interim time, developmental tasks

goodbye and hello

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).

If there is a scripture text that sums up what I might call my conversion experience, this piece of Isaiah 55 would be it.  When I was in college, I developed a true interest in matters of faith.  That included, in some small way, learning about Buddhism, Zen, the Sufis (those in the mystical stream of Islam), and others.  But more than anything else, the Bible started making sense to me!  It began to speak to me.

1 is

In the late evening of August 3, 1985, I had an experience while reading that text from Isaiah.  I felt the presence of God in an overwhelming way.  It seemed like I was plunged into an ocean of love.

Was it like St. Augustine overhearing a child singing a rhyme, “Take up and read, take up and read,” and then reading the words in Paul’s letter to the Romans saying to abandon works of the flesh and clothe himself with Christ?

Was it like John Wesley hearing a reading (also from Romans) and feeling his heart “strangely warmed”?  I don’t know.  Maybe some of you can speak of similar moments in your own lives.

But we need not have one of those experiences to know the truth of the gospel, and indeed, to love it.  We need not have one of those experiences to embrace the reality that in fact, God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours.  We need not have one of those experiences to understand that’s a good thing.  We need a heavenly perspective to get through this thing called life.

In John 16, we see the disciples of Jesus seeking some perspective of their own during the final night of his life.  He says he’s been using figures of speech; he’s been using veiled language—all of this stuff about “going to the Father,” whatever that means (v. 17).  The disciples claim they now know what he’s talking about.  “Now we know that you know all things” (v. 30).

But that’s the thing about knowing something just in your head.  If it doesn’t get past thoughts, it can’t change your ways.  (We’re back to thoughts and ways!)  Our knowledge has to include both head and heart.  How often have we had head knowledge but not heart knowledge?  How often have we lacked heart?  How often have we lacked courage?  That word comes from the Latin word cor, meaning heart.

Jesus knows the disciples’ hearts will fail them.  When they see what’s coming for him, their head knowledge won’t be enough.  They will lose heart; they will lose courage.  Within my own resources, relying on my own “stuff,” I predict a 99% chance I also would lose heart.

But Jesus offers the remedy.  He tells them, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage [take heart]; I have conquered the world!” (v. 33).  What an awesome line: I have conquered the world!  I have overcome the world.  It has no place in me.  I am free from the things that would invade me and lead me astray.

2 is

Jesus is victorious.  In Christ, we have victory.  In Christ, we are conquerors.

In 1 John 5, we learn our faith is what conquers the world.  Faith is the victory.  Both of those words—“conquer” and “victory”—come from the same Greek word.  I just said there’s a 99% chance I would lose heart just like the disciples did. 

Now I have another prediction.  I predict 100% of you know this Greek word.  “Conquer” and “victory” come from the word νικη (nikē).  We know it by the shoe company’s name Nike.  Faith is the Nike!

So where are we?  Understanding that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, Jesus encourages us to not lose heart.  (And notice that word, “encourage.”)  He heartens us.  Therefore, we are guaranteed to be victorious.  Here’s verse 5: “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Again, just as head knowledge is not enough, so believing just in our thoughts is not enough.  True belief is in the heart; it is in the spirit.  That is how we go forth and conquer.  Of course, this isn’t conquest as we typically think of it.  This is a battlefield within ourselves.  The victory is won within.  But if it is indeed won within, it by necessity is expressed in our actions.  It is not a private preserve.

3 is

The very last verse of 1 John feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought.  Still, it flows right along with achieving within ourselves victory over the world.  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (v. 21).  Take my advice; I’ve had experience in these matters.  Heed my warning.

Idols can appear in any form.  Don’t give your heart to them.  Don’t welcome them into your heart.  They will cause you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!  In Christ, we are a new creation.  We are empowered to say “goodbye” to the old and “hello” to the new.

And so it is with us here.[1]  As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, as interim pastors, we’re already saying “goodbye” when we arrive.  We have a specific amount of time to go through a process.

