Church and Christmas

This year, churches found themselves facing an interesting situation: Christmas fell on a Sunday. Church leadership this year had to wrestle with the question of what to do with traditional Sunday worship gatherings. On one hand, the possibility existed that many families would be traveling or would want to spend the full day enjoying their own private celebration of the holiday, thus reducing church attendance. On the other hand, many grappled with the fact that Christmas is and should be seen primarily as a spiritual, religious holiday. This issue should not be mistakenly seen as a cut-and-dry simplistic matter; but, unfortunately, the question falls easily into cut-and-dry language: "Should we cancel church on Sunday?"

Perhaps the popular approach wound up with churches presenting some form of modified, consolidated, and relaxed worship opportunity on Christmas Day; many churches also opted for Christmas Eve celebrations in lieu of Christmas Day gatherings. This type of middle-ground response presents a best-of-both-worlds option: a worship opportunity for those who desire to gather, while the change in scheduling allows for a more relaxed, low-key day.

However, this response should be seen for what it is: a compromise. While many do embrace this (indeed, many friends told me that the special service their church offered had higher attendance than a normal service), this approach cannot please all. Many feel that churches should offer their full complement of gatherings on that day, being that Christmas is second only to Easter in importance on the church calendar. Why should the church compromise or cancel on such a day? If the holiday is primarily a spiritual celebration, as many hold, then why would churches even consider abbreviating, much less canceling, gatherings on that day?

Also, it may be that the compromise still does not compromise enough; many regular attendees might not be able to attend, due to family plans and travel. As a friend of mine pointed out, this does not mean that worship is not taking place; it just is not taking place "corporately." If churches offered their full schedule, would people show up? No pastor wants to preach to empty pews, much less on Christmas.

Ironically (though naturally, if one observes the calendar) New Year's Day also fell on a Sunday. Churches were faced with the same questions, though to a lesser degree. Would people attend? Should the church "make space" for outside celebrations? How does the church itself celebrate?

An insightful WSJ article by David Gibson delicately notes the difficulty embedded in the issue: "...It's...self-defeating to complain about keeping Christmas holy when churches close on Dec. 25." Another blog I read (I cannot seem to find it again, otherwise I would link to it), written from an atheist perspective, blasted Christians for all the noise we make about the increasing secularization and commercialization of the Christmas season if churches are only going to cancel their services anyway. 


As noted above, the issue at hand is both deeper and wider than that. However, this stark perspective casts the matter in a different light. If we as believers are bemoaning the "spiritual decline" of the world in which we live, the answer cannot be taking a break from seeing and interacting with the world in ways that recognize the spiritual significance of what we do. Rather, we should seek to foster and embrace heaven meeting earth in what ways we can - and to celebrate corporately when we can as well! Rather than seeing Christmas (and New Year's Day) this year as a hindrance, Christian communities should be rushing forward to embrace the grand opportunity they have this year - the opportunity to celebrate these special days with their Christian brothers and sisters in corporate worship. What better days to be in church than on the days when we celebrate Christ's birth and the coming of a new year? 

Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, pulled no punches when he said the following on Twitter: "Churches canceling Christmas a.m. services is not a sign of being pro-family, it's a sign of spiritual malaise." A spiritual holiday is worth celebrating spiritually! We would not dream of cutting corners like this with Easter; then why do we with Christmas? In future years, let us embrace our freedom of worship by rolling out of bed, bundling up the family, and making it a point to celebrate Christ with our Christian family when the opportunity presents itself. 

12/31/2011 Sermon Manuscript

This is the manuscript from my most recent sermon, given at Emmaus Road Church December 31st, 2011.

