Books

I love the opening from Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. He writes:

On Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to “morning services” to hear our father preach and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and afterwards to “evening services” to hear our father preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could go to the hills with him while he unwound between services.  But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, “What is the chief end of man?”  And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”  This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills, where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon.  His chief way of restoring himself was to recite to us from from the sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from his most successful passages of his morning sermon.

The chief end of course, in this case, was to be outdoors to be recharged.  To hike the hills, to fish, to enjoy God’s creation.

And why not?  God has given us this beautiful creation to enjoy.  We heard it this past Sunday about how God made the world and everything in it was good, and that God asks us to both enjoy it and take care of it.

I think it’s in enjoying God’s creation that we also enjoy God.  Getting out to the Cape, enjoying the beach, being out on the water, hiking, biking, paddling.  It all brings us closer to God and restores our tanks.

Too many of us don’t take time to recharge.  We try to squeeze in a vacation that is nearly as jam-packed as our every day lives.  We rarely take time to be restored, to be filled again to overflowing, so we can be better for the work before us.

This idea drips with connection to Sabbath keeping.  We don’t do this much in our culture.  We stay busy to keep the balls in the air.  We go 60 or 90 or 200 miles an hour most, if not all, of the time.  And we don’t take any time to see the impact it has on us or our families until it’s nearly too late.

So, what is your chief end?  How do you “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”?  What recharges your batteries and gives you time to pause and know that you are doing what God desires for you?

For me that means hiking, cooking, being outdoors with my family, camping, biking, resting, reading, and a load of other things (I have lots of hobbies, all of which I do moderately well).  But those things restore me and make me better able to do the work I am called to do.

I hope you take some time this summer to do what recharges you and that you see it as a gift from God.  And maybe you will take a minute or two and comment on what you do to restore your soul.

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It was a great day yesterday at St. Mark’s.  I was given the great blessing to baptize 8 young ones and welcome them on behalf of the church into the Christian faith.  And whenever I baptize someone I am reminded to think seriously about my own baptismal promises, and the desire I have to follow Christ on the way.  Our gospel was from John 14 when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way.  As I mention in the sermon, since I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way with the vestry right now, I couldn’t help but to draw form it and make connections.

So, here it is.  A baptismal sermon on the importance of following Jesus on the way.

Our text was: John 14:1-14

_____________________________________________________

            I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jesus’ words that we heard this morning, especially when he says that his disciples know the way to the place where he is going.  Thomas—always seeming to speak aloud what many of us are thinking—says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”  Jesus is the way.

And the way of Jesus is always a way of humility, of peace, of love.  A way of sacrifice and of giving, a way of reaching out to those on the margins.  It is a way of life.  Your vestry has been reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way together this year, and in our reading so far we have looked at how the way of American culture—and even the way many churches operate in the US—is extremely different, if not downright destructive of, the way of Jesus.  Peterson focuses on how our society and our churches have become places where consumerism is king.  Our wants and desires need to be met and fulfilled, so we believe all that Madison Ave. has to tell us and go looking for salvation in a plethora of ways.

Peterson writes, “We Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had.  We are insatiable….  If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem solving, whatever.  This is the language we Americans grew up on, the language we understand.”[1]

The problem is that the American way for church is downright more exciting to our tastes than the Jesus way.  Especially when you have a story like the one we heard this morning about Stephen being martyred for his faith in Jesus.  If the Jesus way leads to death, are we sure we want to follow this way?

And let’s make no bones about it: Jesus’ way does lead to death.  Death to self, to our desires, to that which says “me first” in our lives.  Jesus’ way is the way of the cross.  And talking about self-sacrifice is not easy nor always appreciated.  But it is the way of Jesus.

We’ll hear language about death as we go to the baptismal font today.  Whey we gather there, we’ll pray, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”  We die to sin and are led to eternal life.

And the life we’ll invite these eight children into this morning here at St. Mark’s is one that is challenging.  We’ll welcome these young ones into a life of building relationships, of serving others.  When we give our lives to the way of Jesus, while we aren’t promised riches or having all of our needs met, or even happiness at every turn, we are promised a deep and meaningful life.  The way of the cross is, as our prayer book puts it, the way of life and truth.

