Something’s got to change

We all come to a place in our life where we realize that something’s got to change. It can be a big something or a small something.

For some, it’s making some big changes in your priorities. Maybe you decide you’re going to reignite your marriage, pay more attention to the kids, make time for date nights, no more missing dinners. Being busy seems to be the norm these days. When asked, “how’s life?” The number one answer seems to be, “it’s busy.” How might that answer change for us? How might our answer become, “It’s fulfilling. It’s rich. I’m living out my calling”? And I don’t mean in a superficial kind of way, but a real, authentic life that is filled with purpose. We all come to a place in our life where we wake up and realize we need to make some changes.

The past few months, I felt this sort of nudge to make changes in my health. I needed some exercise. The last few months I have started to rise at 5am. I have signed up for these exercise classes called “Hit” and “Burn” at the local gym. (I was hoping for one to be named something like “Breathe” or “Waterbreak”). Everyone in there is so fit! I’m the only out-of-shape one. The first day, I acted like I could exercise like it was 1999. That didn’t happen. And I’m the only guy in the class. I am always like 3 exercises behind the others. It doesn’t help my ego that afterwards in the parking lot, these ladies are hopping into their muscle cars and revving up the engine. Me? I’m waving from my mini-van.

Just the other morning, we had finished our workout. As we are filing out, our trainer is telling each person, “You killed it today. You rocked those burpees. You punched that workout in the face.” When she comes to me she says, “I’m glad you keep coming.”

Making changes can be hard. But we can make changes. A big part of change is about continuing to show up and to believe change can happen. If we believe it, people can change for the better.

In fact, that’s what the gospel is all about. Jesus came to change us by working in us. It boils down to one word. Believe. We have to believe we can change or else we will rarely try.

Just look at the lesson from the story of Jonah from chapter 3. To do a little review, the prophet Jonah is a runner. He continually runs away from his calling. God has called him to proclaim the message of change to this nation called Nineveh. The people of Nineveh are violent people. They have killed Jews and destroyed the Jewish temple. God wants them to change or else God is going to destroy them. So God calls Jonah. But Jonah doesn’t want the job. He flees on a ship in the opposite direction. The sailors throw him overboard because they realize they are about to sink because of Jonah’s disobedience. God sends a large fish that swallows Jonah and spits him out on the shore of Nineveh. God says to Jonah, “Get up Jonah and proclaim my message.” So Jonah sets off to the city and finally proclaims the message God gave him: “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

And how do the Ninevites respond? They believed. Here is a nation outside of the faith who believed a Jewish prophet named Jonah. They believe God’s word. They believed God when God said that he is going to ruin them in 40 days because of the ways they have hurt and destroyed. They didn’t think this message was an idle threat. They didn’t think Jonah was some silly ridiculous prophet. They saw a man willing to risk his life to deliver a message from God. They accepted and believed that they had been violent. They had killed. They had mistreated. They needed someone like Jonah to call them out on it.

For us to have real sustained change in our lives, we must believe whole-heartedly in the message. The Ninevites changed because they believed God’s message was true about their life. They didn’t respond, “That’s not us. We’re not like that.” Or, “You know, Jonah might have a point. Maybe we should roundtable his message for a while.” No, that’s not the tone of their response. The tone of their response is, “He’s right. We better get our act together. Jonah’s God means business.”

They believe it so much that they spread the word to their king. Miracle of miracles, he too believed.

As we think about those areas we want to change, we must ask ourselves, “What do we believe needs to be changed about our life?” That’s not the same question as, “What could we change? Or what might help?” The question is about belief. What do you believe God is calling you to change? Because here’s the good news. God wouldn’t call you to change unless God believed you actually could.

Then notice what this King of Nineveh does. He rises from his throne and removes his robe. His throne is where he wielded his power. And his robe signified his importance. In this moment, he steps away from his place of power and removes his robe of importance. Then he sits in ashes. He sits in the base elements of dust to which one day he shall return. It was dust that reminded him that if he didn’t change, he and his own country would soon be reduced to ashes.

He rises from his place of power. He removes his symbol of authority. He covers himself in ashes and sits. When we truly believe it’s time to change, we must be willing to rise from our thrones, remove our symbols of power and lower ourselves to the ground. If it’s time for us to make changes, we will need to sit in the dust. The people of Nineveh would turn from their violence. They would turn and make a change from their wicked ways. The Lord would show them mercy.

In the gospel accounts, Jesus once said that the only sign he would give the people was the sign of Jonah. The sign of Jonah was the sign of repentance. That sign meant that when the people heard the message that they needed to change, they believed and changed and God showed mercy. Jesus would call the people to change their heart and life by the message of his death and resurrection. Through this miraculous message, God showed them and us mercy.

My wife recently introduced me to the podcast “White Lies”. I couldn’t stop listening. It’s about these two men from Alabama coming to terms with Civil Rights movement and their state’s racist past. They researched the death of a white clergy man named Jim Reeb who came to Selma in aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. As Jim Reeb, a Unitarian minister, husband and father of four, left dinner one night in Selma, there were four local white men who hit him over the head with a billy club repeatedly. He would die a few days later. These men went on trial and were found not-guilty and set free.

