Bumps on the Rug: A Sermon on Recovery

100_5692 - CopyPhoto taken by me of an abandoned gas station somewhere in the Texas “Panhandle,” while heading to my new duty station.   My son, Ben, pictured.   October, 2007.

Ephesians 2:1-10 (New Revised Standard Version)

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
*Sermon preached on Sunday, March 11, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the fourth in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Step 7.  If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson


There is a story, perhaps familiar to you and attributed to the Cherokee, but it’s anybody’s guess as to its origins.  The only certain thing is that it’s older than the internet.  In the parable, a grandfather is having a conversation with his grandson.

He says to his grandson:  “There are two wolves inside of us that are always at war with each other.”

“One of them is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness, bravery and love.”

“The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.”

The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and asks, “Grandfather, which one wins?”

The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed.”

The parable of the two wolves points out the simple truth that in life there are always two forces at work, two energies within us, if you will; what the Bible describes as the spiritual and the carnal.  “All of us,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…”


We’ve been talking the past couple weeks about the spiritual recovery of soul and how the framework of the 12-Step recovery programs are rooted in scripture.  How they offer us a discipline to do the deep digging, healing, and equipping which defines the Lenten journey through the wilderness, if we are serious about recovery and renewal.  Having completed the personal inventory and identifying the sources of unhealthy thoughts and behavior, Step 7 invites us to formally and “humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings,” because we all have ‘em.


So let’s start in the assurance of a verse I suspect most of us could say from childhood memory, John 3:16.  While the rest of that passage can be a bit fuzzy, it’s that context that matters:  God chooses to love us.  Not because of what we do, but simply because we are His.  Recognizing this truth is to hear and accept God’s gracious invitation.

“Just love me,” God says.

“Love me with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”

“See how that feels and then share the love that wells up within you with everyone until they feel it, too.  No exceptions.”

“Hanging out with me,” God says, “changes everything!”

For as we are reminded “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:17].  STOP a minute.  Listen.  Let me repeat/rephrase that:  God did not send the Son into this world to condemn us or others, but instead to lead this world into community, which is precisely what will save ALL of this world.

This is the ground of comfort and THE source of strength that liberates us to do the soul-searching work – for we know God’s grace in Jesus Christ covers us.  The toughest part is in the surrender of our will to God, because we spend our lives trying to be in control.  We are called to get out of the way and ask the divine surgeon to remove the defects of character and the challenges with which we wrestle.

This is the path to true peace.  As the Letter of James tells us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” [James 4:10].  There is no “might lift us up,” but he WILL lift us up – in that surrender of the heart.

Such humility embraces an honest, open, willing life – choosing the ongoing work of letting go of our self-centeredness ever more deeply, as we move our focus outward in service to others.  It won’t happen without us being vulnerable before God and possibly people to whom we can trust our sacred story.  I am here to tell you, I don’t enjoy the experience, but discover each time I enter that it is precisely there where Christ most richly blesses.  So, yes, we may not be enthusiastic in our embrace of such transparency before God, but without it we’d just miss out on the best of what it means to be a disciple.

In “Easing the Ache,” author David Crawford describes this as the point in recovery when the “bumps in the rug” start to appear.  In other words, we may set aside one behavior or way of thinking only to let another spring up.  I refer to it as “addiction transfer,” when a less unhealthy behavior becomes the replacement, and we risk fooling ourselves.  Among those in recovery programs, it is like someone who puts down alcohol, but then accrues out of control debt, or another who stops smoking, but puts on 50 pounds as the nicotine fix is replaced with empty calories, or yet another who sexually acts out as a desire for God-given intimacy that runs out of control.

It is to do the things we “do not want to do,” as the Apostle Paul wrote, “in confession and solidarity with every Christian.” [Romans 7:20].

This is hard spiritual work — as it must get to the “why” – the root of our problems, or it will become like the “whack-a-mole” thing in arcades.  Thoughts and behavior will just pop up elsewhere in some other form.  The brokenness will remain.

This is one reason we are the church.  We exist to worship God: one key expression of worship being the support we offer one another through our life work of spiritual cleansing and growth, in counsel and prayer for one another; in walking side by side with one another through the edges of the fires we must occasionally put out..  In this relationship, per the words of the Psalmist; “this poor soul cried,… was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble” [Psalm 34:6].

And so we are called to take that leap of faith, to accept the grace overflowing, to know God’s love and acceptance in Christ.

It is, says one who has walked the walk, “to disregard these inner voices of doom and jump away from fear and toward love.  This is risky, brave, courageous, and painful, but more importantly, it is necessary.  By the time we get to,” what I would call spiritual healing, “most of us don’t feel there is any choice but to turn it all over to God one more time, just as we did when we admitted our powerlessness over our addictions and compulsions.  Now, however, we do so on an even deeper, more meaningful and profound level.  God is there with us in our suffering, hearing the cry of our soul, saving us from trouble.”

This past week, Julie pointed me to a blog about a song with a rather haunting melody, that dates to 2004 when an earthquake and tsunami swept across Asia.

In the dark night of the soul
Our broken hearts you can make whole
Oh mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
That our sorrows may be faced

In the dark night of the soul
Your shattered dreamers, make them whole
Oh mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace
Lead us to a higher place

Did you hear it?

Oh mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace.

It is that one phrase, “…when we’ve fallen out of grace…” that is often, my friends, our greatest struggle in all of this spiritual recovery work.  I’ve heard and seen enough suffering.  I think of standing in East Timor amid mass graves, burned homes and churches, and hardly a male to be found and almost no elderly – with a quarter of the population slaughtered because they were Christian.  I’ve seen and heard enough when dealing with rape victims.  I’ve seen and heard enough when dealing with miscarriages.  The list goes on and we well know it.

Too often there is a fallacy that when something tragic happens, God is punishing us:  That we’ve fallen out of grace, That our tragedy is of our own making.  Yes, there are times when we may, in fact, have a portion of culpability.  But just as often — if not more, we are simply sojourners in a world that isn’t perfect.

As the writer notes, and I will add, having been there with others too many times and even for myself on occasion, that if our first instinct is that we’ve fallen out of grace ,  then my fellow sojourners, perhaps our instincts are not serving us well.  It is time to accept at face value, the grace of our Lord.


So, I am going to suggest that no matter what we are sorting through during this Lenten season, perhaps it’s time to re-train ourselves so that it becomes instinct instead to reach to the God who weeps with us in our pain, and abides with us, cradling us in His tender hands, through the terrible times.  For then the words of the Psalmist will come to pass, and God will “put a new and right spirit within (us)” [Psalm 51:10].  AMEN.

Pastor’s Note:  For the entire lyrics to Eliza Gilkyson’s “Requiem”, located at:  https://genius.com/Eliza-gilkyson-requiem-lyrics 

A Muscular Jesus: A Lenten Sermon

101_1628Photo taken by me, in the Naval Air Station Oceania “Chapel of the Good Shepherd,” during our gutting & reconstruction process.  It is the underside of one of the pews, after it had been disassembled, showing one of over 1,000 wads of gum counted stuck to the pews’ undersides.  December 2, 2011.

John 2:13-25 (New Revised Standard Version)

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  23 When he was in Jerusalem during t he Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
*Sermon preached on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the third in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Step 5.  If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson



Jesus had kicked off his ministry by performing his first public miracle, at the wedding at Cana and on its heels, Jesus and his disciples now head to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Well familiar with the Temple Mount, this would be a different encounter than others recorded in the gospels.  Unlike when he was 12 and had been found by his parents among a group of rabbis, impressing them with questions and insights, today will be different.

Focused and overflowing with zeal for the house of God, Jesus was rather muscular in his approach.  Righteous anger, the kind Paul would write of saying “Be angry, but sin not” [Ephesians 4:26, KJV], rippled through him as to the injustice and irreverence he came upon.

In the Old Testament reading for the day, Moses received the 10 precepts of living in communal relationships, to bring about a radical transformation – the short-term mission to help people get along with one another and the long-term mission being to transform a ragtag group of refugees into a unified people in relationship with God.  But among the crowds on the Temple Mount, seeing people cheated of their money and even their place to worship is infuriating to Jesus, the spirit of that earlier activity of God not apparent in the dealings he witnessed.  God’s mission of peace – living together and of one accord – was being almost gleefully flouted by greed and the disregard for human rights and dignity.  Jesus got their attention.  Flipping tables, driving animals out of the way, fashioning a whip of cords in righteous anger, Jesus got their attention.


