Love is not an Emotion (May 21, 2013)

…Opening To…

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
To notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (George Rawson)

…Listening In…

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13; context)

…Filling Up…

Moving down my old guitar case, we come to the sixth verse, which is wedged in diagonally right where the body of the case starts getting wider. I imagine that I taped this verse to the guitar case sometime around Easter one year during college. Jesus speaks these words to his disciples (whom immediately after this he calls “friends”) during his long speech right before he is betrayed, accused, convicted, and killed. So the words here are immediate. Jesus is telling his disciples just how much he loves them (and us) – enough to sacrifice himself in order that they (and we) might have access to that same love.

But beyond the immediate context of Jesus’ final meal with his friends, the words speed through the centuries and lodge themselves into our hearts. Notice that he commands his disciples to love one another. Jesus doesn’t command them to do very many things, but this is one thing he commands them to do on multiple occasions. Does it seem strange to you that he would command one to love another? It might, especially if you think of love primarily as an emotion. “I can’t help loving who I love and not loving who I don’t,” we might protest.

But love is not primarily an emotion. Love is a state of being. Love is the word we use for the voluntary conviction that propels us to step outside of our selfish selves and to discover the riches of building up one another, of finding mutuality, of respecting difference, of speaking out against intolerance and hate. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, you know that Albus Dumbledore tells Harry on multiple occasions that Harry’s greatest gift is his ability to love. This gift compels Harry into many difficult circumstances, but it also strengthens him to face the challenges before him. If this love were a simple emotion, Harry would never have sustained it for so long, even to the point of his own sacrifice. J.K. Rowling knows that love is not just an emotion.

And so does Jesus. When he commands us to love, he gives us the opportunity to find the state of being that allows us to see a glimpse into God’s own being.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your Son commanded us to love as he loves. Help me to find the conviction to live a life where love is at the center of all my actions. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on your word and looking forward to discovering its impact on my life.

I am a Boy (May 20, 2013)

…Opening To…

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
To notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (George Rawson)

…Listening In…

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all whom I shall send, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8; context)

…Filling Up…

We continue surveying the verses on my old guitar case this week. As I said last week, I pasted all the verses on the case during college, which also happened to be the time I was beginning to discern my call to ordained ministry. I was 19 when that whole adventure began (or, at least, when I noticed I was part of that whole adventure), and so these verses from Jeremiah spoke to me.

Jeremiah makes an excuse to God when God calls him to serve: “I am a boy!!” But God doesn’t want to hear it – what’s that matter, God says. I am with you and that should be enough. This is what God usually says when people give God reasons for why they aren’t the right person for the job. And, of course, God dismisses those reasons. And God does so for one simple reason. Whatever the person’s perceived inadequacy (one of which is youth in Jeremiah’s case), God still chooses that person. In fact, God may very well choose people specifically because of an inadequacy — because in our inadequacies is imbedded the most room for us to grow.

If you feel God calling you to a particular place or situation and a reason not to do it crops up in your mind, it may turn out not to be the right call. On the other hand, that reason has a really good chance to be the very thing that God pegged within you that makes you the right person for the job. If you accept the call to serve, you will grow, you will discover new gifts, you will change for the better. And perhaps that old inadequacy will one day turn into a new strength for which to give God thanks.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you call all people to serve in unique ways. Help me to trust that you are calling me to places and situations in which I will find your presence and your grace expanding my abilities to meet the task at hand. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on your word and looking forward to discovering its impact on my life.

Wings Like Eagles (May 17, 2013)

…Opening To…

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much…power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. (Frederick Buechner)

…Listening In…

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. (Isaiah 40:31; context)

…Filling Up…

Verse four on the guitar case comes from the end of the 40th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah and it is in the running for most beautiful verse of scripture in the entire Bible. I can’t remember what made me put on the guitar case, but it’s influence since I have has been profound. Ever since I began walking with families through their grief at the death of a loved one, I have suggested the reading that includes this verse for one of the readings at the funeral.

This verse is full of hope, but at the same time, it acknowledges just how severely life can run you down. It does not gloss over the reality that the daily grind coupled with the occasional catastrophe can erode away a person to nothingness. It speaks about renewing strength, implying that strength has been lost; about flying like an eagle, implying that there has been a low point; about becoming weary; about fainting.

