A Poem For Christ the King

This past Sunday, I preached another sermon in the style of spoken word poetry. A few people asked me for the text, which is below. Once the audio is posted on the Upper Room website, I’ll link it here. The Scripture texts are Ezekiel 34:1-11, Psalm 95, and Matthew 25:31-46 (with some added help from Mother Teresa of Calcutta).

For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.

-Ezekiel 34:11

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

-Matthew 25:40

Today, if only you would hear his voice, Do not harden your hearts…

-Psalm 95:7b-8a

Can you hear him?

Can you hear the voice of the Shepherd?

Can you hear His call to eternal life?

Can you hear Him, scattered flock?

 

Listen!

Beyond the noise of chit chat…

Beyond the noise of iPods and radios

Beyond the noise of engines and horns

 

The Shepherd is calling.

Can you hear him?

Do you recognize his voice?

His sheep know his voice

 

Can you hear his voice?

calling from a distant land

around the world

the voice of a child,

malnourished and hungry.

The King who once

put on human flesh

now hidden…

in frail, naked bodies

with starved, bloated stomachs.

 

Can you hear his voice?

calling from a distant land

across the street

the voice of a man

begging for change.

The hands that formed

the depths of the earth

now hidden

in cracked, dirty hands

that hold a beggar’s cup.

 

Can you hear him?

Can you hear the Shepherd’s voice?

He’s calling for you.

He’s seeking his sheep.

He’s seeking us out.

 

But we are scattered.

We’ve wandered off into

clouds and darkness

blinded by green-hewed clouds

with presidential faces.

blinded by darkness that glows off of

flat-screens in high resolution

 

And we fall

into crevices of

to-do lists and

consumer debt and

desires for power

so the Shepherd

calls out our name

but we

 

Can’t hear his voice

because our hearts…. are hard.

 

We long to touch the hem of his garment

but his garment is disguised

as an orange jumpsuit

as a hospital gown

as a soiled overcoat

as the unused sweater

stuffed in a our dresser

but longing to embrace the shivering stranger.

 

But we can’t find the hem of his garment

because we think it’s hidden

on a Macy’s rack

or a

Parisian runway.

We look in the wrong places

because our hearts

are hard.

 

We long for the comfort of his rod and staff

but his rod and staff are disguised

as an empty cup

as iv needles

plunged into skin

as a cardboard sign

and a grocery cart

filled with things that we dare not touch.

 

But we can’t find his rod or his staff

because we think they’re hidden

in a 401k

or a

better credit score.

We look in the wrong places

because our hearts

are hard.

 

We long to hear his voice

and he calls out to us

the Shepherds voice rings out

out of dark prison cells

out from lonely hospital beds

out of kitchens lined with empty cupboards

and filled with hungry families.

 

But we can’t hear his voice

because we think his voice is calling

from a corner office

or in

friends’ flattery.

We listen to the wrong voices

because our hearts

are hard.

 

Our hearts are hard

and with

every rationalization and

selfish decision our

frozen hearts get even colder

until we’re blind and deaf

to the Shepherd’s search and call.

 

So we don’t see the Shepherd

when we walk by

the lonely homeless man

begging for change.

We don’t hear the shepherd

in the silent cries

of the poor woman

with no other income than

her own body.

 

The Shepherd calls out

cries out

SHOUTS OUT

for our attention

in the voice of

every “least of these.”

And we miss out

because our hearts

are hard.

Rock hard.

Stone-cold hard.

Frozen solid.

 

But the Shepherd

calls from

one more place.

 

The Shepherd calls

from a loaf of bread

and cup of wine

set on a table

prepared for us in

the presence of

our enemies.

In the presence of

our hard hearts.

 

We eat this bread and

our frozen hearts

begin to melt away in

the warmth of his own body.

 

We drink this cup and

our thawed-out hearts

begin to beat and pump

the Shepherd’s own blood.

 

And slowly

our eyes open

our ears unplug and

we hear and see the Shepherd in

all who hunger and thirst, and shiver and

we see that the “least of these”

are brothers and sisters.

 

And finally we hear the Shepherd’s call

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father.”

And we are led back to still waters

and back to the Shepherd’s house

where we will dwell

forever.

Haiti, Pat Robertson, and Our Need to Lament

I’ve been hesitant to write and post this, partly because I’ve been busy with other projects, and mostly because I didn’t want to take peoples thoughts and energies on Haiti away from the still-much-needed relief work. (See my earlier post for opportunities to give if you haven’t already.) That being said, I’ve been mulling a lot over the way people generally responded to Pat Robertson’s comments.

