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Spiritual Direction with Howard Thurman-Session 2

October 15, 2014
Photo by Chris Nickels

Photo by Chris Nickels

I am using the book 40-Day Journey with Howard Thurman for regular reflection and meditation. Periodically I plan to share some thoughts and reflections that emerge from this time of engaging with selections of Thurman’s writings and various scripture passages.

Happy are those who trust in the Lord,
    who rely on the Lord.
They will be like trees planted by the streams,
    whose roots reach down to the water.
They won’t fear drought when it comes;
    their leaves will remain green.
They won’t be stressed in the time of drought
    or fail to bear fruit.      (Jeremiah 17:7-8 CEB)

“The prophet pictures the man who depends on God, who has God for his confidence, as a tree planted beside a stream sending his roots down to the water. He has no fear of scorching heat, his leaves are always green. He goes on bearing fruit when all around him is barren and lives serene. In other words such a man looks out on life with quiet eyes!”     -Howard Thurman

Thurman’s phrase about having “quiet eyes” has really stuck with me lately. When I find myself feeling stressed out or over tired (or sometimes both), one of the first indicators for me is that my eyes begin to twitch involuntarily. My eyes provide awareness and help me assess what’s going on in life, both through seeing (the intended function) and through this kind of annoying side effect (the response to stressful circumstances). So this mediation led me to reflect in a particular direction: What does it mean to be a person who “looks out on life with quiet eyes”? This eye image from Thurman helps provide a meaningful way to approach daily life.

Before saying more about “quiet eyes,” I want to briefly explore the opposite-let’s call them “anxious eyes.” I imagine anxious eyes as those which are constantly darting around all over the place, trying to focus on everything that moves in the periphery and probably missing important details right in front of them. These “eyes” have difficulty being still and therefore easily become exhausted or even fearful.

Quiet eyes, on the other hand, reflect a posture of tranquil, non-anxious presence. Thurman seems to connect “quiet” with a kind of deep composure and trust, a confidence in God that can be found even in the midst of struggle, pain, or suffering. Having “quiet eyes” is another way of thinking about and embodying the tree image from the prophet Jeremiah. I often need help with keeping my eyes “quiet,” so Thurman’s instruction is a helpful one.

There are spiritual disciplines I can practice to develop “quiet eyes.” Practices such as breath prayer or centering prayer are often helpful, as is one of my favorite disciplines, prayerwalking. Each of these practices can help to center one’s focus on God and root deeper into God’s presence.

I also wonder if having “quiet eyes” could refer to a posture of learning and listening to others? Rather than having anxious eyes which are constantly in motion, always looking to do more and more and more, these quiet eyes slow down, observe, listen, and focus. This posture could create space for learning, awareness, reflection, and changes in action where needed. Quiet eyes might help us see details or perspectives that we’ve never noticed before or maybe even chose to ignore.

Deeper connection with God and with others are valuable forms of “fruit” that can be produced in our lives. But I will continue to wonder: What other kinds of fruit might be produced by those who “look out on life with quiet eyes”?


Spiritual Direction with Howard Thurman-Session 1

August 26, 2014
Photo by Chris Nickels

Photo by Chris Nickels

I am using the book 40-Day Journey with Howard Thurman for regular reflection and meditation. Periodically I plan to share some thoughts and reflections that emerge from this time of engaging with selections of Thurman’s writings and various scripture passages.

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
    and make mere flesh their strength,
    whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
    and shall not see when relief comes. -Jeremiah 17:5-6 NRSV


To what do I appeal when I want to convince myself that I am somebody?

-Howard Thurman (1)

Dr. Thurman’s question unearths some factors that shape me more than I usually like to admit. To answer his question I seem to go straight to thinking about personal accomplishments, big or small, noticed or unnoticed. Even then, I don’t always feel like “somebody.” Another problem with this kind of response is that it doesn’t always help because I also have a tendency to endlessly compare myself with others. I try to find a balance between pride in my accomplishments while not being envious of others’. This line of reflection leads me to acknowledge that I too easily drift into anxiousness and into believing the myth that I am self-made.

There exists a powerful American cultural myth (I notice it here in the suburbs) that claims you can (should?) be successful on your own strength. A religion of individualism, and probably competition too. Yet this myth is one way to become an “undernourished” desert shrub, similar to the state Dr. Thurman described in his commentary on Jeremiah 17:5-6. When I am tempted to buy into this myth, the voices of Jeremiah and Dr. Thurman speak prophetically to me saying, “Don’t be a shrub!”

