September 12, 2021
If you’ve ever been on a company retreat, or started a new school, or been to camp, or most anything else where a bunch of people who don’t know each other get together, you’ve probably participated in one of those icebreakers. One that’s used often but can easily be really hard is the one where you’re supposed to come up with one word or phrase that would best describe you. Have you ever had to do that? What was the word or phrase that you came up with?
But then, there’s sometimes another angle to the question. What word or phrase would other people use to describe you? Sometimes that can be easier, because we have an idea of how people see us. We can get a feel for what they think of who we are by the way we act around them, what our conversations are like, and how they react to who we are. Generally, I think we like to know what other people think of us.
September 5, 2021
This past week, the official “last plane” flew out of Kabul airport, ending our twenty years of war in Afghanistan. I have friends across the political spectrum, so we all had a lot of varied reactions to how it all went. There was anger, there was relief, there was regret, but above it all floated this sense of shocked grief. We were paralyzed: what, if anything, can we do? It felt really powerless to watch as this tragedy unfolded.
But then Annie got a message from one of our friends, a pastor who had served in South Dakota. Sami Johnson—she offered a video sermon for us over the summer. Sami’s husband Josh is a chaplain in the Navy, so they are posted in Rota, Spain right now, and in her message she told Annie that the base was going to be receiving some 150 Afghan refugees. These people had fled with basically just the clothes on their backs, and Sami and others on the base were trying to get basic supplies ready for them. She told Annie and some other friends that she understood the feeling of powerlessness, but that if we wanted, we could Venmo her some money to help buy supplies for these incoming refugees.
August 29, 2021
When I was growing up, living in North Carolina, we made it a big family tradition that the whole extended family would gather at my grandparent’s house to celebrate Labor Day with a cookout. They’d borrow the long church tables and set them up in the carport and along the driveway, and we’d set out all the food and it would be a great time. It was a potluck, so there was always a variety to choose from. But for whatever reason—and to this day I still don’t know quite why—the meat was not potluck. Everyone had to bring their own burger, or hot dog, or whatever else. I remember being very confused by that as a child, but no one ever explained to me exactly why it was that, while we shared everything else, we didn’t share the protein part. It was tradition.
Traditions are weird like that. They’re things that we do, day after day or year after year, and they’re important to us. But also, more often than not, we rarely take the time to ask why we have the traditions we have. Church hymnals are always red or green. We always plant potatoes on Good Friday. There is always a get-together at the cabin over Labor Day. Grandma always leads the prayer when we’re visiting.
August 15, 2021
We have a family story of a distant cousin of mine who changed her name, but only changed one letter. See, my mom’s side of the family are the Icenhours, and it’s kind of a weird quirk of fate that the branch that spelled their names with an “s” were often the richer branch of the family tree. So this cousin of mine got her name legally changed, changing only the one letter in her last name, hoping some of the magic of that letter would rub off on her life.
Spoiler: it didn’t work.
But there are stories from all over about how people will go to great lengths and do remarkable things if it means they can get the things they value the most. Fairy tales and children’s movies revolve around the way the hero of the story grows to understand what they really need—the love of family, the acceptance of their uniqueness, how they’re worthy because of their goodness and not their wealth or their power. The villain is always consumed by a desire for power or money or something else that makes them callous toward the suffering of others, and also brings about their ruin.
August 8, 2021
Our first reading today is probably going to need a bit of backstory to really get what is happening. It’s part of the ongoing story of King David and the way his story changed from being a young shepherd and boy wonder, to a seasoned king grappling with the challenges of palace intrigue. Two weeks ago kicked off the turning point in David’s career with the way he used his position of power to use Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed on the front to cover up his crimes. Things went sideways from there, and in a lot of ways, it was the moment where even the Bible admits a loss of innocence for its favorite king.
But more than just a shameful story of how David fell into the trap of sin, the saga of David and what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah is a story of how he was seduced by the power that came with being king. It impacted his family, because without David guiding them to be good and righteous people, they let loose on indulging in palace intrigue. There was wheeling and dealing and backbiting to shame even the halls of congress. Giving into the temptation of power led directly to the story we read about this morning, the rebellion of his son Absalom.
