Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Sunday, I went to church. I know, it's summer, and why would you go to church in the summer? It's hot, so hot that one of my members thought the only appropriate sermon topic was Dante's inferno. There's no regular Sunday school, and no regular choir, and there are plenty of other things to do. At least, that seems to be what several people think. But I am the pastor, and I was preaching, so I went to church.

Here's what I saw there:

I saw a smile on the face of a woman who told me that she got to see her husband and attend a great conference. I saw tears on the face of a woman who wanted me to pray for the family of a friend of hers who died last week.

I saw a two year old boy run up to the front of the church for the children's sermon with a wonderful red lollipop in his mouth. I wanted my own lollipop when I saw his.

I saw an older woman give our organist a hug. I saw him smile.

I saw a woman with a small boy who wrote on their visitor card that they were former members who had moved to Colorado and had come for a visit. Following worship, she said it was good to be back at Crescent Avenue and that she continued to pray for the church.

I do as well. I pray for the church, the people of God, the ones who came and sang and prayed and cried and laughed with us on Sunday. I pray for the ones who were not here, for whatever reason, whether they are traveling or whether they are busy or whether they just can't figure out a reason to be here with us.

Friday, July 15, 2011


What we need most, we do not have, until we discover that God is always with us. And in the mystery of God’s grace, the dominion of heaven establishes a presence in our hearts. It’s stated pretty well by writer Frederick Buechner:

If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think all of us are homesick for it. (The Clown in the Belfry, p. 152)

This is the blessing we receive when we come before God, ready to be filled. We pray for God to finish what we cannot. We announce how we depend on God for all things. We see how little we have within ourselves. And then the moment comes when we discover that everything we need has been given to us as a gift. In the end we pray not so much for confirmation as for clarity. Clarity to see the kingdom of God breaking in all around us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


When you grow up like I did, you try to know-it-all. Everything depends on it. Supposedly.

It has been a long time since "growing up", but still some strange place in your head never quite forgives you for not holding together what was never in your power to hold together anyhow— the loss of a parent, hoped-for joys of holidays and ordinary days quashed by volatility, or some other such thing.

Trying to be right, to know it all, brings the need for control; after all, it's so much easier to be right when you understand the playing field, have set the boundary lines yourself, inasmuch as that is possible.

Then along comes Life with a suggestion: let go, drift. In creation there is an inherent sense that we are not in control. In creation there's a sense of encounter, immediacy, Presence that we cannot control.

For a time, I too felt such an invitation. Let go. Drift with green grasses, morning dew, the stars. Then it came to an end, partly because my commitments call me back to a sense of control and management, but perhaps too because God knew it was time to set me in a new place of encounter, where I could not easily be in control. 

At some point I must have wanted to relinquish the burden of being right, knowing-it-all (it is tiring, often perplexing). And this desire sent me on unlikely journeys— first into Creation, now into daily writing. The words sometimes come, and at other times do not. I worry, fret, labor, and finally give myself over to God’s grace, trusting that the words will come - and I am not in control.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

This past week the Crescent Avenue Church and Watchung Avenue Church participated in a work camp at Stony Point, a Presbyterian Conference Center. We worked on demolishing four garages to prepare the site for a new Arts Center that will be constructed in 2012. On our last day I was asked to reflect on the day and the week. Here is what I wrote:

It’s Friday, not in the TGIF kind of Friday, but a Friday that has us packing and anticipating heading home.

We walked the shady drive following breakfast and worship this morning— fields and hills opening out beyond with tall green trees reaching to the heavens. We ramble past the herb garden and I think, this garden contains possibility— basil for red sauce, sage for French lentil salad, rosemary for new potatoes, chives for cream cheese. Henni, the cook here at Stony Point is in league with the Devil. Her food is so delicious that everything I encounter conjures up thoughts of recipes and our next meal. I must focus on the task at hand this morning, to remove the pitched roof, rafters, and plywood, the last hurdle of our whirlwind week.

Benji and Mike head up the ladders to begin removing the roof. Fernando just looks at Jake and myself and says slyly that the makeshift scaffolding only holds 600 lbs. I guess Jake and I are grounded for the duration of the roof removal. Mike and Benji work steadily, sure-footed, and safe as board after board comes down. I envy them their youth and endless energy until Benji puts his foot through the flat roof underneath. By lunch the roof and rafters are down. My mind wanders back to the herb garden and what awaits us at lunch.

