Can These Bones Live?

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. (Ezek. 37:12)

Whenever I hear this story of dry bones, images from the great old Westerns flash across my eyes. I see a desert with a dusty brown floor with fissures created by the ground separating itself in searching for water. I look up and there are no clouds, only the beating rays of a harsh sun which burns the just and the unjust. Scanning for anywhere brad-helmink-54389_Fotor.jpgto hide, I see no vegetation, no plants at all. It is as dead and lifeless as you can imagine.

As Ezekiel wanders on with God leading him, the images change to include the scorched skeletons of Israelites long ago butchered by seemingly more powerful foes. Ezekiel had to have done a double take. Most assuredly we would have, for it’s one thing to see the dry and cracked skull of a bull in those westerns, it’s quite another to meander among a maze of calcified remains.

But God has a reason to bring this ritually pure priest into a compromising situation. These bones are all of Israel, for they are a people crying out “‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” They are a people who would long to be in the spiritual doldrums for there one still has the hope of wind. They are sapped of all the faith marrow which gives them life.

Even after God causes sinews, muscle, and skin on those bones, they are not alive. They have the appearance of life, but they more wander around like zombies without direction. That’s because they don’t have breath/wind/spirit. Ezekiel plays with the Hebrew word ruah here because it can mean any of the three. It’s the same word used to describe God’s Spirit hovering over the waters of chaos before time began and again when God breathed life into the first of us. God’s Spirit gives us life beyond simple physicality.

God is the one who gives us life. That is what the Divine One is saying to Ezekiel. zugr-108.jpgGod offers him and his people hope that even when they are in a hopeless place, God’s Spirit breathes life again. Even when they feel like giving up and throwing in the towel God’s Spirit breathes life again. Even when they feel cut-off from everything they know and death seems like a foregone conclusion, God’s Spirit breathes life again.

Can these bones live? Yes! Because God’s Spirit breathes life again, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Looking Up to Samuel

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided (or seen) for myself a king among his sons.” (1 Sam. 16:1)

When I read this passage, I would be remiss if I didn’t think about the different spiritual mentors who help shepherd me to the place where I am. I don’t think of them because they’ve tumblr_o15oyciIur1sfie3io1_1280.jpgbeen rejected by the LORD in any way, but because they often held the role of the prophet in my life. They spoke to me on behalf of God. The gave me the good news and the bad news God had for me that day (or Sunday.) They often played the Samuel character in my life.

I wonder if you have those persons in your life too. Maybe they were a particularly good pastor growing up. Maybe it’s an author who always is speaking to your soul whenever your eyes gaze upon ink. Or maybe there’s a relative who showed you how to pair prayer and action so faith might come alive. Over time, these people might turn into something MORE than a person, but one who is “holy” (at least to you.) They become venerated for their faith and we think, “I can’t possibly be as faithful, prayerful, holy, justice oriented, active, [insert positive description for Christian here] as they are.”

Basically, we think these people know what God is doing more than we do.

But this is hogwash when it comes to Samuel. Samuel was a miracle child to Hannah. He heard the voice of God speaking to him in the Temple when he was a child. He grew up to be the leader of Israel and anointed the first ever King on behalf of YHWH. Even with all this he still could not perceive the direction in where God was going.

God said, “I’ve seen to it there is going to be a king in Bethlehem, go and give him the holy seal.” But Samuel couldn’t get what God was doing. Even with the close relationship, Samuel still picked the wrong son.

When I think about Samuel this way I’m both distraught and hopeful. If YHWH’s prophet karl-fredrickson-27507.jpgcannot recognize when God is doing a new thing, what chance is there for me? But on the flipside, Samuel was only a man trying his best to be in relationship with God. I know I can do that. I can pray, sing, read scripture, and serve others. I know I can try my best. I know I can be like those people we all look up to.

You can too.

The Head and the Heart – Iowa vs. TCU

Iowa plays TCU in the 2nd round of the NIT this Sunday, March 18th, at 4:00 pm. I will be in attendance with my father, brother, and friend. What colors I will be wearing is up for debate, here’s why:

I was born and raised in Des Moines in the midst of a Hawkeye family. None of my family members actually went the University of Iowa, so we were “those” fans. But we still cheered hard whenever the Iowa was on. Some of my most fond memories are huddling around our old 27″ tube TV, watching the grainy feed of ESPN+.