This jarring act, referred to as the cleansing of the Temple, stands as a powerful witness to the identity of Jesus and his call to align our lives to the values of God’s kingdom.


What I’ve noticed is that most commentators on this passage tend toward Jesus taking a stand “against” – either protesting financial transactions in the temple, making a statement against the Jewish sacrificial cult by driving out the animals, or against the physical manifestation of the temple vice the spiritual manifestation within Jesus’ body (and even ours) replacing this vaunted palace of stone.  I would submit that the negatives as to the temple’s economic activity, religious indiscretions, or the estimated elevation of the edifice itself only have meaning when set in contrast to the positive statement about Jesus’ identity and role in the Fourth Gospel.  Put simply, Jesus arrives on the Temple Mount less “against” anything and more specifically about being “for” the authority he was sent to represent and to reveal the true God of the temple, one whom he knows intimately as his Father, and under whose authority he now acts.

Yet, I have found myself the past days thinking a lot about a post I read of someone I served with long ago.  His life is rife with PTSD; his body is trashed with pain from injuries; and he is an atheist with a lot of anger – toward those who wear the identity of Christian.  As he put it to me recently, in a reflective post on an ethics issue of a prominent self-identified Christian and his minions: “They really are making Christians look bad.  I’m not religious but one does wonder what would Jesus do…”  The messengers are seen as the message, which has a lot to do with why he walked away.

I get his anger, sadly.

I get it when I see a seriously self-professed Christian use his position to advocate for the elimination of federal heat subsidies for those on fixed incomes – the poor, the disabled, the retired.

I get it when I see professed Christian politicians using health care for children as a bargaining chip to get their pet issues addressed in the budget.

I get it when I see chest pounding ostensible Christians behave badly and then blame their victims in the age of #metoo.

And while the tables could use a good turning on those compassionless actions, if we are to have the integrity needed to tackle these wounds to our society and with and for our fellow human beings, there is likewise the need to take a look at which table could use a good turning over within the temples of our own lives [see I Corinthians 3:16-17].  If we are to take seriously the identity of Jesus, there’s no better time than Lent for a good temple cleansing – realigning ourselves with the hope of God. The whole package, just like the 10 Commandments – our relationship with one another, ourselves, and our God.

A useful means of tackling this spiritual table turning can be found in “Step Five” of most successful recovery programs.  It’s about the tough work of admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” after having done the searching and fearless moral inventory of Step Four.  It is to move through the prayer of Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts,” so we can put daylight onto our own.character defects.  But, like that stuff called Mercurochrome, which our moms put on our cuts and scrapes when we were kids that stung, but cured, it’s not something easy for us to embrace.  That’s often why the work isn’t tackled.  Yet the same God who inspired the words of the 23rd Psalm, “through the valley” still offers protection right alongside correction.  And aren’t we blessed that in everything there exists God’s steadfast love and mercy for each of us?

This pivotal step of table turning takes us beyond the regrets of wrongs committed, to — as the Big Book bluntly puts it – the letting go of our “terminal vagueness” of merely vowing to do better.  For, if we are to integrate new behavior into our lives that befits a closer walk with our Lord, it is to become completely clear about what exactly we did: when, where, and to whom in true confession if repentance is to have meaning.  It’s to embrace the hope of the Letter to the Hebrews [4:16], as those who “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find.[our] help in time of need.”

Called to “trust God and clean house” [Big Book, p. 98], table turning is to contemplate the list of the people and institutions we have harmed, while also addressing our own feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment.

For instance, like the speck of popcorn that gets under a gum and you feel like you need a tooth pulled, make no mistake – resentment takes an out-sized role and may well be our most difficult challenge in all of this.  I know it has been mine, as it was in writing my own master’s thesis exploring a trauma in my family of origin that allowed me to move on from 18 years of resentment.  Such honest confrontation of our own injury can equip us with newfound integrity, the freedom to express all the ways we feel we were wronged right alongside with the wrongs we have done others.  Everything.  The tables of self-rationalizations and self-justifications get tossed.

The table turning that is cleansing the temple of our hearts isn’t a one and done, if we are to truly embrace recovery of soul.  We invariably must cycle back through this process, for that is exactly what it is, much like how the scriptures speak of the dross skimmed off on the refining process, if the gold is to be purified.  I suspect that is the hidden wisdom in Lent.  It compels us once more back into the desert each year because there is always more work to be done.

Rev. Dr. Paul Bradley writes of his first pass through this table turning within, saying: “When I did my Fifth Step for the first time, I went through my pages of names… In three columns with the headers ‘I’M RESENTFUL AT…’ ‘THE CAUSE…’ and ‘AFFECTS ME…’ I listed everyone and everything that had caused my resentments, fears and anger.  In doing this, I revealed not only what I believed had been ‘done to me,’ but my own part in each situation.  I began to take responsibility for my actions.”  [“Step Five: Diving Into the Wreck, Admitting Our Wrongs,” Rev. Dr. Paul Bradley]

Amid this process, we aren’t alone.  Bradley speaks of God’s companionship equipping us in this process to be like the “deep-sea diver going into a shipwreck to discover what is submerged, metaphorically, within the diver’s own soul, both the deep truths and the false beliefs.  As we dive down past our denial into the hard truth of our behavior and its consequences, God invites us, like the diver, to expose and explore ‘the wreckage of our past.’  Diving into the wreck, we face our fears in order to understand them and, in so doing, we take away their power… “  Adding that God gives us, “just as He did His Son, the courage to go in(to) the dark places in our souls by assuring us that we will rise back up from the depths, from the wreck, newly strengthened to face whatever comes next… God is present with us through it all…”


God’s son, unblemished, and yet — as noted in Hebrews [12:1], “the pioneer and perfecter of OUR faith” – journeys side by side with us as we plumb the depths of our history to do our own work.  We have the confidence of knowing Christ’s journey – from his baptism, through his desert temptations, betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.  In Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, Lent invites us to turn the tables over – whether it is that struggle that lies within our hearts and or in the moral failings in our society that need change.  Jesus set the example: we need to go forth and reclaim – with authority and in compassion — the GOOD name of “Christian.”  We can do so, but only by and through our love!


Note 1:  The "Big Book" is online at:  https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/alcoholics-anonymous.

Note 2:  Our church also is blessed to be host to an "open" AA meeting on Wednesdays at 5 PM, with all the meetings in Hampton listed at:  https://aavirginia.org/meetings?d=any&c=Hampton&v=list.  Please note, some of the meeting information may not be accurate, so best to call ahead to the host facility to confirm date and time.


Taking Stock: A Sermon on Shame


Mark 8:31-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
*Sermon preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the second in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Step 4.  Note, this is not the first time I have preached on the aspect of unhealthy “shame” being a hindrance in spiritual well-being and it will not be the last.  We as “church” have shied away from it or just ignored it, leaving folks to struggle.  In my experience in ministry, this is an issue which lies at the root of all addictive behavior… and it lies at the root of so much brokenness in families and individual lives.  It must be tackled head-on.   If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson


It is a testy exchange, what takes place in the reading from Mark.

Peter took Jesus aside and in the undercurrent of the Greek language in which the Gospel was written, Peter talked down to Jesus.  He denied the path that Jesus would take that would pass through a cross, to a grave… in order for the resurrection to happen.

It was a private chewing out, but it did not stay private.  Jesus used it as a teaching moment for all of the disciples, as to what it means to follow him, saying:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In the season of Lent, in this reflective time on discipleship, the lectionary brings this tough love of Jesus into the room, as Jesus stages an intervention with Peter.

The call of all who follow Jesus is to take stock of ourselves, in the shadow of the Cross.  In the language of the 12-Step recovery programs that emerged from a Christian men’s group some 80 years ago, it is the call to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself.

What is a searching and fearless moral inventory? Basically, it’s an assessment of one’s life up to this point, a taking stock of the goods in one’s life and noting those characteristics that are troublesome – which are a hindrance to the movement toward God.  It is tackling our resentments as much as our own role in problems with people, places, and things.  It is spiritual honesty and letting the light in.


I bring this up because true spiritual work raises difficult questions.  It asks us to look not on other folks’ stuff, but our own deep wounds.  It asks us to embrace the Cross on a pragmatic and challenging level.  It asks us to wrestle with shame and/or guilt.


During the years when I worked within the Navy’s and VA’s substance abuse treatment programs, I began to look at how shame and guilt impacted spiritual recovery.  It was before the term “moral injury” had moved from a phrase to an entirely new field of study and an explanation as to why some things are harder for folk to recover from.

