe, spent many of the early years distancing itself from the Catholics, with whom they split. And like any disagreement, there were moments when the church went ugly, and spent its time arguing about why Catholics were wrong instead of wondering about how to be faithful to God.

So when I turned to John Calvin, the founding father of Presbyterianism, I will admit I expected to find some “anti-Catholicism” rear its ugly head. And instead I was pleasantly surprised.

Here is something we need to remember about our theological roots: one of the most important insights that John Calvin contributed to the church was the insight that we ought to let Scripture guide our practice. If the reformation had a slogan, then it was sola scripture, the idea that what mattered most about being Christian was fidelity to God’s Word, which required that we know it.

So when he gets to prayer, Calvin first turns to the Bible, and what it says on the subject. And according to John Calvin, the Bible is totally cool with kneeling, or raising your hands to the sky, for that matter. Our scripture this morning, at least, should be a reminder that there are at least as many ways to pray as there are people in scripture. The test of any prayer position, according to Calvin, is this: does it help you focus your attention on God? Does it bring us closer into communion with the One we have come to know as our Savior in Christ? Or does it draw attention to yourself?

Prayer: also known as conversation.
Prayer: also known as conversation.

Turns out the early church had no problem with what it called “ceremony” or exercises of piety, as long as it was used to deepen our relationship with God. Which meant that people were given the freedom to respond to God in the ways that seemed appropriate to them. Which also meant, for the most part, doing away with the requirement that a congregation kneel in prayer. If it brings you closer to Christ, he says, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t sweat it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that other Presbyterians haven’t railed against practices like kneeling. The Scottish reformer John Knox famously preached a sermon before King Edward the 7th of England in which he stridently argued against kneeling during worship, especially before communion, because he worried that in kneeling the people might be tempted to worship the elements of bread and wine rather than the God who gave them in Christ.

All of this is to say that what is important to remember, I think, is that our history, our legacy as Presbyterians, leaves a lot of room for freedom in prayer. We may not have a whole lot of rules about how one ought to pray, but this should be an opportunity to allow for diversity and freedom in our prayer life, rather than uniformity. At any given time, anyone in this room could find themselves brought to their knees or moved to lift their hands, or faithfully to remain still in the presence of God. All of these responses are and can be faithful when they draw us closer to God.

Which leads me to the question that has been bugging me: if we are so big on freedom, and on the ability to choose your own way in prayer, why is it that we all feel so much pressure to conform to what the other people in the pews are doing?

I remember when I was in college I attended two different faith communities: a campus ministry, and my local Presbyterian church. At church, I would sometimes feel so moved by music, or in confession, that I felt compelled to get on my knees. Except. I was embarrassed about what other people might think about me. I was afraid of drawing attention to myself. So I didn’t. I sat motionless in my pew and struggled with the conflict between how I felt and how I was. And in campus ministry, everyone was always raising their hands and swaying to the music, which often made me feel pressure to do the same. I worried that if I didn’t, I might be missing out on something.

I know I am not alone. We all feel the pressure to conform to the “rules,” and in the absence of rules we make our own. I told myself that the rules dictated that I had to stay in my seat like everyone else. But in the process, I deprived my soul of an opportunity to draw closer to God in prayer. In both of these situations, it was easier to submit to community pressure than it was to follow my own sense of what practices might draw me closer to Christ.

So the question for us is this: what kind of church are we? Last week we shared our ideas about our dream church with one another, and one of the qualities that was mentioned over and over again was welcoming and inclusive. For many of you, the church at its best is a place where people from every kind of background can gather together as a community, as a family, and feel like they belong. And I am so proud to be the pastor of a place with dreams like that. Because that means that, if we live into our dream for ourselves, we should feel free to pray in whatever way feels honest. We should feel free to be ourselves in the presence of God and one another, without fear of breaking some unspoken rule.

In the words of Calvin: love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify. If we let love be our guide, all will be safe.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray with love, and let us be a house of prayer, with hands raised, knees bowed, hearts inclined toward God, our Rock and our Refuge.

Gratitude: A Christmas Eve Reflection on the Lukan Story

It doesn’t start off sounding like a particularly special or noteworthy story—“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.”  No warning that this story is THE story, just information, a setting, a time and a place.  A map, if you will, of the various pieces and parts that make up the landscape of this particular tale.  No warning that this story, of nothing notably “God-centered,” but rather a political requirement for registration, one likely to result in a greater tax burden for the people, is the context into which God breaks into the world.