Individualism is not a place of nourishment. Community-while not perfect-is a place God forms me and nourishes me. There I can learn from others lives and stories. There I can give and receive counsel. I am reminded that the community of Jesus offers a counter-narrative and an interdependence-a way to resist the self-made, self-reliant myth.

Attempting to answer Dr. Thurman’s question points me back in the proper direction: I am a follower of Jesus and part of a family. And that is enough.

[1] Schaper, Donna, and Howard Thurman. 40-day Journey with Howard Thurman (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009), 22.


Swimming Lessons

August 8, 2014

Photo by Chris Nickels

A sermon on Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-33

This summer we began taking the boys to swimming lessons. We have a community pool in our neighborhood, which is a really convenient place to do this important learning experience. The lifeguard who is teaching them is one of our neighbors. The boys are learning things like how to kick their legs the proper way so they can move through the water and stay afloat, and how to jump into the water from the side of the pool.

At swimming lessons they are also learning more challenging activities, like how to float on your back and how to hold your breath so you can go underwater. These activities were not as popular with the boys, and included some responses like, “Help me!” “Save me!” “I don’t wanna!”

Despite some natural fears, they are making good progress and my wife and I are very proud of how much they have learned in a short amount of time.

Swimming lessons can be an exercise in faith as much as swimming. You learn to trust that you can do something that doesn’t seem natural.

For the audience of these gospel stories, the sea was not a natural or a particularly good place to spend one’s time. In the minds of some ancient peoples, the sea was something to fear. It was thought to be an abyss, a threatening, chaotic place where mythical gods and monsters battled.[1] We can find some of this thinking in the Bible:

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1 NRSV)

In Ancient Near Eastern mythology “Leviathan” was a primordial sea serpent. Ancient peoples—who didn’t have the benefit of modern scientific discoveries—thought that untamable sea monsters were the cause of chaos at sea. Today, with our modern advances, we no longer worry about Leviathan. Instead, we are more concerned with the Sharknado. So we may or may not have come a long way.

A few of the Psalms give this impression of the sea as an abyss or place of danger:

1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. 2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. 3 I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (Ps 69:1-3 NRSV)

By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. 6 By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. 7 You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples. (Ps 65:5-7 NRSV)

While we can sense their fear of the sea in these passages, we might also notice another idea held by the people who wrote these psalms: even though they were frightening the waters were not more powerful than God.

That sounds great. But it can be difficult to believe when your alone out on the water. Which brings us to two boat stories from Matthew’s gospel.

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him? (Mt 8:23-27 NRSV)

 In the first story, the disciples and Jesus were out in a boat on the sea. With the feelings toward the sea that may have been common, I would guess that not everyone in the group was comfortable with this course of action. But they followed Jesus anyway. And just their luck, they got hit by a storm. It’s so bad that “the boat was being swamped by the waves” (8:24).

And Jesus was asleep.

This story contains a lot of interesting details and it is certainly about more than Jesus’ sleep patterns. But I wonder if there’s a lesson here in this little sentence about the sleeping Jesus. Perhaps what we see as a catastrophic storm may, in reality, be something that is not worrying God so much. Rather than worrying excessively, God may instead be resting comfortably within creation. And we stress ourselves out.

What if we shifted our focus to noticing what God is doing rather than fixating on our fears?

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Mt 14:22-33 NRSV)

The second story has some similar elements to the first, but there’s one big difference: this time Jesus was absent. He told his disciples to go on ahead of him, sending them out into the sea. By themselves. And just their luck, they got hit by a storm. It’s a bad situation: “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them” (14:24). Oh, it’s at night too. Another chaotic situation.

But into the chaos Jesus walked. Verse 25 reads, “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.” Into the struggle his followers have been experiencing during a chaotic night, Jesus walks.

They were trying to stay afloat.

They were wave-battered.

They were terrified (Of ghosts walking on the water. Of the Sharknado potential. Maybe).

They were worn out and exhausted.

They were sleep deprived.

They were alone.

But then they were not.

Into that place Jesus came to them, and spoke the words they needed to hear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Have you ever had an experience where Jesus showed up when you least expected? Have you ever been in a difficult place, and somehow felt that Jesus was with you?

These stories are examples of what is called a theophany: a visible appearance of a god to human beings.[2] Jesus’s actions match what only the Creator is supposed to have the ability to do. Psalm 89 reads, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” In Jesus, the disciples saw their sacred stories of God being acted out in person.

The image of the sea in the Bible points to the world being a sometimes scary and chaotic place. Yet these same scriptures also place God in the midst of that place, joining us there.

Jesus forms and prepares his disciples—he gives them swimming lessons—in the midst of a sometimes dangerous place. And by sending his disciples out and inviting Peter to “come” out onto the water, Jesus emphasizes his faith in his followers.

