Rebelling Against King Jesus

Enjoyed this conversation with Taylor Mertins, pastor and podcaster extraordinaire.

think and let think

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alex Joyner about the readings for the Day of Pentecost – Year B (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-17, 16.4b-15). Alex is the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore in the Virginia Conference, and he regularly blogs on his website Heartlands. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad puns, living off the map (literally), church birthdays, faithful diversity, the connections between Babel and Pentecost, the impermanence of land, giving voice to the voiceless, and the community in the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Rebelling Against King Jesus

aj

View original post

Absence Makes the Heart: A Jerusalem Reflection

IMG_1708On Easter Sunday…some thoughts from my first visit to Jerusalem in 2011…

I would say that the world is a hopeless place…except it’s not.  Somewhere around here – at the Garden Tomb, under a church – there’s an empty tomb to prove it.  It’s what we have to offer this place – emptiness.

Absence.

If we take on what this place is full of – despair, hatred, violence – then we place the body of Jesus right back where it was at the end – dead, lifeless, abandoned, abused, scorned, and hopeless.  But if we yield to the absence…If we retain nothing…If we get rid of the pretension that we know what God would have them do…we would at last be true to the truth that is uniquely ours to tell.

And what does that empty space proclaim?  The presence of God who once met us face to face and we survived.  The emptiness says God has gone on before us.  The absence of anything pure reason and feeling would lead us to pushes us back to the way we always reject – Jesus’ way.

Remember how he told you this would be necessary.  Remember how he told you that he came to bring a sword.  Remember how he told you to love your enemy, your neighbor, your projimo.  When you are empty…when you have nothing to give…when you know what it means to lay down your life…you will find it.

Bray into the Dying Light

Jeanne Finley sees dimensions that I hadn’t seen.

Tell it Slant

On January 13 Alex Joyner posted his stunning new poem, “Sunset in Archer County,” on his Heartlands blog.  Coincidentally, that same day an employee of Hawaii’s emergency alert system issued a false alarm that terrified residents and visitors:  “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.  SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.  THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”  I read Alex’s poem with that news story hovering over my head.  First the poem . . .

Sunset in Archer County

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass

unnoticed

day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How…

View original post 519 more words

This Verbal Tic is Driving Us Crazy, Right?

frank-mckenna-184340

photo by Frank McKenna via Unsplash

There are a couple of verbal tics that are reaching peak annoyance right now.  At the low end of the scale, (which runs from “What did he say?” to “Nails-on-a-chalkboard”), is the dulling of the simple preposition ‘to.’  In spoken English the word is gradually losing its “ooo” vowel sound and being replaced with the far less elegant “uh” sound.

The flattening of ‘to’ is often associated with a verbal pause so that a speaker’s thought can catch up with her words.  It’s easy to merge ‘to’ with that perennial oral bugaboo “uh.”  To wit: “So after that, we were going tuh…you know…get some ice cream.”

‘Tuh’ is most noticeable on podcasts and other unscripted media programs where speakers have to think on their feet, but I notice it in everyday interactions, too.  I even it hear it my own speech, which makes all the more annoying.

Much further up the scale, however, is ‘right.’  When I first started noticing it about two years ago, the addition of ‘right?’ to the end of a statement seemed endearing, as if the speaker were drawing me in and inviting me to own the observation with him.  “The popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is a function of urban America’s desire to know more about Appalachia, right?”  Here I’m invited to affirm (or presumably reject) an assertion.

Over time, however, ‘right?’ has infected all manner of statements.  Appended on to the end of a string of facts about which I know nothing, how am I supposed to respond?  When you assert what sounds like a forceful opinion and tack on ‘right?’ I feel like you’re trying to coerce agreement.

Worse, however, is the sense that the speaker needs my reassurance to continue.  ‘Right?’ starts to sound like, “I’m saying this definitively but I may be too forceful, so can you give me some indication that I can keep going?”

How about you go ahead and make your argument and I’ll respond at the end?  You don’t need my agreement to state your case, especially if you’re telling me something that I have no way to evaluate in the first place.  You don’t have to confirm with me every three sentences.  That would be excessive.  Right?

The Myth of the Cosmic Skybox

frank-kohntopp-130663

photo by Frank Köhntopp via Unsplash

It has finally happened.  I seriously had the thought that I would not attend an event just because I knew that, two days later, I would receive the dreaded email evaluation.  “It will only take 5-10 minutes of your time,” the email will say.

Great.  I’ll get to it right after the questionnaires related to my last hotel stay, the meeting I attended last week, and the consumer survey from a store I visited in a town I’ll probably never return to.

I know from whence these come.  In their pursuit of excellence and quality, the organizations and businesses need feedback on how they’re doing.  They want to improve at their core mission.  They appreciate my offering tips.  Sharing is caring.

damian-zaleski-843

photo by Damian Zaleski via Unsplash

Yes, but scoring is boring!  Worse than boring, the endless surveys assume that I have a judgment to offer (on a functional 5-point scale) about everything I experience.  And if they just fiddle with their formula enough they’ll be able to hit my sweet spot.

