Summer Greetings, Gayton Road—

It is officially camp season. Do you remember summer camp? The silly songs, the uncomfortable cots, the early mornings, the shared meals, the tearful goodbyes?

Last week I went to camp for the first time in years and was reminded of each of these timeless camp experiences. I served as a volunteer at Camp Rainbow Connection, a weeklong respite camp for individuals with intellectual disabilities hosted by the Virginia United Methodists at Richard Bland College in Petersburg. It was an incredible week. Because I struggle to find words that express all that I felt, what I learned, how I changed—I’d like to begin by sharing one story.

On the second night of the week, the campers all participate in a talent show. Most campers choose to sing or dance to a song. The camper with whom I had been paired, Jason, chose instead to do a magic trick with a deck of cards.1 On the afternoon before the talent show, he asked me to be his assistant. I gladly agreed and we began to practice his trick. I soon discovered, to my dismay, that there was no method to his trick. I would pick a card from the deck and reinsert it. Then he would blindly choose a card from the deck himself and trust that it would be the same one that I had picked. God would help him, he said.

My initial impulse was to suggest that maybe he choose a different act for a talent show. Wasn’t there a song he would like to share with the other campers? But it dawned on me that this suggestion said more about me than it did about Jason. I was the one who was feeling stage fright. I was the one worried about failure and embarrassment, because I was the one living by the principle that our abilities and our friends’ admiration are what make us worthy. Jason, on the other hand, had no stage fright. I can’t say for certain why, but I suspect it was because he knew that he was already blessed and beloved by God. He had nothing to prove: no accomplishment he needed in order to justify himself, no esteem he needed in order to earn his place. His incredible faith, in other words, was not simply that God would accomplish the card trick. His faith was that God would love him regardless and would provide for his needs come what may. His trust was not in God the great magician, but in God the loving, faithful companion.

(1 I have changed the name of my camper.)

Beginning this month, we will read through the gospel of Luke, paying special attention to the inward character of life. In other words, life is not something measurable by what is on the outside, size or strength or speed. It consists instead in what is invisible to the eye, like hope, joy, faith, and love. The first scripture that we read together yesterday is the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). There the devil invites Jesus to prove himself. The temptation that Jesus faces is the same temptation we all face. It’s the idea that the more I do, or the more others applaud me, the better I am. If I accomplish that project, or achieve that promotion; if I win that person’s affection, or earn my way into that club: then I will have proven myself. Churches, of course, face a similar temptation. If we have more members, or if we offer bigger, more attractive programs, then we will know ourselves and show ourselves to be worthy of our calling.

But like Jason at the talent show, Jesus does not fall for these temptations. The reason is the same. He knows that he is blessed and beloved by God (cf. Luke 3:22). He accepts himself as he is, with all his human limitations and dependence. He is not driven by a compulsive need to do more or to show more in order to prove himself. He already has it all, and from that “all” he lives abundantly.

For Jason, the stage was not a platform to prove himself or earn acceptance. It was an opportunity to share and celebrate what gave him joy and life. In the same way, Jesus sought not to prove himself or earn acceptance but to share and celebrate the good news that we already have God’s love just as we are.

At Camp Rainbow Connection, it was not only Jason who modeled faith for me. Many of the campers bore witness to a spirit of freedom. They lived unhampered by the quest for outward success and its accompanying measures of strength, size, and speed. I cannot help but think that this is because, like Jesus in the wilderness, they have accepted themselves as they are, knowing that they are loved. Perhaps this is the truth, and it has set them free.

Grace and peace to you all this July. Wherever we are enslaved by the compulsion to do more or show more, may we know the love of God as Jesus and Jason know it—and may we live freely, fully, and faithfully from that love, for it is our life.2

Yours, Jonathan

June Greetings, Gayton Road—

As we have read through the book of Acts this Easter season, one character more than any other has made an impression on me: the Holy Spirit. Many of us are familiar with the Holy Spirit’s grand introduction to the story in Acts. We’ll be celebrating that introduction next week on Pentecost Sunday. But as I’ve paid closer attention, I’ve discovered that nearly every story after Pentecost is also aflutter with the unforeseeable gusts of the Spirit.

