I was a nervous wreck, still a mostly impressionable 22-year-old young man, recently married in the summer of 2003 as I ventured from one side of North Lexington Avenue in Wilmore, Kentucky, to the other. In the opening chapel service of my orientation weekend at Asbury Seminary, Maxie Dunnam, the president of the seminary at the time, addressed the incoming graduate students and began with these words:

 If you don’t remember anything else during your time here in seminary, I want you to remember these two things for the rest of your life: number one – There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill; number two – There is something that you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Well I’ve forgotten a few things I’m sure and with the help of notes and textbooks I’ve remembered other things, but those two statements have kept coming back over and over. As I look back, however, I have come to realize that he was only reiterating something that I had already known and been taught ever since I’d sensed the call to ministry that would take me to the pastorate. They were instilled in me by my loved ones, but especially my Papaw & Granny.

 

Five and a half years prior, right around my 17th birthday, about half the age I am now, I had broken the news to my family that I had sensed the call of God upon my life into ministry and that I intended to follow that call. I shared this over dinner (where I grew up, that’s the big meal in the middle of the day that others call ‘lunch’) that was our custom on every Sunday after church at Papaw & Granny’s house, just a few hundred feet from our church in Oscar, Kentucky.

 

Papaw's Letter

 

Later that week I received a hand-written letter from Papaw (left) in response to the news I shared. He vowed his unconditional support and from Granny as well as I pursued my calling. There were several things in that letter that were quite prophetic but one thing he said curiously yet subtly foreshadowed the second point of that inaugural message to my seminary career. Papaw wrote:

Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you in life – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.

Papaw’s life and teaching exemplified to the nth degree the value of a life of humility and acknowledging that life’s fulfillment is found in depending on the Lord to live into God’s purpose for our lives and to make it through the most difficult of times. There have been plenty of setbacks, several disappointments, and a multitude of temptations, many to which I have fallen prey. But every victory, lesson, and new beginning have been because of the help, saving help, of God’s Spirit. I’ve held onto that letter Papaw wrote. It was the last one he addressed to me. He died six months later.

Granny and Me

 

And then there’s Granny (right), who I’ve known my whole life to be filled with infectious joy that manifested itself in her seemingly incessant singing. That’s a trait that has found its way into my ministry as those who are burdened with the task of listening to my preaching can attest when all of a sudden I break into song. I shared this with her on my last visit to see her before she died earlier this year. In recent years, the smile became rarer and rarer, but one adorned her face that day. That’s how I’ll remember her!

 

But there was something she always wrote in my birthday card every year that stood out to me when I recall the first point of that opening chapel. She would sign every card written to me with this phrase:

There is a special place in my heart just for you.

With each child, and son- or daughter-in-law, with each grandchild, and expansion of the family with more weddings, and with every great-grandchild that arrived in our family, we saw Granny’s heart grow. And so, I believe, it is with God. With every new creation, with each bundle of joy, with every masterpiece, we see another chamber of the heart of God. In this small, yet significant, way Granny gave me a picture of the loving God who prepares a place for each of us.

 

In a few weeks when I am ordained as an elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church, I will kneel down and have hands laid upon me as a closing, of sorts, to the chapter upon which Papaw and Granny helped me embark and through which they prayed me. But it will be a new beginning as well as I start a new journey in ministry as lead pastor of Ellendale UMC in Bartlett, Tennesse, just outside of Memphis. The ordination will be enjoined with celebration not unlike how I began this journey at half my current age when eating a meal at Papaw and Granny’s table surrounded by loved ones who always encouraged one another in our love for God and our neighbors. At the service, there will be beautiful singing and I will long to hear the angelic voice of my Granny belting out louder than the rest of the congregation. There will be praying that I may humbly take up this yoke and I will long to see the face of my Papaw who quietly but dependably taught me about the importance of humility. But though I won’t get to hear her voice or see his face, I’ll experience the truth and beauty of all they embodied in the faithful community that seeks to follow the Lord of us all. After all, they’re now a part of that great cloud of witnesses who urges us on in our pursuit of the One who authored and perfected this faith that unites us in our acknowledgement that:

  1. There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill;
  2. There is something you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s grace enough to carry us the rest of the way.

