Subway Prophet

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


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#MUMCbelieves Reflection on Exodus 3

 

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This is one of the trees I saw on my ride in this morning.

When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” Exodus 3:4

 

I often ride my bike to work in the morning. because I am usually running late, I am in a bit of a hurry. This morning, however, I decided to take my time. I looked at the beautiful oak trees that cover the street in front of my house, I saw how  many flowers and trees are starting to bloom. And I realized how much I miss. We live on this beautiful island and I do not take advantage of it.

Moses was out at the edge of the desert minding his own business and then he noticed something different. A bush engulfed in flames and so he got curious. I had not noticed before that God only speaks to him after he comes over to investigate the situation. I think this is significant. How are we missing what God wants to say to us because we don’t see the signs around us?

God has given us this beautiful creation and uses it to direct all of creation towards a relationship with its Creator. Our role, like Moses is to  keep our eyes open and listen for God to speak to us.

 

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The Realities of Christmas

It was 5:30am and I had been up with Malachi several times that evening. He was not feeling well, which means he was not sleeping well. The only thing that would get him back to seep, and therefore quiet, was being held on my shoulder and gently swaying back and forth. It is our nightly ritual. He wakes up, I wake up, and groggily trudge into the nursery in the next room, pick him up and gently sway, pat and shush him to sleep, dreaming of the days when I was woken up by my alarm instead of the urgent cries of a baby.

On this particular night, however, I had a song stuck in my head. It was “Away in a Manger.” In case you have forgotten the lyrics:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

This is the image we always have of baby Jesus. Calm, peaceful and serenely sleeping in his manger. With the clean Mary and Joseph attentively watching him with awe. I am not sure about anyone else, but this has never been the case at our house. In our life with a baby there has not been a lot more vomit, crying, and restless nights.

Now perhaps if our son was God incarnate, life would be different, but I don’t think so. The fundamental truth of the incarnation is that God put on flesh and became human. This means the word became flesh, full of grace and truth as well as urine, poop, vomit, and snot.

I think this image of the infant Jesus is important. A peacefully sleeping child does not require anything of its parents. When the baby is sleeping, you have time to do your own things, when the baby is awake, however, your time is not your own. Life is dictated by the needs of this small, helpless creature. Jesus came into the world to interrupt our normal routines and habits. Jesus desires not just partial obedience, but our full attention and complete control. This will mean that our lives will be messy, our hands dirty, and at times we will feel exhausted, frustrated, and even defeated. The joy of discipleship, and in a way parenting is not in the minute by minute experiences, but in the knowledge that the child you love and serve will grow up and once day make it all worth it.


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Light in Darkness Sermon

(This sermon was given on Sunday, December 18 at Trinity UMC in Fernandina Beach, for the Memorial UMC Service of Light in Darkness.)

When I was a kid, there was a show on TV called, “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” It was basically a child-friendly version of Twilight Zone. After an episode the night was full of monsters and villains and my imagination would populate the unknown around me with so many forces of evil that I would keep a flashlight beside my bed to ward them off.

There is something scary and unnerving about the dark. In the daytime we can see what is coming. We know what to expect. There are very few surprises during the day. At night, however, everything changes. Familiar streets get cast in unfamiliar shadows. It is impossible to see someone coming your way until they are already next to you. Sounds fill the air all around you, but you can’t see their origins.

Physical darkness, however, is the easiest of the darknesses that fill our world. There is no flashlight that will drive away the darkness of grief. There is no candle to ward away depression or anxiety. There are deeper darknesses in our world which stand in the way of the light and cast long shadows over our lives. These dark places often get lost amid the lights of the Christmas season. With such an emphasis on joy and peace, the realities of sadness, distress, and worry often get pushed to the side. However, if we look at the Christmas story there are both light and dark places.

We see the light in the angelic visions, but often miss the fact that the angels appear to Joseph and Mary in the dark as a dream. The Shepherds are watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appear in all their glory. And the star the wisemen follow to the new-born King was like every other star, only available to them when the brightness of the sun no longer shone in the sky.

What do we make of this shadow-side of the nativity?

I believe the darkness is there because it is a part of the world we live in. From the very beginning when God separated the light from the darkness, each one was given a name and a space in creation. I remember when I lost my grandmother, in seminary, I was thinking about my grief and tears and I realized that the pain I felt at her passing was rooted in the very love that I had for her when she was alive. Even as difficult as grief can be, I cannot think of anyone who would give up the love they have for the one they lost in order to make it go away.