August 1, 2021
Last week, we remembered the ways that God uses what we have to make miracles happen. Jesus had spent some time with the people, teaching and healing, and finally giving them all the bread they wanted so that there were twelve baskets left over. This was a spectacular miracle. By Philip’s estimate, enough bread was handed out to cost at least a whole year’s wages! And the people, they reacted just the way you’d expect: they wanted this miracle-worker to be their leader. He would be their king and feed them with this miraculous bread and all the world would be right!
Well, somewhere in the midst of them coming to this conclusion, the disciples went across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus followed. The people, waking up from their carb coma, looked around to find Jesus or his disciples so they could make Jesus their king and get access to that bread. But Jesus and his disciples had disappeared! Somehow, probably that kid that had the bread and fish that were multiplied, they figured out their miracle-working would-be-king was in Capernaum, so they hurried over there.
July 18, 2021
It felt like a pretty big deal a year and a half ago when Annie and I bought a house. Until then, both of us had only ever been renters, and there is a big mental shift that happens when you go from renting to owning your home. I was never that meticulous about landscaping until we owned a place, and I felt a much deeper sense of responsibility when things happened, like the furnace going out or the toilet getting clogged. And it wasn’t just feeling invested in the place; there was a real sense of feeling settled, where renting always felt temporary.
So maybe it was this feeling that David had when he moved into his palace in Jerusalem, his kingdom at peace, his home secure, and he looked out on the old tent of God across the hill. He had a permanent place to call home. His palace was solid, with stone foundations and cedar plank walls. It was a really nice house and, more importantly, it was stable. Shouldn’t God have that sense of settlement too? Shouldn’t God have at least as much as he, the King, had?
July 11, 2021
A few years ago, I got the opportunity to visit Washington, DC for a preaching conference. If you’ve never been, it’s quite the city, with huge sidewalks that make walking everywhere super easy (which is helpful because the traffic is awful), and stately buildings that make it look like someone transplanted it from Europe. It’s a genuinely beautiful city, with parks and gardens everywhere, and a super easy-to-navigate subway system. But even more than those features, the thing that sticks out about DC is the number of monuments, memorials, and museums.
Our nation’s capital, like any capital around the world, is like a great big depository for all the important things about ourselves. The Smithsonian Museum covers everything from archaeology to music; the monuments valorize huge figures from our past; the memorials remind us of all the people who shaped our country in big and small ways. And we’ve put all those things there, because DC, as the capital, exists to give us a shared place to name what’s important to us all.
July 4, 2021
A few years back, my mom was out running errands. Ordinarily, she would drive her car, but it was having issues so she was borrowing my dad’s car for the day. She told me this story of how she stopped somewhere to get things, and because she was just running in to get a couple small things, she didn’t want to bring in her purse, so she left it in the car and locked the door. The problem was, she had left the keys in her purse, now locked inside the car. It wouldn’t have been a problem, but unlike her car, my dad’s car doesn’t prevent the car from locking when the keys are still inside. The other problem was that she also left her phone in her purse.
Well, after trying to call him from the store phone—and him ignoring those calls because he didn’t recognize the number—she finally turned to a friendly looking stranger, explained to her the situation, and asked if this woman would give her a ride home, which they gladly agreed to. That afternoon, despite everything, my mom was completely and entirely dependent upon the kindness of strangers to get home.
Dependence on others is hard. Hundreds of thousands of Americans experienced the difficulty of admitting they needed the help of others during the pandemic, when so many people lost jobs and food pantries had to work overtime to provide for needy families. Relying on others is a kind of vulnerability that we—especially so as Americans—really don’t like. As much as we appreciate the help of others, I don’t think a lot of us really enjoy depending on the goodwill of other people.
June 27, 2021
One of my favorite things about learning is when I come across something I only had a vague idea about, and I get the chance to really explore it deeply. Uncovering this mystery of the world that’s always been there, but was just outside of my view, is like opening my eyes to a completely new world. And there are quite a few of those things in the Bible, like this story we heard about David.
Last week, y’all remember, we talked about the best-known story about David. Just a boy with a sling, he faced down the Philistine Goliath and defeated him by being smart about how he fought. Then this week, we hear this story of David getting news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, and singing a song of lament—a song voicing his grief—and I imagine most of us feel at a loss about what all happened between those two events. Most of us don’t take a keen interest in reading through 1 Samuel. But so much of that book gives us a picture of who David was—and why he was the kind of king everyone down to Jesus’ disciples longed for again.