The last week or so before we head off to Seesalt for the summer has this clockwork-like routine to it. Work like mad to get ready. Realize how much you still have to do in spite of months of preparation. Stay up late. Get ready to pack your life up for two months. This year has felt exactly the same with one exception: this is the last one for me.
Last fall after a lot of prayer and conversations, I realized that God was leading me elsewhere. It was the hardest decision that I have ever had to make. My parents started Seesalt and run the camp. It and its previous incarnations have been a part of every summer that I can remember. I have served on the program staff for 14 years; the last eight as Assistant Director. It is a ministry that I love deeply. I am proud of our small mom-and-pop indie camp that exists alongside denominational heavyweights with a great deal more funding. Seesalt and the relationships I have formed there over the years have shaped me in so many wonderful ways.
But after this summer, it is time to move on.
The one thing that I want to do is finish well. The trouble is endings are always tricky. Watch the end of an SNL skit fall apart. Witness the difficulty of concluding a long running TV series like How I Met Your Mother or Lost. Think about how many third parts of trilogies fail to meet expectations. It is a difficult thing to finish well. I am feeling that pressure. I’ve wanted the Bible studies and dramas that I have written for this summer to be the best that I have ever written; to be love letters to this place that has meant so much to me.
I don’t know if either the Bible studies or the dramas will be the best I’ve ever written (Come to Seesalt! This summer’s Bible study and dramas may not be the best ever written!). Yet I am trying to be at peace with the fact that the best I can do is to be present and give what I have. I don’t want to finish with fireworks and grandeur. A lot of students probably won’t even realize that I’m gone next summer. That’s okay. I just want to finish well.
For all of that, I would appreciate your prayers. For myself, EA (who has been doing this for nine years now), our boys, our staff, plus the students and adults whom we’ll be serving. For me, It’s going to be both a great and difficult summer. And it all starts tomorrow.
What about the wilderness has resonated with you?
That was the gist of a question that Dean asked me. I couldn’t tell you the actual question because it was towards the beginning of one of those conversations that end up being an excavation of the soul. It also caught me off guard for some reason.
We were walking down the Rail Trail near downtown: myself and my pastors Dean and Lisa. I was telling them about the summer and what I was writing for camp. I told them about the characters that are in the dramas and I laid out the theme of the wilderness.
I admitted that I did not realize how appropriate that theme would be when I suggested it back in the fall. Over the last year, I have come to identify greatly with the narratives of these characters, both scriptural and of my own invention, that are searching, wandering, and oftentimes feeling lost.
That’s when Dean asked me that question. What had I learned from those many narratives in scripture where people were wandering in the wilderness? I said something about trusting God in spite of not knowing what lies ahead and then we continued on to a much-needed conversation. My answer was all well, good, and true, but it felt like a placeholder for what truly resonated with me.
In the Hebrew Bible, which is many times one wilderness tale after another, men and women would often literally mark their encounters with God. They would build monuments and reminders at the places where YHWH had spoken to them and saved them. Think of Jacob awaking from his dream, building a pillar, and naming it House of God. Or the twelve stones in Joshua that were to remind the people of Israel of how the twelve tribes passed through Jordan into the Promised Land.
The marker in the wilderness that sticks out to me the most is one found in 1 Samuel 7. After the Israelites routed the Philistines, the prophet set up a stone as a reminder. Samuel named the stone Ebenezer and said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Sam. 7:12) This particular stone in a relatively obscure passage is referenced in one of my favorite hymns “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Here I raise mine Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home
There are these markers in my life to which I can point that help me make sense of the wilderness.
They are the times that God has spoken to me in scripture, in songs, in sermons, in prayer, in communion, in aspects of the church calendar, in conversations with family and friends, and in completely unexpected places.
They are the events in my life that have molded me, scarred me, shaped me, and pointed me towards some sense of a calling.
They are times where I have felt intimately close with God and other times where I was ready to chunk the whole thing but somehow did not.
I turned thirty-one today. Like most people, birthdays typically cause me to look back. So I’ve been envisioning the trail from which I came. And I see Ebenezers scattered all over the whole thing: from the way the story of Jesus ignited my childhood imagination to Rail Trail conversations that provide clarity as I seek to take my next steps through the wilderness.
I think that is what has actually resonated with me. I am grateful to be able to remember all of these Ebenezers and to know, as I search and wander, God has helped me thus far. And I hope by God’s good pleasure to arrive at home.
Holy cow. You’re four. It never fails that whenever I am with you or your brother some nice older person will come by and admire you. As well they should. You guys are pretty adorable. This woman or man will then smile and sigh and tell me to enjoy it because children grow up so fast. And I give a knowing nod and say that I know all too well.
