Lenten Greetings, Gayton Road—
This past month has been an eventful one, both in our nation and at our church. As our nation mourns yet another tragedy in our schools, it has also entered into an awkward and complicated conversation that it had largely avoided in the past. At our most recent Common Table, we welcomed church friend and Guatemalan pastor Carlos Lara to speak about his family’s experience of immigration. As Carlos so wonderfully puts it, that conversation is like a “hot potato”! It’s not easy. You have to keep passing the hot potato back and forth, sharing honestly as you search for the common good.
All of this has me thinking about the church and politics. One of the principles on which our nation was founded—at the insistence of our Baptist cousins—was the separation of church and state. Never would the church be married to the state, for that would compromise the freedom of religion.

But does that mean that politics has no place in the church? Not at all. When Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he’s not simply talking about what’s inside our heart. He’s talking about food for the hungry, care for the sick, welcome for the stranger, solidarity with the oppressed (cf. Matt 25:35-36).
In other words, he’s talking about how we live together. Which is what politics is about—how people live together. I will never publically espouse a party or political platform or presidential candidate. But I will always strive to seek first the kingdom of God. Which means I care about how people live together. Which means I care about politics. I wonder, in fact, if engaging in politics is not part of the church’s indispensable witness to
the world. For in much of our nation, genuine conversation is drowned out by loud voices that do not listen, by debates between foregone conclusions. Just think of what our nation could learn from the sacred disciplines of listening (Ja 1:19), humility (Matt 18:4; 1 Pet 5:5), looking first to the interest of others (Phil 2:4), love of the stranger (philoxenia; Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2), and making peace (Matt 5:9; 1 Pet 3:8).

Recently I “stumbled” upon a rather curious scriptural image: God as a rock. Of course, we’re not unfamiliar with that language. It’s one of the psalmist’s favorite metaphors: “The Lord is my rock…in whom I take refuge” (18:2); “He alone is my rock and my salvation” (62:2); and so on.
But we also find Jesus described as “a stumbling stone,” a figure who confuses and confounds our wisdom and power (cf. 1 Cor 1:23; 1 Pet 2:8).
Perhaps it’s a fitting Lenten reminder for us. God is the rock of our salvation, but also the rock upon which we stumble from time to time. Which is perhaps to say, we don’t have it all figured out, and sometimes what we discover may trip us up. That has certainly been my experience when I’ve entered into genuine conversation with others. But as much as those experiences can bruise my ego, I wouldn’t wish them away, because they have also brought me closer to God.
To close, I can find no better words than Paul’s to the Romans: let us “be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (1:12). Lenten blessings to you all, as we stumble along together on the Rock of our salvation.

February, 2018

Greetings, Gayton Road,
I share with you the hope of God’s new creation as we take another step into this new year. The year will bring with it surprise and challenge, if it has not already, but we trust in a God who is making all things new, whose patient and gentle grace can transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones. May it be so for us in our own lives and in our life together as a church.
Not only are we taking another step into the new year. In the church calendar, we prepare to take a step into a new season: Lent.
Many people think Lent is a time of self-denial. This is true, but only partially so. Lent is also an affirmation of life.
By the world’s standards, we are winning. Living amid the relative comfort and security of the world’s richest empire, we lack for little. We have gadgets for everything. We have snacks between our meals. We have the ability to summon our latest desires at the click of a button on the internet.

Yet how common it is to hear tales of the richest and most powerful among us sinking into deep unhappiness.
The abundance, it appears, does not translate to abundant life. Life is not won in winning.
Lent invites us into less familiar territory. It invites us to lose. To lose our comforts. To lose the many distractions and diversions that drown out the quiet song of God. To lose our way of life.
The lesson of Lent is the opposite of the lesson we have already learned so well. Life is not won in winning, but neither is it lost in losing. One of the dominant images of Lent is the wilderness. One way to think about Lent is to think about it as a “dry spell,” as though it is one of those periods when we must lose for a while in order that we might win again later.