Is it worth listening to someone who has no experience in the subject matter about which they’re talking?

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon about the healthy upbringing of children and shared a few directions that John Wesley had to say about the education of children in a sermon he wrote in his later years. The question above entered my mind as I prepared the sermon and some have pressed me on the matter as well given that John Wesley never had children of his own. In addition, his well-documented failure of a love life add fuel to the desire to simply ignore much, if not all, of what he had to say about family life.

Given the facts of Wesley’s lack of (fruitful) experiences in these areas of life, it’s likely wise to at least take what he had to say with a grain…or a pillar…of salt, but somewhere amidst the bathwater there might be a baby worth redeeming. John Wesley, while admittedly having abysmal family experiences in his adulthood, was raised by a remarkable mother in Susannah Wesley, who also raised his younger brother Charles. By all appearances, Charles had a rather healthy marriage, rarely traveled away from home after getting married, and did have children of his own, unlike John. The reality, it seems to me, is that John’s “family” as an adult was the Methodist movement itself. He valued the nurture of Methodists at home and abroad more than anything. Why else would he continue to travel to see them even in into his upper 80s?  This is not to excuse the hot mess John contributed to his failed marriage at home, but to acknowledge the reality of where his heart, mind, and hands were fixed.

So while his advice on the education/raising of children is certainly not perfect nor does it come from years of proven success, perhaps there are some bits of wisdom from John that are quite valuable and can be implemented in the home and in the church as we find ways to share God’s grace with children.

Here are some of the best suggestions from John that I thought worth sharing:

  • “From the first dawn of [a child’s] reason continually inculcate, God is in this and every place. God made you, and me, and the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and everything. And everything is his; heaven, and earth, and all that is therein.”
  • “With regard to the management of your children, steadily keep the reins in your own hands.” (He said this in the context of telling parents to not let the grandparents of the children manage the children, which I think he probably overstated. That said, it is vital to take ownership in your child’s development and not leave the task for someone else to do.
  • “From their very infancy sow the seeds of justice in their hearts, and train them up in the exactest practice of it.”
  • “In the morning, in the evening, and all the day beside, press upon all your children, ‘to walk in love, as Christ also loved us, and gave himself for us;’ to mind that one point, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him’.”

Some of the other things John said in his sermons on the raising of children sound quite harsh or outdated to the modern ear and mind. To hear a couple of examples (and to hear what else I said on the matter of nurturing children), you can view one of the services at Jackson FUMC.

First Awakening service (sermon starts about 40 minutes in):

Traditional Worship service (sermon starts about 33 minutes in):

On the whole, it is worth considering that John Wesley’s aim was to spread the emphasis of sanctifying grace throughout his lifetime. I believe that when taken in this context, we have some valuable lessons to learn from the founder of our movement because these suggestions lend themselves to the following of the great commandments: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul, might” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And in the nurture of children, we adults (parents, teachers, mentors, all people in the church) have a role to play in this. As Wesley reminded us: “Let it be carefully remembered all this time, that God, not man, is the physician of souls…that ‘it is God who worketh in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ But it is generally God’s pleasure to work by his creatures; to help man by man. God honors [humans] to be, in this sense, ‘workers together with him’.”

Let us join in that great work!

“For congregational health and mission, the ‘family’ metaphor is a double-edged sword.” This thought was raised a few months ago at an event for emerging leaders in the Memphis & Tennessee Conferences in Dickson, Tennessee sponsored by the Turner Center. Why a “double-edged sword”? What could possibly be the downside in using the metaphor of ‘family’ when a church describes itself? After all, it can be a very uniting message if a congregation has recently been rent asunder by a scandal. It can be an image of healing for a church that has been devastated by a natural disaster. You practice, preach and sing ‘We Are Family’ in moments like this as a way of reestablishing trust and rebuilding toward a brighter future.

