Words matter. And the last words we remember from loved ones matter in particular. In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, I’ve pondered about the importance that we often attach to the last words of our beloved ones, of the saints who have gone before. Sometimes the words are a cry for help, sometimes they are words of a deeply committed hope and faith, sometimes they are words of blessing upon the family or loved ones who are at the side of the dying person, sometimes they’re just random. In many cases, of course, we aren’t sure what the person’s final words were. But in all of the varied cases, one thing remains the same: for the survivors, the future is uncertain and sometimes downright scary. The new reality that will unfold in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is one that is largely unpredictable. How will I…how will we move on without him or her or them? The beast of death and of the uncertain future is so scary.

And it works for more than death too. To speak to other current events (ahem, Election Day)…what will I/we do if my/our ideal candidate is not elected? We’re so prone to be trapped in fear about what we hear might happen if the worst thing occurs and the beast on the other side of the political aisle gets elected? Or perhaps there is more than one beast on the ballot? The future is so uncertain. How do we move on when the beast will surely rise from the earth and claim us, one way or another (or both)?

Daniel has a vision, a dream of sorts, which though it has a nice resolution at the end is filled at first with monsters who evoke fear and terror and death on the rest of the world who would dare stand in their way. Daniel admits that he is deeply troubled by these four beasts and asks for an interpretation by one of the angelic attendants in the dream. And did you notice the angel’s response? It’s almost nonchalant. The angel in a matter-of-fact way just says those four beasts represent four kingdoms. The angel doesn’t put as much significance on that part of the vision as Daniel (or we) would wish, but moves rather swiftly to point out that the eternal kingdom belongs to the “holy ones” of the Ancient of Days, or as other translations put it, the “saints” of the Most High God! If you continue reading the rest of Daniel 7, you’ll notice that Daniel is not satisfied with the lack of specificity about the nature of the vision and what all is represented therein…particularly those beasts. You see, living with ambiguity and the temptation to fear is not a new predicament for God’s people.

The angel, and thereby God, is inviting Daniel, and thereby us, to take a longer view than to be merely caught up in the temporal realities and kingdoms and powers that will one day pass…and yes, Tuesday (Election Day), too, shall pass. We are invited to take a view that, rather, is one that has stood the test of time and remains throughout kingdoms and empires, across crusades and dark ages, through times of persecution and exile, and even survived the times of enjoying popularity which was probably the most threatening temptation to the preservation and deliverance of genuine faith. The communion of the saints. It’s a part of the Creed we confess…a creed that has been around longer than any of the political candidates up for election, a creed that is older than the United States, older than the British empire, than the Holy Roman Empire, older than the dark ages, older than when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, even older than when the Church established which books would be within the canon of the New Testament. “I believe in…the communion of saints… (or the communion of the holy ones)…” and this forever and ever “…life everlasting.”

The last words of our Creed, the last words of the angel to Daniel in our passage. Congruent with the last words of our movement’s founder, John Wesley, who on his death bed proclaimed several times: “The best of all is, God is with us.” That statement – “God IS with us” is not a statement bound by a particular time period but is an eternal statement that stands the test of time…God was, God is, God will be – or as God revealed God’s self to Moses, “I am.” That is the one to whom the saints ultimately give their allegiance – not to the beasts that emerge from the earth, not to the kingdoms that come and go, not to the political parties or any temporal reality – but to the One who sits on the Throne, who has conquered the realm that ruled over all the kingdoms of the earth. For you know what the beasts all have in common? They all died: the reign of death. And this One, the one who appeared “like a human being” or “a Son of Man” established at the funeral of one of his best friends that, “those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

stole-from-papaw-ties

Last words. My wife, Carrie, made this stole (see above) for me. The symbols of eternity and the Trinity that are intertwined are made from the materials of some of my Papaw’s neckties. When I think of the communion of saints, he is one of the first ones who come to mind. The reality is that I don’t know what my Papaw’s last words were. I don’t know what he uttered as he died, if anything, for he was alone building a fence around some hay bales for his cattle. But even though his last words are unknown, he actually left a message loud and clear for his loved ones in positioning himself the way he did when he died. Granny found him lying in the field, his glasses in his shirt pocket, his right hand holding a hammer, his left hand holding a fence post. He died sending a message that said: “Until the eternal kingdom comes in fullness when God wipes away all tears and death and crying and pain will be no more…until that day, I will not stop working.” No temporal reality, no setback, no fear, no temptation would hold him back from his task. Papaw’s favorite hymn was one called ‘Yield not to Temptation,’ #191 in the All-American Hymnal that resides in the pews at Oscar UMC. Almost every time there was a hymn sing and my dad (the song leader) opened the floor for requests for congregational hymns, Papaw would holler out, “Number 191!” The final verse is so fitting for Daniel 7. Yield not to temptation…yield not to fear of the beasts…death will not have the final say…

To them that o’ercometh, God giveth a crown,
Through faith we will conquer, though often cast down;
He who is our Savior, our strength will renew;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.

