Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dec 21, 2008 - Our Story

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O'Clock

2 Sam 7.4, 8-16: That night Yahweh told Nathan, ... “So now, say this to my servant David: ‘This is what Yahweh of hosts says: I took you from the pasture and from your work as a shepherd to make you leader of my people Israel. I was with you wherever you went, and I defeated all your enemies before you. Now I will make you as famous as the great men of the earth. I will establish a place for my people Israel and settle them there; they will live there and not be disturbed any more. Violent men will not oppress them again, as they did in the beginning and during the time when I appointed judges to lead my people Israel. Instead, I will give you relief from all your enemies. Yahweh declares to you that he himself will build a dynastic house for you. When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will make his dynasty permanent. I will become his father and he will become my son. When he sins, I will correct him with the rod of men and with wounds inflicted by human beings. But my loyal love will not be removed from him as I removed it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will stand before me permanently; your dynasty will be permanent.’”Blockquote

What we talk about tonight--the scripture passages we listen to, the story that connects them--is the most important thing we’ve talked about all through the last four weeks of Advent. We are listening to the story of Jesus as it unfolds. The story begins with a promise, with prophecy, and leads us right up to our own celebration in just a few days. It leads to a barn in Bethlehem, to a cross outside Jerusalem, to an empty grave, and to our continued waiting for Jesus to come again with his kingdom. This is an important story.

But I need to confess that I have a hard time, sometimes, relating to it. You see, tonight is different from the other nights we’ve gathered together this Advent. In the past weeks, we’ve talked about hope and repentance, about peace, about joy even in the midst of mourning--things that are in a lot of ways timeless, things that are abstract enough to be able to touch on each and any of our lives, whoever we are. Hope and peace and joy and, especially, repentance and mourning are things that we each can explain and illustrate from experiences in our own lives. But tonight is not like those things.

Tonight we are talking about something that is not abstract or general or public domain in any sense. Tonight we’re not even so much talking as listening. We are listening to a very specific, very unique story, the story that tells us who Jesus is, that tells us why he can be the source of our joyful hope for peace. We’re listening to events that are not general but historical, things that happened in history, promises that were given, a baby that was born. And this can be a lot more difficult to talk about, to relate to. What do we know about ancient kings in far off countries, about promises of an ideal leader, about the politics of three thousand years ago--we can barely keep up with our own! Why should we care about this?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dec 14, 2008 - Christmas Joy

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - 8 a.m. & 10.30 a.m.
14 December 2008
Lk 2.8-20

I want to talk about joy this morning. I want to talk about our reasons to be joyful--why we can be joyful, why we are able to rejoice. We get to hear this morning one the three or four most exciting events in all of scripture, in all of history. We get to hear how God came to be with us. Yet the account in Luke chapter 2 doesn’t allow us to reduce this to a pretty picture and nice sentiment inside a Hallmark card. It’s no tame thing, but in ways our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants cover up, it’s surprising, strange, mysterious, terrifying.

During our worship together the past two Sundays, Pastor Mark has passed out a booklet by Billy Graham, The Father’s Gift. If you haven’t received a copy, catch me or Pastor Mark after the service, and we’ll track one down for you. Billy Graham comes back over and over in the book to the difference between our stressed-out, hurry-up-and-shop experience of Christmas and what God was doing on the very first Christmas in Bethlehem. I encourage us each to read through it during this next week, whether on our own or together with family or friends, maybe at the dinner table. It’s short, with brief chapters. Maybe do a chapter a night.

In the chapter entitled “The Gift of Joy,” Billy Graham describes the scene we’re going to reflect on this morning. He writes, “Like most people of Palestine, those shepherds outside Bethlehem were poor and insignificant men. They had no reason to expect that this night would be different form any other. But God had other plans. This was the night when God Himself would come to earth. The dull routine of their lives was suddenly and dramatically shattered by the appearance of the angels, and the tidings of Christ’s birth echoed across the skies. What is the message of those Christmas angels? First of all, it is a message of love and peace. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will toward men,” sang the angelic multitude. It is a message of joy and hope. “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” The message of the Christmas angels is that God not only exists, but that He is a loving heavenly Father who seeks to restore us to what we were created to be--His children. Because God’s Son, Jesus Christ, has entered this world, we know beyond a shadow of doubt that joy and hope can be ours if we will but receive the gift of Christmas.” (28-29)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dec 7, 2008 - Our Hope Is Peace

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Ps 85.7-13--”Our Hope is Peace”

Last week we talked about how the world is broken and how we are broken. We prayed to God about the specific ways we need him to come and save us. We confessed to him the ways in which our hearts are set against his kingdom coming. We called these actions and attitudes what they really are: sin. We repented. We admitted to God that we have been wrong and that we want to be different now, that we want to watch and wait and live like his kingdom is really coming right here into our lives.

As part of saying all this, we took little slips of black paper and wrote on one sided the ways we feel the world’s brokenness. On the other side, we wrote ways we have sinned, how we have added to the brokenness of the world. And then we folded them up and tucked them into the branches of this tree. That was all last week. If you weren’t here and want to put your confession on the tree, catch me or Cindy after the service.

