A Week in the Word: Grief and Recovery, Part 1 — Blessed Beyond our Brokeness

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, July 8,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Psalm 113

1Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD. 2Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore. 3From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised. 4The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. 5Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. 9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!


Would you pray with us?

May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds so we might see and hear what word God has for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

griefMany of us have gone through significant losses, changes, and griefs.  And our church too has gone through loss, haven’t we? The next three Sundays we will be exploring a message from Scripture each Sunday which speaks to our experience of grief.  Next Sunday, July 15th, we also will have Ann Ritter from UNC hospice sharing some about grief and recovery briefly at our 10 AM service, with a class on grief and recovery in our fellowship hall at our 9 am Sunday school hour.

Our Scripture today and the Scriptures we will read the next few Sundays come from the Psalms.  The book of Psalms is included in our Bible as a collection of model prayers, which can help us find words to pray when our emotions run so deep words are otherwise hard to come by.  When we turn to the Psalms, we can find that we are not alone in our sorrow and loss, anger and sadness, numbness and confusion, even our joy and gratitude. When we pray the Psalms, we pray together with others who have also felt all these same emotions.  In the Gospels Jesus also prayed the Psalms. So, when we turn to them to express our deep joy or deep grief and sorrow, we can remember that we are not alone. Not only do those who prayed them before us stand with us, but so does Jesus. In Jesus we have a mediator with God who was tested and tried just as we are, yet without sin.  Jesus has felt and understands whatever you are going through. And in Jesus, God stands with us, ready and willing to walk the full journey with us.

Because of this, of all the books of the Bible, the Psalms most clearly reflect our journeys from loss and grief to recovery and rebuilding.  United Church of Christ Bible scholar grief cycleWalter Brueggemann says the prayers in the Psalms generally fall into 3 categories: 1) prayers from points of orientation, when those praying them are at a point where they were untroubled by trials and their faith innocent and unshaken; 2) prayers from moments of disorientation, when it is harder to understand where God is working, so those who pray them feel shaken and unsteady,  and their normal easy answers sound hollow to their ears; and 3) prayers of reorientation, from times after loss when they begin, with God’s help, to rebuild their lives and faith. Each week during our series on grief and recovery we will look at one of these types of prayer, asking what it teaches us about the grief journey.

This movement of prayer in the Psalms mirrors almost word for word our journey of grief, loss, and rebuilding after, doesn’t it?  Like the Psalms do, we often begin our grief journeys in times when things make sense: we have someone we love by our side, a job we enjoy we can show up at everyday, a community that makes sense to us, our physical health.  In such moments we have no question about it: God is on the throne, in God’s good heaven and all seems right in our world. Then we feel the rug pulled out from sinking 2underneath us through our experience of loss – whether through losing someone we love through death, through experiencing illness or some disabling condition, through going through a breaking up of a partnership or marriage, through us losing a job, through having to support someone we love through such a time, or through changes that  bring painful loss in our community, church, neighborhood, and family. Often it is hard to understand why these things happen. We question. We search. We wonder. Our normal answers we have turned to for comfort in the past are no comfort any longer. They echo hollow in our ears. We wonder where God is, how God can be in charge if such hard things have happened. For a long time we may not know which way is up or down. Then, as we slowly begin to walk again, sometimes limping at first, through our journey of grief, bit by bit we find our way again and, with the help of God and of others, begin the painful work of rebuilding our lives again after our loss.

Our reading today, Psalm 113, is a clear example  of prayers of orientation. It is a prayer First spoken from a time of grace before the kind of losses that might lead you to feel life unraveling & certainty becoming shaken have happened.

In Psalm 113, the one who prays knows and has no difficulty seeing that God is enthroned securely in God’s good heaven, looking down upon all of us like one might see the landscape for miles and miles around from a Jesus in Heavenmountaintop, so they know God can look out and see all the affairs of our life.  There is not an area of our lives that they feel God doesn’t see or intervene in to bring blessing or overturn injustice. Unlike some psalms of orientation which suggest if we succeed, it is always because we’ve followed God well, and if we suffer we must have sinned, Psalm 113 clearly recognizes that suffering like poverty or childlessness happen and are not God’s judgment on you for some failing of your own, but rather struggles all of us can face that may be no one’s fault.   Yet it’s clear the one praying is not struggling now. Psalm 113 tells us these are struggles from which God can and does set people free. Here God is the one who always stoops down, leaning down from God’s height in heaven high above where God could choose to go untouched by our struggles to right each wrong. God chooses instead to be touched by our pain and dive down into our less than perfect lives, rolling up God’s sleeves to tirelessly work to make all things right again when they have gone wrong.  God is the one who lifts the poor out of their poverty each time, and again and again puts the childless into families, helping them build home and family where none existed. God will not stop until every wrong is righted. The Psalmist knows we can trust injustice will not stand but for a moment, and believes God will set all things right if we just reach out to God. Every injustice will be overturned and all set right if we just reach out and take God’s hand, this Psalmist says.

Psalm 113 reflects an easy, childlike faith that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, with nothing falling through the cracks.  Its words are ones we want to be able to say Amen to, but which it might be hard to say Amen to in our darkest moments. Its words remind me of true-isms we often say in church in the face of life’s problems: Don’t dying child 2worry about the future, because God is already there.   God won’t put any more on you than you can bear. Trust God’s plan, because nothing happens God didn’t plan. God did this for a reason. Have you ever heard these said to you when you were suffering? If so I bet you can admit though sometimes they helped, there other times that they were very hard to say Amen to, right?

Such sayings – like Psalm 113 —  make the most sense when we ourselves are not struggling with situations that seem to fly in the face of their message.  When we feel clear which is the right path to take, with no grey areas, when our family is faring well and our job is steady, then it is easy to believe God is sitting on God’s throne in heaven, seeing everything, keeping everything well-ordered.  When life does not feel it is unraveling around us, these prayers are easy to say. It is easy then to believe God has our future under control, that God won’t put more on us than we can bear, and that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.