During that time I realized that for all the “shame of the cross” language batted around, I could not recall ever hearing a sermon on shame, which seemed odd.  So I’d like to pull us all aside for a moment for some clarity.

Who hasn’t gone shopping and had a tired or distracted clerk give back too much change.  What if one kept it, instead of returning it?  Hopefully, one would experience guilt and correct the wrong, by repenting – which literally means to turn, return to the business with the change and perhaps an apology.  OK, that’s a softball, but the point is that guilt enables self-correction and forgiveness happens when we repent of wrong actions.  We come to understand that while we are imperfect, we sin, yet we remain worthwhile to our God.  We have done something bad, we repent, we move ahead.  As the Psalmist put it so simply, “As far as the East is from the West, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.”  Indeed, we are assured, that God “remembers our sins no more.”

Sometimes though, the feeling remains that one isn’t really forgiven.  It can be because it really has not been fully surrendered to God.  If it has been laid upon the altar, it hasn’t been let go, kinda like when one has driven down the road and wants to adjust the seat belt.  We shouldn’t do it, but we ask our spouse to take the wheel a second.  They do and our hands remain fast.  They say, “I have it.”  We say, “I know.”  They say, “I have it.”  Finally, we breathe deeply and let go.  We are afraid.  And then all is OK.

But say we get through all of that and still feel not worthy.  That is shame.  Put another way, guilt is saying “I did something wrong.”  Shame is saying “I did something wrong because I am a bad person.”  That label freezes the spirit in the cloudy past.

Now yes, shame has some functionality.  The prophet Jeremiah’s most stinging condemnation of the people of Jerusalem [6:15] was that they had “forgotten how to blush.”  They weren’t embarrassed anymore for their spiritual corruption, and their arrogance ultimately resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.  This was a failure to even perceive the wrongs committed, and no amount of public shaming mattered.  And, in Mark, we see that Jesus shames Peter a bit with language has an instructive edge.  Jesus is preparing the twelve for the time when he will be gone and they will carry the Gospel forward.  It got their attention as a teaching moment – for them and for future followers of Christ.

In such a context, shame serves as a functional reminder of the bonds and responsibilities which exist beyond oneself.  We become aware of not only what we have done or failed to do – the sins of commission and sins of omission as my Mom taught me when I was nine – but how such failures negatively impact others.  Such an experience can foster within us a place for needful empathy to grow – the very kind that is needed in relationship.

BUT, then there is the unhealthy sense of shame that maintains a distance between us and God, and each other, creating soul-lingering damage and self-doubt, and barring the path to having become better for the confession.

Such deep roots of shame and lack of self-worth come from the visible wounds of:  physical and/or sexual abuse, or the physical or emotional abandonment by one or both parents.

Such deep roots of shame and lack of self-worth come from the invisible wounds of:  constant comparisons with high-achieving siblings, derogatory remarks about one’s weight, appearance, masculinity or femininity, constant reminders about past mistakes, being told one was an accident and therefore not wanted, being threatened that one will turn out like so and so…. I do not mean to say that these are all done with knowing malice, but they are messages about the self that become one’s view of self – and thus a barrier to the grace of our Lord.

You see, the unhealthy sense of shame is when we believe the lie that we have no value.  It causes us to look backward in life and forever seek to fill a bottomless hole.  It doubts the reality of God’s hope for us, even as it denies the word that has echoed down since Genesis – when we, at our first breath are called “good.”

I got interested in this challenge for so many who seek Christ, because quite frankly, I had to work through my own wounds.  There was a reason that on his deathbed, my Dad asked my forgiveness.  He named one particular act.  It was one of number on his road to having become a much better person, once he had shed his injured child.  [It made for some great teenage years.]  It became the first movement in my own long path to working through the suffering.

In 1979, as I wandered the college library, I came across some old, beaten-up books tossed into the trash, no longer considered serviceable with their missing pages and covers.  I love old books and their slightly musty scent, printed back when book paper was made from recycled rags.  I asked if they were free for the taking and retrieved an 1859 edition of the New Testament and Psalms; its cover and the first half of Matthew long gone.

In 2006, it finally found its final use.  I was working in the VA’s substance abuse treatment program, and every Thursday a group graduated from the intense, 3-week regimen.  I would have come to know each of them quite well – and their stories of pain, of loss, of horrors – all of which had fed their addictive behaviors.  I had come across the old New Testament while paring down stuff in storage.  So it was for the rest of my time with the treatment program, as each member of the group came forward to shake hands with the treatment team, I parted a single page from the Bible to give to each.  I spoke of how it had been retrieved from the trash and yet even a single page is a reminder of how God speaks to us and wills healing for us.  No longer a Bible, but very much Scripture, I never knew who would get what page each week.  I asked them to fold and tuck their page into their wallets, ready for the moment when they were tempted to spend money on self-destructive behavior.

One woman turned her page over, while waiting for the ceremony to end.  I noticed tears formed and rolled down her cheeks.  She had suffered for nearly two decades, abuse in childhood, more abuse as a young adult… she had turned to drugs to numb herself against the pain.  After the ceremony she asked if I’d known which page I’d given her, which I had not.  It was the story of the woman who had bled for 18 years, until in desperation she had touched the robe of Jesus.  I ran across her months later.  This woman was different.  She radiated joy.  She spoke of her lifelong habit — which had been to stand before the mirror in the morning.  Over the years she had looked upon her worn face and had seen but failures and misery — Until that graduation day.  She taped that tattered Word from an old Bible to her mirror.  Every morning, the first thing she saw was that word – and remembered God saw her as a person beloved and worthy!


I invite you to behold Jesus’ answer to whatever woundedness we bring – his unconditional acceptance.  Grace.  Given freely to us simply because we children of God.  The matter is settled.  As Paul put it succinctly [Romans 8], “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

In this time of Lent, in this atmosphere of societal wilderness, I invite you to read the Gospels and notice the encounters real people had with our Lord; how he saw the true worth of each person beyond any wound from childhood or misconduct as an adult.  Not just because a word is spoken, a prayer is offered, or a touch is given – but in relationship accepted.

Consider the woman who washes Jesus’ feet and lets down her hair to use it as a towel – so deep was her sense of shame.  What is Jesus’ response?

Or, consider the reviled and guilty man who climbed a tree to get a better look at Jesus.  He never expected to be noticed, and certainly not that Jesus would ask to come into his home, did he?

Said the Psalmist [Psalm 34], “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.  Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.”

In this time of Lent, in this preparation for welcoming a risen Lord, I invite you to consider that you and I are truly beloved by God, with a devotion that calls us to move beyond past brokenness.  In this gathering we call worship, in the community of Christ, called to offer safety, acceptance, loyalty, sharing, and always – love – the miracle still happens.


Immersed In the Wilderness: A Sermon

100_5952Photo taken by me, at Meteor Crater,  in Kings Canyon National Park, Arizona, in 2007.

Mark 1:40-45 (New Revised Standard Version)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
*Sermon preached on Sunday, February 18, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA).  I had notions of what I was going to say.  Then, Ash Wednesday happened.


