A Letter to FPC Maumee

This week in the office finds me tidying up loose ends: finishing this year’s Seedling you will receive this Sunday in worship, putting final touches on our wedding brochure with our (relatively) new wedding policy, and getting publications in place for the Capital Campaign. Each of these projects shares one common goal: making way for the future of FPC Maumee.

Back in 2008 when we were just beginning to discuss the possibility of a renovation for our building I remember overhearing one of our elder members in discussion with one of our youth. While the elder member was asked what changes could and should be made with the generous bequest our church received, the elder member differed to the youth, saying, “ask them, they’re the ones the church is being built for.” Each of us, in our own participation in the life of the church plays a role in what this church will become. We are building a future for the community of Northwest Ohio through the renovations we have made to our building and to our perspectives of how it may be used to further God’s Kingdom. We don’t renovate for the sake of those who are already well established in the church, we renovate for the future of the Kingdom.

This generous attitude of our members built me up as well. These past twenty years, you have made room for me to grow in faith

and allowed me to see the role that God has for me as a minister in the Church. This church has formed me into the Christian I have become and minister I will be in the future. I am grateful for the many ways you have renovated my life: providing Biblical instruction through Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Youth Group; lending a listening ear and open heart as I preached and we worshiped together; and giving encouragement all along the way.

As I step out in faith to serve the greater Church in a new capacity, I do so with a solid foundation built by this congregation, my family, and Union Presbyterian Seminary. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve alongside you and I look forward to the future God has for all of us.

Written for FPC Maumee’s FYI Newsletter, May 1, 2012

Commissioning

Today I had my last Sunday as Pastoral Intern at First Presbyterian Church of Maumee. It was a bittersweet day, as I will miss serving and worshipping alongside my home congregation, but I am excited to see what God has in store in Massachusetts. Within each of the three services, the congregation thanked me for my ministry with them and prayed for my future ministry. In the same part of the service, Pastor Clint acknowledged how God’s call on my life is also a reflection of the ministry they have all done. The congregation of FPC Maumee provided a place for faith to take root in my life and imagine a future of serving the church as a minister. In two of the services, members prayed for me through a laying on of hands.

There’s something about a laying on of hands that stays with you. Last week the elders laid hands and prayed over the confirmands. We commissioned them for service to the greater church and to membership in our particular church. I remember this commissioning as an eighth grade confirmand, the weight of those hands on my head and shoulders. That was the year that God called me into ministry.

Now, eleven years later, feeling those hands (many of them the very same hands) upon my head and shoulders, those two events seem to be some sort of bookends of my preparation for ordained ministry. Even when I’m not in direct contact with them, I know that this congregation is supporting me, sending me out to serve the greater church.

“The Practice of Walking on Earth,” by Barbara Brown Taylor

The Practice of Walking on Earth by Barbara Brown Taylor[1]

Not everyone is able to walk, but most people can, which makes walking one of the most easily available spiritual practices of all. All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however counterintuitive that may seem. To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time. Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are. When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives, the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say, ‘Here, I guess, since this is where I am.’…The beauty of physical practices like this one is that you do not have to know what you are doing in order to begin. You just begin, and the doing teaches you what you need to know.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk… teaches many forms or attentiveness, including walking meditation. To watch a Buddhist monk practice walking mediation is like watching a lunar eclipse. First the bare heel extends over the earth, coming down so slowly that not even a dry leaf is displaced. Then the arch begins its long descent, laying itself down like a cat. Finally the toes arrive, beginning with the small one and ending with the big. Imperceptibly, the arrival turns into a departure as one heel rises and the other comes down. Up above, the monk shows no signs of having made any of this happen. His face is as still as the moon. This is no circus performer on a high wire. This is a man walking on the earth. The only thing that sets him apart from any other walker is his full devotion to what he is doing. He chops carrots the same way. He hauls water the same way. Whatever he does, he does it with a groundedness that his watchers can only envy.

