The Church’s First Cry

pentecost drawing

The children at church did this graphic picture of the Pentecost story as a way of remembering it

Pentecost is regarded as the church’s birthday. Stephen Gauthier, a canon theologian in the Anglican Church of North America, beautifully tweaks this idea. He says the church was birthed in water and blood from the side of Christ on the cross; the church took its first inhale of Spirit-wind as Christ breathed on it Easter night; and then its first cry was at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit exhaled that initial breath in a declaration of God’s mighty deeds to the nations.

As I’ve read and re-read the story of Pentecost this past week so I could share it as a Bible Telling with our congregation, I’ve been awed by God’s heart for all peoples expressed in this first cry of the Church. The main characters of the story are the God-fearing Jews who come from “every nation under heaven” but who are gathered to seek God in the nexus of Jerusalem. The long list of their native homes encompasses different cultures as well as languages, but the two—language and culture—are closely connected, so that the Church’s first cry reached not only the minds but the hearts of these representatives of the nations. “I am coming to you,” God was saying, “in your cultures, in your home countries. I will do all it takes, beginning with using the language of your culture, letting you know I am the God of all peoples.” In the very first cry of his Church, God was reaching out to the nations. “For the promise is for you,” Peter told them, “for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

And their hearts responded, so that the Good News of Jesus, who himself translated God into humanity for us, underwent secondary translation, into multiple languages, with every cry of the diversifying, world-spanning Church.

The Bible Gateway verse of the day for today, Pentecost Sunday, is this: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).

I am struck with this call to harmony, this call for the church universal—and local—to join together to glorify God with ONE voice. This emphasis on harmony also seemed to impact Eugene Peterson, for it figures large in his interpretation: “May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along well with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!”

We’re clearly not there yet! Harmony is not often a word used to describe the Church. Too often our loudest cries are ones of dissent and accusation, complaint and superiority. Our praise in comparison often sounds like mumbling, a mere whisper.

But this will change, for one day, from every tribe and people and language, a great multitude will cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

This Pentecost, draw the Spirit deep into your lungs, devote yourself to Jesus as Lord, declare God’s mighty deeds through word and action and love, and seek to sing in harmony with his Choir.

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Friday Winter to Sunday Spring

it is finished

Older daughter Em’s work hanging in the foyer of the church, ready for our Good Friday service

This day I’m thankful for

springtime rain,

birdsong from feathered friends

(persisting in choir practice

despite the drizzle),

trees budding in grey light,

greening grass,

and scents of something fresh and raw

rising from dark, soft soil.

I’m thankful for promise!

Yes, promise:

That the dark, the cold, the separation—

Each of us holed up, weathering out the weather—

These will not last forever.

Warmth will come.

Life will burst forth from the earth

Spring will shake a fist, defiant against

The dark and the cold,

And winter will be swept aside.

I am thankful—

Yet I am reminded, in this Holy Week,

That the promise is only for a time,

The jubilee of spring is temporary,

And indeed is not complete.

Temporary, for the dirge of winter will return;

the seasons will cycle: summer scorch, autumn shrivel, winter burial,

Newness fading to death again and again.

It is, as well, an incomplete jubilee, for even in the best of springs, there is

Blight and sickness, death of young and old,

Fresh emergence of old grudges, old divisions.

On the most beautiful of days, all is still not well.

But this holiest of weeks holds forth greater promise

Than a passing, unfulfilled season.

I am reminded that beyond Friday’s death,

Beyond the now,

There is an eternal Then.

Oh, blessed Sunday,

Day of Celebration

Day of Declaration

Day that assures us

That the eternal Then already has

Crucified death,

Vanquished darkness

Swallowed despair, and

Erased all divisions.

And someday, the eternal Then Himself will transform our hoped-for Then into Now!

When all will be right; all will be fully well.

Sunday life—all the time!

So at present we hold onto hope, we hold onto promise

That though we endure the wintry mix of Friday now,

Clinging to promise in the decay of the tomb,

Yet an eternal Sunday will spring,

Fully finished.

The stone will be rolled away

And we will emerge into a new, abundant Now

That has no end.

 

 

 

 

 

The Washing of My Feet

 

Last fall I was invited to a women’s gathering at a church right around the corner from my home. This church is intentionally pressing into the unity of the Church, across ethnic and economic divisions, and I knew the women at this gathering would be coming not only from the Austin neighborhood (my neighborhood) but also from surrounding suburbs. I would see African American, white, and Latina faces, and the leadership team would reflect this diversity as well.

