Sometime ago a new family started attending our church. They have three children, including a little girl named Rachel.
One Sunday, after church, her mother told me that during church Rachel was calling out to me, but instead of calling my name, she was saying, “Jesus.”
After visiting my grandparents (PaPa & NaNa) one day this summer, I left marveled at these two witnesses. PaPa is 92 and Nana is 87. They have lived long and fruitful lives. PaPa stationed in Europe during World War II. NaNa growing up on a farm in rural Hanover County. They raised three children, grandparented eight grandchildren and six plus great-grandchildren. With one more on the way.
This picture has been making the rounds on Facebook the past few weeks. The first picture shows what a child did to a wall. The next picture shows what the child’s mother did to that scribble.
The mother had taken a mistake and turned it into something beautiful.
A number of years ago while part of a work camp in Durham, North Carolina, I was assigned to work with a group of young people on the house of an elderly African-American woman. Before even meeting her, I was informed that she was a cancer survivor who had adopted her two granddaughters. I decided that I was not going to get to close to this woman. I was going to be there for the young people and minister to them. That, I had decided, was my purpose that week.
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
I have sung the Gaither-penned Easter hymn Because He Lives countless times. About fourteen years ago, the hymn became deeply personal. It took on a whole new meaning when my father died on Easter Sunday, April 2001. It changed the way I understood Easter and the resurrection.
Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12, Common English Bible)
Every Sunday my mom goes to a local nursing home to visit with her mother. Some days she knows who Mom is, some days, she’s not so sure. Some days she is warm and comforting. Other days, she is cold and violent. My grandmother suffers, as so many older adults do, from dementia. More than 5 million Americans live with the disease, in its various expressions. It is the sixth leading cause of death, and affects one in three senior citizens. (For more about dementia, visit alz.org.)
Honor as a verb means to “regard with great respect.” It is a wide range of a definition, leaving it quite open for children to find ways to honor their parents. Scholar Terence E. Fretheim suggests, as others have, that the commandment is intended for adult children. In a time and age when care for the elderly has become a major focus for some many families. Nursing homes. Social security income. Health care.
We are called to honor our aging parents.
In the Jewish tradition, age was something to respect. We too often choose to neglect those who are older than us. Like a child who thinks his parents don’t know anything, we treat older adults more like a burden than the treasures they are. This past Sunday we took a group of third through fifth graders to a local retirement home for women. We did not have the children sing and do all the traditional things children do when they visit such homes. Instead, they went around the room asked the women questions like, “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?” The kids got some really awesome answers. One woman shared how she jumped out of a plane when she turned 70. Another shared about growing up in England. The women then asked the children the same question. Everyone enjoyed themselves – both children and older adults – because someone took the time to ask them about their lives and listen.
This is why Mom goes every Sunday to see her mother. Even though their relationship has not been the best, Mom has forgiven and forgives. Even though she doesn’t always know who Mom is, Mom still goes and listens. She tells her about life and bears through her mother questioning where Dad is, even though Dad has been gone now for 14 years.
To honor our parents is to care for our parents through all the stages of life.
Maya Angelou penned some amazing words around this in her poem “On Aging.”
On Aging by Maya Angelou
When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering.
I’m listening to myself.
Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me!
Hold! Stop your sympathy!
Understanding if you got it,
Otherwise I’ll do without it!
When my bones are still and aching,
And my feet won’t climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor:
Don’t bring me no rocking chair.
When you see me walking, stumbling,
Don’t study and get it wrong.
‘Cause tirer don’t mean lazy
And every goodbye ain’t gone.
I’m the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.
I first discovered Susan Irene Fox and her self-titled blog after she started liking some of mine posts. Out of curiosity I started reading her blog. Susan has a way of sharing profound, spiritual thoughts that are welcoming and not threatening. After a twenty-year career as an elementary school teacher, that ended due to a permanent disability, Susan started blogging to get her name out there.