I. Introduction - Good evening, Emmaus Road! How is everyone? This week puts us squarely in the middle of the 12 Days of Christmas, so if you needed a reason to eat more awesome food, have more awesome celebrations, etc., then you’re in luck. In this next week, we will flip the page on the church calendar and jump into Epiphany. This season marks the coming of the Magi to Jesus (which we’ll read a bit about tonight) and invites us to explore the implications of Christ’s birth. When you read the Gospels, you find that sometimes they tell the same story different ways; this is because the Gospel writers were aiming at different audiences and so told the story in such a way to emphasize their specific point to their specific audience. For example, we’ve read out of Luke lately; we’ve seen what the birth of Christ meant for the poor, the ignored and downtrodden, and for the speaks of these themes because he is trying to show Jesus as Healer and Savior of the Gentiles. Matthew takes a slightly different approach, because his audience is different; Matthew is writing to Jews to convince them that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, and so he is going to tell his story in such a way that helps us to see Jesus as a prophet, leader, and deliverer like Moses; he’s also going to try to help us see Jesus as a king, a king of the lineage of David; the only family line that even has the right to claim the throne of Israel. So when we read from Matthew 2 tonight, we’re going to be seeing things from the perspective of Kingdom. We’re going read about the Kingdom of Heaven coming to Earth as a baby; we’re also going to see what Herod the Great does to oppose the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew tells us of somewhat of a chess match between Herod and Heaven. But for us to appreciate the story a bit more, we’re going to need some background on Herod himself.
II.Body A.Herod the Great - Herod the Great was quite a man. He was the son of an Idumean
adventurer turned politician who played power games with the both the Jews and the Romans; and when his father died, Herod found himself in a position to step in as Rome’s appointed ruler for the area. He was a gifted politician and engineer, and made sure to appease as many people as he could while ruthlessly consolidating his power and playing with his own pet building projects. He was a half-Jew who walked an interesting line with his faith - he set up many tributes to the Emperor of Rome to make sure he stayed in Rome’s good graces. He adopted many Greek ideals of society so that people could feel comfortable in his town, which didn’t make the Jews happy - but to take care of them, he rebuilt the temple in magnificent fashion. As he was an engineer, he did a swell job - some of the walls are still standing. He quarried stones that were 40 feet long, 10 feet tall, and 10 feet wide - as big as a school bus! The stonework was so precise that even though the stones were so large, some of the walls that are still standing, one cannot get the blade of a knife between them even though no mortar was used. He installed aqueducts, indoor plumbing, and many other conveniences. He built palaces for himself all over his territory. One time, he decided to have a palace fortress on top of a mountain - only there was no mountain there. So, he built one. It’s called the Herodium, and still stands today. However, he was a paranoid and ruthless man. He had tens of wives and scores of children and grandchildren, so he lived in constant fear of conspiracies to take the throne. He was not above assassinating his own wives and children to consolidate his power, and people lived in the constant fear that these changes caused. Because he was so afraid, Herod got from Rome the special right to choose his own successor - normally the Empire would - and then after he got this right, he rewrote his will six times before he died because he was afraid of so many people. He tried to come across as a great benefactor and innovator, but
people feared him and did not like him. He knew this, and knew that people would not mourn his passing. So, he gave standing orders for many beloved Jewish officials to be assassinated the day that he died so that there would be mourning when he died. This is Herod the Great; this is who’s in charge when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives in the form of a baby. Let’s look at Matthew.
B.Text - The story actually begins at Matthew 1.18. We’ll be starting here tonight and reading up through the end of chapter 2. Along the way, we’ll look at how Matthew tells the story; we’ll look at the little clues that he gives us as to how we are to see Jesus. He quotes plenty of prophecies to make his point. We’ll look at the exciting way that Heaven comes to Earth. We’ll also look at how Heaven and Herod go toe-to-toe over the next few verses. Let’s read.
1. “This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancĂ©, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.”
a)Interpretation - Here, we have the birth story. It’s told from Joseph’s perspective rather than Mary’s.
(1)Right in the beginning, Matthew tells us that Jesus, this baby, is going to be Israel’s deliverer. He’s going to be the Messiah, the Anointed One.
(2)We see Heaven and Earth rubbing shoulders here in some remarkable ways. The first way is that Mary became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not exactly something that happens every day... But it’s a head-scratcher for sure, so Joseph’s trying to figure out what to do. An angel appears to him in a dream - another sure sign that Heaven is coming to Earth.
(3)The angel addresses Joseph as a “son of David;” this means that Joseph is a descendant of King David. This means that Jesus is a legitimate heir to the throne of King David - something that Herod is not. Remember, Herod came in from the outside. He gained his power through political luck and cunning; he may sit on the throne, but it’s not his throne to sit on. The throne belongs to the baby; that’s what Matthew is saying. He’s a deliverer; he’s a king. Right away, Matthew is telling us that there’s a new king in town.
(4)Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 7 here. This establishes that Jesus’ birth is part of the same story of Jewish history; it’s not a new story, but rather, it is the same story moving along. Remember, Matthew is trying to prove to Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s saying, “This is your king! The one you’ve been waiting for!”
2. But there’s another king around, and he’s not going to let another king just cut in on him. Not even a baby king. Let’s keep reading. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea,
during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote: ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’” Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!” After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.”
a)Interpretation - Lots of stuff going on here... (1)Right in the beginning, Matthew tells us who the other king is. Herod the
Great. From other sources, it’s probably a good guess that some time passes
here - maybe about 2 years or so. (2)Magi - And then the Magi show up. This is a group of mysterious people that
we don’t really know much about. We can make some guesses, though. They were likely Persians. They were probably court officials, similar to Obama’s cabinet members. They were not Jews, though they may have been familiar with Jewish ways and scripture; likely, they were Zoroastrians. Around that time, it was believed by many that strange occurrences in the sky foretold changes in regime and power, and so these men studied the heavens in order to be up on what was happening. Interesting fact: This is the only place in the Bible that Magi are mentioned favorably. Daniel and other Jews, when in exile, deal with the Persian king’s court magicians: his Magi. Later on, in Acts, a sorcerer called Simon Magus tries to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. In Greek, these men are all Magi. And so, Magi are not looked upon favorably; and yet, these foreigners, these shady magicians, come to worship the true king. They saw the sign in the skies, and knew something was up.
(3)So they come to Jerusalem (where the king should be, right?) and begin asking around for the newborn King of the Jews. These guys act sort of naive; we can imagine that they ask for the KoJ, and they eventually they get back to Herod who says, “Yes, you were looking for me?” And they politely say, “Oh, no. We were looking for the other one. The one who has just been born.” And Herod goes into paranoid mode. This is another conspiracy he’s got to fight off. So he decides to keep them around for a few days while he figures out what’s going on.
(4)So he’s scared, and the rest of the city is too, because who knows what kind of havoc Herod is going to unleash in order to consolidate his power yet again. So he calls the scribes and the priests - remember, he’s a Jew because it’s politically advantageous, not because he’s faithful. He doesn’t know the law and prophets, and so he has to call people together to tell him. So he does, and they quote Micah 5.1-3 to him, and Herod finds out the location of his usurper - ground zero of the conspiracy he’s imagining. He calls the Magi back to get more information, and he discovered from them exactly when the star appeared - and now he’s got an age of the child.
