“Fear Not” – The Angels’ Prescription for the (White) American Church

Angel of the Revelation

“Angel of the Revelation” by William Blake

This time of year we sing “Joy to the World.” But if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that too often what we bring to the world is fear.

The Washington Post published a prescient article this week by Charles Mathewes, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  “White Christianity Is in Big Trouble. And It’s Its Own Biggest Threat” echoes some of the stuff I’ve written in this blog about the “We’ve met the enemy and he is us” state of American Christianity.

We Christians  complain a lot about perceived external threats to faith, like Starbucks coffee cups and taking prayer out of schools and Sunday morning sports leagues. But until we address the self-inflicted popular perception of Christians as judgmental hypocrites who hate LGBT folks, Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t meet our standards (sorry, “God’s standards” as we interpret them), Christianity is going to continue to be not just increasingly ignored but actively shunned by growing numbers of our neighbors – particularly those who are younger.

An organization or group known for what or who it opposes rather than what it supports might bolster the passion and parochialism of its members, but ultimately will further isolate those adherents behind a wall of spite.

Mr. Mathewes begins his essay by writing about the Alabama Senate Election, and the votes of White Evangelicals in that election (overwhelmingly for Roy Moore). But that is not the crux of the essay. Don’t get caught up in the politics. Christianity’s identity crisis may be reflected in political rhetoric and activity, but those are symptoms, not the disease.

The key is later in the essay when Mr. Mathewes accurately identifies the root cause of the negativity that describes too much of Christian faith in our country. He pinpoints the underlying emotion behind the intolerance, judgment, and hate that defines Christianity and Christians for so many outside the faith even though Jesus said it is love that will identify his disciples.


Mr. Mathewes writes:

But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. . . . And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.

We fear what we do not know.

We fear who we do not know.

As we hunker down in our bunkers of self-satisfied religiosity, it is inevitable that we Christians begin to feel not empathy for, but rather fear of, those “others” we become convinced threaten our privileged position. We barricade ourselves from interaction with those who are different, and we fill in the blanks of our ignorance with fear-filled assumptions about their nefarious motives.

  • Same gender couples who wish to get married want to destroy marriage.
  • Muslims and others who wish to express faiths other than Christianity want to abolish the worship of Jesus.
  • People of color who remind us that Black Lives Matter have an anti-white and especially anti-police agenda.
  • Those from non-European cultures who desire to acknowledge and maintain even some of their heritage want to destroy the American Way of Life.
  • And so on.

“Why can’t they just be more like us,” we say about . . . everyone who is different than us.

But as we cower in our safe segregated sanctuaries of the status quo we must ask . . .

Who would want to be like us?

We exhaust ourselves and alienate others trying to maintain – or go back to – a mythical monoculture that has always been nothing but an illusion maintained by ignoring those outside its boundaries.

What are we afraid of? That we will have to share resources and power we have always gained and kept in proportions greater than our numbers? That we might be confronted with the unpleasant consequences of majority-favoring systems on those left out and left behind? That our opinions might be challenged and we might find out that we have been – gasp! – wrong about some things?

Are we ultimately afraid that Christianity cannot compete on a level playing field of theologies and non-theology?

We harm not just our own credibility but the claims of our faith when we proclaim that Christianity is the Truth, and then we act as if our faith is as fragile as a dead, dry autumn leaf.

As we gather in our churches on this Christmas, perhaps we should pay special attention to the angel who visited the shepherds.

When that angel appeared, those shepherds were terrified. Who wouldn’t be? Biblical angels are not the cute little cherubs with chubby cheeks and dainty wings, but rather God’s warrior-messengers. To have one of those daunting dudes show up in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by God’s light show (“The glory of the Lord”) would do more than startle even the bravest among us.

The first words that angel spoke to the shepherds were these:

“Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not here to smite you.” The angel didn’t say that, but I would imagine that was the underlying message addressing the shepherds’ anxiety about the angel’s intent.

Then the angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for people who believe and do the right stuff.”

That’s not exactly right, is it?

Let’s try again.

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.”

Why do we Christians spend so much of our time, energy, and resources in ways that cause others to fear rather than to rejoice?

Is it because too many of us are afraid ourselves?

But . . .

“Do not be afraid.”

The angel’s words are for you and me.

At the end of the Christmas story in Luke 2, the shepherds are no longer afraid. They have traveled to Bethlehem and seen the Miracle in the Manger.

