Summer Camping

The campsite was laid out in our usual Sears family way. The tent had been set up on the highest piece of ground my Dad could find in the rented campsite, far enough away from the fire area that no one had to worry about embers hitting the tent and far enough under trees as to provide much needed shade. My Dad would always bring extra stakes and ropes to secure the tent and rain canopy –  experiences of camping in heavy rains had apparently taught him to do this – which created a ready made obstacle course for my two brothers and me.

It was my birthday, but I don’t remember which one. Truth of the matter is that Dad’s vacation fell on my birthday so often in my early years that I thought camping was something you were required to do on your birthday. That is, until I realized that we were always home in February and October for my brother’s birthday celebrations. But this was normal for me.

It was still light out but we had eaten dinner and even a cake of some sort and were really just relaxing for the evening. My younger brother was making use of the obstacle course. Mom, my older brother and I were sitting at the picnic table playing a game of “Sorry!”. Why we took board games on camping trips was beyond me at that time. I’m guessing it cut down on the number of times Mom had to yell at us for chasing one another around the tent or fire. It was also a good time waster. Dad was working on getting a fire ready for the evening.

I don’t recall what we were snacking on, probably chips or pretzels, and soft drinks. It was my turn to move in the game and my older brother was getting impatient but my attention had turned to a squirrel in one of the trees near us. I had been watching a lot of squirrels simply because I was hoping to see a “flying squirrel”. To that point, I’d just seen a lot of acrobatic ones. Still my attention was in the trees when my Mom suddenly began slamming the table, knocking the “Sorry!” game pieces all over the place and spilling her bright pink can of TaB. She wasn’t really making any noise but it looked like she was coughing. Truthfully, I had no idea what was going on at the time.

Now, just to put this in it’s proper historical time, this was taking place before the widespread implementation of the Heimlich Maneuver. Heck, it might have even been before the maneuver itself was introduced. I don’t recall the exact birthday but it had to be around 1975. I might have been ten years old, but I doubt it.

So, here we are, a family of five, with one in obvious distress at picnic table in some state park in WV. One boy running around a tent and jumping over and crawling under the various sets of ropes holding down a tent and rain canopy. Two other boys looking stunned, glancing back and forth between a ruined board game, a dripping diet soda, and a mother acting very strange. And a father getting a campfire ready for roasting marshmallows.

My Dad stepped away from the fire building, walked up behind my Mom and said, “Do you need a hit?” and then without even waiting for answer, hauls off and smacks her in the back with the flat of his hand with so much force that she went sprawling across the table, the Sorry! board, and the spilled TaB. I don’t know if the pretzels fell victim to the sprawl or not.

Mom came up from the “hit” with just about the same force she had taken – proof to my young mind that every action has an opposite and equal reaction – and screamed at my Dad, “Well, what did you ask me for if you weren’t going to wait for an answer!”

Somehow, the whole thing became outrageously funny at that moment and both Mom and Dad began laughing and the rest of us stunned observers, who were still not sure what had happened joined in.

The evening went on. I got to have the first S’more of the night because it was my birthday. We sat around the campfire as always and were told “once, if not a thousand times” not to get so close to the fire. We laughed and sang and sometimes just got quiet. But every once in a while the breeze would snatch up enough smoke and billow it towards someone that they would cough. Inevitably someone else would say, “Do you need a hit?” and the coughing person would yell “NO!” and everyone would crack up.

In fact, it became such a joke in our family that I can remember my Dad, coughing in a hospital bed during his last week of life, smiling and shaking his head “no” when I asked him, “Do you need a hit?”

That little phrase seemed to carry us back to the woods, the tent, the sticky s’mores the squirrels, the wood smoke, and the fun.

Some words are like that. They evoke such powerful memory that they take us back to something that is more than just a memory, more than just a fading thought. They evoke time, place, event, with such Gemüt that reality itself is evoked anew.

In my family, “Do you need a hit?” still does that.

My other family, the one that I journey with towards that “home” we do not know yet, has a few too.

“This is the body…broken…”

“I was glad when they said to me…”

“Peace be with you.”

“He is risen…”

“In the beginning…”

And I thought it was just going to be another summer camping trip taking place around my birthday. Who knew?

Lent 2020 – A Prayer

ashwednesdayLord, as your children, we gathered together and received the reminder of being dust and returning to dust. Do you remember the sight of your children with the smudges of ash on their foreheads? Do you recall the fervor that we entered into a season of turning around, being ourselves in your presence, and promising changes in our lives for good? Do you remember, Lord.