(5)So Herod, the master strategist, essentially tries to use the Magi as his pawns - they will go to Bethlehem, find out the exact location of the child, and then report back to Herod. Herod told the Magi that he wanted this information so that he could worship the Messiah as a Jew, but it’s far more likely that he’ll kill the child and the child’s family for good measure. So the Magi depart.
(6)And then something happens - the star reappears! It was in the sky long enough to get them to Jerusalem - but now it comes back, much to their great joy, and directs them precisely and exactly to where Mary and Joseph are living. The Kingdom of Heaven is at work again.
(7)They enter the house and find Mary and Jesus. They worship him, and give him kingly gifts. This whole scene is loaded with imagery. They are Gentiles, coming to worship - the Magi, the Gentiles, the outsiders have been led by the Kingdom of Heaven to recognize and worship the true king - something that Herod could not see. They bring kingly gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A Jew familiar with the family history would have instantly thought of when the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon and brought many gifts. Matthew’s message comes through loud and clear - this child is a king, and not just King of the Jews - the King of all.
(8)The Kingdom of Heaven steps in again - God warns the Magi not to go back to Herod, not even to stop in Jerusalem on the way. Interesting thing - the Magi don’t seem to be good at playing Herod’s political games, but for Gentiles, they sure know how to hear from God.
3. Well, let’s keep reading. “After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
a)Interpretation - (1)Heaven again intervenes - The Magi bought some time by going another way,
but not much. Jerusalem and Bethlehem are close; even on foot, you could get from one to the other and back in a day. Herod is waiting, but he won’t wait long. Mary and Joseph have to get out of Dodge, and an angel gives them instructions to head out of Herod’s jurisdiction, over to Egypt.
(2)To put the icing on the cake, Matthew reminds us of Hosea 11.1, which brings to mind another deliverer that came out of Egypt - Moses. Matthew tells us
again and again - this is your Messiah. Just like Moses delivered your ancestors,
Jesus will deliver you. 4. But Herod’s no dummy. “Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had
outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah - weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.”
a) Interpretation
(1)In a desperate attempt to kill Jesus, Herod acts on the information he has - remember, he has an age and he has a place. So, in an act that history has come to know as “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” he kills all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger. Matthew uses this event to tell us who Herod is - again, a Jew who knew the family history would have picked up on this. There was another king who ordered the wholesale slaughter of baby boys - Pharaoh, before Moses was born. Just as Moses was supernaturally protected and delivered to be the deliverer, so is Jesus. Matthew is again telling us - Jesus is the new Moses, and Herod is the new Pharaoh, the one who opposes God’s acts.
(2)Matthew also shows us something else - he quotes Jeremiah 31.15 here, showing that even Herod, despite his best efforts, is playing Heaven’s game - not the other way around. Matthew continues to tell his Jewish audience, “Yes, this is your story, but it’s growing - it will be the story of the redemption of the world.”
5. Well, let’s go ahead and close out the chapter. “When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.””
a)Interpretation - (1)So maybe Herod thought that he had won, but he went on to play other games
of political intrigue - and after he dies, the Kingdom of Heaven is still on the
move. An angel tells Joseph that it’s safe to return, so they do. (2)Heaven continues to direct Joseph - some of Herod’s family were still around.
Archelaus was just as paranoid as his daddy, but didn’t have anywhere near as much political skill - Herod was sneaky about how he handled conspiracies, but Archelaus just killed people outright. He killed so many that eventually Rome stepped in, deposed him, and put the area under direct Roman control.
(3)Either way, Joseph and the family are not heading there; so they go to Nazareth. According to Luke 1.26, Nazareth was Mary’s hometown. Matthew was probably quoting a different tradition here that is not included in our scriptures, but his point is clear: this is all happening according to plan.
C. The Kingdom of Heaven - So what kind of a king is Jesus? Matthew 4.23 tells us about this. When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing
every disease and every sickness among the people.” This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. Here’s an interesting study for you: take some time, grab a pen, and go through the Gospel of Matthew. Underline and study the verses where the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” shows up; you’ll find that there are many. Matthew is telling us about the Kingdom while he’s telling us about the King. In the beginning of the gospel, we learned a great deal about what the Kingdom of Herod is about. But what about the Kingdom of Heaven? What does Matthew tell us?
1. The nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven means that we repent. (4.17). Sin keeps us from God. It’s difficult to be a citizen of God’s Kingdom on Earth when we create distance between us and him by habits, actions, and attitudes. Repentance means that we, through the Holy Spirit working in us, acknowledge that have sinned; that we are living in an improper relationship to God. Repentance also means that we, again, by the power of the Holy Spirit, reject and leave this flawed way of living behind. We often like to cover our sin, disguising it with euphemisms so that it doesn’t sound so bad; but if we can’t take sin seriously, we can’t take forgiveness seriously. Forgiveness is a big deal in the Kingdom of Heaven; but if we do not see our need to draw closer to God and live in proper relationship with Him and others, forgiveness doesn’t mean much to us.
2. The Kingdom is good news. (4.23) While repentance is necessary, there is more to the Kingdom than that - and this “more” is good news. Such a contrast to Herod’s kingdom, which so often meant bad news for those living under his rule.
3. The Kingdom welcomes the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and the lonely. (Beatitudes) Another contrast with Herod’s kingdom - His kingdom often persecuted people, and then kicked them to the curb.
4. The Kingdom of Heaven is not exclusive. Jew, Gentile, doesn’t matter. Slave or slaveowner, doesn’t matter. Sick or healed, doesn’t matter. Come on in. Herod’s kingdom didn’t do this - you had to be elite and constantly making sure you stayed in Herod’s good graces.
5. It is worth selling all that you own for the sake of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is greater than the pursuit of possessions and power - yet Herod was on a constant quest to maintain as much power as he could. (ch. 13)
6. Must be like a child. How unlike Herod - who ruthlessly slaughtered children. (19.23) 7. It doesn’t belong to those who have it all figured out, the religious elite (21). Rather, it belongs to those who do the work of the Kingdom - those who spread the Kingdom
whenever and wherever they can. 8. It’s a place of mercy, where mercy is the rule and not the exception. What a difference
from Herod’s kingdom. D.Us and the Kingdom - So what does this mean for us? Well, the kingdom often passes
away with the king. However, the spirit of Herod’s kingdom still exists in the world. We don’t have to look far to see tales of oppression, power grabbing, and injustice. He has passed, but many in the world today are trying to live and succeed according to the rules of his kingdom. Read the news. Oftentimes, we may find ourselves operating according to the rules of Herod’s kingdom; society and culture encourage us in these things. However, the Kingdom of Heaven stands opposed. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about the Kingdom of Heaven and it’s King, and then ends with this: Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all
the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus has the authority of the Kingdom, and he commands us to do the work of the Kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom does not pass away, because Jesus is risen, and he lives. In Acts 1.8, he commands us to go and be his witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit.
III. Conclusion - So a baby has been born. What do we do now? This child, this king, invites us into his kingdom and then commands us to bring his kingdom to others. But many times, it doesn’t feel so simple. We may not feel that we’re worthy of his kingdom. Maybe we’re struggling with repenting of sins that separate us from God. Many things challenge our entry into Christ’s kingdom. But also, we may struggle with being an ambassador of the Kingdom. God doesn’t want to use a person like me. My past cannot be overcome. The fear is too great. I have no talents. Could be anything. In closing tonight, we’re going to take some time to pray. During this prayer, I’d like to us to think about these things. Do you feel that there’s a struggle in entering the Kingdom of Heaven? Or perhaps serving in it? During the prayer, there will be a time for us to silently name our struggle before God and ask for his help. After the prayer, we’ll take communion together, as we always do; this is the food of the kingdom, which sustains our souls. Let’s pray.



