May you speak the language of silence today, May you hear the sounds between words, May you embrace the quiet hours of the night, May you seek empty stillness before sunsets, May your faith in listening be stronger than your desire to speak, May the rhythm of our breathing reflect the hopeful phrasing of our words. May the silence nourish your soul and feed forgiveness.
Awakened to specific ambiguous beliefs, An awkward exhortation for moral proof, Rattling window panes of middle-class grief, The thunderous silence of now calls from here, Barefoot visions do not choose testaments of truth, Washed in streams of frantic flowing fear.
The week’s lectionary passage takes us to the familiar home of John 3:1-17. It’s hard to resist the homiletical allure of preaching John 3:16, yet like the perennial texts we face at Christmas and Easter, is there anything new to be said about these most well-known verses of the four gospels?
If there’s anything about this passage that I find unavoidable, it’s the emphasis on God’s love. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. Unfortunately, we often gloss over those words and read them as a prologue to the more important, “that he gave us his only begotten son.” They are the key to understanding verses 16 and 17, perhaps the whole pericope.
I don’t want to move on so quickly because we might miss something about the relationship between love and creation. Secondly, with this gift of love and creation comes a great responsibility that goes far beyond “belief” in the son who was sent “to us.” To understand our role in our relationship with God, we need verse 17. If we believe in the son who was gifted to us, we are accepting the terms of the gift, that the gift came not to condemn and further the same love of humanity that prompted the gift in the first place. That’s why the pericope doesn’t stop with verse 16.
Other religious traditions, particularly in the ancient world, show God (or gods) engaging in brutal and violent creation stories. In the ancient Sumerian religion, the goddess Tiamat was ripped in half to create sea and sky. We know of the traditional tales of the Greco-Roman pantheon that showed the gods’ contempt for each other and human beings. Gods in the ancient world hated people. Yet, in Genesis, we’re told humans were created as a little less than angels. In these familiar words from John, the early Christian community is reminded that the God of Israel loves the world. God does not hate humanity. We are not God’s playthings. God does not treat us like chess pieces on a board, moving us around according to a plan only God knows. God loves us. We are God’s partners and friends. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved by God?
God loves us. God gives us a son because he loves us. Because God loves us and gives us a son, he says it’s out of a desire not to condemn humanity but to love humanity. What is keeping us from getting the point? God loves us. Why can’t we love others unconditionally as God does? Why can’t we love others without condemning and judging? Doesn’t believing in God’s son make this kind of unconditional love possible? I believe it does. God created us out of love, not hate. Shouldn’t this free us from hate? How can we claim to love God’s son if we have hate in our hearts? If hate is in our hearts, the John 3:16 process stops, and the love God first shared in giving us Jesus stops with us. If love is there, we keep passing John 3:16 on, and that creative “For God so loved the world” process never ends.
Yesterday was a long day. Most Sundays are demanding. This one was a humdinger. In addition to the standard stuff and nearly 70 in worship (yes, we keep going up each week), we had one of those meetings in the afternoon. You know the kind of meeting I’m discussing: a disaffiliation meeting. Following our annual conference procedures, our church council hosted a question-and-answer session. Well over fifty were in attendance between those in person and on Zoom. The purpose of the meeting was for the council to take the congregation’s temperature on disaffiliation. If the council decides there is enough interest, they will pull the trigger (so to speak), and we will go forward with the process. If not, the status quo will hold.
Two weeks prior, the church council began to collect questions from the congregation about the disaffiliation process. They placed a heavy wooden box in the narthex and set up a specific email address to receive questions. We weren’t overwhelmed with questions. However, there were plenty of good queries to occupy the council, and all gathered for the planned two hours.
The chair of the council (and I) sent the questions out to the entire church, saying these were the questions we’d received and would attempt to answer at Sunday’s meeting. Early Sunday morning, the council chair received an additional e-mail; a new story was floating that I, the pastor, had written all the questions to shape the debate. Oh Lord, these people watch too much of one television network whose name I will not say. Are we not able to check the conspiracy theories at the door? For the record, the people who wrote the questions self-identified in the meeting, and I made it clear I was used to having a target on my back (as pastors often have) but questioning my integrity made me mad as hell—my day got worse from there.