We do. We remember. Many of us can still feel the grit on the ash falling upon our eyelashes. We can recall blinking back tears brought by the invasion of a mark from you that we were freely accepting. We can remember looking at one another – side by side – and wondering if the cross we wore was as neat and tidy as the one we saw on our sister or brother. We remember.

But now we are a lifetime away from a night that was only a fortnight ago. And our eyes blink again, and we feel the grit of an invisible invader bearing down upon us. We long to travel together into this unknown time of change and growth, but our love for your commandment to love one another forces us to chose to be on our own. We wish we could covet the sight of a dirty forehead, of a hundred dirty foreheads of your children together with us.

In this season of Lent 2020, our vision is not perfect and our way is completely unknown. Like the children of Abraham, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness full of the knowledge of your mercy and shuddering with confidence in your wisdom. It is doubtful, Lord, that we will forget these days of being apart. We pray that we will use them to turn both to you and to our neighbor who may need more than we do. You gave us this season, and the world gave us a reason to lean into the faith for which we lowered our foreheads for a map.

This cross we carry in Lent 2020, is one that we know that you have already borne. These steps we take, we know are on a road you have already walked.

Give us the courage to look to the very hills around us for our help. May they remind us that our help comes from the one who made not just the hills, but the earth, the heavens, and all of creation. You, O God, are our help.

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And when we step forth from this journey – crossing whatever river lies ahead us – may we do so with the joy of those who know the presence of Christ’s victory over death. May we step from this journey to celebrate with one another the calling you have placed upon us to be in this time, and every time those who are clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. May we bear one another with love and may we see your very face in the ones we seek to love.

We pray this as those whose only hope is your grace, your mercy, and your faithfulness. We pray as your children who walk through Lent to be changed.

Amen.

 

Hospitality – September 1, 2019

This past Sunday we had some technical issues that led to us not being able to post a video of the sermon. For those who may not know, I write my sermons in script – not typing. They are not always full “manuscripts” either but enough notes to get me through the sermon. So, what I am posting today may be what I said on Sunday or it could be what I wished I had said on Sunday. Either way, I don’t let it get in the way of what I hoped I heard in the midst of it – Good News for all!

Luke 14:1, 7-14 Common English Bible

14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely…
When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

 

It was the last week of my seminary education at Duke, a very busy time. Celebrations were scheduled. Family was coming to town. A very busy time.

The Divinity School had made arrangements with our publishing house in the United Methodist Church to offer training to students on the “hottest” new Bible study program – Disciple Bible Study. The training would normally cost a pastor several hundreds of dollars and this perk looked like something I should check out – at least the first day. I would have to miss a couple of important events but I honestly thought I would attend a session or two and then just not come back due to lack of interest.

Somewhere in the training I got hooked. And I was glad I did. In some ways, the training I received over those three days were more useful than a lot of the classes I had spent weeks in during seminary.

Over the years I have led several Disciple groups in churches that I have served and I am certain that it was offered here at First Church as well. (Out of curiosity, could I see a show of hands of the number of people who have been involved in DBS?) About what I guessed it would be.

One of my favorite parts of Disciple both in teaching and taking the course was the way it handled the Gospel of Luke. Something about the title of those lessons stuck with me – “The Least, the Last and the Lost.” DBS explained that Luke wrote that particular Gospel from the perspective of that group of people – the least, the last, and the lost. It was the Gospel of the people on the margins, the people on the outside, those who were not religious insiders.

As I prepared for this week’s message, it was disconcerting as I kept reading through this particular story about Jesus spending his Sabbath day with Pharisees (consummate religious insiders) and very wealthy Pharisees at that. In some ways the Jesus of “The Least, The Last, and The Lost” seemed to take a break from the gospel narrative Luke was weaving. I kept asking, “What is Luke’s Jesus doing with all these people who are trying to impress God with their ability to keep rules.

And the more I read it, the more troubled I became. Until…until I noticed something peculiar happening in the text. These Pharisees who stuck their claim on religious righteousness by obeying the Law to its fullest extent were breaking the Sabbath! They were throwing a dinner party on the Sabbath – the day they were supposed to be honoring God. Now, I know, they could indeed invite a guest or two to their Sabbath meal, but it is quite apparent in this text that there is a whole lot more going on than that. This was an all out celebration of all things Pharisaical.