But rather than speaking directly about losing strength and fainting, Isaiah speaks as if those things have already or will soon pass. He doesn’t say that those who wait for the Lord might renew their strength. He says that they will renew their strength. He speaks as if they are foregone conclusions. And you know what, when we are speaking of God’s promises, they are.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you will always bear me up when I fall. Help me to believe the promises you make to your people through the words of your prophets, so that I may continue to fly upon the wings of your faith. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with your words on my lips and your joy in my heart, ready to share both with all I meet.

I Will Praise (May 16, 2013)

…Opening To…

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much…power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. (Frederick Buechner)

…Listening In…

I will praise the Name of God in song; I will proclaim his greatness with thanksgiving. (Psalm 69:32; context)

…Filling Up…

The third verse down the neck of my guitar case comes from a special type of psalm called a “psalm of lament.” In this category of psalm, the writer bewails a tragedy (or two or three or four) that has befallen. The writer goes on to wonder if God is anywhere nearby or if God is going to help out because it sure seems that God has cut and run.

Now, you think: “Gee, that verse above does sound very much like a lamentation. Are you sure you got the citation right, Adam?” Good observation. Yes, the citation is correct. And yes, this verse doesn’t sound much like the thirty plus verses that come before it. Indeed, the first four verses of the psalm read, “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. I have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me. I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God.”

This is one grief-stricken psalmist. How could the writer get from looking for God to praising God in song? Good question. Right here is where the future tense comes in. Notice that the psalmist says, “I will praise… I will proclaim…” The psalmist is mired in grief, blinded by sorrow. This writer feels abandoned and on the verge of despair. At the moment of penning this psalm, the writer cannot praise God or proclaim God’s greatness.

But even in this deepest lamentation, there is a glimmer of hope, and that glimmer is captured in the future tense. Someday – maybe not tomorrow or next week or next year – but someday, the psalmist will once again praise the name of God again. Psalms of lamentation give us an example to follow when we are in the midst of grief. They give us permission to feel the feelings of loss and sorrow and abandonment. But they also give us the hope that praising and singing and thanksgiving will come again in time.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you never abandon me, even when I cannot feel your presence. Help me when I am on the verge of despair to hold on to the sliver of hope that is a future full of your presence. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with your words on my lips and your joy in my heart, ready to share both with all I meet.

Teach Me Discernment (May 15, 2013)

…Opening To…

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much…power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. (Frederick Buechner)

…Listening In…

O Lord, you have dealt graciously with your servant, according to your word. Teach me discernment and knowledge, for I have believed in your commandments. (Psalm 119:65-66; context)

…Filling Up…

The second verse from the top of the guitar case comes from the longest psalm in the book. In fact, the verses quoted above are at the beginning of the second third of the psalm. There are over 100 verses after that! Anyway, I remember pasting these two verses to my guitar after I started the formal process of discernment for ordained ministry. This is probably why I was struck by the phrase “teach me discernment.”

Basically, the psalmist wants to learn how to learn. “Teach me discernment” could also read, “show me how to open my eyes so I can begin to see properly.” Or “show me how to work these legs of mine so I can start following your path.” When the psalmist asks God to teach discernment, the psalmist shows that he has discovered that he is at the very beginning of his journey, no matter that a third of the psalm is already through.

Even though I am now a priest (that is, I navigated the six year process from initial inquiry to ordination), I still need to ask God to teach me how to discern. Discernment happens when you cultivate an atmosphere of prayerful reflection. Within this atmosphere, the discerner asks God to be present in the act of noticing all the choices in front of him or her. In the end, discernment is all about seeing the whole field when you make a decision (sorry for that football metaphor; it sort of snuck in). Every quarterback (even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) has a coach to help him see the field. And we do too. So my prayer is that we each ask God to teach us discernment.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you continue to teach me things every day of my life. Help me to be receptive to those lessons so that I can invite you into every decision I make and find a fuller life in you. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with your words on my lips and your joy in my heart, ready to share both with all I meet.

Called to Freedom (May 14, 2013)

…Opening To…

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much…power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. (Frederick Buechner)

…Listening In…

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. (Galatians 5:13; context)

…Filling Up…

The old guitar case has fourteen verses of scripture taped to it. The one at the top of the case is Galatians 5:13. The words that grabbed me at the time I pasted it to the case were, “You were called to freedom.” And these words still grab me today.