The theme of the morning was service, and the leaders put flesh on this theme. They served every woman there. I rushed in late, and while one leader gave up her seat so I could have a spot at a table, another brought me breakfast, and still another got me coffee and orange juice. I was almost overwhelmed by their service,.

After some fellowship with table mates and a sermon about our call to servanthood, one of the leaders stepped to the podium. “We’ve been praying about this gathering for a long time,” she said, “and we asked God to show us how we could best serve you. We felt led to wash feet as an act of service.”

Ah, foot washing! I’d never encountered it till I was a college student and I went to a Grace Brethren church that practiced it as part of their communion service. Since then, I’ve participated in foot washing in several contexts, but I’d never just had my feet washed. I’d always washed another’s as well. Foot washing always has an uncomfortable element to it (which is good, I think), but this felt particularly strange because I would be receiving only, not giving, and I’m not exactly great at that.

The other women and I pulled off shoes and stripped off socks. I brushed lint away from my heels and curled my toes into the carpet. I stared at my feet.

Leaders began coming to the tables, kneeling before the seated women.

Suddenly a leader was in front of me.

She, an African American leader was in front of me, a white woman.

I am very often aware of my whiteness, on a number of levels. I live in a neighborhood in which whites are only 2% of the population. When I walk or drive down my street, I often get second looks. Though I wouldn’t say I’m completely relaxed with this, I see it as being good for me.

But this: an African American woman in front of me; kneeling in front of me; about to wash my feet…

I instinctively pulled my feet back. Tears began streaming down my face.

And I don’t know what she was processing, but tears started streaming down her face as well. Still, she pushed the bowl of water toward me and held out her hands.

And I put my feet into them. And we cried together. And she washed my feet.

When she finished, we both stood and embraced. I was close to sobbing.

This next week, as part of the Maundy Thursday service of Holy Week, in which we celebrate Jesus’ last night with his disciples, we here in Cornerstone Parish will wash each other’s feet. We are a parish of multiple congregations. Our congregations span economic levels, ethnic divides, educational levels… I don’t know whose feet I will wash. I don’t know who will wash my feet. There will be, no matter what, uncomfortable moments.

And it will be strange.

And that is good.

Because we all, brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to love each other in ways that let the outside world know we follow Christ. We are called to serve each other in ways that run counter-cultural to the world around us.

And though this service and love should reach far, far beyond foot washing, the foot washing itself is a wonderful start. It’s a reminder and a call into depths of love only possible in and through Christ.

Palm Sunday: a sermon by Andrew of Crete (c. 660-740)

Andrew of Crete (c. 660-740) was one of the Early Church Fathers. He was born in Damascus and served at churches in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and, finally, Crete. He is known for his concern for orphans, widows, and the elderly. The following is an excerpt from his Palm Sunday sermon. 

Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation. He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us with himself, we are told in Scripture, above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named, now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He comes without pomp or ostentation. As the psalmist says: He will not dispute or raise his voice to make it heard in the streets. He will be meek and humble, and he will make his entry in simplicity.

Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.

In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself. And even though we are told that he has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of his power and godhead – his love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.

So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.

Ash Wednesday 2018, noon service

At the end of the service,

When the ashes are crossed on my forehead

With the words, “Remember that you are dust,

And to dust you shall return,”

The liturgy plunges bone-deep

And a strange weariness overcomes me.

I sit in this for a moment,

But then remember:

There is much still to do in this day.

Decisions to be made,

Lessons to be taught,

School pickups,

Dinner to fix,

And another service, for goodness sake!

Action, energy are needed.

Caffeine is probably needed!

Yet in this moment, a memory arises,

From another Ash Wednesday several years before.

Following the imposition, the mother in the row ahead of me

Picked up her small ones from childcare

And returned for the end of the service.

All was well, till her son noticed the cross on her forehead,

The cross on my forehead,

The cross on the foreheads of every adult surrounding him.

He turned to his mother, and I heard,

“Where’s my cross? Why don’t I have a cross?”

and nothing could comfort him till my husband,

one of those who’d imposed the ashes that night,

marked the child’s forehead, too, with his still-darkened thumb.

To want the mark of humanity,

To long for the symbol that announces to the world,

we are but “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,”*

Incapable,

Inadequate,

In dire need of mercy—

This desire seems nearly the complete opposite of

That which caused the first human hands to pluck forbidden fruit,

To doubt Goodness himself,

To seek equality with the Creator,

Independence from the Breath that gave Life,

Supposed self-sufficiency.