Jesus walked a lot, and not only during the last week of his life. The four gospels are peppered with accounts of him walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea f Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water. If Jesus had driven a car instead, it is difficult to imagine how that might have changed his impact. Surely someone could have loaned him a fast horse. Instead, he walked everywhere he went, except for a short stint on a monkey at the end. This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, r round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them. Sometimes he had a destination and sometimes he did not. For many who followed him around, he was the destination. Whether he was going somewhere or nowhere at all, going with him was the point.

Done properly, the spiritual practice of going barefoot can take you halfway around the world and wake you up to your own place in the world all at the same time. It can lead you to love God with your whole self, and your neighbor as yourself, without leaving your backyard…Or keep your shoes on, if you wish. As long as you are on the earth and you know it, you are where you are supposed to be. You have everything you need to ground yourself in God.


[1] “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor, page 56, 58, 65-66, 68

Thoughts on purpose from “Hugo” and “Sleeping at Last”

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

The other night I (re)watched the movie “Hugo.” If you haven’t seen this yet, you’re missing out. This is a beautifully crafted film with complex characters and a very original plot. The book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, is also very worth a read, particularly because though it is about 500 pages, most of them are pictures.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is below.

I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with exact amount they need. So i figured if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here some reason, too.

Watching this scene this time around made me also think of think of the song, “Emphasis,” by Sleeping at Last:

The last verse most directly speaks to 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 passage:

Life is a gorgeous, broken gift.
Six billion+ pieces waiting to be fixed.
Love letters that were never signed,
Sent to where we live.

But the sweetest thing i’ve ever heard
Is that i don’t have to have the answers,
Just a little light to call my own.

Though it pales in comparison
To the overarching shadows,
A speck of light can reignite the sun
And swallow darkness whole.

 

“The Sunday after Easter,” Celtic Daily Prayer

“The Sunday after Easter,” Celtic Daily Prayer

Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ But many of us are much heartened by His special appearing to Thomas, who in his integrity, needed to question in order to firmly believe. In a sense he is the true apostle of the ‘heretical imperative.’

The disciples were assembled behind closed doors when suddenly You entered, O Jesus our almighty God. You stood in their midst, and gave them Your peace; You breathed the Holy Spirit on them. You commanded them to wait in Jerusalem until they would be clothed with power from on high.

And so we cry to You: Glory to You, our resurrection, our light, and our peace!

Eight days after Your resurrection, O Lord, You appeared to Your disciples in the upper room. You greeted them: Peace be with you! You showed Your hands and feed to the doubting disciple. Then in faith he cried to you: ‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God!”

Thomas, called the twin, was absent when you came to Your disciples through closed doors, O Christ. He refused to believe what they told him; but You did not reject him for his faithlessness. When he saw Your side, and the wounds in Your hands and heed, his doubts vanished and his faith was confirmed.

After both seeing and feeling You, he confessed You to be neither an abstract god, not merely a man. He cried: ‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God!”

After Your resurrection, O Lord, Your disciples gathered behind closed doors. You appeared in their midst, and gave them Your peace. When Thomas saw Your hands and side he believed. He confessed You to be his Lord and God, the Saviour of those who trust in You.

Though the doors were locked, Jesus suddenly appeared to the disciples. He calmed their fears and have them peace. Then He said to Thomas: Why do you not believe I am risen from the dead? Bring your hand here. Thrust it into My side and see. Your doubt will teach My passion and resurrection to all, and everyone will join your shout:

‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God.’

Oh, most strange wonder! Doubt has given birth to faith. Thomas said: ‘Unless I see, I will not believe.’ But when he touched the Savior’s side, he understood. He realized that God has suffered in the flesh. He cried to the risen Lord with joyful voice: Glory to You, my Lord and my God!

Oh, most strange wonder! Grass was not scorched by touching fire: Thomas thrust his hand into the fiery side of Jesus Christ our God; he touched Him, yet was not consumed.

