He saw and believed…but he did not yet understand.

Let’s be honest: this is an odd story. Granted, it’s pretty central to our whole enterprise here. Without this resurrection thing, there’s not much reason for us to be here today – or any day, for that matter. What grabs me today, though, is this little nugget about John, the beloved yet unnamed disciple in the story. When he enters the tomb, he sees that it is empty, and so, we are told, he believes. But he did not yet understand.

John believed…but didn’t understand. Believed what? Understood what? Is it saying that he believed that the tomb was empty, but didn’t understand that Jesus was alive? Possibly…but I think if that were the case, he would be as despondent as Mary and join in the hunt for the body.

No…as strange as it may sound, I think it’s more likely that John believed in the resurrection before he understood it.

That’s not too much of a stretch, really, is it? We have gut feelings, those initial reactions where we just know something is wrong – or right – long before we can put words to those feelings. And there are probably a lot of us here who feel like John when it comes to faith. We believe that resurrection is possible – even believe that Jesus rose from the dead – but remain clueless about the mechanics of it.

At the same time, there are probably a lot of us here – and way more out there – who can’t believe in something so absurd as resurrection until we first understand it. Is it really too much to ask to see proof before we agree? No one expects us to sign a contract if we don’t get to read it first. Why should the resurrection be any different?

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We think things through. That’s what separates us from the rest of the animals, isn’t it, the ability to reason? Without that, we would be no more than hairless apes, giving in to every whim and urge.

It’s kind of adorable that we think so highly of ourselves. The truth is that we are a bundle of logic and feeling. And there are times when we need to let feeling take the lead.

Some of you might know the story of the Getty Kouros, an ancient Greek statue that the Getty Museum bought for nine million dollars in 1985. Before making the purchase, they put it through rigorous scientific testing to gauge its authenticity. The problems came after they paid for it. Several times, the Getty invited art experts to come at marvel at their purchase. And it happened repeatedly: the expert would walk in and immediately get a feeling that the piece was a fake. And the more the statue was studied, the more that initial feeling seemed to be true. Now, the statue bears a label saying, “Greek, about 530BC, or modern forgery.”

The experts who spotted the fake right away had spent years practicing their craft. Starting in internships and working their way up, they logged thousands of hours looking at archaeological finds to the point that their gut would know a fraud from the real deal long before they could explain it. Believing before understanding? It’s what we’re wired for. And the more we practice, the more we can be like John, where a mere glimpse of an empty tomb tells us everything we need to know to believe.

Remember: John and the other disciples had followed Jesus day in and day out for at least three years. We don’t know how much they knew of the faith prior to Jesus calling them. But by the time Easter came around, they had logged enough hours to recognize a miracle long before they could understand it.

Do we? Or have we even put in the time? If the goal is to build up muscle memory for faith, then we need to log the hours. And when we do, we will not only know the truth in our guts. We will know enough to trust that feeling, the glimpse that tells us all we need to believe. Understanding will follow…sometimes we just need to give it the time it needs.

So if that’s our destination, having enough practice under our belts to recognize miracles, then what’s the path? How do we get there?

I’d like to meet the person who invented the pedometer. What a brilliantly simple concept: an inconspicuous device that clips onto your waist and counts your paces. 10,000 steps a day is the goal, a distance that is an indicator that we are doing what we need to in order to keep fit. In essence, we have taken this complex idea of physical fitness and have managed to boil it down to a simple, achievable goal.

I would love find the faith pedometer. Faith is complex. Is there something that would help us boil it down to something simple so we can log those faith hours?

If you have been reading this blog at all this year, you probably have a hunch of what I’m about to say. As a community and as individuals, we have been growing toward a daily practice of five minutes of prayer. And as I’ve said before, what I have found so rewarding about doing so is how it seems to tune me into God’s wavelength, heightening my awareness to the extraordinary shining through the ordinary. I still think that’s a worthy goal to strive toward.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote our individual commitments to prayer down. Those commitments now hang in the Narthex.

I’m also aware that, for many of you, Easter is one of the few times you’ll darken the door of a church over the course of the year. I know you don’t come to hear a guilt trip from the pulpit, and that’s not what I want to do. What I do want to do is encourage you to consider is that church could be a key part of building up that muscle memory, of logging those hours, of refining those feelings so that a mere glance at an empty tomb tells us everything you need to know.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a healthy church environment. I sat between Grandmommy and Granddaddy each and every Sunday. I followed along in the hymns and the Bible readings. I knew the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. That was all fine and good. But when my first real adult crisis came along, when a loved one faced an illness that threatened to take them away, that’s when all those hours bore fruit. The muscle memory kicked in. When words eluded me, the Lord’s Prayer bubbled up and took their place. The years of practice took over and gave me the faith I didn’t have so that I could hold on until logic and understanding finally caught up.