This past week saw me complete Thomas Merton's early autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. As an author, mystic, and theologian, Merton caught my interest during my time in seminary. One of my New Testament professors, Dr. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., frequently referenced Merton's ideas pertaining to spiritual growth and development as regarding one's "false self" and "true self." This contact birthed a desire in me to explore these ideas further.

Since that time, I have not studied Merton as closely as I would like. In Kentucky, I had the opportunity to visit Gethsemani Abbey (the Trappist community where Merton resided) a couple of times; I have also read Merton's work, Contemplative Prayer, which I found simultaneously enlightening and baffling. During one of his classes, Dr. Mulholland led us through Merton's Opening the Bible, which I would heartily recommend to anyone who desires to study Scripture. I am also currently meandering through James Finley's Merton's Palace of Nowhere, which distills several of Merton's main ideas. I have found my brief experience with the works of Merton to be positive and look forward to continuing them.

The Seven Story Mountain was first published in 1948. In it, Merton explores his own life, freely revisiting his past experiences from his childhood to his first days at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey. Born in France, he grew up in Bermuda and England before attending college at Cambridge, then moving to the United States to finish his undergraduate work at Columbia. After simultaneously doing graduate work and pursuing a place within the Franciscan order, he finally settled down for a bit teaching English at St. Bonaventure. Experiences there reawakened his desire to pursue the priesthood, and prior positive encounters with Trappists drew him to that order.