Stubbornness of soul was changed to fervent faith. He cried from the depths of his soul: ‘You are my Master, who rose form the dead. Glory to You, my Lord and my God!’

Oh, most strange wonder! John the apostle leaned on the bosom of the Word, but Thomas was made worthy to touch His side.

Glory to You, my Lord and my God!

How great and boundless is the multitude of Your compassions.

Give us understanding, that with Thomas we may cry to You: ‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God!’

“Many Voices, One Song”

On March 18th First Presbyterian of Maumee sang “Give Thanks to God Who Hears Our Cries,” along with many other PC(USA) churches across the nation. This was part of “Many Voices, One Song,” a national hymn sing by the Presbyterian Hymnal Project in anticipation of the release of a new Presbyterian Hymnal in Fall 2013.

I love this project because it gives a very tangible example of what a denominational hymnal is all about: joining in song with fellow Presbyterians where ever they may be. By encouraging all particular Presbyterian churches to sing the same song on a Sunday, we are singing not just as our own congregations but as the larger Church.

Check out the video of both the Chapel and Sanctuary services singing this song together:

See more information about this project at: http://www.presbyterianhymnal.org/manyvoices.

15 Reasons I’ve Never Left (The) Church

In conversation with Rachel Held Evans’,”15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” 

As a 25 year old growing up in America today, I am part of a significant minority of people who have weathered high school, college, and young adulthood with consistent mainline denomination church attendance and membership. I’m not saying this as a point of pride, but rather out of a bit of surprise. Christ’s Church has been such a cornerstone to my life, that it’s hard to imagine my life without it, even for a short while.

Within the candidacy process (for ordination to ministry in the PCUSA) I was asked how I could know that God was calling me to minister in the church if I haven’t tried anything else yet. That question caught me off guard. But then I realized, I had tried other things. In high school I worked with the yearbook and newspaper and thought I might be a journalist because I like shedding light on stories people might not know otherwise. In college I studied film production because I like being enabling people to tell their stories and show what the world looks like from their point of view. The funny thing is God finds a way to use every bit of who we are towards ministry. I am a journalist through newsletters, bulletin announcements, directories, and websites. I am a film producer, sharing the stories of the church through film.

Through ministry, God enables me to be the best parts of myself.

So here are 15 (of many) reasons why I’ve never left The Church (or church):

1. A weekly corporate prayer of confession. There’s something beautifully vulnerable about standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another. Imagine going out to other places and relationships in your life and confessing this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship.

2. A delightful 97 year old member of our church whose love for God and God’s church fuels every aspect of her life. Our weekly conversations about how the church can be strengthened show me that Church membership is not about showing up each week as if attending some performance. Membership is about being a part of things, actively engaging and participating in whatever capacity you are able.

3. 1 Corinthians 12: This passage reminds me how each of us has a role in doing God’s work here on earth.

4. Barbara Brown Taylor. Yes she is Episcopalian, and yes her faith journey has taken her back and forth from active participation in the Church, but the poetic honesty that she offers in every sermon and piece of writing have given me a resolute peace in God’s call on my life to be a minister.

5. Hearing the statements of faith of newly confirmed members. I first felt God calling me to ministry while I was in confirmation class in the 8th grade. Knowing the impact of confirmation first-hand, i delight in hearing where these new members are in their journey of faith.

6. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12This passage speaks in a direct way of the strength we have through unity.

7. Project Burning Bush. Sadly, this program has ended, but it’s 10 year existence gives me hope not only for the future of the church, but for its present reality. Throughout my time with PBB as both participant and staff, I met a great many wonderful people who genuinely delight in being the Church.

8. The community of Union Presbyterian Seminary. The faculty, staff, and students of this beautiful institution have taught me so much about what it means to be the Church. In agreement and in conflict, these people’s tangible passion for improvement strengthened who I am and what I am willing to fight for to allow God’s Kingdom to be manifest.

9. Matthew 18:20 Through our Church community and the relationships we share with one another, we invite God to be present among us. God shows up in the ways we care for one another.