Look: there are so many things we are willing to stretch ourselves to the point of discomfort. We get up earlier than we would like because of what time they want us at work. We wage the battle to make sure the kids go to school, even if they don’t want to, because we know it will matter down the road. We stay up late to crunch for that exam. We get up early to get to the gym. We watch our diets and our wallets as a matter of discipline.

So here’s my question: how does faith fit?Or does it? If the job goes, if the education fizzles, if we are dangerously ill, if the loved one is no longer with us, when life hits that crisis, will we have the faith to hold on until understanding can catch up?

A couple of months ago, post-it notes started popping up around the church. Some of you probably noticed them today. There are little positive messages on them like, “You are not a burden” or “You are loved” or my favorite, “If I weren’t a post-it, I’d give you a hug.” I’ll admit that I had a role in getting those started, but pretty soon, they started showing up in handwriting that wasn’t mine. It became viral, a kind of Guerrilla Grace.

But there’s a problem with these notes: they’re in the wrong place. Let me rephrase that: these are the kinds of messages we need to hear and see in church. And there are too many churches where, unfortunately, people are exposed to the exact opposite. It’s just that…these are the kinds of messages we need everywhere. Imagine: what would it be like if that dysfunctional graffiti on the bathroom walls was replaced with encouragement; or even if there was one shining light, a simple note in the midst of the dreck that says, “God loves you”?

You see, what I believe, what I know in my gut but don’t yet understand is that we can change the culture! But it means we have to get outside this building. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing to come here, to see the empty tomb and recognize the miracle that it is. What is crucial is what we do with that belief. If we keep it to ourselves, that’s just selfish hoarding. But if we, like Mary Magdalene, run to tell the others, that’s how God will use us to transform the world!

So I’ve got an assignment for you today. Take your own post-it notes (which, by the way, were invented by a Presbyterian). Spend some time writing messages on them, notes of affirmation, of love, of Guerrilla Grace. Keep them close by. And when the moment strikes you, put it up wherever you go. At home, at work, at school, be a part of this amazing movement that lets the world know how much it is loved. Share it. Repeat it. Spread it! Believe it, even if you don’t yet understand it.

The truth is that one of these notes may be just the glimpse someone needs so they can believe the tomb is empty.

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, Alleluia!


Prayer: Hosanna

Hosanna in the highest!

Today begins our week-long parade that starts overlooking Jerusalem and ends with an empty tomb. We will take time to gather around the table on Thursday and mark the Last Supper. On Friday, we remember that before resurrection comes betrayal, crucifixion, suffering, and death. And at first light on Sunday, we will find the stone rolled away, and sprint to share the news.

But first things first: Hosanna!

It’s the word the crowds cry as they gather along the roadside. Hosanna! As Jesus rides down from the Mount of Olives, they place their cloaks in his path. Hosanna! They cut branches, waving them and laying them in the road, too. Hosanna! The crowds surrounded Jesus, shouting and praying, “Hosanna!”

What is the “Hosanna”? It must be some Hebrew word of praise. They call Jesus the “Son of David,” invoking the name of the great ancient king. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cry. They have some inkling of who he is and what this entry to Jerusalem must mean. “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” They are taking this one all the way to the top!


It’s possible that by the time of Jesus, the word meant no more to most people than a placeholder of elation, like a first century “Yay” or “Wow” or some other monosyllabic palindrome. But no doubt, there were those who knew its origins. The religious authorities, for one, knew what it meant. The disciples, too – indeed, anyone who was steeped in the faith would know what it meant. And they also knew that by virtue of the cry of “Hosanna”, this was far more than a simple peasants’ parade. This was a procession meant to challenge the very heart of politics and religion as they were known, an affront to the Jerusalem status quo.

“Hosanna” does come from an old Hebrew phrase, but one that was less praise and more desperate plea. “Save now!” It was a phrase stripped of all pretense of politeness. “Help!” Its insistent cry was one reserved for royalty or divinity. “Deliver us! Don’t wait!” The people are either calling Jesus “king” or “God” or both.

In other words, this “Hosanna” lets us know that the crowds are not simply uttering prayers of praise. They are anointing the leader of a coup!