I first learned about Robertson’s comments about Haiti when signing on to Twitter and realizing that his name was a “trending topic.” (If you don’t speak Twitter, a ‘trending topic’ is a name, word or phrase that a lot of people are mentioning in their tweets at that moment.) When I first saw Robertson’s name on the list, my first thought was, “He must have died.” It’s not typical that televangelists “trend” in the world of Twitter. Then I started reading what people were ‘tweeting’ about him. To sum up the comments in one word, they were *angry.* It didn’t take long for me to realize he had said something about the earthquake in Haiti comparable to comments he and other fundamentalist Christians have made about the Sept. 11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina. I began to panic a bit inside, knowing how detrimental comments like these are for Christian witness.

Wanting to see things for myself, I went to YouTube and watched the video of Robertson’s comments. After watching it, my panic turned to confusion. I couldn’t understand why people were reacting as they were. Here are some of my thoughts about Robertson’s comments, and the response of the media and general public.

I think it’s interesting that as some people summarized his comments, they accused him of attributing the earthquake to God, who was supposedly responding wrathfully against devil-worshipping Haitians. If you listen carefully to Robertson’s comments, that’s not what he said. He explained this story about the Haitian deal with the devil during the slave rebellion, and said that since then Haiti has been a country marked by poverty and suffering. He never said that suffering was the work of God. As I heard him say this, I assumed he was implying that the devil was the cause of these things.

Regardless of whether or not the “pact with the devil” is historical, Robertson didn’t make the story up himself. I know a number of people who have served as missionaries in Haiti, and I’ve heard them tell some form of this story  on more than one occasion. The story circulates among a lot of Christian groups in Haiti. However, Robertson left out a detail of the story, and this omission is what I found most offensive about his comments. As the story goes, the Haitians made a deal with the devil because the devil was the enemy of the European Christians who were enslaving them and of their God. If there’s any accuracy to Robertson’s opinion, if it’s true that Haitians today are suffering because of a sin committed by their ancestors, then Robertson should have made the comments in a spirit of confession, because Haitians made this “pact” in response to the sinful acts of oppression made against them by Robertson’s, and our, ancestors.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that so many people responded toward Robertson with anger and not dismissiveness. Most people thought that his comments were stupid, laughable, and historically inaccurate. Why not just say, “O, silly Pat Robertson.” and move on? I couldn’t help but wonder if people, albeit subconsciously, wanted to be angry. Perhaps some of us even fear that Robertson was partly right, that God did cause the earthquake. I don’t think God did, but I also know that human suffering almost always leads to theodicy questions and fears in peoples hearts. I wonder if Pat’s comments verbalized what some people were fearing, but afraid to say.

Regardless of how accurate Robertson’s take on the earthquake in Haiti is, I think his comments do at least hint at something truthful that most of us have not talked about. I think that there is a spiritual reality behind the earthquake in Haiti, just as I think that there is a spiritual reality behind any human suffering, whether it be an earthquake in Haiti, genocide in Darfur, or a crucifixion on Golgotha 2000 years ago. However, having read the book of Job, I also know that this spiritual reality is a mystery that we can’t fully understand and certainly can’t reduce to pat answers (no pun intended).

I think this spiritual reality is the reason Scripture includes the Psalms of lament. The anger expressed toward Pat Robertson was appropriate anger, but I don’t think it was expressed in the right direction. The psalms of lament teach us that honest emotions – anger, fear, mourning, confusion – can be expressed toward God, and they provide words to articulate that. What if, rather than expressing anger toward another human being, it was taken to God through prayer, such as Psalm 60? The psalm begins:

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; oh, restore us. You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters….

I think the Christian community needs to recover the use of Psalms such as this, especially in times of suffering. The psalms of lament don’t provide answers to the difficult questions that are inevitably in our minds when exposed to suffering, nor do they assuage the difficult emotions in our hearts. They do, however, give us a language to express these questions and emotions to our God, and it’s only in that context that we’ll find healing.

Lifting Hands in Worship

If you’ve ever wondered why some Christians raise their hands in worship, this is the best explanation I’ve ever read. This is from Patrick Henry Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms. He’s commenting on the opening of Psalm 41: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

Whenever, then, we Christians raise our hands in prayer, as St. Paul tells us to do (cf. 1 Tim 2:8), it is  to symbolize that our prayer, our entire relationship to God, is founded in the power of the Cross. We are thereby proclaiming that we have no access to God except through the Cross of the Lord. The raising of our hands in prayer is acceptable to God only because of its relationship to that true evening sacrifice through which we draw near.

Worship Styles: What Dance is the Church Teaching?