On their way back, they can’t keep what they’ve experienced to themselves. They get out into the world, among people different than themselves.

They just can’t help but share that “good news of great joy.”

The Good News about Christmas provokes the shepherds to make a journey from fear to joy.

Too often we manage to get that backwards.

Mr. Mathewes can have the last word:

If we are Christians, we must believe that we are safer in God’s hands than in our own. We should take no care for the morrow, but preach compassion and mercy to all, without distinction. If we do that, they’ll know we are Christians by our love — rather than our fear.

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The Celebration of Christ’s Birth Asks for Divorce

broken-heart-paintingDear Secular Christmas,

It’s time for a divorce.

Time for Secular Christmas and The Celebration of Christ’s Birth to make a clean break.

We have tried so hard to make this marriage work. But this is no longer a partnership.

I can’t help but feel I am in your shadow. I don’t know who I am anymore. Other people certainly don’t.

They no longer think of us, they think of you. It’s all about Secular Christmas. The Celebration of Christ’s birth is nothing more than an afterthought, an opening act for the featured performer.

We have tried. We’ve gotten folks to spout catchy slogans like “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but then those same people relegate me to a manger scene obscured by the glittery glut of garish decoration and an hour of church to endure on Christmas Eve.

The baby in the manger has been overshadowed – and then some – by You Know Who.

Ho ho ho.

He has come between us. I do appreciate those pictures of Him kneeling at the manger, but those ultimately cheesy portraits are really just an acknowledgment that He’s been inserted into a story in which He doesn’t belong.

It’s not your fault. It’s not even His fault. It’s what people have done to Him. They’ve made presents more important than giving, made gifts under the tree more important than the gift in the manger.

Let’s not quarrel over property. I’ll move out. You can have December 25. In fact, you can have all of December. And November. All the time after Halloween. No one thinks of me during those ever-extended months of preparation for your celebration.

Speaking of preparation, I’ll take Advent with me. Poor Advent is even more neglected than I am. The first Sunday in Advent used to be the beginning of our season, a celebration of hope.

Now your season gets going on Black Friday, an avaricious orgy counter to everything in my story about a single mother’s poor family in an occupied country.

I can move to July. No one knows what day or month Jesus was born, anyway. The end of December was a former pagan celebration. That seems an appropriate place for you to stay.

It think I’ll be happy in the summer. Lots of churches have “Christmas in July” services already. There are no holidays between Memorial Day and Labor Day*. So if I move to the end of July I’ll have plenty of room.

You can keep all the “Christmas traditions” that have nothing to do with me even though people have retroactively tacked on spiritual meanings for Christmas trees and presents and so on. Those explanations are really just rationalizations for materialism, not just inappropriate but the very opposite of what I’m about.

You can have Him, too. I do love him, especially the generosity and joy for which He originally stood. But because of what people have done to Him, He belongs more with you than with me.

You can certainly have that nasty little spy, The Elf on the Shelf. You can have him and his subversive message that Christmas really is about getting stuff if you’re good, not God giving us a Savior even though we’re not.

I am sorry our marriage didn’t work out. I’d say, “It’s not you, it’s me,” but really, it’s not either of us.

It’s funny, you know. People talk about “The War on Christmas” like it’s people who don’t believe my story who are the problem.

The Celebration of Chirst’s Birth

*An alert reader pointed out that Independence Day falls between Labor Day and Memorial Day. I am embarrassed by that omission, but even more embarrassed that the alert reader is Canadian. The point is still valid – the end of July or beginning of August would work nicely as a place for The Celebration of Christ’s Birth to move. The Unexpected Pastor regrets the error!

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#thechurchtoo – A Sermon in Response to #metoo

Sermon preached on October 23, 2017 at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville. You can find a video version of the sermon here, or a podcast here. Karen, my wife, helped with editing and ideas.

In Galatians, as Paul describes our new life in Christ, he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We are all ONE, the body of Christ, women and men. Men are not superior in any way to women. Women are completely created in God’s image, no less than men.

Why am I reminding you of these things that should be basics of our faith and life?

Because I have been reminded that many women– including women in our church family – have experienced mistreatment simply because they are women.

