Fearing Death

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

Death.
avoiding death
It is not something we want to talk about.
It is not something we want to think about.
Death.
ignoring death
It is uncomfortable at the least and terrifying at the most.
It is coming for all of us, yet we rage and fight against it.
Death is common to all of us, yet is a topic avoided by most of us.
Even among those of us who claim to follow Christ, death seems to be a frightening event and so we try our best to ignore it.
Death will not be ignored.
fearing death
This week I attended a funeral for a young man who was a close friend of my youngest brother growing up.
We all know people for whom death came at a young age.
Death will not be ignored.
Yet death does not have to be feared.
Jesus Himself teaches us this.
Jesus taught us of death
He allowed Lazarus to remain in the grave for several days, rather than healing his illness, to show us that He could control death.
He interrupted funeral processions to raise up the dead, just to show us that He could.
He spoke lightly of His own death, telling His followers that He would die but soon rise again.
Jesus teaches us that death does not have the final word.
death does not win
We serve a God who has all power over everything that we fear, even power over death.
We serve a God who has all power and who loves us as His children.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. ~ Hebrews 2.14-15
He became flesh so that through death He could conquer death.
Rembrandt The Three Crosses
He conquered death and we do not have to be slaves to the fear of death.
defeating death
Lift up your heads. Look to Jesus and do not be afraid.

Art credit: Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt

Capturing our Sacred Imagination

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

We become what we worship.
Cathedral inside
I’ve written of this before:
When we spend our lives focused on and chasing after power, money, sex, adoration from others, we become like those things. We become shallow, insatiable, discontent. Yet when we, here in this glorious temple of creation, spill our very lives in worship to God, we become like Him. We become joyful, content, full of peace.
We are, in the deepest places of ourselves, lovers. We are not primarily thinkers, we are not essentially believers, we are first of all imaginative, desiring creatures defined by what or who we love.
Trinity Lutheran
All of our thoughts and actions spring from what we desire, from our vision of what we see as the good life.
The secular world has this figured out.
Busch_stadium
Shopping Mall
Walk into any mall, step into any sporting arena, and you are immediately drawn into an experience that seeks to change you at your deepest level into someone who wears only Gap clothing or who is a die-hard Cardinals fan.
No one is holding classes on the reasons you should purchase from Gap or handing out pamphlets about the top ten reasons to root for the Cardinals. Rather, an immersive experience is created using all of our senses, an experience that sets in front of us a vision of a good life and then shows us how to pursue that life.
It is incredibly effective.
We in the Church, however, seem to be convinced that humans are primarily thinkers. Brains on a stick, if you will. We seem to think that if we can just teach the correct doctrines, if we can only put forth enough convincing arguments in favor of Christ, people will change their lives, our  children will never leave the Church, and the world will fall to its knees in worship.
Clearly, this is not working.
What if we sought to discern not the essence of Christianity as a system of beliefs (or sumarized in a worldview) but instead sought to discern the shape of Christian faith as a form of life? ~ James K. A. Smith
St Peter altar best
We become what we worship.
The things that we do, the practices in which we participate, shape our desires and thus direct our thoughts and actions.
In other words, to become people of the Kingdom, we must practice being people of the Kingdom.
Lived worship is the fount from which a worldview springs, rather than being the expression or application of some cognitive set of beliefs already in place. ~ James K. A. Smith
If we want our children (and our own selves) to fall in love with Jesus, we must put practices into our days, our months, our years, that work to aim their desires toward God’s Kingdom. We must use all of our bodily senses to pursuade our hearts that God’s will done on earth is the best vision of the good life.
There is a reason God commanded the Israelites to celebrate all of those festivals throughout their year.
There is a reason the Church followed a holy calendar.
DSC_0114
Notre Dame rose window inside
DSC_5653_4_fused
We see this happening some in the liturgies of our churches: the sounds of the music, the colors of the spaces, the feel of the baptism waters, the taste of the Eucharist, the scent of the incense in some faith traditions. These bodily experiences train us to be the humans God created us to be, to be lovers of God and lovers of each other.
Yet once a week for an hour and a half is not enough.
How often during the week do you shop or watch sports events? How many hours do you spend relaxed in front of the television or iPad?
We must put more of these practices into our days. We must weave God and His Kingdom all through our time and space in order to aim our desires, our children’s desires, toward the Kingdom.
1 Dome St Peters
Imagine.
Imagine praying with our families or friends multiple times a day.
Imagine opening our homes to others once a week.
Imagine serving with our families or friends regularly.
Imagine meeting with another family once a week to do life together.
Imagine following the Church holy calendar with your family or with a friend, adding sights, sounds, and tastes to the various feasts and celebrations as you follow the liturgical calendar.
Let the Spirit capture your imagination.
Make no mistake, this is a war. It is a battle for our desires, for our sacred imagination.
You only have to look around at how similarly Christians live compared to those who do not follow Jesus to know who is winning this war.
Let the Holy Spirit give you a vision for what life could look like when we are aware that we are lovers rather than thinkers. Allow Him to give you ideas for capturing your heart and your children’s hearts for Jesus.
Cathedral inside
Ask Him to help you weave practices into your life that aim your desires at their deepest level. Ask Him to help you avoid those secular practices that are currently shaping your desires.
We become what we worship.
We worship what we love.
Shape your life in a way that will aim your love toward God and His Kingdom.