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So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.”

“I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”

We know these passages well, and others like them, about “running the race.” That in many ways the journey of discipleship in which we follow Jesus the Christ is a race that stretches us, grows us, challenges us, shows our weaknesses or proneness to fatigue, but ultimately perfects us (in love) as we persevere in the race.

I’ve added the daily spiritual discipline suggested by the folks at Rethink Church this Advent in the photo-a-day challenge. Today’s word, “steadfast/steady” kept running (no pun intended) through my mind as I went for a walk/jog this morning in the gym at nearby Camden First UMC.

When I go for a walk/jog/run and listen to music, I often get caught up in the flow of the lyrics or the beat of the music. At the onset of a particularly upbeat song, I have found myself all of a sudden picking up the pace, beating drums in the air (yeah, I’m sure I’m the laughing stock of the other walkers who use the facilities at Camden First UMC), kind of losing myself in the flow of things only to find several laps later that I’m winded and the unsteadiness of the changed pace takes its toll. This is particularly challenging to a person with asthma. Going through some change of rhythm is necessary in preparing for longer distance runs/jogs, but it takes training, and the body has to adapt to the change in physical tolerance. It can’t be done (well) through random erratic or spasmodic bursts. Again, it takes training.
…………

I began reflecting on the pace to Bethlehem in Advent and my mind went to pictures like this one:

steady advent

In our typical lives where we find ourselves rushed and hurried in so many ways, we often forget that Jesus saved the world at a pace of 3 miles an hour. In several emergency situations, Jesus is depicted as deliberative, yes, and perhaps urgent but not rushed. For instance, consider the episode(s) of Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter who was on the brink of death and the woman with an issue of blood for 12 years. At the pleading of Jairus, Jesus followed behind him to help Jairus’ daughter but allowed himself to be interrupted by the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak that she might be healed. In his healing mission, Jesus was steadily deliberative.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall bring justice for the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. – Isaiah 35:1-4

“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…” Steady. Dependable. Faithful. Ongoing. I like what John Goldingay said about this notion of the steadiness of Jesus’ pace:

The supernatural presence of God’s gifting might not have to be tumultuous and spasmodic. It could be steady and continuous. It is such a gifting that the community needs from its Davidic branch, as it does of any king.

If Jesus in his mission went at a pace of 3 mph, the preparation for his arrival came even slower on the back of a lowly donkey, as legend has it. The road of Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem was a long journey that required steady pacing.
…………

And Advent is about that. On one level it’s about “slowing down” and not getting caught up in the “hustle and bustle” of the commercialism that often sweeps us away this time of year. But casting out the demon of rampant consumerism is not Christian discipleship in itself. Advent also, it seems to me, ought to be about inviting the abiding Spirit of God to steady us in the world, seeking God’s “wisdom and understanding,” “counsel and might,” and the “knowledge and worship” of the Lord. To join in Christ’s mission of bringing good news and “justice to the poor.” Advent is about steady preparation and pacing in growing as Jesus’ disciples and continuing this mission as we celebrate his first arrival and await Christ’s return.

Some would advise that what the world and the various communities within it need in the meantime is a sudden burst of energy or enthusiasm in what has been experienced beforehand as revivalism. And while in some ways that may be what is needed in part, if it is not accompanied with the steady, abiding dependence on the presence of God’s Spirit in the mundane, ongoing day-to-day living and work of the Church, then we will have invested our energies on something fleeting and we’ll find ourselves too winded to carry on. Because the length of the race we’re set to run requires steadiness. Let us pace ourselves that we might finish the race.

Come, thou long expected Jesus!

…Monday morning I opened my Bible to read the Gospel lesson (Luke 9.51-62) for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, and I was reminded once again that Jesus is unpredictable. As we encounter Jesus in the Gospels we find a person who is difficult to put our finger on. Just when we think we’ve got him figured out, the page is turned and a new level of grace is revealed that causes us to consider that while this grace is free, it is also costly. We find out soon enough that the grace we sing about that is so amazing as to “save a wretch like me,” to make me who was lost to be found, to make me who was blind to see, is also the grace that, if we want to truly know and experience it fully, demands us to part ways with seemingly everything we hold dear in our lives.