As we will talk more about next week, our experience of loss, trauma, and grief can shake up our hold on these simple comforting beliefs.   It can unravel the easy answers we have been taught over the years. Suddenly we might be able to look at our lives and say “I’ve been following God’s Word as best I can all these years, but I don’t see God bringing any deliverance despite my prayers, nor see how God can be seeing this from heaven and still letting it happen.”   Elsewhere in the Bible, we find the righteous man Jsitting in despairob said as such, when his life fell apart around him and his deeply spiritual friends quoted the same sort of true-isms we often say in the church and are often quoted in psalms or prayers of orientation. Deep down Job knew what our experiences of grief and loss teach us: that ultimately such words, on their own,  leave out a big part out of our picture of God’s plan. During his time of suffering, trauma, and loss, Job cried out to God in ways that made it clear it was hard for him to see God as sitting on God’s throne, seeing every part of his life, righting every wrong as Psalm 113 described. He cried out because of that to God and all who would listen, even though his friends worried his crying out meant he was losing his faith. Yet by the end of the book of Job, we find God answers Job, but not in the way Job or anyone else would have expected.  And God lets us know in God’s answer to Job that Job was not in the wrong, showing us when we find these easy answers from prayers and Psalms of orientation, from churchy trueisms, sounding hollow when we are in our pain, that does not mean we have lost our faith or lost our way. Everyone can go through such dark nights of the soul.

When we go through loss, trauma, and grief, we like Job can have a hard time seeing God as still on the throne, and our lives as taken care of by God in the way Psalm 113 describes.   Even though we might pray words like Psalm 113’s which proclaim that God reverses the situations of the poor and oppressed, we can begin to wonder how long we will continue to see injustice, have unanswered prayers, or wade through what feels like a deep and abiding darkness. If that is where you are, know you are in good company. It is not the final word nor does it mean you necessarily are losing your faith though it may feel like it.

With that backdrop, is there anything we can we gain from reflecting on these prayers of orientation, prayed originally from a state of innocence and grace, that can help us in those dark times when their words sound hollow?  I think there are.

First, such prayers remind us of the original blessing we have which predates our loss and cannot be taken from us, no matter how painful the experience we face.   Theologian Matthew Fox says that often as Christians we are too focused on original sin, which is the many different ways we become quickly broken by life from the start, tending us toward this or that sin, damaging us deeply before our choice or our say.  In over-emphasizing Youre-Not-Brokenour brokenness and original sin, Fox says, we Christians often fail to recognize we also begin life under an original blessing:  When God made all life, what did God say about it? God called it good, very good! This Good, very good, applies not just to all creation but also to you and me, to each and every one of us. Scripture says every person whom God made is made in the image of God and yes that includes even you and me.  The Psalms tell us in Psalm 139 that we can praise God because we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.

What a promise!  However we become hurt or broken in our lives, however we might lose our way, sin, or fail, this original blessing cannot be broken.  These words remain true of us. We each remain ones full of potential and hope, ones who can reflect God’s image in a way no-one else can.  We each continue to be worthy and of worth in God’s eyes.

Our experience of grief and loss can leave us, on the other hand, feeling washed up, worthless, and no good.  We can feel broken beyond repair. Yet what we have gone beloved (1)through, however painful, does not change who we are: children of God who in Christ are called God’s very own, ones whom God loves, and ones in whom God delights who also deserve delight ourselves.   This is who God says you and I are and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that. This original blessing rests on us and it that which prayers like Psalm 113 remind us of.

Such prayers also can act as a lifeline in the midst of difficult times.   I see this time and time again in my work as a chaplain. People will say to me, “chaplain, I do not see where God is here in this situation. Chaplain , I don’t understand how God can allow this, and oh the pain I face! Yet I won’t give up. I know whom I have believed.  Yet,” they say, “I will trust this is in God’s hands, though it take all I have to do so. I will believe God can work good for me and others out of my pain. I know God will make a way when there seems to be no way.” These folks who are suffering cling to the reality that is truer than the true-ism but which these trueisms point to. Such words become a seed through which their future of a restored faith and a rebuilt life can grow, that future which can lay ahead for them and us, sprouting up on the other side of pain and loss

With July 4th having come right behind us this past week, there is an example of this in our nation’s history.   When the founding fathers wrote all men were were created equal by God, born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were those words automatically treated as true for all people?  No, in many ways these words were words of orientation too. Those words in fact seemed originally to only to apply to a select few people whose lives were comfortable


One example of the abolitionist work of Congregationalist-Christians was their rallying to help with the legal work that freed those enslaved on the Amistad

and made sense. And yet they included in them the seed of something better, an original blessing which made something better possible through what it pointed to.  Many of the Congregationalist-Christians who helped start many of the churches which later became our United Church of Christ , including our own Hanks Chapel, pointed out, that as a nation we were acting like these words weren’t really true — that instead some men are more equal than others – particularly white men with land. They said we were acting like they alone were deserving of freedom — while women and people of color could be mistreated: with Native Americans’ land being stolen and handed over the white settlers, and black folks from Africa being sold as slaves.   These Congregationalist Christians pointed back to our founding fathers’ words as a rallying cry, a call to live out the full promise of our country – let us truly treat all equal, all as having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That rallying cry led our Congregationalist-Christian forefathers and mothers of faith to fight for the rights of Native Americans, for the end of slavery and fair treatment for all, and eventually even for the rights of women to vote. It martin luther kingis their a cry which Dr. Martin Luther King and others made their own when they lifted up cries for justice and freedom for people of color in the Civil Rights movement.  In words reminiscent of Psalm 113, Dr. King both told the nation that the check of this promise included in the words “all are created equal” was past due for people of color, women, and many others and also that it needed to be fulfilled because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. In other words, King and others trusted we would ultimately learn to treat all people as equal because the God of Psalm 113 would lift up the oppressed, marginalized, and cast aside to stand on equal footing. Both those words penned by our forefathers and the words of Psalm 113 included the seed of the promise of freedom for all, pointing to a blessing God wanted to offer that could not be over-ruled by those who tried to bend it to keep some people from sharing in the full blessings of freedom.

Just as these words of our founding fathers included a seed from which freedom for all could grow, so these prayers from before our loss, from places of innocence and a state of grace, are important because these include the seeds from which our rebuilding or recovery may come after loss.  Just as “all men are created equal” has a deeper richer and meaning in our country following our fight for Civil Rights, so on the other side of grief, the words of prayers like Psalm 113 take on new and richer meaning. Again and again through the experience of grief and recovery we may return to those promises that God will work out all things for our good, bring blessing out of heartache, walk with us on our journeys which previously sounded hollow and begin to see ways they are still true now, if not in the way we would originally have expected.  Though we may not be able see any truth in these words in this moment in our grief journey, we might see truth in them further on in our grief journey as we look back on it, more healed and steadied.