The ideas in this post come from Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith (affiliate link)

Art credits: Busch Stadium photo by Rick Dikeman; shopping mall photo by Jakub Zasina; all cathedral photos by Kirk Sewell

The Girl Whom Jesus Loved

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

Who are you?
How do you see yourself?
Are you parent, child, sibling, aunt? Are you friend, lover, loner, partier? What about artist, engineer, plumber, teacher?
St-johns-seminary-st-john
There once was a man. A pastor and author, one of the main leaders of the Church as it existed then, an eyewitness to Jesus’ miracles. He had a lot going for him.
How did he see himself? What was his self-given identity?
Damiane._Jesus_Christ_and_St._John_the_Apostle.
The disciple whom Jesus loved.
That’s it.
No leaning on his accolades, no referencing his great accomplishments (and he had quite the list of them!), no resting on whom he knew, only falling upon what Jesus thought of him.
Jan-March09 128
The other day, one of my daughters came into my bedroom while I was getting dressed for the day. She looked at me for a bit, then asked me why my stomach hung down all funny and whether I wished it wouldn’t.
I don’t always handle these sorts of things this well, and it took every ounce of self control not to cover up, hide, start mumbling excuses about how I know I need to eat fewer pieces of dark chocolate but YOU KIDS drive me to it…
Instead, I knelt down, looked her in the eye and told her that no, I didn’t wish my body was different. I told her that I knew my body was beautiful because God made it. I told her that my body had grown four human beings inside of it and that made it a little stretchy but that I wouldn’t change it if I could because if my stomach wasn’t stretchy, I wouldn’t have four beautiful girls in my life now.
IMG_6081 - Copy
Giger_OneYear-63
I told her that I was beautiful because God loves me.
She’s only six, so she may not understand just yet, but I want desperately for her and her sisters to only see themselves as one whom Jesus loves. Whether she is looking at her body or her intelligence or her talents, I want her to only see one whom Jesus loves.
I want desperately to be like John.
Every time John refers to himself in his gospel, he calls himself the disciple whom Jesus loved. Nothing else. He does not identify himself by his name or what he did. Only by how Jesus saw him.
When I get to the end of my life, when I look back on all I have seen, all I have done, and all I am, all I want to see is Jesus.
All I want to be is the girl whom Jesus loved.

Art credit: photo of statue of St. John the Evangelist by John Stephen Dwyer; detail from fresco of Jesus Christ and St. John the Apostle from Ubisi, Georgia

Using the T Word

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

There is always a reason behind our actions.
Whether or not we realize it, the way we view God affects what we do and how we do it.
theology
Even if we never explore the beliefs behind our actions, we all believe something about God and the world and it is this belief that comes out in our behavior.
theology
theology
It is precisely because our beliefs dictate what we do that makes it so vital to explore those convictions.
Part of loving God with all of our mind, after all, means being deliberate about what we believe, knowing why we believe it. We all want our actions to be based on truth.
theology
theology
Enter theology.
It is a dirty word in some Christian circles. Some believe that it takes away the joy or emotion of loving God. Others think that theology does nothing but stir up trouble and break up churches. Still others suppose that theology moves away from Scripture, that it creates something that wasn’t there before.
Yet you already have a theology. You have already read Scripture and interpreted it and let what you believe it teaches you about God influence the way you live.
Wouldn’t you rather your theology be one you have prayerfully and thoughtfully considered rather than one that just evolved without conscious decision in your mind over time?
theology
Paul, I believe, was the first theologian. He used his knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures along with his knowledge of Jesus to write some of the first doctrines of the Church. Certainly no one would have accused him of not knowing what he believed or why he believed it.
Theology is what brought us the teaching of the Trinity. The word Trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible, yet by taking such Scriptures as the Shema, Christ’s own claims, and the teachings on the Spirit in the epistles, Church theologians have come up with the doctrine of the Trinity that we all know.
We all want to love God the best we can. We all want our actions to be based on truth. To do this, we all need to evaluate our own beliefs about God with the help of Scripture and what historically the Church has confessed.
Make sure that what comes out in your life, your words and thoughts and actions, is based on well-thought-out theology, not just-what-I-grew-up-thinking theology.
Let’s do our best to know why we do the things we do. Let’s do our best to be sure our actions are based on truth.
Let us love God with all of our mind.

credit: Thanks to Todd Daly for many of the ideas contained in this post.