But the Bible suggests a different story. Life is not lost in the wilderness, only to be won once we reach the promised land. The ancient Israelite prophets talk about the wilderness as a place of abundant life itself.

The wilderness is where God and Israel courted one another and fell in love.1 It is where renewal and restoration begin.2 It is a place of need and trust and new life.
Losing in Lent leads us more deeply into life. Not the life that we thought we lived, a life of things won and lost, achieved and relinquished. Lent leads us beyond things to discover the heart of life—which is to say, the divine thump-thump of love and trust and hope, justice and peace and forgiveness, wonder and gratitude and joy. It is this heartbeat that gives us life.
This Lenten season, some of us will walk in a ritualized wilderness, where we “lose” on purpose. Others of us may walk in a real wilderness, with unintended loss. In either case, let us walk together. And may we discover together the heartbeat of God that sustains us and gives us new life.

January 2018

Greetings in this new year, Gayton Road—

I hope your days this Christmas were marked with God’s good gifts: hope, peace, joy, and love—which are perhaps another way of saying an open future, a real togetherness, an uncontainable gratitude, and the embrace of God.

How quickly the Christmas season seems to pass. And awaiting us on the other side: January. The days are at their coldest and the nights are at their longest. For many of us, life is perhaps at its barest.

Some might say that January is rather bleak.

In the church, however, January ushers in the season of Epiphany, which means something like

“appearance.” If Advent is the season of God’s promise, and Christmas is the season of God’s arrival, then Epiphany is the season of God’s appearance. During Epiphany, we remember that God dwells in the world and could appear anywhere.

I’m grateful that Epiphany comes when it does. As Christmas trees go down and families part ways and routine returns, it’s easy to think the show’s over. But Epiphany proclaims otherwise. God appears in the ordinary world.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to see God in the ordinary world. I find Paul’s words helpful here. When he talks about God appearing, he uses words like “mystery,” “hidden,” and “rich variety” (Eph 3:1-12). These words suggest that God appears not only in what we know, but also and especially in what we do not know.

Paul knew the scripture of his day inside and out. He knew the religious traditions as well as anyone. But when Paul encountered the living God, he encountered a “mystery.” He stumbled upon a “rich variety” that complicated his single-minded faith. For Paul, the mystery and rich variety of God meant seeing God where he would have never thought to look: outside the Temple.

When life seems bare and I am surrounded by the humdrum of what I know all too well, I am tempted to think that the show’s over. But Epiphany declares defiantly that the show is never over. It’s just where I might least expect it—or even understand it! It’s in the mystery. It’s in what was hidden. It’s in the rich variety of life.

God is with us in this new year. But maybe not where we would expect. May we have the faith to see and celebrate God in the places we would never have thought to look.



P.S. I would like to share one place where I will be looking for God this year. It is a gathering that I have agreed to host from time to time called the Conversationalists.

The Conversationalists is a gathering of friends and strangers around shared questions and experiences.

(See https://www.instagram.com/the.conversationalists.rva/.)

It is not a religious gathering. I find that the name of God—or any unifying principle—often is the last word in a conversation. So I like to think of these conversations as taking place “after God.” In other words, we step into the space beyond that name (or any sacred name), to explore what’s really at the depths of our experience.

For me, the Conversationalists has been an excellent space to practice neglected disciplines of our faith, such as listening (Ja 1:19), humility (Matt 18:4; 1 Pet 5:5), looking first to the interest of others (Phil 2:4), love of stranger (philoxenia; Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2), and peacemaking (Matt 5:9; 1 Pet 3:8).

I also find that the Conversationalists helps to bring my faith down to earth. For me, the familiarity of the Christian lingo sometimes dulls my senses to it. I say certain words so often without thinking about them, that I forget what they mean. Talking about my experience in a non-religious setting challenges me to translate my faith, to find other words for familiar words like “sin” or “forgiveness” or “resurrection,” to think about what these words really mean in flesh-and-blood experience.

If you’d like to learn more about the group for yourself—or perhaps for a friend who is not ready for church but is seeking a place to explore questions of life and faith—I’d enjoy speaking with you.