He trusts us and he encourages us to not be afraid. There is danger in this world, but there is also the Jesus who has overcome the world (Jn 16:33). It feels like Jesus is teaching his followers how to be at home in the “seas” we find ourselves in each day.

As individuals and as a church we find ourselves in difficult places from time to time. I’ve walked with members of our congregation through chaotic situations where we had to radically trust that in some way Jesus was going to show up. As a congregation we sometimes enter unpredictable situations to help and to serve others. We offer support and encouragement to one another. We do this because we trust Jesus, who is at work among us, forming and sending us.

Finally, there’s a question from the first boat story that’s answered in the second:

“What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (8:27)

And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (14:33)

Who is this man who gives order(s) to creation? It is Jesus, the Son of God. In Jesus we personally meet the God of all creation. “God with us.” Chaos and challenge will not keep God away, but instead will be the context where God is and where God brings peace.

Jesus sends us into this world as ambassadors of a new creation. And we can learn to swim here. When we find ourselves swamped and battered by the waves, let us look for Jesus coming toward us, let us take heart, and let us not be afraid.

[1] “The Sea and the Abyss.”

[2] Carla Works points out the revelatory nature of these stories in her commentary on the Matthew 14 pericope.

On the Slow Side

July 29, 2014

If we are to retreat in daily life, we also need to slow down.

-April Yamasaki [1]


I had an opportunity to slow down today. A walk turned into a moment of reflection by the creek. I noticed elements of nature that I miss when I’m riding my bike here or when I’m just too busy to even stop by.

Within this creek, the central feature of our region and the subject of a Hall and Oates song, stand a few small islands. This particular one stood out to me today. For the first time I noticed that the presence of the island creates two different streams for a short stretch. Though it doesn’t look like it from the angle I took the picture (above) the right side is the larger stream, which features a faster-moving current. On the narrower left side, the water flows gently at a slow and steady pace.

On the slow side I notice signs of life: tiny fish swimming underneath, even tinier insects dancing on top. Probably a snake somewhere down there too, but I didn’t want to find out. The peacefulness invites thoughts of wading in and enjoying the cool water.

The larger, faster side reminds me of the pace of life I too often overcommit to. Keep moving. Keep going. Keep up with most of the other people around me. The fact that so many are moving so quickly in the busyness of life doesn’t make it feel any better, though.

I decided to stay on the slow side for a while.

Slowing down allows for thinking, praying, and reflecting. Slowing down I’m reminded of last evening’s conversation with a neighbor, at the playground as our kids were playing together. We talked of taking our boys down to swim in the creek. Slowing down lets us enjoy God’s creation, our conversations, and the company of one another. Slowing down allows for remembering that there is so much to notice in God’s good creation.

And here I re-learn the truth that it’s refreshing to slow down in God’s presence.

[1] April Yamasaki. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal. Herald Press, 2013. 25.

Weeds and Seeds

July 28, 2014

From my sermon preached on July 27, 2014 at Spring Mount Mennonite Church.

Scripture text: Matthew 13:24-32


24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (NRSV)

A parable is a type of short story that is intended to teach a lesson, or sometimes a number of lessons. At first glance a parable might appear quite simple. But with parables there is always more than meets the eye. Even when there’s an explanation given, parables like these rarely feel like simplistic answers. They are an opportunity to reflect, to think deeply about life, and perhaps even be challenged in our understanding.

I think this is what Jesus was trying to accomplish as he used parables to teach. He was trying to help his audience—at least those who were willing—to move forward in wisdom, in mission, and in relationship with God. There’s a short little beatitude in the story at verse 16, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Jesus seeks to open eyes, open ears, and heal those who turn and change their hearts and minds.

So as we reflect on these parables, may we come with eyes open, with ears willing to listen for the Spirit, and a willingness to turn and follow Jesus. AMEN.

The first parable: Weeds among the Wheat

This first story presents a land owner who sowed wheat seeds in a field. During the night “an enemy” came and sowed weeds in the same field. Since the word “enemy” is used in this story, and since Jesus is the one telling this story, it might make us think about how Jesus talked about enemies.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; (Mt 5:43-45 NRSV)

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. (Lk 6:27-28 CEB)

If we turn back in the pages of the Bible to Psalm 23, we find a description of a “shepherd,” one who is a representation of God leading and caring for the people. This description includes the image of a table, a place where God provides space for people to be present with their enemies:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies; (Ps 23:5 NRSV)

According to these scriptures, when enemies are near God doesn’t give his followers weeding instructions. Instead of a call to immediate separation or eradication, God offers space within the presence of enemies. Maybe this space is an opportunity for God’s kingdom to break in—for more people to grow in wisdom and for more people to get in sync with God’s mission. That space would include actively subverting systems and powers which produce destructive results. But to do so in the way Jesus advocates requires his followers to be present in that space—just like Jesus was—living as peacemakers who offer life-giving alternatives. Of course, this kind of work is very difficult. That’s probably why simple, easy answers are often preferred-especially here in our suburban context.

