Words & Rudders & Bridles

Words & Rudders & Bridles

James 3:1-12 I love words. My days revolve around words. When I wake up, I read the Word and then journal some of my own words in response. Then I spend much of my day using words to talk to people, and when there aren’t any people around, I’m prone to talk to myself. I have fun playing with word choice when I write sermons and blogs and articles. I’m even using words right now! I love words! And boy – do I hate words. Maybe “hate” is too strong – but words are dangerous, aren’t they? They fly out of our mouths with far too little regulation. They show our hands, betray our poker faces. They get misinterpreted. We go to bed at night or wake up in the morning thinking, “Why did I say that?” Words: So good; so harmful. James knows that the danger is real. He says it like this: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5-6). And if that doesn’t convince you of the imminent danger, listen to Smokey Bear. There’s a reason Smokey wants us to be so concerned about just a little spark: it can turn into an out-of-control blaze. Only YOU can prevent wildfires; only YOU can prevent gossip or slander or a betrayed confidence. We have to be constantly vigilant, dousing our campfires and holding our tongues. But that’s not all. A “wildfire” implies damage done out there – outside of ourselves. But words do inward damage, too. What we say shapes who we are and how we...
Faith and Works

Faith and Works

James 2:14-26 If you grow up in church – like I did – you develop a kind of second-sense for answering church questions.  When the Sunday School teacher asks about how to treat people, go to the greatest commandment – “treat others as you’d want to be treated.”  When the pastor asks a question during the children’s sermon, the answer is probably, “Jesus.”  But no matter how much time we’ve spent listening to sermons or Sunday School lessons, some questions still stump us.  Questions like: “Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). Even with all my church experience, this one leaves me raising an eyebrow.  The answer seems like it should be “Yes.”  Many of Paul’s letters are spent arguing for the power of faith.  Take Ephesians 2:8-9, for example:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Can faith save you?  “Yes!” …Right? The way James is asking it, I’m not so sure “Yes” is the answer he’s looking for. This deserves a closer look. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). Before he gives us a chance to answer these questions, James tells a short story.  Here in Cherokee County it might go like this:  It’s the dead of winter and a student at Andrews Middle is without a coat.  He comes to class in short sleeves, his bare arms red from the wind.  To...
Trials and Perseverance

Trials and Perseverance

James 1:2-8 If you’ve ever gone through a hard time (and who hasn’t), then you’ve probably heard one or more of the following: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” “Rain on your wedding day is good luck.” “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “When one door closes, another opens.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” We have dozens of sayings like this, all designed to find the positive in a negative situation.  Some of them are silly (Why would a rainy wedding be good luck?).  Some of them are inspiring (Keep running, team – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!).  A few are built on shaky theology (If everything happens for a reason, does that imply that God is responsible for evil?  And if God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, well, it seems I can handle a whole lot more than I want to). These expressions have their place.  It helps to have a good pep talk when we’re down.  But when a really serious challenge comes up, these same phrases can turn to bitter medicine.  When my “cloud” is a category five hurricane, it doesn’t help to know that there’s a silver lining out there somewhere.  When I’m buried under a crushing pile of “lemons,” don’t talk to me about lemonade. For that reason, I have mixed feelings about these expressions.  They’re nice and all… but when things are really bad, I need something more. I need James 1:2-3. James 1:2-3 has long been one of my...
Back to School Clothes

Back to School Clothes

Ephesians 6:10-20 Today the kids go back to school – my two, and all the kids here in Cherokee County, NC.  All over social media you can find pictures of fresh-faced students in their back-to-school clothes. Ah – that first outfit.  On it will rest the hopes and fears of all the [school] year.  Or was that just me? The back-to-school outfit was so important to me, I can clearly remember a couple of them.  Like the stonewashed pair of Guess jeans that were so tight, they had zippers at the ankles to get them over my feet and I had to lay down on my bed to button them up.  At the other end of the spectrum were the wide-legged JNCO pants that I bought with my own money – because my mother would never have financed that foolish endeavor. My style changed from year to year… but my hope to put my best foot forward remained the same.  My secret dream was that the campus came might come to a state of hushed awe when I stepped out of the car.  “Wow, Mary really changed over the summer!”  “She looks great!”  “Maybe I should ask her to go to homecoming!”  “Maybe we should make her the homecoming queen!” Of course, that fantasy is only for the world of teeny-bop coming-of-age movies.  But it does make a difference to have the right outfit, does it not?  A little extra confidence and a good first impression can go a long way. That’s what draws me to Ephesians 6:  this idea of putting on the right things.  Not clothes –...
How (and how not) to be angry

How (and how not) to be angry

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). How can we be angry, but not sin? That’s the goal that Ephesians puts in front of us.  Not to not be angry – but when we get angry, to do it without sinning. All week long I’ve been trying to figure out just how to do that.  Anger is a powerful but dangerous emotion, one that can easily get away from us.  If we’re not careful… While I’m sure you’ve never grown muscles and turned green in your anger… I bet you’ve had your anger turn you into something you’re not (or don’t want to be).  How can we be angry, without those kinds of things happening? For starters – I think we want to be angry like God is angry.  Six times Scripture describes God as “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6, Num 14:18, Neh 9:17, and Pss 86:15, 103:8, 145:8).  The Psalms match this description with “merciful and gracious” in each instance.  I’ll back that up with personal testimony, as this has been my own experience of God:  full of mercy and grace, slow to be angry. But let’s not confuse that with never getting angry. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you are well aware of God’s anger.  God gets angry so often we might question the “slowness” of it:  when people do what is evil (Deut 4:25), break his covenant (Josh 23:16), or worship other gods (Deut 6:15, Judg 2:12).  God gets angry when the Israelites touch things they’re not...
I Love to Tell the Story

