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Thanksgiving

One of my spiritual mentors at Wellspring is a man named George. He notices patterns, and he pointed out a key pattern once in our worship planning when we were planning a communion service. He said, “Every time Jesus blesses a meal it follows a pattern: he (1) takes that which is being offered (bread and fish in the feeding of the multitudes or bread and cup in the last meal with his disciples), (2) gives thanks (3) breaks the bread and (4) then gives it to others.” While it was something I took for granted, the significance of that pattern did not escape me as George was sharing that insight.

As I have reflected upon that reality, I have come to the opinion that perhaps we don’t really get what our national holiday known as Thanksgiving is all about. We are a society of consumers, and our consumption can be quite conspicuous. We are people who may get what Thanksgiving is all about when counting our blessings, but we tend to turn Christian thinking of gratitude into an antithetical holiday of gluttony in our gatherings and celebrations.

I saw a video that was produced by a church in Charlotte, NC, for Christmas. It was a clever video where a man and woman wake up gift-wrapped and yell, “I’m alive!” The children, too, are gift-wrapped, and as they begin their day, everything is seen as a gift: electricity, running water, breakfast food, a briefcase, and a car. While I respect the message that we must see everything as a gift of God, I had a problem with the video. For every scene, I envisioned people in this world who do not have those things: quality of life, clean water, ample food, transportation, or even shelter. Leave it to me to throw cold water on a good message that challenges us not to take these things for granted.

What I realized was that this reflects our normal American way of doing Thanksgiving. We are thankful for those things that we have that others don’t have. It has become enough to make us thankful for those things that are blessings not afforded to everyone around the world. This is most assuredly NOT the message of Jesus.

Taking. Jesus takes the bread or the cup or the fish. He receives it as a gift. When the child offers the gift of loaves and fish that will become enough to feed the multitudes, Jesus considers it a gift. He receives it on behalf of all whom it will bless.

Giving Thanks. Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving. Whether in the feeding of the multitudes or the last meal he shares with his followers, he offers a prayer of authentic gratitude. It is an acknowledgment that God is the purveyor of all good gifts and that nothing we have comes from any other source than God.

Giving. Jesus then gives. Even before he takes any for himself, he gives it to others. Jesus is simply not Jesus unless he is focused on others … pouring himself out for others even to the point of death. The end result of his “thanksgiving” is that he is not focused at all on privileges or consumer goods that we so often think of as our blessings. He gives thanks for a God who provides daily bread and abundant living and then seeks to be an agent of that provision himself.

So my thought here is that perhaps the best way of giving thanks is to do more than pause to thank God for the modern conveniences that we consider blessings. Not a little more; a lot more. My thought is that we could perhaps use our season of Thanksgiving to become agents of God’s provision to others.

When we thank God for clean water, perhaps we ought to support efforts to provide clean water for the huge part of our global population that doesn’t have access to clean water. When we thank God for the food we conspicuously consume, what would happen if we made sure that people around the world have access to the nutrition they so desperately need? When we give thanks for health and life, perhaps we should focus our efforts on providing for basic healthcare needs of the millions around the world who suffer and die from ailments we handily treat with vaccinations, prescriptions and even over-the-counter medications.

A friend pointed out several years ago that we would do well if we simply observed the name of the holiday. It is “Thanksgiving” and not “Thanks-taking.” May this season become for us a way to become agents of God’s provision as we “take, offer thanks, break bread and give” our gifts and ourselves wholly for the God who calls us into solidarity with the least of these our sisters and brothers.

That Thanksgiving , my friends, would transform our world! Happy Thanksgiving!

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Trauma

It was certainly our sickness that he carried,
    and our sufferings that he bore,
    but we thought him afflicted,
    struck down by God and tormented.
He was pierced because of our rebellions
    and crushed because of our crimes.
    He bore the punishment that made us whole;
    by his wounds we are healed.
Like sheep we had all wandered away,
    each going its own way,
    but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes. (Isaiah 53:4-6, CEB)

The older Greek words for “wound” are τιτρώσκω (titrōskō) + μᾰ (ma) which led to a Greek word like we find in Luke’s telling of the story of the Good Samaritan: τραυματα (traumata (or trauma)- see Luke 10:34). To be wounded is to be traumatized. And we live in a world of trauma. The violent attack on our brothers and sisters at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs brings this violence very close to home (it is only about 10 miles from where my nephew and his wife live, so it is intensely personal for me). We know about trauma.