10. Communion. In communion we are reminded of Jesus Christ’s great sacrifice for us, but also of the meal that he shared with His disciples in the Last Supper. We can be sure that this was one of many meals they shared, but this one was different. Before the meal Jesus knelt down in front of the disciples and washed their feet. In breaking the bread he introduced it as His body, speaking of how He could nourish them like no earthly bread could. He also spoke of how the wine as His blood gives life. He asked His disciples to specifically eat bread and drink wine as a way to remember Him.
When we join in communion we are making ourselves present to the events of this meal. I picture everyone in our congregation, sitting down with every other congregation, sitting down with Jesus and His disciples.

11. First Presbyterian Church of Muncie. I am grateful for my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee and the ways they have all blessed me throughout my life, but First Presbyterian Church of Muncie holds a special place in my life. While FPC Maumee has had the opportunity to get to know me through relationships with my family and by watching me grow up throughout childhood, FPC Muncie knew me only while I was in college. Still, FPC Muncie welcomed me heartily, welcoming me into their choir loft and into their relationships like I had been there for years. I will never forget how much a part of the Church I felt when being a part of that church.

12. Deuteronomy 31:6. This passage tells us that God will always be with us. Even if I did leave a particular church, I know that God would always be present with me. However, this passage is not about striking out on your own to worship God alone as you may please. This passage comes in the context of Moses speaking to the people of Israel as they are about to head into the promise land. They travel as a large group and are strengthened through their faith in God as they have experienced God in community. They could not have made it to that point alone and God never intended them to. God will never ever leave us or forsake us, but that does not mean that we should intentionally create distance between ourselves and those who are eager to help us have a relationship with God.

13. Funerals. When someone dies I know I often find myself thinking about what will be said about me when I’m gone. I think about how long I will live and the experiences that I will have throughout my lifetime. If left to my own devices I think I would probably spend more time thinking about how I’ve been affected by someone’s death than the effect they have made with their life. Funerals work to bring us outside of that, focusing on the greater picture: the comfort of our common hymns, scripture telling us of God’s plans for us in heaven, and proclamations of the promise of resurrection.

14. Church meals. Child development experts can tell us the value of family dinner. Eating meals together fosters healthy habits and relationships. The same can be said of church dinners. When we eat together we approach each other on common ground. We all need to be fed physically, spiritually, and relationally. Meals with our church family allows for that to happen.

15. Baptisms. My favorite moment of the baptism is when the congregation affirms their role in the life of the person being baptized. In baptism, the person baptized becomes a part of the church family. We all take on the responsibilities of discipleship and Christian education. We promise to nurture this newly baptized person as they grow in faith. Simultaneously we are reminded of how we have all promised these vows to one another. Being the Church means saying: “I am here to travel this road with you. I will know God better through God’s work in your life and you will know God better through God’s work in mine.”

Doubting Thomas

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
– John 20:24-29

As we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on this day after Easter, I am reminded of the stories that follow Christ’s resurrection: the empty tomb, Christ’s appearance in the garden, and one that is particularly on my mind tonight, Thomas’ doubt of Jesus’ resurrection.

I get why Thomas wanted to see Jesus and touch his wounds: he wanted to know that Jesus’ resurrection was real. He wanted to know that this Jesus to whom he had devoted himself was truly much more than simply human or a apparition or a hoax. 

Jesus obliges, offering his hands and side to Thomas for inspection. Jesus, the resurrected, incarnate, God allows himself to be poked and prodded for Thomas’ doubt to be satisfied.

Jesus doesn’t leave it at that though, but questions Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” He admonishes him saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Belief in something you can see and feel is simply an understanding of the tangible, unquestionable, entirely fathomable facts. However, God is so much greater and more complex than anything that can be explained by reason. Only through faith can we fully welcome all of God. Thomas understood the basic facts about Jesus’ resurrection, but without mystery-welcoming faith, he could not fully embrace what that resurrection truly meant for our salvation and the Kingdom of God.