In closing, let me share the words of Henri Nouwen from his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, which express the value of these kinds of prayers— “My friend’s joy is storm cloudcontagious.  The more I am with him, the more I can catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds.  Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with the clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.  Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day”.

The original blessing pointed to by such prayers from our state of grace before our loss, prayers like Psalm 113,  are like this sun which keeps shining through the dark clouds of our pain. Though they may be hard to glimpse now, their words echoing hollow in this moment, the blessing they point to continues to shine and cannot be eclipsed by any pain and darkness. In time we will see and discover it again, even if it is hard to imagine in this moment.


May God open our eyes, during times of clouds and darkness, to get glimpses afresh of the sun of God’s original blessing of us and ongoing presence with us that shine out through the clouds and darkness that surround us!

Amen & Amen.


Week in the Word: Feasting on the Word

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 1,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.


Feasting on the Word.


Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Colossians 3:15-17

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


Would you pray with me? O Still speaking God who we hear not just in the pages of Scripture, but who we encounter in the blowing wind, the whispers of love and compassion from caring neighbors and friends, the cries for justice from the oppressed, forgotten, and forsaken, and throughout our lives, open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds that we might see and hear what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

This week we conclude the series we have been exploring as a church entitled “Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life”.  In the face of stress and trials, hard work and difficult callings, if we are not daily connected with the Spirit we can reach the limit of our eaglespowers, yet when we are connected with the Spirit, we can find strength and wisdom beyond our own which  Isaiah 40 promises, saying God “does not faint or grow weary” but instead “gives power to the faint,  and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,  they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,  they shall walk and not faint.”

This past month we have looked at different practices that help us connect with the Spirit and the strength and refreshment the Spirit gives — meditation and communion; various kinds of prayer; listening for God’s still-speaking voice; and practices of letting go like sabbath, simplicity, solitude, and fasting.   Our Scripture readings today point to another place we can turn to to experience God’s Spirit in fresh ways: God’s Word.

Before I look at what these texts say, do any of you have ways you can share that turning to God’s Word has helped you connect to this strength and renewal promised in God’s Spirit when you needed it?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus faces down the ultimate in temptations and is able to resist each one by staying connected with the Word of God.  In fact, when tempted, Jesus makes temptation of jesusa challenging claim: we cannot live on bread alone. Our true nourishment cannot come from simply food, water, and shelter, but  also has to come from the Word of God. Jesus’ experience suggests some ways in which the Spirit can strengthen us through us taking time to connect with God’s Word.

First, when we bathe ourselves in God’s Word as Jesus did, we remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are in God’s eyes, and what God’s purposes in our world are.   Ultimately these truths are what Jesus points to again and again as he resists temptation. Right before these temptations, Jesus is baptised. All the Gospels tell us that, when Jesus is baptised, God speaks over Jesus “this is my child, the one I love, the one in whom I am well-pleased” and the Spirit rests upon him like a mother dove sheltering her baby bird under her wings.  When we are baptized, we claim for ourselves those words as also true of us personally through Christ, and we invite the Spirit to embrace us as a mother does her children, just as the Spirit embraced Jesus. Through Christ, we are ones whom God loves unreservedly and unconditionally, and upon whom the Spirit rests. Think of it! Through Christ you and I are — and all people can be — God’s very own children.  Through Christ, you and I are — and all people can be — ones in whom God is well-pleased before we can do anything right or wrong, regardless of our Baptism-of-Christ (1)mistakes or failures, but simply because we are God’s own.

In our Gospel, Jesus is tempted first and foremost not to make this or that choice, but to forget who God said he is.  “If you are the Son of God…” then prove it! . Ultimately our first temptation is often the same:  to forget who we are — to forget we are loved without condition, to forget we are embraced without question, to forget that we are a delight to God and deserving of delight, to forget that God is not far off but always embracing us through the Spirit; and to forget this is true for all we meet.  We are tempted to act as if we and as if they are undeserving, unworthy, less than who God says we and they are. We only embrace self-destructive choices, only live up to less than the fullest life we are made for, by forgetting who we and others are in God’s eyes. Staying rooted in God’s Word helps us, helps you and me, remember and live into who we truly are and all the best God has for us.

Also, the fact the Tempter quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus suggests what feasting on God’s Word is not.  It is not, as we might mistakenly make it, just about knowing and being able to quote specific Scripture verses.   You see, though we often fail to recognize it, according to Scripture itself, the “Word of God” is more than the words of Scripture bible not a weaponwritten in black, white, and red in the pages of our Bible.  Just as the Tempter can quote Scripture verses, throughout history there is a long and sad history of people joining the Tempter in misusing Scripture. History is littered with examples: those who claimed to be feasting on the Word while choosing to mis-use Scripture to justify racism, to justify slavery, to justify marginalizing and mistreating women, to justify putting down and pushing out gay people, and even in NAZI Germany quoting Scripture to justify breaking up the families of our Jewish brothers and sisters, throwing them out of their homes, shipping them away in trains, and casting them into gas chambers.  Even today some claim to feast on the Word while using Scripture to justify breaking up immigrant families both at our borders and in our neighborhoods, even though Christ warns in Matthew 25 that on Judgement Day how we treat so-called foreigners in our midst will determine how we are judged by Christ himself, for in Christ’s eyes, whatever we do or fail to do to the least of these , we do or fail to do to Him.

The words of Scripture can be misunderstood, twisted, and misused, but the living Word of God itself cannot be twisted, for that Word is the heart and mind of the  One the Scriptures proclaim and point to. This is why Hebrews 4 tells us “ the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.  This is why John 1 tells us that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” As CS Lewis once wrote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, bible not wordwho is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him.”  Ultimately the Word of God in which we are to bathe ourselves and upon which our souls can feast, is not just empty words on a page but the heart and mind of the living still-speaking Christ to whom they point: the One in whom we live and move and have our being, that One who is still active in our lives and world,  guiding and leading all who look and listen for him in all places and times.

When we connect with this living Word of God through our time in Scripture, letting the still-speaking presence of Christ open us up to who we are in Christ, and to where Christ is working and acting in our lives and world, we too will be able to see through the false promises of our temptations, say no to them, and say yes to God’s best.  We will be able to see through those misusing Scripture for their own ends, not giving into their temptation.

