Wandering in the Wilderness

A long-time reader (hello Doug!) sent me an e-mail today wondering if things were okay. Because it’s been three weeks since I’ve posted anything resembling an update at this blog.

So, short answer — yes. Jennifer and I are fine, we are on our way out west, and we have begun establishing a presence for Lutheran Church in the Wilderness (I’m working on a basic web page for this, and should have it done soon), so anyone in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area can come join us when we start meeting. Not sure yet when that will be.

Tomorrow — which is Sunday, 1 May — I will be playing some songs and speaking at Ascension Lutheran Church in Marion, Iowa. We’ve been staying with Pastor Linda Livingston and her husband Kurt (thank you very much for the hospitality, and the ability to rest), and we’re going to hit the road tomorrow and see how far toward Denver we can get. It’s 800 miles from Cedar Rapids to Denver, Colorado, and I’m not the young man I used to be, who could drive all night sucking down Mountain Dews and taking a break as he falls asleep at the the wheel in cough cough Missouri as he drives from Indianapolis to Los Angeles. (Oh, don’t ask…)

So, if you are in eastern Iowa, and can make it to worship, please come. I’ve written a new song for tomorrow’s gospel reading based on John 16:25-33. It’s simple, but I think the melody is haunting. Worship is at 8:30 am and 11:00am. Come if you are able! I’d love to see you!

Along the way, on Tuesday evening 26 April, I played and spoke at Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Recovery, Ohio. Thanks to Pastor Robin Owen and everyone there for the amazing hospitality. I love sharing my music and my testimony — let that be more than a hint for anyone who might be reading and who lives between central Iowa and Spokane.

I won’t say I’ve dreamed of this particular plan for years — it’s only been clear to me since last August or September that Jennifer and I were going to head out West and make this virtual ministry I was doing with a group of foster kids into a real, live ministry. And while Jennifer and I are tied to no place, and could go anywhere, we are going where God is calling us. Leading us. Driving us.

And I want to thank all those along the way so far who have shown such grace, such hospitality, who have slaughtered fatted calves for us and put us up for the night. Jennifer and I are so very grateful. For all of it.

And so, I give you all the words of Psalm 67, with which to thank you and to thank God. For the grace, the mercy, the provision, the purpose. For such people as you.

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
6 The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, shall bless us.
7 God shall bless us;
let all the ends of the earth fear him.



Just a Note to Say…

… that for the next two weeks (this being crunch time at work), blogging will be very light to non-existent.

I have taken to saying the general order of blessing from the ELCA’s little pastoral care book at my office in the morning before we open. While it’s not an official part of my duties as office manager, I try to consider my office — all who work there and all our clients — as my parish, the people I minister to. I wish I could have blessed my employees before tax season began, but I would have had few takers and that definitely would have been beyond the call of my managerial duties.

Anyway, prayers for us as we near the filing deadline. Pray that it is busy, and pray for courage, strength, and compassion as we deal with angry, nervous, and frightened clients.

Ministering to the Lost…

I was going through my Evernote app this morning, cleaning out old articles, and I found a few things I mean to blog about but never got around to.

Russell Moore had this piece at pastors.com about refugees fleeing the wreckage of the sexual revolution last July:

The Sexual Revolution certainly seems triumphant. After a generation of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, ubiquitous pornography, and the cultural unhinging of sex from marriage and marriage from childbearing, we now see the courts and the culture decoupling marriage from even its most basic reality: gender. And there are hints on the horizon that the next step is to culturally, and perhaps legally, decouple marriage from, well, couples. If sexuality is about personal expression and individual autonomy, after all, then by what right can society deem that sexuality should be limited by such an arbitrary number as two?

The danger for Christians is that we buy into the Sexual Revolution’s narrative. I don’t just mean that we accommodate ourselves to the sins and heresies of the movement, although that’s always a danger too. I mean the danger is that we assume that the Sexual Revolution will always be triumphant, progressing upward and onward. To assume such is to assume that the Sexual Revolution will be able to keep its promises. It can’t.

Moore talks about God’s order for creation — not something I entirely buy, given how thoroughly creation has been disordered by sin — but he goes on to write about the two kinds of churches that will find it virtually impossible to really minister to those wounded and discarded by the sexual revolution:

The first is the church that is so scared of people that we scream at them in anger and condemnation. If we see ourselves as people who are “losing” a culture rather than people who have been sent on a mission to a culture, this is how we will be. That will be exacerbated if we take our cues from those who play outraged Christian caricatures for a living rather than from those who have come to seek and to save that which was lost. If we do not love our mission field, we will have nothing to say to it.