This past weekend while I was in Massachusetts, I got to experience two worship communities different from my own. The first came on Saturday at my friend Susie’s weeding. Susie and her husband are both members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a more-conservative breed of Presbyterianism. One distinction of this denomination is it’s theology of music in worship. They believe that the New Testament teaches us to worship with all of our heart, and that musical instruments are a barrier to this. So they only sing a capella. They also believe that it’s only appropriate to sing divinely inspired words, so they only sing musical settings of the Psalms. So at Susie’s wedding, there was a string trio that played only before and after the worship. Once the actual wedding liturgy began, the only music to be heard was the congregation singing from the Psalter.

In theory, I disagree with the RPC on their theology of music in worship, but that’s not the point. The point is that even though I don’t share this belief, I’m still really glad that they believe it, because the results were beautiful. During the wedding, the wedding guests (most of whom were members of the RPC) sang two Psalms, and they were singing them in four-part harmony. It was incredible. At one point, I looked over at the string trio that played the prelude. I’m guessing they weren’t from the RPC, because they looked genuinely surprised and impressed that so many wedding guests were capable of singing so well.

This style of worship is anything but “seeker-sensitive.” I’m pretty competent in music, and am fairly good at sight reading (seeing music for the first time and singing it correctly without hearing it first), and I still had trouble at times, especially with the second Psalm, which was not only in harmony but also had some counterpoint. If someone were to join this worshipping community, it would take weeks, perhaps months, to become fully acclamated to this style of singing. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I wanted to learn. At times I just had to stop singing and allow my act of worship to be listening to the song of praise being lifted up around me.

My second worship experience was going to Roman Catholic mass on Sunday morning with my friend, Matt. I’ve been to mass a couple of times in the past, but there are still intricacies to the worship experience that I forget or altogether miss. I nearly forgot to cross myself with holy water when I entered the sanctuary. I definitely forgot to kneel before taking my seat. At one point I put the kneeler back up too soon. And there were a number of prayers that I had to half-mumble as everyone else recited them by memory. Again, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I found the intricacies of the worship intrigueing, and wanted to learn them.

Thinking about these two experiences reminded me of an analogy that I’ve heard and read from a number of different sources comparing corporate worship and liturgy to dance. The point of the analogy is that you have to take time to learn the steps and rhythms of whatever dance you’re doing. Think of the Reformed Psalm singing or the Catholic Mass, or any other complicated style of worship as ballroom dancing. Whether you’re learning an elegant foxtrot or an intense, lively swing, the dances take time to learn. The steps are intricate and rarely come naturally. The first time you try it may feel awkward and will probably require a lot of thought. As you practice and learn, though, the steps and rhythm comes more naturally and the dance feels less forced and more free, and ultimately more beautiful and memorable.

As a mainline evangelical, I find it frustrating that in most churches of this color, the worship tends to focus on the least-common denominator and being “seeker-sensitive.” The music should sound familiar and be easy for anyone to sing and learn quickly. Practices that might not make sense to a first-time visitor, whether something as minute as the sign of the cross or as substantial as the Eucharist, are either dropped altogether or explained away so that any element of mystery is removed. To use the dance analogy, most evangelical churches aren’t teaching their congregations the foxtrot, or swing, or any other difficult dance. They’re teaching the hokey pokey… over and over and over again. A dance that’s easy to learn, and maybe even fun, but also a dance that lacks beauty and intrigue and ultimately gets old if you do it too often.

Perhaps evangelical communities needn’t fear about whether every element of their worship is easily understood or explained. Perhaps it’s better to focus on doing worship well, on making worship beautiful and intrigueing. Maybe that’s what draws people in. Maybe that’s what it’s really all about.

The Fear and Love of Life With God

About a week ago, I started working my way through the first in the Renovare Spiritual Formation Guides, called “Connecting With God.” The first section began with these quotes from Frank Laubach’s Letters of a Modern Mystic:

  This morning I started out fresh, by finding  a rich experience of God in the sunrise. Then I tried to let Him control my hands while I was shaving and dressing and eating breakfast. Now I am trying to let God control my hands as I pound the typewriter keys… There is nothing that we can do excepting to throw ourselves open to God. There is, there must be, so much more in Him than He can give us… It ought to be tremendously helpful to be able to acquire the habit of reaching out strongly after God’s thoughts, and to ask, “God, what have you to put into my mind now if only I can be large enough?” That waiting, eager attitude ought to give God the chance he needs.

 

Then, about a month later, he writes:

Oh, this thing of keeping in constant touch with God, of making him the object of my thought and the companion of my conversations, is the most amazing thing I ever ran across. It is working. I cannot do it even half a day – not yet, but I believe I shall be doing it some day for the entire day. It is a matter of acquiring a new habit of thought. Now I like God’s presence so much that when for a half hour or so he slips out of mind – as he does many times a day – I feel as though I had deserted him, and as though I had lost something very precious in my life.