I first became aware of Alcoholics Anonymous as a 9-year old.  Our parsonage was next door to our Eastern North Carolina church: maybe all of twenty feet from the door to the Fellowship Hall where, on Friday evenings, the place was packed.  Alcoholism was a huge issue in that village and surrounding area, and Dad worked extensively with the AA group.  Some he drove to the meeting in his 1965 Corvair, with a few of them swearing the drive alone sobered them up!  And counseling.  He did a lot of it, as the men examined the whole of their lives, helping men on their journey to sobriety.
It was an open door.  Sometimes literally.
On more than one occasion, a drunk fell through the family room door, looking for my Dad.  The men trusted him.
AA’s Twelve Step program is a terrific tool, likely why it has become a model for many other similar programs.  The thing that has stuck with me is how the 12-Step Method isn’t merely ending the behavior of addiction.  It is the examination of one’s beliefs and one’s patterns of behaviors and relationships, and with the support of God to whom one must surrender – it is the remembering of the holy self whom God created.  It is the recovery of the soul.
I found myself in a long conversation this past week with a stranger.  One of the things I shared is that we often get caught up in two particular stories Jesus told: the first of the lost lamb whom the shepherd finds and restores to the fold, and the of a prodigal son whom the father painfully watches walk away – as the son must come to his senses on his own.  We neglect to hold these beside a third story – the one about the rich young ruler who knows his life is not well and so he seeks Jesus’ advice.  However, it is not advice he is willing to receive.  At least not then.  Perhaps never.  We are not told.  It is only said that the young man walks away sadly.  For some, being in the wilderness is a temporary condition.  For others, it is sadly the status quo of their entire lives.
In the face of desolation and desperation, the Wilderness that Mark speaks of in today’s scripture lesson addresses those periods of life or states of mind of being lost, unsettled, wandering, tempted by Satan, tested by God.  Amid it, the time of discernment seeks acknowledgement that there is indeed a power greater than oneself.  The journey is not without elements of tearing, if one is to fully turn one’s will over to God, integrating a newfound perspective and way of being into a permanent lifestyle.
It starts with the willingness to first acknowledge one is in the Wilderness.  Those in recovery programs call it the 1st Step – admitting one is powerless over whatever is tainting one’s life.  It is the hardest step.  It is a place of brokenness and grief.  It is a paradox, for in the admission of powerlessness, one attains control.  But working through that admission and how one’s life is off-kilter in the wilderness, takes an investment in change and the choice to deal with it head on.
We admit we have lost our way.
We admit we are facing trials and temptations.
We admit we have come face to face with evil.
We admit that we can no longer manage on our own.
We need help.
We need a Savior.
Sometimes, like Jesus, we are pushed into the Wilderness.  Sometimes we simply find ourselves there from our choices, or from others’ choices.
When it comes to recovery.  When it comes to Lent.  Whether we call it pride or fear or power or whatever, there is no shortage of temptations which hold us back from dealing with things so directly.
I’ve been thinking about this reality since Ash Wednesday.  In a time and place where there are just so many shocking events that the heart and mind stay in a perpetual spin, once more innocents were slaughtered.  Once more, it took no time at all for “thoughts and prayers” to be intoned and a large chunk of our nation to throw up their hands in resignation as though that is an adequate response for any grievous wound and nothing can be done.  Once more, as a nation, we stay in a spirit of helplessness every bit as damaging to ourselves as any other addiction, instead of applying the words of Paul:  “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of courage.”  If we are to seriously take to heart the injunction to be protective of the “least of these” and to embrace the emphatic concern Jesus had for children, we need to set aside the almost three decades old mantras of “Now is not the time,” Guns are not the problem,” “We can’t stop every ‘crazy’ who wants to kill people,” or any and every equivocation, deflection, twisted straw man argument, including the sentiment that “It’s just so sad, but what can we really do?
Let me be clear:  These are NOT adequate responses to such heinous acts.  Let’s not deceive ourselves.
When one of our own is having a hard time, the norm within this congregation doesn’t stop with prayers or thoughts – but is met with action.  We call.  We visit.  We help.  We engage.
When this congregation looked upon the poor, the homeless, and the folks who simply needed a place of community and a shared meal – The Welcome Table was born.
These are the better nature of what is embodied in the words of James, in the 2nd chapter [James 2:14-17] where he wrote:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

We know, as followers of Christ, that our path to wholeness through whatever Wilderness we have personally encountered, is to come to a faith that is so integrated into one’s very being that it is as natural as breathing in and out.  Such faith cannot exist apart from action.  We know this truth.
But what of our larger community, that of our nation in its collective Wilderness?  We are in it on a number of levels, and this past week reminded us yet again of at least one reason we are in this Wilderness.
An Episcopalian priest friend wrote on Thursday:
We like to believe that we are somehow ‘God’s chosen nation,’ and that we DESERVE (because we have {supposedly} EARNED) some kind of ‘special favor’ from God.  But God has been very clear over and over   and over   and over   and OVER again, that even ‘chosen nations’ can go astray, and ‘divine protection’ will not be enough to save them from the destruction they bring on themselves.
We do not know GRACE,
we do not know LOVE,
we do not know PEACE,
we do not know JUSTICE, and
we only use God’s wide MERCY to   Hide behind,
and FORGIVENESS to   Justify our sin.
Our ‘thoughts and prayers’ do nothing to transform our hardened hearts, and they do not ease the suffering of those who mourn.
We do NOTHING but more of the same, and expect different results.  Because we’re special.  Well, get your Bible out.  Read Jeremiah. Read Isaiah.  Read Ezekiel.  Read the ‘Minor Prophets.’  Because God has news for us.”
Megan is right.
“Thoughts and prayers” as the only response to the slaying of children?
As the only response to those who need health care they cannot afford?
As the only response to the lack of mental health resources and effective interventions?
As the only response to increasing economic disparity?
If we stop at “thoughts and prayers,” then we have declared as a nation that those made in the image of God are clearly of less value than the killing hunks of metal forged and peddled by fear merchants eager to increase their ever-expanding profit margins.
We must admit this when we blithely accept the revocation of a rule that restricts gun purchases for those identified with mental illness.
We must admit, while we’re at it, that we really can’t be pro-life and not protect ALL of our most vulnerable: be they in the womb, in a classroom, living on the street, or abandoned in elder care.
We must admit that what is driving our nation into a ditch is the corrupting love of money… mammon… in OUR centers of power, as bigger earthly mansions are built and morals are increasingly minimized.  It is witness to the sad truth that we are engaging in idolatry as a nation.
So, in the face of it…
The temptation is to take an easier route through or by-pass altogether our troubles.
The temptation is to bury our feelings and hide our truths.  To stay silent.
The temptation is to seek the path of least effort and of least resistance.
Prayers and thoughts are only a soft starting place, not the endpoint, certainly not if we would honor God with transformed lives.  We need to own our collective wilderness.  We must reject the addictive nature of apathy and taking the easy way out.  I challenge each one of us to be the embodiment of compassion that will drive the change we want to see in this world.  BECOME WORTHY.  BE BOLD.  DON’T QUIT.

Trading Places: A Sermon

100_6243Photo taken by me, in Kings Canyon National Park, adjacent to Sequoia National Park, in 2008.

Mark 1:40-45 (New Revised Standard Version)

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.


He did not want to be there, but it was a requirement.

Doing spirituality assessments, looking at the issues folks had beyond the actual physical and emotional addiction to alcohol and/or illicit drugs, as the program’s chaplain over at the VA, I interviewed everyone who came into the 21-day substance abuse program.  While they asked to be in the program, it didn’t mean that everyone wanted to talk with a religious figure – like a chaplain.

They had no choice.

Including the man who sat down and other than his name, he just sat there.

I could sense the anger, but knew it wasn’t about me.  I already knew he had lost his wife to cancer and then someone had driven through his middle class neighborhood some months later while his son was visiting him, and just randomly shot and killed his son.  Thus began what became a few years of drug abuse as he “self-medicated” himself, and then the eventual the loss of both his home and his business.  He had become homeless finally and a fellow vet had pointed him toward a way out of his hole.

Something had to change, so here he was.


Unwilling to answer questions.

Getting nowhere, I decided to stretch back in my chair and stare at the ceiling as I asked him questions.  Questions he would not answer.  I could see out of my peripheral vision that he kept glancing at the ceiling, trying to figure out what I was seeing on that institutional white ceiling.  Finally I just quietly observed, “No scorch marks,” and glanced over at him.


Sometimes it is how we think that God will react that prevents us from the very honesty that opens us to the healing of our spirits, making it we,–ourselves — who stand in the way of needed grace.


This has been the thing that has rolled around in my thoughts this past week, when reflecting upon Mark’s description of the healing of the leper.

In background, we may well have heard it before, but leprosy was condemned in the Old Testament as a singular example of how sin defiles a person.  To protect His covenant people from its ravages while teaching them an object lesson about sin, God gave clear instructions in Leviticus 13 on the conduct of those with leprosy.  Broadly speaking, they were to remain apart, confined to a designated area, only interacting with other lepers.  Intended to prevent the spread of the disease, such separation also provided a powerful visual lesson of how sin alienated people – both from a holy God and from each other – making them spiritually filthy.

However, clearly this man was done with the pain of isolation.

Perhaps hearing of what had transpired at the home of Peter, the word spreading of Jesus’ ability to heal, the leper brought his hope of being welcomed back into the community of God’s people.  So he approached Jesus in this brief, intense exchange, declaring:  “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

An interesting dynamic is played out here.  Although somewhat dampened in the translation from the original Greek, scholars have noted a tone of righteous anger and indignation in Jesus’ response to the leper.  In a sense, he did put Jesus between a rock and a hard place, because for Jesus to touch him was to transfer his own uncleanliness and unsociability to Jesus.  It was to reverse their places in the eyes of the Law, initiating Jesus into the drama the leper had been living – putting Jesus now on the outside and the leper on the inside.  It is here then, that Jesus first starts to embody the words of Isaiah 53 [11-12] as to Christ bearing the iniquities of others and being “numbered with the transgressors,” in order to fulfill the Law and usher in the kingdom of Grace.