Spiritually, Merton followed a winding road to his destination as a Trappist. Raised within a Protestant household, he rejected his spiritual upbringing in favor of a self-centered way of life. His account references his early college years in which he pursued drink, lively music, and carnal experiences. As he grew older, he began to find himself gradually attracted to the faith. Merton reveals his struggle with his own redemption as he relives his trials and battles with ill health, vocational uncertainty, and the ghosts of his own past; he also shares his relief and joy upon entering the monastery, as well as his experiences in the novitiate.

Personally, I found much to relate to within Merton's account. The wandering about while seeking one's vocation, the spiritual uncertainty as one strives to discover one's purpose, and the problems that ill health presents in these things all struck chords within me. I found myself also identifying with Merton's style of sharing pivotal life moments, experiences that served to direct his next steps; his experiences made me think of my own. Reading his redemption gives me hope for myself and others, that God is at work in our lives just as much as he was in Merton's.

I believe that those who read The Seven Storey Mountain will be able to find parallel experiences within their own lives as they hear Merton sharing his life with them. Reading this book proved to be both challenging and rewarding for me, and I recommend it without hesitation for both of these reasons. A brief note: the position of the writer is unapologetically Catholic in a pre-Vatican II world. Some sentiments come across as anti-Protestant, and many concepts and ideas are foreign to Protestants (praying to saints, the priestly hierarchy, etc.). If coming from a Protestant perspective, it is helpful to have an open and willing mind to embrace one's story told from an unfamiliar background when reading this work. That being said, Protestants would do well to explore the stories and beliefs of their Catholic brothers and sisters; The Seven Storey Mountain presents an ideal opportunity to do so.


The Pony Express Brought You Something...

...And that something is a newsletter from me. Aren't you excited? On to the bullet points that I love so much!
  • I'm still dating the aforementioned Ginger, and she's even more awesome than I thought she was before. We both moved back to our hometowns after graduation, so most of our relationship has been of the long-distance variety thus far. It presents a set of challenges, but we've grown through them and I find myself incredibly grateful every day that she's my girlfriend. We've been able to hop on some planes through the summer and visit each other's homes, meet families, etc. I continue to be amazed by her and am excited for what the future holds.
  • In my last post, I spoke too soon regarding my doctoral acceptance status. The Toronto School of Theology (Wycliffe) sent me a late acceptance letter, notifying me that they accepted me to their Theological Studies Ph.D. program. Due to some concerns, I requested and received a deferral of enrollment; should I choose to attend this program, they'll hold my spot until September of 2012.
  • I also began a blog devoted to my more theological thoughts. The bulk of the content up there is a devotional series that I wrote for the season of Lent this past year. Posts since then have been sporadic, but I will kick off another devotional series soon. Check it out: The Continuum of Grace.
  • I mentioned that I would be returning to Tulsa in my previous update, which I have done. Emmaus Road Church (formerly Saturday Night Community Church) was able to pull me on in a part-time capacity as an assistant pastor. It has been wonderful to re-engage this community of believers that is near to my heart and to start doing life with them. Though it's only a part-time gig at present, I'm excited about what God is doing in the community and have high hopes for the future.
  • Aside from Emmaus Road Church, this has become a season of rest for me. I graduated from ATS in May with an M.Div. and a slew of medical problems brought on by chronic exhaustion. My parents have been kind enough to take me back into their home. (Remember when I said I wouldn't go back? Yeah, I lied.) I've been seeing some doctors and making a more devoted effort to take care of myself. The past few months have been helpful in that area, and I feel better now physically than I have in a long time. Part of my struggle is that I have often equated rest with laziness; this attitude was partially what got me into trouble. Family and friends alike have been wonderful during this time, supporting me in what is a much-needed time of restoration and healing. Plans for the future remain decidedly fuzzy in light of this. I could pursue an expanded role at the church or head off to Canada for my Ph.D., or perhaps other options will present themselves. There's also a wonderful girl in Delaware that I'd like to be a bit closer to, and that thought factors into these considerations. All in all, I'm in a great place now; the best I've been in for a long time. I'm excited to see what God does next.
Ginger had the opportunity to flip through several of my old blog entries a few days ago, and she and I had a discussion about the window that they provided on my life. It's interesting; since my posts have been rather sporadic and come from many transition periods of my life, so much has changed in the time that I've had this blog. I remember many of the places and frames of mind that I was in when I wrote them. I've changed a lot as a person, no question; and yet, there are some things that remain constant. My sense of awe at the world in which I live, for instance. The creative longings that exist within me. My snarky sense of humor. (Sorry about that last one... You all may have to put up with that for a while.) In some ways, who we are changes as time goes on; in others, it remains. I'd be curious to know: in which ways have you noticed these changes and constants within yourself?

Sermon from 9/17/2011

Hey, all! I apologize for the blatant neglect of this blog. I'm going to provide a post here shortly. However, to tide you over until then, here's a transcript of my sermon given regarding a few of the sacraments at Emmaus Road Church on September 17th, 2011. Enjoy; feel free to comment!