Nickel Creek’s song, “Doubting Thomas,” speaks with great vulnerability to this text.The lines, “Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie,” speak directly to the fear of any of us seeking to teach other’s about God. But that’s exactly where faith comes in. Trusting in God means being open to even the confusing, scary, or complicated parts about God. The very nature of Divinity is the beauty of inexplicability. Accompanying inexplicability with trust in it’s dependability is a frightening thing to do, but in doing so we free ourselves from self-sufficiency and are able to embrace grace.

A favorite StoryPeople story says:

“Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.” – “Belief,” Brian Andreas

Here is a beautiful cover of Nickel Creek’s, “Doubting Thomas.”

“Doubting Thomas,” Nickel Creek

What will be left when I’ve drawn my last breath
Besides the folks I’ve met and the folks who’ve known me
Will I discover a soul-saving love
Or just the dirt above and below me
I’m a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
But I do not feel safe
Oh me of little faith

Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face
Then I beg to be spared cause I’m a coward
If there’s a master of death
I bet he’s holding his breath
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power

I’m a doubting Thomas
I can’t keep my promises
Cause I don’t know what’s safe
Oh me of little faith

Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die

Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted

I’m a doubting Thomas
I’ll take your promise
Though I know nothin’s safe
Oh me of little faith

Happy Easter!

Claire and Me on Easter

So blessed by the joys of this Easter day!

This Easter I have been thinking about what Jesus came to do and to be in this world. Jesus came first and foremost to save us from our sins, giving His life sacrificially so that we might be able to enjoy a full relationship with God. Through His life and example, Jesus both taught the word about God’s Kingdom and brought it closer to fulfillment. Fundamental in the realization of this Kingdom is God’s followers uniting together in faith to become the Church. This particular Easter Sunday, the joys of being the Church and a member of a family of faith were very tangible.

As I am actively searching for a position as an ordained minister, I am very aware that this is likely my last Easter to spend at my home church. Being at home for this past year has granted me many opportunities I didn’t anticipate having, another Christmas at my home church, more time spend with my family, church family, and best friend, Claire, another Easter at home. I am so grateful that I have been able to once again be a part of their lives in this way.

These people provided a foundation for my faith to grow and introduced me to what it means to be the Church. This Kingdom that Jesus came to bring about continues to grow in the many ways we have all reached out from our foundations and into the world. I can’t wait to see what God has in store for all of us next.

“Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis,” by Denise Levertov

A poem for Holy Saturday:

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
Much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
In those small heads that seem in fact
Portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clinched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
Cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
Like any mortal hero out of his depth,
Like anyone who has taken a step too far,
And wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
In the midnight Garden,
Or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
To simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
Not the hideous betrayals humans commit
Nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
Not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
Was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
But this sickened desire to renege,
To step back from what He, Who was God,
Had promised Himself, and had entered
Time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
Up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.

“Lacrimosa” and “The Tree of Life”: A Maundy Thursday Reflection

Tonight, following the Maundy Thursday service, I watched the film “Tree of Life.” Little did I know how fitting of a movie this would be for this evening. This film is breathtaking cinematically, with haunting themes of faith, brokenness, and loss.

In the first few minutes you see a couple reacting to the death of their son.
We hear a pastor saying to the mother, “he’s in God’s hands now.”
She responds, “he was in God’s hands the whole time.”

A woman, trying to comfort the mother says an nearly unconscious litany of all the things everyone always days in the face of death: “You have to be strong now…I know the pain will pass in time…Life goes on…You’ve still got the other two…the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.”

The mother laments in pleading prayers: “where where you?” “did you know?” “what are we to you?”

In the background we hear “Lacrimosa” (“Weeping”) and a stunning display of a multitude of aspects of creation, from forests to the duplication of cells to bubbling lava.

The film is in no hurry to get back to any linear plot, thereby allowing time for reflection and meditation on the depth of the mother’s pain and the expansiveness of creation.