I Love to Tell the Story

John 9:1-11 My family went to church almost every Sunday growing up.  Hundreds of times we emerged from the captivity of the air-conditioned worship service into the warm freedom of Sunday afternoon.  The memories from those drives home are strong; when I think of them, I can almost feel the baked heat of the parked car… I can almost smell the Church’s fried chicken we’d pick up for lunch… and I can almost hear the last hymn that got stuck in our heads. And the hymn I most remember us singing was this one: I love to tell the story, Twill be my theme in glory, To tell the old, old story Of Jesus and his love. It’s the first hymn I remember liking – the first one I remember getting excited about when it came up in rotation.  I liked it because of its tune (mercifully low for us altos).  I think I liked it, also, because even a child could understand it.  Where other hymns include terms like “Ebenezer,” this one was blissfully simple: I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do. So… wonderfully… simple.  I love to tell the story! And yet – not simple at all. Have you ever tried to tell someone the story of God’s love?  If someone asks, “Why do you go to church?” or “Why are you a Christian?” is it simple to tell the story?  Or do you...
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

John 14:1-14 This is my favorite hymn.  Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love. This is my favorite hymn… because it’s about wandering. And oh – do I like to wander.  My soul finds peace when my body is in motion, whether it’s hiking miles down the trail or jogging loops around town.  Andrews UMC has an indoor walking track; when I take my prayer time off my seat and and a’ wandering up there, I pray for three – five – ten times as long. “Come Thou Fount” isn’t about that kind of wandering, though. It’s the story of a man named Robert Robinson (1735-1790) – but it starts when he was just a boy.  His dad died when he was young and his mother couldn’t control his wildness.  She sent him off to London with hopes he’d learn the trade of barbering and make a decent life for himself.  Instead, Robinson wandered off that intended path to learn the trades of heavy drinking and gang life. One day when he was 17 (or so the story goes) Robinson and his buddies were drunk and silly and decided to have fun seeing a fortune teller.  Things turned serious for Robinson, though.  Something about the encounter seriously bothered him.  It seems to be this moment when he first suspects that he had wandered far astray, in a bad direction. This...
O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing

O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing

Psalm 145 Can you name the first hymn in our United Methodist hymnal? It’s not placed there by chance.  “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” sits right at the front because it’s an important part of our Methodist story.  Its lyrics are a beautiful expression of gratitude for all God has done for us through Christ. But when you look carefully at this hymn… it doesn’t really make sense.  And that’s part of what makes it so powerful. It all started on May 21, 1738.  Charles Wesley – brother to John and writer of over 6,000 hymns – was sick and stuck in bed.  Such moments of forced rest provide good time for deep reflection, and before long Charles began to feel a “strange palpitation of heart.”  It wasn’t a symptom of his physical illness – it was a sign of his spiritual healing!  “I believe!  I believe!” he declared.  Charles had found peace with God! Just three days later brother John had a similar experience.  He was at a meeting on Aldersgate Street and listening to Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle of the Romans” being read aloud (also a period of forced rest? Sorry, Lutheran friends – that’s no page-turner).  Lo and behold, John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed.”  He knew, at last, that he did trust in Christ alone for salvation! These were big-time powerful moments!  They were write-a-song-about it powerful:  Charles would craft “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” to mark the one-year anniversary of his conversion experience.  They were also gotta-tell-my-mom-about-this powerful:  the Wesley brothers wrote home to share the great...

God of the Ages

Luke 11:5-13 Daniel Crane Roberts wrote one hymn.  Just one. Daniel Roberts did a lot in his 66 years (1841 – 1907).  He was an Episcopal priest.  He was also a private in the Civil War, a president of the New Hampshire historical society, a chaplain of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a member of the Knights Templar.  In other words, he was an active member of the church and an active citizen of the United States. Maybe this is where his one hymn might have something to say to those of us who also have a foot in both worlds.  I am a Christian, born and bred.  I am an American, born and bred.  If I wrote a hymn that reflected both identities… would it sound anything like this? Well – probably not.  I’m not a musician, and I don’t have much in common with this man from the 19th century.  But this week I have more in common with Daniel Roberts than on any other week of the year.  It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and this same holiday was the occasion for Roberts to write “God of the Ages” (except for Roberts it was a sweet centennial, back in 1876). So let’s take a look at this hymn.  142 years later, does it tell us anything about being a Christian and an American? God of the ages, whose almighty hand leads forth in beauty all the starry band of shining worlds in splendor through the skies, our grateful songs before thy throne arise.  As someone who’s fond of backpacking and snowboarding and the...

Moderation in all Things?

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 I just got back from a week of backpacking with Wilderness Trail – an experience that always teaches me things.  I learn things about creation, like:  you can use the bark of a birch tree as kindling to start a fire.  I learn things about God, like:  that “peace that passes understanding” is a real thing, evidenced by feeling strangely peaceful while your stuff is getting soaked in a rainstorm.  And I learn things about myself, like: I’m too attached to my phone. This hit me on the first day.  We got to our first intersection, which meant we’d stand around for just a few moments getting out water bottles and waiting on each other.  Recognizing that 60 seconds of lag time, I began to move my arm toward my back right pocket. In the middle of the wilderness, I was reaching for my non-existent phone. I made that ridiculous, almost-unconscious move for my phone a couple times on the first day.  But after that the backpacking experience worked its magic.  My mind let go of my cell phone (and everything else) and thought mostly about the uphill climb or the wonder of fireflies or how good mac-n-cheese can taste when you’re really hungry.  I laughed and struggled and reflected with the amazing youth and adults in our group.  For the better part of a week, I was mostly uncomfortable but also mostly peaceful and content. On Friday morning we loaded up our van and headed back into civilization.  My phone sprung back to life as we returned to cell service.  Little red dots told me...