And so Mark uses a word in the original Greek that would have been clear to his first readers, as to Jesus’ irritation at the temple priests – not the leper.  Using a word that originally referred to the sound made by a horse snorting, it’s a word that only makes sense if the man had already been to the priests with his request to be cleansed – and had been rejected.  So to these same priests, Jesus sternly gives the leper the order to return as a witness giving testimony before a hostile audience.

But we have no Temple priests in our age, we say.  That system is long gone, so how does this make sense to us?

The circumstances indeed have changed during the intervening 2,000 years.  However, I would submit that what remains just as true now as it was then, is that the real hindrance to grace isn’t the temple priests in Jerusalem, but the “priests” who lie within one’s heart – fixated upon the Law, fearful and judging, keeping one from approaching our God.

Let me explain.

The man I long ago encountered on the first day of his recovery program knew exactly what I meant when I said quietly, “No scorch marks.”

We all know what that phrase means.

He clearly feared God would behave not unlike the mythical Zeus and he would be on an unfortunate receiving end of a lightning bolt – if he was honest about his negative feelings before God.  And so he had held back, for a long time.

My observation is that whatever is held back in self-judgment imposed, therefore it becomes a hindrance to the health of that relationship.

Let’s be honest, if there is a barrier to needed grace, it usually lies within our own hearts:  with the internal “priests” [air quotes!] inside our minds and our hearts judging ourselves, distancing us from the God who heals.  Our fears being given a greater place to stand than the love of God in Jesus Christ – until we, like the long ago leper, just can’t do it anymore.

I think at times of that addict who had held his tongue for too long and suffered too much upon such self-imposed isolation, one every bit as painful as the long ago leper’s experience.  He had cut himself off from friends, family, even God, because of his anger at injustice, and the belief it had made him unworthy to approach God.  And so his suffering had lingered far too long.

Then I think about the image of his face, still fresh in my mind some 12 years later.  I watched it change from defiant to sad as he began to weep, as the load slipped from his shoulders and he stepped into the first of many conversations, moving toward what became a successful long-term recovery.

The origins of suffering do vary: whether one may possess culpability or said suffering is the kind which the Book of Job makes clear that one does NOT need to own.  In any genuine encounter with Christ, there is often just the profoundly simple plea:  “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  It is a plea that is always answered with “I do choose.  Be made clean!”  And this, my friends, is equally of import:  each of us must then EMBRACE that healing and LEAN into it.


Jesus does not just bring cleansing.  Jesus IS cleansing, and what we wrestle with most… all the self-judgment… all the guilt… all the shame… they are Gone.

In their place?  Healing.  Love.  Acceptance.  Forgiveness.  A clean start.

Through the grace of our Lord, the false priests within our hearts are dismissed.

It is ours for the asking.

Memorial Service for Dot Penn (Jan 27th, 2018)

I am remiss in not posting this earlier.

Dot Penn Memorial (Jan2018)Memorial Service for Dorothy “Dot” Penn.  Held at First Christian Church, on January 27, 2018, celebrating the life of our dear and remarkable friend and servant of Christ our Lord.



“Be kind to you, Dot,” I said.

We were talking one day early on when neither of us had any suspicion how long nor short our new friendship might be.  This faith-filled woman of intellect, and devotion, who conversed with God just as she would any one of us, seemed a bit worried she had not measured up somehow; this follower of Christ who approached her faith with such rigorous intentionality and depth of expectation of God’s grace.  It took me aback briefly that she had that worry.  But, don’t most of us feel that at times in our lives?

She tilted her head and smiled at me, in that way of Dot, with her expressive eyes and puffed up round cheeks, a look for which she had earned the nickname “Bunny” in college, already then held in deep affection by an expanding circle of love.  A lifelong student of faith and of life, my words seemed a new thought to her.

“Be kind to my friend Dot,” I said again.

She said she’d try.  We all need to hear of grace.  It was the subject of a couple of conversations amid her devotion to strive until the last to be what none — in this life – can ever fully obtain:  a servant in complete conformity to the mind of Christ in being and doing.

It makes sense then, that the 51st Psalm would be a favorite of Dot,

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”  Words that ultimately continue, saying: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”


You see, Dot’s hope to be cleansed wasn’t ever just about herself.  It was about how her faith in God could best equip her life to be of service to others.  Always, others.


Nowhere is that more clear than in the sealed letter she wrote in May of 2014, to be opened upon her earthly death.

Bliss had moved to Hampton so she could help her sister and true to form, Dot, as typical of both sisters, quickly got down to the proverbial brass tacks, when Dot looked far ahead and wrote of the inevitable day that comes to all mortal life.  As she wrote Bliss with a final blessing to her sister:

“Thank you for loving me so much.  I love you too!!  You’ve forsaken your life to take care of me.  It was a long journey, but we did it!  As I have told you many times, I am not afraid to die – as all must do.  I believe Jesus came and died to save us from hell, if we believe in Him we are saved.  And I do believe in Him and you do too, so we are saved.”

Before going into the practical details of things Dot wanted to be handled upon her death:

Her first consideration was to give thanksgiving to a sister who was first of all, her best friend throughout life.  Joined in a common heart and not just a few adventures, whether as kids cutting through a pasture and finding themselves running from a bull or in the more mundane elements of life, this “loyal love” [hesed] as the Old Testament would put it, was central to Dot’s life.  It was the welcomed gift received as much as given – and so in everything there was thanksgiving for LOVE.  Like one of the photos on the screen before the service, with Bliss and Dot as youngsters – through the “long journey, (they) did it” as an inseparable team.

Her second consideration was to give to a sister and a witness now to each of us, a confession of faith and hope, and Dot’s fearlessness in the face of death, one I clearly witnessed – because of her salvation in Jesus Christ. It was only the physical process, to this independent spirit, that at times was a bit of a challenge.  In our last conversation, shortly before she passed, Dot said to me, “I didn’t think dying would be so hard.”  When I asked her, “What did you think it would be like?” she pursed her lips in thought, looked at me and said, “Well, I’d just go walking in a park and that would be it” with an upward lilt to her voice.  That was her vision of walking into the eternal embrace of love.  I thought then and know now, how fitting a park would be the image she would hold up, this formerly avid gardener whose love of God’s creation was close at hand just outside her window with several bird feeders always occupied, or who in healthier days made trips to soak in the majesty of the Grand Canyon on more than one occasion, and other places – with friends in tow.  I find myself believing that her dignified and always open spirit was granted precisely such an image as she moved into eternity.

The lifelong salvation Dot held close and her almost childlike wonder at God’s creation and his creatures was lived out in the largeness of Dot’s heart for others.  It was an ever-broadening family that kept on taking in newcomers, a banquet table that kept being extended to accommodate yet more.  That isn’t typical, especially for one of such years, when the circle of friendship usually shrinks because of both the passing of old friends and hesitancy to invest in new ones.  Dot didn’t have that problem.  She collected hearts, without ceasing her life’s mission – to love one another, as Christ first loved us.  I think that’s why I just never quite grasped that Dot was 93 years old, because the passing of the years had left her spirit undiminished in her openness to learning and relationships.  She remained young in heart, for in her was the Life.

In Dot was a heart that once connected with young children at the beginning of their schooling, among the very first teachers to work with Title I, which includes Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged children catch up and thrive.  In her was a heart that caused her to befriend a young woman of 13 who had lost her own mother, becoming a second mother to her and modeling for her what would become Denise’s own vocation.  In her was an expansive heart for spiritual daughters of varying ages and yes, even a few sons, all children to her – not merely linked by blood, but of heart and of soul.  Each brought under wing, offered friendship of the highest order and gifted with a commitment that lasted until death.  Friends, neighbors, this congregation, and even the maintenance man, all found themselves equally brought under the expansive and ever-accommodating roof of the house of Dot.

One of the first stories, a defining one that Dot shared, was of her father. A bank custodian who worked to ensure her education would continue into college, his words had echoed across the decade.  When the day came for her to go to college, his parting words were: “Don’t bring home anything you didn’t take with you.”  With teen pregnancy all around, she recounted, he did not want her stepping away from the larger vision for her life.  Such a vision for others and that directness of speech – the “word of truth in love,” as it is referred to in scripture, was certainly a characteristic passed from father to daughter, as we all know.