  1. Introduction
    1. Greeting/Further Announcements
    2. Passing of the Peace
  2. Body
    1. Recap
      1. The Primary Sacrament, Jesus Christ - The last time I was with you, we began a series on sacraments. Together we started to explore some of the thinking and ideas behind sacramental theology. When we think about sacraments, many things may come to mind. Particular things that we do within the church here, such as communion. Maybe some ideas from other Christian traditions that may seem odd and foreign. Some people have attempted to define a “sacrament” as: “An earthly symbol that expresses a heavenly reality.” That definition is true, as far as it goes. However, when we think about sacraments, we think of Heaven and Earth colliding in a new, special, and profound way. We think of “thin spaces,” where Heaven and Earth communicate in ways that we have not felt before, where we experience the physical and the spiritual with an inexplicable level of intensity. An experience where somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, where, as Frederick Buechner says, “One plus one equals a thousand;” an experience where God meets us as we are. When we think of God meeting us, we think of Jesus Christ; the one who walked on this ground, breathed this air, and lived as a person among us. We think of Jesus Christ, who heals our sicknesses and forgives our sins. We look to Jesus; one plus one equals a thousand. In Jesus, Heaven and Earth met in such a way that all who interacted with Jesus found themselves facing something radically different, something that could not be explained. One plus one equals a thousand. When we think of sacraments, we must think of Jesus Christ first and foremost. He is the one who bridges the gap; he is the one we look to and call upon so that we experience salvation. Any other sacramental experience that we have takes place because of Jesus Christ; he is the primary sacrament.
      2. Defining Terms - When we talk about sacraments, I’d like us to expand our thinking a bit. Seven sacraments have been accepted by established churches, and we’ll speak a bit more about those in a bit. However, I would like to call us to live sacramental lives. Sue has a blog entitled, “The Sacrament of the Ordinary Life.” I really appreciate this title because it affirms where heaven should meet earth for us; in everyday life. I firmly believe that God desires to share our lives with us, to be present in the ordinary moments of our ordinary days. He’s punching holes in the sky from the top down so that He can be with us, if only we would look up and see Him. That’s what a sacramental life is about: allowing God to be present in every moment of our life, and expecting Him to show up. One of my favorite quotes is from an author who went by the name Novalis: “He who seeks God will find Him everywhere.”
      3. Looking - So part of our challenge becomes our seeking. Seeking more often; seeking in different ways. If we have misplaced something, we often don’t find it until we look in a place where we did not expect it to be. That’s part of what this series is about; to look at some things that may be unfamiliar so that we can take fresh eyes to see God into our ordinary, everyday lives.
      4. Sacraments - Last time that I was with you, we spoke about Jesus as the perfect sacrament, the first sacraments, the sacrament that all others point back to. The Catholic tradition recognizes seven sacraments: Communion, Baptism, Marriage, Ordination, Confirmation, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick. Protestants, which is where we fall on the family tree, only recognize two: Communion and Baptism. Over the next few times that I am with you, we’ll be looking at each one of these. I think it’s important to look at all of these, especially in our study, because we are trying to open up and widen our understanding of looking for God at work in the world. In this discussion, we would be remiss not to consider several ways that tradition suggests. Some of these may not be familiar to us, so we’ll be pulling from lots of places in our study: from the Church Fathers, as well as from the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches as well. A couple of disclaimers:
        1. These are deep waters and heavy issues. It is not too much to say that some of the great wars of history have been fought over sacramental theology. There are many differing opinions and ideas about these, and I recognize that. In discussing these things with you, I have barely tried to scratch the surface so that we can get an idea of what practice and tradition have said about these things. If you have disagreement, or wish to study these further, I invite you to do so, by all means.
        2. Secondly, I am not saying that we here at Emmaus Road are going to begin observing all of these. Preston and I are not going to be setting up a confessional booth and waiting for you guys to swing by. We have no interest in that. However, we do want to expand our ways of thinking about God at work in the world and in our lives. And so, I simply want to bring these to your attention. Tradition and theologians have affirmed that grace can be found by participating in these things; by looking at them, we can gain new eyes to see God at work in the world and participate in that, wherever we might be. Some of these ideas may sound odd; some of them may be challenging. The point is for us to gain greater perspective to see how God works. We’ll do this by looking at the sacrament from the perspective of Scripture. We will look at what the sacrament affirms in the life of the Christian and also talk about what it means for us. This week, we will look at three sacraments: Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Reconciliation.
    2. Confirmation
      1. Tradition - Of the seven sacraments that we will look at, this one has the most ambiguity. Traditionally, the church has affirmed that after one accepts Christ and is baptized, the sacrament of Confirmation opens the door for the person to receive the Holy Spirit in a fuller and greater measure through the laying on of hands. People have differed as to how much and why this takes place; some denominations also incorporate church membership and education into confirmation. However, traditionally, it refers to Christians receiving the Holy Spirit in a greater way than they did at baptism.
      2. Scripture - The Scripture often associated with this sacrament is Acts 8.14-17: “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that the people of Samaria had accepted God’s message, they sent Peter and John there. As soon as they arrived, they prayed for these new believers to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, for they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John laid their hands upon these believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.” So what we see happening here is that people have already been baptized, but had not received the Holy Spirit yet. Then, in a second act of grace, they receive the Holy Spirit. However, this is not a clear-cut case from Scripture. Several others, including St. Paul himself, receive the Holy Spirit before their baptisms. So, when we read the Bible, we see that there is some ambiguity here. However, we would do well to remember tradition and other church thought here as well. Some of us have visited more charismatic/Pentecostal churches. We remember that some of them have an emphasis on being “filled with the Holy Spirit” as some kind of a second act of grace; these traditions would affirm that beyond your initial conversion, there remains an additional aspect of God that remains for the believer to engage. While these groups likely would not refer to this belief as the “Sacrament of Confirmation,” the parallel does exist.
      3. Affirmations - Here, we may want to be careful. If Scripture and tradition affirm anything for us, both say that we should not put God in a box. We believe that when you accept Christ, you are 100% accepted, 100% forgiven, and 100% welcomed into God’s Kingdom. God desires to give you more than you are capable of accepting; he desires to welcome you, heal you, restore you, bring you into his kingdom, and use you for his glory. However, when you first make a decision to follow Christ, you might not be ready for all that. This is what the Sacrament of Confirmation affirms for us: that as we grow and mature as believers, we grow closer to God and God to us and we are able to experience more and more of God in our lives as we progress.
        1. Change of Character - One of the traditional statements about confirmation is that the believer experiences a change of character as a result of having received the sacrament. One of the things that our faith affirms is that Christians grow as they walk in faith. I think it’s interesting that Luke 2.52 tells us that Jesus, as a person, “grew in wisdom, and stature, and favor with God and man.” I think it’s interesting that Jesus grew as a person. He was educated in the ways of his time and culture, and he grew physically and mentally. And God Almighty and the people around Jesus saw this growth and were impressed. If Jesus experienced growth, shouldn’t we expect to experience it as well once we accept him as our Savior? God wants to work in you - to take the tired, hurting, and confused person and make you a strong, vibrant, and healed person. God wants to rework your DNA as a person. We’ve heard the saying, “God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay there.” Some people experience a quick change of character, while others experience this change more as a journey. Part of what our study is about is to encourage you to experience God’s acts of grace in your life. God will use a second act of grace. And a third. And a fourth. That is how God deals with us. This sacrament encourages us to receive these acts of grace.
        2. Increase of Grace - Traditionally, this sacrament also opens the door for a marked increase of grace in the life of the believer. Part of the experience of the Christian life is to experience an increase of grace. To help us understand grace, let’s take a look at Titus 2.11-14: “For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds.” We remember Jesus Christ, and we see that he is grace given to us. Grace brings us salvation; we are forgiven of our sins and made God’s people in the world. We can live in our daily lives and expect to have wisdom and righteousness as we remain devoted to God and we look forward to when Jesus returns to set all the wrongs right. He came once to make us clean and holy, to free us from our sins. Because of this, we are his people who do good in the world. This is the gospel; this is grace. God offers us as much as we can receive. But as we move forward and grow in the Christian life, we become able to receive more. As we seek God and his grace to live in righteousness and devotion, we become able to receive more grace for this same purpose. We should also note that if we reject God’s assistance, help, and encouragement in our lives, we limit our ability to receive it. Grace works by multiplication: if we decide against God’s work in our lives, God will not be able to work as much. However, if we accept his grace, more grace becomes available to us. The purpose of this shower of grace is mentioned above as well: “to be totally committed to doing good deeds.” We anticipate Jesus’ return, when God’s Kingdom will be made complete and whole once and for all; but until He does return, bringing about God’s kingdom on earth is our job.
      4. Emmaus Road Church - Here at Emmaus Road Church, we affirm that God uses a second act of grace to allow us to experience the Holy Spirit so that our character may be changed, so that we may experience an increase of grace in our lives and use the gifts that he has given us. And God uses a third act of grace. And God uses a fourth act of grace. God offers us as many acts of grace as it takes on this journey to make us into his person who brings about his kingdom in the world.
    3. Anointing of the Sick
      1. Tradition - This refers to a sacrament in which an ill person could call for priests and receive anointing with oil and prayer for healing. This has also been called the sacrament of Extreme Unction. It used to be connected with repentance as well as physical healing, and became for a time associated with Last Rites - in fact, some people would not receive this sacrament until they were on their deathbed because they did not want to sin after they had received it. However, different schools of thought have developed since then. The sacrament does not apply to only to those who are on their deathbed or those who are suffering from terminal illnesses. One may request it if they are suffering from the common cold; children are also able to receive it, as long as they are able to appreciate and understand what is taking place. It does not only apply to physical illnesses, but also to mental difficulties as well. It exemplifies God’s physical redemptive work in his church - the grace that God gives to heal his people. Some people request this sacrament to aid in forgiveness as well, or to receive spiritual strengthening.
      2. Scripture - There are two main scriptures used to affirm this sacrament, and we will look at both of them.
        1. The first is Mark 6.7-13: “And he called his twelve disciples together and began sending them out two by two, giving them authority to cast out evil spirits. He told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes. “Wherever you go,” he said, “stay in the same house until you leave town. But if any place refuses to welcome you or listen to you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.” So the disciples went out, telling everyone they met to repent of their sins and turn to God. And they cast out many demons and healed many sick people, anointing them with olive oil.” So here, we see Jesus giving authority to his disciples to cast evil spirits out of people, so that the afflicted people would experience relief. The apostles did just that, casting spirits out, healing people, and anointing people with oil.