She had started a Bible curriculum projected for grades K-6 called Branches. The blog was to give her an online fingerprint for potential publishers. Ever since then, both the curriculum and the blog have evolved. “The curriculum,” Susan says, “is now a biblical devotional series for families.” Branches, which is based on John 5:14-15, is currently in the editing stage. Meanwhile, the blog has greatly expanded as “a way to edify, encourage, enrich – and sometimes gently exhort – the Body of Christ,” Susan says. The blog has become, for Susan, a way to abide in the Spirit, while building the Kingdom of God.
As I have lifted the focus off me and onto God, the experience has become rich with new insight. Followers have increased organically as the Spirit has led them. And when just one person tells me the words I write have reached his or her heart, that comment keeps me motivated for weeks, because I have been an obedient vessel.
At times, Susan will post a poem, which is an incredible way to express a gospel truth. “Poetry,” Susan says, “is a rekindled love.” She wrote poetry during high school and college. She would teach grammar through poetry writing. Often, as she writes in her personal prayer journal, she will write poems. She never, however, had the courage to make any of the poems public. With great delight, the poems were welcomed and well received. Susan got a number of reassurance and support for them, including from other poets. She now posts a poem every Sunday – “my small way of praising Him.”
Susan, like other bloggers, will occasionally do a series. Currently she is doing a series on the Beatitudes. Susan says there are two reasons that went into her decision to do a series. “The first,” she says, “is because writing a series keeps me motivated, interested, and educated.” It gives her the opportunity to “dive more deeply into a small amount of Scripture,” and then share what she gleaned from that dive with others. “The second reason,” she says, “is that, as I’m editing Branches, I’m relooking at this living text called the Bible.” Susan says that each time she ponders on the Bible, “it seems to speak differently” to her. These new ponderings lead her into areas she may not have been ready to see previously in her life. “It’s an adventure,” she says, “and I love to follow each new path.”
The topics in the series are the same topics that are included in Branches. The first series was on the Fruit of the Spirits. The series after the Beatitudes will be The Twenty Third Psalm. Each series gives an opportunity to chew and digest small pieces of Scripture at a time.
I was curious to know who Susan reads. Every so often she will quote a Christian thinker and ponderer. When Susan first came to faith, she “soaked up Lee Strobel’s books.” She names her pillars as N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster and Henry and Richard Blackaby. She also reads Max Lucado, Tullian Tchividjian, Jonathan Merrit, Francis Chan, Phyllis Tickle, David Platt, John Ortberg, Beth Moore, and Tim Keller. But that is just to name a few.
Blogging has its rewards. I wanted to know what the most rewarding part of Susan was from blogging.
The most rewarding part of blogging is the discovery of new things about Scripture from the most amazing blog writers. I have so much to learn as a new believer, yet just this week I was greatly comforted and inspired that I am not unlike all those other “new believers” in the first century – Mary and Martha, Priscilla and Lydia, Titus and Timothy – and I am humbled and enriched to be in such gracious company.
I took a break from my Follow Friday posts during the season of Lent . . . . and then some. I return today with the blog of a dear friend of mine, Sarah Wastella’s She Offered Them Christ. Sarah is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church and says that the name of her blog comes from John Wesley’s charge to “offer them Christ,” which Sarah takes seriously. “Christ is the center of my ministry,” she says, “and I chose to de-emphasize my name by referring to myself only in pronoun. I would be pleased to know that my legacy will not be about me, but the things I did for Christ, to honor the Lord, and further the mission to make disciples.”
And She Offered Them Christ is very much about making disciples. Even if it was an accidental creation. Sarah explains:
In February 2011, I was given the website as a gift, a place to put my sermons online. At that time I was preaching less than once a month, and I had other products of my theological reflections, which I refer to as ponderings, that I started to post. It was never my intention to start an online ministry or have a daily post presence. That grew over time as people started to tell me that they use my posts for their daily devotions. That really rocked my world; it humbled me, but also challenged me to continue to provide new content for consideration and for growth.
