Subway Prophet

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


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Meet St. Cuthbert

So, I know that today is Palm Sunday, which is super important, however, it is also the feast day for my favorite saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In the United Methodist Church, we do not have saints. They have never been an important part of Wesleyan spirituality, however, I have always had a strong attraction to saints, and my own faith is always strengthen when I read about their lives.

I first heard of Cuthbert during the year I spend studying in England. He was a shepherd, then monk, then Bishop in northern England in the 7th century. His life was marked by humility, simplicity, a love of nature, and reconciliation.

Foundations of Cuthbert's cell

The foundation of the monastic cell where St. Cuthbert would go and pray on the island of Lindisfarne. The tidal patterns cut off this island from the main island at high tide. 

My favorite story is from one of Cuthbert’s many times when he would leave the monastery and pray. Once a younger monk followed Cuthbert to see where he went and observed him wading into the ocean where he would frequently recite the psalms. When he came out, otters came and helped to warm his hands.

St. Drewbert

Me imitating St. Cuthbert’s prayer in the ocean at Lindisfarne. Sadly no otters washed my feet when I came out.

St. Cuthbert is buried in Durham and I would frequently visit his shrine in the Cathedral which was a short walk from my dorm room.The Cathedral and his shrine were places when I could palpably feel God’s presence and was for me a tremendous means of grace during a wonderful and difficult year.

On this day each year, I have a cup of tea, remember my friends in England and the ways in which God shaped my understanding of my call to ministry, and I give thanks to St. Cuthbert for helping me understand how to better follow Jesus.

Cuthbert's Shrine, Durham Cathedral

The shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. 

Here is the prayer for today from the Church of England:

Almighty God, who called your servant Cuthbert from following the flock to follow your Son and to be a shepherd of your people: in your mercy, grant that we, following his example, may bring those who are lost home to your fold; through Jesus Christ, you son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

 

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Sermon: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

[Side Note: Little did I know that four days after I preached this sermon, our son Malachi Emmanuel would be born. God is good, unexpected sometimes, but always good.]

Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36

Several months ago, the worship planning team was thinking about what to focus on for advent, and I made the half-joking suggestion that we should do a series called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” At that point, Jessica and I were several months into our pregnancy and that classic book had become a regular part of our reading. The more the team thought about it, the more the idea came together. Both pregnancy and advent are times full of expectation and anticipation, and both are counting down to one particular day. For a baby you count down forty weeks, whereas Advent only lasts four. As so many of you have told me, having a baby changes your whole world. The child who is born at the end of advent changes not just the life of His parents, but also the whole course of history and every life that has ever lived. And so over these next four weeks we will be going through the process of preparing for the birth of Christ.

One of the things I have learned about pregnancy is that there is not a lack of information. In our living room is a bag full of pregnancy books with detailed accounts of what to expect at each stage of pregnancy. What a woman may feel. What her body is doing, how the baby is growing. Week by week, trimester by trimester, it tells you what to look forward to and what you should do. Every single possibility is laid out and described in very detailed ambiguity. You may feel this, or you may not. Some women experience this, others do not. Every book tries to answer every question, touch on every possibility that they can think of.

For this reason, one of the first things the doctor told us when she recommended books was that we should not read ahead. The same advice does not apply to the season of advent. The first Sunday traditionally always jumps straight past the birth to the very end, the second coming of Christ.

Whereas reading ahead in a pregnancy book could cause unnecessary fear and anxiety, reading ahead in the Christian story and knowing that Christ will return gives us a sense of comfort and hope. Because we know the end of the story, we can live through difficulties in the middle with confidence and assurance that God will see us through.

Both of our texts for today are set within dark and difficult times in Jewish history. Jeremiah lived during a time when Judah was caught between large and powerful empires who were vying for control. Jeremiah tries to advise the rulers and the people on how to faithfully navigate between them, but they do not listen. And so, in the year 587 BC, the Babylonians entered Jerusalem. Their army slaughtered the leaders in front of the people, they destroyed the Temple, and captured many of the people and shipped them away as exiles. In the wake of their brutality, the Jewish people who remained were demoralized, shaken, and unsure of what their future would hold.