Let’s get back to the story. When the plants grew, the result was not a pure field with one kind of crop, but instead a field with multiple kinds of plants—wheat and weeds. This troubles the workers of the household, and they immediately want to hunt down and root out the weeds in the name of purity. They want weeding instructions from the boss and they seem really motivated to act. There’s an impatience to the workers response. I wonder…is this about a need for control?

But the owner responds by saying “No…Let both of them grow together (13:29-30). He cancels the weeding out mission before it can start. Because a mission focused on weeding out has a high probability to cause damage.

At times in its history the Church has listened to the voice of impatience rather than the voice of the Spirit, and tried to take control of the situation. And in the process horrendous damage has occurred. The Crusades and the Inquisition represent active forms of weeding missions. And the uncountable Protestant divisions over whatever-hot-issue-of-the-day could represent passive-aggressive forms of weeding (“so-and-so gave us no choice so we had to split”). Damage results, even when we think we’re righteous. 

The owner in the parable seems to indicate that there’s a bigger picture to this whole project—a view that the owner has but that the workers lack. And the owner takes the responsibility for the final results, for making all things right at harvest time. The owner will be the judge. In the explanation of the parable Jesus indicates that he is the owner. Perhaps the patience of Jesus in this story is intended to open us up to new possibilities. Is it possible that some of the “wheat” would actually act like weeds? And that some of the “weeds” would actually act like wheat? This harvest time could be quite surprising.

Dandelions are considered by many people to be one of the worst weeds. They invade lawns with those stunningly bright yellow flowers. And soon they go to seed they reproduce like crazy. I grew up with a different view of dandelions than maybe most people did. Our family consumed dandelions in various ways. The greens were used for salads at spring and summer gatherings (with some kind of bacon dressing, because everything tastes good with bacon). And my grandfather would make wine from dandelions: when I was pretty young I used to spend hours collecting dandelions for him for this purpose.

This readily available “weed” has value as a food. Last April Goshen College held a “Dandelion Day on campus to help people understand the value of this unappreciated plant and to think about sustainability and stewardship. The campus chef took these green & yellow weeds and created dishes like salads, omelets,and even cupcakes.

Perhaps we should be careful what we call a “weed”?

The second parable: Mustard

The mustard plant was a shrub that grew in the wild. Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with it. The mustard plant would grow continuously, and if one got into your garden it would have no problem taking over the whole space.

Jewish law actually had some specific directions[1] about what was proper to plant in a garden, and mustard was not allowed around other crops. I don’t think it was that mustard was a bad thing—the prohibition seems to have been more concerned with keeping mustard under control. The way mustard plants grew seemed to go against established order and patterns. Does this parable also hint at our desires to control?

when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Mt 13:32 NRSV)

There is hospitality pictured here. In the bible, “birds” are sometimes used as an image for people or nations.

On Israel’s mountainous highlands I will plant it, and it will send out branches and bear fruit. It will grow into a mighty cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs. (Ezekiel 17:23 CEB)

The parable pictures different people coming to join in God’s kingdom and receiving a welcome and hospitality that sustains life.

What might we learn from these parables? The workers in the story learn that God’s mission requires patience and trust, and that God is in control, not them. As we see in many places in the NT, patient endurance is involved in the coming of God’s kingdom. God knows that things are not right in the world. But God promises to hear our cries and be present within the mess. Aaron Klinefelter recently wrote,

We want a God who divides in this life, but what we get is a God who abides and lives within the ambiguity of all things.[2]

Rather than bringing quick judgment, God’s compassion includes patience and space for more people to know the abundant life of God’s kingdom. In this time we abide with Christ and seek to produce fruit that is a blessing (Jn 15:4). 

Tom Wright wrote this about today’s parables,

Somehow Jesus wanted his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work, and that this kingdom would come, would fully arrive, not all in a bang but through a process like the slow growth of a plant… [3]

The slow, patient approach might seem like God isn’t doing anything or that God doesn’t care. But Jesus used this approach as he was teaching, preaching, and healing. People were valued and transformed. When we look at Jesus we can see God and God’s compassion and care.