This week, I want to talk about hope. Specifically, about what we hope, the content of our hope. Two Advent candles are burning tonight. The first one, the one we first lit last week, is the Hope Candle. The second one we just lit tonight is the Peace Candle. We keep both burning tonight because hope and peace are all tied up together. Our hope is a big part of what it means for us to be Christians. But for what do we hope? Are we just looking to wake up to a better day tomorrow? Or maybe a lucky lotto ticket tucked in our Christmas stocking and exactly what we want wrapped up underneath the Christmas tree? As Christians, as Jesus-followers, we hope for peace.

We hope for peace. But not just any peace. We are not like an exasperated old man shouting for some peace and quiet. We aren’t like a harried mom, driving kids to school, to sports, wishing for just a moment’s peace. Sometimes we may want these kinds of peace, but that is not the peace Jesus leads us to hope for. In the ancient song we read tonight, Psalm 85, the songwriter expresses the kind of hope we have in Jesus.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nov 30, 2008 - We Are Here to Repent

Nov 30, 2008
First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Is 64.1-9 & Mk 13.24-37

Proposition: When we see the brokenness of our world, our hearts yearn for God’s kingdom to arrive; yet we must realize how we take part in the sin that is destroying our world and repent for it.

We are here tonight to repent. We have seen God come to save us, we have been saved by God, but we have not lived our lives as those who have been saved, as those who have seen God. We are here to repent.

This is what Isaiah has to say to us tonight. Tonight we are at the beginning of Advent. We lit a candle at the beginning of this service, the first candle in the Advent Wreath. Tradition associates the first candle with hope--the hope of Messiah, exiled Israel’s hope of return to the Promised Land, our hope of Jesus’ return to save us. Hope is powerful stuff--we’ve seen that recently in political campaigns; maybe we even feel that now as we look ahead to Christmas, to reunions with family, with old friends, to a break from the regular droning on of our day-to-day lives. I strongly believe that it is our hope that sets us apart as Christians.

The passage tonight tells us a lot about hope. This is a prophetic song. The song is longer than just the text we read tonight. It starts early in the previous chapter and stretches to the close of chapter 64. The prophet wrote this song in hope.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nov 23, 2008 - Why Are We Thankful

This begins a standing tradition of posting my weekly sermons to this blog. Some may be pretty decent, some may be lousy, some may be full of typos (though I try to be pretty conscientious).  I welcome your thoughts and feedback.  Here's installment #1:

November 23, 2008
First Presbyterian Church of DuPage 8 am

1 Thes 5.16-18 -- “Why are we thankful?”

In four days it will be Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving begins one of my favorite times of year: the get-togethers with family, the waiting and reflection of Advent, and the excitement of picking out or handmaking just the right gift for everyone on our list. And then the hush and wonder of Christmas itself. It’s a beautiful time of year, even with the snow.

But very often the experience itself fails to live up to the hype and expectation. The expected snowfall turns to sleet, happy times with family and old friends ends up feeling awkward and estranged, we mistakenly give all of our friends and family socks and fruitcake for presents. More seriously, this season is often a time of heartache, loneliness, and loss. The cold brings with it pneumonia, the flu, funerals. At this time of year we’re haunted by the memories of those who are not with us. It’s difficult.

So my question this morning is, Why should we be thankful during this season? Do we call Thursday Thanksgiving simply because it makes us feel good to have a day off, a big dinner, and a chance to watch some football? Even more importantly, why should we be thankful at all? We see the world falling apart around us. We see ourselves falling apart, outside and in. Why should we be thankful?

In 1 Thessalonians 5, verses 16 through 18, Paul gives a command that places us right in the middle of these questions. Turn there with me and follow along as I read his words.
[16] Rejoice always! [17] Constantly pray! [18] In everything give thanks! For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Starting Church

The past month has been really quite full. It’s seen a lot of changes. I’ve started seminary, refreshing my stale greek and hebrew, putting in a couple of sleepless nights hashing out my own synopsis of what preaching is biblically. Seminary is a forty-five minute drive north of here (and a 90 or so minute drive on the return trip!). That’s ratcheted up the degree of tension on my schedule.

A bigger change, however, occurred on September 5. A month ago I signed onto a project with a church located in Chicago’s southern suburbs (Bolingbrook, to be exact). The church is an old church (the second oldest in the Chicago area, according to the plaque in the history room). It’s full of families that have lived in that community since it was still dirtroads and cornfields instead of chain restaurants, big box stores, strip malls, and an Ikea. It’s a sweet Presbyterian congregation that reminds me much of my days at Cedarville United Presbyterian Church during undergrad.

But it’s also a church that hasn’t purposefully changed with the community. It has an aesthetically beautiful, large building that is awkwardly empty during most the week. This, I surmise, was part of the initial impulse to create my position.