This requires connecting with God’s Word in the way Psalm 119 suggests when it says “I have hidden your word in my heart  that I might not sin against you”.  In his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, Henri Nouwen likens it to letting God paint pictures on the walls of your heart, so that you carry upon the walls of your own heart a picture of who hidden-your-wordyou are, whose you are, and what God is about in your world.  Whenever you become tired, weak, and worn — thus easily tempted — you can pause and look within, to where God’s Word has been painted and be reminded what counts, and what doesn’t.

This painting on the walls of our heart with God’s Word’s of who we are, whose we are, and what our world is for is what Colossians means when it talks about letting the Word of God dwell in you richly.   I want to spend my remaining time today talking about practices we can engage in throughout our daily lives to help let’s God Word dwell in us, so the walls of our heart and life are decorated with God’s message to us about ourselves, our place in God’s plan.


What are some ways you connecting with God’s Word that help you “feast on the Word”?

feasting on the word

The first practice of feasting on God’s Word I want to mention is regular devotional reading of Scripture.  Devotional reading of Scripture is just reading a short passage maybe every day or every few days for inspiration, without digging any deeper.  That alone can connect you with God’s Word.


Next we have study of Scripture.  This is reading the Bible in a careful, systematic way.  Instead of reading a few verses every day or two (or maybe week, for some of us), you carefully read through the Scripture: reading bit by bit through a book of the Bible, seeing how its verses fit together.  You pick up commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, whether in print or online, and look into the history, context, background. You read how different people have interpreted it, and compare what makes sense and what doesn’t.  In studying a Scripture, you can get a deeper understanding of it, and see what it means in context instead of picked up just to argue a point.


The next practice is praying the Scripture.  This can be picking a line of Scripture you have been studying like “be still and know that I am holy”, “not by might not by power but by my Spirit saith Lord” or something else, and repeating that line word by word as a prayer, letting the meaning of each word speak to your heart, and talking to God about what each word brings up.  It can also be doing that one line or a time through a longer part of Scripture, like a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or another section in the Bible.


Then we have Lectio Divina, which is a kind of meditation on a section of Scripture.  Here you take a short section of Scripture and read through it multiple times, slowly paying attention to each word and asking God to guide you to what you need to see.  The first time through, just sit with the whole section and what stands out. Then, on your second reading of that Scripture, pay attention to a word, image, event, or experience that stands out to you, looking for what it brings up in your heart or mind and praying about that.  Then read it again and pay attention to what response you feel called to as you read it, and commit to that with God. And in your final reading pay attention to how God’s presence is evoked by the passage, and rest in your sense of God present to you. In a related form of Scripture meditation, Gospel contemplation, you do practically the same thing but instead of focusing on a word or image, you imagine yourself as if you are a different character within the Bible story you read in each reading, asking what it would feel like to experience what it describes from their point of view and what that teaches you about yourself, others, and God.


A final way of experiencing the Word Colossians speaks about is in song — Colossians tells us that singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs throughout our day is one way we can invite God’s Word to dwell in us richly. St. Augustine once said that to sing to God is to pray twice — both with your mind  through the words you sing but also with your heart, your feelings, and your soul as those words are sung as music. Listening to Scripture set to music in hymns, praise songs, and other kinds of music — let alone singing it yourself – can help it come to rest in your heart in a powerful way.  In my work as a hospice chaplain, I am always amazed at how people with Alzheimer’s or dementia can forget their name and struggle to speak but still sing along with hymns they were taught in the church over the years when I sing those song with them.


In closing, I want to challenge you to pick one of these practices of connecting with God’s Word and try them regularly this week, daily if possible, and see what ways it opens you up to God’s presence.


  As we conclude this series on Drinking Deep the Waters of Life, let us continue to remember the true source of our life and strength: the living presence of God which can lift us up, giving us new strength, new energy, and new direction throughout our lives.  Amen and Amen.

Week in the Word: Letting Go of What Has a Hold On You

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, June 24,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro


“Letting Go of What Has a Hold On You”

Mark 1:12-13

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

3 though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

   God will help it when the morning dawns.

6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;

   see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

he burns the shields with fire.

10 “Be still, and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

   I am exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah


Would you pray with me?

Still-speaking God whom we hear not just in the pages of Scripture, nor just in our moments of laughter and places of comfort, but also in the times that stretch us to the limit and the moments we are called out of our convenient patterns, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

The story is told about a miner.  He had planned initially to stay near his family farm, to marry his high school sweetheart, and to begin a simple happy life.  Then he heard a gold rush was on. He left it all, forgetting his sweetheart and his friends, ready and insistent miner with goldon leaving his home, his family, and all he knew at the chance of becoming wealthy and having all of the world’s best possession.   He poured himself fully into the search for gold, sacrificing everything, and doing so in a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog way that left no room for friends and no time to enjoy the little moments of joy that punctuate our lives if we look for them. He finally did strike gold, and  was so overjoyed. He took his gold and carried his bag of nuggets with him everywhere, believing he was walking on his way to start his life he had dreamed of. These gold nuggets were his most precious possession. And he dreamed of all the wonderful things they would purchase for him, counting all the people and things he had left behind as worth it to find his treasure.

Yet on his way to cash it all on and build his life finally with his new found wealth, the miner died unexpectedly.  He was rushed off to heaven, still clinging to his precious golden nuggets. When he arrived at heaven’s gate, an angel greeting him, insisting he lay the gold aside before he entered.  The man was indignant. Did that angel not know all he had sacrificed to earn this gold? And now he had to lay it aside? The angel was puzzled, gate-of-heavenand asked him why he wanted to carry asphalt into heaven anyway? The man was aghast and held the gold out in front of the angel’s face. “This isn’t asphalt,” he explained, “Just look.  It’s pure gold.” To which the angel replied, laughing, “Exactly,” and pointed through the door of heaven to its streets , shining bright and glistening . He said, “and here in heaven all we use gold for is to pave our streets. It is just asphalt here, only worth being stepped on.” And in that moment, the miner looked down, sad, heartbroken at all the things he laid aside for a treasure he could never keep.

This parable of sorts is a good lead in to our message today.