While the rest of the country moves into debates about guns and domestic violence (conversations which certainly must be had), I am simply struck by how much violence exists in our world and in our culture. Within all levels of government, in almost every level of civil discourse (though “civil” might be a stretch), in all sorts of media (including news and social media), in our families, and in every community, we have increasingly become more violent with each other, whether in word or deed. Our language lacks dignity, and it is simply not possible to have true debate and dialogue by casting phrases of 140 characters or less back and forth at each other.

The tragic shooting in Sutherland Springs, in my mind, is a result of the violent culture we tend to perpetuate in our nation and in our world. We, who are the children of God and the followers of Jesus, might just have something to say to those who perpetuate this violence in their speech and in their actions. After all, we are descendants of a Savior and a people who know about trauma!

My first response to this tragedy is to remember that we are people who are called to love God and love our neighbors (those who both love us and hate us). We are called to stay connected, and my first inclination is simply to spend time in prayer. My first and primary connection is to God. My second primary connection is to my neighbor. My prayers have been for my Baptist neighbors in a town I have never visited. Through our United Methodist connection, we have seen that some of the first chaplains on the scene (including the pastor of the Methodist Church in Sutherland Springs) represent well the reach and effective ministry of the United Methodist Church. We will let our hands support those hands that are first-responders to the scene.

We will support our neighbors by resisting from giving into fear and anger. The debates that had arisen by 1:00 PM on Sunday afternoon on social media were based on anger and fear. People were already calling each other names and angrily supporting their own position on everything from military service to domestic violence to gun control. This kind of dialogue was both inappropriate and unhelpful for those who suffered in this terrible tragedy.

My next response is to look more deeply at what is happening. Behind our hate and aggression is an innate fear. We are afraid of losing control. We are afraid of being vulnerable. We are afraid of losing power or prestige or wealth. We are afraid of what might happen if we lay down our false idols to follow the one true God of Isaac and Jacob and Ruth and the Syrophoenician woman and her Jesus.

This coming Sunday, the lectionary leads us to a great passage from Joshua where Joshua challenges the people of Israel to live out their relationship fully with their God by laying down their idols. I find it interesting that they had idols this late in the game. They are the people who had left Egypt, wandered through the wilderness, been given the law by Moses (who subsequently destroyed the idol they had created), and who had marched triumphantly to the drumbeat of God into the land of promise. Now they had idols! Why?

I think the answer for them is the answer for us. Trusting God is hard stuff. It means that we have to let go of our fear and trust that God is capable of leading us to a new land of promise where there is no need for false idols because the one true God is more than enough. As humans, the easiest thing for us is to pick up the idols that make us feel most secure (even when they provide no security whatsoever). The journey I am ALWAYS on is the journey from fear to faith.

What then do I do in the face of this horrific violence? I certainly am not going to perpetuate violence with my speech. While we rightly have debate around the social ills that plague us, I am more interested in reaching out to my neighbors and listening. I will listen for their very real fears and their anxieties. I will listen for the trauma that exists beneath the surface. I will then look beyond the fear and the violence to witness the presence of God that leads us to the new creation.

This past Sunday, we read from the Revelation to John. In talking about those who had been killed and tortured in the great persecution, John says that they are gathered around the throne. Paradoxically, their robes are pure white after having been washed in the Lamb’s blood. I told the congregation that it finally can be distilled down to two words: “God wins!”

When you think about it, our universe was born out of trauma. The explosion of stardust that set our universe into motion was a blast that even science can scarcely imagine. Our own planet was shaped and set in orbit by countless meteoric strikes, and even our moon is but a piece of space debris that ended up orbiting our planet. Our universe is born of trauma.

We humans are born of trauma. The description of birth, to me, a pretty traumatic. We are expelled from the safety of our mother’s womb in a traumatic way. We are jostled, and our first breath is a cry.

In the same way, we who are children of God and joint heirs with Christ somehow get that we are born of trauma. The biblical witness is that even our salvation is born from the wounds of our savior and that there is a gift of life that awaits those who are born of this great tribulation.