A large part of Sarah’s blog is devotional material. She says that after posting daily for a few months, she missed a day or two, and people noticed. As she stated above, it is challenging to provide new content on a regular basis. For Sarah, her devotionals, such as “Praying for our Enemies, Bullies, and Opponents,” cite a specific passage, a brief meditation on that passage, followed by a prayer. The formula works well. “I tend to write devotionals,” she said, “when I come across a passage that really strikes me, or when I have an insight about it that might be impactful for someone else.”
These ponderings are the result of Sarah’s own theological reflections. At times they may come from experiences in pastoral ministry or from personal events, “such as raising a young child, or struggling with disappointment,” Sarah says. On Sundays, she tends to post prayers. Her regular Sunday morning responsibilities in worship include prayer, and she may from time to time post that prayer that was offered in worship on her blog. The prayers have a connection with the liturgical calendar and/or events of the day.
It is without doubt that Sarah’s posts, devotional, prayer, or otherwise, come from a place of prayer. “All my posts result from prayer and Scripture reading,” she says. “I feel the presence and the movement of the Holy Spirit in what I write, and I hope that others do too.”
In the midst of prayers and devotionals, Sarah occasionally writes about church polity. When she does, like in a recent post “Breaking Discipline: Accident or Willful Disobedience?”, Sarah does not join a team. She raises her own voice, which is not unlike the voice in the desert, calling for each “team” to see or hear the other perspective. She is not concerned with stirring people up, as much as she is concerned with encouraging the people of God to see another way in which Christ calls us to think, reason, reflect, speak, feel, or act. Sarah tends to ask us to consider our mission as the Church in the current debate, and how we will faithfully respond. This is what she says about that:
I write about church polity when I feel that I may have an alternative way of looking at it, or articulating it. I do not think we need one more voice on this side or that side of whatever hot button issue is going on right now. Usually I feel the urge when I find myself inundated with it online and through social media. I do not comment on everything, because I do not have something of use to say on everything.
Sarah admits that when she writes such a post about church polity, it is a little uncomfortable. “Those are the posts,” she says, “that make me hold my breath and wait to see what the response will be.” Sarah does not write about church politics very often because she feels like her pastoral voice would get lost in the politics.
I think that if I spent all my time posting about politics of the church or the secular world that people would start to ignore the things I have to say about the rest of our lives. I can turn people off, and I want Christ to get us excited to mature in our faith. When I do post about those topics, it seems to be more impactful because it means that I really have something I felt I needed to say, rather than just my constant reaction. I think I say things that others think but do not say, or struggle to articulate. I do not want people to blindly agree with me either, but consider what is being presented, what Christ might have to say to illuminate it, and draw their own conclusion after theologically reflecting on all sides.
It is statements like that, that it is obvious that Sarah’s blog is a tool of discipleship. Sarah says, “My writings tend to be less evangelical, and more about pushing us to go deeper in our spirituality, looking at things from a different vantage point, but still well within the lens of Christ.” Because that is the case, Sarah is careful not to be a stumbling block to her readers. While some of her church members read her blog, she doesn’t write solely for them. “I do not write for my church members,” she says, “although some of them have discovered it and follow it.” She goes on to say, “I see this as a wider ministry to the greater Christian community.”
As a blogger, I am always interested in other bloggers’ writing process. Sarah tells me that she typically writes in the evenings, “when things calm down in my household.” Sarah takes time to think about what is impacting her and what struggles she is going through, or the struggles that she sees around her. “Some of my most well received posts have been reflections about traumatic events in the community, such as a rash of suicides and violence,” she says.
Sarah composes a post – a prayer, pondering or devotional – and then lets it sit. She comes back to it later to make sure she still feels called to share it before she publishes it on her blog. “No matter what you read on my site,” she says, ” rest assured it was created and shared in concert with a lot of prayer and Bible.”
After searching for a monologue or skit for Aldersgate Day, I wrote out the following.