So if Psalm 51 was what grounded her, I find myself thinking of Dot in terms of our second reading, from I Kings 2, of that transitional time when a spiritual parent is soon to pass.  Elijah knew his time was approaching and was at peace with it, but clearly his spiritual son Elisha had become anxious.  Death has a way of catching that childlike anxiousness in us of being left behind, doesn’t it?

And so, as it is written, “When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ (to which) Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’”

There is an insightful hope in Elisha’s words, a hope that is echoed today; to inherit that double portion of Dot’s spirit.  Double the elder’s share of the spiritual estate, it isn’t about having twice the spirit of his spiritual father and accomplishing twice as much.  There simply is no replacement for Dot, no more than there was for Elijah.  We know this, for each is uniquely created and each serves by the will of God in their own season according to their own calling.  Elijah noted he had no power to give away the power he had received, — and yet, Elisha’s prayer was indeed answered.  Such is the grace of God, as Elisha took up the work.

Today is about receiving the transference of unfinished tasks.  The mantle which has fallen is the one we now gather up as family of the heart: to serve in the full measure of our own lives, as, like Dot, we honor our Creator.  The purposes remain, to love, to encourage, to befriend, to mentor – in the full measure of our own gifts.  Life continues and a new voice speaks from the seemingly empty place.


So I want to ask you all to take a moment right now and really look around this sanctuary:  Look at one another, at the diversity, depth and size of this extended spiritual family that Dot (with Bliss’ help, of course) created out of her love.  I want you to FEEL Dot here because she truly is.  She is in all of us, surrounding us, lifting us up to be the best we can be.  See in your head, in your heart, how she is smiling in her Jesus’ presence.  You see, today isn’t about gaining a new part of Dot.  She had already imparted to us her most precious possessions – her heart and her faith.  Today is holding close how she has shaped us and beckoned us to likewise serve God through relationship with others – like her, GRATEFUL recipients of God’s great love!



The family of Dot Penn has asked that memorial gifts may be directed to:  First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA  23666.  For more information, call the church office at (757) 826-0711.

Obituary of: Dorothy “Dot” Brown Penn

Dorothy Brown Penn, 93, a long-time resident of Hampton, passed away peacefully on Thursday, January 11, 2018, with her loving sister and caregiver, Bliss, at her side.  She is a native of Petersburg, VA.  She is preceded in death by her parents, Bliss and Mary West, and her beloved husband, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Penn, and granddaughter Kaitlin Ashby.  She was a retired educator from Newport News Public Schools after 30 years of service, an avid gardener, and enjoyed traveling with family and friends.  Dorothy is survived by her loving sister, Bliss Wagstaff of Hampton, her nephew, Bliss Armstead and wife Karen of Williamsburg, her numerous nephews, her beloved cousin Brenda Evans and husband Michael of Pittsburgh, PA, her children, Denise Ashby and Kermit Ashby, M.D. of Yorktown, Trudy Kelly of Newport News, Katrina and Micheal Foster of Newport News, Brenda and Robin Vines, Sue Van Vector, Robin Faith, and Beverly Sustare (special friend) all of Hampton, granddaughters Kristen Ashby, M.D. of San Antonio, Texas, and Kathryn Ashby of Franklin.  In addition to those mentioned, there are so many more extended family members and friends that were dear to her heart.

Thank you to the caring and compassionate professionals of Riverside Palliative and Hospice Care, and the physicians, team nurses, and Telemetry Team at Riverside Hospital. And, special thanks to her wonderful neighbors, and Rev. Vinson Miller, Linda Kuster, and Dorothy’s entire church family at First Christian Church of Hampton for all their prayers and support.

Private interment will be at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.

The family requests memorial gifts be made in memory of Dorothy Penn to: First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane Hampton, VA 23666, (757) 826-0711.

A Sermon: Unsettled


*Grandview Beach, an old bulkhead near the long-gone lighthouse, I photographed in 2009.

The Gospel of Mark 1:21-28 

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.



It was the Sabbath.  Naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to synagogue.

Some of them entered sleepily, others with weariness after a busy week.  Others perhaps in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it.

It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.

They came from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in differing emotions and mental states.  It was their habit to come there, for as long as many of them could remember.  You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly predictable service, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a doxology, and then went home for the noon meal.

It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.

But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there and stood up as some kind of guest pastor that day.  Few, if any, had ever heard of him before and when they looked at the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth, perhaps a few groaned.  But then he started to teach and they sensed this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing.  A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!” on the bulletin, showing it to the person next to them.  Something extraordinary was happening

Suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up.  “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH US, Jesus of Nazareth?!  Have you come to wipe us out already!?  I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” Jesus commanded.  You know everyone was glad he said it because it was probably on the tip of their tongues, but then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!”  No sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth than the man convulsed, shrieking one last time and collapsing into a heap.  But then he was better, the fire gone from his eyes and a look of calm in their place; probably the only calm-looking one in the whole place at that point!  This is the scene recounted in Mark.

It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue.

But on that particular day, by the time they returned home from the Synagogue, the people had the overwhelming sense they had been in the very presence of God in a way that was anything but typical.  In a setting of prayer, teaching, worship, and community gathering – questions of Jesus’ authority had found their answer.


In this continuing season of Epiphany, dedicated to celebrating and considering the means by which Christ becomes visible and known to the world, we are challenged again to be amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and his deeds, and the upending of our assumptions about what’s possible.  Just as the words of Mark are written in the present active tense, it isn’t just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the Gospel’s power, it’s about discovering what deserves our amazement today.


In the book A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, there is the story of  when “a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors.  When it was Rabbi Yechiel’s turn, he noted, “In my family, I’m the first eminent ancestor.”  A bit shocked, his colleagues went on to each expound upon the Torah, holding forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.  One after another they delivered their learned dissertations, when at last it came time again for Rabbi Yechiel to say something.  He arose and said, “My masters, my father was a baker.  He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale.  This can also apply to learning.”  Then he sat down. [p. 51].

I think this points to the contrast in Mark, between Jesus’ teaching and that of the learned scribes, as Jesus’ teaching is described in two ways: it is “with authority” and it is a “new teaching.”  It is fresh.  It is authoritative.

Mark depicts Jesus as uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to declare and institute the reign of God – this intrusive, boundary-breaking, liberating reign that breaks people from the powers that afflict them and which hinders his creation, both individually and in societies, from flourishing.  His presence, words, and deeds, however, will be contested.

“Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means, and his teaching is self-authenticating without need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere [Mark, Interpretation Commentaries, p. 50].  His words are meant to shake us up as a church, to not be so comfortable in the way it has been that we are unable to experience our vision being enlarged and our awe of God being rekindled through Jesus Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit.  Two words describe the people’s reactions, “astounded” and “amazed”.  The first is perhaps best translated as “blown out of their minds”, something so incomprehensible that the mind can’t fathom what has just been experienced – in his teaching, his authority, and yes the way he related to the man with the unclean spirit as he commands and the spirit obeys.

Someone such as Christ’s challenger would have been sent out as soon as he had identified himself, as his ritual uncleanliness would have been considered a contagion.  But the kingdom breaking forth challenges that in the very person of Jesus Christ.  Healing cannot take place through exclusion, only inclusion.  Healing cannot take place through the limited vision of what is present, but what is possible.  Jesus challenged the implicit holiness movement of his day, by accepting the presence of all into the house of God, regardless of what troubled them.  He trusted his own message of grace, and that was an element of his authority – one shared with us as Christ-bearers.

As to the man himself with the unclean spirit who initiates the exchange, his opening question is idiomatic and thus difficult to translate.  It conveys a sense of “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?”

Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order.  He has crossed an established boundary.  He has not left things as they were.

In all of this, I find myself thinking back to a man I once knew.  He had been, well, a pretty terrible human being in life.  BUT! Something had awakened in this man and we were moving through a number of weeks toward reconciliation and a cautiously caressed change in his heart, when he became seriously ill.  Normal arrangements to baptize him were cast aside, as I instead poured water on him, baptizing him on the gurney as we hurriedly navigated the hallway toward emergency surgery.  He never regained consciousness and died a day or so later.  Absent since his teens, more than six decades had passed, as he was now welcomed back into the church on the day of his very funeral.  I have to say, not everyone was initially happy about the prodigal coming home:  particularly the church celebrating his life, knowing how he had once lived and not having witnessed his spiritual restoration.  The grace of Christ really is greater than our sometimes stunted imagination, his authority greater than brokenness, and his witness can come through those we would have dismissed and considered essentially already “buried.”  We were the ones amazed, for that day reminded us of the authentic promise and power of the Gospel.  It isn’t something that only happened in a synagogue two millennia ago.


