A Pastor’s Midnight Musings

It’s midnight, and my wife and three kids are sound asleep. Another Sunday night walk is in the books. I’m a pastor; that’s what I do.

Yes, today was the day, the Lord’s Day, the one day each week when Christians from the four winds of our city come together in the same place. And while we know we’ve been sent by the Spirit into our city to be poured out, we also believe a weekly infilling precedes any over-brimming; giving is only made possible by first having received; a herald is only as good as what she has heard.

So today a group of us gathered at New Life Church to lift our voices to God in praise and thanksgiving, and to feast on the Scriptures. We came to confess our sins, getting rid of the very poison that, if left unchecked, neutralizes the nourishment found in the sacrifice of Jesus, his broken body and shed blood. And right before we left, we heard the Benediction, the weekly now-get-back-out-there-and-go-for-it-because-you’ve-been-empowered-by-the-Spirit prayer of blessing.

And that’s why I went on a walk. Because with so much beautiful activity crammed in the span of just a few short hours, I have found that a walk is about the only way for me to begin to absorb it all.

On this particular Sunday night walk, I thought about a friend who I saw today at church. He’s in his mid-sixties, has an advanced post-graduate degree with a long, successful career that followed it, and just over a year ago he was running long distance races. Today at church he sat slumped in a wheelchair, depleted of energy, barely able to speak, and suffering from a mysterious condition that doctors haven’t been able to diagnose. He insists on coming to church, and he insists on being wheeled down front to the altar for prayer after every service.

I thought about his darling wife who faithfully gets him up every week, shaves his face, dresses and feeds him, and loads his handsome 6’5’’ frame and his wheelchair in their tiny car to come worship Jesus.

I thought about the privilege of being asked to wheel him down front for prayer, and the privilege of wheeling him out to his car after we were done.

I thought about the privilege of him wanting to expend the little energy he has talking to me about the fact that we both played college basketball, separated by a span of thirty-five years.

I thought about the vulnerability it must have taken him to ask me to lift him into his car, and the gentleness that comes with having to have someone buckle you in your seat.

I pondered how costly an act of worship it was for them to even be in the sanctuary this morning. And then I wondered if I would have the same gritty “somebody take me to church!” mentality if I found myself in the same situation. (I quietly prayed to be found faithful.)

And when I had buckled my friend in his seat, I hugged him and kissed him on top of his bald head. (Remember, the feeble need affection in a most pronounced way.) I told him that I’m honored to go to the same church as him. I told him that he’s an example for us all of what it means to live faithfully. I told his wife that she’s as sweet as they come, and that any of us would be lucky to have someone as gracious as her, and that the Lord couldn’t be any more pleased with her life of generous service to her husband.

I meant every word.

Then after pondering all that, as I was nearing the end of my late-night walk, it hit me: How sad that people willingly choose to forgo a gift so beautiful as the church.

Come to church, friends. And keep your eyes open, because if you do, and if you have even the slightest bit of imagination, you’ll see the blazing beauty of God on full display. Sometimes it’ll be wrapped in frailty, transported around by wheelchair, and sometimes it’ll be gleefully running the aisles in the faces of little children; sometimes the beauty will take the form of bold and sacrificial giving, and other times it’ll be heard in the elemental cry to be known and loved. But beauty you will surely find in the church.

For if Jesus has made her his Bride, she must be some kind of special.

Theophany and “Theo-Anthrophany”

This is from a Twitter rant I posted the other day:

With all that’s wrong with the world, many are praying for a Theophany. We want God to show up afresh…

…Israel prayed that, too, classically given voice by the prophet Isaiah: “O that you would rend the heavens and come down!”…

…But the truth is, God answered that prayer at the first Advent. Theophany happened in Jesus Christ of Bethlehem…

…And by His Spirit, the world we live in is ever and always theophanically charged with the life made available to us by Jesus…

…So while many are praying for Theophany, Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, & in us by His Spirit, praying for a “Theo-Anthrophany”…

…Jesus is praying that WE will grow up and be the carriers of the Image that we ALREADY ARE…

…Jesus is praying that WE will start sorting out hatred w/ the love he demonstrated to us in his life-giving-life and death-defeating-death…

…Jesus is praying that WE will get to the place where we defend the weak and disenfranchised, where WE would lay down our lives…

…WE believers are the agents through which Jesus establishes his Father’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”…

…We are waiting on Jesus, but, in a very real sense, He is waiting on US to tend the garden of His creation that He entrusted to us…

…The question I’m asking myself is, “Am I waiting on JESUS to do something that he’s commanded and empowered ME to do already?”

It Will Not Always Be This Way

This morning I awoke to an unexpected gift: a gentle rain and 40-degree weather.

Pike’s Peak, the dominating feature of our city’s landscape, was nowhere to be found. Like children tucked under the bed sheets in a game of hide-and-seek, Pike’s was tucked away under the cover of a low-lying fog.

This may not sound like a big deal to most people, but for one living in the drought-stricken high desert of nearly 7,000 feet, rain is always received with great joy. Water is never taken for granted.

The shift in weather had me pondering a common thread of human existence: difficulty, hardship, suffering, pain.

One of the unique features of being a pastor is walking so regularly and so closely with people through the sweltering “summers” of trial and hardship. Praying with people as they grieve the loss of the family business. Mourning the unexpected death of a child. Listening to a daughter who has lived for 10 years under the cruelty of an abusive father.