So listen, my sisters and brothers, to our God who gives us the message of hope. Listen to your neighbors for their fears and their worries. Then offer them a witness of the way of Christ … a way that is devoid of fear yet which, paradoxically, is born out of trauma and suffering. May it be a way that leads us ultimately to peace and social justice for all of God’s children.

Maybe … just maybe … we will discover a way that moves us from violence to peace … from fear to faith.

 

 

Promises

Leah and I married young and have been blessed with a beautiful life that includes both laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, but above all, it has been held by the bonds of love. From their birth, I have loved my children more than I ever thought possible. The story that follows here, therefore, is only a small (albeit, life-changing) part of our story.

One year ago today, I took back the promise.

From the time Layne was a little girl, she was always my baby girl. She had a way of looking at me with her big brown eyes and could so easily get Daddy to say “yes” to whatever it was she wanted. She could melt my heart with her sweet little smile, and like most fathers, I would have done anything to provide for her and protect her from all harm. Often to her mother’s and brother’s chagrin, Layne had her daddy wrapped around her little finger. Just as I had done for her brother, the moment I looked into her eyes, I made a promise that I would always be here for her.

In her teenage years, I heard a new song that had come out. It spoke my feelings as a father to a beautiful daughter. It was the song Baby Girl by Will Hoge. Some years later, I had the opportunity to create my own ringtones, and for Layne, I created the ringtone that is the chorus of that song. It is still my ringtone for Layne today.

Oh little baby girl
Sweet little baby girl
Be strong in this great big world
Oh little baby girl

Then she grew into a young lady, and suddenly there was another Jeff involved in her life. This was someone who brought a smile to her face greater than I ever thought possible. It was evident early on that she and Jeff were in love. She moved to Denver to be closer to him at the Air Force Academy, and she moved there taking my promise to watch over her, provide for her and protect her. Even if it meant stepping out of meetings, I always answered my phone when she called, and she knew her mom and I would be on the next plane, if she needed us.

But please understand this is not about whether Layne is capable of taking care of herself. She learned from her mother that she can do anything she sets her mind to do, and her adventures in this world are certainly not dependent upon having a man make it happen. This is about the promise of a father to be present to his children, no matter what.

Layne’s brother, Philip, and sister-in-law, Magen, were wed on 26 June 2010, and it was on that Thursday, 24 June, that Jeff wanted to have a talk with me. He had a velvet bag with him, and in it was a box. Everyone conveniently knew to be gone so that Jeff and I spent part of the evening alone. We sat on the back porch of the cabin in Salado, Texas, where everyone was staying, and he said, “I want to talk to you about what is in this bag.”

I told him to go ahead. He then told me about how much he loved Layne and the plans he and Layne had discussed. He then showed me the ring and asked me if I would accept his promise to take care of my daughter … my baby girl … always to be present to her and love her for the rest of their lives. He was waiting until after Philip’s and Magen’s wedding to propose, but he wanted my blessing.

We talked about how difficult relationships can be. We talked about his future career (which was yet to unfold) in the Air Force and about the stresses they would encounter. We talked about resources and tools that might be necessary to maintain a strong relationship and build a strong family. Of course, I was doing more of the talking at that point, but he was ready with the promise. He understood and assured me that I would not be disappointed in how he would fulfill that promise.

Finally, we talked about what he would call us. Jeff had been raised by Christian parents who taught him that respect for people his parents’ age always meant he would call them by title and name. He alternated between calling me Mr. Smith and Dr. Smith. He called Leah Mrs. Smith. We had previously told him that we gladly went by Jeff and Leah, but he said that would just never do. So this was my chance. I told him that I would only grant my blessing and accept his promise to love and care for my daughter in marriage if he never again called us those formal names. Without batting an eye, he said, “Fine, you can be Dad2 and she will be Mom2.” Later, we would just become Mom and Dad.

A blessing was granted and a promise was made. And Jeff fulfilled that promise to the fullest.  They were married on 11 June 2011, and he loved Layne in the ensuing five years with a greater love than most get to experience in a lifetime. Together they explored every part of their world. He was always fascinated with new outdoor adventures. They learned new things, they tried new foods and new customs, and they made friends that will last a lifetime.