Darkness can obscure our vision, cast doubts about our future and our purpose. The loss of a job, adjustment to retirement, the change from one way of living to another is disorienting and confusing. Our once familiar life and purpose is covered over by a new reality that remains to become fully present.

Walking with a loved one through the shadow of death can be darker for the caregiver than the one who is in the middle. Watching a loved one slip away, we are forced to live in the tension between how they are now and how they were before. In some cases, our memories of them are stronger than theirs are. With the loss of the spouse, friend, or relative, we also loose the future we had hoped to live with them.

In other ways, darkness has a way of focusing our attention. In the daytime there is a lot of distractions. The myriad of colors and shapes which surround us each day all merge together because we cannot take it all in at once. In the dark, however, those colors mute and the shapes soften. It is then that other things come into focus. The stars, for example do not appear in the evening. Instead, it is only when the brightness of the day has faded that we are finally able to behold their steady beads of light. When life gets difficult, it brings other things into perspective. I have spoken with so many people who have a terminal illness that after their diagnosis they didn’t worry as much about their work, their business, their money, or any of the other things that had previously filled up their lives. They began to cherish the time spent with family, the long chats with good friends, walks on the beach, and spending nights laying out on a blanket gazing into the heavens.

I do not know everything about the darkness that you have brought with you today. But I do know that Scripture is clear, darkness is a temporary phenomenon. Psalm 30 declares that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In the nativity story, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song of praise to God which proclaims that:

Because of God’s deep compassion,
The dawn from heaven will break upon us,
To give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79)

Before Jesus was even born, the prophet knew that the night was almost over—a light was coming. This can be hard to see in the midst if the darkness. When all around you are shadows, it is easy to forget that there is a light. It is easy to get lost in the darkness, however, the story of Christmas is that a light “did come into our world.” That light did not wait until our eyes had adjusted to the dark. It did not ask us to leave the darkness and come into the light, it came to us instead.

Hear again John’s declaration about the light:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.,,,The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
(John 1:3b-5,9)

This is the core of the story. Even in the dark world the light appeared to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds, to wise men and now to us. And that Light cannot be overcome by our darkness, but instead, that Light enters into where we are and makes his home among us so that we know that no matter how dark our lives get we are not alone.

As you go throughout this holiday season, as you see the lights on houses and trees and everywhere else, I pray that you would be reminded that Jesus has come to be with you in the darkness and lead you forward wherever you need to go.

(Note: I am grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” for being a helpful thought partner and a general good read.)


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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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Advent Devotional: God with Us

[Written for the Memorial UMC 2015 Advent Devotional-December 2]

But now, says the LORD— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place (Isa 43:1-3)

Throughout life, bad things happen that we do not expect: A job transition, a medical diagnosis, conflict in a relationship, the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, Scripture never promises an easy life for those who follow Jesus. In fact often it promises the exact opposite. The comfort for me from Isaiah, however, is the word, “when.” The prophet knows that life has seasons of overwhelming floods and fear inducing fires. This is just something we should know up front. We are not called to expect God to eliminate this reality, what we can expect is that in the midst of it all, God will be with us and that God will not let us go.

In the season of Advent, we look forward to the coming of Christ. We remember the entrance of God into our world. God became human knowing full well the difficulty of life on earth. In His life, Jesus experienced rejection, pain, grief, injustice, betrayal, and more. For me this is a comforting reminder. When I am wondering where God is in the midst of a crisis, Isaiah’s words remind me that God is with us through it all. Having experienced everything life could throw at Him, we can be assured that when things in life come our way, we do not have to be afraid. God is with us. Jesus Christ, God in human form, has been there, conquered that, and will help us to weather the storms of life.

Prayer: Almighty God, thank you for never leaving me or forsaking me. When I feel like I am drowning, or the fires of life make me afraid, help me to remember your presence beside me and give me the grace I need to continue walking with you each and every step of the way. Amen.


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Day 4: And are we yet alive

“And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face…” With these words the full session of Conference began as they have since the days of John Wesley when he chose his brother’s song to begin their annual conferences.

I must say that this was the moment I have been waiting for all year.  I got to sing along with Methodists from around the world just a couple of tube stops from the place where John Wesley organized the people called Methodist and breathed his last breath. It was a very special moment.

Methodism was the theme of the conference on its opening day.  There were two Charles Wesley hymns, and a few others referenced. John Wesley’s “Field Bible” was given to the new President and a copy of one the original hymnals to the Vice-President.  The ultimate moment for me came when the delegates from Methodist churches around the world were welcomed. To see the many different faces of Methodism from many different countries on all six continents was amazing.

Little John Wesley at the Methodist Heritage stand.