For most of the Jewish people, these events were completely unexpected. How could the God who made a special covenant with them, who brought them out of Egypt, and gave them the Promised Land allow them to be so utterly destroyed, the very symbol of their covenant laid to ruins?

It is into this thinking that Jeremiah speaks this Word from God, ”I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. I will raise up a righteous branch…” In the middle of the broken forest, Jeremiah tells the people that God has not given up on them and that God is working on their restoration.

Over six centuries later, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the Great Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but the worst is yet to come for the Jewish people and the followers of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are again words about the future.

Jesus describes the end of the story, the Son of Man (CEB-translates this Human One) coming on clouds with power and splendor, bringing everything under His rule and control. This image of Christ’s victorious return has helped Christians throughout the centuries to persevere in persecution, to face lions, fires, and gun barrels with hymns of praise, and through it all to share the Good news of Jesus Christ with everyone they met.

Before the second coming, however, Jesus paints a bleak picture as he describes what the world often looks like in this in-between time. All the earth will be turned upside down. Nations will devolve into chaos, and nothing on earth or in the heavens will be constant or secure. In other words, we are to expect the unexpected.

In many ways Jesus could be describing our world today. The attacks in Paris a couple of weeks ago were a violent reminder of the fragility of life and the illusion of safety. The normal lives of people enjoying a sports game, concert, and drinking at a coffee shop brutally interrupted by extremists bent on shaking the very foundations of Western society.

In many places around the world, fear is a regular part of daily life. For people living throughout the Middle East, drone strikes, suicide bombs, and hostile check points keep people constantly on their toes. Families in Nigeria worry each day if their children will come home from school. In our own country many racial and religious minorities describe their fear when those around them do not understand who they are or where they come from, and many women are nervous to go outside because of the catcalls and inappropriate looks they receive from men on the street.

As I read these passages this week, I realized that in addition to terrorist attacks, there are things inside of us that also turn our world upside down. The death of a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend can also shake the ground beneath out feet. The loss of a job, a divorce, a diagnosis, or an illness can call into question the foundations of how we understand ourselves and the world around us.

In these moments of crisis, when what we had expected is gone and pain and uncertainty are all we have left, we look around for something that will help us get through the darkness.

Could it be that in these times when chaos and fear are swirling around us, Jesus is calling us to look for the signs of his coming?

I believe in the second coming of Christ. I believe that at a certain point in the future, Jesus will return, the Kingdom of God will come and at that time, all things will be brought under the reign of God. This is the truth that the Scriptures teach us, and I am confident there will come a day. However, Jesus also told his disciples, “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matt 28:20). In four weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we will call, “Emanuel, God is with us.”

The reality of Jesus’ second coming does not have to be separated from the reality that God in Christ is here with us today. In a world fractured with violence and filled with fear, Jesus’ second coming reminds us that this world is not as it should be, and that God is making it better. The reality of Jesus’ presence with us now as Emmanuel is a daily reminder that God does not leave us alone in the meantime.

Every day, Jesus comes into the lives of people and communities and shares their grief and suffering, experiences their depression, and despair. And, while it may not be as dramatic as riding in on clouds, Jesus nonetheless enters into those situations with power and splendor to bring forth comfort, peace, joy and hope.

The world in which we live is one where things do not always go according to plan. People suffer for no reason at all. As many of you know, I am experiencing this in my own life. Several months ago, when our child was diagnosed with a serious heart defect the news was entirely unexpected. Since then, there have been times of sadness, grief, anger, and fear, but there have been many more moments of great joy, excitement, and hope.

Conceiving and bearing children is a beautiful thing, but it is also something that is incredibly difficult. Many families have stories of infertility, miscarriages, the tragic loss of a child, as well as many other complications of pregnancy. These stories are but a few examples of the brokenness and suffering found in our world. But they are also not the end of the story. For many of those same families adoptions, medical treatments, mentorships, and unexpected friendships, conclude their stories of pain and loss in ways that were inconceivable earlier on.

As people who have read the end of the story, we know that God’s work in our world does not stop at suffering but continues through to life and hope.

We know that violence and fear are very real and present in our world. All of us have seen the power of suffering in our world either in our own life or in that of someone close to us. The violence and suffering in our world is a symptom of its brokenness. The message from our texts today is that fear is not the end of the story.