To be fully alive means above all else that we live relational lives, that we live incarnationally.  We can invest in the people who live with us and near us—our neighbors—and recognize that we can make a difference in this world right now.  Just before Jesus told his disciples he was the way, he showed them what his way meant as he washed their feet at the last supper.  Taking time to serve, to take someone else’s feet and gently wash them, to see that we all need support and care and that we can truly change each other’s lives.

That’s where the American way has fallen down.  We have lost our connection with one another.  We have grown further and further apart from one another, thinking instead that people are merely objects, they are the way to meet our desires.  We tend to think that we are islands, as those who can live walled off from one another.  We need to be reminded from time to time by the John Donne’s and the John bon Jovi’s of the world that none of us is an island.

So when these children take these vows, and when we all renew our baptismal covenant this morning, what we say is that we will follow the way of Jesus, no matter where it takes it, as best we can with God’s help.  We will not put ourselves first.  We will seek to share the good news of Christ.  The news that the Christian life isn’t spent to be worrying about when judgment day is coming, nor how to get to heaven, but how to bring Jesus’ message of hope, love, and peace to a broken world, to our broken worlds.

And that is ultimately what the Jesus way is about.  Life.  Healing.  Restoration.  Renewal.  When we die to ourselves, we find life in Christ.  We find a life that is based in the here and now and not just some time in the future.   May we find Jesus to be the way we follow.  May we see that the way to God entails self-sacrifice and extravagant love.  May we become aware of Jesus’ desire to bring reconciliation, and may we bring his reconciliation to others.  And may we, on this day, remember that we have been marked as his followers, and may we have the courage to follow wherever he leads.  Amen.


[1] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, pg 6.

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A follow up on a question about Lent and Easter resources and books for kids.  Here are some things that we’ve found helpful.

Resurrection Eggs — These eggs allow you to tell the story of Passion through the use of symbols leading up to Easter and Jesus’ resurrection.  Great for helping children understand the story of this season.  $15 online here.

 

All Through the Day, All Through the YearThis is a book that is framed around the liturgical calendar from the beginning of Advent through the end of November.  It highlights special days and gives concrete ways to commemorate and celebrate throughout the year.  There’s a complete section on Lent, Holy Week and Easter.  It’s hard to find these days, but well worth the cost.

Veggie Tales: An Easter Carol This is a great video about the message of Easter told through the lens of A Christmas Carol.  It revolves around a plastic egg factory and the desire to tear down a church to create “Easter Land” where Easter can be forever.  Kids will love it!

A Host of Others Recommended by Melissa

Sharing the Easter Faith with Children: Helping Children Observe Lent and Easter

What we do in Lent: A Children’s Activity Book

Easter Extras: Faith Filled Ideas for Easter Week — lessons and hands-on activities for children to reinforce Easter and Holy Week events.  Wonderful Resource!

All Around Easter: 6 Discovery Stations for Kids and Their Families

The Very Fist Easter: Beginners Bible — puts the Passion Story on a level for kids.  Highly recommended!

The Legend of the Easter Egg

Stations for Teens

Ministry Ideas for Celebrating Lent and Easter with Teens, Families, and Parishes






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I chose the vocation I did because I love words.  And especially words about God.

And if I wanted to be honest, I would say that my vocation called me, but that is another post entirely.

As we enter the 40+ days of Lent (there are 46, by the way, because Sundays are always considered feast days for the church and don’t count in the Lent to Easter equation.  So, without any bad feelings, you can take a pass on your Lenten discipline on Sundays), one of the things we are invited to do is to meditate on God’s Word and to make time for that reflection.  In addition, I love to make time to read at least one or two books that help me reflect on Lent and the way of God in the world.

So here are a few for you to consider for your Lenten discipline.  I always link to Amazon (it’s just easier), but you can almost always find these books anywhere else on line, and some at your local bookseller.