As I grew older, my love for the Hawkeyes didn’t change, it only deepened.  Luke Recker, Reggie Evans, Jeff Horner, Greg Brunner, Brody Boyd all populated my mind whenever Iowa Football.jpgwinter rolled around. I ended up applying to Iowa, but not going. I went the small (read: tiny) school route to play football (I was a kicker/punter), but even then I would go to Iowa football games when I didn’t travel for the away games.

Hell if there’s any question of my commitment to all things Hawkeye, I was repeatedly chastised by my fraternity brothers for watching the Lickliter years. I spurned parties in order to huddle into my small dorm room to get my gut punched in the race to 50 points.

I realized my wife had a thing for me when she would plop down beside me for two hours when I pledged my night to Iowa (granted it took a couple times for me to figure this out). My brother (who became an actual Iowa grad) and I can leave our petty differences aside when we watch games together. My Saturdays in Fall are still patterned by the football schedule.

All of this is to say my heart is squarely on the side of Iowa in this fight. Being a Hawkeye’s fan is integral to my social identity.

But I’m a bit of a double agent. On my Master’s diploma, it reads Texas Christian TCUUniversity. For four years I lived in Fort Worth, TX and went to seminary at Brite Divinity School on TCU’s campus. I walked the halls of TCU’s classrooms. I ate in the cafeteria. I played pick-up basketball in the Rec. I spent hours reading and writing in the library. I drank pitchers of beer at Dutch’s and ate wings at Buffalo Bros. I went to football and basketball games in the student section where I cheered “Riff Ram Bazoo, give ’em hell TCU!” and sang “Hail, all Hail, TCU…”

I was even employed by the athletic department as a tutor in Religion and History (all TCU students are required to take one history and one religion class.) I tutored people in the NFL (Josh Doctson & Treyvone Boykin initially come to mind) and the MLB (Brandon Finnegan), among all the scores of athletes who don’t play professionally. I had a vested interest in how TCU athletics did because it was my job to make sure they were academically eligible to play.

SIDE NOTE: I also know some of the ridiculous rules the NCAA puts on such tutors. Case in point, if a student didn’t have a pen or pencil, I couldn’t give one to the student. That’s a violation.

I proudly wear purple on Fridays now because that’s what you do for TCU. And so my head is undoubtedly in TCU’s camp. I went there. I bled there. I gave them money. I met my wife there. I got to know some of my now life-long friends there. TCU is the place where I came into my own as a person.

By all accounts, I should root for TCU on Sunday. It’s a no-brainer. There is no rational argument for Iowa, but I’m still torn. Iowa is integral to my identity, I can’t seem to let it go. Do I go with my heart or my head?

Well, the heart wants what the heart wants…

Lent Chooses Us

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3, NRSV)

Due to external forces and some bad decisions, I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. Concussions have sapped my gray brain matter of the right neuron connections and chemical secretions to allow that possibility. In fact, I honestly believe most of my “memories” of my childhood actually come from the photographs my mother diligently kept bound in albums.

But if we all go back far enough, the memories stop coming. For some like me, it’s later in life where we get snippets and for others, they can remember their toddler years. I haven’t found too many people who can remember what it was like to be a baby, though.  There’s something about our development into more mature humans which prevents our brains from recalling what it was like to be an infant or even in the womb.

We cannot remember making the decision to be born because we didn’t make it. We do not janko-ferlic-161104.jpgchoose to be born, it just happens to us.

That’s what stuck in my mind this week about what the author of John tells us Jesus said: we must be reborn in order to see what Jesus sees. Whether it is born from above, anew, or again (all valid translations of the greek word anothen), we must be reborn and move from one ending into a new beginning.

The problem is there have been some Christians who have turned this passing phrase of Jesus into a litmus test to sort out those who are in and those who are out, who has arrived and who hasn’t. Those who are “in” are those who are “born again.” This happened in puritan New England where in order to be a member of the church (and thus a citizen) you must prove you had a born again experience or conversion. The groups are set up between in and out, and of course those in power are always in the “in” group. Instead of seeing the rebirth in Christ as a beginning, it is turned into the end.