More than 50 years later, these two journalist uncovered how the sheriff, the judges, the jury and the witnesses, covered up what really happened. The white community in this town knew the men on trial were guilty but they spun a web of lies to change the narrative. Eventually those lies turned to sustained belief in a false story. Do you know why the people in Selma couldn’t change? They were willing to believe in a lie rather than confront the truth of the past, which led them to believe that everything was fine. The past was the past. Water under the bridge. But what if that community had been like the King of Nineveh? Instead of covering up their history of violence, what if they had removed their cloaks of concealment and stepped down from their power to lay bare the deeds of the past? 

No doubt, Selma has made progress. The podcast celebrates that in the year 2000 the city of Selma elected their first African American mayor. But within weeks of his election, the city erected a bust and statue to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. The white community of Selma justified this monument by arguing that this was about honoring their heritage. If Selma honored the legacy of Civil Rights, they should also honor their Confederate heritage. 

The journalists interviewed a lady named Grace, an African American woman from Selma who was at the bridge on “Bloody Sunday.” They asked Grace whether she thought these election of this mayor and the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest were related.

She said, “Now, you know you’ve already answered that question in your mind. But when I look at Nathan’s head up there, his mouth started moving. It says, you may have a Negro mayor, but we are still here.” 

We have made progress, but there’s still so far to go.

As hard as the past may be, God calls us to tell the truth of it. For it’s only when we believe in the truth of it that we can really change.

If we are brave enough to believe the truth, then change is possible. Sometimes, we need to get off our thrones and sit in the dust. We need to take off our robes of success that conceal the real problems underneath. That goes for anything in our life that needs to be changed. We will not change if we will ourselves to believe in the lie. If a person believes they don’t have a drinking problem, they’ll keep on drinking. If a person believes their marriage is fine and it’s not, they’ll keep on with the same bad habits.

It’s for these reasons we need people like Jonah to deliver the real truth from God. That’s why the people of Nineveh could change. They believed and accepted the truth about themselves.

The good news is we can change for the better. Real change is possible. As Jesus once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” That’s why Jesus came. Because Jesus loves you and cares about your life. God is a God of mercy.

In the gospel of Luke, Luke tells us about a man named Zaccheus. He was a tax collector and he cheated people out of their money. One day, Jesus was passing by. He was short so he climbed a tree to see Jesus. Jesus said, “Zaccheus, come down. For I’m coming to your house today. ” Jesus played host in Zaccheus’ own house. It was when Jesus came into his home that Zaccheus was confronted with the truth about himself. He acknowledged that he had cheated people. Then he made plans to pay them back their fair share and more. 

Jesus said, “Zaccheus, salvation has come to you today.” Why did Zaccheus make a change? He believed in God’s message. The Lord brought joy and salvation to his life. 

Friends, change can happen when we believe in it enough. What do you believe God wants to change in our world, in our community, in your life? The folks from Nineveh believed in God’s call for change and God turned around their lives. God can turn around yours too if you can believe it!

 

 

 

Crabbing on the marshes of Glynn

My daughter Katie and I just finished crabbing off a small bridge in the marsh on a drizzly day. We’re here on St. Simons Island. I remember my dad teaching me to crab off the same bridge years ago. We actually caught a couple which she named before dumping back into the winding inlet.

Our family is here a few days early before “Pastor’s school.” Family friends from Jackson were generous to let us stay at their place near the beach before we move over to Epworth by the Sea on Monday. Epworth is a Christian retreat center of the United Methodist Church. This is our family’s second year attending “Pastor’s school.” We had heard good things about it. It allows the ministers to engage in continuing education, while allowing our children to mingle with other ‘preachers’ kids.’ We’re still learning what it’s like for our children to be ‘pks’. My mother was one. She used to tell me about her and her sisters’ job as a ‘pk.’

My grandfather was a pastor in south Georgia. It was a tradition in many of those churches to have dinner on the grounds. In south Georgia, you had to be able to stand in line, fill your plate with fried food while simultaneously sticking out your bottom lip and blowing upwards to shew away the gnats.

Dinner on the grounds meant potlucks, a dying legacy in today’s church, probably for good reason. My grandfather instructed his four daughters of their role. After everyone had been served, they were to pass through the line and eat the from all the dishes that hadn’t been touched. That means the bad ones. My grandfather didn’t want them to feel left out. That was part of their life as a ‘pk’. Plop on the helpings of sour tomato pie and burnt okra.

In the Methodist world, the life of a ‘pk’ can be abrupt as ministers and families are constantly moving to new assignments. It’s our Methodist way, but it can be hard on the children as they uproot to new schools and leave behind friends.

Pastor’s school allows them to make friends that become a lasting sense of community. At least, that’s our hope. So we are here. In truth, we have served churches who have loved our children with great care, but life can be challenging for ‘pks’ often arriving at church long before Sunday school and waiting an hour after worship is over as mom and dad talk to one more person or squeeze in that one extra meeting. Thankfully i-Phones keep them entertained, but they’re no substitute for home or us.