In the first century, the people of Judea were laboring under a triple occupation. The Romans had claimed this important geography as their own, controlling this crucial trading zone where three continents come together. Conspiring with this foreign Empire was King Herod, a figurehead Jewish ruler who was far more concerned with his own tentative grip on regional power than he was with the well-being of his people.

And the religious establishment colluded, too. The priests and scholars, the keepers of the traditions of priests and prophets that came before, were more interested in ritual purity than they were in sacred concepts like righteousness and justice, especially if invoking them might mean losing what little authority they had.

Hosanna indeed! This was a people in need of being saved, and they pinned their hopes on this Jesus, this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, crying out to him on the road and following him into the city.

What happens next is where the story turns. Instead of heading to Herod’s palace and using the surging crowd to overthrow the puppet, Jesus heads to the Temple. He flips over tables and drives out the merchants. It’s a scathing action that put him at the top of the hit list, revealing that those in charge were more concerned with power than faithfulness.

By ending at the Temple, Jesus took a risk. And it probably lost him the crowds. It is only a few days later that those who cried out to him as Savior are now calling for his crucifixion. Hosanna indeed.

Are we like the crowds? Sadly, probably so. We can be fickle. We are eager to cheer Jesus on when he agrees with us. We are ready to turn our back on him when he discomforts us. So what would it look like for us to be those crowds, embracing Hosannas, crying out to Jesus as he enters into the heart of it all, but instead of turning tail, following him to the bitter end?

My own mind is drawn today to Anne Lamott’s book, which you have heard us reference a few times: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In it, Lamott says that all prayers boil down to these three simple words: help, thanks, wow. And more often than not, these concepts overlap and run together. Lamott tells the story of an outing with her friend Barbara when she was in the final stages of ALS. Lamott asked her, “What are you most grateful for these days?” Her response, from the midst of precipitous decline, was this: “The beauty of nature, the birds and flowers the beauty of friends.” Even there in the midst of suffering, where the daily plea for “help” was surely at the forefront, Barbara still had the presence of mind to say “thanks”.

I think a truly holy Hosanna can hold these three words together, this help, thanks, and wow. Hosanna cries for deliverance. It calls out in gratitude. And it gives voice to holy awe.

What is your prayer today? What is your commitment to grow into daily prayer?

That’s the thing about following this Jesus: it’s risky stuff. We may want him to go to Herod’s palace, but that’s the moment when he’ll head toward the Temple. We may hope he’ll agree with us and what we’re already sure we know is true, but that’s the moment that he’ll challenge us directly and reveal to us what Truth really looks like.

And isn’t that what faithfulness is all about? It’s a journey, a parade, with stops and stumbles along the way, full of moments of both doubt and certainty, of hesitation and growth. It’s a procession whose ultimate destination will remain shrouded in mystery, but a holy mystery embodied in this royal, divine Jesus.

Hosanna indeed?

Hosanna indeed!

Prayer: Gratitude

RisenGratitude for what is.
Gratitude for what was.
Gratitude for what will be.

Our lesson this morning from John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It is a story about prayer. It is a story that reminds us that prayer comes in many shapes and sizes, many forms and practices. And what lies at the heart of it all, regardless of what it might look like, is our theme for the day: gratitude.

We have been talking a lot about prayer this year. And, I hope, we have been praying a lot, too. I have been challenging each of you to take on a daily practice of prayer. And as you have heard from me and from others in our community, more than anything else, I hope you have seen that prayer is a very individual practice. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe it’s sitting still that calms you enough to enter into prayerfulness. Or perhaps it’s being on the move that helps you keep pace with God’s activity in the world.

Have you figured out what works for you? Are you at least on your way? Maybe you don’t have it all pinned down, but have you at least gained some insight into what kinds of prayer might be best for you. How many of you feel like you are at least pointed in the right direction? Whether you feel like you can say yes or no to that, today is all about encouraging you to keep at it.

Gratitude takes many forms. So let’s start with gratitude for what is. In many ways, this is the one that ought to be clearest. We see what we have, the blessings around us, and we are grateful. We recognize how blessed we are, and we give thanks to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift.

That seems to be what’s at work behind our lesson from John today. Mary and Martha call out to Jesus not only because they know what Jesus is capable of, but because they don’t want to lose what they have – namely, their brother, Lazarus. They may not be able to name it in that moment, but for them, there is gratitude for what is in this sibling relationship – so much so that they want to hold onto it.

That gratitude is also there in the disciples’ decision to go to visit Lazarus with Jesus. Word reaches them about Lazarus when they are across the Jordan River. Bethany is just outside Jerusalem. And knowing what they know about Jerusalem, about Jesus’ escalating conflict with the powers that be based in that city, they have a sense that going to Bethany means going toward certain death. And yet, they go. Led by Thomas, the one who later doubts, they go.