Beyond the low cut building we are working on are the gardens. At the fringe is a locust tree. Shelby calls this the “tree of death”. It has a huge, weathered branch that Shelby pulls until a twig is released. We can see the large thorns as she makes her way to us under the sycamore tree. I silently wonder if Jesus’ crown of thorns were made of these. As I sit sharing water and a bench with the work crew I think of how fortunate I have been to spend the week with these amazing co-workers. I do not want to leave. The friendship, work, sweet peas, chicken paprika, corny jokes, and late night smore fires. I do not want to leave this day, this hour.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Life confronts us with a lot of choices. I thought about this as I sat along with thousands of others at my son, Benji’s graduation this past month. We have to decide where we will go to school and what we will study, what type of work we will do, where we will live, how we will spend our money, and the list goes on and on. But the most important choices sneak up on you. These are the choices about love and friendship, about how you will handle disappointment and adversity, about what is really important to you and the convictions by which you will live your life. Usually you have already made these choices long before you knew you did. These important choices are simply cognitive. Something from a deep place inside you emerges, and only then do you know what to do.

The older I get, the more I realize that maturity is about embracing who I am, who I have always been, and who I was before I knew it. When I was young, I believed those who told me I could be whoever I wanted to be. I believed the world was nothing but opportunity and resources. And I believed that I could choose my dream and then knock myself out to make it come true. What those who were peddling this highly individualistic drivel forgot to mention was that they had no dreams worthy of one’s life, and no good ideas for how to find one.

The late 20th-century advice peddlers thought they were liberating us from tradition and freeing us to be ourselves. But the tragic irony is that by dismantling the traditions they only made it impossible to know who we are or what our dream for life should be. Thus, we have seen so many people who have no idea of their identity waste their fleeting years by making unimportant choices, hoping that they will stumble into a life they like.

The Apostle Paul has a different idea. When he writes his epistles to Timothy, Paul is near the end of his life. Timothy is a young pastor, still near the beginning of his life. Paul knows that the leadership of the church is about to pass to Timothy’s generation. These epistles can be read as his last words of advice and spiritual counsel to the next generation, and to our next generation. So what does Paul say to Timothy? Not that he should go out and start shopping for a dream. Nor does he tell him to knock himself out as a pastor to build a successful mega-church. No, Paul tells him to rekindle the gift that is already within him. Paul begins by demonstrating how he has done this in his own life. He says that he is grateful to God to whom he gives worship as his ancestors did. Tradition is an inevitable inheritance. Even if you reject your inheritance, it is still setting the agenda. No one ever escapes tradition. But it does fall to the members of each generation to receive this inheritance, and then to mold and shape it during the years while they hold the baton. Tradition is dynamic. I do not celebrate Christmas or Easter the way my parents did. I do not even worship the way they did. But I did not invent these traditions. They invented me.

Paul then speaks about the Christian tradition that has already shaped Timothy. He says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice, and now lives in you.” This means that Timothy was a third-generation Christian. He was the second to grow up on the lap of faith. So this faith is not something that Timothy chose.

As a result of this great faith that now lives within us, Paul says we “have not received a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline.” As every adult has long known, and as the teenagers already know, our society will give you so many reasons to be afraid. It will find thousands of ways to ask, “Who are you?” It will try to make you afraid. But you have this powerful gift. It was in you before you knew it. When you need it, the powerful faith is waiting. You also have love. God loved you as infants before you knew God’s name, or what it meant to receive and respond to God’s love. And you have self-discipline. That will save you from the bad choices which only hurt yourself.

Not only will our world try to make you afraid, it will also keep finding ways to tell you that you are ordinary. No one can stay out of the game of life. No one can opt out of the great conflict between good and evil. You have to choose a side! Either you are working for the faith that is within you, or you are working against it. This great faith claims that your life is not an accident. Your skills, talents, experiences, and even your hurts have a sacred purpose to them. If you want to find that purpose, you don’t have to look far. It is there waiting for you, in the great faith the Church has given you. But as Paul cautions, you have to rekindle that faith. You have to keep it alive and burning bright. You have to choose not to be ordinary, but to make a difference. And for that, you have to choose what God, Lois, Eunice, and generations of prophets and martyrs have chosen for you. You have to embrace who you are, who you have always been, who you were before you knew it.