As you may recall we have been going through a series called “Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life”, focused on how we can connect with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said would well up within believers like a fountain of living waters that wells up to eternal life.   We’ve explored how through times of challenge and change, hard work and trial, it is easy to become overwhelmed and exhausted when we have to rely solely on our own power. I think all of us have experienced this personally, and I would wager we’ve all seen it happen in our families, our communities, and here at our church at Hanks Chapel.  Each week we have looked at different ways it is important to connect with the Spirit, and different practices that help with this: first looking at meditation and communion, then different kinds of prayer, and finally ways to look and listen for the Spirit’s still speaking voice in our life so we can discern God’s will better.

This parable I shared illustrates one of the less comfortable ways we are called to make room for the Spirit in our life, one that to be honest I had to fight the impulse to not talk about, because for me at least it pushes me out of my comfort zone a little: practices of letting go.  In this parable, this man’s desire for wealth – to make it big, with his life full of money and stuff – lead him to miss some of the greatest joys in life. And his clinging to those gold nuggets threaten to keep him from making it through the pearly gates.

Though the parable might be a little over the top, it makes a tough but uncomfortable point: there are tons of things in our life we can cling to which become distractions, keeping us from connecting with what matters most – not just the pursuit of money and things, but also our busy-ness, also other people’s opinions of us.

Any thoughts about things which people can cling to that can cause them to miss what matters, and not connect with God & God’s best for them?

In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus take radical steps at letting go his hold on potential distractions he could cling to.  When the Spirit comes upon him, Jesus pulls out of the noise and busyness of life, leaves aside all his wealth and stuff, to simply be alone with God in the wilderness.  He leaves the comfort of home and family. Though the Gospel of christ+in+the+wildernessMark here doesn’t mention Jesus going without food, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus also goes for these days without the comfort of food.  While doing this, Jesus confronts his own heart and the heart of life itself, God, in new ways. Mark uniquely of the Gospels mentions Jesus among the wild beasts, with angels visiting him. There in the desert wilderness, cut off from the distractions of life, Jesus not only confronting his deepest temptations and ours, but he also connects with the Spirit in a deeper way he could not have without having laid aside every possible distraction, glimpsing God’s presence in the wonder of nature representing by the wild beasts and in seeing glimpses of the usually unseen glory of heaven, through the presence of the angels.   Jesus models to us an important, if often uncomfortable, aspect of connecting with the Spirit in a way: to connect with the Spirit, we have to also sometimes lay aside comfort and distraction. This process of letting go is important to hearing the Spirit.

Jesus’ example points to some practices that Christians have found helpful in learning to let go and hear and see the Spirit more fully.   He shows what happens when we do it: both those great distractions and temptations that lie within us become visible, as happens for Jesus when the Tempter shows up in his time in the wilderness, while also ways in which God is present and at work in places we never suspected become present to us – like seeing God in nature, through the wild animals, or getting glimpses of how God is working behind the scenes of our life.

I wonder, are there any practices you find that help you let go the noise and distractions of life, and let go things that you might be tempted to hold onto, which could keep you from connecting with God and God’s purposes?

Some of the practices Jesus’ example points to here in Mark are:

Taking regular time of solitude and silence.  Jesus leaves the crowds, the busyness, of life to be alone with God.  Last week I talked about how we have to find a way to silence the solitudenoise of the world to really hear God.   We can do that sometimes in the midst of our busy days, in the midst of worry and trial. But often stepping back from it, having quiet time alone, just you and God, is needed. Even in those moments, noise and temptation will pop up, as happened for Jesus, but these will not be the noise and temptation of the world, but the noise and temptation flowing from within your own heart.  And when, in that time of solitude and silence, these pop up, you can notice them, name them before God, and ask God’s help in laying them aside so you can focus one-on-one with your Creator.

Related to this is taking regular time for sabbath.   Silence and solitude – sometimes called “quiet time” – is something we aim toward a little of every day or every few days.  Sabbath is a bigger concept, one which comes right out of the Creation story and the Ten Commandments. In the story of Creation in Genesis, God works hard six days making all sabbath-genesisthat is, but takes the seventh and doesn’t work.  God simply spends time enjoying being together with God’s creation. The Ten Commandments encouraged the people of Israel to do return the favor – and regularly set one day in seven to not focus their attention on all the work to be done, all the worries, and all the tasks, but one just spending time with God, focused on God’s presence, enjoying God, enjoying God’s creation, and enjoying the people that matter to them.   In our nonstop lives, where we even get emails about work on our phones when we’ve clocked out, this principle is so important – of setting aside time regularly to not be doing, doing, doing, but simply focused on connecting with God, with creation, and the people that matter.

In my own life, I’ve tended to set regular times during the week and a few times a year to do this, but not a whole day every week.   Right now, though, since I am working two jobs – 40+ hours at the hospice, and as much as a I can here with Hanks Chapel – I am trying to intentionally set time I am not working at either the church or the hospice each week: as close to 24 hours I can, where I am focused on connecting with God, spending time in nature, spending time with the people who count to me.  Whether a literal 24 hours a day or not, without blocking off that time to connect one on one with your Creator, with your own self caring for your own health, with nature, and with the people whom you love, it can become easy to lose your way.

Since the other Gospels tell us while in the wilderness, Jesus doesn’t have food to eat, it is important to focus on fasting.  In fasting, we give up some comfort that could distract us from focusing on God or God’s call in order to spend more focused time one on one with fastingGod or helping serve others.  Usually in the Bible this is food, which makes sense in a world without supermarkets, fast food, and microwave ovens in which most of your day could be gathering, cooking, preparing, food.   Cutting out a few meals, or a day’s worth of meals, really freed up a lot of time and energy to focus on prayer, meditation, Bible study, and even doing things God called you to do to help others.  And in Scriptures, people are reminded that they can also share that food with people in need.

Going without food can still be a good practice, whether that is going without a meal or two and spending that time you would be eating praying or helping others and giving what would go to that meal to a needy cause; or foregoing a comfort food like meat, coffee, chocolate.   I also have known people who fasted doing the SNAP challenge – only eating what the food they could purchase while on government assistance, to understand the experience of those without. Such kinds of fasting can remind us that our ultimate source of strength and nourishment is God.  It can also remind us of what others are going through who have less than us.