It’s different to be on St. Simons these days. My childhood is wrapped up on this island. My grandparents helped run Epworth. My grandfather was the Epworth Superintendent and a good one. Apparently, he knew how to raise money and helped envision and fundraise most of the hallowed buildings overlooking the golden marshes on the Frederica River without any debt. He would always tell people that the secret to raising money was one word: ‘ask’. Of course, that’s not totally true. He did like to ask, but his success was built on his trust.

He loved the people and this place. He would walk the grounds each day and sought to interact with the youth groups and Sunday schools who were visiting for retreat. When my parents’ Sunday school and families visited, he gave us the special treatment by organizing a shrimp boil near near the tabby house under the oak trees with the Spanish moss. For us kids, he hosted an ice cream sundae social for us past our bedtime. He was a good man.

My grandmother offered her time at Epworth most nights in the cafeteria. Many people called her the ‘mo tea sir’ lady. She always carried a pitcher of sweet tea in her hand asking people if she could refill their drinks. For her, it was about hospitality. But more than hospitality it was her way of striking up a conversation and making friends. In one of Jesus’ miracles, he fed the multitudes with fish and loaves. I’m pretty sure had my grandmother been there, she’d have made sure they had tea.

She never tired of talking to people. She loved Epworth. I can recall many times walking past the tennis courts, near a big open field when she would spot a piece of trash 30 yards away. No matter the distance, she was going to pick it up. Every time I see a piece of trash at the churches I serve, I feel a twinge of guilt if I don’t pick it up.

Because groups visited Epworth from all across Georgia, many people knew her by name. I was always surprised how many people in my hometown of Jackson knew and loved her when she visited us at Christmas. It was like that in most places.

She died two years ago. We have no family left on this island. In fact, we have no family left in my home town of Jackson. I’m not sure the word that best describes that feeling of changes in our lives that happen in a drift more than a rapid current. But I feel it. On most visits to St. Simons as a kid, I hardly ever ventured to the tourist parts of the island. We made maybe one visit to the beach but rarely strolled through the village or climbed the light house. But this week, we’ve enjoyed the other side. We’ve ordered shrimp at the Crab Trap, hunted for sand dollars and ridden bikes along the marsh. It’s different, but the laughs of our two daughters remind that it’s still good.

We all have these moments where we move about the places of our past with thankfulness and sadness. As my daughter and I pulled up the crab basket, I watched for a moment the sway of the golden marsh and recalled the quote from the poet Sydney Lanier about this island that my grandmother had hanging in her guests bathroom, “Like to the greatness of God is the greatness within, The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.”

Most of us feel that sense of thankfulness and sadness when we visit places from our past that seem to be gone. But there’s always new life with the next generation in that same place. For the greatness of God in this place, I give thanks.

 

You can’t outrun God

I recall some of my earliest memories of the Book of Jonah. They were from my illustrated Bible for children. My mother would read these stories to me at night as a preschooler. I’ve tried to emulate her example with my own children. The story of Jonah was one of my favorites because it involved ships, seas and fish. Our version had Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Into my adult life, people have argued that it wasn’t a whale but a big fish. However you read the text, an underwater creature swallowed a grown man and spit him out onto the shore. Whether it was a fish or a whale seems to be splitting scales.

I remember the picture of Jonah inside the whale. He was holding an oil lantern down inside the whale’s stomach, sunlight shining through the blow hole, resting peacefully as we waited to be regurgitated out on shore.

I love these memories of this story. But there comes a time where we must move from the surface introductions of God’s story and explore the deep. In some ways, Jonah is like a Pixar story. It can capture the imagination of children, while grabbing the attention of the adults. That’s what I hope we can do with Jonah. We rightly do not mention to children that the Ninevites in the story were Assyrians who set fire to the holy places in Israel, poked out the eyes of Jewish leaders and sent families with their children packing to live in exile in a foreign land. And yet that kind of information is important if we are to grow.

But before we explore the depths of the story itself, we want to address what’s on most adult minds about Jonah. Was Jonah really swallowed by a fish?

Could it have happened? Well absolutely. If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, God can have a man like Jonah swallowed by a fish and spit out on shore. Could this story be fictional? Well, yes and there’s good Biblical evidence. Throughout the scriptures, we find evidence of fictional stories. Jesus used them all the time. We call them parables. The story of the good Samaritan. The story of the Prodigal Son. These are both fictional stories from Jesus, but they are true stories in their message.

Recently, I read an article about a person’s thoughts about the Biblical character of Job. People often have questions about whether Job, who suffered devastating loss to his family and livestock, was a historical person.  Could a man truly endure as much suffering as Job? This author, a Methodist Pastor, wrote the early 1900’s.

 It makes little difference if there was or was not a real human life that was actually surrounded by all the historic details of the Book of Job, so long as I know that at this far distant period some soul struggles, as mine has done, with the mystery of suffering, and finally triumphed through a faith that brought to him a fresh and soul-satisfying vision of God.  (Rev. Dr. Forrest Prettyman)

I would echo these sentiments about Jonah. Was there a fish that swallowed Jonah? I can’t say for sure. But what matters to me is that there was a great soul who was struggling with God’s call upon his life. He was inspired by God to write down this experience of running from the call.