When KB was born, she was blessed with a daddy like none other. Jeff loved his baby girl with as much enthusiasm and love as I loved my baby girl. She has so much of her daddy in her. She can make us laugh and cry just like he did.

Then it happened. The phone call at 3:15 AM a year ago on 23 September. Jeff had died, and our baby girl’s world was shattered. By 5:30 AM, we were at the airport ready to board the next plane that would begin the longest flight of our lives … trying to get to not just one baby girl, but both of our baby girls.

Jeff died in Guam, and because of delays in the autopsy, he wasn’t returned to us until 4 October. Between the time he had died and his dignified transfer back to Hawaii, KB had turned 3 and the squadron had thrown her an over-the-top birthday party. Then the day arrived. 

 

The two men who had promised to take care of my baby girl could do nothing at that moment to keep her world from shattering. All I could do was stand and watch … practicing presence, but wanting to protect them and make all of this just go away.

Following the dignified transfer and a luncheon, we then got to see him in the hangar. He was lying in state just below the canopy of the Raptor bearing his name. Layne went in with two of their closest friends to see him first and within a few minutes, we joined her. I tarried a bit and then had the chance to see him … to speak to him. In my mind, I had already recounted the promises and the dreams he had shared with me. I stood by the casket and touched his chest, and said, “It’s OK, Son. I’ve got this. I’ll take back that promise now.”

DSC_9471.jpg

He had lived up to his promise to be the son-in-law I expected him to be, and it was my turn to be the father-in-law he expected me to be.  It was my job to make sure the promise he had made to care for his wife and children was still kept. 

So I am now the keeper of the promise. And while Layne is returning to the island exactly one year to the day that her beloved husband came home to that island, I will still hold the promise even from a distance. As it has been in the past, it is the promise of presence, no matter the miles that separate us.

Maybe … just maybe … this is what God does for us. We are called to live in covenant love with God and one another. We make promises about how we will be present to one another, to sustain one another, and to care for one another. We try our best, and sometimes, we are successful in fulfilling our promises. At other times, however, we are weak. Sometimes there are things that happen beyond our control, and there is no way finally to fulfill the promise.

It is then that God gently touches us and says, “It’s OK, my child. I’ve got this.” And the promise is fulfilled because God is a God of the Eternal Promise. This is Emmanuel … our God who promises to be with us, no matter what we face.

So to my precious family and to everyone to whom I have made promises, I know I am merely mortal and finally incapable of keeping the promises like I want them kept. But we have a God who takes those promises, adds to them the promise of a life that is eternal and abundant, and empowers us to live into the eternal promise of God’s grace-filled presence.

Jeff, you are missed so much. Our hearts still ache at the mention of your name, but we always want to hear your name and the stories people tell about you. And we are living into the promise to care for and love your family in a way that honors your memory. Layne is still my baby girl, and your children have a family that loves them more than life itself.

Layne, here is a secret you may not know. These are the lyrics of the first verse of the song and the chorus. This is why I chose the song. It’s your song, Baby Girl!

May the sunlight find your face
Even when the rain does fall
And get back on your feet again
Every time you slip and fall
Keep your heart wide open
And always taking in
And even when it’s broken
Be strong enough to fix it up again

Oh little baby girl
Sweet little baby girl
Be strong in this great big world
Oh little baby girl

Love, Dad

The Irony of Grace

There is something ironic happening within my own denomination. I was born into the Methodist Church, and I was seven years old when the denomination united with the Evangelical United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church. My maternal grandmother and her parents were German (her parents having immigrated at the very turn of the 20th century), so having being United Methodist has suited me well as we joined the anglo-saxon (Anglican) forces with the German (Lutheran-descended EUB) forces. It was like this was the denomination that just had my name written all over it!

It was into this tradition that I was baptized and confirmed. It was in this tradition that I heard the call of God to be a pastoral leader in the church. It was this denomination and tradition into which I was ordained. It was in this tradition that I first learned of the powerful importance of grace.