But there are other sources of comfort which can be more distracting today – TV, the internet, driving a car rather than walking or biking, the list goes on.   Putting aside an unnecessary comfort for a little while, especially one that distracts you from paying attention to God and helping others can help free space in your life to connect better with God, have more compassion for and time to help others.

A final practice that is worth mentioning is the practice of simplicity.  Simplicity is actually a key practice taught in the New Testament. We see it in the Sermon on the Mount, but probably first mentioned in Luke 3 when John the Baptist is asked by someone what repentance looks like.  He says, if you have two coats and only need one, fasting simplicitygive your other coat away to someone who has none. Simplicity is the practice of looking at your life for what unnecessary stuff you have that you don’t need. All of us have a tendency in our society to accumulate – and it is easy to get too much in some way: so many clothes, so many books, so many cars, or technology, you name it.   And the more we have, the more time we have to spend fixing it up, keeping it up, and often the less apt we are to share. For instance, if we have a big house, but it is so full of stuff we don’t ever use, we might finding ourselves filling a whole room with our extra stuff, a room which we could if we cleared out some things and give them to folks who really needed them, we could use to host a missionary, a person we know with health problems who needs a place to stay, or a foreign exchange student.   Having more than we need can distract us from God’s presence and hold us back from helping others. One early Christian preacher, a man named Basil, put it well: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard [you are not eating] belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”  Those are tough words, and I am not great at practicing their challenge myself, but they are the challenge of the call to simplicity. They also can be hard to figure out how to apply. Is worrying about getting the newest and best car failing to practice simplicity? Or is insisting to work long hours to keep up and running a vehicle held barely together, nearly by duct tape and prayer, failing to practice simplicity because it distracts you from time you could help others and seek God’s face? The call to simplicity isn’t easy to figure out sometimes, but

The heart of all these practices is learning to do what Psalm 46 invites us to do – to trust it doesn’t depend on us, doesn’t depend on all our hard work, on all our stuff we accumulate, doesn’t depend on our fighting our striving.  Rather we can trust that even in if the world shakes, God holds it and us. We can be still and simply know God is, and since God is, we are safe and secure in God’s hands. Ultimately it is not up to us.

All of these spiritual practices open us up to, in different ways, to resting in the Spirit, being empowered and led by the Spirit in new ways.  I challenge you to take one of these practices to focus on in this way this coming week. And let us all find space and time to be still before God, resting in God’s care and goodness.  


Let us pray.

You call us to love you with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength.

But so often we are worried and distracted by many things.

We forget your love and your call to love,

and we begin to think it is about us—

about our image, about doing it right,

about being the best, about getting what we want.

We forget to look to you, and even when we look, our vision is clouded.

Clear the chaos within us, O God,

And help us to embrace those practices and choices which can help us clear away this noise

that we may focus on you

and seek you out with our whole hearts.

Amen and Amen.

Immigration and the Christian Calling (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


I want to share a message by Rev. Isaac Villegas of Chapel Hill Mennonite Church, as he explores the Biblical texts related to the struggles around immigration and the experience of displaced people in our country.  I hope it both blesses and challenges you.

Week 1: Sanctuary E-Course from NC Council of Churches on Vimeo.

Matthew 25 and Immigration (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


I wanted to share this message with you as our Week in the Word this week, where Alexia Salvatierra discusses the call of Matthew 25 and how it impacts current issues facing churches, immigrants, refugees, and other displaced people.

I hope it challenges you, as it challenges me, to consider how I deal with these issues in my own life and work.

Also, please let me know any important messages given by people of faith in the south-land, or which address issues of faith and justice affecting our south-land, which might be worth me sharing at our Week in the Word.

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Border Crossing Saints (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


ice-raidSome few weeks ago I heard news that ICE agents were rounding up a large group of our neighbors without papers just a county or two over.  This news sent definite ripples in the church I attend, where we have a number of members who are refugees and immigrants, some of whom either are undocumented or  have those close to them who are undocumented.   As I reflect on the difficult situations being faced by such immigrants and displaced people in our country with our tightened restrictions and increased deportations becoming the policy in America, I realize how very much in many people’s minds, these are a pack of “sinners”.

In fact we see this in our rhetoric about immigration, don’t we?  While on the campaign trail, our current president described undocumented immigrants this way: as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”.   The impression is that these folks are necessarily immoral.   For many pushing for a wall on our southern border and mass deportation, the logic appears to be: crossing the border without papers is against the law.   That’s necessarily bad.  Immoral.  It is like someone breaking into our house.   This means they are all in league with thieves, murderers, the worst of society who would break into your home.


If, like me, you know personally folks who are immigrants who came here without proper papers, you know this is not close to who they are at all.

Similar concerns come up with displaced people in our country, even who are here illegally.   Though we should be concerned about hatred arising against undocumented immigrants, the fact is that it is easy for distrust and loathing of one group of immigrants to trickle down toward others.

Here, in my home state of North Carolina, in a recent meeting by a conservative group concerned about immigration and refugees, a number of speakers began to paint all Muslims as if they are members of terror cells.   A few speakers even went so far as to ask why we can’t just kill all the Muslims in our area.  This conclusion was leapt toward, even though Muslims are not any more likely to become violent terrorists than average Christians are to become Klansmen or members of armed Christian terrorist militias like we saw break out with violence in the 1990s in the Oklahoma City bombing and the violence at the Branch Davidian compound.  Most Muslims, like most Christians, are law-abiding, respectful, compassionate people.


This extreme example is not reflective of all people who are uncomfortable with looser approaches to immigration, but it shows the slippery slope this approach of fear and distrust can bring.   We paint a whole group of people as if they are evil, without looking at how they engage the world around them.

richar rohr

In his book Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount Richard Rohr reminds us that, ultimately, Jesus developed a reputation for supporting and advocating those groups in his day known as “sinners”, welcoming them into table fellowship as equals with those society considered holy, acceptable, and good and through baptism announcing people’s acceptance by God into community is as available as water.   This approach to those ostracized as “sinner” in Jesus’ name got him the name “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).    As Rohr continues to explore this, he makes the point that the system in place in Jesus’ day so defined sin and holiness that whole classes of people, for economic and class reasons, could never fulfill holiness requirements enough to not be called “sinner”.   Jesus’ life and ministry was  aimed at disrupting approaches to holiness that categorize people as sinner for reasons of class, life situation, or qualities other than their heart.