4 is

Even though this is our final worship service with you, we are also saying “hello.”  We are saying hello to your next chapter.  We are saying hello to the future that is already unfolding in Christ.  We are saying hello to the one whose thoughts and ways are higher than ours, who gives us courage, who strengthens our hearts, and who does so in leading us to the victory, the nikē, which is empowered by our faith in the meek and mighty Lord Jesus Christ.

Goodbye and hello!


[1] This is directed to a particular beloved congregation, but it can apply to other situations (in my humble opinion)!

bless you out

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s between Columbus and Cincinnati), you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”


If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?”  I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!

The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course.  There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.

Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public.  Why is that?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do a terrible injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Please, just tell me what to do!  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities that he considers to be blessed.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two.  Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law?  Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed?  It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus.  He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.

Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses.  He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse.  That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.[1]

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Seriously?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek?  What does our economy say?  Are we advised to be meek?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest:  isn’t it better to be the one holding the levers of power?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[2]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  (You do realize that’s in the Bible!  I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)

What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?

Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas.  As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.  Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”

That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now.  In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).  So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.

He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.”  It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.

When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well!  However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing:  technical and adaptive.  I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this.  Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order.  Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”[3]

Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.

Here’s an example.  Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection.  Numerous accidents have happened there.  There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed.  What is the answer?  One idea would be to put up a traffic light.  This is an example of a technical problem.

He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.”  With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it…  Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.  Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.”[4]  (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)

Let’s look at a different example.  Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist.  He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box.  She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic.  What is the answer?  Should she avoid taking the elevator?  Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive?  Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?


In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful.  He said he had two words to cure her fear.  Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!”  Stop being afraid.  Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!”  At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her.  These ten words would resolve her problems.  Maybe she could write them down.  Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

That is an example of an adaptive problem.

Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes.  They require new learning.”  We must learn to adapt.  With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.  Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve…  Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”[5]

In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem.  He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it.  But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!

Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30).  This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments.  Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor…  This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew.  Jesus also healed on the Sabbath.  He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code.  He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”[6]

With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them.  Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions.  We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do.  We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it.  Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!

We are called to use our imagination.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved.  As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts…  Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”[7]

We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us.  Talk about adaptive problems!  Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems.  As I suggested earlier, we also do that.

I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s.  This requires changing bylaws and standing rules.  It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job.  But that technical fix isn’t enough.  We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.


The same is true with congregational policies.  They also are important; they help us to be on the same page.  They help guide us.  But we also hear the words of Jesus.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7).  No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8).  No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.

This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion.  It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.

This interim time is a gift for all of us.  It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have!  But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other.  We are called to be a Beatitude to each other.  We are called to bless each other out!


[1] 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1


[3] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.

[4] Steinke, 127.

[5] Steinke, 127.

[6] Steinke, 133.


make way for the weak

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before.  It has been attributed to St. Francis.  There’s a lot of good stuff in it.  There is so much that is praiseworthy about it.  And none of it is easily reflected in our lives.  But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating.  It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”


I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood.  It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way.  Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online.  It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured.  (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)

As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived.  He knows that he still prefers to be understood.  And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth.  To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.

This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading.  St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that.  Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around.  As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.

But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church.  It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works.  Some people can’t praise it enough.  Its main theme is justification by faith.  In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics.  Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law.  He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.

When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction.  This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living.  The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.

Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge.  (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!)  He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes!  He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.

Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14.  He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.”  That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).  Why not?  Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?

Strong and weak

And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this.  For example, there were arguments about food.  Actually, those arguments never seem to end.  I like what he says.  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2).  My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.”  I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.

(I should add:  those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)

The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith.  At least, that’s the presenting issue.  There’s much more going on below the surface.

The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant.  The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.

As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective.  Don’t cause each other to stumble.

Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?)  Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible).  The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak.[1]  Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others.  Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.”  In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.

We are such fragile creatures.  In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation?  St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).

I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy.  He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor.  This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you!  Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”

Sometimes I insert my name into it.  Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!

Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier.  He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first.  He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood.  He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3).  He accepts insults; he accepts weakness.  In a way, he gives us permission to be weak.  He becomes weakness.

During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak.  The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.

But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness.  This passage is shot through with hope.  Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope.  They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by.  They are brimming with life.

In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David).  One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).