As we study Jonah, I don’t want us to get too focused on whether this happened exactly the way this story says. I would rather us focus on the struggle of what it’s like to try and follow a calling that is really hard like Jonah did. Because at some point, we’ve all had Jonah moments. We have felt a pull, a tug upon our lives from God to carry out God’s plan. This call goes against our own desires. Like Jonah, we hope this call would go away if we ignored it long enough but it doesn’t.

The book begins with the introduction to Jonah of Ammittai. Ammittai means son of faithfulness, which is quite ironic. Jonah is anything but faithful. Then, the word of God interrupts Jonah’s life, as it often does. The Lord tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh because the great evil of Nineveh had come to the Lord. As mentioned earlier, Nineveh was the home of Assyrians. The Assyrians were enemies of the Jews. In the 700’s BC, they tore through the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They devastated the Jews. Jonah would have had a deep seated hatred of the city of Nineveh. Notice that you don’t see too many churches named, “Nineveh.” In fact, I thought there weren’t any until I did a Google search. It turns out there are 2 “Nineveh United Methodist Churches.” Can you imagine as a pastor being told by your Bishop, ‘Hey, Will, do I have a great appointment for you? I’m sending you to Nineveh?'”

In other call stories like Isaiah we have these faithful moments when the Lord calls. Isaiah responds to the voice of God, “Here I am, send me.” And young Samuel in the house of Eli responds to the Lord, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” Not so with Jonah. Jonah gets the call and sets out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Jonah ran in the complete opposite direction. He thought by running, he could flee from the presence of the Lord. And later in this story, he tries another tactic. He boards a ship and tries to sleep away the call only to wake up to the devastating consequences of his avoidance. The ship is about to sink. 

If you’re like me, there are times where you experience troubling situations where you just want to go to sleep and hope the problem will take care of itself when you wake up. That’s not the case with God’s call upon our life. God will not leave us alone. God will keep troubling us.

I found an interesting commentary on the book of Jonah from the great novel, Moby Dick from Herman Melville. To be transparent, I’ve never read Moby Dick. I wish I could impress you and say I had, but I did come across this excerpt from the fictional preacher in this novel. He preached,

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying consists.

To obey God often means we must disobey ourselves. That’s why it’s so hard to follow a call from the Lord. Oftentimes, it means disobeying our wills and what we want for our lives. Even Jesus, our Lord and Savior, reveals a moment of struggle. His Father in heaven called him to die for the sins of the world. The night before he is to die he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays, “Lord, if you are able, take this cup from me. But Lord, not my will, but thine be done.” He struggled with his own human will and the Lord’s will.

Have you found yourself running from a call from the Lord? Is there a calling for some purpose that you have actively avoided? Maybe it’s not to preach a word to the Ninevites. Maybe it’s to serve as a reading buddy at the local elementary school. Maybe it’s to get involved in a prison ministry. Or speak out against the injustices you see. But you know what’s amazing about the Book of Jonah. Jonah’s calling made a difference when he finally carried it out. The people of Nineveh in a shocking way repent and change their ways. Carrying out your call will help you live into God’s bigger picture for the world. How might today you obey God by disobeying yourself?

As we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, I think about an American saint who, like Jonah, also felt a call to bring the word of the Lord to a new land. Unlike Jonah, he willingly accepted. He is often overlooked in the building up of our great country. He didn’t help Thomas Jefferson pen the Declaration of Independence. Nor did he assist Georgie Washington in leading an army into battle. He did help establish the religious foundations of our country. His name was Francis Asbury.

Asbury was a minister in England ten years before the American Revolution. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was looking to send English ministers to the American colonies to build up the American church. Few of the ministers raised their hands to volunteer. At age 26, Asbury decided to answer the call and raised his hand to set sail for America. Most British ministers didn’t see a lot of potential in Asbury in England. He was expendable. If it worked for him in America, wonderful. If not, no big loss.

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When he arrived in America, he developed a common touch with the colonist. They respected and admired him as he traveled across the frontier. But when the revolution broke out, most colonist did not trust Methodist ministers because of their allegiances to the English King. For fear of their lives, many of the ministers returned to England, which left a shortage of ministers to oversee the sacraments and lead the churches. (Consequently, congregations were forced to develop and nurture their ministries in the absence of clergy. Strong lay leadership in today’s church is part of the legacy of the short supply of ministers of the early American church. Consider too most Methodist churches today serve Holy Communion once a month. That rhythm dates back to the early American church when churches only had a minister once every 4-6 weeks to preside over the sacrament).

But Asbury refused to leave. He loved America. He was committed to God’s work here. He had to go in hiding in Delaware during the revolution. When the war was over, there were hardly any ministers to lead the churches. Asbury proved his trust to the people.