Again, I’m not sure the disciples would name that decision as one of gratitude, but they know and appreciate what they have in being with Jesus. They have seen his power. They have learned from his wisdom. They don’t want to lose that, but they know that traveling with him to the bitter end might mean having access to it just a little bit longer.

There’s a funny thing about this kind of gratitude, though – the gratitude for the present, the most tangible form of gratitude. It’s the one we are most likely to take for granted. There is something about us that seems to be uncomfortable with comfort. The moments where we should be most content are usually the ones in which we are most likely to be discontent. We are more likely to desire what we don’t have than what we do.

My encouragement to you is to spend some time taking stock of those things for which you ought to be grateful. Don’t get drawn in by jealousy, by looking at what someone else has and getting suckered into desire for what they have and you don’t. There are blessings right beneath our nose that we often miss because we won’t sit still long enough to notice them.

Gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was.

When Elizabeth and I were living in Louisville, one of the strongest draws back to Atlanta for us was family. We knew we were about to start our own, and we wanted our little family to be connected with that larger network here in Atlanta: cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents.

My grandmother was ninety-five years old when we moved back. She lived just down the street from here. And every Friday, we would go and have lunch with her. She lived to be ninety-nine. I cherished her, and there are many dear memories that will live on. In some ways, it feels foolish to weep over a life that lasted just shy of a century. And yet, I did; because we miss what we love.

Every loss contains at least an element of sadness. I realize that for some Christians, that idea comes close to blasphemy. The thinking goes that we are a people of hope, trusting in the promise of life beyond life. Therefore, shouldn’t death be an occasion for rejoicing? My response is simply this: Jesus wept. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us.

Jesus not only knows this promise of eternal life more than any of us, he inhabits it; embodies it. He tells the disciples that the death of Lazarus is an opportunity to show the power of God. And yet, when he sees the mourners crying, he is moved. When he makes his way to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he weeps. He doesn’t, for a moment, doubt God’s power in what is about to happen. And yet, he grieves. I don’t think this is just compassion – though I’m sure compassion is part of what moves him so deeply. Jesus is, quite simply, sad. When the reality of Lazarus’ death hits him in the face, he cries.

And what lies just beneath the surface of sadness, I believe, is gratitude. If we lose something or someone we don’t particularly care about, then we don’t tend to shed any tears. But when we cherish someone or something we lose, we are heartbroken. That heartbreak is shaped by many things: sadness for what will never be, emptiness for what is lost. And yet, right there in the midst, I believe, is gratitude. We may not be able to see it right away, but it is there, and it will come.

Gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was; gratitude for what will be.

This is the gratitude of hope, the gratitude of possibilities. It is an intangible gratitude, because it is the gratitude of the unknown. It’s the gratitude of a stone rolled away, of a dead man walking out of a tomb, of a community surrounding him and finishing the work of resurrection.

And that’s where today’s conversation, hopefully, moves us forward in the months to come. While we will not be talking about prayer as much as we have been, we will continue to grow as a praying congregation. My vision is that every single one of us is praying daily. Some of you are already there. Some of you are on your way. Some of you probably think I’m way off base here. All I can tell you is that my own life is better, and markedly so, because of daily prayer. How can I not want that for each you?

You see, the more we are in prayer, the more we are in tune with God. And the more we are in tune with God, the more we know the character of Jesus that is at the heart of God. If what will be is in God’s hands, then hope is the surest thing of all, because hope is at the heart of God. What will be may not look like what we expect. And yet, what will be is as outrageous as a dead man living, because what will be belongs to God.

Today, I want you to do is to make a commitment to what your prayer life will look like from here. It could be a word, a phrase, a doodle, a drawing, whatever it is that makes the most sense to you.

For me, the word is consistency. The more I practice prayer, the more consistent I am with my daily habit; and yet, I still feel like I am too easily thrown off track. So my commitment from this day forward is consistency.

Maybe that’s true for you; or maybe it’s about getting started – really giving this prayer thing a try. Or perhaps it’s about figuring out what it is that works for you. Are you distracted too easily? Do you need the focus of a candle, a song, a Biblical text as your centering mantra? Or is it that you want to be more mindful of how it is that you pray? Maybe it’s about spending that daily time journaling, writing or drawing your way with God. I don’t know what it is that calls to you, challenges you, comforts you. Prayer is as individual as you are.

Maybe it’s the commitment of accountability that you’re looking for. If so, then I would suggest a prayer partner.