If you are on any kind of social media, you probably have seen many, many tweets and posts recently that say, “#metoo.” Most contain statements like this, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”  Many women shared not just “me too” but their stories of harassment and abuse. Famous women, ordinary women united in breaking the wall of secrecy and silence that allows such behavior to continue.

Why have women been silent? Because they have not been taken seriously. They have not been heard. They have not been believed. They have been blamed.

When women have spoken up, they have been told, “That wasn’t harassment, that was a compliment,” or, “That can’t be true. He’s such a good guy.” Or asked,  “What did you do to encourage him?” or “You don’t want to ruin his life, do you?”  Or, “Why are you so uptight,” Or, “What were you wearing,”Or, “Why were you there in the first place?”

Women have not spoken up because we  blamed women for their mistreatment. We enabled the mistreatment to continue by not assigning responsibility to the perpetrators.

This is an issue for the church. The church has a history of not taking women seriously when they speak up about harassment and abuse. If the church – the people of God – does not listen to women and speak out about abuse and harrasement, then where can women turn? What does our silence say about God?

I read a blog post this week called “silence speaks” on breadandpomegranates.com. It was written by a Christian woman who addressed the church’s silence about the mistreatment of her and other women:

That silence says:
“I don’t believe that happens in [my country]”
“I don’t believe that happens in Churches”
“I don’t believe that happens in my church”

Your silence says:
“I don’t see the outpouring of grief, pain and trauma before me”
“I don’t believe the church has the capability of offering hope, liberation and comfort in that space of pain”
“You can’t bring your pain here”

Shouldn’t the church be a place where we can bring our pain?

She goes on to write, “Can I go a step further and say that by not acknowledging the disclosures, of sexual assault and harassment, during the #metoo campaign, that [the church is] furthering the silencing that these survivors experience.  [The church is] reinforcing the message that this is something unacceptable to talk about.  It is only by making this something that is talked about in all places of society that we can take steps to eradicate it.”

So I will talk about it. If not in church, then where?

Many young people who don’t come to church say they stay away because we don’t deal with real-world stuff. They are often right. If our faith doesn’t address real-world pain as expressed in “#metoo,” then what good is our faith? It is nothing more than an eternity insurance policy.

I want to say to women who have posted or tweeted #metoo and those who shared their stories, women like my wife Karen, who shared the story of being raped at age 20, an abomination that no one believed, not even her family – I want to say to every brave woman who posted #metoo . . .

I hear you. I see you. I believe you.

It is not your fault and I will not remain silent.  But I will listen and learn.

I want to say to every woman who has not been able to post #metoo or did not want to for whatever reason – you are brave, too. You don’t owe anyone your #metoo or your story – no one should feel pressured to share. I respect your silence.  To carry on carrying your pain takes courage. And even though we don’t know your story, even though you have not chosen or been able to share it out loud or in print . . .

God hears you. God sees you. God believes you. It is not your fault.

And I am sorry. I am sorry that the church has been a place where women have been marginalized and minimized. Where for many years – and even in the present in some churches – women were not able to preach or to teach or to serve in leadership positions.

I am sorry for the church’s legacy of teaching that women have to be subservient to men, again still taught in too many churches, that men are supposed to be the boss in families and in the world. I am sorry for the church’s misuse of the great reversal to tell women it’s a blessing to be in an abusive relationship, to carry their cross and to stay. That is not Biblical – it is the interpretation of a church run by – you guessed it – men.

I am deeply sorry that women have been harassed and abused by pastors and priests and other leaders in the church.

I am sorry that we the church  have not done a better job of teaching Christian men – from the time they are boys – to respect women as people.

Men, women don’t need our protection. They need us to listen and take them seriously. We are not called to be concerned because they are, as we hear too often, “our wives and mothers and daughters.” We are called to be care because women are fully people not defined by their relationship with men.

I am sorry that the church has often taught that the only real value and “full life” a woman can have is in the role of wife and mother.

Men, we don’t like to think of ourselves as perpetrators of abuse and harassement. I would guess that an honest look back at many of our lives might reveal something else – have we never even unintentionally made a woman feel uncomfortable by staring or touching? Have we been guilty of, as someone wrote, “the glance that lingers too long and in the wrong place, treating women not as creations of God but objects to be ogled?”

But it is not just that we should not be perpetrators, we must not be perpetuators. We must not perpetuate a culture that allows men to harass and abuse women without consequence. Men, we are called to speak up and speak out against attitudes and even jokes that demean and perpetuate stereotypes about women. Our silence tells other men that their misogynistic attitudes and behavior toward women are okay.