Oh, yes, give me ashes,

Give me symbol,

Grant me humility,

The posture, before God and man,

Of complete and utter need.

For then your mercy, too, can plumb bone-deep,

Heart-deep,

Soul-deep.

Breath can bring dust to life again,

So that all I am, all I do,

May be known and seen

As Your greatest grace.

 

*a line from the hymn “O Worship the King,” which we sang in early morning prayer at Austin Corinthian Baptist Church this very morning!

 

The Gifts of Epiphany

In the church calendar, Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. Depending on the particular church tradition, Epiphany celebrates both or either the visit of the wise men to Jesus and Mary in Bethlehem and/or the baptism of Jesus. It commemorates the manifestation of Jesus as God, as the Son of God. Here in the West, it is more common to celebrate the coming of the wise men, and I want to share a well-known hymn that is commonly sung as a Christmas carol. We generally sing only the first stanza and refrain, which is really unfortunate because these are really setting the stage for the second through fifth stanzas, and these are amazing! The second stanza speaks about the gift of gold; the third about incense; the fourth about myrrh; and the fifth refers to the bringing together of all those gifts–that we worship a God who is “King and God and sacrifice”! Just beautiful!

We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

Refrain:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign. [Refrain]

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high. [Refrain]

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb. [Refrain]

5 Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
*sounds through the earth and skies. [Refrain]

*In some versions of this hymn, this last line is “earth to heaven replies” (and I particularly like that, as it looks forward to when it will be “on earth as it is in heaven“).

Note: the highlighting above is my emphasis and is not in the hymn itself.

 

our upside-down King

The children are doing the Gospel reading tomorrow, and we’ve taken Luke’s telling of the Nativity and broken it into narration and dialogue.

We practiced today, and before we began, I told them they were the perfect ones to tell this upside-down story of an upside-down King ushering in his upside-down kingdom.

Kings generally want power and riches and comfort, I said.

But Jesus, King of the universe, kept saying things like, “I came to serve” and “I offer my life,” and his first bed was a feeding trough for animals and his first sight as a human was a poor girl’s face and maybe, if any of the nativity scenes are correct, the giant nose of a cow. The fancy presents didn’t appear till later and they came just in time to fund a run-for-your-literal-life escape to Egypt.

I finished my pretty speech, and one child raised his hand.

“Yes?” I told him, and he asked, “Can I have a big part?”

And I grinned at this unabashed display of human nature, so straight-up contrary to all the words I’d just spoken—because it was oh, so honest! And oh, so real!

Then we began, and though the rehearsal was chock-full of loud boys and stumbled lines, and missed cues,

And there was no strong sense that tomorrow would go off without a hitch or three,

There were some moments of deep beauty,

And when it was over, I could tell a child, with genuine sincerity,

“You are supposed to be Elizabeth, because when you held that baby doll oh, so gently, it did something to my heart.”

I could shrug and laugh when asked, “Well, how do you think they will do tomorrow?”

Because the upside-down-ness of the Kingdom must be embraced, despite all our tendencies to do otherwise.

If we’d planned the Nativity, it certainly wouldn’t have taken place in a stable, with rough-and-tumble shepherds as its witnesses (and if God had insisted they play a large part, at least they would have bathed). We would have had the wise men come that first night to provide some glitz and sparkle—wait, we do that!—some importance and sophistication to the occasion…

It’s a challenge to stay upside-down, to say, like Mary, “Let it be … just as the Lord has said,” to be emboldened, like the shepherds with their uncultured ways and uneducated language, to share the crazy story even when it doesn’t seem like we’re the best, most polished messengers.

So read tomorrow, children.

Tell.

Proclaim.

As upside-down messengers

Of the King laid in the manger,

the King nailed to the cross.

Our right-side-up God.

 

Lots of “Q”s and one “A”

James 1-5

I wrote this in my journal in late January. We’d been quietly praying about direction for months, and this verse came up as the verse of the day on Bible Gateway. I wrote it in my journal and then took a pic of it so I would have it on my phone as well.

With our upcoming move into the city of Chicago, we’re facing lots of questions.

Where will the kids go to school? Don’t know.

Where will we go to church? Ditto.

What ministries will we be able to plug into as a family? Another unknown.

Where will we live? Still in process on that one, too!