Little John Wesley at the Methodist Heritage stand.

Being in this country has made me even more aware of the worldwide membership of the Methodist Connexion. While the UMC is a very international denomination, it often feels very American and we rarely hear from our Central Conferences in other countries. This is truly a shame. In the “West” where church membership in mainline denominations is falling, the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including the Methodists, are in a revival. There is a passion and excitement which has many parallels to that of 18th Century England. Wesley said that God raised up the people called Methodist to “reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Methodist are a people who have always gone out with revival in minds and the love of God in their hearts.

Somehow in the midst of being a church we have forgotten how to be, as is a common refrain in British Methodism, “A discipleship movement shaped for mission ” We as a Church that was birthed out of the passion and enthusiasm of a reform movement. Our world Methodist friends help to remind us of the enthusiasm that comes from being a truly mission-minded church.

These themes were echoed in the addresses of both the new President Ruth Gee and the new Vice-President Daleep Mukarji. Rev. Gee reminded the church that we are a people who are called to wait expectantly for “glimpses of the glory of God.” You can read her full speech here. Dr. Mukarji’s report was a prophetic call to the Church to speak out on behalf of the poor (It can be found here). In a conference where applause is almos non-existant, his rousing address brought the audience to their feet. Taken together, both reports represent the very fundamentals of our Methodist identity: A theology rooted in hope, grace, and a confidence in the glory of God combined with a deep seated commitment to social justice and being alongside those who are forgotten and neglected by society, but deeply loved by God. These two  sides of our movement have always been present when we have been at our best, and it is my hope that under the leadership of Ruth and Daleep they will both be present in equal measure. It is also my hope that the revival that is going on around the world, and I feel is immanent in Britain will have a ripple effect in my own country and in my own UMC. If we are going to be the people God raised us up to be, then we need to do it together as the people called Methodist around the world. Amen.

Rev. Ruth Gee, new President of the Methodist Church, Little John Wesley, and myself.

Rev. Ruth Gee, new President of the Methodist Church, Little John Wesley, and myself.

(This is a series of blog posts during the British Methodist Conference. For other posts click here: Day 1Day 2, Day 3)


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In Memory of Susan Keefe.

This is not the first blog post that I had expected to write after an unexpected five month hiatus, but as I sat in Goodson Chapel yesterday listening to people tell their own stories, I felt that I needed to write my own. I did not know Susan Keefe. I had seen her in the hallways with her measured pace and the frail features of the ascetic she was. However, like many of my fellow students, I was in awe of this mysterious professor. She was respected and loved my the whole school, not because she was a brilliant lecturer (which I am sure she was), or for her gregarious personality (which she certainly was not), but because she exuded such an unworldly holiness that one knew the Divinity School was all the more so because of her place in it.

Like many, I participated in rumors of her ascetic practices, but looking back I see even those as being marks of the sense of awe in which she was seen. When selecting classes for this semester, hers was the one I was most excited about, even though because of my year in England, I knew that I was not going to take it. Just having her class on my fake schedule was an honor. And so, when we received the news that she had died, there was a collective sense of loss.

I wanted to write this post because her service reminded me of what funerals and memorial services in the Church need to be. Absent were trite words of comfort and vague phrases of an afterlife. Instead there was a clear confession of the resurrection and a celebration of the grace filled life she had led. Her specialty was Medieval commentaries by obscure theologians, preparing them for other scholars later to come and analyze to use in their own research. Dean Hays called it a “thankless task,” and I am sure it was not one which sold millions of copies because a simple Google image search fails to bring up any pictures of her.

While I will never be able to take her class, her memorial service will be the only lecture I will be able to have, which seems in a way fitting. It reminded me that a life lived in constant love of Christ and seeking to follow His way is one which does separate us from this world, but still keeps us intimately connected to it through our ministry and our relationships. That is the true mark of an ascetic. Not how much they are separated from the world, but how much they bring the world closer to the Kingdom through their place in it. Dr. Keefe did that.

The final lesson I have from her is one which Dean Hays and her family found propped on her desk when they were cleaning it out. Handwritten on a simple sheet of notebook paper it said:  “What if you were to say to your congregation: Your baptism was the beginning of your preparation for death.”  At our baptism we die to Sin and are reborn to new life through Jesus Christ. It marks us and makes us children of God and when lived out fully prepares us both for our eventual death, but also for the everlasting life which comes afterwards. I do not know the answer to Dr. Keefe’s question, but I intend to find out by sharing those words and with each congregation I have.

Thank you Dr. Keefe, for a life well lived. Amen.