Particularly as Christians, we cannot excuse vile talk and behavior as “Just the way guys are.” It is not the way guys – especially not Christian guys – are called to be. Such attitudes are learned.  I saw a t-shirt online the other day. It said “Boys will be Boys.” But it crossed out the second, “Boys” and replaced it with, “Decent Humans.” Boys will be decent humans, but only if we teach them. Decent humans – Christian humans – respect others and accept that no means no and yes cannot be assumed.

The church must have a conversation about consent. I read an essay this week that shook me up. It was written by a Christian man who looked back on his life and realized he had been guilty of things women were posting about. He wrote that one reason he thought that behavior was okay was that he had never heard consent addressed in church – not in worship, not in Sunday School, not in Youth Group. The stories told by women this week involve a lack of consent, men who talked to and touched women in ways both dramatic and subtle when the woman had not given them permission.

We need to teach our children, girls and boys,  from the time they are young that their bodies are beautiful creations of God. Their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who moved in when they were baptized. Bodies are not evil or unclean, they are part of who we are – the complete package of mind, body, and spirit. At the root of our faith is God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.

We need to teach our children personal control and boundaries regarding their bodies. That doesn’t just mean teaching our children the things they should not do with their bodies, but also that they have the right to say who touches their bodies.  We need to teach them about consent. Our children must be empowered to say “no” even to adults who would touch them without their consent. The need to learn to respect someone else’s “no,” and that touch requires a “yes.”

We teach this best by example. By asking children’s permission before anyone but a parent lays even a loving hand on them. Children should never be forced to hug or kiss someone they do not feel comfortable relating to in that way, including relatives and close friends. To force them to, “Just give grandpa a kiss” teaches them they do not control their bodies and it is not okay to say “no,” and that “yes” can be assumed.

You may have noticed that I try to remember to ask every child who comes up to communion for a blessing if it is okay if I bless them. If they say no, I will not make the sign of the cross on their head. To do so without permission gives them the idea that in the church, their bodies are not their own.

We know that can be a dangerous lesson.

This is not just important for children. When I first came to Christ Lutheran, one thing I heard was that I did not hug enough. Sure, some pastors are huggers! But I always go by what my mother taught me, the southern belle that she was – a man never even shakes hands with, much less hugs, a woman who does not initiate the handshake or hug.

As I’ve grown, I’ve learned why this is more important than just manners and that it doesn’t apply only to women. There are people, primarily women, who stay out of churches because that is where people hug them or even kiss them or otherwise touch them without their permission. They may have a history of abuse and find even this well-meaning physical contact to be a reminder of what happened to them. Or they may be like many who simply do not like to be touched.

We may think we are just being nice by hugging someone – but let’s be a church that practices consent. Let’s ask one another first. If someone felt they needed a hug one week, we still need to make sure it is something they are comfortable with this week.

Most of all, let’s be a church that is clear about the full personhood of both men and women. Let’s be a church that not only acknowledges the ways we have fallen short as God’s people in the past, but who commit to move forward to create a different future.

The Good News is that God does not leave us where we are. There is forgiveness and a new beginning for those who have messed this up. There is forgiveness and new beginning for the church.


 Let’s be a church that says to women – and not just women but men and non-gender conforming folks – who have been abused or harassed because of their gender:

We hear you. We see you. We believe you. It’s not your fault.


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The Church and Charlottesville: Our Call to Confession and Clarity

(This is the end of a sermon preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville. The text was John 3:16, and the first part emphasized God’s infinite and inclusive love for each of us and for the world, the kosmos in the Greek in which John wrote. You can listen to the full sermon here.)

Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists gathered to spew their vile hatred of those who are not white, not Christian, and not what they would consider the right kind of American.

But others were there, living out their call to love as God loved. Ministers of the Gospel enacted God’s love by praying and ministering to the the injured and standing in witness to God’s inclusive love – God’s love without boundaries or limits.

I saw a photo on Facebook this morning. On one side are angry people with hateful signs and faces twisted by hatred. Some of them carried clubs and others firearms. On the other side of the photo there is a line of clergy, men and women from across denominations united in the love of Christ.

They stood in silent witness of that love in the face of all that hate.

Our Bishop, Bill Gohl, was there in Charlottesville yesterday.