But to be born again allows us to see God’s realm. Our understandings of who is in and who is out are changed because our eyes see the world (kosmos) with Jesus’ eyes. Gail O’Day says that anothen is the beginning point, not the endpoint, of growth with God. andrew-ridley-89969.jpg

Lent is like that too because we didn’t choose for it to come, it just did. God calls us to this time or introspection and repentance so we might be prepared for the end. It is a time to be reborn. It is a time to begin again. It is a time to return to the Lord. It is a time to put one way of living away and take on God’s way. It is a time to begin again living as if God’s Kingdom really is here on earth.


Avoiding Shortcuts

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:8-9)

You’ve got to give the guy credit, the devil knew what he was doing. He knew his role to play. He wasn’t supposed to ask anything outlandish, nothing that wouldn’t be possible. He wasn’t going to ask for the moon or anything like that, he was just trying to make surecristina-gottardi-205771.jpg Jesus was who he thought he was. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter prefaced. He was only making sure Jesus understood his own role.

That’s why the last temptation is so great. While all three temptations play on the idea of power: the power to take care of oneself; the power to test God; and the power over the world, it’s the last one which is most intriguing to me, simply because the Tempter promises Jesus something he will receive if he follows God’s path: the world.

Jesus will receive the world, become its Lord and King if he lives out his life the way God wants it to be. The Tempter isn’t offering Jesus won’t already get, what he is offering is a short-cut. A short-cut around the difficult part to come. A short-cut around proclaiming the topsy-turvy kingdom of God which looks nothing like the kingdoms of the world. A short-cut around challenging the elite’s pre-conceived notions of who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to God’s love. A short-cut around the Last Supper. A short-cut around the shameful cross.

Basically, the devil challenges the mission of the Son of God. He is saying that the ends justify the means, that what we do doesn’t matter as long as the end result resembles what we were trying to do. Jesus is going to wield power over the world, what does it matter who he gets there?

But Jesus doesn’t give in. He doesn’t simply balk at the proposal, but categorically denies it. I think this is because Jesus knows God isn’t a utilitarian, God does care about the means we get things done.

samantha-sophia-195012.jpgThe challenge for us then is to not give in to the temptation to utilize shortcuts which would lead us around the valley of anxiety. Don’t give into the short-cut of seeing other people as a label instead as created in the image of God. Don’t give into the short-cut of valuing personal security over ever present mercy. Don’t give into the short-cut of working for comfort and ease over justice for all.

This Lent, don’t give in.


Listening to Jesus

While he [Peter] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5)

Peter has a propensity to talk. Within Matthew, the author portrays Peter as always having something to say. He’s claiming Jesus is the Messiah but also arguing with him when Jesus explains part of what that means. There’s Peter’s proclamation of wanting to pitch some tents on top of a mountain so they can hang out with Moses and Elijah. And of course tumblr_niq1cjSP9O1tkairwo1_1280.jpgthere’s the famous line of Peter quoting the ever famous Shaggy song, “wasn’t me” when questioned about his ties to Jesus. Whenever the author of Matthew has the “disciples” say something or question Jesus, I like to think Peter was leading the charge.

This isn’t to say Peter’s outgoing and talkative personality is a bad thing; I know plenty of wonderful people who sometimes talk a lot *cough* Pastor Dave *cough* But what gets Peter into trouble, and I would argue many other people, is this mandate which comes from on high: to listen. God tells Peter, James, and John to listen to Jesus.

That should be an easy task, right? I mean, who wouldn’t listen to Jesus, the Son of Man. Certainly, we who are on the other side of Easter have an easier time than Peter in our obedience to all the things Jesus said.

Maybe, though, we need this reminder right before Lent comes. Maybe we need to be reminded that we are actually supposed to listen to the things Jesus says: the beatitudes describing God’s kingdom as our world turned on its head (Matt. 5:3-11); the inclusion of “sinners” in community (Matt 9); extending the fruits of the Kingdom to include outsiders (Matt 15:21-39); that God’s glory is made known in suffering (Matt. 16:13-23); and even that followers must take up that same banner of self-sacrifice (Matt. 16:24-28).

Speaking Christian, saying the words of faith, is only done when we are able to stop and listen to Jesus. Before we can even begin to say anything to the world, we need to listen to the one we seek to follow and embody. Our Core Values at FCC: teamwork, kindness, 15896178_10155024496253606_2978272925589839564_o.jpgdependability, generosity, openness, grace, and spirituality all derive themselves from Christ. In order to live them out and have our actions match our words, we must listen to Jesus.