It was early in my ministry when I was looking for the perfect closing salutation to correspondence. In a day that preceded email or digital communication of any sort, I sought to have something that far exceeded the “sincerely” normally found at the close of a letter. I looked at various religious options (I was a new member of the clergy, after all, and I couldn’t let people down with something that was either too lame or too over the top). After careful consideration, I finally decided upon a single word: Grace.

In time, I even took the closing of my correspondence to the next level, and I began to wrap the upper loop of the “J” in Jeff around the word grace. It was something that came to symbolize for me that grace was at the heart of everything I did, and grace was what defined my ministry.

Without spending too much space here covering the full theology of grace and its many formulations in the Wesleyan tradition, suffice it to say that I spent the ensuing years of my ministry learning about the nuances and boldness of grace. I learned about the merciful and terribly demanding nature of grace. I learned about how grace is not just that saving power of God; I learned that grace is the power to transform us and shape us and move us closer to the heart of God. A good Methodist here inserts a thought of “Christian perfection.” (Google it, if it doesn’t make sense).

And grace is the way in which we relate to one another. The readings for this Sunday have led me in two directions at once, so I am addressing one here and taking a slightly different direction with the sermon this week. The two passages we (meaning, my worship planning team and I) have settled on are Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35.

In Romans, Paul is talking about people who are stronger and weaker and people who are simply different from one another. He is talking about people who have different opinions or thoughts (dare we say theology?) and how we are called to live in community with one another regardless of what day we consider to be holy or what food or drink we feel best enhances our faith journey. He asks who we are to judge or restrict someone else’s servants, and by that he means those who serve Christ and who do not serve the person who is judging. He challenges us to live in grace with one another.

In Matthew, Peter has come to the end of this chapter on reconciliation asking how many times we have to forgive our brother or sister. He assumes that the number seven sounds like a “perfect” number of times, so he offers that up. And Jesus answers that it is so much more than that. Then he tells a parable of a man who is forgiven by a king over a debt of 10,000 bags of gold (let’s just say a gazillion dollars), but the forgiven man turns around an puts someone else in prison who owes him only $10.00. Jesus says it’s about to get bad for the guy who was given grace over the bazillion dollars yet who failed to share that grace with the $10 debtor.

And my point is this:

THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH PROCLAIMS GRACE AS CENTRAL TO OUR CORE IDENTITY, YET WE FAIL TO PRACTICE GRACE WITH ONE ANOTHER AND ACTUALLY HAVE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT PARTING WAYS IN THE CHURCH.

We want to think that the issues we face have to do with a divide over homosexuality, but I have come to the conclusion that it is less about homosexuality and much more about our inability to make room at the table for people who are very different from us. We, who are the literal beneficiaries of grace, have failed to be benefactors of grace in our common life together. Most people know where I stand on the issues of inclusiveness, but I am here saying that my form of inclusiveness is to draw the circle wide enough to include people who don’t share my views on inclusiveness. (It’s ok to spend some time re-reading that … I had to, as well).

I think perhaps Jesus’ and Paul’s admonitions to us might be taken to heart. It’s going to get bad for us who have been forgiven the bazillion dollar debt when we fail to overlook the $10 debt and fail to invite our debtors to join us for a meal at the table. Are we people of grace or are we not?

So the irony here is that the church that proclaims grace as a core part of its theological and doctrinal underpinnings is having a hard time living into its legacy of grace!

I am a home-key typist (people over 50 know what that means), and there are times that I get typing so fast that, when I go to type United Methodist Church, I slip and instead call it the Untied Methodist Church. Sometimes I wonder if we are becoming more untied than united, but I am hopeful. I still believe in and make every effort to live by grace! Perhaps … just perhaps … God’s prevenient grace will shine on my beloved church once more and remind us that we are all about …

Jeff Signature

I had a great and unique privilege handed to me last week. I was invited to be a guest preacher for a sister church in our community. It wasn’t what you might expect. I was invited to be the preacher for the 148th Anniversary of Wesley Chapel AME Church in Georgetown. I made mention at the outset that it was fascinating to me that they would choose a head-shorn anglo pastor (who looked more like a bar bouncer or perhaps even a white supremacist than a pastor of a church that is truly open to everyone). The church was alive with excitement as members of Wellspring joined in with members of Wesley to celebrate our common heritage, and more specifically, the witness of Wesley Chapel to the community and our world at large.