And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).  These aren’t empty words.  They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint.  Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.

Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Welcome one another.  Practice hospitality.  That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis.  Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.  And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.

Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.”  Really?  Do they sincerely mean that?  All are welcome, without any preconditions?  If so, that’s great.

Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak.  Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles.  Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians!  Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.

image from

This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.

Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time.  Five are usually cited.  They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.

Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders.  This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  It’s a strange committee, I have to say.  It’s like an ugly duckling.  It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103).  And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only.  They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system.  We have to check off boxes in various categories.  What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.

In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done.  We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak.  In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for.  Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough.  We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit.  Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.

Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant.  Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it’s not about us.  It really isn’t “our” ministry.  It is the Lord’s ministry through us.

It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders.  It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses.  We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.

So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses.  Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.

[1] “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”

[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]

wish you would hear

Has anyone here ever been exiled?  I wouldn’t suppose that any of us have been banished, or taken by force, to a foreign land.  I suppose it might be possible that someone has been taken from their home.  Perhaps I should rephrase it to say, “Has anyone here ever felt like they had been exiled?”

FightMaybe someone has had to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with that certain family member present who likes to air his or her annoying opinions.  It could be political or religious ideas.  Maybe it’s the one who makes inappropriate remarks.  Is there someone who chastises you on your life decisions?  “You know, if I were you…”  “I don’t want to be critical, but…”

For four or five hours, you might feel like you’re living in exile!

Banu and I had a sort of exile last year.  Please understand, my mom had nothing to do with that!  I’m just talking about my wife and me!

We felt compelled to make the trip to Tennessee, largely to help with my mother’s health needs and some house repair.  In effect, we took a hiatus from the Presbyterian Church; we were sent from our “homeland.”  In our “exile,” we tried other options: among them, pursuing chaplaincy at an urban community center, substitute teaching, even ordination in the Episcopal Church.  In one way or another, the doors remained closed.

We realized that, for right then, we needed to settle down, at least as far as our direction in life was going.  Jeremiah says something like that in his letter to the exiles in Babylon (chapter 29).  They need to make a home for themselves there.  And in reality, our calling to ministry had not changed.  It was simply the venue, the location, the nature of it.

In time, Banu and I were called out of exile.  It came in the form of a certain congregation looking for interim pastors!

The text from Jeremiah deals with people who actually are in exile.  That relates to some stuff I’ve said since we came here.

On several occasions, I’ve spoken about people in transition, congregations in transition, especially as it relates to the interim process.  I did that last week, using a term referring to the middle part of transition, the neutral zone.  Being in the midst of that in-between state, we’re like a life form in a cocoon at a certain point of its development.  We are transitional goo!

The exiles taken from Judah, the Babylonian captivity, are an excellent example of people in transition.  They certainly didn’t choose this transition; this is transition, big time!  Or maybe there’s another way to look at it.

There is something that deals with change and transition.  It’s from William Bridges, the one who uses the term “neutral zone” (though not in the Star Trek sense).  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.”[1]

The exiles definitely don’t choose this change.  They’re presented with some radically new events, whether they like it or not!  (Of course, I know none of us have ever had that experience.)

So they have this change.  The fact that it’s seriously dramatic, heartbreaking, and historic clearly make it more intense.  The question is how will they experience this change.  Their transition, if you go along with Bridges, can happen in many different ways.  They’ve been plopped down in the thick of it.  Now what?  That’s where the prophet Jeremiah steps in.

You might recall that Jeremiah has long been warning his fellow Judahites about the imminent threat of exile.  Well that day has come and gone, although we who are on the other side of history know that even more folks will be taking that road to Babylon.

Jeremiah 32 deals with the time the prophet bought some land while the country was being invaded—not the best time to purchase real estate!  Still, God promised him, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15).  There will be people who return from exile.

And on this occasion, he’s writing a letter to the exiles.  Here is where he suggests the transition that can be their experience of change.