But it really does go by quickly because you are four today. We’re a year from five which is halfway to ten and then you might as well be shaving.
I am not in a hurry to age you so let’s focus on the now. This past year has been a humility check on how awesome a parent I think I am. I would not have necessarily gone around saying that I was awesome, but I felt like I had gotten into a pretty good groove of being a dad. After all, we had sailed through the so-called terrible twos with minimal drama.
Yet here’s the thing—and I’m telling you this to prepare you for the children you might have one day—two has nothing on three. You are faster. You are stronger. You are developing a sense of independence. You are possessive of your stuff when your little brother tries to take things. You can be defiant sometimes and very stubborn. Of course, you got the stubbornness honestly from both of your folks. Throw in a little brother into the mix and this past year has not exactly been a cakewalk.
This year has also been wonderful. Though three was difficult, I would never label it terrible. Because here’s the thing, Jim: You are the absolute most loving child imaginable. Countless times throughout the day, you tell your Mom and I that you love us. You give incredible hugs. You love to crawl into our laps and be held. You are sensitive and caring. Jim, you have a beautiful heart. There are some people in this world that would say that is not a quality a man should celebrate. Those people are full of it. I hope that your heart is always this beautiful.
The other thing that I want you to know about this last year is how smart you are. Now, there are times that intelligence keeps your Mom and I on our toes. Yet on the whole we are blown away by your insight and your inquisitive nature. You are always asking questions about the world around you. As you have learned more and more about faith in this past year, you have asked good questions about Jesus, God, and heaven. These are questions that have made you mom and I—a semester away from graduating seminary—have to think thoroughly about how to answer. It’s challenging, but in a good way. Never stop asking those good questions. It’s going to keep people on their toes, but you and they will be the better for it.
Your Mom and I love so much about you. The way that you and your brother make each other giggle. The way that you always declare it a beautiful day. The ways in which your logic is hilarious yet airtight. The way you smile. The times that you want me to pick you up for an “up hug.” How you want to look at the colors, fish, and Baby Jesus in our church sanctuary each Sunday before we go to lunch. The way you sing the songs from your favorite TV shows. The list could go on and on.
Jim, we love you more than you could possibly know. We feel incredibly blessed that we get to be your parents. It is an incredible experience, a sometimes harrowing experience, a learning experience, and a beautiful experience. It is something that neither of us would trade for the world.
Thanks for being you, Jim. Happy Birthday buddy. I love you with all of my heart and I always will.
Luke 15 is one of those scripture passages that is intertwined with my imagination. The grace found in the parable of the forgiving father is so integral to how I understand faith that I keep taking it apart and looking at the pieces. It is amazing how many ways you can look at a story that only has three main characters.
I read the parable recently and I imagined that it was this cyclical story in which the son that stayed was the son that left. The older son was the prodigal. He ran. He squandered. He returned penniless. And his father lavished love on him.
But as time went on, he forgot. He returned home, obeyed all the rules, and he forgot who he was. He forgot his father’s love. He bought into the lie that he was always the son that stayed. So when the story repeats itself, he if full of bitterness. Not remembering his own folly. Not remembering the grace that saved him.
And I wonder sometimes how often we are the younger-turned-older sons and daughters who simply forget. We think that we have always been the ones that kept the rules, when we need grace just like the one that shatters every rule ever conceived. I think that is what happens when Christians belittle those outside the church or look down at those crawling and struggling to find God. It’s an amnesia of the soul.
God help us to remember.
Mohandas Gandhi was once quoted as saying: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It is a critique that always cuts me to the core. The name Christian is literally supposed to mean “little Christ” and yet I am painfully aware of how many times that I do not follow Jesus.
I was reminded by Gandhi’s words earlier today when I read Al Mohler’s CNN opinion piece "Why Christians should support the death penalty." The interesting thing about this article is that in presenting an argument about what Christians should believe about the death penalty, Mohler never talks about Christ.
Mohler talks about Paul. He talks about Noah. But he doesn’t wrestle with what Jesus says about turning the other cheek. Or anything Jesus has to say for that matter. I’m sure he has, but he doesn’t mention it here. Yeah, Noah and Paul are important. Yet I think that it is gravely irresponsible to write an article about what Christians should believe about a topic and never delve into things that Christ said or did that could illuminate our belief.
Now I am not saying that Al Mohler is not a Christian. I am also not saying that individuals who approve of capital punishment are not Christians. Cards on the table, I personally believe that support of capital punishment runs counter to an ethic of being pro-life (and that issues of poverty, education, etc. fall under that umbrella). But the fact that Mohler disagrees with me is not what troubles me. I understand that there is room for conversation about this issue within the Christian faith.
