Archive for the ‘prayer’ Category

God is speaking. Can you hear it?

When I was 13, I got my first walkman. For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, it was essentially a giant ipod that could store up to one whole album at a time. The album that was on constant rotation at the time was 90125 by prog rockers Yes. I had to be careful not to turn the music up too loud, lest I miss the dulcet tones of my parents calling me. The first few times I listened to the opening song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, there was this sound that came right before the vocals kicked in. It was a kind of a squeal. The problem was that it sounded exactly like my mother’s call, “woohoo!”

I knew the sound of my mother’s voice – probably better than any other sound in the world. But here was this random sound scrap from an 80’s rock song that imitated what I thought I knew.

What about the voice of God? Friends, God is speaking. Can you hear it?

If God is really God, then surely there are times when God’s voice splits the clouds, sets a bush on fire, brings light into being. And yet, most of the time, God’s voice comes through others. In a world of cacophony and chaos, that’s not easy to do. And there are far too many who claim that they speak in God’s name when all they really do is use God’s name. So how do we develop that capacity to tell the difference? How can we cut through the noise to know when it really is God speaking to us?

There’s an app that I have learned to love. It’s called SoundHound, and it’s a song recognition program. If a tune comes on the radio or in the restaurant that I don’t know, all I do is touch a button and, within seconds, it gives me an answer. The way it works is that it has access to a massive database of songs. It essentially takes a fingerprint of the song sample you give it, and then matches it up with its massive database. The problem comes when there is too much other noise – either the song is too quiet, or the crowd is too loud. As precise as this technology might be, it doesn’t know how to focus on what’s important.

We do have that advantage over programming, that we can filter out what is unimportant. The trick is learning what it is that is necessary and what is frivolous. In our Scripture lessons today, we have these images of the shepherd and sheep. We have the shepherd of Psalm 23, who calls the sheep by name so that they follow him faithfully into the greenest pastures and the stillest waters. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses a similar image to talk about the faithful as sheep who recognize the sound of the guard who leads them out. When they hear a stranger’s voice, he says, they will know to flee. In other words, the sheep know without a doubt whose voice they can trust.

Now: putting aside for a moment the indignity of being compared to sheep, how does this sit with us? How confident are we that we can recognize God’s voice when it calls us out to feast and be satisfied?

I love playing trivia, because I apparently don’t know how to focus on what’s important. We had a trivia team that played together regularly, and each one of us had our areas of expertise. One of mine was song recognition. I could pick out the song, artist, and year within moments almost every single time. But there was one spectacular fail I still remember. The first few notes started, a guitar distorted with a waa-waa pedal, followed by a cymbal crash. That was it. No vocals, nothing. I was stumped, so I gave it my best guess: the theme song to “Three’s Company.” The answer? Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On.” So close!

I had probably heard the song before, but not enough to recognize it. If we compare the brain to something like SoundHound, I simply didn’t have the database in place. The more often we have heard a song, the more often we are likely to recognize it. Even if it’s a song we don’t know by an artist we love, we are better suited to hear it correctly.

So how do we measure up when looking at God’s back catalog? Have we heard enough of what God has already done so that we can recognize it when God’s voice rings through again?

The goal here is competency. If we think of it like a language, whether that’s a foreign language or the insider language of a particular industry, you might eventually get to fluency; but long before that point, you’ll get to where you’re comfortable, even competent. And that’s the point here: we should be aiming for that place where we are confident, but not overconfident, in our ability to recognize God at work in our lives.

There are three phrases I want to suggest to help us filter through the noise. I am lifting these wholesale from Richard Hays, New Testament scholar at Duke University. And they are: community, cross, and new creation.