And if you need an excuse or a push to start? Well, God told you to.

Keeping Awake in an Age of Sleep-Walk

for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but keep awake and be sober. (1 Thess. 5:5-6)

The recent rhetoric surrounding the exclusion of refugees, the increased deportation of undocumented immigrants, and retreat of healthcare has sent my mind and soul into a tail-spin. There seem to be two competing reactions waging war on the battlefield of my life. Every day I feel the fight or flight impulse: either I want to stand up and fight every single injustice I see and hear, or retreat into the safe enclave of my mind and repeat the conciliatory prayers of “this too shall pass” and “come Lord Jesus.”

Too often I’ve huddled in a dank cave, safe and secure behind the wall of my privilege (I daniel-burka-98223.jpgcheck all the boxes: Male, White, Middle Class, Straight, Christian, Educated). I am able to move through the world protected from having to make a decision. I can glide along, running along the central beam of the teeter-totter of responses, trying to keep everything in balance so I won’t have to choose. It’s as if I close my eyes, convince myself I’m deep in the darkness of night and try to force myself asleep.

But I’m not to be a person still living in darkness, sleep-walking into the sin of inaction. I’m supposed to be awake! Paul calls me, us even, children of light. Enlightened by the Spirit, we know the ways of God which were made manifest in Jesus Christ. Preaching from the scroll of Isaiah, the author of Luke’s Gospel tells us how to interpret Jesus’ (and the Church’s) mission in the world: bring good news to the poor, declare sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor where all bets of how things used to be are off. While waiting for Jesus to return and complete the kingdom building work he began, we are to live in faith, love, and hope, hallmarks of that same marcus-dall-col-63805.jpgkingdom.

I need to keep awake to the suffering of others. I need to keep awake to the cries of pain and injustice. I need to keep awake to the wails of desperation. Not only do I need to keep awake, but I need to repent “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” (Matthew: 4:17)

May it be so this day.


Loving in Community

for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? (1 Cor. 3:3 NRSV)

When I was a child my brother and I fought A LOT. Only being three years apart will do that to any siblings, but we had the audacity of being two brothers who were not very much like each other. He was loud and gregarious, while I was quiet and reserved. If you’ve heard anything about the extrovert/introvert dichotomy, you’d be hard-pressed to find two better examples than my brother and me.

This difference would often blow up in jealousy and quarreling. I was, and often times still fc5ozeetuw-ming-jun-tan.jpgam, jealous of the way my brother is at ease with strangers. His ability to connect with people just met is ridiculous in the most awe-inspiring way. We would then proceed to fight when he would interrupt my “quiet time,” sometimes even ending in high-spirited “wrestling” matches.

But the spirit we were acting in was not the Spirit of God/Christ. Baptized though we were, we were not living into our roles as part of Christ’s body on earth, indwelled with the Spirit. We acted more like just a regular person in the world, and not like we were inheritors of the greatest gift of all.

Now was Paul talking about sibling rivalry? No. But he was speaking about rivalries within the Corinthian church centered around himself and another teacher, Apollos. He chastised the church because they were allowing their differences to cause fractions within their community. Instead of focusing on living out their faith, they devoted their time and energy into dividing themselves into camps pitted against one another.

Paul calls this a “human inclination” and it tends to bear out. We, humans that is, naturally divide ourselves up. I heard somewhere when three people are together, a group forms with two on the inside and one left out. We seek out those who look like us, think like us, talk like us, worship like us, love like us and revile those who have the boldness to differ from our “correct” way of thinking, believing, and living. Instead of marveling at the diversity of God’s creation, we see it as an aberration, something the be fixed. So we descend into jealousy of power and quarreling in difference.  Little better than the 6bso1pya4ze-tom-skarbek-wazynski.jpgCorinthians I’d say.

But Paul calls us to live into our baptism, to live as if the Spirit were manifest in each of us. We are to live as if the Spirit of Christ were guiding every move. That means we’re to actually live like we think, act, and love like Jesus did. Whether this is in the church, or even with your older brother, living in the Spirit means living like Jesus.

Maybe I should go apologize to my brother…