Ultimately, that alone ought to lead us to question society’s willingness to be so quick to list a whole class of people – immigrants – as necessarily sinners.

bible_study_groupBut I think it is also important to bear in mind the Bible’s rich history of border-crossing saints.  These folks did cross legal barriers of their day in some way and that is part of why they are remembered not as sinners but as saints, bearers of the Sacred, in our Scriptures.

Among the most central figures who are such border-crossing saints are the patriarchs  – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – to whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to as forefathers in their faith.  Each of these repeatedly are described in Genesis as crossing the borders from the lands of which they once were a part to enter new ones.  In fact, the founding story of their people, which is the foundation of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim spiritual visions of faith, is that of Abraham hearing the voice of God calling him to leave his homeland of Ur, to travel across various national boundaries as a nomad, into a new land God would find him.  There is no talk in these stories of getting travel visas, passports, or green cards for Abraham and his family.

In fact, repeatedly Genesis pictures conflict by the locals asking how he and his family have right to live in this land which was historically someone else’s.    This holds true for his descendants Isaac, Jacob and his 12 sons.   In fact in an experience that carries deep echoes today in the experience of many an undocumented migrant or refugee, multiple times Abraham and his heirs in Genesis are depicted as hiding their identity and that of their families for safety.

Ultimately in the Genesis narrative about the patriarchs, those who receive and welcome the wandering migrant followers of this dream of land as welcome guests are those who are blessed.  Those who do not welcome them experience judgment and curses – from the small judgment of illness and struggle by some local rulers who mistreat Abraham and Sarai, to the many plagues that afflict the Pharoah and people of Egypt who forget the importance of welcoming the refugee people of Israel which leads to the Exodus and Passover story, to the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which, in the Biblical story, has nothing to do with sexual ethics and everything to do with how nations at war respond to those who arrive without papers at their doors.

It is these migrant saints – traveling without papers across national boundaries – who are the founding figures of three faiths.

This theme continues in the story of our faiths.  The people of Israel in their wilderness wanderings continue to cross national borders, with at times rulers objecting.  Those who are hospitable to this wandering band experience some share of their blessing and those who are not experience judgment.

Perhaps most amazing in such examples is Rahab of Jericho.   She becomes the patron saint of the Sanctuary movement through the ages.  When the people of Israel in Jericho’s rahab-immigrantwalls arrive without legal permission from Jericho not to nonthreateningly find work or safety there as many displaced people do in our land, but to actually plot the overthrow of the city, she harbors them.  Her home and place of business as a sex worker becomes perhaps the first sanctuary, as she lies to protect the lives of those she has welcomed.   Ultimately she is saved from the fall of Jericho, becoming a part of the wandering people of blessing herself, even becoming ancestor to King David and Jesus of Nazareth, key figures in the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths.

Her example is one that inspires Quaker and Congregationalist Christians on both sides of underground-railroad-immigrationthe Mason-Dixon lines to organize safe houses in which were harbored the fleeing runaway slaves heading north to lands where they would not be treated as property.  These slaves did not get documents legalizing their move across states.  Even the attempt would have brought them back into the slavery they sought to flee or worse!       Her example also inspired the small number of Christians like Corrie Ten Boon who hid Jews, gypsies, gay people, and people with disabilities when the NAZI government in Germany sought to gather them up into concentration camps.     This example seems to also have inspired the largely Muslim leaders of the Turkish government in the same period to shield people from NAZI death camps, as is recounted in the book Last Train to Istanbul.

In the story pf Jonah, Jonah is turned by God into an undocumented displaced person for, certainly, the sea monster who vomits him up onto Ninevah’s land did not get a passport, green card, or legal status for Jonah before swallowing him from the sea.   In that role, again, Jonah could be received as he thought he would – as a threat, a foreigner to be wiped out, by Ninevah’s citizens.  The Ninevites receive him instead as the face of God and his words as God’s message.  His example is later followed by the early apostles and missionaries of the Christian movement like Paul, Timothy, and Silas; and later missionaries like St. Patrick and St. Francis who travel across national boundaries often without clear documentation.

Of course the ultimate example of the migrant saints is the holy family itself.   The Gospel of Matthew pictures Joseph and Mary carrying the baby Jesus across political lines into Egypt when King Herod seeks the slaughter of young children.   Clearly, they did not ask Herod’s permission to flee death.   For Christians especially this ought to be important, for we view Jesus not just as a rabbi or prophet among many as Jews and Muslims do, but as the Incarnation of God, making the God of Christian tradition necessarily a displaced person, a border-crossing God.

These many examples suggest that, far from it being that displaced people are necessarily “sinners”, instead those we encounter among us who are displaced people need to be received by us as the face of God.

As Jesus is remembered to have said in Matthew 25, in words that are mirrored in the later words of the prophet Muhammad in the Muslim Qu’ran*:

secondcoming31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g]you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Ultimately, in the displaced people who come to live among us, documented or not, we are called to see the face of God.  They are neither more sinful nor more righteous than we are.   But all three faith traditions that look to the Biblical story as their base, including my own Christianity, suggests ultimately as individuals, as communities, as a nation, we have to answer to God for how we treat those immigrants and refugees as if how we treated them if how we treated God.

May we answer this call.

Your progressive redneck preacher,



*(Note the parallel in the Qu’ran: “Allah the Exalted will say on the Day of Resurrection: O son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me. He will say: O my Lord, how can I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine was sick and you did not visit him, and had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food but you did not feed me. He will say: My Lord, how can I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for food but you did not feed him, and had you fed him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for drink but you did not provide for Me. He will say: My Lord, how can I give You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for a drink but you did not provide for him, and had you given it to him you would have found Me with him.”


Choosing the Gospel Over Nationalism (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


stephen-barnwell-empire-of-america-moneyIn a previous post, I shared about how both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to live up fully to the call of Scripture to welcome the immigrant, refugee, or displaced person as if in them they welcome Christ.  And so we must really be willing to take on a critical stance not only to those of whatever political parties and viewpoints oppose us (in my case, not just criticizing political conservatives), but let our faith and values critique the political and social groups that feel like our tribe.   For Christians, this means letting the Gospel of Christ, not political allegiance, be our standard.  It means seeing our ultimate allegiance not to our class, race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or even nation but first and foremost to the reality Jesus points to when he says in Mark 1:14, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”   Ultimately we must learn to see the Kingdom of God as the place of our truest citizenship, its values pointing toward another and deeper reality.