Even in moments of stable or exponential growth, churches can use familial language to welcome newcomers, outcasts, those rejected by others. But the other side, one of the potential downsides, is often delivered unintentionally (and unfortunately, sometimes intentionally). As it turns out, many times churches who use the ‘family’ metaphor end up envisioning a family more like Jack Byrnes’ ‘circle of trust’ in Meet the Parents than one that opens itself to embrace the stranger. Ever known or been part of a church that looks a little like this? (Disclaimer: Ben Stiller’s character is named Greg Focker, which is what DeNiro’s character says midway through this clip…)

Trying to become a member of such a ‘family’ is next to impossible. And even if you pay your dues (or tithes in our case), offer your services and bend over backwards, the ‘inner circle’ may never let you in. This is how the ‘family’ metaphor can end up causing a church to implode or at the very least slowly erode away into irrelevance.

So the growing edge for a church that wants to keep the family image is to continually and honestly ask, “Is our ‘family’ language and image enhancing or inhibiting our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ?” And it was this question that filled my preparation for preaching at Post Oak UMC’s homecoming a couple of weeks ago, because ‘family’ is a metaphor that I’ve heard used at Post Oak frequently and I’ve seen it used quite well here. Below are a few of the highlights from that message. The texts I chose for that Sunday were Genesis 1.26-28 & Matthew 28:18-20.

Genesis 1:26-28: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Reflecting back over the course of the past year and my experience in this church has led me to conclude that my initial intuition about the character of this Post Oak community has been confirmed. That is that this church is in many ways a family. I saw it the day we moved in when there was a crowd gathered to help us unload the truck and get settled in. I heard it just a couple of weeks ago when I met with the visioning team someone made the observation about the closeness of the people in this church that reminded that person of a family unlike other churches they had been at prior to moving here. I witnessed it as over 40 from the church went out to Eva Beach last Sunday to take part and celebrate the baptisms of three of our youth. Even though it was a holiday weekend, they took time to support and welcome them outside “normal church hours.” These are things that family members do for one another.

The gift of family can bring with it some moments of tremendous joy and humor. Cherishing those memories and enjoying those times of fellowship are important parts of being in God’s family. But there’s something else that’s true about healthy families, and that is often measured by how the members of a family respond and relate to one another when the times get tough. When disaster strikes, when a financial hardship comes one’s way, when we lose a loved one, how do we respond? Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That is, despite whatever differences may exist (and there certainly come times when there are differences among family members, right?), if you can at least learn to love one another and unite to serve then you will make the world of difference.

I’ve been reading the History of Post Oak Church over the last few weeks and have been truly inspired by the rich history that resides here. Did you know that in the roughly 180 year history of this church, there were at least two times when something occurred to damage the building and the people had to work together to rebuild? In 1912, there was a fire that destroyed the building one night after a revival service. Maybe the preacher said something someone didn’t like or something; I don’t know. Then there was a violent storm only 25 years later in 1937 that brought irreparable damage to the new building. At the end of both disasters, the history says this: “The members of the church began to construct another building donating their time, labor, and materials.” The one built after the 1937 incident was completed in 1938 and is the one we’re sitting in this very morning. A dedicated family will come together: when enemies attack, when the creation seems to wreak its own havoc, when a building collapses, when death makes its unwelcome visits.

But this week as I was preparing to talk about this notion of ‘family’ I thought I would try to think biblically about the purpose of the family. And that is what led me to these two passages this morning, because in these two passages we have two different sorts of families. And the similarities between these two passages begin to unfold as we take a deeper look at them.