He has shared that he was especially saddened to see white supremacists wearing and carrying symbols of Christian faith.

Sisters and brothers, the cross is desecrated when it is associated with symbols of white superiority, Nazi Germany, and American slavery.

Jesus died on the cross to defeat sin, including the sin of racism.

The so-called Christianity shouted and displayed by white supremacists in Charlottesville is the opposite of the Gospel.

White supremacy is anti-Christian.
It is anti-Christ.
It is anti-love.

I want you to know, if you are at all confused, that God loves everyone.
No exceptions.

Let’s make this clear.

They marched against people of color.
If you are a person of color, God loves you.

They marched against immigrants.
If you are an immigrant, God loves you.
It doesn’t matter where you are from, whether you are documented or not.
No person is “illegal” in God’s kingdom.
God does not love America or Americans more than God loves the rest of the world.

They marched against LGBT folks.
If your are LGBTQIA, God loves you.
God’s love is not determined or defined by the letter designating your sexual preference or gender.

They marched against Jews. A sign I saw on television read, “Jews are children of Satan.”
If you are a Jew, God loves you.
It is a testament to the ignorance of the racists that they somehow do not know that Jesus was Jewish, as were most of his disciples and earliest followers.

They marched against Muslims.
If you are Muslim, like the gentleman I met a couple evenings ago walking my dogs, God loves you.

And if you are like most of the people who marched – if you are like me – white, Christian, straight, American – God loves you.

And this is the hardest thing for me to say this morning.
If you marched, or agree with those who did, God loves you.

I believe that if those who marched really knew and experienced the unconditional and infinite love God has for each of them, and the wideness of God’s love for the kosmos, they would not need to hate.

God does not love every action or belief that we hold. Actions and beliefs that are contrary to God’s desire and commands are sin. We are called to look at our own sin – as Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount, to take care of the logs in our own eyes, not the specks in the eyes of others.

If our response to being confronted with, or realizing, our own sin is to say, “But what about him or her or them,” then we are missing the point. We are missing God’s point.

Our Bishop was interviewed on Fox News yesterday afternoon. He said the church is – we are – complicit because we have failed to stand up and call racism a sin. He said we are complicit because we want to be “nice” even in the face of such horrific things.

As a church that is predominantly white, we must confess and repudiate the sin of white supremacy.

If you don’t believe racism or sexism or any other “-isms” lurk somewhere inside you, you are a better person than I am. I believe you are deluding yourself. “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

I believe that’s in the Bible somewhere. It’s in the words of our confession.

God calls us to confession not because God needs our permission or our action to forgive us. Forgiveness happened on the cross. Forgiveness became ours in baptism.

God calls us to confession because sin – especially the sin of hate – thrives in the darkness. When our sin is brought into the light of God’s love and forgiveness, it no longer has any power over us.

When I got to this point in writing my sermon Saturday evening, I felt the need to pray. I invite you to join me in prayer:

God, I confess my complicity in systems that divide and discriminate. I ask your forgiveness. Look into my heart and reveal to me anywhere I hold onto stereotypes and prideful attitudes. Bring them into your light and destroy them with your forgiveness. AMEN

Some say we should ignore the hatemongers in Charlottesville and others like them. But when the church is silent, the world assumes such evil is just fine with us.

Too much of the church has been too quiet for too long about the sin of racism.

The Fox News interviewer asked Bishop Bill what he would preach about on Sunday.
The Bishop said he would preach about how the church is called to turn the world upside down.

Yes! We are called to turn the world upside down with God’s love.

Each church is called to be an outpost of Gospel love in a world infused with fear and hatred.

We are not called to gather in our churches and stay there, safe and patting each other on the back for how holy we are.

Each of us is called to be an instrument of God’s love, an instrument of God’s peace.

That doesn’t mean everyone is called to stand witness at marches or preach sermons about the evil of racism.

Our actions can be simple, yet profoundly proclaim God’s love and peace.

We are instruments of God’s love and peace when someone makes a racist remark and we call them out.

When someone tells a supposed joke that perpetuates stereotypes, we are instruments of God’s love and peace when we say, “That’s not funny.”

At school or at work, we are an instrument of God’s love and peace in the lunchroom when we choose to sit with someone who is alone because of who they are.

We are called to act with love the face of hate, with peace in the face of violence.