But the biggest one of all for me is not one of the “W” questions, but the “H” one. How? How, in all these different, new places and contexts, do we learn how to live out our faith? How do we approach others with sensitivity and get to know them well? How do we make authentic friendships in which Jesus is evident? How do we become good neighbors and trusted members of a neighborhood?

Each time I’ve opened my daily prayer app this spring, I get the answer.

flashback of venture corps

The picture above was taken in spring 2008 in Uganda. See the little guy on the right side? That’s our Patrick. He was being cared for by all the other people in this picture while we, in the States, were in the process of adopting him. That was also a time filled with questions! In the picture below, taken just outside our house in West Chicago, Patrick is front and center, and his brother Jake is kneeling on his right. Four of the other people in the picture above are also in this pic–joined by two of Jody and Aaron’s children.

It is the season of Pentecost in the church calendar, and the opening sentence for this time is Acts 1:8. “You shall receive power when the Holy Ghost has come upon you; and you shall be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I am reminded: the disciples in “real” Pentecost time experienced some of the same feelings we are experiencing. After three years of following Jesus around, of always knowing who their leader was, of seeing his example of love and faith and care, they lost him to the skies.

They returned to their upper room and huddled together, unsure of where to go, what to do, and how to do any of it.

Yep, same questions.

But the beginning of Acts, written later in retrospect, begins with some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “You’ll get the Holy Spirit,” he told them, “And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses…”

Matovus, Hoekstras, and PJ and JakeAnd where will they be able—enabled—to be his witnesses?

Answer: Everywhere.

Downtown Chicago, therefore, is covered by this promise. It may be new to us, but it’s not new to him.

The “when,” the “what,” the exact “where”–he’ll answer all of these.

And he’s got the “how” covered, too.

I “think” and she “letters”

churchI have a poem up today at The Well, InterVarsity’s online blog for women in graduate school and beyond. The poem is titled “Let Me Think.” While you’re at The Well, check out some of its other content. It’s fast becoming one of my favorite sites.

I’m also sharing some of daughter Em’s hand lettering today. She, Judy (the older of our two international student “daughters”), and I spent a LOT of time at our church during Holy Week. Judy, Em, and I went to every single service, spending nearly 20 hours at church between Maundy Thursday and Easter Day. It was wonderful, and Em took her notes from a few of the services and created a booklet. The only page I’m not allowed to share with you is the Easter Festival page (it’s a service at our church on the Saturday before Easter) because some ink from the facing page bled through.

maundy

good friday

easter vigil.jpg

easter sunday

Good Friday: three things

frozen grassFirst: a link to a piece on The Well Blog (a blog produced by InterVarsity specifically for women) titled “My Sacrilege, Our Sacrilege” by Ashley Van Dragt. Here’s an excerpt to tempt you to click the link and read the whole thing–which, if you want to know the “moment” she refers to in the first sentence, you will have to do.

Over the course of Lent, I’ve kept coming back to that moment. I keep going back to it because I came to realize that there are words for it.

“Crucify him.”

And these are the words that get at the significance of Lent, of Good Friday. It’s the time of year when we remember Jesus on the cross. And at the end of it, on one horrible night we carry ourselves and our preoccupations and our snotty-nosed children to church to mentally put Jesus on the cross and into the grave. And we say together the most hellish sounding words: 

“Crucify him!”

And it’s profane and terrible…and important.

Because — my God, my God — we have indeed done something wrong.

Here’s the link again–so you don’t even have to scroll up!

Second: Today I went to our church’s Stations of the Cross service. I wrote a post about what emerged for me from this service last year. This year two things were fresh and new:

1. Jesus’ heart for US–WHILE while enduring SO much pain and suffering. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” he said, and then he interacted with the thief on the cross. “I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Oh, the heart of God revealed in these moments! Forgiveness beyond what we can imagine!

2.  This prayer–so simple, yet coupled with the heart of God, so powerful: O blessed Lord Jesus, be gracious to us and all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring us home again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith; who now live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Third, this is a link to “Good Friday Blues,” a piece published at Christianity Today. It’s about Texas gospel bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s recording of “Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground” with Columbia Records in 1927. Though the song has no lyrics, it is about Good Friday, with the title borrowed from an 18th century English hymn by Thomas Haweis:

Dark was the night, cold was the ground
on which the Lord was laid;
His sweat, like drops of blood, ran down;
In agony he prayed.

The article about Blind Willie Johnson tells part of his story and contains a link to a recording of this song. Both are wonderful.