As I prepared for the service, I did a quick calculation and realized that 148 years ago was 1869. As soon as I saw the date, my head began spinning. I quickly confirmed what I knew were other significant dates. The Civil War had gone from 1861 to 1865. Word of the Emancipation Proclamation had only reached Texas on June 19, 1865 (a date known simply as Juneteenth). I am a lover of history, and I know well how Juneteenth was loathed by slaveholders and other white supremacists. The KKK got busy after 1865 and began to make sure that the freed slaves would be denied as many rights as they could possibly dream of taking away. Crosses were burned in the yards of sympathizers, lynchings were happening frequently for the smallest of infractions on the part of black Americans, and racism had a firm grip on Texas. One of the strongholds of the KKK was right where we live in Central Texas. To be fair, Williamson County was the first county where prosecutorial success in convicting the KKK for illegal activity happened in the 1920’s. It remained true, however, that racism was firmly rooted in Georgetown … especially in 1869.

And right into the midst of that racism a group composed (at least in part) of former slaves planted a church … Wesley Chapel AME.

Bold. Humility. On August 20th, I preached at Wellspring on the Canaanite woman and talked about the fact that she was bold (standing toe-to-toe with Jesus) yet humble (accepting her place with the dogs under the table). What I have discovered about the people of color who have stood in the gap to fight racism have likewise practiced a similar “bold humility.” When I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, he was one who was unafraid to speak the truth, yet he never took up violence as a way to make his truth known. When I think of Mahatma Gandhi, I see one who, likewise, sought to speak the truth of the harm of white supremacy yet who never advocated violence. And most especially, when I look at the life of Jesus, I see one who spoke out for those whom he called “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” yet he never advocated violence.

The audacity of a group of African-American people in 1869 to think that they could just up and put a church right in the middle of Georgetown! And then to proclaim the message of Christ as a message of hope for those who were persecuted for nothing more than the color of their skin! This is the boldness that truly inspires me.

Maybe that’s the kind of boldness that is needed in the world today. We still live in a world fraught with racism as evidenced by recent events. We need people who are willing to speak the truth yet who do not speak it violently. We need people who stand with “the least of these,” not because the “least” need help, but precisely because that is where we meet our Christ … in the faces of these whom we seek to help. We are challenged to be a church that reaches across the lines that divide us. We are challenged to be a people who will be bold enough to speak our truth into a culture that is often hostile to the message of Christ.

For me, that means that I must speak clearly and unequivocally about the racism that continues to unfold in our culture. We have a group of people who, for all intents and purposes, benefits greatly from white privilege and that then considers itself somehow disenfranchised or harmed when black people or anyone else speak the truth about racism. This is evident in the “all lives matter” campaign in the face of the “black lives matter” movement. I’m not sure how they can so easily make that claim, but folks, this isn’t about free speech! It is about racism, plain and simple.

As I was privileged to share with my brothers and sisters at Wesley Chapel AME this past Sunday, I was inspired by their boldness and their enthusiasm. I am inspired to speak the truth. I am inspired to stand with my brothers and sisters of all races. I am inspired to speak the word of hope that perhaps we might discover in the Christian faith a world where, as we say at Wellspring, “all are welcomed and all are accepted!” And I want this to be a world where all really means all!

Be bold! Be humble! Let God speak the truth through you!

I have struggled with something for quite a while, and today in my reading, I stumbled upon an idea that had been silently germinating in my mind for quite some time. In our culture, we have this incredible tendency to objectify things. We easily draw lines between groups and races and people of different cultures and even the genders by objectifying them. We see them as either objects of competition, objects of our pursuits, objects to be exploited for our own personal gain or objects that are simply disposable and can be discarded when their usefulness has expired.

Several years ago, as I began my doctoral studies, the consort of which I was a part lived in the same dormitory, ate meals together and studied together for more than three weeks. One of the members of the group referred to the relationships that we would establish as “Bic relationships.” Like Bic products (think anything from ballpoint pens to cigarette lighters), we would greatly enjoy the relationships we established, but they would not be long-lasting and would be discarded once we were no longer together. Ultimately, he was right. We had objectified the relationships to the point that, by graduation, we no longer were really in touch with each other and, after graduation, have completely lost contact.