For James and John, it was their triumphalism. They thought now that they knew Jesus was the Messiah, he’d be doing the sort of radical things they knew about in their Bible. They thought he’d be like the Elijah of old who had called down fire upon his enemies. So, not altogether unlike the demons’ plea for Jesus to permit them to enter the swine from last week’s passage in Luke 8, James and John beg for Jesus’ permission to call down fiery judgment on those who oppose them or are  non-hospitable to them on their journey to Jerusalem. Yet Luke says Jesus rebuked that attitude, as though he were casting out the demon of their judgmental-ism…

It was sometime around the ninth century that a hymn for the Holy Spirit was believed to be written by Rhabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz. With today being Pentecost, the day we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in Acts 2, I wanted to share the lyrics of the hymn with you. The English translation below is taken from Raniero Cantalamessa, an Italian Catholic priest who has served as the preacher to the Papal Household since 1980. Cantalamessa shared this translation in his excellent book of meditations upon the hymn in Come, Creator Spirit.

Come, Creator Spirit,
visit the minds of those who are yours;
fill with heavenly grace
the hearts that you have made.

You who are named the Paraclete,
gift of God most high,
living fountain, fire, love
and anointing for the soul.

You are sevenfold in your gifts,
you are finger of God’s right hand,
you, the Father’s solemn promise
putting words upon our lips.

Kindle a light in our senses,
pour love into our hearts,
infirmities of this body of ours
overcoming with strength secure.

The enemy drive from us away,
peace then give without delay;
with you as guide to lead the way
we avoid all cause of harm.

Grant we may know the Father through you,
and come to know the Son as well,
and may we always cling in faith
to you, the Spirit of them both.

Amen.

Happy Pentecost, sisters and brothers!

Photo credit: Deacon Greg Candra on patheos.com

Photo credit: Deacon Greg Candra on patheos.com

Latin lyrics of the hymn:

Veni Creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paracletus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,
fons vivus, ignis, caritas
et spiritalis unctio.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae Dei tu digitus,
tu rite promissum Patris
sermone ditans guttura.

Accende lumen sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus,
infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus,
ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne noxium.

Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus atque Filium,
te utriusque Spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Amen.

“Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

Ascension of Christ - GBOD

The Ascension of Christ. Late 6th century illuminated manuscript (c. 586). Public Domain. via GBOD of the UMC

Talk about a cliffhanger! “This Jesus…will come…” Some TV shows do a good job of leaving you on the edge of your seat at the ending of a season finale. One of mine & Carrie’s favorites is ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ in which the character Barney is notorious for saying, “It’s gonna be LEGEN… wait for it… DARY!” In fact, they ended one season just as Barney said, “…wait for it…” The purpose of the “…wait for it…” or the “…to be continued…” is, of course, to hopefully increase ratings, but in terms of the story, it’s to pique your interest and heighten your sense of expectation of what is still to come.

Today is the Feast Day of the Ascension (for we who are in the Western Roman Catholic/Protestant traditions of the Church), in which we remember that, as the Creed says, “…he [Jesus] ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” In terms of the holy days remembered throughout the Church year, Ascension Day is for many Protestants among the lowest on the totem pole, if it’s even present at all. But Christ’s ascension is a vital part of the story of God’s redeeming us and the world. Christ’s bodily departure prepares the way for the Holy Spirit to fill Jesus’ followers, empowering them to be the heralds of this new king whose heavenly reign is breaking in on earth.

And in this, for those of us who wish to be aligned with Jesus the Christ, we are beckoned to bear witness to God’s coming kingdom, that we are still waiting for in its ultimate fulfillment. For now, the remnants of darkness and death still plague the creation, but the rays of light and new life have shown through and we have a confident hope that the good work that has begun will be brought to completion.

So as we herald this news of greater things still to come, we face the (often) gut-wrenching task to “…wait for it…”; to, in patience, work for the kingdom until Jesus comes in final victory. Happy Ascension Day!

“Everliving God, your eternal Christ once dwelt on earth, confined by time and space. Give us faith to discern in every time and place the presence among us of the One who is head over all things and fills all, even Jesus Christ our ascended Lord. Amen.” (from UM Hymnal, #323)

Last year saw perhaps the most poetic placement of Palm Sunday: it fell on April Fools’ Day. Remember? I remember it because it was the one opportunity I was given to preach on a Sunday morning at Nicholasville UMC in Kentucky. But even more so, I remember because of the irony of celebrating the fool in all of us on a day when the people in Jerusalem fell for the right person but had the wrong expectations of him. Or, as my friend Phil Tallon said it, “Today we celebrate Jesus saying April Fools to Israel’s militaristic messianic conceptions.”

Those are the thoughts that dwelt on my mind this morning as I stepped outside to burn the palm fronds used in last year’s Palm Sunday festivities at Liberty & Post Oak that were graciously handed down to me from my predecessor, Joey Reed.