A John Wesley Monologue
I was in despair. I felt like I was losing my faith and did not think that I should continue to preach. I was finding very little comfort in religion. I confessed these thoughts to a dear friend and mentor who answered me, “Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it, preach faith.
So, I took his advice. I continued preaching – in fields, in prisons, and in pubs. It astounded me how people came to believe in Christ, and here I was still struggling to have faith. I cried out many nights, “Lord, help my unbelief!”
On this day, May 24, 1738, I opened my Bible at about five in the morning and came across these words, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should partakers of the divine nature.”
Later that evening, I attended a meeting in Aldersgate. I should say, I attended quite reluctantly. I didn’t want to go! Someone was reading from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. It was about quarter to nine while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, that I felt my heart strangely warmed. I was felt that I did indeed trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that God had taken away my sins, yes, even min, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
It would take me some time to learn how to live the life of faith, for I was always finding joy, and I thought surely I cannot be saved AND happy. I thought because I was experiencing joy that I had fallen from salvation. It took some time before I realized that it is not Christ and good works, but Christ alone who saves, resulting in good works.
Afterwards, I would ride for thousands of miles preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen.
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
When I was a kid all of us cousins would hunt Easter Eggs at our grandparents’ on Easter day. It was what made Easter Easter. As we got older the hunting got more challenging and our parents got more creative. But the end game was always the same. Candy!
A few weeks ago Kara, my children’s ministry colleague, and I were sorting Easter eggs for the Easter Egg Hunt at the church. A number of people came through and assumed that were in the process of filling the eggs with candy. We, however, were not. The eggs were going to be hidden empty. The reason was practical. The empty eggs would then be traded in for a scoop or two of candy. We get the eggs back, and there is some candy-control.
But when tasked with doing an Easter theme for preschool chapel, my senior pastor and I used an empty Easter egg. In fact, we got a lot of traffic out of that empty Easter egg. We used it in a lot of places. When I used it for the children’s moment for Easter Sunday, I asked the children why did they think the egg was empty? One little four-year-old girl leaned in towards me, and loudly, but proudly, declared with great enthusiasm, “Because Jesus lives!”
It was, to say the least, a proud pastor moment.
These chapel/children’s moments with the empty Easter egg inspired this craft in one of the Peakland Preschool classrooms:
The empty Easter egg reminds us of the empty tomb. Though we don’t wear the empty tomb around our necks or on our lapels like we do the cross, the empty tomb says with all the mightiest of God that victory has been won. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us quite humbly, “It is not we who are victorious, but Jesus.”
This is why we sing old hymns like “Victory in Jesus,” because we acknowledge that Jesus has conquered death and lives! This past Sunday during my sermon, I asked the congregation to pay close attention and every time I would say, “He is Risen!” they would respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” It is an ancient practice of the church to acknowledge that the sting of death has no power over us. The sting of death – the wages of sin – are no longer capable of holding us captive. Jesus’ victory has rendered them powerless. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:
They are powerless; they still rage, like a mean dog on a chain, but they can do nothing against us, for Jesus holds them fast. He remains the victor.
And yet, we find ourselves living as if nothing has happened. We live as if grace is a license to sin. We take Jesus’ victory over death for granted. Instead of acknowledging the power of the empty tomb, we submit to fear and death. Maybe because it is easier. Maybe because the world’s voices are louder than the stillness of the empty tomb. Maybe because . . . . . you know we could do this all day. We could think of a billion reasons why we fail to acknowledge the power of the empty tomb.
But when we come to this table:
we accept the power of the empty tomb; we accept the victory over sin and death. And it is for you and me, whoever we are and whatever we have done. That’s how much God loves us. And so every time we come to this Table and break the bread and drink the wine, we remember the victory that has already been won, and all we have to say is:
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
The two travelers in our text were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the broad daylight of Sunday, yet they were still walking in the shadows of Friday. They were tangled up in disappointment, grief, fear, confusion, and the list could go on. The man they thought would redeem their people had been nailed to a cross. The man they thought would bring them a new way of life was sealed in a borrowed tomb. And now there was a rumor running around that the tomb was empty. All the hopes and all the dreams that they anchored in this man named Jesus, had come crashing down around them. Belief and hope had come to a dead end. They were walking somewhere between the grief and hopelessness of Friday and the joy and hope of the Resurrection.