In follow up to last week, I thus ask you to again ponder the call of God upon your life.  As a believer given authority in the name of Christ, you are expected to think about the lesson from Mark and how “the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that YOU most need to DO and (b) that the WORLD most needs to have ACCOMPLISHED.”

Again, the question remains: WHERE does “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?”  In remembering and celebrating our beloved Dot yesterday, I daresay that many of us in the service and the lovely fellowship time following it might have caught a piece of this concept ribboning through the stories and observations shared about her life.  By her joy-filled wonder at nature’s miracles, in her deep devotion to learning, through her acknowledgement of this world’s deep hungers in the way she raised up, guided, and unconditionally loved any and all whose need SHE recognized, we were privileged to witness the convergence of Dot’s deep gladness with the great need of this world.  LOVE.  LOVE, my friends, is at the core of both this question and it’s answer.     Let us continue this conversation in the weeks ahead.


Pastor’s Note:  Preached on 28 January 2018, at First Christian Church.  The “introduction” section was adapted from a paraphrase of the lessen, which I came across.  Marvelous way to remember that sometimes we come to church with not a dissimilar mindset, so the Gospel can reawaken us from the all-too-human tendency to sleep walk through life, a trap that even the followers of Christ can fall into.  In humility, sermon is offered for your further reflection.

A Sermon: Transcendence in a Skeptical Time

22406382_10210749480789380_4432297930704351342_nDelivered on Sunday, January 21st, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), and posted without edit.  I made some minor modifications on the fly this morning.  [Above photo taken in a bathroom stall of a flea market in Kentucky, back in October.  First time I’ve ever seen Christian graffiti , of which there was much.  Remembered it when looking for a picture that fits the day!]


The Gospel of Mark 1:14-20 (NRSV)

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.



I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to be called, of late.  My father heard the call to ministry amid the Billy Graham Crusade that was held in Miami back in April of 1961, just as I turned two years old.  Serving as a Spanish language translator for the boatloads of refugees our nation welcomed into southern Florida, following the Cuban Revolution, who were looking for a needed word of hope.  An elder of his church, he began to wrestle over a deep sense of call.  At age 35, with four kids in tow, Dad quit his job as the general manager of my grandfather’s business and within four months he moved our family all the way to Oklahoma starting seminary by September.  It was a pretty radical change, to say the least!

It may have been a bit prophetic that Dad bought a used zoo truck which even included a giraffe hatch, to serve as our moving van in those pre-U-Haul days.  Our situation was a bit of a circus!

Dad’s call was initially family-splitting.  Not only for putting states between us and Mom and Dad’s families, but also pulling us away from our only known home.  Grandfather Miller proved so angry it was almost a year before he finally again talked with Dad, and that was because there was just no way he was going to stay away from us grandkids as he and my grandmother drove out to see us the following year.

In reading from the Gospel of Mark, I would imagine there was also some churn as well.

When Simon, Andrew, James, and John walked away from all the life they had known to follow Jesus at his word, their friends and family must have been left scratching their heads, wondering at what had transpired and what their future now held.


As Mark described, in his extremely pithy writing style that would have made perfect sense to Roman sensibilities, God has a way of intruding into our lives, upending our predictable paths, and calling us to follow.  The only thing up for grabs is the form of that particular call made upon our lives, and the context of laity or ordained, as to where God is seen as leading us.


The audience to whom Mark wrote, the church in Rome, as members of the larger Roman culture would have certainly appreciated people of action.  It was a virtue to them.  They would have honored the idea of picking up and going straight away.  In fact, such a sense of immediacy permeates the Gospel of Mark, in the frequent use of an adverb (“Eutheos”) that’s translated as straight away and immediately.  Some 41 of the 59 times this word is used in the New Testament, are found in Mark; 11 in this first chapter alone.  There is no time to waste.  No tardiness about Christ’s service.  It’s something to be embarked upon “straight away.”  It has an intensity.  The kingdom is breaking out into the world!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this element of directness, transparent and unambiguous…

It actually reminds me a lot of where the younger generation is coming from, the ones that in our label-conscious society we loosely call Millennials.  My kids’ generation.

No nonsense.  Cut to the chase.  Natural at detecting lies.  Enjoy entertainment, but only where the meaningfulness comes through, as what matters most is being with those who are authentic and without guile.

Alas, as one pastor has written, in our society, “Millennials have a dim view of church and are highly skeptical of religion.”

There is an “ouch” in this, but the truth frees us.  Among them is a belief in God and desire for spirituality, but let’s face it, the larger institution has been tarnished in too many ways, even if the experience is different at a local church.  I saw this in the military with increasing numbers having agnostic or no preference on their dog tags, even those I knew to have a faith background.  They had walked away.  The culture wars of the past 30 years haven’t helped, for too often the image of Christ’s church has not been one of refuge and caring.  After all, if we aren’t a holy refuge and place of accepting love, what are we doing here?

I think that is the genius of The Welcome Table, far more than Sunday mornings – at least to them.  It certainly drew our attention.

Caring for others.  Waiting on them.  Serving them.  Getting to know them as people, first and foremost.  This IS the very vision of a loving and holy God, one that captures attention, energy, and hearts.

However, to be a place that is a worshiping, learning, experiencing community which is decidedly different from any other aspects of their lives, isn’t just a fad to appeal to a particular generation.  It is being in direct connection with the early church.  It is being a community which shares a unique and genuine experience of faith that cannot be found elsewhere in our society, and yes, to be challenged here, even by the difficult topics in life.  It is allowing God to intrude into life with a holy word balanced by a human deed.  THAT is church.

This is what it is to be called of God.  And I’m not just talking about pastors, and elders, and deacons, for it is an all-inclusive word that Paul shares in saying we are a “priesthood of all believers;” it is just a matter of what manner in which we serve God’s purposes.  It is a phrase we are called to own.  Each of us.  And just maybe, we’ll encounter the succinct description of calling that I came across:

“The thought of doing it has to exhilarate and terrify, more or less in equal measure.  It has to tap into existing (if unseen) spiritual gifts, and to do so while meeting a need which we, personally, see in the world.”

It might be easier, however, if God spoke to us as clearly as Jesus heard his voice upon his baptism.  Instead, it tends towards an awakening of subtle or perhaps not so subtle indications and events, certainly that was true for my father, just as it was true for me, but perhaps we need to more ably address how we keep our spirits open to such listening, or how we experience the discernment of the Spirit, or how we ably facilitate such spiritual wrestling amid this thing called church – that we might be terrified and exhilarated, tapping into who God created us to be and meeting an unmet need around us.

There is a lot of noise to filter out and – my gosh! – we do have the distractions as never before, making it a challenge at times to be still and quiet enough simply to hear God’s voice.  As the theologian Frederick Buechner points out in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC:

“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest” [pg. 118].

So how do we sift out God’s call to us and what his mission  or latest mission  is for our lives?  How do we do it as easily as a child picks out a parent’s voice in a crowd, in this intersection in life Buechner speaks of as existing between one’s deepest joy and the world’s great need?

“By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” [pgs. 118-19].


So I ask you to ponder this question in coming weeks: Where do *your deep gladness* and the *world’s deep hunger* meet in your life?

And we’ll keep talking about that….


Pastor’s Note:  I found the following to be very useful amid preparation for this sermon, outside of various commentaries and word studies.

Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, by Frederick Buechner.

The Barna Institute has for decades done outstanding research, and 5 Things Millennials Wish The Church Would Be is no different.  https://exponential.org/5-things-millennials-wish-the-church-would-be/

An intriguing article in Leadership Journal, which caught my attention in Drew Dyck’s article Millennials Don’t Need a Hipper Pastor, They Need a Bigger God, in post “Millennials Don’t Need a Hipper Pastor, They Need a Bigger God”).

Come & See!

DSC_0314Delivered on Sunday, January 14th, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), and posted without edit.  A bit longer than my usual sermon, so apologies for a service today that overran. [Above photo taken of my brother & me, back in the mid-1960s, in Oregon.]


The Gospel of John 1:43-51 (NRSV)

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


For those who like stories and exploring their meaning, the Gospel of John is paradise.  He doesn’t worry about historical sequence like Matthew, brevity like Mark, or a methodical discussion like Luke.  The day after John the Baptist immerses Jesus in the muddy River Jordan, John doesn’t get into such details like the others – but how Jesus saw the Spirit baptize him, or that two of the Baptist’s disciples follow Jesus to figure out if he is who they think he is – one of whom is Andrew, who then finds his brother Peter and brings him to meet Jesus.  Or how Jesus meets and calls Philip the next day, and like Andrew, he runs off to tell someone else, in this case, Nathanael.  “We’ve found him,” says Philip, “we’ve found the one, the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, the Savior, and, are you ready for this, it’s Jesus, son of Joseph from . . . Nazareth.”