A prayer partner can be someone you pray with regularly, or someone who prays for you regularly, or someone who checks on your prayer life regularly, or any combination of these.

My hope is that gratitude will permeate all of your prayers: gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was; gratitude for what will be.


Prayer: Focus

Focus is not what we think it is…

Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a praying church. That is not a startling revelation all by itself. Many churches pray. We pray before meetings, when we meet for lunch, before worship, during worship, after worship…prayer is an important part of everything we do.

What I mean when I say that Oglethorpe is a praying church is that prayer has grown in what it means to us in the past few years. Our prayer list, once an opportunity to list members in need of prayer, has grown into a ministry of its own, with far more names of people outside than inside our congregation. Our practice of asking for prayers during the service has multiplied as well: from a trickle of a card here and there to a consistent flow of praise and concern. Since January, we have been working at developing a daily habit of prayer in our lives. When Lent began, we kicked things into overdrive, expressing our prayers in many ways: through words, silence, and even through song.

And today, as we turn our attention to Jesus and the blind man, our focus turns to…focus.

I am the last person in the world to talk about focus. I can be too easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. It is a gift when multitasking is required; but when I want to dedicate my energy to one thing, it is maddening. For me, focus takes discipline. Repetition. Habit. When I talk about developing a daily habit of prayer, the temptation to pay attention to more interesting things is great. And so, for me, daily prayer takes practice, because I am prone to want immediate results. It takes grace, because I will drop the ball more than once. It takes creativity, because what focuses me today will not be what focuses me tomorrow. And it takes God, because I cannot do this on my own.

So in an effort to focus my focus today, I want to suggest four thoughts about prayer. I am hoping that one or more of these will land with you, and give you focus in your prayer and practice.

First, prayer is a process.

Prayer is not something that comes to us naturally. It takes practice before it takes form. Think of learning to write. First, we have to learn how to hold a pen. Second, we have to develop the muscles in our hands. Third, we have to learn the motions required to make letters recognizable. It is only after years of practice that we can write without thinking carefully about each minute step.

You see, process is a part of the life of faith. Because faith lives in that world of the intangible, we tend to miss this point. But it’s an important one. When Jesus heals the blind man, we know that he could’ve said, “you are healed” and be done with it. Instead, he first makes mud out of spit and dirt. He then rubs it in the man’s eyes. And finally, he tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. When the man does, it is then that he is able to see. The process is crucial to the healing. The man’s faithful response, of trusting Jesus enough to go wash, is essential for the healing to be complete. I suspect that his role in finishing the healing is what makes him own it, what gives him the willingness to stand up to the crowds and the Pharisees and call them on their hypocrisy.

What is true about faith being a process is also true about prayer. It takes time and patience to develop the muscle memory to pray. And before we get there, our prayers are likely to be chunky, indecipherable. Since January, I have been encouraging you to use the template on the back of the white pew card. It’s not a magic formula, but if you find yourself still holding your prayer pen like it’s a murder weapon, this is as good a process as any to start building up those muscles.

Prayer is a process.

Second, prayer is personal.

The way you pray will be different from the way someone else prays. Cheryl mentioned last week how her most prayerful times can be on the tractor – no one can bother her, and she can run over anyone who tries. My prayers of late have been ones with eyes wide open, sitting in coffee shops and restaurants. My quiet refrain has been, “Who should I pray for?” There are days that nothing comes through clearly; but more often than not, I get some kind of clarity: I see someone that has been on my mind of late, and we end up in conversation; my wandering thoughts end up focusing on one of you and your life, and I lift that up in prayer. For me, and the way I am wired, the paradox is that distractions bring me focus.

Jesus knew the importance of personalized encounters. If playfulness was called for, he toyed with words. If bluntness was needed, he flipped over tables. If compassion was necessary, he wept. And with the man born blind, he saw the whole experience as an opportunity not just to heal, but also to call the Pharisees to account for their own blind spots. And through it all, the man isn’t simply an object lesson in the battle; he becomes an outspoken critic of the Pharisees and a powerful witness to the power of Jesus. His healing is much deeper than gaining his sense of sight; it is about gaining his sense of self as he understands his relationship with this Jesus.

What about you? Maybe you’re like me, looking for a way to hack your short attention span for prayer. Or perhaps you require utter silence…or a candle to stare into, or a phrase or song to run through your mind. Maybe drawing or journaling or doodling would help bring clarity. Or perhaps it’s a walk in the woods, or around the neighborhood that will give you the ability to free your spirit of what weighs it down, to bring your mind to focus on what God desires for you. My suggestion is that you experiment…play with different kinds of prayer until you find what fits you.