 

The thought of this practice inspired me. I wanted this life of living in constant touch with God. I wanted to be constantly aware of God’s presence, to yield constantly to God’s will. I went to bed asking God to remind me first thing in the morning that He was present with me. He did.

For the first time in months, I awoke the next morning before my alarm went off. Usually, I wake up to my alarm, and often times so groggy that it takes me a second to remember where I am. Not on this morning, though. God did as I had asked, and I was reminded immediately of God’s presence with me. Wanting (or at least thinking I wanted) to surrender to His will, I asked/prayed, “God what should I do?”

I ‘heard’ a voice respond, “Get up and pray.”

I politely asked for a new assignment, perhaps going back to sleep. But the voice was persistent, “Get up and pray.”

 Finally, I got up and looked at my cell phone. It was still turned off; it’s set to turn off automatically at midnight and turn back on at 6am. I didn’t know what time it was, but I knew it was before 6. “Why would God want me to be up so early?” I asked myself.

Almost immediately I heard the voice again, “I want you to pray.”

The call to pray was so vivid that I fully expected to come out of my bedroom, turn the corner into my living room and see Jesus sitting on the love-seat… and this thought terrified me. Fully awake and out of bed, I still actually hesitated to leave my bedroom for fear of what Who might be out there. I finally mustered the courage to go into my living room, and was both relieved and disappointed to find that there wasn’t a first century Jew waiting for me. (At least not that I could see.)

I went on with my prayer time, which was better than usual, though frankly not as profound as what I was anticipating. I remember little of the Scripture I read that morning or the prayers that I prayed. What I do remember is the fear. I had a profound sense of God being presence, and I was seized more with fear than anything else. Why? This bothered me for much of the rest of the week.

I continued the week trying to practice this consciousness of  and submissiveness to God’s presence and will. Thursday night finally brought resolution to my sense of fear. I had just returned from the Upper Room’s Bible study and sat down in my living room for some personal devotion and close-of-day prayer. I began with the evening psalm appointed for the day by the lectionary I follow. It was the second half of Psalm 18 (the first half was appointed for that morning). As I was praying this Psalm, I slipped out of awareness of God’s presence and was simply reading the words of the Psalm rather unconsciously, to the point of having no comprehension of what I was actually reading. I caught myself towards the end, and entered back into an awareness of God’s presence. I heard the same voice I heard at the beginning of the week. Only this time, the voice said, “Read it again.”

I responded, “But God, I’m tired.”

Again, the voice said, “Read it again. And this time start at verse 1.”

Somewhat begrudgingly, I turned to Psalm 18:1 and read, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”

I was floored. The words, “I love you.” convicted me in a way that they never had before. I knew immediately that I hadn’t prayed them with any sincerity, that behind my declaration of love to God was no sense of heartfelt devotion. I immediately asked God to teach me how to declare my love to him with sincerity. The voice responded, “Keep reading.”

I read on in Psalm 18, and after each verse I added the “chorus” of “I love you.” I began to read of God’s saving work done for the psalmist, knowing that he did them also for me. My “I love you”s became more heartfelt with each verse. I then began to notice not only the things God’s done for me, but also the attributes of God mentioned in the psalm. I remember reading the beginning of verse 8: “Smoke rose from his nostrils,” and I immediately responded, “You breath fire?!?!?! I LOVE YOU!” My chorus of “I love you” then moved from thanksgiving for what God had done for me to words of adoration to someone I deeply admire.

And then it got better. God had something else to tell me. I finished the Psalm and went on to the final Scripture reading in that days lectionary. I saw the reading listed in my calendar: “John 3:16-21.” I immediately knew what God wanted to say to me. As I read the familiar words, “Go so loved the world…” I felt in my heart God speaking back to me “I love you,” with the same passion and devotion as I had offered to God by the end of my reading Psalm 18.

And then finally, I turned to the Prayer at Close of Day Liturgy, which included these words from 1 John: “There is no fear in love…” My experience of walking with and submitting to God had gone full circle. I was immediately reminded of my early-morning experience at the beginning of the week. I had wondered and sought an explanation as to why I was so afraid that morning. God offered no answer to that question. He simply told me that fear is not the proper attitude to take in walking with God. Reverence, yes. But not fear. Walking with God and submitting to God is to be a practice and experience of love. Perfect love that casts out fear.