 

Our Prayer for the New Year

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

We live in a weary world.
Our world searches for light, searches for hope.
img_0766
We who have the light and hope to offer…
…do we?
Our world behaves foolishly as it clutches after joy, looks frantically for peace.
img_0741
We who have knowledge to share of joy and peace in desperate circumstances…
…do we?
Do we shine out the light of the world in rejoicing or shutter it in fear?
Why would we do that? How selfish must we be to withhold life from a dying friend out of fear for ourselves?
Yet we do.
I do.
As we begin a new year, as we close out the old, could we who are light bearers join together in prayer?
img_0731
Could we pray together that God would give us boldness and courage, that He would give us words to say and opportunities to say them, that He would help us to behave wisely and to love well?
Oh, Lord, our God. We are yours. We say to you along with Mary, Behold, we are the servants of the Lord. Do with us what you will.
Amen.

What I Saw

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

Let me tell you what I saw on Sunday.
Let me tell you what I saw as I sat on stage with the worship band at church.
I saw a miracle. A miracle of hope.
I saw a parade of different, a line of people as disparate as could be walk to the front of our church and choose Jesus.
This week the internet has been crammed full of articles and blog posts that tell me that within our church, which identifies as evangelical, the people should be sharply divided. That the white men should be seated on one side and all the rest of us should be seated on the other side, both groups shooting looks of anger and disappointment toward the other.
That’s not what I saw.
I saw, instead, person after person, so many people, walk to the front to be baptized.
I saw Caucasian American, African American, Asian American, Latino American, old, young, men and women all die to their old life and begin their new life in Christ.
And I saw Caucasian American, African American, Asian American, Latino American, old, young, men and women all come to their feet and clap and cheer and whoop and holler for them.
I wept.
All while trying to play a complicated part on a B-3 organ. Not the best plan for playing well.
Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off that baptistry.
Because what I saw on Sunday?
What I saw was hope.
Not perfection. Until Jesus comes back, there will never be perfection here on this earth.
The Church has been responsible for so many atrocious acts over the centuries. Nothing has changed. We are all still human and I know there was still a lot of pain and grief inside of the people in our church. We will still hurt each other and have to apologize and forgive. But there was also a lot of healing.
I saw people set aside, just for that moment, how differently they viewed the world and instead choose to cheer each other on toward Jesus.
I know we often do a horrible job of loving people, but every once in a while we get it right.
This Sunday, I saw us get it right.
I saw that parade of different and I saw the Church urging them on. I saw people focused on Jesus. I saw a miracle of hope.
So don’t give up on the Church.
Take a step back for a moment if you need to and take a deep breath.
But don’t give up on her. She is still the Body of Christ.
She needs us. She needs us to keep reminding her how to love those who are different.
Keep praying for her. Keep standing up against her when she becomes hurtful and standing up for her when others try to hurt her. Keep serving and worshiping with her. As a part of her.
Just keep taking one step at a time, one more step alongside this Church that is loved by Jesus.
After all, if Jesus hasn’t given up on us yet, perhaps we shouldn’t give up on each other either.