        2. Let’s look at the next scripture, James 5.14-17: “Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” In this text, James, the brother of Jesus, is instructing his audience to do these things. If one feels ill, he or she may call for the elders to receive prayer and anointing. We also see James address forgiveness here as well, which is how this particular sacrament became associated with forgiveness of sins as well as physical healing. Of the seven sacraments that we will look at while I am with you, we can find that the early church employed this one. It is interesting to note that physical recovery was expected after a sick person received this sacrament.
        3. Oil - I’d like to take a moment and discuss the significance of oil within this sacrament. When we discuss sacraments, we look for physical things to help us experience heaven: in the sacrament of Confirmation, it is the laying on of hands. In this sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, it is the oil. In Biblical times, oil had a lot of significance for a number of reasons. In the area of physical health and treatment of illness, oil was used in a number of ways. Externally, it was used as part of the dressing and bandaging of wounds. It was also used to treat internal issues, such as ulcers and intestinal problems. Even today, in some Mediterranean areas, one can find mothers still telling their children to take a spoonful of olive oil every day. And so, oil is a symbol that is strongly connected with healing. When we receive this, we are anointed with oil that points us to the healing power of Christ. We are reminded of Christ’s healing ministry and his desire to heal us, and the oil is a physical, tangible thing that helps us experience healing from Christ.
      3. Affirmations - As Christians, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick affirms many things for us.
        1. At a most basic level, it affirms that God is interested in our lives and desires healing for us. Though to some Christians, this may seem like common sense, it can be difficult to remember at times, especially if we are struggling with a chronic illness. This sacrament, if nothing else, serves as a reminder that God does desire our healing and wants us to be whole. The difficulty with this is that often, we do not experience healing in the way that we thought it would happen. We stay sick long after healing has been prayed for. We asked God to remove the pain, take away the burden, and yet it remains. Even if we feel that this is our experience, I want to encourage you to seek God’s grace in the midst of your difficulty. Do not give up on looking for grace! We may find it in places we least expected it.
        2. Another thing that this sacrament affirms for us is a connection between our mind, spirit, and body. It is interesting to note that as people have continued to ponder this sacrament, it has come to include mental and emotional distresses as well as physical. Paired with the association on forgiveness, we begin to see a “whole person” scope in this sacrament. How many of us have had distressing experiences that left us physically ill? Or what about an unresolved conflict that we could not forgive or be forgiven that eats at us and causes bodily distress? Sometimes, we do not experience pain simply because of physical causes. Relational issues, matters of lifestyle, emotional states, and other things can cause difficulties in us that lead to physical problems. This sacrament reminds us to seek healing in not just our bodies, but healing in every single way that we can have it - emotional healing, mental healing, spiritual healing, relational healing, as well as physical healing. When we say that God desires us to be whole, we don’t mean just that God wants our bodies to work OK. God desires our relationships to be healthy. He wants our past hurts and wounds to be made well. He desires for our conflicts to be resolved. He wants us to be a person of peace. This sacrament affirms that.
        3. Also, this sacrament tells us that we can look for grace in the midst of our weakness. Let’s stop and ponder that for a second. When we find ourselves battling a particular infirmity or issue, we may feel abandoned in that moment. I’m not feeling well; where is God? This sacrament tells us that God desires to give us grace in our moments of brokenness, just as much as when all is well with the world. This sacrament tells us that God does not turn our back on us when we feel that the world is falling to pieces; rather, in those moments, it is best to look for grace. God desires to help us in those situations.
      4. Emmaus Road Church - Here at Emmaus Road Church, we desire to experience God’s healing and wholeness. There’s a prayer journal where you can request prayer for anything. If you want, you can contact our pastoral team and we will be happy to pray for you. I’d also like to point out that helping our community move toward wholeness is not just a job for the pastors; rather, it is a job for the community as a whole. We’re all in this together; if a member of our community is hurting, then we need to rally around that person as a community and help them. We are all on the path to healing and wholeness together. Traditionally, when someone calls for this sacrament, not just one minister shows up. Usually, it’s several. Healing takes place within community; inside the community of God we find Christ’s healing power for us.
    4. Reconciliation - This has also been known as Confession or Penance.
      1. Tradition - The sacrament of Reconciliation takes place when one, feeling true sorrow for his or her sins, goes to a priest to confess the sins with the intentions of making amends. The priest, through the power of God and the authority of the Church, proclaims forgiveness for the mentioned sins and also gives instructions on how proper amends are to be made. The one confessing experiences forgiveness and removal of guilt, which brings about a true reconciliation of the believer with God and, it is to be hoped, with other people. The tangible, physical aspect of this is the penitent going to the priest and naming the committed sins and the priest ministering forgiveness for those. This sacrament points us back to Jesus in that true restoration of the proper relationship between humankind and God only comes through the work of Christ and his sacrifice on the Cross. It also points us back to the power that Jesus vested in the church to be an active part of this.
        1. Controversy - Some of the hottest debates have come between Catholics and Protestants on this topic. One may ask the question, “Well, does God forgive sins or do people?” Some people will point out the authority given to the Church and say that even though forgiveness comes from God by the work of Jesus Christ, it can only come through the avenue of the Church. Others will say that forgiveness comes from God alone and can be received by his people in a variety of ways. I bring this up because I recognize the controversy. However, if hundreds of years of scholars and theologians spilling much ink over the centuries have not been able to resolve this for us, I do not think I will be able to clear it all up in the next few minutes. However, there are two main points that I wish us to be clear on that both sides agree on: 1) Forgiveness of sins comes from God alone and 2) People have the opportunity to play a significant role in the process.
      2. Scripture: There are two main scriptures that are used in connection with this sacrament.
        1. The first is John 20.21-23: “Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”” This event takes place when Jesus appears to the Apostles after the Resurrection. They receive the Holy Spirit and then Jesus tells them that they play a role in the forgiveness of sins, the choice of choosing to forgive or not to forgive.
        2. The second is a passage that we have already read this evening: James 5.14-17. We’ll read it again to refresh our memories: “Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” As noted earlier, there is a connection in this passage with forgiveness and healing. We also see that James desires his audience to confess their sins to other people so that they may be healed. The confession of sins to other people is emphasized.
        3. Interpretation - It is nearly impossible to interpret these scriptures without stepping on someone’s toes somewhere. As I said earlier, we’re treading in deep waters. A more traditional view would hold that when one desires to confess sin, he or she must go to a priest within the established church who is within the Apostolic Succession, who then bestows forgiveness. Our church falls on the Protestant side of the family tree, and we typically hold that the command to confess our sins to each other allows us to do so not just to our elders, but also to anyone within the body of Christ. We would say that forgiveness comes from God alone, though people may play a significant role in that. Again, these are questions that we can’t resolve tonight. However, it’s important that we are aware.
      3. Affirmations - This sacrament makes several affirmations that we should be aware of, however we choose to interpret these scriptures.
        1. First, there is forgiveness available. It is the heart of God to be in relationship with people, his creation. He wants to be in relationship with you. One of the difficulties that we have as people is that we struggle to understand that God does love us and desire to have relationship with us. We can see ourselves and the things that we have done, and we do not see a way that God wants to love us. However, this sacrament affirms that God desires to have a relationship with us. He does desire the barriers of sin between us and Him to be broken down. There is forgiveness for you.
        2. This sacrament also tells us that there are concrete repercussions to our actions. After hearing one’s confession, the priest would assign penance - concrete steps to bring about amends and restitution. If these steps were carried out with a truly grieving and penitent heart, they would play a key role in one’s forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a principle that we cannot ignore. For example, if I have an addiction to a harmful substance, I can confess my addiction and the harm that it causes to me and those around me all I want. However, until concrete steps are made to end the addiction, I am preventing myself from receiving the forgiveness that is available. And even then, a certain degree of damage may have been done that may be impossible to undo. My body may never be the same; my relationships may never be the same. Even though God will forgive me for abusing my body, I may have injured myself to the degree that I am not able to live the life that I desire. Even though my friends will forgive me for the wounds that I have caused, we may not be able to enjoy the close relationship that we once did. Preston has been preaching from the lectionary the past couple of weeks on forgiveness, and I think he makes an excellent point: there is complete forgiveness available, but there are repercussions. He brought up the Amish School Shooting in 2006 and the outpouring of forgiveness from the Amish community following that. The wounded community embraced the family of the gunman in an amazing example of what true forgiveness is. However, the wrongs could not be undone; many people died that day; others suffered severe injuries. Families are experiencing the loss of loved ones, and lives were forever changed. Unfortunately, in this world, these events cannot be undone. However, the great Christian hope is that when Jesus returns to fully bring about His kingdom, the wrongs will be made right. Full restoration will take place. The sacrament of reconciliation affirms this: that we, as the people of God with his Holy Spirit living in us, forgive, receive forgiveness, make amends and reconcile as best as we are able. And we look forward to Christ’s glorious return, when he completes the process and picks up the pieces that we are not able to.
        3. This sacrament also affirms the role of people in God’s forgiveness. It is one thing to hold God’s forgiveness as a theological precept, but it can be difficult to accept forgiveness without tangible affirmation of that. By affirming the role of the community of the church in one’s forgiveness, we can receive tangible, concrete assurance that our sins ARE forgiven. Through the community of Christ, we can receive concrete help in not only receiving forgiveness but also forgiving others. Like we said with healing, forgiving is a community thing. We’re all in this together.
      4. Emmaus Road Church - Here at Emmaus Road, we affirm that confession, making restoration, and forgiveness takes place within community. The power of God and the authority of Christ goes hand in hand with the church so that reconciliation can be a full process. We believe that God can forgive your sins even if you never darken the door of a church; but we also believe that this is not God’s complete design, for the church can and should play a valuable role in the forgiveness and healing process. Due to our nature as broken people, sometimes this means that boundaries need to be established; however, together, we share the hope of Christ’s return which will set all wrongs right.
  3. Conclusion - Tonight, we have looked at Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Reconciliation. The next time that I’m with you, we will discuss Marriage and Ordination. However, we must remember that when we think of the sacraments, we think first and foremost of Jesus. In Confirmation, we remember that even Jesus experienced growth as a person, and we look forward to God growing greater in our lives. In the Anointing of the Sick, we remember Jesus’ healing ministry and his desire for us to be made whole. In Reconciliation, we remember Jesus bringing salvation, forgiving our sins, and the key role that we as people are to play in that. We won’t be engaging these quite in the same way that other churches do, but by becoming more aware of them, we become more and more aware to the many ways and places and things that God uses to give us grace. This is what living sacramentally is all about: expectantly seeking for Christ and his power to come into your life, looking for concrete ways in which this happens, and being willing to be used by God in the same way.