Reading about the Spirit’s unexpected movements reminds me of a particular conversation pattern. Have you ever had a conversation where the final decision bears no resemblance to any of the ideas originally discussed? I remember countless family conversations about what to eat for dinner. One person would suggest pasta, another pizza, another pancakes (that would have been me—any excuse for maple syrup!), and the last meat and potatoes. Then there would follow a bit of conversation, in which one of us might observe how nice the weather was, and another might wonder about eating outside, so that eventually we made a decision that had originally not been on the table: we ended up grilling chicken and vegetables! We had gone into the conversation with four ideas, but ended up deciding on a fifth, unforeseen idea.

In the middle of Acts, a church council gathers in Jerusalem to discuss a deeply contested matter. The book of Acts does not sugarcoat this discussion. It acknowledges that it begins with “much debate” (15:7). There follows some silence and listening. Some folks, like Peter and Paul, are moved to share from their personal experience. And then James shares some scripture that clarifies their experience. In the end, there is consensus (cf. 15:22, 25). As far as I can tell, the final decision is not identical to any one proposal that was initially brought forward. Instead, it is a resolution no one has foreseen. But there is a reason for this. When the council explains their unanimous decision, they put it this way: “It…seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28). There she is again. The Holy Spirit.

Our world often thinks about conversation as a tournament of voices. Each person brings his own idea to the table, and one of those ideas will win (while the others will lose). But the early church models a wholly different approach to conversation. There are no winners or losers. Instead there is unity in the Holy Spirit. And more often than not, the Holy Spirit winds up moving in a direction unforeseen. (Not unlike the night my family ended up grilling out.)

On an unrelated note, I’d like to share with you a bit of personal news. I have been invited to write a book on Leviticus and Numbers for Smyth and Helwys’ Reading the Old Testament commentary series. After some prayerful pondering about how this project might pair with my responsibilities at church, I have decided to accept the invitation. I will approach the book much as I approached the class that I taught this past semester: as an opportunity to employ my free time toward a constructive spiritual purpose, one which might inspire and instruct me in the faith that I share with you. Already some of my colleagues have jokingly suggested that I make the most efficient use of my time and preach a sermon series on Leviticus. As crazy as the idea sounds, I haven’t rejected it just yet! Maybe beneath all the blood, guts, and fire of that strange, distant text, there lie lessons of faith that Protestants who have long dismissed ritual could stand to relearn. More on this to come!

Grace and peace to you all this Pentecost season. May the Holy Spirit be not only a past memory we celebrate, but also a lively and transformative character in our faith journey together.

In our conversations, our silences, and our listening, may the Spirit of God draw us in its wake. Yours,
Jonathan

May Greetings, Gayton Road—

A couple of months ago, my parents’ cat Sherlock had his world turned upside down. Before then, Sherlock had the rule of the house, as far as he was concerned. Everyone knew which cushion on the couch was his. Everyone knew which blanket he preferred for his afternoon naps. But when my brother and sister-in-law welcomed their twins into the world, they were no longer able to take care of their two kittens, Sydney and Geordie. Guess where the two kittens ended up? Sherlock no longer had the rule of the house.

Sydney and Geordie shook things up quite a bit, and for a couple of weeks Sherlock was less than pleased. But I’m happy to share that they are now closer companions that anyone ever would have imagined. Their rhythms of romp and repose are in close sync, and rarely are the three cats found in separate rooms. What originally threatened to ruin Sherlock’s life, eventually enriched it beyond his (or our) wildest dreams.

In the season of Lent, we read more than once about how Jesus shook up the synagogue. He regularly interrupted Sabbath proceedings to heal the hurting. He forgave people whom the religious leaders had condemned. The religious leaders saw this as a challenge. But we might wonder if Jesus meant it instead as a renewal. His disruptions were not for the sake of rebellion but rather for the sake of putting things in their proper order: prioritizing people over protocol, the cries of the needful over convention and custom. What the religious leaders saw as a threat to their way of life, was in fact meant to enrich life—both theirs and the needful’s.

Having shared enthusiastic conversation with many of you about Jesus’ “Sabbath example,” I am now inspired to follow it. Would you join me? In the coming summer, we plan to break with our religious routine once or twice: instead of meeting at church on Sunday for worship, we will gather with the needful in our community to share our worship with them. Already we are planning a Sunday gathering with the memory care unit at Symphony Manor (across the street) and another Sunday gathering with some of the homeless folks to whom Rhonda Sneed and her Blessing Warriors minister.