What does this mean, to be “called to freedom?” Well, if we are called to freedom, it means there are points in our lives when we are not free. Things that are not God, but which we mistake for God, can enthrall and enslave us. We sacrifice our freedom when we mistake a created thing for the Creator, when we devote ourselves to something unworthy of devotion. This might be wealth or the need for dominance or the seductive power of a video game or alcohol or drugs.

When we choose these things over God, we put ourselves into voluntary confinement. But God calls to us in this prison. God speaks the words of freedom to us, and reminds us that when we serve God, we are truly free. That is why this verse seems paradoxical. We are called to freedom and called to serve others. True freedom, therefore, happens when we choose to serve each other out of love. When we make this choice, we access a portion of the love of God that is given freely to all, and thus we find freedom.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you grant me free will so that I can choose freely to follow you. Help me make that choice each day of my life, that I may discover how you are calling me to serve others. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with your words on my lips and your joy in my heart, ready to share both with all I meet.

My Old Guitar Case (May 13, 2013)

…Opening To…

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much…power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. (Frederick Buechner)

…Listening In…

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, by the breath of his mouth all the heavenly hosts. (Psalm 33:6; context)

…Filling Up…

I got my first guitar around Christmas of my senior year of high school. For the life of me, I can’t remember if it was a Christmas present or if I bought it with Christmas money. Either way, it was pretty cheap, and because it was pretty cheap, I felt comfortable storing it in a “gig bag.” Gig bags provide enough cushion against the odd bump or jostle, but they won’t protect an instrument from being squashed or simply dropped.

So when I got my second guitar a little over a year later, I splurged on a hard case. I knew I was in this guitar playing thing for the long haul, so a hard case seemed like a good investment. Also, the second guitar was much nicer than the first. (That, of course, didn’t make it great because the first one was really cheap.)

Just like when you start seeing the make of your new car all over the road, I began seeing hard guitar cases all over my college campus. Most of them were plastered with decals from bands and bumper stickers with clever puns on them. Each case said something about the owner: the constellations of stickers were collages of personal expression. I began thinking about the decals I wanted to stick to my new case, but I just couldn’t come up with any.

Then I got an idea. I bought some black construction paper, duct tape, and a silver Sharpie. And over the course of the next few years, I taped to my guitar case all of the verses from the Bible that grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. I rarely use that guitar anymore, having been given a beautiful Taylor for my ordination to the priesthood (what a gift!!). But the old case still sits in my office, and everyone once in a while I go back and read those verses that meant something to me all those years ago.

I’d like to share them with you over the next couple of weeks. There are fourteen verses, so we’ll be done with the case at the end of this month. I invite you over the course of the month to make a collage of verses that grab you, whether from those taped to my guitar or those you read or hear during your week.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your word continues to speak life into my being. Help me to listen to your voice speaking to me through the words of scripture. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with your words on my lips and your joy in my heart, ready to share both with all I meet.

Guitar Lessons

(Sermon for Sunday, June 3, 2012 || Trinity Sunday B || John 3:1-17)

Playing at VBS in 2003 after my sophomore year of college. That was less than three years in to my guitar playing. It would have been seven or eight if I had never quit.

When I was in seventh grade, my parents bought me a three-quarter sized guitar and procured the services of a guitar expert to teach me the basics. At the first lesson, I learned the names of each of the six strings and how to play notes by plucking them. At the second lesson, I learned how to arrange my fingers on the strings so they made special shapes called chords. At the third lesson, I learned that I would have to practice if I wanted to improve my guitar playing. There was no fourth lesson.

You see, I was a bright kid, to whom pretty much everything came quite easily. I was a good athlete, so baseball and soccer were right up my alley. I really didn’t have to work much to make good grades in school. I had next to no challenges in any of my classes. And so when I was confronted with something that I couldn’t immediately master with no effort, I decided not to try. I put the guitar in the case, and the case sat unopened in my closet for years.

Now, as most of you know, I am a guitar player. So what happened? I picked up the instrument again my senior year of high school, and, being a tiny bit wiser than my seventh grade self, started practicing. I’ve been playing for over eleven years now, and I’m not half bad, but a wistful part of me always wonders how much better I would be at the guitar if I had not quit after three lessons back when I was thirteen years old.