One writer sums it up like this:[2]

“The opening words of a pastoral letter sent to the exiles in Babylon: Get used to it; build a life in exile.  Adjust: build, plant, marry.  Create a communal infrastructure in exile.  Your task: seek the shalom (welfare) of the city…  The mission is not to overthrow a hostile regime, but to hold the regime to its own best promises.  The empire can practice shalom.  The exiled church [so to speak] can influence the empire.  Close your ears to liars who say we’re going back to normalcy.  Dismiss such illusions of escape.  Instead, make do, witness in your situation.”

We can see some themes here.  First, there’s Jeremiah in a pastoral role.  It might be hard to imagine that party-pooping prophet as a pastor, but he really does love the people.

Then there’s the instruction that they should stay put and build a life for themselves.  Don’t start guerrilla warfare!  Love your neighbor.  Invite them over for dinner.

And thirdly, they are reminded that they won’t simply be living there, but they also have a mission.  Their job is to witness—to testify!—that their God is still with them, even in the far away land of Babylon.

It’s possible to see Jeremiah’s letter in terms of developmental tasks for congregations in an interim period.  Typically, five tasks are mentioned.

They are (and they go by various names): Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, Discovering a New Identity, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.  I want to especially focus on that second one, Discovering a New Identity.

Discovering a new identity can be really tricky.  There can be a fine line between holding on to what is still relevant and life-giving from the past and saying goodbye to what no longer is.  We learn from the exiles that in saying goodbye, there is loss to be grieved.

Our loss doesn’t begin to compare with that of the exiles, but there has been loss nonetheless.  There is a call for mourning.  Without acknowledging grief, without facilitating the process of mourning, we can hold on to what has already faded away.  Making room for grief is essential for spiritual, mental, and even physical health.

Sometimes it helps to just have a good cry!

Seek the peace

Jeremiah says God wants them to discover a new identity, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (v. 7).  This is how they need to witness.  Exercise some holy defiance (not ill-tempered defiance, mind you!).  Show those around you that you lovingly claim the future into which God is leading you.

Still, some will say this is not necessary.  Don’t believe it!  Don’t listen to that hogwash!  Don’t say goodbye to the past, go back in time and reclaim it.  Sometimes they might claim God told them to say this.

God says of them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord” (vv. 8-9).

Jeremiah must be going crazy about this.  He must want to tell them not, “I wish you were here,” but “I wish you would hear.”

This business of rebuking false prophets is a bit extreme for our situation, but it can be difficult to take the step of discovering a new identity.  As I hope I made clear, there doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a sharp break with the past.  But the willingness to let go opens us to that new identity, God’s new name for us.  And that helps in our witness.  It helps to form and clarify our mission.

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I like something Walter Brueggemann says about the exiles’ staying put, seeking the well-being of the place where they’ve been sent, and doing the difficult work on a new identity.  It all places on “this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.  In this way, the community is invited into the larger public process of the empire.  [This] prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe…existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.”[3]

That’s a fancy way of saying that daring to ask ourselves, “Who do we want to be?”  “How do we adapt to our changing world?”  “Where is the Spirit leading us?”  All of that makes us vulnerable.  As with the exiles in Babylon, our mission reminds us to not withdraw into our own narrow concerns.  Don’t hunker down into a fortress or scarcity mentality.

Something that came out in a session on the interim process was about that very thing.  This congregation is, Banu and I believe, ahead of the curve in avoiding that fortress / build a wall / dig-out-a-moat-and-fill-it-with-alligators mentality.  One comment was “a current of receiving and giving” is evident here.

Keep that current flowing, and your mission will flow out of it.

Ending with verse 11 of our chapter, we see the promise to the exiles and to us.  “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  That’s a rock solid guide during all of the interims and exiles of our lives.


[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary, Peter C. Bower, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 257.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 257-258.

imagination and love

I want to begin with some quick stories about my own calling, about vocation.

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Two of them go back to when I was in the Assemblies of God.  The first one involves my pastor.  He told me one time that if I could possibly avoid becoming a pastor, then I shouldn’t do it.  I thought to myself that’s some easy advice to take!  I had absolutely no intention of doing his job.  The idea of pastoral ministry was not at all appealing to me.

I still felt the same way when I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college.  I just wanted to study the Bible and learn some theology.  My second story comes from a conversation I had at that school.