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Mioslav Volf.  This was the Archbishop’s Lent book for 2006, and is written by a former professor of mine from Yale.  Remarkable stuff.  Don’t be distracted by the fact that Miroslav is a prof at Yale.  This is accessible stuff.  He makes a great comparison between himself as a cyclist, the innate way ducks quack and God’s love (get the book if you want to figure out how this works).  This book (like all of his books) is deeply personal, and looks at how Jesus suffers in our place and what that really means.

Bread and Wine: Readins for Lent and Easter by various authors.  I love books like this; it’s a collection of readings for Lent and Easter from a variety of people spanning a great deal of time.  There are readings from St. Augustine and Philip Yance  Pascal and Henri Nouwen.  There are readings for each day in Lent and for half of Easter as well.  It begins on Day 1 (Ash Wednesday) with a selection from Kathleen Norris.  In it she tells of her work with young students as a Poet-in-Residence and one boy’s poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.”  She writes, “He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town.  The poem concludes, ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”‘” She continues by saying the boy was more honest than most adults and well on his way toward repentance. Nice for short reflections during the season.

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor. A wonderful short reflection on language around sin by this Episcopal Priest and professor at Piedmont College.  Taylor ponders how when we lose a way to talk about sin in our lives—we say “problems” or “issues,” but even now less and less of even that—we also lose the language of salvation.  If we don’t have sin, what are we being saved from?  She contends that when we have language around sin, we can move from “guilt to grace.”  A short book that is well worth having on your shelf.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality by Beldon C. Lane. At times our journeys take us into difficult landscapes, often seen as deserts and mountains in scripture (and in real life, if you’ve been to these places).  Lane plunges deep into wrestling with his own wilderness times—writing about his mother’s struggle with cancer and Alzheimer’s—and rejecting the common language of Christianity being an easy road as expressed in pop spirituality.  In moving beyond the common understanding, he looks at how desert times become a mirror for our own inner brokenness, and the need we have for God to bring healing in them.  Perfect meditations for the desert season of Lent.

The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty by Peter Greer and Phil Smith. One of our Lenten disciplines should be the giving of alms.  This book lays out how to do this with an extended telling of stories about how bad poverty really is, and how easy it is to help.  The focus is on micro-finance with practical steps on how you can help change someone’s life through a small loan.  One of the stories is about a man who runs a small pharmacy who needed to close multiple times a day to run out a get more supplies because he had only enough capital to buy a few things at a time. With a small loan, he could buy more supplies for a cheaper price, cut down his traveling to once a week, and keep his store open for longer hours. He easily paid back his loan and expanded his business.  Wonderful on both the theory and the practice.

That’s five for now.  I hope you find something here that will whet your appetite and help you take on the Lenten Discipline of study.  And why don’t you take a moment to comment about a favorite Lenten type book that isn’t listed here.

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A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently about something his rabbi said during Shabbat services.  “Sabbath,” the good rabbi said, “is like a snow day every week.”

I love that image.  Snow days–especially for kids–are filled with delight.  Putting on snow pants, hats and gloves to go out exploring and playing in the snow.  After a good long time, a cup of hot chocolate or tea.  Maybe a book by the fire or a favorite movie.  Certainly no work.

The best book I’ve ever read about Sabbath Keeping is by Dan B. Allender called simply Sabbath.  Frankly, it blew me away.

What he said is this: The 4th Commandment on keeping the Sabbath is the only we relish in breaking.  “I’m too busy to take time off.”  Or “I’m always connected to my work.”  Or something along those line.

Yet in the Hebrew one of the connotations of Sabbath is celebration.  God didn’t need to rest because God was “overworked” rather God took delight, God relished in all that God had done

Sabbath can become a living out of the kingdom of God that is to come in the present world.  It can become a time not of just cessation from the mundane, but of true enjoyment, taking pleasure in this wonderful world God has created and being restored.

“Dream delight for yourself and your family,” he tells his seminary students.  “Let yourself go with dreams as wild as you can imagine.  Don’t let money or physical limitations enter your thoughts.  Dream as extravagantly as you know how to do, then pray that you might truly dream well.  Where would your dreams take you?  Where would you go, with whom and what would you do?”