I’ve witnessed plenty “summers” of deep sadness.

And then

And then, at some mysterious moment in time, I’ve noticed people in grief get up one morning and walk outside to find that there’s something of a reprieve from the heat of hardship, like that first morning when Fall barometrically announces it’s arrival. There’s a crispness in the air, a fresh wind blowing, a Presence that would have us know that there is newness coming. A Voice announcing, It will not always be this way.

And that’s what I found this morning when I woke up—an announcement: it will not always be this way. There is newness on the horizon.

Fall arrives every year as a rebuke to Summer’s unremitting desire to scorch. Fall serves an eviction notice to something that is good, but only good for a season. “To everything there is a season”, cries Qohelet.

God in the weather. God in the changing seasons. God escorting out the heat that, if left unchecked, gets unbearable. God telling good stories about his faithful love in the earth’s yearly dance around the sun. God gracing and kissing the ground with water again. God brooding over the foggy mountains. God blowing in the trade winds.

It will not always be this way, says our Lord the Spirit to all those who are crushed in spirit.

So we pray today for those running through the scorching Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese deserts…a reprieve from the frantic running-for-your-life existence you’ve known. It will not always be this way.

We pray today for those wracked by the Ebola virus…a shift in the winds, a healing of the land. It will not always be this way.

We pray for the elderly who are in pain and waiting to enter into their long-awaited rest…a fresh watering. The Spirit is moving in with the clouds to brood over your lives. It will not always be this way.

We pray for the orphans on the run through the Burmese hillsides…may you find green pastures, quiet waters, and restoration for your souls. It will not always be this way.

We pray these things in the Name of Jesus Christ, who came to announce to a fractured world, It will not always be this way.

Amen.

Sermon Series: “Getting Smashed for Jesus”

I wanted to share this sermon from one of my favorite scholars, Dr. Walter Brueggemann. Pastoral ministry, like any job, provides its share of opportunities for pain and heartache, unmet expectations and relational disappointments. I appreciate Walter’s concern to help us all understand the value of some of the “smashings” we’ve all endured. Grace to you…DG

The Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling

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A few years ago, I began preaching weekly—an invigorating, and simultaneously daunting and demanding, task. Previously, I had the good fortune of being an occasional preacher, filling in for people who were on vacation or who turned up sick. As a fill-in, very often you get to preach your “greatest hits”—the sermons that are in you, the ones you could stand up and preach without notes, the ones that you are confident will be a Home Run—whatever that might mean, anyway.

As any weekly preacher knows when she/he steps out of the pulpit on Sunday afternoon, the clock is ticking. Next Sunday will be here in no time. Which means a sermon must be prepared.

So, what did I do in my transition from fill-in preacher to weekly preacher? I became an apprentice in the Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling.

I bought a stack of pocket-sized notebooks so that I could have one with me everywhere I go. I bought a case of legal pads and kept one on my desk at all times. My baseline assumption became, I’ll never be able to scribble too much. You just don’t know when a fruitful thought might come to you.

I began to practice for spontaneity, working to “turn a phrase” that I found recurring in the text. I would try to translate the phrase in three or four different ways, not because I was going to use that in my sermon, but because I wanted to develop facility with these words. I would draw a picture of what I thought the text was saying–even though I’m a terrible “artist”. A goal for the preacher is to have internalized these words so much that they naturally begin to find shape on the tongue.

I would attempt to craft transition sentences that would thread two seemingly independent thoughts into a seamless whole. These segue sentences would serve as the hinge on which my sermon would turn.

My point here is that spontaneity is anything but spontaneous, whether you’re a preacher or a jazz saxophonist. It is a skill one deliberately develops. Wynton Marsalis can improvise only because he’s internalized every scale and is intimately acquainted with all the jazz standards.

Words are like a thousand little puzzle pieces—pretty random when strewn about on the table, but beautiful when organized, shaped, placed properly so that a larger picture can be seen.

My contention is that regular doodling with words can serve as a development of linguistic “muscle memory” so that when a situation arises and a word is needed, one will be “in shape”, one will be prepared.

Eleventh-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, famously wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” The assumption he makes is that one will have something to erase. One is writing more than what is necessary. Thus, it stands to reason that the hand that does not have something to erase will never write the true thing.

So we jot, sketch, chicken-scratch, draw, paint and design ourselves ever deeper into the mysteries. And in doing so fewer of our words will “fall to the ground.”

I thank the Creator for every night Teresa of Avila stayed up late praying, grappling with God and endeavoring to write something true. Because she did, the church is more prepared to live faithfully. I praise God for all the hours John and Charles Wesley spent crafting hymns that have served the church for 300 years. Because they did, we can know what to sing whether we’ve “gone up to the heavens” or “made our bed in Sheol.” We won’t forget the effort that people like Flannery O’Connor and Henri Nouwen exerted for our benefit. And these are a just few in a long line of sacred scribblers.

I find it interesting that over and over again God told the prophets and apostles to “write this down” (Exod. 17:14; Ps. 102:18; Hab. 2:2; Rev. 1:19, 19:9-11, 21:5). Writing is a part of our Christian identity. “Chicken-scratching” our way toward faithfulness is a family tradition.

As each new generation is summoned to probe into the vast terrain of the Triune God, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to need to order a few more legal pads.