One of my professors had an autistic son.  (By the way, it was his class on Jeremiah that helped sparked my love of the prophet!)  He contacted the denominational headquarters to see if they had something along the lines of Sunday school lessons or any material he could use with his son.  When they responded “no” to him, he took it pretty hard.

Now, he had graduated from the Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta.  His advice to me was that, if I ever sought ordination, I should do so with the Presbyterian Church.  Again, that was easy advice to take and reject, because I still didn’t give a fig about being a pastor.

The third story comes from when I was at seminary in Philadelphia.  Again, I still was not interested in being a pastor!  I was in a two-year program, the Master of Arts with an emphasis on Faith and Public Policy.  I liked the idea of a combination of spirituality and politics.  As the time for graduation approached, no doors for opportunity were open.  I was feeling a bit depressed.

One night, Banu and I were going to have dinner with some friends of hers.  On the way, I was telling her my sob story.  She suggested that I go into the Master of Divinity program, which is the one for pastors.  Suddenly, everything made sense.  Of course I had always wanted to be a pastor; I just didn’t want to admit it!

For someone who claimed that he was not at all interested in pastoral ministry, I was certainly taking deliberate steps in that direction.  God has a wonderful sense of humor.

If it seems that I resisted my calling, it’s nothing compared to what we see with Jeremiah.  He has been appointed a prophet, not only to his own people, but also “to the nations.”  The Lord tells him that this has been the plan since before he was even born (v. 5).

How does Jeremiah react?  Is he jumping for joy?  Does he say, “Sign me up!”?  Not exactly.  “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  We’re reminded of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses tries to explain to God that he isn’t the right guy for the job, and he even provides a laundry list of excuses to make his case! (Ex 3-4).  Surprisingly, God isn’t convinced.

Still, the sense of inability—the feeling that we’ll just screw it up—when asked to do something for God can actually be a good thing.  Bruce Epperly says that, in the Bible, “one mark of an authentic prophet is a protest of inadequacy when she or he is called to speak [on] behalf of God.  People don’t run for prophetic leadership as they do for public office; they are called, often against their will, to speak on God’s behalf in challenging situations.”[1]

That sense of inability, of failure, might be a pretty good sign of “faithfulness and spiritual well-being.”  Author Madeleine L’Engle when asked, “‘Do you believe in God without any doubts?’ [is quoted as replying], ‘I believe in God with all of my doubts.’”[2]

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian hammer is about to fall on Judah.  People are nervous.  And at the same time, corruption and idolatry are everywhere.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing injustice—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s brutal honesty about his calling and ministry.  In verse 8, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says to him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there.  I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you” (vv. 7b-8).  I’ll be your teleprompter; stick to the script.

Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

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I think that hearing about Jeremiah and his struggles opens the door to questions we don’t often entertain.  What have been our own conflicts, our own struggles, in God’s call on our lives?  Have we been able to put it into words?  Do we understand what it means to be called?

Going back to what I said earlier about calling: at the most basic level, we are called to hear the word of God, however it comes to us, and to respond.  That response must be in love and clothed in prayer.  Jeremiah loves his people.  That’s one reason why it is so agonizing for him to say what he does.

Think of how different it is among us today.  Binyamin Lau speaks of this when he says that true prophets must indeed “love [their] people.  Even when the harshest reproach is called for, [prophets] must consider [themselves divine emissaries] whose role is to help redeem the people, not to stand aloof and condemn.”[3]  (Not to stay at a safe distance and lob hand grenades!)

He goes on with something I think we all see.  “Indeed, journalists today take on the role of moral and social critics, though more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.  Criticism based on love, of the kind that distinguished Jeremiah, is not often found.”  I fear that I find myself too often playing that role.

Too often, I find myself lacking in imagination and love.  And what a good segue to my title!

In our Presbyterian Book of Order, there are questions posed to those being ordained and installed (W-4.4003).  This goes for ruling elders, deacons, or teaching elders (also known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament).  Among the questions are trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior, receiving the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, and promising to abide by our church’s polity.  My title points to the final one: “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Will we pray for and seek to serve the people with energy—with desire and passion, and not in a lackluster way?

