Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…

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You are what you eat.

My grandmother cross-stitched this beautiful picture of a cat eating a fish (The picture above is someone else’s and thus almost as good). I have been thinking about this quite a bit recently. One of the reasons that I chose to go to Duke was its love of the Church and its appreciation for the Church’s traditions. From an early age I can remember loving the hymns of the Church. Before I learned the beauty of their lyrics, their melodies resonated in my soul and were hummed on my lips. Now that I can appreciate the complicated theology, and even more complicate God they try to communicate, I am left even more awestruck than before-“Oh for a thousand tongues to sing, my great Redeemers praise…” Truer words would be harder to find. It is this catchiness of the hymns that has always attracted me. There is something powerful about having those words deep in your subconscious and ready for the Spirit to access at a moment’s notice. During time when I have been struggling in my faith, or burdened by things in my life, I have found such comfort in the imperatives-“Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side/ Bear patiently the cross of grief and pain/Trust in thy God to order and provide/ In everything, God’s faithful will remain.”

If you look at the Gospels, you find Jesus plundering the Pslams for his own comfort. In his moment of deepest despair on the cross Jesus cries out the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Surely as Christ said these words, he also remembered the end of the psalm, “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (v.24). This is the beauty of the growing up surrounded and shaped by the words of the Church. When we marinate ourselves in the words of God, and in the psalms of scripture and of the Chruch, we allow God’s Word to take root in us.

There is a latin saying which is fundamental to the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” Which roughly means that the way you pray is the way you believe. So often we pray (or sing, or watch) things which are caustic and altogether unhelpful. I am really bad about getting songs stuck in my head. Sometimes I will hear a song on the radio and, for good or bad, I will be singing it in my head all day. This is how we work. Therefore, we need to be judicious with what we allow in. Now I am not advocating for only listening to “Christian” music (because most of that is not that interesting to begin with), instead I am advocating being judicious. More than music, however, we need to be careful where we get information. The cable news channels which spit out partisan hate, so often get into our subconscious psyches as much as the lyrics to a new pop song. If all we hear is how the other party is trying to destroy our country, or is helping terrorists, we might actually begin to believe that someone is inherently bad because of the box they checked next to political party. My friend was telling me about a sermon she had heard the other day and how her pastor had used blatant liberal rhetoric in his sermon. This is unacceptable. When our secular, partisan rhetoric becomes indistinguishable to the rhetoric of love and reconciliation which is embodied in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that is a problem.

Let’s pray this day for those who have the ear of the public that they will tone down their language, and let us also commit ourselves to filling our minds with the words of the Church and the Word of God, so that it takes root in us and drives out all of the darkness with which we so often are filled.

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Happy New Year.

Statue of James Duke in front of Duke Chapel.
Note the Fall Colors :).

It is the new year and thus the time to celebrate the future by looking at the past. It seems as I talk to my other friends at Duke and hear their perspectives on their experience that we are all on the same stretch of road, but all having different views. Since it has been October since my last post, I have some catching up to do.

I remember coming to Duke and having heard the refrain of how much a religion major would help me to succeed. Having talked to other students with a variety of majors and hearing how well or not well they fared, I would be tempted to both agree and disagree. Florida Southern was very historical critical in its approach, teaching me how to analyze a text in its parts and see how it fits together in its context. Duke is very literary and looks at the text as a whole and attempts to determine how it fits into our context. These are two completely different approaches, and I think that because of FSC when I graduate, I will have the best of both worlds and a more complete understanding of how to look at scripture. The other thing that helped initially was having an understanding of the vocabulary of theology. This helped me to be able to jump into conversations faster than my peers who waded in slowly. Despite this initial disparity, by the end of the semester I feel like we were all in the deep end together trying our best to keep our heads above water. Seminary is hard.

This is not something which should even be surprising. Duke is a great school, with a well deserved academic reputation, the assumption is that it should be tough. And yet, as I was pulling my hair trying to determine how I was going to get through all of the end of the year papers and exam prep, I was as surprised as anyone how hard it really was. But it is a good hard. Paul tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:3-5). I think that this certainly proved to be my experience. Our Old Testament final was most certainly my most difficult. We were given a study guide later than many people wanted, and the exam had no options, and very complicated in-depth questions that required a creative synthesis of information from the entire semester. One of my roommates and I were studying for it the night before and at our wits end. How could we process all this information! And then we had a break through. It was a little verse in the book of Ruth which sparked a revelation for both of us that we both thought was brilliant. We got so excited that my other roommate could hear us across the apartment. It was a good moment. Out of that experience I realized how grateful I was to our professor. Sure the exam was hard, but we were in grad school. Where my two other exams were tough, our professors had held our hand through the whole process. Dr. Portier-Young did not. She assumed that we were smart and deserved to be there and gave us an exam which forced us to prove that to her. And we did. I think that is what seminary has taught me. Sure, my religion background gives me different questions, and a different perspective, but graduate school is a place to ask different, harder questions, and to gain a different, more developed perspective. Next semester is going to be tough. I have three core classes and a seminar where the readings will bring me from Homer to Aristotle to modern times. It will not be easy. But at the end I will have gotten through it, and I will have learned something, and I will hopefully be able to look back and see the character and hope which resulted.