This made me reflect on God as creative Mother, breathing life into all things. Knowing the depth of the Creator’s love for us, the pain of the brokenness of the world is all the more striking.

The breath of the film focuses on the oldest son of three boys, Jack. We see his life unfold and see him grow from curious to playful to hurtful. We hear his prayers both aloud and in whisper, asking for God’s direction.

In one particularly striking scene, after he experiences a loss of innocence, he looks at his brothers playing and whispers, “How do I get back where they are?”

On this Maundy Thursday that seems to be the question about to be answered. We live in a broken, fractured world. We have hurt and caused hurt. We are in need of a savior.

Tonight we remember the evening of Jesus’ last Thursday:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.
Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
-Matthew 26:36-46

God has indeed provided us a way to get back to innocence, through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. God does not abandon us in our pain and loss, but grieves alongside us, holding us in God’s own hands.

“In Memory of Her,” A Poem for Holy Week by Susan Windley-Daoust

This is a poem I came across this week and it helped me to see the story of the woman anointing Jesus (as told in Mark 14) with new eyes.

In Memory Of Her

“Leave her alone.”
And for the rest of my life, they do.
They are not supposed to look at me, but
Sidelong glances and traitorous sounds tell them
I am crying,
And words I want to say are choked, stillborn.
I can’t tell them how I knew
unless you, too, see it was obvious
that he was not meant to stay with us forever.
He seemed to know it that day,
the way he ate so slowly, deliberately,
staring at people, boring into their eyes,
the occasional pause, blink,
seeing something we could, or would, not.
He was with us and not,
and I knew: it was time.
So I rushed to get the jar of spikenard,
my dowry,
and stepped over reclining men,
to his mat.
With a pleading glance, I knelt down,
Cracked the seal,
And poured out a portion, then the whole, of my hope
on his head, and then his feet.
Kneeling at those calloused feet, I wept
with the knowledge of what this means:
I have given my future
To this man, who will die.
As that perfume filled the room,
He smiled, lifting my chin, and addressed me:
“…you will not always have me.
She has done what she could.
She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.
Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told….”

So I was left alone by men.
No one understood, then;
truth, I barely understood myself.
But in that gift, my center shifted
And I knew– despite his coming death–that I was meant to be alone, for him, somehow.

The day after the catastrophe,
I looked at the broken jar
I remembered the fragrance
And I hoped.

Moving On

Today I officially announced the end to my employment at my home church, here is what I wrote in our church newsletter:

It has been a delight to serve with you over this past year as I prepare for a permanent call to ordained ministry.

As I have been engaged in this search process, it has become apparent that I need to be more equipped to serve different types of churches. While the majority of my experience working with church has been with churches similar to ours (mid-sized suburban congregations) many of the churches who are looking for a first call pastor are smaller and in more remote areas. So, with this in mind, I will be moving to Massachusetts to assist with a smaller congregation. My last day working at the church will be May 3rd.

I am grateful for the support you have given throughout my time in the life of our church, as a young child growing up in Sunday School, as a member of the youth group, throughout seminary and college, and particularly, over this past year. You have blessed me in countless ways. Thank you.

I am excited for this next step as I continue my search for a more permanent ordained call. I would welcome your prayers!

Lyla Mae and the Perfect Day

In honor of the birth of Lyla Mae Ballard (my cousin Amanda’s baby), I offer up this story by one of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas:

“It was a day filled with the glow of ordinary things & we passed them quietly from hand to hand for a long time & someone said she had picked a perfect day to be born & I think all of us felt the same.It was a day filled with the glow of ordinary things & we passed them quietly from hand to hand for a long time & someone said she had picked a perfect day to be born & I think all of us felt the same.” – “Perfect Day,” Brian Andreas

“Palms to Pilate: The Journey of Holy Week,” Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11; April 1, 2012, First Presbyterian Church Grand Rapids, OH

“Palms to Pilate: The Journey of Holy Week”
Isaiah 50:4-9a and Mark 11:1-11
April 1, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids

Throngs of people surround the street. There is a palpable buzz in the air. You can hear the whispers of excitement, “This is the man we’ve only heard about.” “This man can do great things.” There’s the smell the sweat of those who have been standing out in the sunlight in eager anticipation. And then, here He comes! The crowd gives a roar and people begin to throw things into the street at His feet.