…with intelligence—with our best thinking, and not just going with the flow?  And then those last two:

…with imagination—with our creativity, and not being afraid to dream?

…with love—which sums everything up, everything that is good and faithful and, indeed, holy?

Will we serve lovingly as a privilege, and not grudgingly as a burden?  (Although to be honest, at times “lovingly” might not be foremost in our minds!)

As I suggested earlier, all of us are called, whether or not we’ve been ordained to a position within the church.  In the life of faith, each one of us is called by God.

Again, there’s some good stuff in our Book of Order on this.  “[We] respond to God’s call to honor and serve God in every aspect of human life…  God hallows daily life, and daily life provides opportunity for holy living.  As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.  For Christians, work and worship cannot be separated.” (W-5.6002-3)

As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.

Bruce Prewer tells the story of a woman who cleaned city offices in downtown Melbourne.[4]  She worked long nights, with her shift ending at 7am.  She would be bone tired, exhausted, as she headed down the busy street to catch her train home.

“Although weary, she walked with a perky step, for she was one of those special people who believed she was called to [be] Christ’s cleaner in those offices where she spent the long hours of night.

“She knew herself as called by Jesus and she hoped she had done him proud.  As she encountered hordes of people [pouring out] from the station to start work, many of them impatient, sour and grumbling, she held her head high with a dignity only the God of Jesus Christ could bestow.  She cherished her vocation.”

This is a woman who knew she was called, and she answered her call with imagination and love.

We here in this congregation are called by God, and we have the opportunity and privilege to respond with imagination and love.  Especially in this interim time, there is the chance to dream of untapped potential.  We can ask, “Why do we do this?  Do we still need to do this?  Is there another way to do this?  Is there a better way to serve that holy spirit of imagination and love?” image from

Sometimes we might get impatient.  We get impatient with this business of proceeding with a deliberate and intentional process.  We might not see the wisdom in it.  We might think it’s useless.  “What are we waiting for?  Let’s get on with finding our new pastor!”

Would it surprise you to realize we’re more like Jeremiah than we think?  We can chafe and grumble about our call.  Of course, the comparison with Jeremiah might be overstated a bit.  God probably doesn’t need to say, “I am with you to deliver you.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you.”

Having said that, whether it’s impatience with the interim process as a congregation or our own individual calls, God is there.  Whether it’s our call as a community to move ahead in faith—or our very real concerns about reaching out to that certain person, about gut-wrenching decisions on health or employment, about knowing that there’s something we really don’t want to do—God is still there, looking after us.

As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to destroy and to overthrow whatever hold those dark forces have on our faith.  As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to build and to plant whatever makes for imagination and love.


[1] Bruce Epperly, “Living the Word,” Christian Century 127:2 (26 January 2010):  20.

[2] Epperly, 20.

[3] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 6.


crafting a new way

Would you believe that one of the key ministries mentioned in the book of Acts is a prayer shawl ministry? Well, not precisely shawls, but something close to it. It’s mentioned in chapter 9, all because of the woman who excelled in making “tunics and other clothing” (v. 39). In any event, those who are involved in ministries like prayer shawls have a noble heritage!

Luke, the author of Acts, includes plenty of “local color” in his writing. That applies to Tabitha, whose work leaves everyone positively glowing!

She lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv), and she is called “a disciple” (v. 36). It’s the only time in the New Testament that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while Peter is in nearby Lydda. It’s about ten miles away. While visiting there, he presides over the healing of Aeneas, a man who has been paralyzed for eight years. Sadly, while people there are celebrating and turning to the Lord, Tabitha falls ill and dies. The disciples in Joppa, knowing that Peter is close by, send for him.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas). Maybe that’s because he’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile. He has a perspective on bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile that many others do not. And it’s also likely that Tabitha herself has lived a life that has bridged that gap.

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In her ministry, “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” she no doubt had the opportunity to work with people of various backgrounds. This doubly named woman, Eric Barreto suggests, is “herself a cultural hybrid of sorts.… That is, she is at home both in the comfortable cultural confines of her faith but also in the different cultures that surround her.”