No what bothers me is the absence of the life and teaching of Jesus in a discussion about how Christians should live. That absence does not just happen with this particular issue. Gandhi’s critique was actually made in relation to the rampant materialism that he saw amongst Christians. Yet we don’t talk about that too often. I am guilty of this in many areas as well.
Though we are saved by grace through faith, we are called to imitate the One that saved us. Jesus is not just the means by which we can come to God. He was the template for a new creation, a creation that we are called to live out.
There are so many difficult questions and issues that we face today. If we try to navigate this labyrinth without seriously considering the way of Jesus, then I fear that Gandhi was right about us. I realize we will not all agree about everything, but I do believe that what we talk about must start and end with the one from whom we take our name.
As young parents at our church, EA and I are in a rotation for watching the children in the nursery during worship service every few months or so. When our last turn was about to come up, we realized that we would be out of town that Sunday. Fortunately, some friends in our Sunday School class switched with us. Problem solved.
The switch was this Sunday. Easter Sunday. The Sunday that the Whole Entire Faith Pivots On Sunday. So instead of singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and proclaiming with our church that Christ was risen indeed, we were downstairs.
Here’s the thing: Caring for the kids in the nursery was wonderful. Our youngest son Liam is in there as were a couple of adorable toddlers. People need to serve there and I am glad that we were able to help out. And my Easter was good on the whole. I got to spend time with family and eat some great food.
Yet spiritually it did not feel much like Easter. This is when we emerge from the fasting of Lent, the agonizing loss of the crucifixion. This is when we celebrate God conquering evil, Jesus saving us, and death itself starting to work backwards. The Good News of Resurrection Sunday is something that I want to feel deep down in my bones. But I did not feel much of anything and I have my doubts whether it would have been different if we weren’t downstairs.
So what do you do when Resurrection Sunday comes and goes yet you feel like it has completely passed you by? What happens when this day happens that means so much to your faith and you just feel blah? Do you panic? Does this mean you’re ungrateful? A cynic? A wounded soul? A stubborn jackass? These are the thoughts that swim around in my head.
Then I remember the disciples and how they did not immediately believe or celebrate on this day. Not all of them. Not Thomas. And I wonder how many times the resurrected Jesus had to appear to them before it really sank in for the others. Was it the first time? The second time? As he ascended? When they took the bread and the cup years later? They believed, but I doubt they always felt it deep in their bones. I could be wrong. I might just be consoling myself.
Yet I think there are a lot of people that pass through Easter and feel like they’ve missed out on something because they are not doing cartwheels in celebration. We just don’t feel it. Or we struggle through doubt. Or we can’t muster the hype that we put on this one day. If you’re like me, you might feel like you whiffed on a rare opportunity. The good news is this Sunday was not the end.
The ramifications of the Resurrection travel through time: past Easter Sunday, past the Gospels, past the early church. Its message and hope still echo today; not just on one Sunday a year but every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of every week of every year. A blah Easter does not roll the stone back in front of the empty tomb. It does not stop the Resurrection from being any more true tomorrow or the next day.
Resurrection Sunday is a beautiful day; my favorite Sunday of the year, in fact. Yet I hope that I don’t contain that story, its beauty, and its hope to a single day. As I limp through not feeling Easter this year, whatever that means, I write this to remind myself (and maybe you) that what we proclaim on Easter Sunday is what we proclaim each day:
Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.
Once upon a time, so the story goes, the people gathered together to build a monument to their awesomeness. At the start, it did not seem like a difficult thing to do. The people shared a common language and it was easy to communicate with one another.
Yet something happened as they built their tower to the heavens. The workers started speaking in different ways. Neighbors could no longer understand one another. The one language became many. Everything was no longer the same.
Rather than trying to figure out how to bridge their newfound differences, confusion raged. The tower was left unfinished. The people scattered.
I don’t normally think about the Tower of Babel story. It is a short tale that seeks to basically explain all the different languages. And the text gives off the idea that YHWH is oddly semi-threatened by humanity’s architectural ambition. Yet I found myself thinking about it in class earlier this week and again today on Maundy Thursday.
On Tuesday, we were discussing a book which is based on the premise that the church was the center of American life and now it is not. Though this transition took place over many years, the shift feels seismic enough that I feel like I have read 20 books in seminary with the exact same central theme.
Of course, the shift away from the church-centered way of life is an issue that vexes a lot of folks. Many a sermon, a conversation, a tweet, and a handwringing have been based on this idea that we have drifted away from this Golden Age in which the church was the established authority in the land. The way people talk about it, you would think that mid-20th Century America was the apex of Christianity.
I’m starting to think it was our Babel. At least, an illusionary one.