And believe it or not, that made Jesus’ presence sensible to me. Suddenly, Jesus is hanging out with the “rule breaking, rule keepers.” (Some might call them the hypocrites, but I just prefer to see them as yet another group of “the lost.”) They were breaking the Sabbath by partying even as they accused Jesus (their guest at the party, no less) of breaking the Sabbath by healing people!

The irony of it all hit me.

The thing about trying to get close to God by keeping all the rules is pretty simple: your faith has everything to do with ‘what you do’ and nothing at all with what ‘God does for you.’

And sure enough, as they gathered for their Sabbath shattering gathering, it was all about them. So much so that Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast where the guests are jockeying for the best seats at the table. In some odd way, this parable of Jesus affirmed the Pharisees tacit acknowledgement that the Sabbath was made for humans while pointing out that they were missing the point of being invited to take part in what God could offer them by way of invitation. They would rather just point to themselves instead of waiting to be invited forward.

Jesus is saying, “Sure, have your big parties – even on the Sabbath – but if you really want to do them right, give seats of honor to the least. At the very minimum, don’t grab these seats for yourself because the host might just know to whom it really belongs. The host might show hospitality to “the least”.

And in this story we know who the host honored the most. Right after the parable, Jesus turns to that host to address him personally. Now, I am pretty certain Jesus could have pulled this off from any position at the table, but there is something about Luke’s telling of this story that makes it obvious that Jesus is seated at the place of honor – just to the right of the host. He turns to him and offers him some words that most people see as words of “warning” or maybe even condemnation.

I don’t get that.

I see Jesus thanking the host for including this homeless, wandering, Nazarene teacher as the guest of honor at the Sabbath shattering dinner party. Jesus is thanking him and letting him know that by continuing to invite people that could never pay him back with an invitation of their own, this Pharisee is really going to see some fabulous rewards.

And then there are those who are invited to a Table this morning – a Table that is hosted by Jesus. The invitation has been extended to us and if we take it we know that we could never, ever, really pay back the invitee.

Jesus is the host.

Jesus is the very Feast.

Jesus is the presence that we all need.

So, what are we to do?

When you walked into the Narthex of the Mt. Hope United Methodist Church on Sunday morning you would almost always see a snow shovel hanging on several of the coat hooks that lined the wall. It was not waiting for winter to be used, but instead had painted on it words that had been carried all through the town that morning – “Repent! Jesus is coming!”

Somewhere near the fourth row from the back – on the right hand side as you entered the sanctuary –just outside the pew and just enough in the way to trip an unsuspecting guest, you would find a pair of oversized, pull-over, rubber, snow boots as well. And you would be right to assume that the boots and the shovel belonged to the same person.

Paul – or “Crazy Paul” as the kids of Mt. Hope had christened him with their words and the occasional pelting of rocks – would be in that fourth pew from the back. His heavy winter coat on during all seasons for fear that when that sun went dark and the moon turned to blood, he might be cold and unprepared. His beard was hanging down upon his chest with the obvious crumbs from breakfasts past peppered among the hairs.

Paul was as faithful to that little church as any one of the pew racks – he was there every time the doors were open and sometimes the imagination of a child would think he was there even when the doors were locked tight.

However, on communion Sundays, when the pastor would stand at the front and offer the little cups of Jesus blood and the little cubes of Jesus body, Paul would come forward with the rest of the crowd. But he was different than the rest too. Paul would come with those weathered hands that held the snow shovel sign as he walked through town, gently crossed over one another like a beggar who would be happy with the crumbs from his own beard. He would come forward and “receive” communion – he never took it – he received it as the gift it was to him. He knew he could never pay it back.

My sisters and brothers, like in the gospel of the Least, the Last and the Lost this morning, hospitality is offered at the Table we come to today. It’s offered for rule keepers who fail gloriously and for all those who realize we can never pay it back.

And as we leave this Table today, may re remember the host/honored guest whispering in our ears like he did the host in that story we read – “Everything you need to know about hospitality you just learned here.” Everything. Whether you are in the church or at work. Whether you are at your home or talking to the server in the restaurant. Hospitality is learned at this Table.

Amen.

Cardboard Assault

There is a smell here of both hope and anxiety. It is a smell that is fresh but acrid as it attacks my nostrils, triggering memories of days gone by while making my eyes water as I focus on the days to come. It is a smell that carries weight itself even as it gets weighed down with the possessions of life. It is a smell accompanied by promise, even as it is locked tight with the screech of tape rubbing against its surface.