I think as we face into a new kind of political reality in America in a populist nationalism which says “America first”, this call of the Gospel takes on more and more significance.  After all, isn’t the call of “America first” at the heart of calls to shut down the borders, to deport immigrants and refugees, and to restrict free trade?   We have a belief that ultimately our tribe is or ought to be the best (hence “make America great again”), believing that this being great can not happen for us if other people, other nations, other communities, also are great.

empire_us_aAn overcharged negativity bias and scarcity mindset lies at the heart of this rising nationalism. This nationalism rests on a belief that there isn’t enough for everyone in God’s good earth. So we must hoard our stuff and our opportunities from those we deem too different like a child on the playground clinging tightly to all the toys saying “mine”.   This impulse ultimately is what leads people to not build longer tables but instead higher walls .
Being Gospel people, Jesus following people, as the Christian faith calls those who identity with it to be, necessarily flies in the face of this nationalistic approach.

In a way, this is a bold and surprising thought for some.  After all, don’t our nationalists in America right now have wide support from the religious world?  Aren’t big named preachers endorsing this approach as sent by God to restore America to being a light on a hillside?

Though there is religion and theology being brought to bear by big named preachers, largely from white churches, like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson for instance, in support of this rising nationalism in our country, ultimately the Gospel itself stands against any attempt to use theology to prop up empire and nation.

In their book The Last Week on the final week of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his crucifixion, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain that, just as we have nationalist theologies which prop up our American system claiming it is endorsed by God, so in Jesus’ day there was a theology used to prop up the Roman empire’s claims supporting imperial expansion, including its oppression of other people &nations including Jesus’ own.  Notice:


“According to this [Roman imperial] theology, the emperor was not simply the rule of Rome, but the Son of God.  It began with the greatest of emperors, Augustus, who ruled Rome from 31 BCE to 14 CE.  His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia.  Inscriptions refer to him as ‘son of God,’ ‘lord’ and ‘savior’, one who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods.  His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE and thus emperor during the time of Jesus’ public activity” (The Last Week,  Borg and Crossan, 2-3).

When this Roman imperial theology is laid out in such clear terms, how clearly the story of Jesus in the Gospels acts as a foil to what Rome claimed for the emperor: Jesus, like Augustus, is announced as Son of God, Savior, Lord, and bringer of peace on earth.   Jesus, too, is said to be born of a virgin mother and God.   Jesus, too, is said to likewise rise again from death and ascend to God’s side in heaven.

Multicultural Jesus 1

Whether you view all the miraculous elements of the Gospel story as literally true or not (and Christians are divided on that question), what is clear is that the way the Gospels tell the story of Jesus, based on the preaching of the early church, presents Jesus as a counter to Caesar.   Confessing Jesus is Lord as Romans 10 challenges us to do is not just about personally accepting some kind of salvation in your soul or mine but is also about saying Caesar is not.   Ultimately Jesus and the way he paves for us to follow in his teachings and example are being presented as central to true peace.

And we are being called in his words to repent and believe the Kingdom is at hand, even while active in the midst of other kinds of communities, to change the patterns of our lives and relating so that we enter into and live as members of a new kind of community, the Kingdom of God.

Borg and Crossan explain this call and reality like this,

“’Passion’ means ‘consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment’… The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel.  It was the first passion for God’s distributive justice that led inevitably to the second passion by Pilate’s punitive justice.  Before Jesus, after Jesus, and, for Christians, archetypically in Jesus, those who live for nonviolent justice die all too often from violent injustice” – Borg and Crossan, The Last Week

To answer the call of the Gospel to repent and believe in this kind of Kingdom is to choose to put central in our lives a whole different pattern for living.

empire america paxWhat was the way of living embodied and modeled by the Caesars & their imperial theology?  Strong over weak, controlling and crushing them through domination systems.  As Roman historian Tacitus puts it, ““to plunder, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and they call it peace”.

What is the way of living Jesus embodied?   The type of lifestyle described in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount: of seeking to be a peacemaker who doesn’t return evil for evil, violence  for violence, but turns the other cheek.  This is not just rolling over and accepting abuse and injustice, but a choice to resist these systems of oppression like Rome built, and as continue in their own ways in every culture (even America today!)

As the late Walter Wink wrote in his  the Powers That Be,

“Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. W e are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent. The correct translation would be the one still preserved in the earliest renditions of this saying found in the New Testament epistles: “Do not repay evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). The Scholars Version of Matt. 5:39a is superb: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil…

“The examples that follow confirm this reading. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39b). You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.


“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.

“Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can

“By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”


“Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence is what the master wants. Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging, or worse. But the point has been made. The Powers That Be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands.

“In that world of honor and shaming, the “superior” has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”

“How different this is from the usual view that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek so our batterer can simply clobber us again! How often that interpretation has been fed to battered wives and children. And it was never what Jesus intended in the least. To such victims he advises, “Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.” (taken from http://cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf)

common-working-people-2Choosing to live out this calling to live this other way – a way that chooses peacemaking over violence, that chooses servanthood and sharing of power and possessions over dominating other people, that chooses simplicity rather than pouring our resources into markets that oppress and exploit the disenfranchised – is the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  It is a way to transform our world and our communities.   Ultimately, as I noted the Rev. Dr. Jill Edens as highlighting in her preaching on this Sermon of Jesus, it is not possible as a solitary individual but becomes possible when we chose to work together creatively to choose an alternative way in community.  Wherever we enter into and foster such community, that Kingdom of God Jesus preached about is breaking out.

Such radical living re-shapes us and re-shapes our communities.  As we choose to embrace it, we join great company.  As John Mabry notes,

mandelaquote“Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil(Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ” — see John R. Mabry, Crisis & Communion: The Remythologization of the Eucharist – Past, Present, and Future (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005), 129.

The call to repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand, is a call to live out this courage.  The call to live as citizens of the Kingdom, not with first allegiance to nation, race, tribe, class, sexuality, is a call to pursue justice for all and reject every idol that makes evil possible.

Ultimately it is a call that dethrones this rising tide of nationalism that excludes and oppresses immigrants, refugees, and all who don’t fit our image of “good Americans”.   It is a call we must courageously and willingly take up.

Please, feel free to share how you have embraced this call yourself.  And let’s continue on this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,