He rode across the frontier on horseback, preaching, developing relationships with local leaders, offering the sacraments. In a time of great resistance, he spoke out against the evils of slavery. President George Washington even invited Asbury to Mt. Vernon to hear out Asbury’s moral reasoning for eliminating slavery. Asbury must have been persuasive. In his will, Washington freed his slaves, one of the only founding fathers to do so, quite possibly because of Asbury’s witness and influence. Asbury rode tens of thousands of miles across America, often suffering from illness. He never married and never owned much more than he could carry on horseback. His one mission was to spread the news of Jesus Christ to this new country.

By the time he died one in every Methodism was the largest Protestant denomination. In his day and time, he was often considered the most trusted man in America.

His legacy is not in books and sermons, but in his tireless efforts. He helped shape thousands of preachers one conversation at a time, and in the tens of thousands of ordinary believers who saw him up close. He was the people’s saint, an ordinary person who God chose to do extraordinary things.

I’m thankful to live in a nation that gives me the freedom live out our calling. We’re not a perfect nation by any means, but we are free one. With this freedom, I want to follow the example of people like Francis Asbury. He worked tirelessly for the gospel, often preaching in snake boots, sweating from the outdoor revivals, after traveling all day on horseback.

Asbury teaches us that our callings are not always easy and require lots of hard work. But that’s the American way. That’s why Jonah struggled so much with his calling. It was hard to think about preaching to people who had hurt him and his fellow Israelites. But when he carried out God’s call, extraordinary things happen. Extraordinary things can happen you when you accept your calling. What calling have you been running from? You can’t outrun God. The call won’t go away. What might happen if you accept?

Stuck in the Marble

On our recent trip, Blair and I spent a few days in Florence, Italy. I had seen pictures of the famous church, “TheDuomo” (more formally known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). I knew I would be impressed. But I wasn’t ready for it. When I approached this magnificent building, I gasped. I was dumbstruck by its beauty and its height. It was built in the 1400’s before heavy construction equipment. It was the largest and tallest church in the world at the time. It took over 100 years to build. Block by block God’s people stacked this church into being. They understood that height appealed to our understandings of the grandeur of God. What is it about height? 

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“The Duomo” of Florence. The dome in the back is simply amazing to see. We were equally awestruck by the different colors of marble and their designs throughout the whole structure.

We marvel at our own ability to build something high. Often, we associate height with the divine. We think of passages from the Bible like Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28 on which angels ascend and descend from the heavens. And so to build a structure high has a way of making us feel like we can ascend to the heights of God’s domain. But the Bible is not always keen on tall buildings.
In Genesis 11, there’s a curious story about God’s people building a tower, often referred to as the tower of Babel. God’s people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). The people want a structure with its top in the heavens. 

Why? They had two motivations. The first was pride. They wanted to make a name for themselves. What better way to make a name for yourself than to have a tall building to show your importance? Notice, they didn’t say, “Let’s build a building to glorify God and God can make a name for us.” They want the credit. But secondly, they don’t want to be scattered. They reason that if they make a name in this new city, they can bunker down and settle in without having to move. They can mingle with people who think, eat and act like them. But God had different plans. God doesn’t want the people to settle. God wants them to scatter them across the earth. 

God desired that his covenant for creation spread to all people. God wanted them to encounter different nations and cultures of people, new races. God breaks up their establishment. At this time, they had one language. God decides to confuse their languages. They could no longer understand each other. They called the place “Babel” because of the confusion of language. In doing so, God scattered the people from their homogenous environment. 

Scattering the people wasn’t God’s way of punishing them. It was God’s way of fulfilling God’s will. God was trying to teach them that different places and different kinds of people weren’t bad. They needed to be amongst other nations to witness to God’s covenant, joy, freedom and care. Scattering is not a bad thing. Diversity is to be celebrated in God’s creation. 

God calls us to build our lives outward instead of upward. Our faith is outward, not upward. When we try to build our lives upward, the focus tends to be on us and trying to build a name for ourselves. We become a homogenous group of people who hang out with people who think, act and look like us. That’s not God’s design for the world. God has designed us to scatter, to be among people who are different than us. God needs us to move outside the echo chambers of our life where people simply agree with us. 

Just the other day I was with my family. My sister was asking me how I like living in Atlanta. I said, “I love it. In fact, on most weeks, I don’t travel more than 2 miles from our home. Everything’s right here. Church, school, parks. It’s hard to imagine going outside the perimeter to the burbs.” 

My sister laughed, “Will, you’re such a snob! How terrible it would be if you had to come all the way to Madison.” I didn’t mean it like she took it. But that has become the joke in our family. I sort of get it. We live in a world full of diversity. God celebrates the diversity of creation. There’s the diversity of language, food and culture. To live a life outward means to live in community with people who are different than us and to appreciate them. And crazy as it sounds, we learn that these differences enrich our lives. 

As I mentioned earlier, our family traveled to Italy. It was a chance to get out and see the world. My mother is good about making family trips a priority. In fact, she makes sure we put dates on the calendar a year in advance so we won’t miss it. 