A Big Deal... Or Two.

Well, a couple of things have popped up since my last update... As my time at seminary draws to a close, I am looking toward the future with excitement and anticipation. Things haven't gone as I planned, but it's been a great experience. Here are a couple of things that I'm thrilled about.

First off, I have started dating a fantastic girl. Her name is Ginger. (And she does not have Facebook, so don't bother.) She's a wonderful girl who loves Jesus. She's graduating this May with a Master of Arts in Counseling. She's witty, smart, and funny. She plays guitar and sings like an angel. Oh, and she's beautiful. Have I said she's fantastic?

Secondly, my plans regarding further education are going to be put on hold. My Ph.D. applications have not come back positively; one school turned me down, another deferred me for "further review," and the third denied my application for their doctoral program but accepted me for their Th.M. instead. These were not the results I had hoped for, obviously. I've had health struggles for the past couple of years as well; by God's grace and good medical care I've been able to continue studies, but I'm hesitant to begin another degree before these issues are resolved. Bearing both of these things in mind, I'm going to return to Tulsa after graduation. I'm currently looking for a job as an adjunct or online faculty member; a ministry position would be a definite possibility as well. I would ask for your prayers for God's continued providence and peace regarding the future. I would like to pick up further studies later, but I do not feel comfortable beginning another degree at this time. I'm happy to return home and see friends and have fun times, and I'm excited to pursue possibilities in the Tulsa area. I don't see this as a step back, or even a step sideways; these are just the steps I'm taking. Life is good.

Oh, and I got a haircut today. That's kind of a big deal.



Well, the season of Lent is upon us. Church seasons are always enlightening times; they challenge us to see our faith differently than we might otherwise. They also bind us together as a community of faith during the observation of these seasons. In short, this is a time to be excited about.

It seems that the standard way to celebrate this church season is to "give something up." Personally, in the past I have gone forty days without:
  • Coffee. Never again.
  • Pop. Easy.
  • "Secular music." Whatever that means.
  • AIM. Remember that?
While it is all well and good to go without something, it should probably be remembered that the purpose of the exercise is to make room for God to work in one's life, as well as through one's life. To this end, many streams of Christian faith encourage their adherents to spend additional time in prayer or acts of service during this season.

Therefore, for this season, I have decided to engage a somewhat different approach; I have started a blog which will feature daily Scripture readings, reflections, and prayers. This blog will run the duration of the Lenten season. Not only will it provide daily content, but I also hope it will serve as a forum for people to discuss and process how God is working in their lives.

I am aware that those choosing to observe Lent have a variety of ways to do so, and I don't want to force my particular means of observation upon anyone. However, if you're reading this and think that you'd like to incorporate this blog into your own celebration of the season, then I welcome you to do so. Point your browser here to see what I've put up so far: http://continuumofgrace.wordpress.com/. It's rather sparse at this point, but I will work on it in terms of functionality and aesthetics in coming days. (And if any of you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them. Serious blogging is a bit new to me.) I'm looking forward to journeying together with you during this season.

The flipside of this is that such an endeavor requires time; in order to make time for this, I will be ignoring my Facebook account during this season. Contact information can be found under my Facebook account, should you need to reach me. I always enjoy hearing from friends, so please don't hesitate to get in touch.

It is my prayer that God becomes new and real in your life this season as we draw nearer to Easter; and not only that, but that he would use you to make himself real to others.



Update, Yo!

I last posted October 23. My last substantive update occurred long before then. I guess it's time for another.

I finished up the Fall 2010 semester at ATS with straight As; first time ever in seminary to do that! I had a somewhat different run of classes this semester. One was a class on the development of sacramental liturgy that I found to be informative. For this class we got to visit churches of several different denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) as well as studying ancient liturgy and tracing its development through the Reformation into contemporary times. Another class dealt with the idea of aesthetics within theology; I found this class to be very engaging and thought-provoking. The idea that a faith system has an aesthetic element has been somewhat ignored as of late, but I believe that viewing faith in terms of beauty can be compelling and beneficial. Great class. I also took a course that dealt with themes of literature and analysis of these themes in terms of worldview and ethics. For this course, I wrote a story and then analyzed it with the tools given during the semester. Certainly a fun exercise. (If you would like a copy of the story, let me know. I'd be happy to send one.) This semester ran a bit out of my normal field of study; I usually study early church history and Biblical literature instead of ethics, philosophy, systematics, and late church history. However, the change of pace was nice.

This semester, I quit Starbucks. There was no negative situation; I just wanted to work closer to campus. With Starbucks, my round-trip commute was a touch more than 30 miles. God opened some doors and I was able to get a student worker job inside the library at the school. I landed in the cataloging department. For the most part, my job involves uploading audio files of chapel services into a digital repository so that people can access the services online. Then I file the physical copies (CDs and cassettes) into storage. It's somewhat tedious, but it's nice to work in an office environment. It's a fantastic job; fun people and a great atmosphere. I love it.

I came back to T-Town over Christmas break and was able to see some family and friends. Unfortunately, some physical problems manifested and I spent the week after Christmas in a good deal of pain. (Had to cancel a lot of good times with people; I'm sorry.) Dr. Dad really came through and patched me up so that I could return to school for the January mini-mester.

And so return I did, and I'm currently taking a January intensive of Intermediate Hebrew. The professor is one Lawson Stone, who just happened to be on the translation committee for Joshua and Judges in the New Living Bible. (Yes, these are the people I study under. Fan-tastic.) Thus far, the class has been very challenging because my Hebrew is quite rusty. However, the payoff has been wonderful. Brad Young of ORU once said something to the effect of: "Reading the Bible in anything but the original language is like trying to kiss a girl through a sheet." I would have to agree with him; looking at the text in the original is a wonderful way to get past the Sunday-school flannelgraph understandings of Scripture that roam around out there. The Hebrew OT especially contains a raw intensity that is often sanitized out of modern translations. I am grateful for the opportunity to examine the text under one who is a scholastic giant in his own right.

At this point, more and more people ask: "So when do you graduate? What happens next?" I am only able to answer one of these questions at the moment. I graduate in May of this year.

I have no idea what happens next.

Currently, I am waiting to hear back from the University of Toronto (Wycliffe) and Marquette regarding applications to their Ph.D. programs. Hopefully, I won't have to wait much longer. One option certainly is to continue my studies, which I do want to do. Another possibility, made all the more attractive because of recent health issues, would be to take some time off, get a job, get out of debt, and build up my CV in order to be a better doctoral candidate in the future. Maybe that would be here in Kentucky; maybe that would be back home in Tulsa. Can't say. After I graduate, I would be qualified for a graduate-assistantship position in my field of study, perhaps an adjunct professor; I also would be able to serve well as a teaching pastor within a church setting. Due to my personality and skill set, I could also function well within administrative settings. We'll just have to see what happens with the Ph.D. applications and go from there. Another option would be to get another Master's here at ATS. Just gotta wait and see what happens with these applications.

Gotta say, I have a fantastic posse of family and friends; thank you all for your support, help, and prayers over the past few months and into this year. I love you all and I am very grateful for you.


More Thoughts From Freddy

Continuing to read through Wishful Thinking, I found Buechner's entry on "Worship." I share it with you.

Phrases like Worship Service or Service of Worship are tautologies. To worship God means to serve him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done - run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do - sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what's on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.
A Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening - unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.