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity. She can relate to more people. And she has done this in a loving way. And that’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

As we’re looking at this story, I also want us to keep in mind something that runs throughout the book of Acts. It is a list of the developmental tasks of the congregation during a time of transition. The early years of the church, which we see in Acts, were most definitely times of transition! Of course, this is only a rough comparison to what a congregation in interim times tries to achieve.

I’ll go through these very briefly.

* The first one is coming to terms with history, or celebrating the history. In a way, Peter does this on the day of Pentecost when he talks about where they’ve been and where they’re going. He uses the prophet Joel’s words about the Lord pouring out the Spirit to help him out.

* The next one is discovering a new identity. That goes along with the reality that change is happening anyway. We see this with the welcoming of the Gentiles and recognizing how, quite literally, people are speaking different languages. Today’s scripture, with Luke the Gentile, telling the story of Tabitha / Dorcas is a very good example of that.

* We also have the allowing and empowering of new leadership. In chapter 6, the church saw the wisdom of appointing deacons to assist the apostles in the work. And again, in today’s story, we have another hint of the rising profile of women in the early church. Making room for new leadership is especially important in terms of injecting new blood into the system, and also for giving a voice to those who previously were voiceless.

* The next one doesn’t fit quite so easily, since there weren’t exactly denominations then—though that doesn’t mean there weren’t groups of like-minded believers. We have a sort of reconnecting with the denomination, with the wider church, when Paul goes to Athens and appeals to the Greeks with the broader faith traditions. (But admittedly, that might be shoehorning that one in!)

* The final developmental task of the congregation can be seen in committing to new directions of ministry, looking to the future. I give the example of the early missionary enterprises. We might see a hint of new direction of ministry in today’s story. So let’s return and see what Peter’s up to.

We’re told in verse 40 that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Some people notice a similarity between that and Jesus’ raising the daughter of Jairus: “‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mk 5:41). Tabitha…Talitha…perhaps?

In the lectionary, this text is read during the Easter season. On that note, John Holbert says that “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.” In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately. It speaks to the sense of art and beauty we see in the book of Acts. Besides the creativity and sharing of Tabitha’s work that earned her so much love, we also meet Lydia in chapter 16. She is a dealer in purple cloth, something that is both colorful and lucrative. Lydia is a model of hospitality.

And what about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples are speaking in tongues? They’re not out there asking traffic directions; they’re singing the praises of God! And one language just isn’t enough!

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That wouldn’t be a bad name! The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure. The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that was her life.

When we welcome the Spirit in crafting a new way, the result is not only beautiful, but it’s also practical!

Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the real power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from different backgrounds demonstrates in their life together. Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”

Why is that? “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life. If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life. People share everything and share in everything, divide and confide all that they have. That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich. And that is their message to us as well.” (131)

One of the amazing things about the Spirit is that there is always more than enough. Can we trust that? Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be Pentecost people? Too often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do. We miss out on largesse of Spirit, generosity of spirit.

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I think Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage. I like the way he closes the chapter. After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin. Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke tosses this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43). What’s going on with that? Why should we be interested in his lodging accommodations? Maybe we can see a bit of that new direction of ministry I mentioned earlier.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work. That’s “unclean” in a literal sense—handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky. But it’s also “unclean” in a ritual sense. According to Leviticus 11, contact with a dead animal requires ritual cleansing (vv. 39-40). But if that’s your job, you’re never going to be clean, at least as far as the priests are concerned.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random. Peter, quite knowingly, is staying in an unclean place. Luke is foreshadowing the story of Cornelius the centurion, who we see in chapters 10 and 11.

Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job. But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ. It hasn’t been an easy transition. To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

(And it’s while he’s staying at Simon’s house that he has the vision of unclean, non-kosher food, which leads him to Cornelius the Gentile, the Roman centurion. Entering his home is also a ritual no-no.)

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them. In addition, they are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it. Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, it’s probably not a good idea to rush the job. When we hinder, or even abort, the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

During intentional interim times (with both of the words “intentional” and “interim” being important), our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit. We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized. As I indicated, at times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome, but the Spirit is indeed crafting a new way.

[originally posted on 21 April 2013]