The second sort of church that will fail these refugees is the church that gives up, or silences, its convictions because they’re not popular. This too is fear. We assume that we can reach people if we dance around the sexual questions, thinking that we can get to that part of discipleship after they’re part of the family. That’s just not the way Jesus does it. Jesus gets right at the point of guilt, the part the person is protecting, and calls the person not only to repentance but also to forgiveness and freedom (Jn. 4:16).

Basically, too many conservative churches will be too angry lamenting the loss of their cultural power, privilege, and influence — the fact they dictated the terms of culture — that they will be too involved in condemning the world, and those seeking redemption, forgiveness, and belonging.

Liberal churches, meanwhile, will give up on the whole sexual sin enterprise and accommodate themselves to the norms of the sexual revolution (this is another form of “God’s order for creation”), thus providing little in the way of support for those who have been abused by it.

Moore gets close to the real essence of the matter when he writes in his last paragraph:

The Sexual Revolution cannot keep its promises. Many people are going to be disappointed, and even before they can admit it to others or to themselves, they are going to ask, “Is this all there is?” We need churches that can keep the light lit to the old paths, that can keep the waters of baptism ready. We need to be the people who can remind a wounded world of what we’ve come to hear and believe, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). That’s good news for refugees, like us.

The Sexual Revolution cannot keep its promises. Like almost all of modernity, the sexual revolution promises liberation from the human condition, from history, and from our very human limits. It promises a world without suffering or exploitation, but it fails … because the very promise of liberation itself is a lie in all its guises — economic, political, social, personal. It’s a very beguiling lie, because liberation promises to empower us as individuals and as humanity, free us from ancient chains, from things we did not choose, from the consequences of sin, from the very fact that we are sinners. But liberation delivers a world bereft of any kinds of protections, any kind of obligations, and any kind of responsibility. And it delivers power straight into the hands of those most willing to use that power to exploit, abuse, use, and destroy.

This is impossible for human beings to hear right now, in part because the promise of liberation still sparkles and shines in the afternoon sun. It really is beguiling, this notion that was can be free and can make ourselves anew, without any reference to our innate natures or limits as human beings.

But it’s also hard to hear because modernity, as I have noted before, has stripped away the moral pretenses of power. The good order of the world that promised to protect the weak frequently abused them in deep, dark secret, justifying or excusing that abuse all the while speaking pieties about chastity, purity, and virtue.

Our age’s rebellion may be pointless, but it is not senseless.

And yet, I’ve come to believe Moore is right. The church that will best be able to minister to those wounded, broken, abused, and abandoned by the sexual revolution will be those that embrace a more conservative or traditional understanding of sex and its place in the human community while at the same time keeping a very liberal ability to accept and welcome without first demanding conformity and adherence. We cannot merely have “consent” and “don’t hurt anyone” as our guides because sex is always bigger than the two people who engage in it, but we have to accept — fully accept — the very real physical and emotional consequences of sex (babies, the intimate entangling of two human beings) along with an understanding of mutual obligation — that the consequences of sex create a cascade of individual and communal obligations, from the spiritual and material support for marriages (and married people) and children to fostering the kinds of intimate friendships that will include those who are single. Sex may be very good, but it is also very powerful and very dangerous, and every kind of human power needs to be tempered, restrained, and controlled by rule and ritual.

Moore is right — they are coming, the broken, the wounded, the exploited, the lost. How shall we welcome them? And what shall we tell them?

SERMON I Have Seen the Lord!

I preached this Sunday, April 3, at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. And this is, more or less, what I preached.

Second Sunday of Easter (Year C)

  • Acts 5:27–32
  • Psalm 118:14–29
  • Revelation 1:4–8
  • John 20:11–31

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:11–23 ESV)

The tomb of Jesus is empty.

This was unexpected. Because the dead, thankfully, usually stay where we, the living, put them. The dead are generally well-behaved and they don’t cause problems. At least on their own. Not all by themselves.

This week, an interesting problem happened where I work. A long-time and very loyal client in her late 80s, who had been getter her taxes done for years where I work, came in to her tax return done. Here husband died last year, and she was filing a tax return for the two of them — because even the dead are liable for taxes.