Blair and I decided we would venture off by ourselves for two days in Florence without the rest of the family. They suffered by themselves in the Tuscan city of Sienna. Without the kids, we took our time. If we learned anything from the Italian culture it was to slow down. Restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 8p.m. We strolled through the piazzas at dusk and ate rich Italian food at cafes with outdoor seatings under large umbrellas with the pigeons around our feet and the bells of churches ringing. I can understand why God asks us to celebrate the diversity of culture. 

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Blair and I in the Boboli gardens overlooking Florence. Blair is pointing to the Florence “Duomo”.

Blair and I love the arts. There was plenty of it in Florence. Inside one Cathedral, I told Blair, “I don’t understand why the Catholic Church sculpted so many bust of their priests and painted so much art about their popes.” She said, “Will, they didn’t have photography. This was their way of remembering their leaders. Think about the churches you have served. They all have pictures of their pastors somewhere in the church.” It gave me a little more perspective and understanding about the Catholic Church. We visited the Uffizzi museum with a guided tour and then headed to the Acdadamia to see Michaelangelo’s David. 

As our group headed into the main hall, I turned my head right and there he was. He was perfect and made you want to start working out and cut out the gelato. People are right. It’s a religious experience. I’m still amazed that an artist could have such a perfect idea in their head and could make it come to life by chipping away at stone.  

Our group of ten was standing next to the David in awe with our earphones listening to every word of our tour guide. After she had finished with an excellent historical perspective about the David, she asked, “Are there any questions?” This one man, an American, says, “What was wrong with the air conditioning in the other museum? They need to get their act together.” The moment was so pregnant with beauty and awe. How could anyone ask a question like that?

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Michaengelo captured David, the future king of Israel, just before he struck down Goliath with a sling and stones. Most other sculptures of David were set after he had defeated Goliath. Notice how muscular David is and his focused stare towards his opponent.

Equally as inspiring were these unfinished works of Michealangelo just before you arrived at the statue of David. They were pieces that Popes and Cardinals had commissioned him to do. As soon as he would start on them, they would change their minds and send him to a different project. It was a relief to know that bosses priorities changed back then too. 

The images in the stone felt trapped. One was of a slave pushing his arm in the air. You could see the dots from where the artist had been chiseling away at the stone, but left it undone. I was inspired by the creative process, even considering my own acts of creation in sermons I had started but never finished. The figures were stuck, unable to escape from the marble. Our guide then told us about Michelangelo’s unique gift to see the image in the marble. Michaelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

As I looked at the statues, enslaved in the marble, I thought of our human condition. We are a people stuck inside the marble begging God to set us free. We are a people struggling with our own unique circumstances of marriage, raising kids, caring for aging parents. We are a people of different countries struggling to understand each other and live peaceably. We are a people of different races struggling over our hostile histories. We long to be set free.

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Here is Michaelangelo’s unfinished, “Bearded Slave” in the Accademia in Florence.

Here’s the good news for us. Jesus Christ can set us free. Jesus Christ has come in grace to forgive sins. Jesus has come to forgive us of pride that cares more about ourselves than what God would have us be. There are people of different backgrounds. They are not  in Italy. They are right around the corner. They are people who speak Spanish. People with no documentation. People with big homes. People with no homes. People who can draw, sing and dance. People who play baseball. People who like to fish. People who like to rap. The diversity of this world is to be celebrated and to enhance our awareness of God’s goodness. How might we live our life outward instead of upward? 

 

Alpine Escape

The Zant clan returned from our trip to Switzerland and Italy. My mother helped make this happen. Blair and I have been married more than 10 years so this felt like a second honeymoon. We left the kids with her parents. (Thanks Joann and Michael).

Our first stop was Luzern, Switzerland. It’s a beautiful place. There’s a crystal clear river running through the heart of this Alpine city. The water was running fast from the Alps runoff. Our crew took a train to Engelberg to the base of tall mountains just 20 miles north of Luzern. We took a gondola ride up to Mount Titlis, where we gasped at the height and vastness of the peaks.

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We are on the gondola ascending to Mt. Titlis while looking back at the peak of Mt. Trusbee and its glacial lake. 

On top of the mountain, we snapped pictures, sure to get the snow capped mountains to frame our smiles. Blair has made our couple’s shot her Facebook profile.B081D967-0FF6-42B7-8847-758BF21948CA

But after the pics, we took in this sight. It’s perhaps the grandest of all of nature I have witnessed. We were so high the oxygen levels dipped. I found myself laboring for air and felt a slight bit dizzy at first, which added to the power of the Alps and their mystique.

Blair and I stole away for some snow tubing at 10,000 feet. Beats the heck out of North Carolina. We explored an underground glacier before heading down to Trusbee peak which was a mere 7,000 feet high. We walked around the glacial lake. Blair performed her rendition of the “Sound of Music” and I recorded it on the I-phone. She wanted me to record it for us as a self-indulgent moment of fancy. I decided it need to be the family entertainment before dinner. I learned my lesson.

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(Our joke was that the hills are alive with the noise of Zants). Not so with Blair. She can sing!