It is the smell of cardboard. My house is filled with its aroma.

I’m an itinerate preacher in the United Methodist Church. This year I join with thousands of colleagues around the connection as I pack my belongings and prepare to move to the place my Bishop has assigned me to go. On the surface, that seems like a simple thing: Jobs change. You pack the boxes and you move. This is life.

I have a friend in the Army who has moved 19 times in 31 years. I don’t envy him. I don’t even want to think about moving that much. However, I think it’s different for him. Sure, we both signed up for an itinerant life. But there appears to be so much less understood about the preacher that moves her or his family from town to town than there is about the multitude of soldiers who move from base to base. And maybe that is part of it. When soldiers move, they are almost always leaving with others or arriving with others. They are moving out of and into a community of “movers.” Preachers and their families move from and into communities of “stayers.”

The ones I am leaving behind have been taught by me, frustrated by me, and joined me in the worship of Someone much bigger than all of us. I know their stories. Some families have been here so long the roads and buildings have their names on them. And they know each other. Their houses are known not just by the community of faith but the whole community. Their place is here. My place will soon be “not here – but there.” And the folks there have more than likely been there a while as well, rooted in the area and each other. Familiar with worship, with one another, with the jokes that have gone on for generations. Sure, they know we are coming, but what does that really mean? They’ve had preachers arrive before. They are watching one leave now. How does that affect everything? I feel for the loss at both places. But the smell of cardboard reminds me that I am the one moving. I am the one without a place.

IMG_20190516_214216.jpgI take one of the old boxes that I have used to move before, unfold it, and let the dust assault my senses. I fix the box for filling and start packing in the contents of life. But it is more than stuff that is going into these boxes. It is memories. This is the place my two youngest graduated from high school. This is the home they left for college, and left again for grad school. I will fill the boxes with some of “their” stuff and even more of “our” stuff but when they get to the new place, something will be very, very different. And when I smell the low-grade heat of the adhesive tape locking away that stuff, I smell that which is getting left behind.

Sometimes I take a box and start filling it with my life, and the aroma that arrives is one that reminds me that there are new things headed my way. New challenges. New friends. New experiences. New mistakes to make. New. New. New. It is hopeful and promising but just like holding one of my newborn children there is something frightening in all that newness. The responsibility of it all. The knowing I am going to a place where everybody knows my name, but I don’t know theirs. The new routes I will have to learn. The new celebrations I will share in. The new ministry that will take place. The hope of all this newness is weighty, even heavier than the cardboard filled with the dishes from the china cabinet.

Sometimes I prep a box for packing and the aroma that reaches me gives my mind a shot of racing fuel in the form of adrenaline. Are the movers sure they can do this job? Are they really going to show up? Am I going to get to say good-bye the way I want, to everybody that I want to say good-bye to? Is my spouse packing that stuff or am I? And who is sorting through that part of life over there? Will this break en route?

Will anyone be here to say, “So long. We love you.”? Will anyone be there to say, “Welcome. We love you.”?

Sometimes I get a box from the stack of recycled moving materials and even though it is empty, I have trouble moving it. A dense and heavy fog surrounds the box. The fog interrupts normal conversation modes between my spouse and me. It makes me tired, oh, so tired. It overwhelms me. To borrow from an all too popular show on TV: Moving. Is. Coming. And with it comes the change in the relationships even in my house. Excitement. Grief. Excitement. Grief. It wears on any marriage. I’m just fortunate enough to have a spouse who patiently keeps on packing, even when it seems it will never end. Because in the end, we want to be together. We choose each day to love each other and no tension, not even the tension of finding the right box for “that” will end that choice.

My house smells of cardboard. It is hopeful. It is anxious.

It is dust – held together by pressure and glue. Someday it will be dust again. Then again – so will I.

So will we all.

My house smells of cardboard – a holy smell leading me away from and towards the place that is not quite home.

Truly Great News – A Review of “How the Bible Actually Works” by Peter Enns

WiseBibleI have read (and used as teaching tools) two of Enns’ previous works: The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So. Thankfully, I was able to receive an advance reader copy from HarperOne of How the Bible Actually Works in exchange for writing a review and being a part of the launch team for the book. And even though a well-meaning colleague (and supervisor for that matter) called me a heretic for carrying around the copy, I am more than happy to fulfill my obligations before being burned at the stake.1

However, it was with some other fear and trepidation that I approached this particular work of Enns’. The subtitle set off little alarm bells in my United Methodist self – “*In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers – and Why That’s Great News.” The word “ambiguous” was one that I do not believe that I had ever heard in serious Biblical Scholarship before. I chalked the subtitle up to Enns’ tendency toward the sensational and sometimes sarcastic and dove right in.