Because prayer is personal.

Third, prayer is about results.

What is it that prayer does for you? Is it measurable? Definable? If you read the literature about what prayer does to our brains, we are just beginning to understand the possibilities. But what we do know is that prayer matters. It is a practice that over time can rewire our brain. It increases our ability to concentrate and to have empathy toward others.

From my own experience, I can tell you that following this particular formula of prayer has definitively heightened my awareness of the world around me and where it is that God wants my attention. It is seeing these results that convinces me that we should grow our life of prayer here at Oglethorpe.

Results tend to speak for themselves. When the Pharisees grill the man born blind about his healing encounter with Jesus, he simply points to the results: I was blind, and now I see. What more proof do you need that he is a man of God? The Pharisees, religious gatekeepers of their day, are fixated on Jesus’ lack of regard for the religious rules. After all, he is a Sabbath breaker. How can a scofflaw be a healer? Surely, there must be something else at work here! Maybe it’s a different man? Maybe his parents would help us identify the issue?

But in the end, the Pharisees cannot argue with the results. He was born blind; but now he sees. End of story.

If this is the result of faith, can you imagine what Oglethorpe would look like if each of us spent our days attuned to God’s desires? Our ability to make faithful decisions, to shape ministries that serve the community, to invite, welcome, and encourage those not only who come through our doors, but with whom we come in contact – all would grow measurably, simply because we have spent five minutes a day asking God to make us more aware!

Prayer is about results.

And finally, prayer is unbelievable.

Since our story is about a blind man given sight, I’m not sure there’s much more to say about how outrageous the life of faith can be. The Pharisees can’t believe it; the crowds can’t believe it. Jesus’ healing is, quite clearly, unbelievable. And yet, it happens.

Oglethorpe is a praying church. And if we become a community focused on prayer, focused on asking God to move and attune and shape and stir us for what God desires, we won’t believe what will happen.

Because, in the end, focus is not what we think it is. In fact, focus is a Latin word that means “fireplace”. In other words, until very recently in human history, the focus was a literal place. It was where people would gather for warmth, huddling around the very sparks that kept them both safe and alive.

Can prayer be our focus? Can it be the very thing that gives us purpose, guidance, direction, life itself?

Prayer: Accountability

How do you make a golf ball float?

You take some root beer, two scoops of ice cream, and a golf ball…

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s the second week in a row I’ve started with a painful joke; scratch that: intentionally started with a bad joke. But if puns are good enough for Jesus, then they’re OK by me.

Our lesson this morning is a long one. And to set the stage, it helps to step back a bit into history. After the united kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon, the ancient kingdom of Israel was split in two. The southern kingdom was Judah, whose inhabitants were known as Jews. The northern kingdom was Israel, also called Samaria, whose inhabitants were Samaritans.

Eventually, both kingdoms were defeated by the Babylonians. The Jews were taken into exile. The Samaritans stayed, which created the rumor that they had intermarried with their conquerors. When the Jews returned from exile, they looked down upon the Samaritans for this supposed racial impurity. Over time, even though both peoples had their origins in the ancient Israelites, distinctions built up. Samaritans centered their worship around their temple in the city of Shechem. Jews focused on Jerusalem.

When the first and second Jerusalem temples were destroyed, Judaism adapted into the rabbinic form we currently know, centered around prayers and observances rather than sacrifices and pilgrimages. The Samaritan temple was never destroyed; in fact, today you can still visit the 500 Samaritans who live atop Mt. Gerizim. At Passover, they still practice the ancient sacrifices.

But back to Jesus. He was born in Judea (the new name of ancient Judah) and grew up in Nazareth, north of Samaria, to Jewish parents. In order for Jesus and the disciples to make their way to Jerusalem in the south, they had to pass through Samaria. And you could do worse than the town of Sychar, where Jacob’s Well was situated.

It is there that Jesus encounters this unnamed Samaritan woman. Given the history between Jews and Samaritans, it’s a scandal that he even deems to speak with her. And given the cultural context, the fact that he’s a man and she’s a woman makes the scene even more outrageous.

The conversation is both direct and playful. Jesus asks her for water, which stuns her: a Jewish man asking a Samaritan woman for water? Oh, if only you knew who was asking you for water. You would ask him for water instead! That’s when Jesus drops his first pun: “I can give you moving water.”

She thinks he’s talking about water that physically moves – that is, the spring that lies at the bottom of the well, not the still water that people draw from. “How can you get water down that deep if you don’t even have a bucket?”