Jesus’s description of His second coming calls on each of us to turn these symptoms into sign posts to the Kingdom of God. To confront the evil and injustice in our world with the confidence of people who know the end of the story.

So often we turn our attention away from the brokenness and pain of our world. Some people use alcohol, drugs, or other substances to dull the pain and divert their focus. Others insulate themselves by focusing on their work, their hobbies, sports team, or even celebrity news. In this holiday season, how tempting is it to distract ourselves from the cares of the world with the cares of our to do lists, our shopping and decorating, and gift giving. Jesus warns us against this: “Take care that your heart’s aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.” When we are distracted and distanced from the broken and hurting people and places of our world we are at risk of missing the coming of Christ into those very people and places.

By paying attention to the brokenness of our world. By being vigilant in our prayers for our others and for ourselves, we are able to bear witness to the fact that our world is in the process of being remade. We are able to speak God’s word of hope and assurance so that the world may know that even in the darkness, God provides light. Even when everything has been cut down, God provides new growth, and even when fear threatens to overwhelm us and the ground beneath our feet is unsteady, God stands firmly on the clouds bringing order to the chaos and reminding us that our redemption is near. Amen.


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Thoughts on Tea: Part 1

I was never a big tea drinker. Even though I grew up in the South, where sweet tea is delivered in an IV drip, I never had a taste for it hot or cold. As I was getting ready to graduate from undergrad, a friend made it her mission to make me into a tea drinker. She took me to a tea shop in Lakeland and after searching almost their entire collection, I found my gateway teas which were herbal and fruity and tasted nothing like tea.

I went on with my fruity tea ways until I learned that I was going to be studying in England. If you know nothing else about England, you know that tea is a BIG deal. Therefore I knew that I needed to work on my taste for tea.

Enter the British exchange students. After sharing with them my hesitancy with tea, they made me a “proper British cuppa.” It was when they poured a splash of milk into the steamy tea that the tea-gates opened and my first step of inculturation was born. It was truly a revolution. The milk dulls the bitterness which I so disliked of tea (brewing it for the proper amount of time I have found also helps), and gives it a nice creamy flavor. I was a born again tea drinker. I was ready for England.

Towards the end of my time in England, people liked to ask me, “So what will you miss most about England?” The more  thought about it since then, I have realized that what I will miss most are the tea times. For the British, tea creates a space for hospitality, friendship, invitation, and consolation. When moving to a new house, your tea supplies are the first things you unpack and you “put the kettle on.” When someone comes over to your house-“put the kettle on.” Someone crying in the common room? “Put the kettle on.”

Whether significant or mundane, tea punctuates the moments of British life. It brings people together and warms their hands as well as their hearts. There is just no real equivalent in American life. How can we in the busyness of our American lives build those tea times into our routines? Make the time to stop and sit with each other, comfort one another, live with one another?

Because tea is so important, I thought that it deserved two different posts. Next week, I will not only describe how to make a “proper English cuppa” (Be prepared. The process is fraught with fascinating characters (see below) and controversy), but also explore some more of these issues.

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Hello Goodbye

“You say “Yes,” I say “No.”
You say “Stop,” and I say “Go go go.”
Oh no.
You say “Goodbye” and I say “Hello, hello, hello”
-The Beatles

There is a beautiful certainty in routines. I love when I have things figured out, when my life is going in the direction I know. When I have a plan and a destination and the steps forward are illuminated before me. I don’t like transitions. The awkward speed of the on-ramp or the slow taxi to the terminal with the seat belt sign still illuminated.

But that is the season in which I find myself. The lingering effects of Jet lag, the preparations to begin what will be my final year at Divinity School, and trying to process the previous year in England.

In May when I came home for Duke’s graduation, the minute I stepped off that plane everything I left in England became a blur. It was like I had fallen asleep at one airport only to awaken in a different one after having a dream worthy of L. Frank Baum.  This response scared me. Over the previous 10 months I know that I have been shaped and formed in ways that I am only beginning to understand. I have become more passionate about my calling to ordained ministry and more dedicated to my own personal discipleship, And, throughout that process  made friendships all across England that cherish.