My seventh grade self fell victim to a psychological epidemic that affects the vast majority of the population. Exactly one symptom characterizes this epidemic: people have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of their recognized competencies. This is still true for me: you’ve never seen me do ballet or fix the central heating in the church because these are two things that I don’t do very well. I have no training in either of these areas, and so the likelihood that I will agree to pirouette across a stage or put together an HVAC system is next to zero.

I’d be willing to wager that this fact of life is also true for you. I’m sure each of you could come up with a list of things you are unwilling to try because you know that you aren’t going to be good at them. You know that if you tried, failure would be in your future, and who wants to feel like a failure? And so the psychological epidemic keeps us from attempting new things and keeps us safely ensconced within the borders of our comfort zones.

For us this morning, the trouble comes when the list of things we are unwilling to try includes speaking openly about our faith in God. Why should this be any different from playing the guitar or doing anything else, you might ask? The simple answer is this: becoming an expert in guitar playing is possible. Becoming an expert on God is not.

Today’s Gospel reading teaches us this reality, which is an appropriate lesson on a day when we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish council, fashions himself such a God expert. He comes to Jesus by night, and at the outset of their conversation, tries to display his knowledge of how God operates. “Rabbi,” says Nicodemus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus’s “we know” sets him up as the so-called expert on God. The irony is that his statement is true. But Jesus isn’t interested in whether or not Nicodemus speaks correctly; Jesus is solely interested in moving this so-called expert into the unfathomable depths of God’s interaction with God’s creation. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” says Jesus in response to Nicodemus’s opening remarks. Jesus’ statement is intentionally ambiguous. The words could mean “born from above or born again,” and I think Jesus means both. The very ambiguity of the phrase shows Jesus’ attempt to push Nicodemus out of his comfort zone where “we know” is his default position.

For his part, Nicodemus latches onto the more mundane of the two possibilities: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. This response might sound a bit sarcastic, but at least the Pharisee, who has always been the expert answering questions, is now beginning to ask some of his own. The question is the small chink in the armor of Nicodemus’s expertise. Because of Nicodemus’s willingness to ask a question, Jesus sees that there is hope in showing him the expansiveness of all that this so-called expert does not know.

And, boy, does Jesus show him. Jesus opens Nicodemus’s mind and heart to the mystery of how God creates God’s people, and of how God moves in the world like the wind moving through the trees. When Jesus is done, Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds laughably empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus reveals to him. To begin to walk in and among these mysteries, Nicodemus must change his empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. And he takes the first tentative steps along this path with the sincerest question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In just one conversation, Jesus shows Nicodemus that being an expert on God is not only not possible, but also not the best way to be in relationship with God. Only by acknowledging his lack of understanding can Nicodemus hope to begin to hear the sound of the wind blowing, this wind of the Holy Spirit that breathes life into creation. Nicodemus’s job is no longer to try to explain what makes God tick. Jesus gives him a new job: to bear witness to the mysterious movement of God in his life.

We see Nicodemus twice more over the course of the Gospel. In his next appearance, he puts one tentative foot outside his comfort zone when he reminds the rest of the council about their own rules when they want to put Jesus to death. And in his final appearance, we see that Nicodemus has fully embraced the new life that Jesus revealed to him. In broad daylight on the afternoon of the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb.

This so-called expert on God had his world turned upside down that night when he went to see Jesus. Jesus showed him that expertise is neither possible nor desired when relationship with God is concerned. There is not a person on this earth who is competent to talk about what makes God tick. While you and I might have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of our recognized competencies, we can take heart in the reality that Jesus released us from needing to be competent in this particular area. We will never be good at talking about God because God is far too glorious, far too mysterious and majestic for our puny words. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Releasing us from the need to be competent means that Christ rejoices in even our most halting attempts, in even the simplest expressions of feeling God’s love.

My prayer this morning is that each of us might feel released from the need to be competent when we have the opportunity to speak to someone else about our faith. Don’t be like my seventh grade self who gave up the guitar because he wasn’t an overnight expert. Rather, acknowledge that expertise has no domain where God is concerned. The simple word about how you feel God’s movement, spoken from the heart, is worth more than any treatise on the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. The halting word about not understanding God’s movement is worth more than all the “we knows” like the one Nicodemus speaks when he first encounters Jesus. The good news is that God uses our incompetencies as much, if not more, than our competencies. So I challenge you and I challenge myself: live into our incompetent ability to speak of God’s movement, and perhaps through our witness, someone new might start seeing God’s wind blowing through the trees.