But Jesus isn’t talking about that kind of moving. He’s speaking of spiritual sustenance, a moving water, a life force that moves us, changes and transforms us forever. Through this whole conversation, Jesus is introduced to the residents of Sychar, who come to believe that Jesus is Savior.

It’s an incredible story, and one that bears more examination than time allows. In it, old traditional divisions are broken down, and Jesus’ role is revealed as far beyond that of a single tribe. It is a global one, an embrace that blows our assumptions out of the water. This Jesus is always full of surprises.

The tidbit of this lesson that demands our attention today is the moment where Jesus confronts the Samaritan woman with the fact that her morality is, um, fuzzy at best. She has been married five times, and the man she lives with is not her husband. To be fair to her, the ancient world did not make much of a place for a single woman. And we don’t know what happened to those five husbands: Did they divorce? If so, why? Or did they all eat poison mushrooms? And what’s the story with her current “man”? It is one thing for us to assume things about her; it’s another thing for all of us to recognize how flawed even the best of our relationships can be, a connection that can only be sustained by grace and mercy.

But something is bubbling just below the surface in this conversation. Whatever it is, it’s the moment where she realizes that Jesus is more than just a Jew who happened upon Jacob’s Well; he is, at the very least, a prophet who seems to be able to peer deep into her soul. In other words, this encounter with Jesus contains many things: word play, revelation, teaching…it also contains an element of accountability.

That’s not a word we like very much in our independent, individualistic culture: accountability. Being “held accountable” feels somehow like we’re not grown up enough to take care of ourselves. And yet, if we are really honest, it’s probably the thing we need most.

When people ask me about the Presbyterian system, I often describe it as one that balances support and accountability. We are one of 100 Presbyterian churches in Atlanta, one of 10,000 in the United States. And our system connects us to those other churches in a way that benefits us: we have resources and staff at our disposal that make things possible that we couldn’t do otherwise. At the same time, we are also accountable to that system. Our minutes and finances are reviewed annually to make sure we are doing everything on the up and up. Given that churches and pastors can end up in the headlines, this accountability that is built into Presbyterianism is a very healthy and necessary thing.

I believe the same is true of our relationship with Christ. We are loved unconditionally. It’s not necessarily that we have done anything to deserve this love; instead, it is by virtue of who Christ is that we are loved. We are worthy of being loved, yes. But that worth is not because we have earned it. That love existed before anything else, before we first drew breath.

Accountability comes into play in our response. Christ’s love is not contingent on us doing the right thing. At the same time, Christ’s love includes calling us to account when we have done wrong. If it doesn’t, then it’s not love – it’s flattery.

Prayer, like everything else in our lives of faith, requires some level of accountability. Over the past few weeks, our Invitation Team members have been sharing their reflections with you on what it takes to develop a daily prayer habit. For some, it’s accountability – having someone else whom you know you will have to check in with and tell how it’s going. The mere thought of having to tell another soul what your prayer life is like can be enough to get us on track.

If that works for you, I suggest you do just that: find a prayer partner whom you know will hold you accountable. It doesn’t have to be someone here – maybe it’s a friend who lives on the other side of the country, but you know will be honest with you, someone you can share this journey with who will love you even when you blow it.


ImageI’m curious: how many of you have encountered the sermon “challenge word”? That’s where someone gives the preacher a word they have to work into the sermon. 

I ask because this past Sunday I took a few words from the congregation to work into my sermon. In response to that, many people have told me about similar experiences in preaching classes and church work.

That has inspired me to do a little unscientific investigation to see if we can map the spread of this little game. A few questions:

  1. Where did you first encounter it? (What city? Was it a church? A seminary?)
  2. Who was involved as challenger/challengee?
  3. Approximately what year did you first encounter it?

Thanks for playing!

Prayer: Openness

What has four wheels and flies?
A garbage truck!

Words don’t always mean what we think they mean. That’s why it’s important to maintain a stance of openness. And when our life is suffused with prayer, we are more able to stay open to what God is doing.

Let’s begin with our lesson from the gospel of John. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, visits Jesus under cover of night. Given the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, no wonder he sneaks over. He is convinced that there is something Godly in Jesus and wants to find out more.

Rather than answer him directly, though, Jesus answers him in riddle. It’s as though he wants to bog him down in some kind of quagmire. Our translation this morning attempted to retain some of that confusion in a way that our familiar renderings don’t keep well. In other words, as John portrays Jesus, the Messiah is a fan of puns. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born…” and here, he uses a Greek word, anothen, which has two meanings.