Everything went smoothly until it came time to electronically file the return. The IRS rejected the tax return and gave us a strange error message — the social security number in question was locked because it belongs to someone who is deceased. We all scratched our heads at this. Of course it belongs to someone who is deceased, they tax preparer said so on the tax return! No matter how we tried to alter the return — switch the primary and the spouse — it still came back with the same error message: the social security number has been locked because it belongs to someone who is deceased.

This dead man was proving to be a problem.

Except he wasn’t. It turns out he’d been listed as deceased on the 2014 tax return as well. And we all know a person cannot die twice. An error had been made. His wife had likely come in to get their taxes done just after he died in 2015, and his death accidentally and erroneously attributed to 2014.

And now there was a mess, a mess that would take a lot of patience and persistent with the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration to clean up. “You see, he didn’t die in 2014, he died in 2015…”

This dead man was trouble, not because he up and died twice, but because someone living didn’t quite pay attention.

And so we have Mary Magdalene. When Mary hears that the tomb of Jesus is empty, she’s on her way to do a duty, an act of love and devotion — taking spices to prepare his body. A dead body, a body that can trouble no one any longer, that cannot meaningfully receive or give love anymore. It’s a thing now, and we can care for things — indeed, we put great stock in how we treat our dead — but caring for even the dead is not the same as the love and devotion we can give to the living.

And I suspect she is saddened and frustrated when she doesn’t find a body — because this act of love, of care, of devotion, she cannot do. She was focused, and I know what frequently happens when I am so focused on one particular act, something that has become important to me, that I’m derailed, knocked off kilter, when events conspire to prevent from following through. I don’t handle it well, don’t think clearly — all I can see is disappointment, frustration, and failure.

I suspect that’s where Mary is in our reading this morning. This dead man is proving troublesome. He is not where he was put, and that suddenly makes her job — duty duty — impossible. The dead, well, they are supposed to stay put. Just like they aren’t supposed to die twice.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” Mary concludes the obvious — his body has been taken. (Listen to me — body. Because we all know I’m no longer talked about a man, but a thing.) By some unnamed they — thieves or soldiers or mischief makers or whoerver might take bodies. It’s a natural conclusion. The dead, all on their lonesome, do not cause this kind of trouble.

Except in this Easter season we remember that Jesus is no ordinary dead man. Because you don’t normally turn around to see a dead man standing in front of you, repeating the same question two angels asked you moments before.

Again, it makes sense she thinks he’s the gardener. The dead don’t stand around asking why you’re crying and whom you are seeking.

It isn’t until he speaks her name that she knows who he is.

This happens a lot in the New Testament, this failure to recognize Jesus on our own. In Luke’s gospel, we have the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus who meet Jesus, and he teaches them, so much so that their hearts burn within, but they don’t recognized this Jesus until he sits with them and breaks bread with them. And then later in John’s gospel, Jesus again appears unrecognized to the disciples on the shore. He commands they cast their nets, and only when they catch so much fish they risk losing their boat that they recognize who is standing at the shore.

“I have seen the Lord!” Mary says. But she didn’t just see him, she met him — and he met her. He spoke her name, and only then did she know, did she know who he was.

And maybe even who she was.

This morning, we celebrate he Lord’s supper. Now, I come from a church with a very high understanding of what happens at this table. Jesus is present here, not just symbolically, but in, with, and under the bread and the wine we east and drink. He’s here, and he meets us, and we meet him, in this meal. I don’t try to explain it — I don’t think much is accomplished by trying to elaborate exactly what or how. But I believe it, and I confess it. Christ is here, with us, calling our names, speaking and teaching us, in the bread we break we together at this table.

But note well, Christ’s risen body is a broken body. He bears the wounds we gave him, in his hands and his side, and he shows those wounds to his disciples, so that we may know who he is. So that we can be certain. This body we break today, this body we share, this body that we are, is a broken, wounded body. This brokenness that we see in him, and in each other, is how we know, how we truly know, that we have met Jesus.

He calls our name, he breaks bread with us, and he bears his wounds to us. This is what it means to meet Jesus.

To meet this troublesome dead man who simply would not stay dead. Who arose and left his burial garments folded in a tomb. Who left us to find nothing — truly, nothing — where a newly dead and slowly decaying corpse should have been. Who walks through walls and locked doors, meets us in cowering in fear, and bids us “peace.” Who promises to be with us in bread and wine, or whenever two or more of us gather. Who promises be with us until the end of the age.

So, sisters and brothers, please, come to this table, take the bread and wine, and exclaim with Mary: “I have seen the Lord!”