And yet, here we are, listening to this tale of God’s working in a decidedly political world.  Of a man and woman, Joseph and Mary, who are compelled to travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, a trip somewhere on the scale of 100 miles.  A trip made more dangerous because it required that they detour Samaria, a country with tense relations to Israel at the time, all in order to fulfill the requirements of a foreign occupying state during the final term of an unplanned pregnancy.

To take this trip must have been a frightening prospect in the final weeks leading up to Christ’s birth.  I wonder how Mary must have felt, knowing that her child might very well decide to be born during a journey far from the safety of home and family.  How scared she must have been to realize that her time had come in a foreign town where her and Joseph were strangers.  To realize they had no friends, no familiar faces to help them in the uncharted territory of this new birth.

What courage it must have taken to persevere through the realities of a birth that the Scriptures describe in all of two verses—“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  To be so desperate to protect their young child that Scripture tells us they welcomed their first child in the darkness amidst barn animals.

How alone they must have felt in those hours, fearing the immanency of parenthood coupled with the knowledge of this child’s Otherness.  The expectation of how drastically their lives would change with this life.  To wonder if they would ever find welcome in such extraordinary circumstances.

And as they experienced these fears, these questions, the reality of Christ’s birth, Scripture tells us that God was working to provide them welcome and hospitality in this strange and foreign place.  The angels of the Lord, who came to Mary and to Joseph, come to strangers in a field, proclaim the birth of Christ much as the birth of Kings was proclaimed in that time, but in the upside-down Kingdom of God these words are proclaimed not to nobles and dignitaries, but to shepherds at work in the field, shepherds whom we are told drop everything, leave their flocks in the fields and go “with haste” to find the family, to see what God has done in the world and to offer hospitality and welcome company in the midst of all that has happened.

Much is silent in this story—the details are left unsaid.  But at the end we know one thing, and that is this:  That ultimately, this is a story of gratitude and joy—the gratitude of Mary and Joseph when ONE PERSON was found who was willing to make room for them to welcome their child, their gratitude to be in a warm and safe space in those vulnerable and scary moments of new birth and new parenthood, joyful gratitude to God when their child arrives safely into this world, for a manger in which to lie his head.  Gratitude for the strength to persevere through the fear and unknowing, for strangers, shepherds who come seeking to welcome them and offer hospitality in a strange town.   Mary and Josephs’ gratitude that the improbable truth of their Son’s origin is known of and marveled at by others.  And the gratitude and joyful amazement of the nameless angels on this earth—the shepherds and other lowly, ordinary people, who find themselves welcomed into God’s presence by no less than God’s messengers and a holy family.

And it is a story of our gratitude, as well.

Our gratitude Christ is born in Bethlehem, that he was born in the midst of love and thanksgiving, that angels sang and shepherds rejoiced, that light conquered the darkness of those moments, that we too can add our voices to the song as we proclaim, “Christ is born!” in this season and in this place.   That we are welcomed to Mary’s side to behold the Child of God, and that this child is for all of humankind.  Gratitude, that this tiny, new child will one day grow up and change everything, will change us, if we would but make room for him to do so.   That on this silent, holy, and strange night, “Christ, our savior is born.”

May we, as did the nameless innkeepers and shepherds, Mary and Josephs, make room for this child, this savior, to change our lives this Christmas season.  Amen.

2 weeks left.

This morning is my last sermon at Clarendon Hill, and it feels weird.  It feels weird to realize that the year is almost over, that my middle year at seminary is drawing to a close, and that I feel less prepared for ministry than ever.  This year has taught me so much, but especially has taught me that ministry is a fraking mess most of the time, and that most people have NO CLUE what they are doing, and that I have NO CLUE what I am doing, but that people still look at me like I do because I am the “seminarian.”  Ha, if only they knew.

If only they knew that there are less than 2 weeks between me and the last due date for my finals, and that I am freakin’ out a bit because I don’t know if I can get-er-done..  Granted, I only have to write 40-ish pages, and granted that is not nearly as bad as some of my friends, but it still feels like a lot to knock off before next Thursday.  And you could ask me why I am not working on it now, but the truth is this– I don’t know what to say.

I have been wrestling with some serious mental roadblocks lately, mostly because I realize that there is so much I could be saying and so much I want to think about, but I feel as though I don’t have enough information to do it.  I feel like I should read more, but the more I read the less confident I feel about what I want to say.  I am seriously all over the place.  And as I have come to recognize, this is not a good sign.

So prayers would be nice this week.  Prayers would be good.  Prayers for sanity and for inspiration.  Hopefully, that and a little coffee will get me through the insanity that is finals, so that I can take a quick breath and start all over again.