Actually, I DO have judgments to offer.  Ask me to consider for a minute and I’ll be able to find a number of things that could be better.  The towels in the hotel bathroom did look a little worn and threadbare.  The speaker’s mic had a kind of tinny sound.  And come to think about it, the paper towels we bought had an odd perforation pattern.

I could do this all day.

Perhaps that would be helpful to someone, but when it comes to the life of the Spirit, I’m not so sure.  I appreciate churches that strive for excellence in hospitality and worship.  And I definitely notice when its not done well.  But if we’re talking encounter with God, am I really qualified for the job of consumer critic?

Survey Monkey questionnaires, like every online tool of evaluation, are a product of the modern world in which the autonomous individual is assumed to have a cosmic skybox inside them from which she can stand, detached from the earth and context, and cast an all-knowing eye at the thing before her.  It’s not a bad assumption if you just want some feedback on the sound system in the theater, but it’s more problematic if we’re talking about worldviews.

The essential things in this world, (like the deep pulse of the natural world, the complex bonds of family, and the mystery of a holy God), all have their hooks in us before we ever find words to describe them.  To imagine we can understand them fully or stand apart from them enough to pass judgment on them is an illusion.  Not that we shouldn’t use the gift of reason to explore them more fully.  It’s just that these big realities don’t pass before our skybox like a parade.  And we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, as Paul says in Romans 12:3.

51A7VfV9RNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Too many surveys and I begin to feel that I am more autonomous, more god-like than it’s good for a creature to feel.  More powerful is to stand before the God who knows me and to feel that I am connected to—somehow inside—a reality much larger than I.  How well does our worship, our common life lead us into such a realm?

In her poem “Two Pigeons and One Dove,” Mary Szybist looks at a tree and writes:

“Nothing stays long enough to know.

How long since we’ve been inside

anything together the way

these birds are inside

this tree together, shifting, making it into

a shivering thing.”

The birds don’t need a skybox.

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection

IMG_0754

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We’d all like a Holy Land made in our own image.  I’ve just spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine and there are a few things I’d change.  Yes, ending the occupation and a two-state solution are on the list.  (More on that to come.)  But, less grandly, how about the simplicity of a church with an open tomb without stalls selling ‘Guns & Moses’ T-shirts just outside the door?

Early on a Sunday morning, I walked the Via Dolorosa past Crusader churches, Byzantine arches, Mamluk stonework, and mass production-era kitsch.  I ended up at the Edicule of the Tomb, the recently-restored shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marking the spot where Jesus’ body was taken following the crucifixion.

IMG_7239

Candle outside the Edicule of the Tomb

Waiting with the polyglot pilgrims of a hundred points of origin, I felt the power of the place, but I couldn’t help being distracted by the huge candles at the entrance of the tomb.  Highly ornamented, twice my height…and topped by lightbulbs.  It looked like something your Aunt Lulu would construct from a kit she got down at the Hobby Lobby.  (Though it should be noted that the bulbs were of the high-efficiency LED variety.)

I touched the rock slab of the tomb—the impact of which was not diminished by the muffled cursing of the man ahead of me when he bumped his head on the low entrance.  Then I headed to a beautiful prayer chapel where I found the silence I craved.

In the chapel, you could hear the shuffling and muted conversation of tour groups, the chanting of monks, the rhythm of a familiar prayer.  Incense filled the air, an olfactory reminder of the beauty of God’s sacrificial act in Christ.  A riot of iron sculptures depicting the stations of the cross lined the wall.  Behind the eucharistic table, a blue mosaic of tile formed a fitting backdrop for a globe—the world summoned and surrounded by God’s grace.

We didn’t deserve this place, this church, this peace.  Just days before I met with an Israeli police spokesperson who had been at the scene of 48 suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, the memory of which is not cast away like the shoes he had to discard after each one.  One day earlier I met with a Palestinian woman of East Jerusalem who doesn’t know how to describe her nationality.  Israel, which annexed her neighborhood but sometimes treats her like a foreigner or a potential terrorist?  Palestine, which only exists as a profession of nationhood?  Jordan, the country on her papers, but which hasn’t ruled here since before she was born?

IMG_0800We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as the Psalms prescribe, but any peace we can glimpse is tawdry, contingent, messy, rude, conditional—like the uneasy truce between the seven Christian groups that stake a claim to this church.  Ethiopian monks squat on the roof to preserve their foothold.  Fights break out from time to time between others.  And all the while the masses come and take their photos, genuflect at the sites, kneel beneath the table to touch the rock of Calvary, wonder what trinket to take back home.  Perhaps an olive wood Jesus?  Some Dallas Cowboys gear in Hebrew?