The church is called to be an example to the world. Diversity is a gift of God to the church. Diversity is central to what church is meant to be.

Perhaps those who marched in Charlottesville haven’t read Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

All of this starts with God’s love for us; with God’s love for the world.

“For God so loved the WORLD!”

God loves you.

It is God’s love that empowers us to love.

Karl Barth was a 20th century Swiss theologian. He wrote books with thousands of pages and millions of words. Once when he toured the United States a student asked him if he could sum up his theology in a single sentence.

Barth thought for a moment, then answered, “I can sum it up in the words of a song I learned from my mother.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

(I then began to sing, “Jesus Loves Me.” The congregation joined in.)


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Goodness and Love Will Follow Me

(This is the final post in my series this week on the six verses of the 23rd Psalm . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:6: Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Wait, I thought it was “goodness and mercy.”

It is . . . in many English translations of this verse.

But it is also, as in the NIV above, “goodness and love.”

Not just that!  Also, “goodness and grace, glory, hope, kindness, steadfast love, loyalty, favor, devotion, righteousness, rejoicing, compassion, etc.”

How can one word mean all those things?

When it is the  Hebrew word Chesed (or Hesed; the “H” sound is gutteral like the end of “Bach”), one word can mean all those wonderful things!

Chesed is one of the most awesome words in the Bible, right up there with the Greek Agape – sacrificial love in action – from the New Testament. Chesed is in fact similar to agape, but not exactly.

Both can be translated “love.” Both mean so much more.

I don’t want this post to become a Hebrew lesson, but look back at that list of English translations for chesed. So much is encompassed in the Psalmist’s declaration that God’s “goodness and chesed” will follow him. His life – our lives – is and are infused with chesed, filled to overflowing so the grace, glory, hope, loyalty, compassion, and so on that  God pours out in us transforms our relationships with others.

And yet, it gets better still. 

Bear with me for one more brief Hebrew digression. The word translated “follows” in most of our English Bibles more exactly means “pursues.” That small difference changes the entire nature of God’s relationship with us, and illuminates our picture of God’s chesed.

God doesn’t just follow me around attempting to shine a little love on my life (ELO shoutout).

No! God pursues me with goodness and chesed.

Most of you reading this blog know there was a significant chunk of my adult life when I actively resisted God’s pursuit. I denied not just God’s goodness but God’s very existence. But God never let go of me, never paused the pursuit.

Too often God is depicted as pursuing us in order to mete out punishment and to smite those who deserve it.

How much more wonderful is our God, who pursues us not with furious anger, but with “goodness and chesed.”

Even though what we really deserve is the smiting.

Becoming one of us was God’s ultimate pursuit of humanity.

He pursued us all the way to the cross.

The night before he died, Jesus gathered with his disciples one last time. He told them he was going to prepare a place for them – and for us. A dwelling place – an eternal home. Then he said he would come back and take them to be with him where he was.

He would take them home.

He will take us home.

Home to the house of the Lord where we will dwell . . .


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A Table in the Presence of My Enemies

(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:5: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.


Sitting down to the table for a meal with my enemies all around. My head may be anointed with oil, my cup may be overflowing, but what is to stop my enemies from blowing me away as I defenselessly dine?

Shouldn’t I take care of my enemies, either fight them or build a wall to keep them out – and to keep me safe – before I eat? How can I enjoy my meal in the presence of my enemies? It is at best simply not good for my digestion.

How are we to interpret this verse?

First, it is important to recognize the shift in the Psalmist’s metaphor. For the first four verses, the Psalmist was a sheep and God was his shepherd. Now, God is a gracious host and the Psalmist is God’s guest.

Hospitality was perhaps the most valued attribute in the time and place the Psalm was composed. That certainly makes sense when there might be some distance between arable land. A traveler depended upon the gracious generosity of the inhabitants encountered along the way.

As Abraham provided for his mysterious visitor in Genesis 18, the host in verse four waits upon – even serves – the guest with food on the table and beverages that overflow their cups.

What a picture!  God as host. God as servant.

“(J)ust as the Son of Man came to serve not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So what about these enemies?

Is this verse about the host’s – God’s – protection from our enemies? Is our enjoyment of God’s provision in the midst of our enemies meant to be both an act of faith and also a sort of taunting of those who would mean us harm?


But there is a more radical picture that I believe to be more consistent with the Gospel’s depiction of God’s outrageously inclusive love.