I hope that this semester I will be able to be more attentive to this blog. Personal, devotional time is a tough thing to find in the midst of required reading, but I enjoy this process and hope to be more attentive to my experiences in the semester to come.

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Optimism of Hope

Here is the sermon I preached at the Chapel on 1-2-11. The service went well. Jim Cook Led worship and Rev. David Allen celebrated Communion. It was exciting because it is the first time I have translated my own text before I preached. It was a really helpful process in sermon preparation. I gained a much greater appreciation for the text and had too much material which got pared down and refined as the sermon progressed. I think over the next few weeks I will try and create some posts based around some of those findings. But for now, the manuscript:
Romans 8: (18) Indeed, I consider that the sufferings of the current age are worthless when compared to the coming glory to be revealed to us. (19) For the eager expectation of creation awaits the revelation (Apocalypse) of the sons of God. (20) For creation was subjected to futility, but not willingly because of the one who subjected it, in hope (21) because creation itself will be set free from slavery to corruption and into the freedom of the glory of children of God. (22) For I know that all creation groans together and suffers together until now. (23) Not only [that], but also having the first fruits of the spirit, we ourselves grumble while waiting for adoption (24) For in hope we are saved. But hope which is seen, is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? (25) but if we hope for what we do not see, through endurance, we wait. (My own translation)
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told the nation, in the midst of the Great Depression that the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. Well standing here at the dawn of a new year, it certainly seems like fear is the only thing we are not afraid of. Over the past year, we have been plagued with fear. Afraid of new lows in the economy, afraid of losing our jobs, catching swine flu, eating shrimp which was coated in BP’s oil. We worried about the continuing wars in the middle east, we feared for what crazy thing North Korea was going to do next.  All of this in addition to the fears of everyday life. Fears for relationships, marriages, or lack thereof. Fears for our children or relatives. Fear for Gator football. 2010 seems to be the year of fear. 
There are a lot of commandments in scripture, but by far one of the most prevalent is the command, do not be afraid. It features in various forms over 150 times. Almost the same as the equally important command to obey the Lord. Do not fear. We heard it from the Angel to Mary, we hear it each time God is about to call someone to an important mission. Do not be afraid seems to be the necessary condition for anything else that the Lord wants us to do. Why is this? I think because God knows that fear has the capacity to corrupt everything it touches. Fear turns us inward on ourselves. We turn inward and default into an instinctual fight or flight mode, grasping for security. 
While FDR was saying these words, fear was gripping the world. We were facing the largest collapse of the economy, anyone had ever seen, record unemployment, businesses closing, and immense fear for the future. Out of this fear, Adolf Hitler was able to turn a nation against millions of Jews and other outsiders, resulting in over 11 million deaths. 11 million people the nation thought were worthless. Non Christians, homosexuals, those who were homeless, those who disagreed politically. Anyone who was in the minority and was considered different was worthy to go to the death camp. This is fear. This is fear which causes us to turn so far into ourselves that we allow ourselves to hate those who are different. But surely we are a more evolved people. Surely we are a people who are more loving. Surely we are not a people who’s fears will cause them to demonize another religion. Bar them from building a mosque, or burn their holy books. Surely we are not a people who treat those who are gay and lesbian, those who live their lives in forest, or on a park bench as unworthy of respect or dignity.  Surely we are beyond this. Surely we are not afraid. 
In this society of instant news and viral information, it is hard not to be afraid. Almost every week, it seems like I get an e-mail or hear a news story which is filled with fear. News companies know that we are obsessed with fear and desperate for any semblance of security, so they feed this addiction with more news stories: Economy improving, but could that mean another recession? Fire in East Gainesville, is your home safe, news at six. Could your neighbor be an ax murderer, more at 11.  How is it that even when things are getting better, they might be getting worse? What is going on? Where is this pessimism coming from. It is a pessimism of fear. 
But I don’t want to talk about fear. Our text this morning is not about fear. The gospel is not a gospel of fear. The gospel is an alternative to fear. The gospel is an antidote to fear. At the very beginning of our text, Paul declares our present sufferings worthless. He proclaims our economic crisis, our health crisis, and the media’s crisis du jour worthless-without any credibility or substance. Our fear is without merit. How can he say this? Certainly he is not talking about our situation today. Surely he can not understand what it feels like to be unemployed, to be swamped in credit card debt. Certainly he is talking about a different type of suffering. My friends, Paul most certainly did not understand the complex modern problems in which we all find ourselves. Surely martyrdom and persecution don’t compare to economic collapse and the threat of terrorism. But you know what? I don’t think he cared. He didn’t care because he cared about something else. His main concern was something else-something larger. His main concern was not the current problems his audience was struggling with, not his focus was on the coming of Jesus Christ. His assurance that God would come in victory over any and all problems trumped for him whatever frustrating or fear-filled situation he or anyone else seemed to find themselves in. This is what Paul is proclaiming in this chapter of Romans. This is Paul’s response to a pessimism of fear. This is Paul’s optimism of hope. 