Disaffiliation is my kryptonite. The closer I come to it, the weaker I become. I’ll come right out and say it. It’s a soul-destroying (also a local church, friendship, and family destroying) process that steadily erodes my faith, my faith in humanity, the church, and other people from the inside out. That’s not pessimism; that’s reality. I didn’t attend seminary to become a paid shill for the United Methodist Church. I wanted to become a pastor, preacher, and poet of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I love his biases and opinions. I work daily for them to become wholly and entirely mine. If I seem one-sided for any position, it is for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I have a personal agenda. It is for love, grace, and forgiveness. I push the Beatitudes, day in and day out. I have this phrase I like to ask people on Sunday morning, “How would this look through Jesus’ eyes?”
How would our disaffiliation process and the quest for self-righteous division look through Jesus’ eyes? Frustrating. Of course, I’m biased. I can’t think the guy who said the Beatitudes would believe that any of this is a good idea. I’d bet everything, while loving us and forgiving us, he wants us to do much better in the loving our neighbor department. Again, I’m biased-for Jesus. What do I know?
I’ve got to get away from disaffiliation. The problem is that there’s nowhere to hide. Like the COVID pandemic that preceded it, this virus seems to be everywhere. God help us all.
Every year, the first Sunday of Lent centers on one story: the temptation of Jesus, by the devil, over forty days in the desert immediately following his baptism. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that retell this head-to-head story. Mark and John don’t include it at all. For some reason, they left it on the cutting room floor. Of the two versions, my favorite is Matthew’s. Matthew gives us greater detail, dialogue, and imagery. I have always had an affinity for the Matthew passage. When I was in seminary, I was assigned this text. But instead of preaching it from the traditional perspective, the way most churches and preachers do it every year, I was given the more challenging task of retelling the story from the devil’s perspective. How would this story look and sound if you told it from the other character’s eyes? That exercise made me a better preacher and is one reason I look forward to the first Sunday of Lent every year.
The main thing I learned about the devil (specifically Matthew’s perspective on the devil) in preparing that original sermon was this: if the devil was going to tempt Jesus or us, he wasn’t going to be anything like the caricatures of evil or Satan we’ve become accustomed to seeing; images that were invented in the Middle Ages and became popular in renaissance art. You know the ones I’m talking about, the pointed horns, the red leathery skin, the pitchfork, the wispy tail. Whoever heard of a red devil anyway? This was back in the dark ages, before Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the greatest minds in history, discovered all devils were blue.
To be genuinely tempting, the devil would need to be quite ordinary, a little charming, unassuming, friendly, a little witty, someone you’d like to go to dinner with, maybe that neighbor with the big TV who’ll invite you over to watch the NCAA tournament, someone with whom you can relax. That’s who the devil is. The devil is cool, calm, and collected. You never see the devil coming, and when the devil asks you to make a moral choice or by the time temptation is placed before you, it doesn’t seem like temptation. It will seem like the right, normal, even natural thing to do. After all, this is your friend, that guy, your buddy; why would your regular next-door neighbor friend with all the same interests, kids in the same school, and a nice two-car garage lead you astray? The devil couldn’t look like one of us, could he? Could the devil be a mirror image of us? The devil is a narcissist whose greatest desire is to be loved and adored, but ultimately, he wants to fit in: seem typical, like us, and even ordinary. The devil seeks to seem normal; blending in and appearing average is his grand goal. Who is afraid of the average? Average flies under the radar. The average is undetected. This is what makes the devil so diabolical. The devil is in the details.
What are the details of Jesus’ temptations? You just heard them: turn stones into bread, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship me to gain all the power in the world. The specifics may be different, but the temptations are essentially the same: when it comes down to it, the only person you can depend on is yourself. You can’t rely on God, others, your faith, or anything other than yourself.
Remember what I said about the devil fitting in and looking like us, even being the mirror image of ourselves? We are our own worst enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the enemy, which is us. Each of these three temptations is the same. You don’t need God. You only need you. When you get to the heart of the matter, is that not the essence of every temptation we face as human beings? We can do it ourselves. Why trust God? Why listen to God? Why have faith in anything beyond ourselves? Why not take matters into our hands? After all, we have no idea what the future may hold, and we’re hungry now! The scriptures say the angels will catch us now, put God to the test now! We want to control our destiny now! Give into the devil’s offers of power and control now! Jesus can fill his stomach.