In Genesis, humans are given authority or dominion over the earth.
In Matthew, Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth are his.
In Genesis, in light of this authority and the grace given to humans as being made in God’s image we find the first commandment in the whole Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply…and fill the earth…” (The first commandment is not a “Thou shalt not…” but a positive one.)
In Matthew, in light of Jesus’ authority, he gives authority to the disciples a new commandment and commission: “Go, and make disciples…of all nations…”

My pastor back in Nicholasville helped me see this connection: when we compare how God created the world in Genesis with how God saved the world through the resurrection of Jesus, we will see that being a part of God’s family means that we are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. God tells the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply…and fill the earth!” Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples…of all nations…”

In other words for both biological and spiritual families, for our first parents as well as the disciples, we see that the commission is one and the same: “Go and make some more…” God gathers us and commissions the family of God to go and make some more.

(Again, be careful not to take this too far. We’re not called just to make more who outwardly ‘look like us’ or are ‘kin.’ Remember that we have been adopted into God’s family, a family who welcomes ‘people of all ages, nations, and races.’ But the point is if we are wholehearted followers of Jesus, then Jesus wants that replicated: “Go and make some more like yourselves!” Or as Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”)

If you think about it, this commission even rings true for other beings in creation as well, doesn’t it? Part of our church’s name bears that of a tree: an oak tree. Now, I suppose that the image of the tree may evoke in our minds the stability of a deep-rooted tree, and we may think of psalms and hymns like ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’: “Just like a tree that’s planted by the waters, Lord, I shall not be moved…” That image does give us a good picture of faithfulness and remaining true to our roots. But there’s something dangerous about just holding onto that side of the image of a tree if we ignore a tree’s purpose, which is the same as that of a family. If it doesn’t bear fruit, if it doesn’t re-produce what God produces, then that tree (be it an oak tree or a family tree) will stop right there and will gradually weaken and erode away.

We are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. (Photo credit: forestry.about.com)

We are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. (Photo credit: forestry.about.com)

On several occasions, Jesus had little patience for a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit because he saw how God’s people had become like those fruitless fig trees. To bear fruit, however, means we mature and live into Jesus’ commission to “Go and make some more.”

This morning I look out and see many people who are here to remember and to honor those who are our roots, whose lives have gone before us proclaiming the faithfulness of God. The monuments surrounding this building indicate the lives of those who were sure to bear fruit by re-producing the seeds of wisdom and faith that had been passed to them. They were intentional to grow their biological & spiritual families so that we could carry on that legacy that began long before them.

So our strength, brothers and sisters, will be twofold, so long as we follow their legacy: to remember and remain connected to our roots, that is to recognize that we are continuing a larger story than ourselves, a story of God’s loving faithfulness; but the second part is crucial for anything to remain alive and thrive. We must be fruitful and multiply; let us “Go and make some more.”

I am picking up here where I left off in the “Infant Baptism and the Bible” series. For the first part, see this. Or for more, just click on the “baptism” tag on the right hand side of the page.

When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)

Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.

When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.

When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.

There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).

For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”

"All ages, nations, and races..." (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

“…people of all ages, nations, and races…” (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂

Although it often invites moments of being teased, one of my favorite things to do with family around Christmas is looking through old family photo albums to recall the precious, though sometimes embarrassing, memories from my childhood. When examining afresh the pictures from yesteryear, as a family we get to relive, in a sense, our past and remember and be thankful for God’s faithfulness in bringing us to this moment of our shared lives, even as we anticipate greater days to come. This is what I mean in this post’s title as ‘the art of remembrance.’ That remembrance is more than just recalling stories and ‘memories’ of old, but is an affirmation that when we tell these stories, we are being mysteriously transported into the past and experience it anew. It is our way of living into the story that began before we could grasp it all or before we were even aware there was a story.

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this...

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this…

On two different occasions, God’s family was given what we now call the Ten Commandments, and they are recorded in Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5. The commandment that should strike a chord as we think about ‘remembrance’ is the 4th one: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But did you know that in the two renderings of the commandment, there is a difference in the reason given as to why to remember the sabbath? Read them anew…

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord created heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Did you catch the difference? In Exodus they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of creation. In Deuteronomy they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Think about that: in Egypt they slaved seven days a week; God commanded them to remember they’re not enslaved anymore and to do so by taking a day off. (If there were ever a day when that message is needed, it would be now.) Remembering the sabbath was their (and our) way of living into the stories of God’s creation and redemption. Even as generations would come and go, remembrance was their way of looking back in gratitude because of God’s loving faithfulness in freely creating the heavens and the earth and in freely rescuing them from bondage.