The Unavoidable Crucifixion, or: Reflections On The Beginnings of My Vocation

In Seminary, Andrew Purves taught us in his pastoral care/theology courses that the ministry of the pastor needs to be crucified, so that Christ’s ministry might flourish in him/her. In other words, the role of the pastor is not to trust in their own skills, but rather to bear witness to the work of the living Christ in the life of a congregation, community and world. As I learned this, it made sense to me. In fact, I considered it gospel. What great news that “my ministry” is not really mine at all, but Christ in me.

What I’m quickly learning is that the “crucifixion of ministry” is a painful, unavoidable experience. As I learned from Dr. Purves, I think I was assuming that learning about the need for my ministry to be crucified with Christ meant that it would somehow be less painful, or not painful at all. Or maybe I thought that I could somehow avoid the crucifixion piece of things and get straight to the risen Christ in me. This was just foolishness. Crucifixion hurts, and knowing that it’s coming doesn’t change that. Just ask Jesus.

As Chris and I, along with the rest of the seed group, have begun the work of church-planting, I’ve been finding ministry to be an incredibly emotionally-probing experience. Every day, I keep encountering my weaknesses, limitations and sin-problems, and as I do, the Spirit has also been bringing back to mind experiences in my past that have contributed to, and perhaps even caused, these particular limitations in my life. This increased self-awareness has not, however, been coupled with knowledge of solutions to my problems. In fact, at times I get so overwhelmed by my pride, selfish need for affirmation, and ‘introvertedness’ (among other limitations) that I begin to question why God would even call someone like me to church-planting in Squirrel Hill. To put it another way, I’m finding myself being crucified, and longing for resurrection to come.

This morning, I think I found the first glimmer of resurrection in my personal devotional time. I was reading Psalm 37, and verse 3 stood out to me: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” I think I’ll be reciting this verse for a while. Even if I don’t understand why I’m here, I’ll continue to “dwell in the land,” trusting in the LORD, doing good, and befriending faithfulness, with the hope and prayer that I’ll be a vessel through which Christ works.

Waiting for the Lord

Today, was my first day of sabbath since writing about “active,” “saying yes” sabbath. After preaching three times in three different churches yesterday, I was spiritually exhausted and ready for rest. After doing my running/psalm-chanting and doing some light reading, I decided to take some time in solitude and quiet. I drove out to North Park, found a quiet spot by the lake and read the daily lectionary readings for today. When I was finished reading, I got up and wandered the park. I eventually found the old nature access trail that my dad use to take my brother and I too when we were little.

As I walked, I cleared my mind and listened for God. A song kept coming to mind. It was one that we sang in the seminary choir, based on Isaiah 40:31 – “but they 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.”

I began to talk with God about waiting. In many ways my work in ministry, and my life more broadly is in a season of waiting. Working in New Church Development has meant taking some big steps into unknown territory with the results still not finalized. We’re waiting on grants to be approved. We’re waiting to see who will be a part of the seed group. We’re waiting to see what form this church plant takes in coming months. When will we grow beyond Chris and Eileen’s living room and into a larger space? How will we build bridges with the international and racial-ethnic communities? Now that I’m also beginning with InterVarsity, that’s brought into play even more waiting. When will I have raised enough in support funds to begin? (And on top of that… HOW will I raise enough support???) In all of this, I’ve already seen God’s hand at work, and I know that God will bring the answers to these questions in the right time. Nevertheless, the waiting isn’t always a comfortable place.

God then used the Scripture I had read from lectionary readings to remind me of two things about waiting for the Lord. First, when waiting for the Lord is always a confident waiting. We always know that God will bring the work of the Kingdom to completion. Second, waiting for the Lord is an active, not a passive task.  We get to work with God in bringing his work to completion.

In the gospel lesson, the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, the wise virgins readied themselves by taking flasks of oil for the lamps. They knew the bridegroom was coming, and they actively prepared for his arrival. The foolish virgins, though, acted passively and brought no oil.

In the lesson from Romans 11, Paul alludes to his expectation of God’s faithfulness to Israel (v. 12: “… how much more will [Israel’s] full inclusion mean!”). Paul’s waiting for God to fulfill his covenant with Israel. He’s confident of it, and at the same actively pursuing the fulfillment of God’s promises with Him. In Acts, in every town he enters, he’s eager to go to the synagogue to proclaim Christ to his fellow Jews.

The author of Psalm 37 is waiting for God to deal with the wicked, and yet at the same time he remains confident in God’s faithfulness and exhorts the righteous to continue living faithfully.

I may be in a season of waiting, but that’s not the same as a season of uncertainty. God will bring this piece of his work to completion. Out of that confidence comes a desire to work with God in bringing about that completion.