Jesus knows the scriptures say what they say. He knows he can rule the world. But here’s the dirty little secret about Christianity: self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not the Christian way. The secret to passing these temptations, Jesus teaches us, is that even though we can, and doesn’t mean that we should. Even though we can turn stone into bread, test God’s promises in scripture, or take the devil up on his offer to run our affairs, it doesn’t mean we should. Even though we can do many things, it doesn’t mean we should.
That’s the greatest trick the devil is always trying to pull; he makes what you think you ought to do sound reasonable, regular, logical, and the right thing to do. But, of course, you’re hungry, so why not feed yourself? He even cherry-picks scripture to make his point. Of course, the Bible says God will send his angels; it’s right there in the Bible, so why not put God to the test and show the world that the Bible is the true word of God. Throw yourself from the temple, and his angels will lift you; it will testify to the veracity of God’s word. Of course, you have the right to rule the world; you’re Jesus Christ; what could be wrong with that, worship me, and you’d still be in charge and calling the shots. He makes it all sound normal, natural, logical, and even scripturally sound. That’s how you know you’re being tempted when the wrong thing feels like the righteous, holy, Biblical, and normal thing to do.
The real temptations aren’t drinking, gambling, or looking at porn online. No, the essence of temptation has always been buying into the devil’s big lie that we can do everything ourselves; we don’t need God (or each other) in our lives. Have we bought into that lie? Do we believe the devil is telling the truth? Do we believe his lies that we can depend on our self-sufficiency? I can’t answer that question for us (or you). Only you know whom you’re listening to and whom you believe. Do you trust the man from Nazareth or this person asking you to make what sounds like a perfectly reasonable choice but compromises your morality on every possible level?
The devil wants us to sing a variation of his favorite song: “My Way/Your Way.”
“In a mad world only the mad are sane.” – Akira Kurosawa
Russia was my first love. I have lost count of the times she has broken my heart and even left me at the altar. Yet, for one stupid reason or another, I keep coming back. We always seem to get back together. The country and the people have a hold on me. Mother Russia has always been the other woman in my life.
I am a child of the Cold War. I wondered who were these mysterious people on the other side of the world that we were supposed to hate because of their economic system, traditions, history, and language. I wanted to know more about them. In middle school, I participated in a piano competition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In a break between performances, I ducked into a student bookstore on Tate Street and used my lunch money to buy a pack of Russian phrase cards. My social studies teacher encouraged this obsession. I carried them in my shirt pocket and tried to memorize a few phrases each day. She even invited one of her professors from college, who taught Russian history, to speak to the class. After his talk, he taught me how to write my name in the Cyrillic alphabet. I carried that piece of paper with me until it wore out. I practiced writing my name in Russian hundreds of times.
From then on, I wanted to learn to speak, read, and write Russian. I tried to learn everything I could about the country, its history, and its people. It was all going great until our teacher was sick one day, and we had a substitute who noticed the cards in my pocket and asked if I was a communist. Adults are bullies.
Despite that minor setback, I didn’t know that a few years later, I would be studying the Russian language in a formal, academic setting at the very same university where I first purchased those phrase cards. What started on Tate Street in Greensboro in the sixth grade eventually took me to Moscow, where I lived for two years. I haven’t looked back. Russian language books line my office shelves today.
I watch the news from Ukraine, Russia, and around the former Soviet Union (especially the Caucasus region of Georgia and Armenia). My heart aches for the people and places I know and love. Vladimir Putin isn’t a nice man. He is a Russian dictator. If you know anything about Russian dictators, they are a predictable lot. Russia has always wanted buffer zones to protect the greater Slavic homeland. In this way, Putin is no different from Czar Nicholas I or Lenin. To expect an autocratic Russian leader not to be an imperialist expansionist is like expecting a rooster not to crow. It won’t happen. No high-minded speeches or soaring rhetoric will change his mind. On the contrary, it will probably harden his resolve. There is little mystery to his behavior, language, rhetoric, or motivations. Vladimir Putin is not a strategic genius. He is a predictable Russian, a former KGB officer, and a product of late Brezhnev-era stagnation that marked his coming of age in the Soviet Union.