I received an invitation this week to a new exhibit opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit is called, “Rembrandt and the face of Jesus”. What caught my attention was one of the pieces on display: Christ as a Gardener Appearing to Mary Magdalene. In the painting, Jesus is shown as a gardener, with a big gardener’s hat and a spade. Rembrandt based his painting from an account in the Gospel of John.
You remember the story: Mary finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, and as she turns from it, weeping, Jesus is standing there waiting for her. Jesus asks Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and as the story goes, Mary begins to tell him that someone has stolen Jesus. Mary says this to Jesus himself, because she has mistaken him for the gardener. That passage got me thinking about a few things. About faith. About expectations. About gardeners. It occurs to me that most encounters people have with their faith—at least the encounters that are worthwhile—are those that happen in a way that are different from what we expect and often different from what we are able to understand. I would argue that, as a general rule, the encounters we have with faith that are different from what we expect, the ones that make us stop and think, the ones that are difficult to understand—these are the experiences that are actually the most helpful to us. These are the encounters that help us to grow. This shouldn’t be too foreign an idea. Psychologists suggest that it is in encountering something new and uncomfortable that we are most likely to grow.
There is a lot we don’t understand in these resurrection stories. Clearly there is a lot that the disciples don’t understand either. Mostly they’re just caught by surprise; Mary is a representative for them all, mistaking Jesus to be the gardener. In the midst of all of these unanswered questions, it occurs to me that if this is supposed to be a story about how Jesus is raised from the dead, it’s a strange kind of story. So I started thinking about something else. I started thinking, about gardening.
Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy, is a gardener. I know this only because, A.J. Jacobs, an author I love to read, interviewed Trebek and wrote an account of it in one of his books. A.J. is a very smart guy, and he loves trivia, so he tells a great story about how excited he was when Esquire magazine sent him out to California to interview Alex Trebek. A.J. figured that interviewing the host of Jeopardy would be one of the best possible opportunities to go head-to-head with someone who really knows a lot of trivia and see if he could keep up—or prove that he knew even more. A.J. writes that he was sure Trebek would be arrogant and hyper intellectual, quick to prove how smart he was; A.J. was all geared up for a know-it-all showdown with Trebek. And so he was taken by surprise when the stone-faced host of Jeopardy turned out to be a kind, easygoing, regular guy, a pleasure to interview, and even highly emotional in his thoughts on life. I could tell you a lot of stories about people who turn out to be different than we expect. But the reason I chose this one is because of the way A.J.’s story begins. When he arrived at Alex Trebek’s house, he was told that he would find Alex outside. It’s a big backyard, and A.J. finds a number of men, stooped down, working. He walks around, asking them, “Have you seen Alex Trebek; I’m looking for Alex Trebek. Donde esta Alex Trebek?” Suddenly one of those gardeners stands up and turns around and says, “You’ve found him.” The whole story of A.J. being taken by surprise begins when A.J. mistakes Alex Trebek for the gardener (The Know-It-All, pp. 99–101).
I read this story a few weeks ago, and I thought of it again on Easter because of that one line in the Gospel of John that caught my attention: Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Now the story about Jesus and the one about Alex Trebek have little in common, but for some reason it just caught my attention that in both cases, a well-told story about surprise and growth and understanding begins with a gardener.
I come from a long line of gardeners. I know that a garden is a place where we have a general idea of what to do, but we still wrestle with unknowns. How much will it rain this year? Will the bugs or the birds or the rabbits or the deer find their way in? How long will this patch of dirt be fertile? How long until that tree gets too tall and blocks out the sun. It’s in the midst of those unknowns, those moments of not quite knowing where things are headed, that a gardener labors, and most of the time, by the grace of God, something grows, even though we never quite wrestle nature to the ground. Most avid gardeners will tell you that the real joy of gardening is in that struggle with nature that you never completely figure out. Thomas Jefferson, in his later years, used to say, “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
There’s something poetic about mistaking Jesus for the gardener. We don’t understand, we’re not yet fully grown, but Jesus is cultivating something within us. He’s raising up within us the ability to be and do something different, to see and take part in something even though we don’t fully understand. It’s my hunch that the point of all of this is that there are a lot of things about how the resurrection took place that we’re not supposed to figure out. It’s contrary to the way the Bible tells the story of the resurrection to expect to understand it. The people who were there don’t understand it; why should we? But look at what happens to the people who encounter the risen Jesus.
The end of the story fascinates me because there John seems to come right out and say that we don’t need to understand everything about the resurrection. John admits that he could tell us much, much more, but he chooses not to because he has told us enough. Enough to surprise us, enough to disturb us, enough to cause us to grow. Enough to give us peace. And so I close with John’s conclusion: Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.


TWELFTH NIGHT/EPIPHANY      I read this line in a interview with Christian Wiman in Christianity Today:   "Jurgen Mol...