Remembering is at the heart of who we are as Christians too: when we welcome new members into God’s family and renew our own covenant made in the past to God and the church; when we sit at meals and tell stories of the recent or distant past, recalling how God has got us through times of light and darkness; when we gather to grieve the loss of one of our own, yet remaining hopeful in the resurrection as we recall God’s faithfulness in the lives of those who have gone before us; and of course, when we break bread together and share the cup at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I believe he meant more than just “retell this story and recall to mind my sacrifice for you.” It’s more than that, for again, remembrance is more than recollection. Remembrance, in the sacramental sense, is a mysterious act in which we commune with the saints, and Christ is mysteriously but really present in our meal.

When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, our act of remembrance is our way of living into the story of Christ’s redeeming the world through his becoming human in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, remaining faithful to his Father, being betrayed, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. Each time we partake of the meal and we remember Christ, we relive our redemption and give thanks (Eucharist = give thanks) for God’s loving faithfulness in rescuing us from bondage to sin and death. I’ve seen it put this way before: “The Christian is one who remembers!” And as St. Paul reminds us, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

In preparation for pastoral ministry, I spent time reflecting on the vitality of the sacramental life of the church and the importance of visiting the elderly and shut-ins. One of the practices I have always wanted to incorporate in my ministry, which I had heard that some pastors do, is to share the Lord’s Supper with these folks. After all, as many persons get more aged and fragile and eventually come to a time when they are unable to physically attend and participate in the worshiping life of the church, then that’s when it becomes time for the church to care for those and make their attendance and participation possible in another way.

This is but one key way of making our ministry an Incarnational one. What do I mean? Reflect on these words of the liturgy of The Great Thanksgiving – “…Pour out your Spirit upon us gathered here and on these elements of bread and wine; make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood…”

The sacraments express the goodness of the physical, created order as God has established these elements of nature (water, bread, and wine) as the means by which God communicates God’s love and grace with us. Just as we were unable to attain eternal life where there will be a heavenly banquet and God took on flesh in Christ’s body to make that possible, so also we ought to take Christ’s body and proclaim his suffering, death, and resurrection with those unable to come and feast with us in the sacrament.

So I shared my desire to do this practice with the churches, and they were all for it! They gave me names of people who have been unable to attend, especially those members in rehabilitation facilities or nursing homes. I began practicing this last month and have found myself blessed beyond measure in the experiences of sharing the church’s sacramental life with them. Let me tell you why…

On one visit as I was going through the liturgy and began to serve an elderly gentleman, he raised his hands and began to cry. As he partook of the elements of the Supper and tears were streaming down his face, all he could say was, “Praise God!” I got choked up in that moment and became a witness to one who was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and had dedicated decades of his life to the kingdom of God in Christ’s church.

This is what Carrie put above the cabinets in our kitchen at the parsonage. I love it and a few of the people in the churches have said how much they like this. We hope our home is a place in which bread is regularly broken and our lives and stories are shared.

But beyond these moments of the actual partaking of the broken bread, I’ve been able to “break bread” with them on another level; that when one “breaks bread,” she is sharing some asset or possession of hers with you. This other way I’ve broken bread with the folks I’ve visited is through sharing stories and lives. And though I may have shared a couple of my own stories with them, I’m more interested in hearing theirs. Stories from a man with Parkinson’s who served as a fighter pilot in 3 wars (WWII, Korean, Vietnam), who, after his first wife passed away, rejoined with his high school sweetheart who was also widowed and learned the joy of marriage once again. Stories from a 97-year-old lady who was reading Scripture as I walked in and she began to share with me about the lessons she learned of having a good work ethic, building a loving home, and the pride she had in her children’s lives, one of whom was a United Methodist pastor in a neighboring state. Stories from a man, whose wife attends church regularly and visits him, who decades ago lived a handful of miles away from my hometown working for a few years before making his way back to Camden, and has known the joys of married life for 70 years.