The thought of all that growth vanishing the puff of smoke focused my final few weeks. I filled in all the gaps of my London to-do list, I took the time to eat with friends and learn some English recipes, and I wandered around Durham taking pictures and soaking up more memories so that I could board my plane in Newcastle with luggage full of souvenirs and a heart absent of regret. I succeeded in both. So, now the challenge begins of making this side of the transition successfully. Of integrating the lessons I learned in England to the life I live in the United States.

My first Sunday back at Trinity was in many ways a typical American Methodist service. There were two hymns, a creed, some prayers and a sermon. But at the same time, it was all different. The first hymn was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” (one of my favorite of Charles Wesley), but sung to the American tune. The second, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul (10,000 Reasons) by modern English Christian songwriter, Matt Redman, was one that I sang many times over the past 10 months. As the service ended I realized that this was my new life. I realized that no longer are my only resources American ones. I realized that my theological, ministerial and personal worldview now stretches across the ocean. I am not sure how all of that is going to work. I am not sure how I am going to put the English lessons I learned into practice in the Church in America.

All these things are still a mystery and the questions they raise I hope will be fleshed out in new blog posts in the future, but also in sermons,  prayers,  conversations over cups of tea, or in debates in the classroom. As I said goodbye to those in England, my prayer was that my time would conclude with a comma instead of a full stop, that our lives would cease to intertwine because we not longer live in the same place or the same time zone. And I hope that the hellos to old friends and the new ones that I will make this year will be enriched by the experiences I have had and the people I have met because I am going to need both the old and the new, the English and the American in order to do the work that God has called me to. Where that journey takes me and us I don’t know, but as I merge back into American life I am grateful that I have so many more people in my corner now and though I may want to tell God to stop, all the signs are telling me to Go, Go Go.

Me and friends at my last meal in Durham.

Me and friends at my last meal in Durham.


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Day 3: Minister Matters, Ministers Matter

Today was my first full day of conference. It began as I left my friends’ house at about 7:30 am to catch the train into London. Before i came to this country, i had never ridden a train so the fact that i get to take one every morning is a treat. Now as I write this at 7:30pm I realize just how long of a day it was!  To be honest, though I am not as exhausted as I thought I would be or probably should be. I imagine that this will change as the week goes on, but as the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun.

Once again I got to take pictures for the first half of the day. At the end of the conference I should write a post about my favorites because today was a good picture day. There were some humorous ones and some more somber both of which make my job as a photographer fun.

John Wesley is a delegate ex officio.

John Wesley is a delegate ex officio.

Today was the last day of the Presbyteral session of conference. As a person who is looking forward to (hopefully) being ordained it was interesting to watch the presbyters at work.  One of the phrases that is used a lot in the UMC for elders (presbyters) is “covenant community.” Yesterday, during the opening prayers, the ordination vows formed the basis for some of the petitions along with the Covenant prayer. I thought that was a really nice way of reminding the gathered clergy of the things that hold them together.

I think the moment that stood out the most to me was the service of remembrance for those who had died in the past year. As I talk to many members of conference this service rivals the service of ordination as the favorite moment if worship of the week. There is something really special about celebrating not just a life well lived but one that was dedicated in service to God and God’s Church.

Candles to honor those ministers who have died in the past year.

Candles to honor those ministers who have died in the past year.

The service was followed by a report on ministers with ill health. At one point, someone pointed out the significance of the placement intentional or not. In a lot of ways, I wish that this session had been during the full session of conference. Ministers stood up gave stories of mental burn out, family moments missed and the other sacrifices of ministry. Others, however gave moving stories of congregations that helped them protect time and held them accountable to care for themselves.

I am by no means suggesting that clergy have tougher careers than those in the pews, or that they are more busy than the average person whose time is taken up trying to make ends meet. However, statistics show that clergy in the US have more health problems than the national average and many leave ministry with their faith in pieces, and thus clergy health is something that needs to be at the forefront of the Church’s mind.

As we enter into what will be a very grueling week let us be in prayer for the Methodist Church, as well as the delegates to Conference as they make important decisions, but let us also take time to rest and pray for those people, lay and clergy, whose service to the Church costs them and their families. Let us also work to create environments where sabbath is taken seriously and rest and retreat and self-care are seen as a am important piece of a successful life and ministry.