Also, my brother Dan and I took a train ride up to Engelberg on Monday, the day we arrived in Luzern. We rented bikes and caught the train north. Once in Engelberg we headed back on the 22 mile track to Luzern. It was a mix of gravel road, pavement and bike lanes. Dan loves the crazy bike trails that curve along cliffs and rocky terrain and there were plenty of them. I made it clear we were not doing that. Balancing a bike, anticipating turns and trying not to slide off a 1,000 foot cliff is Dan’s idea of heaven. For me it’s the other place. It requires too much work. So we stuck to paved roads mostly and I found my rest.

IMG_0003We rode with pedal-assisted bikes which means we were moving at a good clip. Cowbells rang in the valleys, the moderate air a relief from the humidity in Georgia. The mountains that towered on both sides gave a feeling of safety, while homes dotting the green hills made you think you could live there until you thought about the cold winters. I love riding because my mind can escape, especially on the lonely bike lanes wandering through these villages. I didn’t have to concentrate on twist and turns but could get wrapped up in the new scenery awaiting after each mountain and the approach of a new village.

In the midst of the work routine, my brain always seems to churn, even when I’m not at work. It’s like your brain is pedaling a bike to the point of muscle lock-down, but your brain keeps trying to pedal. But the fresh air, the new forms and legs pedaling allowed my mind to be free to wander off its tiresome treadmill and be restored so that the work I love can be refreshed.

With the feel of real sweat down my shoulders, the glacial river running swiftly beside us, I kept pushing towards Luzern and while moving at 27 km/hr felt my heart still and at peace in the silence of God.

In this beautiful place, I found the healing balm of nature. I think of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 8, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” 

For those who read this, I pray you find time for your heart’s replenishment as you are lifted into the presence of the divine through God’s handiwork.

“Butt in seat” theology.

I started this blog about 9 months ago. I have tried to start a blog before and I usually write four or five entries and then fade into the abyss. This time, I told myself I would write one entry per week. That’s it. Not every post is that great. When people tell me, “I read your blog,” my typical response is, “Oh, you’re the one.” The stats sometimes suggests I’m not far off.

There are some days, I don’t feel like writing at all. I have had to make myself do it. I have heard it said that the key to becoming a better writer is the mantra, “butt in the seat.” You don’t get better at writing if you don’t write. Some days you just to have to solider up and write even when you don’t have the inspiration. The myth is that you have to wait for the inspiration. I find the opposite is true. Inspiration comes as you begin to write.

I have wanted this blog to be about helping people live their Christian faith more devotedly and to share honest struggles I have as a pastor and follower of Jesus. Here’s where the “butt in seat” theology comes in hand. If we want to grow in our Christian faith, we need to take the same attitude as writers. We need to develop practices we do each day and week that form our Christian character. Some days these practices will not be the most exciting task on our to-do list.

I’m a Methodist. True to our name, we believe there’s a method to becoming a devoted follower of Jesus. We call these methods the means of grace. They are practices that help us stay in love with God. These practices include daily prayer, partaking in Holy Communion, serving the poor, reading our scriptures, getting involved in a small group ministry. It’s not just one day of prayer that will change our hearts. It’s our devotion to a method of praying over time that changes and forms us. The same is true for the other practices.

There are days that I struggle to pray as long and as focused as I would like. Life happens. The kids want to go to the pool. On those days, where I haven’t put my knees on the ground and prayed, I have felt off kilter. I lack grounding. I long for God and that takes a method to form our relationship with Christ.

There is the old story from the methodist annals about John Wesley in 1738. At this time in his life, he was a minister in the Anglican Church in England. He was struggling because he didn’t have an assurance of his faith. He was burned out. He asked himself, “how can you preach faith to others if you don’t have faith yourself?” He asked a Moravian pastor named Peter Bohler if he should stop preaching all together. Bohler responded to Wesley, “By no means. Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Wesley would do just that. He would go to the prisons and proclaim the word of God. Through this practice, the Holy Spirit stirred in his heart in mighty ways. Why? He made preaching the gospel his duty and faithful practice. It was his method. Just a few months later, he had a conversion experience where he felt the assurance of his salvation through Christ.

For our faith in Christ to grow, we need a method. What’s yours?

I can’t keep quiet.

This Sunday is Pentecost. It’s often called the birthday of the church. I have served several churches where we brought out a cake and sang happy birthday to the church. Which is good. But singing the Happy Birthday song in unison wouldn’t sound much like that first Pentecost. The first Pentecost was a raucous, chaotic, unsettling kind of event. The imagery in this week’s passage from Acts 2 evokes images of tornadoes, fire and drunkards.

To set the stage, it’s fifty days after Easter. It was originally a Jewish holiday remembering the giving of the Jewish Law. In Luke’s gospel, it’s not about the giving of the law, but the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had ascended ten days earlier. And before left, he told his disciples to wait until they were clothed with power from on high. Then the power came in the form of the Holy Spirit. Luke describes it this way:

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

The wind was violent, which is a bit surprising at first. A few weeks ago, I was in Kansas City. True to form, we had a tornado warning. We could hear the howling of wind. Later, we’d see the devastation of homes on television. In John’s depiction of the giving of the Holy Spirit, we find a much calmer spirit. It’s not like wind, but breath. Jesus breathed upon the disciples and gave them confidence and peace during an unsettling time (John 20:22). But in both cases the Holy Spirit commissioned them for the work of God. In John’s gospel, Jesus gave them the confidence through the Spirit to forgive sins. In Acts, the gift was different. It was the gift of speech! Maybe that’s where the violence comes in. I don’t like to think of speech as violent, but speech, like violence, has a way of creating chaos and confusion. A few moments on Twitter will verify the violence and chaos that speech can enact. When the disciples began to speak a bit of chaos and confusion ensued.