I encouraged the people at my churches to visit just one person a month to “break bread” in this way. To ask to hear one story of their upbringing, of their travels, of their children’s livelihood, of lessons they’ve learned somewhere along the way; and maybe every once in a while, share a bit of their own stories and there will have been an experience of mutual blessing in this “breaking of bread.”

Caring for and visiting those who cannot care for themselves…this is (part of) what it means to be the body of Christ. “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ…” Ephesians 3:18 (Photo credit: soulgrit.wordpress.com)

In the midst of St. Paul’s letter to the churches in and around Ephesus, Paul lifts up this glorious prayer that his audience would have the ability to know the immensity of Christ’s love. The four dimensions are illustrated in the depiction of the cross and I really like the way that John Wesley expounded on these dimensions in his Notes on the New Testament. Here’s how Wesley described it:

What is the breadth of the love of Christ – Embracing all mankind. And length – From everlasting to everlasting. And depth – Not to be fathomed by any creature. And height – Not to be reached by any enemy.”

Love’s breadth (or width) – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is one that is “embracing all mankind.” There is no nation, group, family – no person – who is beyond God’s love. Now on the surface everyone reading this may not have too much difficulty nodding in agreement with that, but let that general statement be applied to people who you find difficult to like or love: no terrorist, no immoral dictator, no dirty politician, no IRS agent, no murderer, no adulterer, no addict, no dead beat dad, no one…is beyond the love of God. When Paul speaks of the immensity of the breadth or width of Christ’s love, we get a vision of just how generous God is in giving his love. Even the deranged mind of a cannibal named Jeffrey Dahmer was able to taste and know God’s love and forgiveness.

Love’s length – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is “from everlasting to everlasting.” In the Gloria Patri that is often sung reminds us of God’s glory and that his love has existed “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Michael W. Smith wrote a song “Never been unloved.” He listed off the many adjectives that could be true if spoken of his life when Smith wrote, “I have been unfaithful … unworthy … unrighteous … unmerciful … unreachable … unteachable … unwilling … undesirable … unwise … undone by what I’m unsure of unbroken … unmended … uneasy … unapproachable … unemotional … unexceptional … undecided … unqualified … unaware … unfair … unfit …” But even though he’s found himself described by these “un-“s he recognizes that “it’s because of you [Jesus] and all that you went through, I know that I have never been unloved.” There has never been a time and never will be a time that you have not or will not be unloved, friend!

Love’s depth – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so deep as “not to be fathomed by any creature.” Perhaps, though difficult, we can grasp that God loves everyone and that he has always loved everyone and always will…but the “depth” language is where we really have the most difficulty and are faced with the impossibility of grasping it. If you go diving into the depths of the sea, the deeper you go, the less you can see because the light of the sun diminishes the deeper you go. The Apostles’ Creed says that we believe Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried.” Buried. The darkness is where we bury things. We don’t talk about them. They’re down deep and we don’t want to bring them up. Christ’s love is deep enough to dig it out and redeem it. He had to die and be buried to dig us out of death.

Love’s height – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so much as “not to be reached by any enemy.” The height of Christ’s love is that he doesn’t leave us in the depths. Christ’s love is a victorious one for it does not permit sin and death to have the final word. Otherwise love is weak and grace is cheap, as if Christ were to say “I love you but you can stay there in darkness.” If we only knew the depths of Christ’s love but not the height, then we’re just allowing Jesus to polish the chains to hold us in bondage.

Let’s jump in to the ocean of God’s endless love in Christ and maybe together we can grasp more and more just how broad and long and deep and high Christ’s love really is.