What if “in the presence of my enemies” means that our enemies are also invited to the feast?

What if our very enjoyment of God’s feast is meant not to be a rebuke to our enemies, but rather an invitation?

Whether we are talking about food and drink as God’s daily provision, or as the Eucharist meal shared in worship, or as the great never-ending feast of eternity, God’s desire is the same. God – the Most Hospitable Host – yearns for all to gather and share the table.

So perhaps verse five of this great Psalm is not just an invitation to appreciate God’s abundant provision.

Perhaps this verse is also an invitation to . . . invite. For it is you and I who have the privilege of sharing the Good News that God’s sustaining food and overflowing drink are available to all.

Even our “enemies.”

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For You Are With Me . . .

(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

I majored in English in college, so I wrote a lot of papers on poems and novels and short stories and so on. Vital to the analysis of a literary work was determining the “Central Idea,” the main theme or message the author was trying to convey. Sometimes that was difficult to determine and subject to debate.

Not in the 23rd Psalm. The Psalmist puts the Central Idea right in the . . . center.

In the original Hebrew, writes Luther Seminary Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker, there are 26 words before and 26 words after the Central Idea of Psalm 23:


When my daughter was a little girl, she used to wake up in the middle of the night and cry out for someone to “Rub my back!” Her back may have been a little itchy, but her primary need was for someone to be with her. She did not want to endure the night shadows and sounds on her own. To have her back rubbed was to have someone with her. And not just any someone, but a parent who she knew loved and trusted her. Thus fortified, she could drift back to sleep (but woe to the parent who stopped rubbing and tried to sneak out before she was asleep!)

“Even though I lie in the darkest bedroom, I fear no monsters and ghosts, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME, your hands and your voice, they comfort me.”

Most of us have outgrown our fears of goblins jumping out of the closet or from under the bed. Our adult fears are more real . . . terrifyingly real. We fear financial failure and broken relationships. We fear incapacitating illness and especially the finality of death. We fear not just for ourselves, but for those we love. We fear our own helplessness, our impotence in the face of situations and circumstances beyond our control.

The world is a scary place. Dark valleys abound.

The Psalm’s picture of a dark valley springs from the shepherd and sheep metaphor. Picture a flock of sheep with their caretaking shepherd bedding down for the evening. They are in the same green pasture which before had been so inviting, perhaps surrounded by rocky hills. As the sun sets behind those ridges, light and vision fade. Predators may prowl in the gloom. Hungry animals as well as humans with nefarious designs strike under the cover of darkness. Death itself lurks there in the shadows.

But the flock is protected by the shepherd who is right there with them. He carries a rod, a weapon. It is not for clouting unruly sheep, but for fending off those who might do those sheep harm. And he carries a staff that guides the flock to safety and is a physical sign of his presence and his nurturing authority.

There is something else about that staff . . . It is shaped like the letter “J,” with a hook at the end. Sometimes despite the shepherd’s best efforts those silly sheep sometimes fall into holes. The hook allows the shepherd to pull them out, gently lifting them back onto the right path.

How much like those silly sheep are you and I? We fall into holes . . . sometimes through absolutely no fault of our own, sometimes into holes of our own making. But God keeps pulling us up and pulling us out. Over and over, we never really learn, at least not fully, to avoid the holes. But God never gives up on us and never stops lifting us up and out.

There is an honesty to the 23rd Psalm, an honesty that pervades the Bible. I told my congregation in a sermon a couple of weeks ago that this honesty is one of the reasons I keep believing that the Gospel is true.

This Psalm – and the Bible – describe the real world, the world as it really is.

Scripture does not paint a picture of a fairy-wonderland where everything works out and nothing bad ever happens to God’s people.  No.

We’re given a warts-and-all picture of the world and especially of humanity. There are dark valleys and plenty of evil. There is no promise or program for avoiding turmoil and strife. Trouble will come to us in this sin-scarred world filled with sin-stained people (people like us!).

God doesn’t promise perfection. Our promise is God’s presence.


The greatest gift of God’s presence is of course Jesus Christ, God as one of us, God with us.

We have Jesus’ no-matter-what promise to be with us always. “Even until the end of the age.”

There is no valley we will ever walk through that will be too dark, no evil we will ever confront that will be too diabolical, that we will not be able to know and to proclaim . . .


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