Nathaniel’s response is, shall we say, edgy with sarcasm, but Philip just takes it all in without defensiveness and says, “Come and see.”  As another has written of these simple, open, and inviting words summing up the heart of the Gospel of John and the whole Christian life, they are the “…only fit response among those who have witnessed the grace and mercy of God take shape among us, enfleshed in the babe of Bethlehem, crucified at Golgotha, raised on the third day, all for our sake.  Come and see.”


Nathaniel knew of Nazareth, a town of 500 to 2000 souls that was barely, if ever, mentioned in first century documents outside of Scripture.  Some miles off the nearest exit from a major East-West trade route running from Egypt to Asia, this agricultural and fishing community lay in the hill country of Galilee.  Known in Scripture for its distinctive regional accent, a large population of Gentiles, and its mix of immigrants, foreigners, and resident aliens, one can sense that all was not peaceful.  While it was the home of our Lord, even Mark notes Jesus could do few healings in Nazareth, because of the residents’ unbelief and lack of faith.  There is an undercurrent of unhappiness, perhaps resentment towards those not like themselves in an area that was just sorta getting by, not unlike the social discontent displayed in resentment and even racism that is manifesting in our own country these days towards immigrants and those of color.  If Matthew minimizes the lack of openness among the people of Nazareth as their still thinking of Jesus as a carpenter’s son, Luke is blunt in his 4th chapter, writing of when Jesus returned to the synagogue in Nazareth to preach.  At first they are all impressed with his words.

Then, Jesus makes it clear he isn’t there to hand out warm fuzzys saying “Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, cure thyself,” referring to how they believe Jesus should heal his own people first, things turn south fast.  Seeking to open their eyes to their own racism and set them free from that captivity, Jesus speaks to the proverbial elephant in the room, reminding them of how God’s love extends beyond their people – to those like an immigrant widow and not even one living within Israel proper, to whom God sent Elijah, or how out of all of the lepers in Israel, Elisha only cleansed the foreigner Naaman.  Then and now, many do not react well they are seen for their hardened hearts which would limit God’s blessings to those like themselves.  The congregation offers to take Jesus cliff diving, with no water below.  So you can understand why Nathaniel may have already known enough about Nazareth’s challenges enough to ask with his tart, skeptical tongue: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

In response, Philip offers no emotionally manipulative plea, spiritual blackmail or fear tactics of any sort.  They don’t really work anyhow, especially with the generation that has now come of age in our time.  Instead, Philip simply says: “Come and see.”  I find this interesting, the absence of any hard push, just an invitation grounded in authentic friendship and what Philip sees in play with Jesus.  Exactly the kind of things looked for by the Millennials of today – authenticity and a non-exclusionary gospel which makes a pragmatic difference in people’s lives.

So now, imagine us using such words, “Come and see,” of the Christ we know and how he is manifested in the life of this congregation.  Of our Welcome Table’s ministry.  How we care for our ill members in visits, calls and more, and yes – the dying.  How we share meals and friendship, checking in on one another.  And how we have a shared friendship that quickly includes the stranger.

We’re just invited to say — not to push, just to say — “Come and see.”

It’s too good to not share, with friends, neighbors, and strangers alike – with people who look like us and who don’t, with people who think like us and who don’t.  The table is thrown open, because it is Christ who invites, not us.  And, if they aren’t interested?  Or they dismiss what we have to say?  Or they channel Nathaniel and make a wisecrack?  That’s OK.

We know folks have experienced reasons to make them distrustful.  Sometimes they have experienced followers of Christ who have made a mess of things and we know it and we hear of it.  Some are angry and/or resentment toward God for other reasons, wrapped up in painful events.

We also know most of us aren’t comfortable talking about sharing the Good News.  Maybe we’re just nervous about sharing our faith in a pretty charged up culture right now, but maybe we’ve just never practiced it, developing competence and confidence in what we have to say.

Think about it.  Have you ever contemplated what you would tell someone about who we are as a church, in a way of invitation?  What some call the 60-second elevator speech?  Well, some of us take a bit longer!  But the point is: do we know what we would say if we took word to a receptive Peter or to a skeptical Nathaniel, or someone whose name we may just barely know?  Maybe what it is that you like about this church, or of a time when it has been meaningful or helpful to you.  Maybe about when you have felt like you’ve seen God at work in your life or in the world.  Maybe when you learn someone is looking for a faith home or has just moved into the neighborhood, and you like what we have here.  There’s lots of maybes out there, because it is what we individually see, what we experience, and thus what we have to say with our words “Come and see.”

In my home office there is a military plaque dating to my Naval tour when I was the chaplain assigned to all of the East Coast SEAL teams, with a wry bit of humor on what “special really means.”  There were indeed some very special people there, SEALs and the support personnel alike – in an extremely busy tour that I absolutely loved.  Having already been done intensive surveying of personnel in order to shape my approach to ministry among them, I had become aware of the unusually high percentage of self-identified atheists and agnostics within the teams.  I had a reasonable suspicion this was linked to two factors:  being raised to believe everything that happened was God’s direct will, including tragic circumstances; and having had a very high exposure to some really awful scenarios and intense human suffering.  It was what we would now call moral injury, which had caused so many to turn their backs on God.  Kind of like “if that’s how God is gonna run things, I don’t want any part of Him.”

So it was that one SEAL in particular made a point the first time we met of poking fun at my Christian faith.  It wasn’t something I had ever experienced.  But, I kept talking with him and after 5 or 10 minutes I went along my way.  Next day, it happened again, and then a third day, at which point I realized that through the barbs he was telling me about his suffering and inviting me into relationship within a world of biting sarcasm.  He would tell me anti-Christ jokes, and so I would get him going by quickly telling him anti-atheist jokes.  Probably could not have gotten away with that in my later years as a chaplain, but we’d trade such jokes for up to 30 minutes and grin at each other until one of us would remember there was work to be done and call it a day, until the next round.  He started wishing me well at the end of each of these very weird sessions which generally drew an audience of well-entertained SEALs.  This went on for weeks, a couple days every week, until one day he said something to which I then said “Oh, you DO believe in God!”  “No, I don’t!” he responded, to which I replied “Yes you do,” as I quickly and logically went through what he had just said as proof of his belief in fact, concluding with “I win!” as I laughed and headed down the hall.  He yelled after me that I hadn’t won.

The next morning, he popped into my office, something he had never done, and started off by saying that I wasn’t like the other chaplains.  Curious, I asked him what that was about.  He said they all “got angry and stomped off” when he had told them the very jokes he first tried on me.  None had seen he was presenting his wound, seeking healing, but only saw him as judging them, and what was worse – God.  He began to tell me his own story, raised in the church, he had ceased to believe.  He spoke of what mattered to him most – the sorrows which had been transpiring among his kids.  At the end, he said he was going to start going back to Mass with his wife, and that she would like that.  Not that he believed, he said as he winked at me.  At least once a week he’d bring coffee and we’d chat about his family, and sometimes his faith.  Jokes no more.  With our new headquarters building almost finished, he noticed something in the plans and had the chaplain’s office relocated so it would allow SEALs to slip in and out to talk with me without being seen.  He made himself my advocate, this once self-identified atheist – who wasn’t.


Come and see, Philip says, the one foretold, Jesus of Nazareth.  The one who heals and calls us to love others, period.  This is the Good News, and it is just as relevant in our own age and especially in our richly diverse country.



Pastor’s note:  I am a student of people and few don’t make some kind of lasting impression upon me.   Often the ones who I find the most significant and whose sacred story I hold most close and lasting, are those who may be injured – but who nevertheless have remarkable integrity, even if what they may first present to me isn’t pleasant to see and/or hear.  When I share a story, I do edit it so as to protect their privacy and thus you will not hear the details as to their suffering.  Those will always remain something between myself, them, and God alone.   After all, the point is never the specifics, but that we each have something to teach one another about being a human being, made in God’s image, and called – each of us – to be God’s healing agents in a too-often messed up world.   In doing so, we may or not be rewarded with friendship or any other “feel good,” but we will honor God.   And just maybe, we may have an opportunity to invite another to the great feast, which is the Kingdom of God on earth, hidden and yet revealed.