I tried to settle my mind.  My life is no less distracted than the street.  My attention wanders.  My enemies plague me even here.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are still not saved.” [Jeremiah 8:20]

Jesus meet me here.  This holy land teems with the violent, frivolous, stupid things we do.  And yet children play in the streets, couples smile at one another, pilgrims stare wide-eyed in wonder as the guide ahead waves a flag to keep them from losing their way, spices fragrance the air, a neglected cat finds food left on a stone wall by an unknown hand.

FullSizeRenderThere is light in this chaos.  Brilliant light like the burning sun of the Judean desert.  True, sometimes it’s mounted to a fake candle and needs to be replaced every 5-7 years.  But light.  Light which burns through and burns on to reconcile all things.

Rural Soul: Origins in Orange.  Guest blogger Sara Keeling returns

Sara Keeling, pastor of the Rappahannock Charge of the United Methodist Church, has a rural soul.  Or so she told us in a previous guest outing on Heartlands.  While I’m in Israel and Palestine, she agreed to share again.  I really didn’t ask for all the kind words.  They just came free!  But read on for a glimpse of the grace required for authentic ministry…


There’s a very short list of folks who grew into faith in Trinity United Methodist Church in Orange, Va, graduated from the University of Virginia, and now serve as ordained clergy in the Virginia Annual Conference. As far as I’m aware, there are two of us.

 Because, you see, my life trajectory is somewhat similar to Alex’s: same hometown and church, same university, same profession. My dad was Alex’s family pastor for 23 years. Alex was my campus minister and mentor. I’ve known Alex since 1984. That same year, when I was three, I spent one terrified evening in his parents’ home when my dad broke his leg roller skating and I thought his leg was no longer attached to his body and no matter how hard they tried, I would not cheer up and play games with his younger sisters. For me, Alex was the cool rookie preacher who would return home to preach and hold my attention in a way the familiarity of my father rarely did. As a college student, he was the thoughtful, inspiring leader who imbued importance on all of our futures. As a colleague, he is still the gold standard to admire for curiosity and creativity.  

I read Alex’s award winning essay: Spirit Duplicator, with a keen eye, peeping into a story of my own hometown with some of the same cast of characters.  

Ms. Moore was also my beloved 3rd grade teacher. Likewise, I remember walking by the tree at the Episcopal church where Lee tied his horse. Mostly because my mother is an avid historian and horse enthusiast, she was always quick to tell me that the confederacy was the wrong side of history, but Lee’s horse Traveller could be revered for being a loyal companion and clearly not knowing anything about the war he was fighting.

Like many small towns in Virginia, Orange is full of historical markers, battle fields, statues, even the home of James Madison.

It’s interesting—the history a hometown will leave with you—it’s given me the credentials to live an authentic rural life. I now come home to Rappahannock county—where I’ll introduce myself to locals and tell them I grew up in Orange—so they know I’m one of them. But if I meet a come-here from closer to the beltway, I’m quick to mention my three years in Alexandria—so they’ll know I’m one of them too.

 People close to the beltway tend to think Rappahannock is gorgeous—a great place to escape or retire too or take a weekend trip to the vineyards or the Inn at Little Washington—but they wouldn’t want to live here or be from here. To someone from Rappahannock, the greater DC area is just one big traffic jam, and the people too busy. I’ve lived and loved both regions of the Commonwealth. We are technically in Northern Virginia, and yet we are a world away from the grid lock of I-495.  

When first told I was moving out here 7 years ago, congregants in my Alexandria church asked if I couldn’t just combine those three churches into bigger one.

That’s almost as fruitful a question as can you just combine your three children into one? I have three churches and three children and the answer is the same in both of those scenarios.  

We generally talk of urban areas as liberal and the rural as conservative. And while it’s true that one tends to vote blue and the other red, they are, of course, not monolithic. My urban church had some rabid conservatives. My rural churches have some flaming liberals.  

Along with the Word of God, my own socio-political worldview influences the words I say on a Sunday morning.

The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling

One of my churches is named after a Confederate chaplain. His story is one of sacrificial love as he literally gave his life for a fellow soldier, to be executed in his place. A Christlike act for sure, but he still wore a grey uniform.

 I preach a sermon on race and Black Lives matter and get impassioned pleas about colored blindness or the lives of police officers.

I preach about sexuality: reminding everyone that we all have different opinions in the room, that some of us here are gay, or have gay children whom we love and support, or have a gay sibling that we don’t understand, or think it’s downright sinful . . . and people with tears in their eyes either thank me or ask how can we could possibly be welcoming to people like that?

We pull together for a shared meal or lunch after a funeral and I worry more about the ways we are shortening our lives with the number of calories in the fried chicken we all just ate than how many of us are reading scripture everyday.  

I lean back on grace. I say we should listen and try to understand with empathy and not judgment. I remind everyone that we are all children of God.  

 It’s hard to believe some days that we are all on the same team. All just trying to love Jesus and be the people God would have us to be.