(This is a series of blog posts during the British Methodist Conference. For other posts click here: Day 1, Day 2)


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Day 1: Holy Conferencing

Greetings from London! Over this year, London has become one if my favorite cities. It is full of life and has a sort of personality to it that I cannot really describe. Every other time I have been here I have always been a tourist, showing people the main sights. This time, however, I have a job to do.  I am helping with the media team at the British Methodist church’s Annual conference.

Conferencing is one of the defining features of Methodism. Ever since John Wesley gathered his local preachers for the first time in 1744 Methodists have gathered together yearly (if not more often!) to share in fellowship, worship, but most importantly to make decisions about the future direction of the movement.  My first Annual Conference in 2007 was where I made my First public declaration of my call to ministry, so these meetings will always have a place in my heart.

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Site of Conference 2013

Conference this year is at the Methodist Central Hall. It is a beautiful venue right across from Westminster Abby in the heart of London. As I walked in from the train station past the Eye and Big Ben it was hard to believe that this was my life!

I am really looking forward to experiencing how our British cousins do Annual Conference. There will be a lot of things that are the same. Budgets need to be passed, elections need to be had and presentations need to be made about the various ministries of the church. There will also be a lot of things that are different.  A president will run the meeting instead of a Bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be addressing the Conference and nature of the issues will be different as well. The best part, however, is that I will have the front row seat to it all. As part of the media team, I will be keeping the website up to date as the conference goes on, live tweeting conference events, helping with speakers and anything else that the team needs me to do. The days are going to be long, but my commute to and from London will provide some time to write and reflect on the days events. If you would like to follow the events of Conference you can go to: http://www.methodistconference.org.uk or follow #methconf on Twitter. You will undoubtedly see me and many of my friends on there with updates, thoughts and more than a few humorous asides. It is going to be a great time!

(This is a series of blog posts during the British Methodist Conference. For the following posts click here: Day 2)


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On Wearing Sandals in the Winter

A few weeks ago, I was working on a paper late in the library and so I went to my room to get into some more comfortable clothes. It was a bitter cold night with snow on the ground, but the library (as always) is practically a sauna. So, I put on my Duke sweatpants, hoodie, and sandals and headed downstairs. As I walked by the snow I thought to myself: “This is me.” It was a strange thought, but also a realization. For most of my time thus far, my sandals had been merely a novelty item I brought with me as a joke when I was packing. “When am I ever going to use these!” I said as I tossed them in my suitcase. However, that night, wearing the essential Florida footwear, there was a connection to a part of me which somewhere had become “de-colonized” (I just made that word up. It needs to be a thing!).

Over the past few months I have noticed several shifts and movements in who I am. When I first got here I was so fascinated with British culture. How they ate, how they spoke, the clothes they wore. Everything about them was endlessly fascinating. In the name of cultural investigation I started using my fork tines down and using the British “pile method” where you stab a piece of meat or potato and then pile everything else up the fork: peas, carrots, gravy, etc. It is quite fun and also really efficient. As I chanted the psalms and prayers I began to subconsciously do so with a slight English accent. This one amused the other American who is with me as well as many of my English friends.

Then in January, Jessica came to visit and these slight changes became all the more apparent. It was a little surprising when I realized that what had begun as a curiosity quickly had become a habit. For the next few months I responded to this by consciously reasserting my “American-ness” I returned to eating with the American “scoop” method and made sure to use the word “ya’ll” as much as possible. There was something desperate in my attempt to retain my cultural and national identity.

Eventually, however, this proved to be a lot of work and also began to seem affected. My experience thus far has changed me in more significant ways than I have even begun to understand. Having experienced British culture, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have already developed a more global perspective, however, I have also become more “American.” I do not mean that I am going to buy some patriotic clothes and walk around singing “My Country Tis of Thee,” but I am also not ashamed of where I come from. The USA is not a perfect country, and I don’t believe that it is the best one in the world, but it has helped to make me who I am and it is my “home.”

So, for now, I am just enjoying the tension. Now I use my fork in whichever way seems most appropriate for the meal and still slip into accented liturgy, but my sandals are out and ready for action! That is once the snow stops falling…

Durham Cathedral in the snow.

Durham Cathedral in the snow.

Snow from Feb 23. Not exactly sandal weather...

Snow from Feb 23. Not exactly sandal weather…