I’m hopeful that these Sunday sojourns will be a blessing for both those whom we visit and us ourselves. I take heart not only from the fact that we will be following Jesus’ Sabbath example, but also from the fact that sojourning is at the center of our faith experience. Abraham trusting God and leaving home; the Israelites wandering in the wilderness; the Son of Man traveling without a place to lay his head: each story reminds us that our home is not in a building or a familiar setting, but in God—who so often takes the face of a stranger.

Grace and peace to you amid the unending changes of our lives. May God sanctify these shake-ups; bless us with eyes to see in them the opportunity for renewal; and draw us ever out ourselves and into the kingdom.

Yours,
Jonathan

April Greetings, Gayton Road—

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the gospel of Mark alongside you this Lenten season. Each week I glean new meaning from the gospel as we share our reading experience together—as we ponder questions, confess doubts, express wonder, and discover our own stories tangled up in this story of good news.

One question that we’ve wrestled with repeatedly at our Friday Lenten coffees is, “Why does Jesus keep telling other characters to keep quiet instead of to spread the good news?” (Mark, after all, trumpets the good news at the very beginning of his gospel story. He wants the word to get out. Why doesn’t Jesus?) In our last few discussions, we’ve come to a possible answer by way of another question: what is the good news? In other words, is the good news simply the figure of Jesus? Is Jesus pointing a finger at himself? Or is it the kingdom of God? Is Jesus pointing to a better world, a better life?

Perhaps Jesus tells others to keep quiet because he knows all too well the human tendency to make an idol out of power. Perhaps he worries that people will miss the kingdom for the king.

Another observation we’ve shared at our coffees is how Mark more than once juxtaposes fear and faith as opposites. After Jesus calms the storm, he asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Later when a father hears that his daughter has died, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, only believe” (5:36).

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Lakewood Retirement Community for their Sunday Vespers service. I was running of a couple of minutes behind, so I walked briskly toward the front door.

As I approached its canopied entrance, I noticed a woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was eating a banana. What caught my attention was how slowly, how gently she was chewing. Unhurriedly. Contentedly. A soft smile rested on the corners of her lips. Strangely the rest of the world began to move in slow motion too. It was as though the woman was slowing the world down by her simple act of eating that banana. For that moment (I couldn’t say how long it was, although I imagine it was only a second), I forgot that I was running late.

The more I considered this seemingly trivial moment of my day, the more sacred it became. For Lakewood is in the midst of major renovation. Change is all around, as men and women in construction hats walk imperiously from one corner to the other. How oblivious this woman seemed. And I thought of the other changes that she has endured over the span of her life: from newspapers to television to the internet, from telephones and switchboards to cell phones and Skype, from a Short Pump filled with trees to a Short Pump filled with shopping centers.

After years of change and in the midst of even more change, there she sat, eating her banana as though it were a real gift, as though it were the only thing in the world that mattered. She ate not fearful of the change around her but full of faith in the source of that banana and all goodness.

I’m not proud to share that oftentimes I look the complete opposite, eating my food in a rushed manner as my mind plans impatiently, jumpy with uncertainty and hungry for control. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I hear Jesus ask. “Do not fear, only trust.”1

As we near Holy Week and Easter, I hang onto this trivial-turned-sacred moment, which I encountered at its intersection with the gospel of Mark. I offer it to you too. Amid the changes of our lives, may we not fear but trust in the source of all goodness. Even in loss, may we not fear but trust. Even at the sight of a cross, may we not fear but trust. May we eat our bread, may we drink from our cups, full of faith in the God who gives us life.

Yours, Jonathan

March 19

March Greetings, Gayton Road,

In less than a week, we will enter into the church season of Lent. It is a happy coincidence that Lent corresponds with the end of winter and the beginning of spring, because Lent itself is about renewal. But Lent also offers a helpful corrective to the popular conception of renewal. It reminds us that resurrection begins with death. In other words, renewal means change. It means that some things must come to an end in order for other things to begin.