So does Jesus say, “You must be born again,” or “You must be born from above”?

John leaves a hint at what Jesus’ real meaning is in Nicodemus’ response: “How can you be born anothen after being grown? Should you go back into your mother’s womb?” Every time Jesus uses an ambiguous word, and this is one of at least six examples in John’s gospel, his conversation partner always picks the wrong meaning. Nicodemus assumes Jesus’ literal meaning about a physical birth; when the birth Jesus is talking about is an eschatological one, a spiritual one. Jesus, it turns out, is still full of surprises.

This is why a discipline of prayer is so important. It’s how we remain open to God’s possibilities, to the surprises that Jesus holds for us.

Since January, I have been encouraging all of us to spend at least five minutes a day in prayer. If you are just now joining us, the outline of that particular prayer is on the back of the pew card. And throughout this season of Lent, there are many opportunities for you to work on this practice of prayer:

  • The Invitation Team, or iTeam, is gathering at the back of the Sanctuary every Sunday morning at 10:45am to pray for our worship service and all those who will come here.
  • The iTeam is also sharing their reflections on prayer during worship as they lead us in prayer.
  • The iTeam has also made Lenten prayer journals available to everyone who wants one, along with a Lenten devotional with daily reflections.
  • And our centering prayer group continues their weekly meetings for silent prayer on Wednesdays at 5:15pm here at the church.

In other words, there are multiple opportunities to learn how to pray, whether with words or in silence, or perhaps with some quiet guitar music, with a reading to focus or your own thoughts to guide you.

As we continue these practices throughout Lent, I want to give you a simple goal to strive for. By the time we get to Easter on April 20, I want to encourage you to be praying two more days a week than you are now. In other words, if you are currently praying three days a week, by the middle of April, I want you to be at five days a week. If you are at zero, then get to two days a week.

And for those of you overachievers who are already at seven days a week, I want you to add five minutes to each of your daily prayer. If you’re at five, by Easter, I’d love to see you be at ten.

Prayer, in short, is crucial. It is how we open ourselves to God’s incredible possibilities for us.

Back to Nicodemus and Jesus. Jesus drops his second pun of the day. “pneuma blows where it will. So it is with everyone born of pneuma.” Again, there are a multitude of translation possibilities: the wind, breath, and the Spirit. For Jesus, our Spirit-filled births are just as important as our physical births. It’s not about translating things so closely that we miss the meaning, being sure that everyone has their “born again” date, or their “Spirit birth” date or anything like that. I’m not knocking it, though, because I know how important this moment of Spiritual awakening is to some of you. For others, though, it is rarely the split-second conversion that changes our lives; but rather a series of smaller epiphanies that clears away the spiritual cobwebs.

Let me put the question to you this way: have you ever been so convinced that you were right about something until suddenly you had a flash, a moment of inspiration, that made you realize that you had it backwards? Maybe it was an argument with a friend or someone you love. You were sure they misunderstood you, and did it intentionally; then the more you played the conversation back in your mind, the more you realized that what you said was so vague that it would have been easy to misinterpret?

In a sense, that’s what the openness of prayer is all about: having enough self-awareness to realize that we might have missed something in our spiritual lives that God wants us to see differently.

I’m reminded of the story of Wag Dodge. Dodge was a Montana fire jumper. In 1949, he and his crew headed to the Mann Gulch river valley to put out a forest fire. The grass and trees were dry, but the fire was on the other side of the gulch. Suddenly, the blaze leapt across and was speeding toward his team. Every fiber in his being told him to run away; but he soon realized doing so would be in vain. The fire would soon overtake him. In his own recollections, he says that he figured out that his panic was not going to help him.

So after searching desperately for a few moments for a solution, he lit the dry brush on the other side of him. It, too, got carried by the wind, cutting a swath of burnt ground next to him. He then took a wet cloth, covered his head, and lay down on the smoldering embers he had just made. The blaze soon caught up with him and was swirling around him…he got burned, but he survived. His quick thinking saved his life. Dodge’s solution is now standard procedure for fire jumpers.

Dodge was a veteran fire jumper at the time. He had encountered numerous forest fires and thought he knew all there was to know. But what saved his life in that critical moment was unlearning all of that. The fire fighter set a fire. And not only did that absurd notion keep him alive, it transformed the whole industry and has saved many lives since.

What about you? Where is your forest fire? What are you running from that you need to face? What is it in your life that has stumped you? What is it that is calling for a new kind of openness, the kind that only being born of God can bring? What is your late night visit to Jesus all about?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.