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I Will Light Candles This Christmas

December 17, 2014

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“I Will Light Candles This Christmas”

-Howard Thurman

Candles of joy, despite all sadness,

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.

Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all the year long.

 

In preparation for this Sunday’s worship gathering I’m in the process of creating a responsive prayer practice for our congregation, using this poem from Dr. Thurman. In the midst of the circumstances that compound our lives, may we discover joy, hope, courage, peace, grace, and love in the light of Christ.


Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Friends United Press, reprint 2011), 19.

 

 

Available Now: A Living Alternative

December 11, 2014

I invite you to check out a new book that was just released, A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World. It was a honor to contribute a chapter to this anthology, joining co-authors A.O. Green, Benjamin L. Corey, Brian Gumm, Chris Lenshyn, Christopher Gorton, Deborah-Ruth Ferber, Donald R. Clymer, Drew Hart, Hannah Heinzekehr, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Joanna Harader, Justin Hiebert, Micael Grenholm, Robert Anthony Martin, Ryan Robinson, Sam Wilcock, Steve Kimes, Tyler M. Tully, and William Loewen.

If you are interested in Anabaptist theology, faith, and practice, then I invite you to check out #ALivingAlternative. To order, click on the links above.

Advent Reflections: Hope

December 1, 2014

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

A word on “hope”:

This is the final risk of my work, the risk of hope. The only history I know is one that drives us into the future, moving like a river toward our best possible evolution. So I am willing to take this history of my people as a sign of all human possibility. I see the way we have come, the chains we have broken, the visions we have maintained as a broad-side invitation to all people. Our history joins with that common hopeful element in all histories of human struggle for community and calls each of us to develop our great hidden capacities to dream, to imagine a new American society, to become full participants in its creation, bursting with our courage and hope the barriers of all the political, economic, and social institutions that now hold us in bondage to our worst selves.

Vincent Harding

Prayer:

Come, Lord Jesus-form and shape us into people of courage, healing, and hope. Amen.


Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. xxv.

Solvitur Ambulando

November 25, 2014
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Members of my congregation prayer-walking during one of our “Walking Church” services.

This fall I have been reading What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, by Thomas G. Long. In the book there is a section titled “Solvitur Ambulando,” a Latin phrase that means “it is solved by walking.” This section has particularly stood out to me as I consider what it means to participate in community contexts like neighborhoods, families, and churches.

Long describes solvitur ambulando as

a completely different way of knowing, a knowing that comes only to those who are actively engaged in the questions they are asking. (115)

This phrase connects thought and action. Which makes it a counter to passivity and distance, which is often a path of lesser resistance. The experience of walking can open us up to discovery and understanding.

I preach and teach often in my suburban Mennonite congregation. This role is part of a larger list of responsibilities that make up my pastoral job description. I enjoy this role and feel the need to take great care in practicing it. Sometimes the weekly process of prayer, meditation, study, and writing quickly leads to a sermon, or at least the general outline of one. But there are also times when “preacher’s block” sets in, and I can’t find the right words or I don’t know where to start and it’s Friday but Sunday’s coming. During times such as these I have found it helpful to take a break and take a walk. Conveniently, the county trail system runs through our neighborhood and provides a fantastic route for exercising and for experiencing nature. The combination of physical exercise and space for silent reflection allows for refocusing and provides refreshment. Though I typically have good results with this practice, I still have to convince myself sometimes that this walking is helpful (even needed), and that it’s not a diversion or a waste of precious time. In this area of my life, walking has led to discovery and to a lessening of anxiety.

My local church conference gathered recently for our annual assembly. The word “conference” itself is a term that feels like a corporate form of solvitur ambulando-actively engaging, working, and walking with one another. We gather to share, to speak, to “confer.” We are reminded of a common mission (the theme of this year’s gathering was “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping”). And we visibly see that we are part of something larger and more diverse than just ourselves.

What might be solved, learned, and experienced as we walk together?

One of the highlights for me of this conference assembly was the opportunity provided for table conversations. The meeting agenda wasn’t too large and the time required for voting was pretty minimal, so there was space created to be with one another in conversation. Building relationships requires that we learn to inhabit the same space well, and intentionally seek to know and value each other. Walking requires some working.

DanisaNdlovu

Danisa Ndlovu, President, Mennonite World Conference.

For me that weekend, Solvitur ambulando meant learning to sing a Haitian worship song in Creole, listening to a message about global Anabaptist relationships from Danisa Ndlovu, and hearing my friend and colleague Pastor Marta Castillo remind us that “Waiting on God is expectant and hopeful.” My view of the world and of faith is continually enriched as I commit to walk with a wide variety of friends. 

Thomas Long particularly connects the idea of solvitur ambulando with how we engage theological questions.

The most important theological questions are often “solved by walking” – that is to say, they are questions that yield the deepest insights when they are explored with the eyes of faith… exploring issues and questions as a person of faith can be a bit like looking through night-vision binoculars: faith enables us to see more of what is genuinely there, things we would have missed otherwise. To love God and to walk in faith with God is to be joyfully drawn into a deeper and deeper understanding of the ways of God. (116-117)

When we find ourselves struggling to hope, or wrestling with the anxieties of living in a complex world, perhaps we might recall “solvitur ambulando,” and keep walking together in faith. May we be drawn in to the hopeful expectation that, as we participate with one another, the Spirit will do transforming work in us and through us.


Thomas G. Long. What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

 

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
swimming2

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.” http://www.followtherabbi.com/world/encyclopedia/article/the-sea-and-the-abyss

[2] Carla Works points out the revelatory nature of these stories in her commentary on the Matthew 14 pericope. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2144

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