Everything about this experience has the feel of some famous celebrity coming to town. Of course, since this is Palm Sunday, you know I’m talking about Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But for a moment I’d like you to consider the last crowd you saw with this sort of energy. Perhaps it was at a live concert of your favorite band; perhaps it was in watching paparazzi and reporters on some red carpet event. At some point we’ve all seen this sort of crowd, and maybe perhaps been a part of it. It seems it is human nature to be attracted to celebrity.

Why is this? Perhaps it is curiosity at how someone with power or money lives; perhaps we believe that we too may be made special by our proximity to celebrity. I know I have told more people I can count about the time I met Steven Spielberg. And for some hard to explain reason, that meeting means something to people, and that meeting means something to me.

It is this sort of energy that surrounded Jesus as he came into the city of Jerusalem. People had heard talk of this man who could do great things, this man who was rumored to be the new king. He was rumored to be the Messiah. He had gained celebrity. And though there were not paparazzi in that time, I can still picture people clamoring to have a view of Him. They wanted to be able to tell people about the time they saw Jesus. It meant something to the people they told, and it meant something to people who saw him.

As we celebrate Palm Sunday a great many years later, we too greet this day with excitement. [We, along with] many [other] churches wave palms on this day. We celebrate Jesus’ entry into this Holy Week.

We have heard the parables of the Kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing. We have been told to follow the example of Jesus’ sinless life. Throughout the season of Lent, we have been making way for Jesus.

Traditionally, many people give up things for Lent. In the early Christian church this was a time for fasting, a time when physical hunger pains could remind people of the way we hunger for Jesus. Perhaps you’ve elected to give up something this Lenten season. Or perhaps you have chosen to take on a spiritual discipline. When we engage in these Lenten practices we make the anticipation of Easter a little more tangible. The small and large changes we make in our lives makes us think about the immeasurably great sacrifice Jesus made for us.

If you’re anything like I am, giving things up for Lent has the feel of a New Years resolution. You are excited about this new thing, anticipating the great spiritual growth that will come from it, excited about how this year you will feel all the more close to Jesus because you have made a change in your life to make room for Jesus.

This year, I decided that for Lent I would give up the snooze button. Seems silly perhaps, but I am certainly not a morning person, so even an alarm clock doesn’t quite help me to put a limit on my sleep somedays. I merely just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. So, this year for Lent, I planned to give up that snooze button. I would give myself some extra time in the mornings to prepare for the day. I had great intentions of using this time for time to spend in prayer or reading scripture, or perhaps for exercise. This Lent was going to change my habits and how I related to the world. This Lent was going to change my life.

This lasted for about five days. Gradually, and nearly unconsciously, I began hitting that snooze button. Hitting it once couldn’t hurt, right? Twice wouldn’t make that much of a difference, right? Well, before I knew it I was right back into my old patterns. I had given up on this great idea that I thought was going to change my life.

Watching the actions of Christ’s disciples, the events of Holy week seem to me to be an amplified, sped up version of this change I experienced from excitement to passivity. When I began to hit the snooze button I was not trying to actively undermine this Lenten journey. But that was the problem, I wasn’t trying to do anything. I had become passive in my intentions and passive in my Lenten experience.

When Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem he sends out two of his disciples in front of them to find him a donkey to ride in on. They follow Jesus’ instructions to a tee, find the donkey and bring him to Jesus. People surround the procession and excitedly and joyfully throw cloaks and branches on the ground in front of Him to welcome him in. We can imagine the disciples walking in alongside Jesus and part of his entourage. They are part of the “in” crowd.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that the very next day Jesus comes into the temple and famously throws over the tables of those who are buying and selling in the Lord’s house. In Mark 11:17 we read that,

“He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And then, we are told in verse 18 that, “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

Jesus was becoming more and more radical in the eyes of the people in power. They were okay with Jesus as a figure of hope. They might’ve even been okay with the healing He had been doing, as long as He would stop performing miracles on the Sabbath. But when his presence became a challenge to the way things were done, a direct confrontation to the commerce of the society, he was a force that needed to be stopped.

Anyone who has read the Hunger Games books or seen the movie will hear the chief priests’ fear echoed in President’s Snow’s admonition that “a little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, but it must be contained.”

And so, the chief priests set about containing it, asking Jesus in Mark 11:27,

“By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.”

They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

With each controversial act, the dominoes of Jesus’ likeability fell around Him. Those who were initially supportive withdrew. The excitement of celebrity was wearing off quickly. Spending time with Jesus became something you did not brag about.

Mark 14 tells us that a woman, filled with love for Jesus, brings an alabaster jar of fragrant oil to the house where Jesus is. To even use a little bit of this ointment would be seen as generous, but this woman breaks the jar and pours all of it over Jesus’ head. Those around them scold her. Why is she wasting this oil that could’ve been given to the poor? This woman’s act was seen as extravagant, wasteful. Just a few days prior they had likely all been throwing their cloaks out for Jesus, creating a comfortable path, excitedly welcoming Jesus into their midst. But now, this woman’s act was seen as offensive. Why spend your prized possessions on this man?

Immediately after this instance scripture tells us that one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas Isaricot, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus. Jesus, of course, is not oblivious to the impending betrayal. In fact, he addresses it directly when seated with his disciples for the Passover meal. He tells the disciples that all will desert him. Peter insists that he will not, and Jesus tells him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

And while Jesus is off in prayer, he returns to the disciples sleeping, not bothering to keep watch. He awakens them to Judas Iscariot arriving with a crowd of chief priest, scribes, and elders. This unlikely mob comes equipped not with the scriptures and scrolls with which they would normally be associated with, but carrying swords and clubs. Judas approaches Jesus, and with a kiss, identifies Jesus as the man they’ve been looking for. Peter, too, betrays Jesus, not with direct condemnation, but by denying any association with Jesus three times. Jesus is brought to trial and stands before Pilate.

What brought Jesus to this trial that we know will lead to His death? The Gospel of Mark tells us that there were no testimonies that agreed with one another. When Jesus is questioned, He responds with deflection. Sure, Judas’ betrayal offered Jesus into the chief priests hands, but without evidence they could’ve just dismissed Him. Still, the many ways Jesus had challenged the system could not be ignored.

The reality is Jesus’ death was not caused by any one event or action, but rather by accumulation of many small desertions that Holy Week. The excited crowd of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had dispersed. Some turned away when he confronted people in the temple, some left when he would not give a direct answer about his authority, some turned away when he didn’t admonish the woman with the oil, and those who were left fled at the sight of Judas’ mob. Aside from Judas, none of these followers actively sought out to harm Jesus, but they also did not actively seek to help Him.

Sin is not something that only happens we intentionally act in ways that separate ourselves from God. Sin is also our inaction when faced with ways to become closer to God. We cannot hit the snooze button and hope for someone else to do the work of Christ’s Kingdom.

At the beginning of the week, people were shouting, “Hosanna,” and by the end of the week, they were shouting, “Crucify him!” Not because they hated Jesus, but because they were afraid to be associated with what he had become.

The reality of following Jesus is not easy. Jesus overturns the tables of corruption. Jesus welcomes extravagant generosity. Jesus redefines monarchy. It’s hard to follow in the wake of that sort of change. This week we will make our way towards darkness of Good Friday, yet we anticipate the promise of Easter. Don’t allow the excitement of inviting Jesus into this week fade with the challenges of accepting what that will mean. Keep your eyes open to the ways God is calling you to act out your faith. Amen.