This year, I would like to invite you to join me in a Lenten practice: reading through the gospel of Mark from front to finish. For followers of Christ, reading scripture has long been a practice of dying to one’s self. In the words of scripture, we encounter a Word that confronts us and invites us to change. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about this Word as an “alien righteousness,” which is his way of saying that we don’t have all it figured out. We are always in need of something from outside, something alien to ourselves. Reading scripture, then, decenters us. It displaces us from the center of our universe. It shifts the center of gravity from our ego to something outside us—something that we faithful call God.

Several years ago, I inherited a family treasure: my grandfather’s personal Bible. My grandfather was a preacher. I know that he was a very different pastor than I am. But I hold him in the highest regard, in wonder and awe, because I know he faithfully lived out his calling. Occasionally I flip through the pages of his Bible and I wonder about the passages he’s underlined and the incomplete thoughts he’s scribbled in the margins. I wonder what those notes meant for him. I wonder what his situation was and what he was responding to. I wonder what his experience might mean for me today.

Maybe you have wondered similar questions flipping through the journal of an ancestor or rereading an old letter from a dear friend.

What I would like to suggest, is that these questions are the same questions that might be helpful to ask when we approach scripture. Christ-followers sometimes have differences in the way they understand scripture and its authority, but nearly all are agreed that these God-inspired words are also human and historically contingent. They were written by people like you and me, in a variety of complicated situations like the ones you and I face. So this year as we read through Mark together—which is not unlike an ancient journal of the early Christ-following community—I will invite us to ask these same questions. In particular, I invite you to take a copy of the short, simple Lenten journals that are in the narthex. These Lenten journals designate the weekly readings and offer space to reflect on these questions.

Because reading the Bible this way may be a new practice of reading, I would like to model it in summary fashion here, using the primary scripture for this upcoming Sunday, Luke 9:28-43a.

The first question—what was the situation?—is one of historical context. What history might it be helpful to know, in order to understand better how the original audience would have interpreted these words? In the case of Luke 9:28-43a, it would likely be helpful to know more about the significance of the Jewish characters of Moses and Elijah, both of whom make an appearance. If we did a little of bit research, we would discover that both are prominent figures in Jewish tradition. Moses may represent the Torah (the first five books of Jewish scripture), and Elijah may represent the Prophets (another large collection of writings in the Jewish scripture). We would also discover that the references to a mountain and dazzling light and a cloud all echo the experience of Moses at Mount Sinai, as he begins to lead the Israelites in their exodus. We might also learn that the word “departure” in 9:31 is literally the word “exodus.” Interesting!

The second question—what might this story be responding to?—is a literary one. How might this story be a part of a larger biblical conversation? In our scripture, we would perhaps observe that the story begins with reference to some “sayings” that Jesus has recently pronounced. This seems to be a hint that those sayings have a bearing on the meaning of this story. What were those sayings? Jesus has just anticipated his death and proclaimed: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (9:23).

From the discoveries we have made so far, then, we might conclude (1) that this mountaintop experience of Jesus is being compared to the exodus, and (2) that the glory of God is inextricably related with the selfless love that is symbolized in the cross.

The third question—what does all this mean for me today?—is a spiritual one. What is the call that I hear in these words? What is the Word that God is speaking to me today? What I hear in this text is a challenge. Normally I treat mountaintop moments as times to be treasured. I tenderly separate them from other, more common experiences and place them on the figurative dresser of my life to be fondly remembered. But what I discover in today’s passage decenters me. The Word knocks my habits out of orbit. Here, glory is not held high, apart from life, but is inextricably linked with its darkest moments. Here, glory has something to do with exodus, deliverance, freedom.

What is the call I hear? Not to treasure the light idly, but to carry it courageously into the dark. To carry love into hate, hope into despair, blessing into a battleground of cursing. How else will deliverance happen?

Or to put it in the words of a famous Civil Rights anthem, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.”

As you read through Mark, you may appreciate the help of reading companions. For starters, there are a host of resources in our church library. I will also be placing a couple of short, accessible commentaries on the reading table. But I would also like to encourage anyone who can to join us for coffee or breakfast at Metro Diner (11525 W. Broad St.) on Friday mornings at 10 am. There we will share our own reflections on the weekly passage. There too, perhaps, we will encounter in the words of one another the “alien righteousness” which is our salvation.

Grace and peace to you all this Lenten season. As we walk the way of the cross together, may we welcome the death of that which was never really life, and may we welcome too the Life that comes from outside.

Yours, Jonathan