The relationships were objects … not subjects! Had we chosen to develop subjective relationships with each other, we would have invested ourselves in nurturing those relationships. It would have been less about me and more about the other! But in our educational pursuits, we collectively … I personally … placed ourselves (myself) as the subject (the one at the center) and the other as the object (serving only to support that which was at the center).

I have been reading a book given to me following the death of our son-in-law. A loving soul shared Harold Kushner’s recent book Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. One of the key things he has learned is that God is not a man who lives in the sky. He makes specific reference to Da Vinci’s epic work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and specifically on the part of that work known as the Creation of Adam. In that work, God is depicted as an old, bearded man surrounded by cherubim. While works like this help make God more real for us, they also create serious theological issues and ultimately limit God to the sum total of our own imaginations.

adams_creation_sistine_chapel_ceiling_by_michelangelo_jbu33cut

Kushner then makes an incredible case for the second commandment to create no graven images of God, and he talks about this in such a way that I began to think again about the distinction between subject and object. Who is the subject and who is the object in Da Vinci’s famous work? How do we objectify God by making an effort to cast God in an image limited by human imagination? Is it possible that the second commandment really means that we should avoid objectifying God?

In grammar, the subject of the sentence (usually coming early in the sentence) is acting upon the object of the sentence (usually coming in the second part of the sentence). “Dad is taking Susan to school,” in this analysis, means that Dad is the subject who takes Susan who is the object. The problem is not with labeling people or God as subject or object in grammar. “The congregation worships God” is a good sentence with a great meaning, so this is less about grammar and more about a larger picture.

The larger picture was captured well for me in a work by Dr. Robert Webber, who for years served on faculty at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. His work is titled, The Divine Embrace, and I remembered reading an excerpt of that book in Christianity Today many years ago. The title of the article was God is Not the Object of Our Worship. In that article, he highlights that we think of God as the object of our worship, while we maintain ourselves as the subject of our worship. In other words, the way we worship is so often about us and less about God. It is about how we feel, how we are fed, how we are nourished and how we flourish in our worship. It is about us holding ourselves at the center of our own universe and asking God to serve us and make us whole.

The difference may seem subtle and a bit semantic, but I think it is vitally important. This is where the theme of my life and ministry comes back into play. It is not about us … it is about God. To let go and let God is to see ourselves as the objects of a God who is capable of transforming us and recreating us into God’s own image through our worship. We are the ones acted upon by this one who is the subject of our worship … not the object of our worship. When God is the subject of our worship, we are fulfilled and fed, but in a very different, surprising way than we might ever imagine.

As our family has continued working through a very trying time in our lives, I have been thinking a great deal about the difference between subject and object. In grief and caring ministries at Wellspring, we utilize a diagram that comes from the work of Susan Silk, a psychologist, and Barry Goldman, a family mediator. It is called the Ring Theory of Kvetching. Kvetching is complaining or, in their words, dumping on others. It is the complaint or expression of pain that comes from suffering. The diagram is perhaps best depicted by the Edith Sanford Breast Foundation, and it looks like this:

ring-theory

In our family, we have made it very clear that our daughter and granddaughter are “ground zero” in the tragic death of their husband and father. While the grief is profound for all of us, I am not the one at the very center of this tragedy. For me to kvetch inward is to objectify my daughter and attempt to make myself the subject (the center) of the diagram, and it is incredibly harmful to my daughter and her family should that happen. Likewise, it is harmful to us when people farther removed from the situation kvetch inward to us and, often very unintentionally, displace us from our rightful role in this circle.

Ultimately, this same circle makes sense in our relationship with God. Instead of caring and dumping (kvetching), it has to do with empowering and worshipping. In this way of thinking, God empowers out to us and we worship in toward the center. We are people who are called to worship, but our worship doesn’t happen without the work of the Holy Spirit. When God is the subject of our worship, then it is God’s Holy Spirit who guides and shapes our worship.