  • Community: God does not call us to gated lives, but to live in the world. We care about the fate of others. This is why we are horrified by the kidnapping of Nigerian girls. We are enriched by our interactions with others, even (and especially) if they don’t agree with us about everything. We can recognize God’s voice because it speaks to us of God’s desire for us to live connected to others, not to live in isolation. Community.
  • Cross: God’s relationship with humanity becomes most visible in the form of the cross. It was and is the embodiment of selfless love. There are those who will try to emphasize God’s judgment or wrath over God’s grace and mercy, and the cross is the clearest indicator that it is compassion and sacrificial love that reign supreme. Cross.
  • New Creation: Being in relationship with God means that we are changed. Our lives are visibly different because of our encounters with the risen Christ, transformed more and more into God’s likeness and wonder. New Creation.

These three – community, cross, and new creation – are a great way to think about how it is that we recognize God’s voice in the middle of the noisy chaos that envelops us. And the way we build our database, our vocabulary of God-speak? If you’ve been with us some this year, you know what I’m about to say: prayer.

You see, here’s the thing: what Jesus tells us in the lesson from John is something that ought to give us great courage. And that is that Jesus is not the guard in the story, but the gate. Jesus is the very thing that gives us the protection we desire. What I hope this means is that we can have the courage to take a chance, to learn this new language, to step out into this new adventure, confident in the fact that Christ will keep us safe from what it is that truly harms us.

God is already speaking, calling out to us. Can we hear it?

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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!

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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.


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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?

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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.


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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?

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Well, friends, this is it. Friday is coming, 12/21/12; and if the Mayans are right, then this will be our last time together. So I just want to say, “So long, and thanks for all the good times.”

Why do we even know about things like this?!? Apparently, the ancient Mayan calendar was divided into eras, and the current era draws to a close this Friday. It wasn’t until the 1990s, one author/pseudo-scholar described the date as the Mayan apocalypse; and from there, it got picked up by conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements and spread into our popular culture. Mayan scholars have come forward to proclaim this whole idea as nonsense. NASA has made it clear that there are no extra-terrestial “events” afoot that might lead to some cataclysm. It’s all fatuous fantasy. And yet, almost every one of us here knows about the supposed significance of this date.

It’s clear that our 24-hour news culture is partially to blame. After all, they feel compelled to fill the airwaves with sound and fury. As much as we might like to blame “the media”, the truth is that they sell what we buy. And boy, do we buy it! Listen to the holiday blockbuster films coming out: Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, which takes place sixty years after earth has been evacuated; Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, where aliens rise up from inside the earth’s crust to attack; Will Smith’s After Earth, where he and his son crash land on the planet 1000 years after it was abandoned; the next installment of Star Trek, where the Enterprise crew looks to defend an entire planet against destruction…do you see a pattern here? There seems to be a general sense of doom and unease in our world today.

Now, it’s important to note that we are not the first generation to feel as though everything is crashing down around us. Look no further than our text from Luke’s gospel. The spectacle of John the Baptist is gathering the crowds in the wilderness. And John is never one to mince words: there is a coming wrath; don’t just sit there and rest on your Abrahamic laurels; a tree that bears bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Or, as the cheeky bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming; look busy.”

Every era of humanity is convinced that we are the last. And in a sense, we may all be right, because our world seems so permanently fragile. As if we needed any reminder of our tentative ability to hold things together, this past Friday news began to trickle, then stream, in from Connecticut: another mass shooting, this one at an elementary school, where the heaviest casualties were, most cruelly, among the youngest.

It’s one of those moments in our national consciousness where we remember for years exactly where we were when we first heard. And in the 24-hour news vacuum, predictably, questions about gun control have arisen immediately. Advocates on both sides are citing the incident as evidence in their favor. I have my own strong opinions about that issue, which I will refrain from sharing this morning; but for my money, the most coherent, and frankly, theological, thought came not after this shooting, but two weeks ago.