When we’re really motivated to weed, maybe we should stop and think: Do we know everything that God does? Do we have all the answers? Do we completely understand how or what God is transforming?

Rather than pulling weeds, perhaps our job is to plant seeds.

[1] Claiborne, Shane and Chris Haw. Jesus For President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 103. See also


[3] Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone: Part One. Westminster John Knox Press. 170.

Book Review: Slow Church

June 12, 2014



A few weeks ago I came across a product that highlighted for me the instant, need-for-speed reality of our consumeristic culture in the United States. The sole purpose of this product was to cook ramen noodles faster and easier. It was designed specifically to cut down all the waiting: for the water to boil, the noodles to cook, etc. According to the ad, having to wait fifteen minutes for a meal to be ready is just too long for busy people to endure.

Apparently, we have reached the point where cooking ramen noodles takes too long.

“Slow” is a challenge. “Slow” probably qualifies as a four-letter word in the suburban context that I inhabit. We like convenient, pre-packaged, easier, bigger, and especially faster!  Churches and ministries often talk about gaining “momentum,” and it is usually in the context of gaining speed. However, over time this need for speed can create tension in both personal and congregational life. For this reason I have been looking forward to Chris Smith’s and John Pattison’s new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.

Smith and Pattison present the case for a slower, more patient, more intentional life in community as followers of Jesus.

At the heart of our vision of Slow Church is a theology deeply rooted in the importance of the people of God to God’s mission in the world and in the rich joy of shalom that comes to all creation as we grow and flourish in the places to which we have been called. (33)

This vision is an incarnational one which invites us into the practice of “cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (32). This kind of life is messy, it is not easy and it is not  fast. But it can help us move more in sync with God’s mission in the world.

The authors highlight a number of values and practices that are a part of the Slow Church vision, such as place, stability, patience, wholeness, work, sabbath, abundance, gratitude, hospitality, conversation, and meals. Speed can cause us to neglect or be deficient in these practices, so Slow Church invites us to slow down and engage (or reengage) with these important practices and elements of life and faith.

As a pastor of a small local congregation I found the book to be a great encouragement and source of theological reflection. Smith and Pattison included a chapter on “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church,” which I really appreciated as I’ve written about similar topics and regularly experiment with this kind of practice with our congregation. Slow Church is an enjoyable read and also includes discussion questions at the end of the chapters. The questions enhance each chapter making the book a great resource for reflection in congregations and church leadership teams. I’m excited to use this book as a tool for equipping us as a congregation in these rhythms.

In a fast-paced culture, “slow” can be a challenge. But it is a challenge we would do well to accept. And Slow Church is certainly a valuable contribution for the spiritual formation of the church today.

My 6 Word Story About Jesus

May 13, 2014

From time to time in my congregation we will participate in a “communal sermon” in place of a regular sermon preached by an individual. I have found this practice to be a way for us to be both spiritually formed and to grow as a community valuing multi-voiced approaches to worship. We most recently did this during the Easter season and the text was from Luke 24:13-24 (NRSV):

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

There appears to be a kind of simple creed or faith statement included in this narrative, beginning with “The things about Jesus of Nazareth.” The statement describes Jesus as prophet, condemned, crucified, and alive. Of course, later in this story Jesus is revealed to his hosts in the act of breaking bread together at the table. But the short, ancient form of talking about Jesus, found here in the first half of the story, stood out and offered a chance to explore the idea through some modern day lenses.

I’d heard of the “six word story” technique for creating a complete yet extremely short story. Ernest Hemingway is thought to have dabbled in this kind of writing, after some friends challenged him to write a complete story with only 6 words.[1] In our day this kind of storytelling can work well on social media forms like Twitter, and I’ve participated in this type of writing there before.

We used the hashtag #My6WordStoryAboutJesus. This would be our topic and also a means to share our stories. Telling our stories about Jesus felt like a good way to help us journey through the Easter season as witnesses to Jesus. Our instructions were simple: if you could only use 6 words, what would you say about Jesus?

After a time of reflection we shared our stories aloud with one another. We ended up creating a long list of short stories about Jesus, which were later tweeted from our Twitter account (@SpringMountMC). The exercise created space to engage with the Jesus of the scriptures, to reflect on our personal views and experiences with him, and to listen to each other as we told our stories.

I noticed some consistent themes among those who participated in this storytelling, including ideas like “Jesus is my hope,” and “There is so much I wanted to say.” As a result, the final story written on the list was an appropriate one to close with:

“Tombs and words cannot contain him.”[2]

May we continue to center our lives on the risen, transforming, and uncontainable Christ.





[1] See

[2] Written by Gay Brunt Miller.



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