Last year's palms = this year's ashes

Last year’s palms = this year’s ashes

Until last year, I wasn’t aware of the longstanding tradition of burning the previous year’s palm leaves to be imposed during the Ash Wednesday service of the following year. But when I discovered it, and found out I was being sent to Liberty & Post Oak, asking for these was one of the first things I did in my correspondence with Joey prior to moving here. Nicholasville had a practice where they had burnt sheets of paper from the previous year in a ceremony where the congregation was invited to write down their struggles, pains, sins, and so on, and nail them to the cross on Good Friday. There are a few good ways that can convey significant meaning for the community that practices these ceremonies and services.

I wanted this one, at least for this year, because of Palm Sunday’s alignment with April Fools’ Day last year. Each year on that day we cry aloud, “Hosanna in the highest!” But as the rest of that week unfolds, we discover anew that Jesus saves us in the highest only because he descended to the lowest…and that went even deeper than riding a donkey, which the crowds thought was humbling enough for a conquering deliverer. But like us, Jesus too went to the dust and tasted death with us. “…and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” as St. Paul would later write.

Many of my friends are aware that I am a fan of the musical band Mumford & Sons. They released an album in 2012 called ‘Babel,’ which won the Album of the Year on the Grammy Awards. Upon my first couple of times listening through the album, I was drawn toward the song ‘Lovers’ Eyes,’ unsure of what story or concepts were behind his writing of the lyrics. But after listening and reading through the lyrics a few times, he is telling a powerful story reflecting on the past and even expresses a repentant spirit when he writes, “Should you shake my ash to the wind, Lord forget all of my sins; well, let me die where I lie.” Those lyrics have played over and over in my mind as I’ve prepared for this Ash Wednesday, dwelling upon the themes of forgiveness, repentance, self-denial, and death, which will continue to play all throughout this Lenten season.

Lord, forget and forgive all of my sins, including those of false presumptions thinking I knew better than you how you should save the world (and me). I will “Remember that [I am] dust and to dust [I] shall return.”

Two years ago during a brief research visit to Manchester, England, I was introduced to a litany for Epiphany that tugged at the strings of my heart & mind. It was shared by Dr. Peter Rae of Nazarene Theological College at the morning chapel. I am going to share the litany with you, but I also wanted to share some thoughts from Dr. Rae that morning that have come to mind on the occasions when the word “epiphany” has made its way into conversations and reading materials I’ve come across in the time since that morning. Of course, this day (January 6) is the Day of Epiphany. For the Churches in the western tradition (Roman Catholic and Protestant), Epiphany is the celebration in which we recall the visit of the Magi (or wise men) to the child Jesus. For most Christians in the eastern tradition, however, Epiphany is associated with the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan River, which will draw the attention of many next Sunday in the first Sunday after Epiphany. And it was this account that Dr. Rae focused upon in his thoughts at chapel that morning.
Francesco Albani's painting of the Baptism of Christ. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Francesco Albani’s painting of the Baptism of Christ. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Dr. Rae pointed out that for many Christians in evangelical circles, “Epiphany” would show up in the working vocabulary of very few of them. His own first encounter with the term was not in church but in a literature class when a story was told of a man who came to a realization (“epiphany”) of his own identity and significance. Epiphany was that “aha!” or light bulb moment that altered the way that he viewed his place in the world. Epiphany for John the Baptist, on the other hand, was not a realization of his own identity and significance so much as it was the awareness of the significance and identity of Another. “I should be baptized by you…” he tells Jesus. And “I am not worthy to untie [Jesus’] sandals…” still more, “[Jesus] must increase, I must decrease.” These are the words of the one who has had a true Epiphany…an Epiphany of Our Lord, as the day is called. With that, I share with you the litany from that morning. (Since the time of first hearing this, I discovered it was published in a book called “The Wideness of God’s Mercy,” which you can find out more about here.)
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God, Alleluia!
Shout to the Lord, all the earth, Alleluia!
With joy let us pray to our Savior,
the Son of God who became one of us, saying:
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, let your gospel shine in every place
where the Word of life is not yet received.
Draw the whole creation to yourself
that your salvation may be known through all the earth.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Savior and Lord,
extend your church to every place.
Make it a place of welcome for people of every race and tongue.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Ruler of rulers,
direct the work and thoughts of the leaders of nations
that they may seek justice,
and further peace and freedom for all.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Master of all,
support of the weak and comfort of the afflicted,
strengthen the tempted and raise the fallen.
Watch over the lonely and those in danger.
Give hope to the despairing
and sustain the faith of the persecuted.
The grace of God be with us all. Amen.
O Christ, light that made manifest as the true light of God,
gladden our hearts on the joyful morning of your glory;
call us by our name on the great Day of your coming;
and give us grace to offer,
with all the hosts of heaven,
unending praise to God
in whom all things find their ending,
now and forever. Amen.