Now this is not an optimism or hope which is a naïve, head in the sand, pie in the sky kind of hope. This is not a hope which is a denial of the realities around us. This is a hope which embraces a true understanding of the realties around us. This is a hope that comes when we see things not with our human fear filled vision, but with the vision God gives us with grace. Paul sees what they and we are going through. He sees all of creation groaning and suffering together. He understands that this world is messed up. He understands that things are not the way they should be. But this is not because of a financial crisis, or government bailouts. This is because all of creation is enslaved by Sin and subjected to futility, to nothingness. Paul knows this. But because Paul knows this he also understands that our current suffering is just that-our current suffering. Our problems are defined by their temporal nature. They are defined by their nowness. God is not defined by now. God is eternal. God breaks into this nowness of suffering and brings a knowledge of thenness. A knowledge of what is to come. This is hope. This hope cannot be seen in the world around us. This hope cannot be seen now, because no one hopes for suffering, or pain. What we hope for is then. God’s then. God’s world to come.  
That is the main issue here-Focus. And this focus changes everything. I said earlier that our fear can cause us to turn inward and push out against those around us. The other thing that this inward focus causes is a lack of attention to God. And a lack of attention to God’s love and God’s works of love in this world. I love that old saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the street. I love this saying because if you think about it, it is a proverb about perspective. When you look at the lawn on the other side of the street, you see a yard lush and green, full of grass. However, when you look down, you see lots of dirt, maybe some weeds, and a few sprigs of grass. However, if you were to go over and look at your neighbor’s yard, you would see some dirt, probably weeds, and a few sprigs of grass, as well as a much greener lawn that you just left. It is about perspective. 
From a distance, dirt and weeds become harder to see, the lawn, from a larger perspective looks different. God has this different perspective. God sees lawns where we see dirt. God sees children, where we see sinners. God sees hope when we see suffering. True faith, abiding faith in Jesus Christ gives us this perspective. True faith gives us God’s love, from which we can look out at the world, seeing it as it should be and seeing ways to make that possible. When our focus is centered on Christ we see not our suffering, but possibility. We see God at work in the world. And this perspective allows us to live out of an optimism of hope. 
But what is this hope? We find this hope spelled out vividly in the book of Revelation. Now if ever there was a book which represents our pessimism of fear more, it is Revelation. Between the Left Behind series, Fundamentalist preachers, and half-wit theologians, Revelation has become a book which is God’s condemnation of the world. Revelation has become a promise of death and destruction, and punishment for all those who disagree with us, reject us and live lives that we see as wrong. Now, friends, there is certainly some scary images in Revelation, but it is far from a book which should inspire fear. Revelation was written not to instill fear, but to give hope. In the midst of the death and destruction, there are throngs of angels worshiping the lamb, there musicians singing praises to God, and in the end, at the climax of everything is not destruction, but creation. A new creation. The point of the book is not a celebration of destruction and suffering, but a celebration of hope, where God comes again and Heaven and Earth are merged together as one. We prayed from this ending earlier: “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” Our fervent prayer is fulfilled finally in the book of Revelation. The promise here is given by a loud voice from the throne of God saying
“… “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” 
This is the gospel of Revelation, this is the Gospel of hope. Revelation, if nothing else calls us to live with a sure and confident optimism of hope. There is a new day coming. A better day. In the times when God seems so distant and the world seems so far out of God’s control. We as Christians are to be remind that we know better. We know that God is never far away. We know that God is here, in the dirt, in the suffering, and we know that God is working to make all things new. We know that God is working to see our suffering through to the coming joy. We know this God, and this knowledge is the foundation for our hope. 
So, my friends on this second day of a new year, we have a choice. We can choose to focus on the things that are wrong in this world. We can complain about how Washington is useless, or how the economy is making our lives difficult. We can worry about the next pandemic, or hurricane. We can listen to the naïve voices of pessimism and fear that see the world as going to hell in a handbasket, quickly. We can allow these voices and more to rule our lives and cause us to fear, or we can listen to something else. We listen to the voice of Paul saying that nothing compares to the glory which is to come in Christ. We can listen to the vision of John as he reminds us of the world that is to come. We can listen to the voice of God who we call Emmanuel, God with us. We can listen to this God who says Lo, I make ALL things new. We have a choice. The first choice is easy. Those voices are everywhere. We can hear them on the news, read them in our inbox, and we can pass them along with the click of the mouse so we are joined with others in our fears. However, the second choice is tough. The second choice means that we not only need to ignore all of the other, louder voices, but it means that we cannot just sit idly by. The second choice means that we must take up God’s call and work for that world to come. The second choice means we need to treat others with the Love of God, we need to give everyone, those we like, those we don’t like, and those who we don’t understand, everyone the respect and dignity which comes from being a child of God. The first choice is easy, the second choice is hard. But either way, this new year. You have a choice. Choose Hope.