If we look at the creation story, we see how language, chaos and creation work together. A wind swept over a chaotic, formless void. God spoke and life came into being. The act of speech gave birth to life. Pentecost is like a second creation story. Wind swept through this house and speech poured forth from the disciples. A church was born.

The Holy Spirit catches fire and lands on their tongues. They won’t be quiet. Our God is an amazingly strategic God in fulfilling his plans to reach the nations. That’s the purpose of Acts to show how the Holy Spirit to spread the gospel through the ends of the earth. But instead of the disciples be sent to the ends of the earth initially, God uses Pentecost as a special occasion. Jews from all parts of the world were there to celebrate Pentecost. They would soon be returning to their homelands. And so God lights the tongues of the disciples on fire and they began to proclaim the message of salvation to those gathered. It’s a clever way to get the word scattered quickly. 

The first gift to the church is the gift of speech. It’s the gift of proclamation. It’s not soft proclamation. It’s bold, prophetic speech. Does it incite a little chaos? Yes. The religious leaders were whipped into a frenzy over these Christians who kept talking about this Jesus they thought they put to death. But that same speech also birthed the church. These were the same disciples who hid after Jesus was crucified. Now that the Holy Spirit has come they are emboldened. It’s a noisy affair. Again, language can be unsettling. At first, the people accuse the disciples of being drunk. They think it’s slurred speech, liquid courage. But this power is not of alcohol, but of the Holy Spirit.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with some of our children. I asked them if they have any questions about worship. They said, “Why do we say the same words when we say the Apostles’ Creed? We say it every week. Could we say something new?” (I love the honesty of children). I explained each part of the creed. To their credit, they recited back the creed to me, which means they’re picking up the foundational beliefs of the church. But I did understand their sentiment.

A writer in The Christian Century told about a congregation who had formatted all its services on computer. When a funeral services was to be held, they ran the same liturgy they had used for the last funeral, substituting only the name of the newly deceased (Edna) where the name of the previous woman (Mary) had been. On one occasion, everything proceeded smoothly until they came to the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, during which the people changed together their belief in Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Edna…”

At times, we can get on cruise control in our faith. We need an intrusive new word from God to shake us up!

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement cautioned the people called Methodist when said,

‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.’ (Thoughts Upon Methodism 1786). 

The most important gift from the Spirit for the spreading of the gospel is one of prophetic, bold, evangelical speech. The spirit finds release through speaking. The apostles speak when they’re told to be quiet. That’s the power of speech. It can get you arrested.

I remember a kid attending a summer camp in the mountains. As a 10 year old camper, I remember the worst part about the whole day. It happened after lunch. They had us return to our cabins and lay down in our beds. Our cabin leader would utter those awful words. ‘It’s rest hour. No talking.” I despised rest hour. I pretended to write letters to my parents. But after a while, my fellow campers and I couldn’t hold our tongues. We’d whisper jokes and burst out in laughter.  The leader would holler, “Hush. No talking.” Do you think it worked? We weren’t about to nap and ten year olds can’t keep quiet for an hour. Were their threats from our leader? Of course. “If one more person talks, I’m taking you all out onto the athletic field and we’re running the rest of rest hour.” Do you think it worked? We chirped like birds. We knew how to irritate our captor, I mean leader. Persistent speech has a way of disrupting and irritating the people in charge. It’s a way to birth something new.

In Acts 4, Peter and John get themselves arrested. Why? They can’t keep quiet about Jesus. They keep speaking up even when the authorities tried to silence them. When ordered not to speak, Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” The disciples couldn’t keep quiet. Nor should we. 

What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever said? I had a friend who used to say ad nauseam, “Speak up even if your voice shakes.” As terrifying as it can be, speaking the truth can liberate us. Whether it’s women speaking up in the “Me Too” movement or a child telling their parent about being bullied at school, courageous speech can change the world.

As Methodist, we believe in a social and evangelical gospel. We can speak the truth about the social concerns of our day and we can boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus to those who have not accepted him into their life. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit.

For any one reading this right now, I’m telling you the truth. Jesus Christ is alive. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has come to save you. God is capable of doing more than just a little redecorating of your life. This God has come to renovate you. By the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven of your sins. I can’t keep quiet about this Jesus.

And if this word is of God it will be a disruptive word to you at first. It may mean you have to take serious look at putting down the bottle or take a hard look at how you treat your spouse. It may mean you have to acknowledge you can’t fix yourself but are in need of the grace of God. Jesus is alive and can give you the life that is the real life. I can’t keep quiet about him! He is my savior and my God. He can be yours too.