It didn’t surprise me that the Russians didn’t take Kyiv in three days. There are few working elevators in the city of Moscow. If you can’t fix the elevators in one of the world’s most important cities, that says something about your military-industrial complex. The average life expectancy of a Russian male is somewhere between 68 and 71. That’s nearly ten years less than most developed western nations. Thanks to chain smoking and cheap vodka, Russian men are dying at a rate outpacing the birthrate. With the mass exodus of men caused by Putin’s mobilizations, Russia is a shell of a country. You don’t win wars with wheezing drunks and no spare parts.
How will this war end? It will not end in victory. There will not be a victory for either Russia or Ukraine. Victory is an anachronism in warfare such as this. Both sides have already lost. The devastating loss of life and property in Ukraine is horrendous and evil. The human lives wasted in pursuit of a greater pan-Slavic ideology are also damnable and insane. We are past the point where “victory” is something that either nation can claim with any degree of moral integrity. No one wins in the face of so much death and suffering. No one wins wars like this. Didn’t we learn this lesson in the former Yugoslavia? Didn’t we learn this in Northern Ireland?
No one has an endgame, especially the Russians and the Ukrainians. The Soviets haven’t had an endgame since 1972. The west has known this since game 13 of the World Chess Championships in Reykjavik in 1972. Game 13, move 50, rook takes bishop B5. Bobby Fischer sacrificed his bishop. That’s when Russia lost the Cold War, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Ukraine. Boris Spassky had no answer because he had no endgame like those who led and still lead his former country. This will end in the same bloody stalemate we see today. Neither side has an endgame. If the fighting is going to stop, someone needs an endgame. More money and more bodies aren’t an endgame.
Today, I want to take the unpopular step of praying for Russia. Scripture teaches us to pray for our enemies. Russia, however, is not my enemy. I can no more walk away from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than I can Faulkner or Hemingway. I learned so much about myself on the streets of Moscow. I have many friends living behind this new Iron Curtain. I do not hate them. I do not want them to suffer. I want the fighting to stop. If they can safely leave the country, do so. If they can avoid conscription, do so. If they can listen to other sources of information, by any means, listen to those voices. I know you. I know you are not your leaders. I pray that you will one day be able to live as freely as you wish. I pray the killing will stop. I pray this nightmare will end.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I want to do for Lent. Do I want to give something “up” or take something “on”? With forty-eight hours to go before Ash Wednesday, I’m putting some ideas together to size up the spiritual challenges of the next six weeks. First, I don’t drink coffee or eat chocolate. So those two Lenten staples of denial are immediately off the table. The one daily vice I could deny myself is Coke zero. It’s in the negotiable column. Though, for the most part, I wouldn’t say I like giving up food and drink. That’s such a bourgeois middle-class thing to do because we know we’ll pick them right back up as soon as Lent is over. I have no intention of permanently excluding Coke zero from my life. Lent should be a head start on giving up a negative, which needs to go from our lives forever. Like the Transfiguration, which precedes it, Lent should be a systemic change of the heart and soul, more than a surface-level transformation. Lent is a preparation for life after the resurrection, not a temporary sabbatical from an earthly vice. This is where we go wrong year after year. Ash Wednesday is the first step towards the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.
Some things we give up year after year. I don’t know why; that’s just the way it is. We all have our coffee and chocolate; they only appear by other names. Other items are new to the list. I don’t know where they come from; perhaps it’s the lingering effects of long COVID or being driven bat s%$#*crazy by disaffiliation.
Things I’m Giving Up for Lent:
Biblical Literalism (Who am I kidding? I gave that up years ago like I gave up wild women, poker, and liquor.)
Biblical Inerrancy (See above.)
Arguing with morons. (Where I’m from, it’s pronounced MO-rons.)
Shellfish. (Not because of Leviticus but because I’m allergic.)
Being driven bats%$#*crazy by disaffiliation.
Cheese. (I’m intolerant of lactose. I won’t stand for it.)
Paulianity. (As opposed to Christianity)
Chanting “All the time” whenever someone says “God is Good” several times. It feels kind of cultish and creepy after all these years.
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