It is not so much that everyone was following God with their entire heart back in the day, all of those people were simply speaking the same cultural language. This made the period seem like the church was this great monument of awesomeness, but people’s bond with God have to go deeper than it being the only game in town. Otherwise, there will be massive amounts of confusion when that one language becomes many.
That shift happened. The United States is more diverse than it has ever been. Over half a century removed from its perceived heyday, the church is still confounded. One can see it everyday as the various Christian leaders respond to the different languages in culture and, probably even more so, in discovering the variety that existed within the church all along. Some are confused. Some are despondent. Some are angry. Some have gone to live among the masses while others are fortifying themselves inside of Babel’s Tower.
All of that is what I thought about on Tuesday. It left me at a loss.
Today is Maundy Thursday. The name comes from the Latin mandatum, which is found at the beginning of John 13:34:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
For those that follow Jesus, love is supposed to be our first language. And I think that gets lost in the Babel of it all. One of love’s wonderful characteristics is its ability to transcend barriers. Grace, kindness, humility—all things born out of love—rarely need a translator. True love can change the timbre of seemingly harsh words.
We live in a society where Twitter, Facebook, and blogs has given us the ability to speak with unprecedented power. The power of our language can reach thousands of people and around the world in very short time. And Christians are speaking a great deal. But if there is not love to bridge the cultural language barriers then all of that speaking, as the Apostle Paul writes, is utter nonsense.
That sacrificial, all-giving love that Jesus embodied is the only way that any sense is going to be made out of all the noise. May we not say farewell to each other in the church when we speak different languages. May we not bark in anger at a world that we do not totally understand and that does not totally understand us.
As we remember all that Jesus did during Holy Week, let us remember the love that was the catalyst for it all. And let us take it to heart.
Aronofksy wanted to make a film of Noah, Noah
Aronofsky wanted to make a film of Noah, Noah
Who should play him? Russell Crowe-uh, Crowe-uh!
Children of the Lord
We got Maximus and Hopkins, the girl from Beautiful Mind-y, Mind-y
Maximus and Hopkins, the girl from Beautiful Mind-y, Mind-y
And playing an in-law? Young Hermione, mione
Children of the Lord
The movie, it includes those crazy Nephilim-y, lim-y
The movie, it includes those crazy Nephilim-y, lim-y
Lookin’ like monsters from Lord o’ the Rings-y, Rings-y
Children of the Lord
Some liberties were taken and some folks are antsy, antsy
Some liberties were taken and some folks are antsy, ansty
Facebook, Twitter are all ranty, ranty
Children of the Lord
So Noah the movie is causing trepidation, dation
Noah the movie is causing trepidation, dation
Bible movies always have interpretation, tation
Children of the Lord
So see Noah, or do not. There’s no need to panic, panic
See Noah, or do not. There’s no need to panic, panic
But freaking out makes us all look manic, manic
Children of the Lord
So this is the end of, the end of my ditty, ditty
This is the end of, the end of my ditty, ditty
I’ll see Noah if someone would watch my kiddies, kiddies
Children of the Lord
Yesterday afternoon, our oldest son asked me a question. Laying on the floor and putting his small hands over his chest, he said, “Daddy, why does Jesus live in our heart? What does he do in there?” Good question.
I can only imagine what that looks like in his preschool mind; plus I wonder what continuity exists for him between baby Jesus, grown up Jesus, and in-heart Jesus. I tried my best to explain how when someone says Jesus is in their heart it means that he is always with that person. He then said a girl in his class pretended to be a monster on the playground.
Obviously, a tiny Jesus is not literally inside one’s heart. It’s a metaphor grasping at something bigger and a bit more mysterious. In fact, using the heart in that way is a bit of a metaphor itself. Yet there is still something profound in that question. What does Jesus do in our hearts?
I don’t want to ditch my son’s imagination quite yet because I think it can help give a different perspective to this question. But first let me take a little detour and borrow an image from one of my favorite Superman stories to explain.
One of the best Superman stories of all time is All-Star Superman, a twelve issue series that tells the story of the Man of Steel’s final days. The story ends (spoiler alert for a comic that is six years old) with the sun dying thus putting all life on Earth in peril. Being irradiated with solar energy, Superman’s final act is to fly into the sun to save it and billions of people. The final image of this hero is of him building machinery in the sun’s core so that the sun can live again. I know it sounds all kinds of comic book goofy, but trust me, it is a phenomenal story.
That image is what I imagine when I think about Jesus being in one’s heart. Our hearts are dying and badly in need of repair. So when one comes to belief in Christ, Jesus stops our heart from dying and then begins the process of building the machinery that gets our heart running properly; running in a way that brings life to those around us. Yet we still have agency in this matter. Though Jesus is in a person, she or he can still exhibit the behaviors of a dying heart. One can still choose to mess up.
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