Leonard Sweet, in his book, The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong, tells the following story:

There is an old Hasidic story about a young Jewish lad who lived on an isolated farm with his family. They were quite poor and lived simple lives. One day the boy got to travel to a village with his father. He was drawn to a synagogue where he heard prayers being recited. His heart was touched, so he went in and sat down to listen to the prayers. The boy was deeply moved and wanted to join in the prayers, but he could not read the siddur, the Hebrew prayer book. So he closed his eyes and simply prayed the alphabet, “Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, hey, fav …” He recited the alphabet over and over again. Then he said, “O God, I don’t know how to pray or what to say. Here are the letters of the alphabet. Use them to make up the prayer I should pray, the words you would like to hear, and answer my prayer as you see fit for me.”

The boy’s prayer in that story is perhaps the most authentic form of worship. Maybe the best way to keep God as the subject is just to open our mouths, utter the alphabet and ask God to construct whatever it is that needs to be offered in worship.

Jesus, likewise, knew the power of this, and he admonished his followers, “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11, CEB)

And Paul likewise carries out this theme when he says, “In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” (Romans 8:26, CEB)

So as I finished my devotional and reading for today, it became clear to me that God is not the object of my affections. God is the subject of my entire life. God is not the object of my worship. God is the subject of passion in my life.

How different would our church be if we saw God as the subject of our lives? How different would be our world? How would we treat others if we saw them as subjects and not objects of our affections?

This is ultimately the destination of my decades-long journey of letting go and letting God: discovering that God is the subject of everything in my life and we, the children of God, are the objects of God’s affections! Make God the subject and you will change the world!

At an earlier time and an earlier place, I believed that each event in life contained some good in it. I frequently would refer to Paul’s statement in Romans 8 “that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God” as somehow making my point. The point was that, if we just look closely enough, we will find good in all things. No matter what people faced in their lives, I looked for the hidden blessing in each life event.

Then tragedy struck our own family, and I suddenly found myself at a new place in my thinking. There is nothing good about losing Jeff. There is nothing good about my grandchildren who will grow up without their daddy. There is nothing good about my daughter’s loss of her soulmate and life partner. So Paul and I found ourselves at odds with each other. The great hope Paul speaks of in Romans 8 seemed to evaporate like the morning dew, and I could not see anything good.

At one point, I found myself recounting in my mind all the disappointment that 2016 brought to us. Within our family, we were told no about potential job opportunities. We were questioning whether we had bought the right house because it had more rooms than we really needed. I had applied for a clergy renewal leave grant that was denied. It seemed as if the year had brought nothing but disappointment. The brightest spot of the year was that we had two new grandbabies on the way.

Then on September 23, every disappointment we had experienced was forgotten in a heartbeat. Nothing was as painful as the new reality being thrust upon us.

So as I processed the darkness we were facing, I began to reflect upon all of the disappointment and tragedy that defined this year. Then my mind went back again to Romans 8, and as I looked back through that great chapter on suffering and hope, I saw the phrase again. “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.” Only this time, I read it differently.

Nowhere in Romans 8 does Paul say that tragedy or suffering is good. He doesn’t say that all things are good. He said that all things work together for good for the ones who love God. So what does that mean?

It means my wife serves as a principal in a school district with a phenomenal superintendent and staff who more than covered for her and allowed her to be gone for two full months to take care of our daughter and granddaughter. It means that I serve as pastor in a church with a staff and a group of leaders who completely covered for me and protected me in such a way that I could be fully present with our daughter and granddaughter for seven weeks.

It means that we have room in our house for our daughter and granddaughter each to have their own rooms along with a room for a nursery for a baby due in January. It means that, when the baby comes, I will not be on renewal leave but will be fully present to help out with the grandchildren. It means that we have our son and his family living locally to broaden and strengthen the web of support.

It all suddenly became clear. All of these disappointments and seeming setbacks throughout the year had now become our blessings. Every “no” had become a “yes.” They had freed us up to be fully available to our daughter in her darkest time. Indeed, while there was nothing intrinsically good about any of these events, they did, in fact, all work together for good.

So as we discover the “new normal” that is beginning to take shape in our lives, I have come see that I can trust God … I can live according to God’s purpose even in this new reality. And yes, I can see that all things can work together for good and can provide for us a profound hope that, even during times of tragedy and grief, nothing can finally separate us from God’s great love!