I have no problem seeing the Bible as either “ancient” or “diverse”. I have known for quite some time that it is important for us to understand the context of the Biblical writers and realize that the Bible does come from divergent opinions. I must say, however, that Enns breathed new life into the whole historical critical study method in several ways in How the Bible Actually Works. By nailing a third leg to this milking stool for the Bible, namely the thought provoking word “ambiguous,” Enns is able to show how to use the ancient, diverse text in new ways.2

Many people, including the most traditionalist of Bible readers, make the claim that “the Bible proofs itself” and that we should only judge “Scripture with Scripture.” Very few mean it. Peter Enns, however, doesn’t just mean it, he encourages us to start and finish our work with it. By using the way the Bible itself is structured, he challenges those of us who wish to take The Book seriously to read the Bible in the same way it written.

In an adroit manner, Enns prompts us to see a link between revelation (the act, not the last book of the Bible) and imagination3. Since biblical authors came from different times and were experiencing faith in sometime very different situations than previous people of faith – one just doesn’t know how important the Babylonian exile can be to faith until they read this book – what was revealed to their imaginations about God were quite different over time. Enns rightly calls this process of taking what was previously learned about God, adding the current experience, and working out what God is saying to the Biblical writer for that time, an act of wisdom. (Note to Enns and publisher…kill the capitol on “wisdom” in the subtitle…that usage makes it seem like the whole of Biblical writing is pointing back to the genre of Wisdom literature.)

But that is not the great news he has for us in this book. No. The great news is that by following the pattern of Biblical writing into current day Biblical interpretation, we are invited to continue the act of finding wisdom in the Bible rather than twisting and proof texting to some absurd level to try and make the Bible into some book of rules that should be followed. The living Christian faith is not basketball and we should not treat our bible the same as the rules for basketball. Yeah, Enns is stuck on baseball and that pinstripe wearing team of hackers from New York City, but we all know the best sports analogies come from basketball.4

As I said earlier, I read and taught from two of Enns’ previous works. At the end of them, I, along with others, were wondering, “Okay. This is good, but ‘what’s next?’” How the Bible Actually Works offers that “what’s next” and opens up the whole of creation for the human endeavor of understanding God as revealed in and through the Bible.

Is this book perfect? Far from it. Some, but not me, will indeed be put off by the lack of “scholarly sounding” writing. Others, like me, will tire of Enns promising “more on that later” – which I would humbly say is a real fault in his writing style. I didn’t go back and actually check, but I do not believe Enns came back to every single thing that he said he would. If I am wrong, I apologize, but it makes my point for me. There were too many of them to keep up with and I’m just short of being compulsive enough to go back and check each one. May those with eidetic memories make the proof that is needed!

Even with those slight problems, this is a great book. It needs to be read and reread often by those who take seriously the Bible and especially those of us who regularly teach and preach from the Bible. We have abdicated through laziness the effort that is really needed to understand such a holy book and Enns has offered us the possibility of recovering not just the proper discipline we need, but the hope that using this discipline will break us out of our sloth and allow us to find new ways to unify the ever splintering Christian kingdom on earth.

May wisdom be with you. (Yep…I crack myself up.)

The book is released on February 19, 2019 so go ahead and preorder your copies. (Yes, you will want extras to give to someone else so that you can talk through some of this stuff.)
ORDER HERE.

#wisebible #harperonepartner

@PeterEnnsAuthor @peteenns

1 – I must add that no real harm should come to this reviewer. Said colleague gladly accepted the loan of the previous works…then again…that could be in preparation for my trial. Hmmmm.

2 – Okay. This may not be all that new even according to Enns. He acknowledges the existence of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral towards the end of his book. May I just say, “Glory be!” and refer you to note four on that response.

3 – There is a fair amount of use of the words “imagining” and “reimagining” in this book. Some may find it a bit too human of an endeavor for reading the Bible and understanding God. My only response is, “What else do we have left to use?” Imagination and revelation are “pneumatically” linked in humanity. Either that or we are all drunk. Just read Acts 2:15.

4 – Sarcasm. (Yeah, this note may be seen as plagiarism. So noted. They wanted me to write the
review. Consider this an instance where this writer wishes he had thought of this idea first and didn’t have to “borrow” it.)