Stop Slicing Off Ears

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

It is early October.
An election is fast approaching, along with all of its requisite vitriol.
Flag with light
As emotions become more volatile, as words become our weapon of choice, I offer a word of warning. A plea, to myself as well as to you.
I’ve already spoken of how important it is for us, the Church, to be unified.
DSC_0033a (21)
Not for us to agree on everything, but to love each other. To love each other no matter what.
This is so important that it was one of the last things Jesus asked of God before He was crucified.
Why is this particularly important right now, in this month, in this country?
Flag on brick
As this election looms closer and larger before our wide open eyes, we are afraid.
And fear causes us to do crazy things, both to each other and to those around us who are outside of the Church.
You and I, we who claim to follow Christ, we are falling out of power.
The America of the past – the America of white, Protestant government, is becoming just that. A thing of the past.
Abortion.
Gay marriage.
Transgenders in the military.
Whatever you personally believe about these and other similar issues, most would admit that they are not generally promoted as God-sanctioned by the Evangelical church as a whole.
Just a look at these issues in our country today strips away the illusion that we are in control.
Many are fighting back against this. “Make America great again!” “Take back America!”
We as a Church are good at fighting.
crusades
Throughout our history, we have fought wars, both collectively and personally, against anyone who tries to take away our power.
Our earthly power, that is.
You can look as far back as the first twelve leaders of our church, as far back as Peter, to see our blind tendency to misinterpret what Jesus actually seems to teach.
When Jesus speaks of His kingdom, we assume that He means a kingdom here on earth.
A kingdom that forces everyone to live under God’s rule.
The sort of kingdom we seem to want America to be.
This is what Peter believed. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and how close it was, and Peter decided to help it along by using his sword to start slicing off ears.
st-_peter_cut_slaves_ear_by_duccio
Jesus, however, picked up that ear, placed it back onto it’s owner’s head, and walked quietly off to meet His death.
We are losing power in this country, and perhaps this is a good thing.
The kingdom of God has never increased by force; rather, the kingdom seems to expand most quickly when those who are in power are against it.
Jesus speaks over and over again about His kingdom coming through the humble, the weak, the foolish. He is adamant that the kingdom of God is not about force or any kind of earthly power.
Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew that all of the kings and rulers exercise their authority in one way but you, you who call yourself My disciples, are to do things another way.
He tells them that you are to bring forth My kingdom by becoming a servant, by giving up your life for all.
IMG_4362
Everything we do to live out God’s kingdom here on earth must be done under the shadow of the cross.
Perhaps we should stop fighting to regain political power and start figuring out how to further God’s kingdom in this new America. Perhaps we should remember that God’s kingdom grows best one soul at a time through lives lived in quiet love and service.
Perhaps we should stop slicing off ears and instead begin the work of healing by dying to ourselves as we live as Jesus did. We can start by loving each other.

Art credit: Photograph of cathedral by Kirk SewellImage of the Croisés from 1922; St. Peter Cuts the Slave’s Ear by Duccio di Buoninsegna

What Jesus Thought Was Most Important

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

We are the Church.
You and me.
Trinity Lutheran
Notre Dame rose window inside
Whatever our stage of life or economic status, whatever bits of theology on which we might differ, whatever our politics or race, we are the Church.
When the world wants to know about Jesus, to know what He thought was most important, they look to us.
What did Jesus think was important?
Well, He said that loving God with all of your being was the most important thing of all, followed by loving others. In fact, the Bible teaches that one of the main ways you love God is by loving others.
Jesus thought that this loving others business was so important, in fact, that He named it as the main way that the world would know we follow Him.
Would the world know that today’s church follows Jesus?
Church light
Arched ceiling
If you knew you were going to die in the next day, what would you pray for? Trivialities and side issues, or would you pray for whatever was paramount in your heart?
When Jesus was about to leave His disciples and head toward the cross, what did He pray for? What did He think was most essential?
He prayed for His followers to love each other. He prayed for unity. He prayed that His followers would be one in the same way that He and the Father were one.
We are the Church.
You and me.
Is that what the world sees?
Dome St Peters
Michelangelo
Jesus is no longer on this earth. His Spirit is inside of each of us, but we the Church are now His body to bring God’s kingdom to this world.
Are we acting like a body or is the hand slapping the head in the face? Is the right foot kicking the left leg?
Jesus pleaded with God to make us one. Why? So that we could be happier and have easier lives while treating each other more kindly?
So that the world would know God’s love.
This is how those in the world can know that God loves them – by the way that we love each other.
What does the world see when it looks at the Church?
That question makes me want to weep.
What does the world see when it looks at you?
Whatever has come before, I implore you now. Love each other. Be unified.
Invite someone from another faith tradition to go along with you the next time you head out to serve the hungry and the orphans.
Find someone who grew up in another culture or another part of the country or even just a different side of town, and take them out to lunch. Listen to them. Ask questions.
After this particularly nasty election is over, invite someone who voted for the other candidate over to your home for a meal.
Altar
St Peter altar
We are the Church.
You and me.
I entreat you to show the world what Jesus valued. Astound the little piece of your world with your love for other Jesus followers nearby.
Our world needs some astonishment. And it is up to us.

Art credit: Photos of various cathedrals by Kirk Sewell

What Should We Truly Fear?