In the midst of this walking a stranger joined them. We know that the stranger is Jesus only because Luke tells us so in his narrative. We find ourselves shouting to the story like we would to a game show or reality TV show, “Come on! Open your eyes! It’s Jesus!” But, if Luke hadn’t have told us that the stranger was Jesus, would we see Jesus? Would we recognize Jesus?
While their minds were occupied with their bitterness, grief, disappointments, and hopelessness, the unrecognized Christ was walking in the midst of their tangled lives.
This is not the only time we see the risen Christ as a stranger – a mere bystander in the Resurrection narrative. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Christ. She thinks he’s the gardener. Later in John’s gospel, Peter and others are in a boat fishing doing what they know best, and a stranger appears on the beach, asking if they have caught any fish. Here in Luke’s narrative of the two travelers, Jesus is walking with them and they don’t even know it.
Jim Palmer, in his book Divine Nobodies talks about how religion almost destroyed him. After a hard childhood, Palmer went to college and got involved in campus ministry. This led to a calling which took Palmer to seminary and put him on a fast track to a booming ministry. He would become a part of the ministry staff at a large North American church, become front-page news in the local newspapers when he started his first church on his own, and was on his way to becoming one of those Christian gurus you spend lots of money to go listen to.
But Palmer was tangled up. Listen to what he writes:
Like Jesus, I began in humble circumstances, but unlike him, I rode high on the palm branches of people’s praise. I’m sure that was where my addiction to becoming a mega-something (anything) was born.
So Palmer began a journey down a road to his Emmaus. He left the ministry and began working any job he could find. And on this journey of rediscovering his faith, he met various strangers.
This is what Palmer says about the experience:
On this journey God has provided the necessary epiphanies to save me from complete self-destruction and has opened my eyes to deeper realities. With a seminary degree under my belt, you could think those epiphanies would have come when caught up in a deep theological treatise – Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Ethics. But that’s not what happened. . . God opened my eyes . . . through the unlikeliest people – people I, well, just kind of ran into along the way. The cast of characters includes a Waffle House waitress, a tire salesman, a hip-hop artist, and a swim teacher.
Each of these strangers that Palmer encounters becomes a Christ –figure, teaching him something else about his faith and through these various encounters with strangers, Palmer began to slowly be untangled.
This story of the two travelers, on a deeper level, is the transcript of human experience: a history of God’s gracious dealing with the human soul. Jesus doesn’t make a big deal that the two traveling believers didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t make a big deal that Mary thinks he’s a gardener or that Peter and the others think he’s some random guy on the shore. Jesus sees what we sometimes cannot see – that we are tangled up in our fears, our doubts, our anxieties, our disappointments, and our addictions. That’s because Jesus is grace, mercy, and love walking beside us. Jesus is healing through the hurting we cannot understand. Jesus is a risen Savior that could not be killed, a risen Savior that is always with us.
We cannot forget that these two travelers, for the most part, are unknown. Luke reminds us that Jesus did not appear just to the cast of characters in the Gospel narrative that we’ve learned to love. Jesus appears to the unknown believers as well. And I can’t help but wonder if Luke wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of these two travelers. When considering the narrative of the road to Emmaus, James Hastings writes: “Here is the Master of all those obscure lives that are yet precious in the sight of heaven.”
Here in the midst of two obscure, unknown lives, the Risen Christ is in their midst, walking right beside them. Our lives for the most part are obscure lives. We go to school, we go to work, we go to the movies, we go to the park, we go to the grocery store. For the most part, there is nothing extraordinary about our lives. And yet, the Risen Christ is walking in the midst of our tangled lives as well.