You heard about this, I’m sure. During the broadcast of Sunday Night Football, Bob Costas spoke about the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City. Whatever you might think about the stance Costas took, or whether a football broadcast was the right place to do so, I personally think he nailed it with his first words. He talked about how the most common refrain we hear at moments like these is that tragedies put everything in perspective. Costas retorted:

…if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf-life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we supposedly again regained the next time ultimate reality intrudes…

In other words, when we bear witness to these events, even from afar, do we do anything about it? Do we strengthen our resolve to make the world a better place? Or do we chalk this up to yet another example of how broken our world is, and muddle on with life until the next chaotic moment intervenes, bringing us to church seeking some word of comfort or clarity?

Suddenly, it feels like we pulled back to the wilderness, standing with the crowds around John the Baptist, listening to his words of direct challenge. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am convinced that, in the face of violence and evil, our first act as Christians is repentance. We turn to God, searching our souls, and bearing it all before the one who creates and loves us. Then and only then, having turned and come face to face with judgment and mercy, only then can we turn back out and make sense of what comes next.

John’s audience heard his call. In response, they asked, “What should we do?” His answer was straightforward: share. If you’ve got two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you know what to do with, then pass along those blessings. To tax collectors and soldiers, his message was a little more details, but also simple: be honest. Do what you are supposed to do – nothing more, nothing less.

Share, and be honest. That may be the clearest and most thorough summary of Christian ethics I have ever heard.

But where does that leave us, here at OPC, in the wake of a school shooting 1,000 miles away? Is there anything for us to say or do that might echo of faithful repentance? Where does our obligation to share and be honest fit at this particular moment in our lives?

On Friday, at the very moment that this tragedy was unfolding in Newton, Connecticut, our Preschoolers were getting ready for their Christmas program. When their parents arrived at our sanctuary, I don’t know how many of them had already heard the news; I did not know anything about it until later that afternoon. But for half an hour, their children paraded through our sanctuary, singing songs of shepherds and donkeys and Mary and Joseph and a little baby Jesus. Their parents and grandparents were beaming and laughing and even wiping away tears of joy. It was a holy, holy moment on a day that needed more moments just like it.

You see, we may not have a close connection to an elementary school in the northeast; but we have a school right here in our own building! What are we doing, as faithful stewards of this place, to ensure that the children and their families who come here know that they are not only safe, but that they are loved to the core of their being by the God and Lord of the universe? How is it that we can embody the promise the prophet Zephaniah bore so long ago, that we shall fear disaster no more, that the lame and the outcast shall be saved, and that blessings are restored?

Friends, we often speak of the important role that our church plays in this community. But I don’t know if that role resonates within us. This morning, I came across these words from a student at Oglethorpe University, a young Muslim woman whom I have gotten to know through our interfaith partnerships there, words that I want to be sure we hear. She wrote:

After a much dreaded Friday full of deadlines and a final, I left Oglethorpe to head home. My heart was still heavy…and all I wanted to do was see my little seven-year-old sister. I knew what happened was senseless, but I was desperate to try to make sense of it all.

As I turned out of the school, I stopped suddenly because there were cars lined up and down the street…They were all parked in front of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. As I saw the light shining from the church, it took my breath away.

In a world where religion is becoming increasingly obsolete, it gave me a little hope to see a small beacon of light on such a dark night…When I finally managed to make myself drive away, I felt myself smile for the first time that day. As a Muslim driving home from school, my beacon of light that day came from a church.

What she saw was our AA meeting. And what they do, in bringing hope to those who get trapped in the despair of addiction, is just one way of living out John’s call to share and be honest. What we provide them is a safe and trusted place to gather, to heal, and to be healed.

This young woman indeed saw a light shining from the church. And the light she saw is not ours. It is not a light we hold onto. Instead, it is a light that we reflect, the same light to which John pointed: the light of the Christ child. We are not the light of the world; and yet, we have received the gift of that light so that darkness might be sent away!

I want to close this morning with a prayer written by Christian author Max Lucado, words that speak powerfully to this moment where we find ourselves, and the hope to which we cling this Advent and Christmas season. Will you pray with me?

Dear Jesus,

It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Your Children


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