Maybe that scares the bejeezus out of you.  You may not know how to handle that much delight in our world, in creation, in sharing love with your family.  So you might just push this aside.

But if you are intentional — and let me be honest, you have to have intentionality to keep the Sabbath, you can’t just decide “Oh, today I’ll do it” because you won’t — Sabbath keeping can change your entire outlook on life.  What if you knew that at the end of each week you absolutely knew you would have a day of rest, of delight?  What if you knew you and your loved ones could count on being free from all obligations?  Or that it would be filled with a day of reading, or going in to Boston, or sharing a non-rushed meal with friends?

Imagine how that would transform your life.

And that’s the gift God wants to give us.  Each week.

Find that book or any other if you want to explore this further.  Or just decide today that beginning this week, you’re going to spend one day out of seven taking delight in God’s wonderful world, in the way the kingdom will be.

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If you love to read and you’re looking for something to get you through the winter, I strongly recommend Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.  It’s a true story on the life of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who was shot down over the Pacific.

I listened to the audio version of this great book on my drive across the country (shout out to Daniel for hooking me up with this), and was blown away by this incredible story.  I couldn’t believe how fast Nebraska went by!

You can get it anywhere right now (it’s a NY Times bestseller), including online at Amazon or at the local library.  I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

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I read once that preachers are called at times to comfort the afflicted and at times called to afflict the comfortable.  A daunting task to be sure.

In addition, I firmly believe that all good preachers preach first to themselves and invite the congregation to listen in.  We get a string of prophetic readings during the season of Epiphany, and they are dang uncomfortable.  Hard texts to hear, and hard texts to preach.

I don’t think, however, that I am being faithful if I just ignore these texts.  If I merely preach what I think my congregation wants to hear, I’m a pretty lousy priest in the end.  We all need to be reminded about the world we live in, even when we are uncomfortable, because it remnds us what God sees in the world.

So to that end, my sermon from last Sunday.

 

What the Lord Requires — Micah 6:1-8

I’ve always loved court-room dramas, especially ones like To Kill a Mockingbird.  The trustworthy defense lawyer who mounts a great case so no jury in their right mind would convict.  I cherish the clues along the way that help build the case.  I love the suspense of waiting for the jury to come back from its deliberations.  And I am always disappointed when the jury comes back with a conviction when, like in the case of Tom Robinson the African American man convicted in Mockingbird, it is so painfully obvious that the person is innocent.

It’s a court-room drama we get this morning in our lesson from Micah, the YHWH is bringing a case against the Israelites.  “Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and the let the hills hear your voice.”  In this drama, the mountains and hills make up the jury pool, and once they’re seated the Lord begins.   God starts by asking what was done to make the Israelites pay no attention either to God or the covenant they made on Mt. Sinai.  The Lord reminds the Israelites that he was the one behind their release from slavery in Egypt—the great Exodus—and God brought them to the Promised Land when they passed from Shittim into Gigal, places on either side of the Jordan River.  God reminds them of all the acts of salvation done on their behalf in years past; God wants them to remember because it is painfully obvious to God that Israel has forgotten.  They were there on the mountain to agree to the covenant when they utterly depended on God, but now that things were good, God and the covenant didn’t seem nearly as important.

“What have I done to you?” God implores.  “In what way have I wearied you?”

Israel emerges in this courtroom play as the kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar.  Instead of answering the questions asked by the Almighty, Israel responds, “With what shall I come before the Lord?  Shall I come before with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”  Now that I’ve been caught red handed, how do I make amends, God?  Is it bringing you the offerings you want?  Do you somehow want more?

The offerings quickly escalate from burnt offerings and calves a year old—both pretty routine—to thousands of rams, vats of oil and the giving of a firstborn child.  Israel is wanting to make things right with God at this point in the trial, wanting to be reconciled, but doesn’t see how this is possible in a religious sort of way.  Israel asks if anything can be given to wipe away the sin, if God would be pleased by any offering.