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

Fear is a powerful force.
I have done things of which I am not proud out of fear. I have done things that were good from the same motivation.
The Bible speaks often about fear.
Fear God. Don’t fear anything else. Simplified, perhaps, but that is about the sum of it.
Yet we are also told that in Christ, we do not need to fear God. We are instructed to come boldly before His throne. We are told that perfect love casts out fear. How are these reconciled?
Fear the Lord thy God
Come boldly
It is certainly true that God tells us to fear nothing but Him. We are told that we will have trouble in this world but that we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the world.
Jesus tells His disciples not to fear those who can harm only the body but to fear only the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
He had, however, just been speaking about the Pharisees who had the power to cast them out of the temple which, for a first century Jew, was about the worst thing imaginable. The temple was an integral part of who they were. If they were cast out, not even their family would be allowed to associate with them. They became untouchables.
Jesus reassures His followers, though. He tells them that the Pharisees truly are not to be feared and that to be cast from the temple is not the worst thing imaginable. He warns them that the worst thing would be for God to cast your soul into hell.
Frightening words.
Then come comforting words, as Jesus is wont to do.
He then reassures them that if you trust in God you don’t have to fear the worst (being cast into hell) because God cares even for the tiny sparrows and you are worth so more than a sparrow to God.
So fear God. But don’t fear God.
Clear, yes?
I find clarification in the writings by John, one of Jesus’ disciples. He was there when Jesus spoke of fearing God rather than one who can harm only the body. Perhaps he was thinking of that moment when he wrote about fear in one of his letters.
John, speaking to those who have confessed that Jesus is Lord, says that there is no fear in love. He says that fear has to do with punishment, which has no place in those who are in Christ. Matthew Henry, in his commentary, speaks of this kind of fear as a dread arising from feelings of guilt. And perfect love drives out dread.
Perhaps it is a bit like our feelings about fire.
We all treat fire with caution and care when it is contained in our fireplace or firepit, but perhaps do not fear it. We have a healthy respect for it when checked by the confines of the fireplace, but I venture to guess that if a raging wildfire were headed straight for us with no way to escape, we would feel just a smidge of fear.
Perhaps fire truly is a good example in its limited way. If we follow the rules of caring for fire, it is beautiful and bestows many benefits upon us but if we disobey those rules it can consume us.
In the same way, if we obey God, if we accept His gift of Jesus’ blood covering us, we need not worry about punishment from God, and in that sense we do not need to fear Him. We should, however, still have fear in the sense of reverence and awe of what He could do if He were to choose, what He will do to those who reject Him.
So if we are in Christ, we do not have to be afraid of anything at all: nothing in this world, because Christ has overcome the world, and not of God, for we are in Christ who has taken on Himself the punishment for our sins.
So let us fear God out of awe and reverence rather than out of dread, for He is, in Scripture’s own words, a consuming fire.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. ~ Hebrews 12.28-29

Art credits: Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo; Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Jan Vermeer

Love Through Trees

 To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

I couldn’t live where there were no trees – something vital in me would starve. ~ Anne of Green Gables
IMG_5628
Forest snow 1
IMG_5621
IMG_4274
I love coming across new evidence of God’s love for us.
I have always loved trees, have always felt much like Anne did about living without them, but the most I’d really thought about them in terms of their relation to God is what an amazing job He did in creating them.
GlorietaDCICampingBravesVacation 123
IMG_3456 - Copy
I recently listened to an interview with a couple of artists on Mars Hill Audio Journal.  It was only a minute or two of the entire segment, but they mentioned that after the human face and figure, trees are the main focal point for artists. Whenever there is a tree in a painting, it automatically draws the eye to it.
Why is that true?  One of their hypotheses was that it has something to do with our deep subconscious knowing that we need trees to survive, our knowing that we depend upon trees for life.  I wonder, though, if it is even deeper than that.
IMG_3492
IMG_5371
My mind is drawn to the tree that God chose as our point of obedience.  We chose foolishly and we disobeyed.
My mind is also drawn to the tree that God chose as our point of redemption.  He chose beautifully and we were saved.
God has chosen trees for great purposes.  Did He have those purposes in mind as He created trees?  I wonder.
IMG_5628
IMG_5659
Trees are often used in God’s Word to show strength and constancy.  One of my favorites is the Psalm that says that a man who delights in and meditates on God’s law is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and whose leaves never wither.
I wonder.  And I imagine.
I can imagine that God knew that He would create Man to love images, to hunger after metaphors to help explain the unexplainable.
I can imagine that same God, before He ever spoke light into being, planning out His world to contain specific metaphors of meaning, just because He loves us.
I can imagine Him planning His trees to look a certain way, planning to use them in a particular manner, so that we would see them and draw meaning from them and be satisfied, just because He loves us.
Perhaps that is a stretch.  Perhaps it didn’t really happen that way.  But it seems like something that would be just like our God: to carefully plan out His creation in the way that would give His children the most joy.
Dad Light 4
Wouldn’t that be just like Him?

Art credit: last photograph by Kirk Sewell (R K Sewell Photography)

edited from the archives