A third party—probably the prophet Micah himself—answers with what has been called the Golden verse of the Old Testament.  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  In other words, if you show up and make all kinds of the right offerings to God, it still won’t matter if you continue doing what you are doing.  If you continue to ignore the widows, to take advantage of the poor, to cheat folks out of their money—all things denounced earlier in Micah’s prophecy—it won’t matter what you do.  What God requires is a change in heart shown by your actions to others and in your relationship to God.  It isn’t more time spent in the temple; it’s about conversion.

I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t a lot like Israel in our day and age.  While we’ve been dealing with a great recession—and I don’t want to downplay the hardships faced by some of our sisters and brothers during the last few years of economic difficulty and uncertainty—most of us still have been blessed with a great deal.  Sometimes we have a tendency, like the Israelites, to make our faith solely about our worship attendance: if we make it to church for communion on any given Sunday then we’re in the clear with God and can go on with our lives without a second thought for the rest of the week.

But God wants so much more.  God desires a relationship.  The Lord wants us, like the people of Israel, to see the world from God’s vantage point.  Because God does see the ones impacted by the recession, and the ones who don’t have enough food, or who can’t get clean water.  God cares and wants his followers to care as well.

I want to strongly recommend a book to you, it’s written by Rob Bell and called Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  On the back cover he writes, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more that $20 million.  Our local newspaper [in Grand Rapids] ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty.  This is a book about those two numbers.”

Here’s an excerpt for you:

One billion people in the word do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred liters of water a day.   Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under age 5 dies of hunger, while Americans throw away 14% of the food we purchase.

Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than one American dollar a day.  Another 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than two American dollars a day.  More than half the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenage spends nearly $150 a week.

Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while forty-nine million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day.  1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity.

Nearly 1 billion people in the world cannot read or sign their name.  Nearly one hundred million children are denied basic education. …  Four out of five American adults are high school graduates.

Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half the world does on all goods.[1]

In addition to these unbelievable truths, Bell give us these tidbits to chew on a few pages later:  “The US accounts for 48% of global military spending.  Less than 5% of the world’s population purchases nearly half of the world’s weapons.  In 2008, the US spent more on defense than the next forty-five countries combined.  The US spends more on defense than on all other discretionary parts of the federal budget combined.”[2]

If God were laying out a case against us, there’d unfortunately be a lot of evidence.   And sometimes when a case like this is mounted against us we want to respond like Israel, we feel so guilty that we don’t know how to dig ourselves out of the hole.  “How can I stand up before God, and show proper respect to the high God?  Should I bring an armload of offerings?  Would God be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child, my precious baby, to cancel my sin?”[3] Like Israel, our focus goes to how we make it up to God when faced with our failings.  We think maybe if we do more, we can somehow make amends.

And yet that’s not the response God is looking for.  Listen to the words from Micah again from the Message Bible, “But [the Lord] has already made plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

That’s our call, as followers of the living God.  In the weeks ahead we’ll be talking more about how to put these three requirements from God in to place in our lives, but  in the meantime, I think it means this: We are called to be the Body of Christ.  To be, as Rob Bell puts it, people who have committed themselves to being a certain way in the world.  “Our destiny, our future, and our joy” he writes, “are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.”[4]

How is God calling us to share our gifts with the world and to deepen our connection with God?  Will we open ourselves both to God’s evidence of our failings and also to God’s deep mercy and desire for us to be so much more?  I hope that we will, and trust that, if we do, God will have the case against us thrown out.


[1] Rob Bell and Don Golden.  Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Zondervan, 2008.  122-23.

[2] Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, pgs. 127-8.

[3] Language from the Message Bible (Micah 6:6-7).

[4] Bell, 163.

 

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I mentioned a book by Rob Bell this past week in my sermon, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.  It’s actually by Rob and Don Golden.  Both these guys are tremendous pastors and also have a real heart for the life God is calling us into.  It’s a tremendous and thought provoking and very challenging book.  Where Rob and Don end up is on how we, as the Body of Christ, can be a Eucharist for the world.  I won’t say much more than that, except that it is well worth the read (and you can get it through the Central Mass Libraries if you want to check it out).

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