I am the new director of young adult ministries. At this point, I don’t think anyone understands my role as just shoring up the giving-base of the church. That’s certainly not the way I understand it. Instead, the goal is to give birth to a young, growing christian community in the shell of an old one.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Theology of Preaching

I'm attending a required introductory course on preaching this semester at my seminary. One of its requirements was to make a first pass at a theology of preaching. I have many reservations about the traditional way christians have sermonized (to cite a couple of examples, it perpetuates a power differential in the church that Jesus seems to have abolished in his death and it is traditionally monologic, making need dialogue difficult as we try to discern what God is doing in our times). But I think this essay tries to bring preaching back into the common life of the church. I draw heavily on 1 Corinthians 14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4--all passages dealing heavily with how christians are to live together.

I'm posting this here in hopes to start some dialogue about the practice of being christian together in all the interpersonal and unavoidably primitively institutional implications this practice entails. Read on, then, but be forewarned that this text is a bit long. (Note: I'm having trouble getting my footnotes to format correctly here; please be advised that not every thought nor all the research is original to me. If you'd like to know to whom credit is due, contact me and I can provide that information. Or consult the bibliography at the end.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Way Things Work

For as-of-yet-undisclosed reasons, I find myself contemplating what a functioning church might look like. Functioning is an important word in this sentence. You see, I tend to think of churches primarily in terms of the way they function, the way they work.

Our neighborhood church meets at the most important intersection of our lives. It is the place where the gospel is planted within us, where it begins to green and come to life and send up shoots toward the glorious Son, to grow in the baptismal waters of the Spirit, to feed on the true food of scripture, the place where the gospel cracks the concrete of our hardened souls and the place where it twists and contorts our twisted and contorted forms into the image of Jesus, God’s Son.

To state this with a little more precision: the church down on the corner (or in the storefront, in the strip mall, in the cornfields, etc.) works to change deceived, abused, self-hating, self-absorbed persons into the promise and the presence of the God’s kingdom. Too often we understand our local churches as collections, like baseball cards or Beatles albums: a church is a congregation of individuals whom God has saved. This ignores too much of scripture. If we hold the church to be a benign society of believers, we make static something God founded as dynamic, we make dead something the Spirit breathed life into, something Christ died to bring to life.

I don’t foresee much opposition to the claim that many of us first heard the good news in a church. I certainly did, Sunday after Sunday in what was then the little Bozeman storefront of Fellowship Baptist. Nor will many disagree that some people first hear the gospel somewhere else–at an evangelistic rally, a Good News Club, from a friend, over coffee. But like my sometimes-hero Karl Rahner said, regardless of where we are when we hear it, the gospel relentlessly seeks its fullest expression in the church (the Roman Catholic Church, if one is a good Rahnerian!).

At heart, this post is really a segue to the same old discussion of “what is the Gospel?” that often crops up on this blog. If the gospel meets us as individuals, then it will not matter where and with whom we live our lives. We could be Christ-followers just as well chained in a cubicle as meeting with a cell church. But if the gospel addresses us as persons (as it indeed and thankfully does!), then how can we resist as it blossoms into the most important elements of our personhood, our relationships?

I believe that the gospel Jesus proclaimed (and that we are called to proclaim) is about the coming near of God’s kingdom. I cannot open scripture without finding that coming near concerns our present, personal relationships. The gospel is not “spiritual” (note the quotes), it is not theological, it is not something we accept in our hearts and not in our hands. It is something as real as crying babies, as everyday as money, as concrete as stale bread.

And if this is the gospel, then what can our churches be but the places where we live as if we’re living in the real, concrete, everyday kingdom of God? Church is the place where we shed our false gospels of abstraction, of feelings and of doctrines, and begin to truly live in Christ. Our shabby local churches are the places where the gospel begins to push through our soiled exteriors to grow us up into the people of God.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Over the past few months, I have been engaged in a conversation with the EFCA about my desire to help start new churches. As part of the application process, I had to write up my vision of what the church(es) I would start would look like. As Cindy and I are still a good three or more years out from doing anything non-academic, what I see is necessarily and unfortunately vague. Unfortunately because the church is such a particular, concrete reality, it's difficult to see it apart from its particularities.

At any rate, it's been a good exercise in clarifying what really are my core convictions about the what it means to be the church. I think the heart of my past reflections on church (see my old blog post here) are still present, but I've had to work some reconciliation between my natural anarchist bent and the need for institutional structures for the church to be both workable and faithful to what the church is.

Confusing? Read on...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


this sunday i began my career as a jr. high sunday school co-leader. i slipped into the role unexpectedly when i was playing foursquare with some neighbor kids at our church’s vbs kick-off block party. the red ball had bounced into the gutter full of street-juice, so after i grabbed it i went to the gatorade cooler to wash the sewage stench off my hands with some ice water. that’s when our church’s christian ed director pulled me aside: “josh, i was just hoping to get a chance to talk to you…” turns out summertime is a break not just for school kids but also for the regular sunday school teachers. i was happy to get a chance to hang out with some of the coolest, if not a little adolescently awkward, people in the church.

but it’s a heavy responsibility. helping anyone follow Jesus is, but all the more so when the people are young and influence-able. but it’s not an accountability i share alone; i have a very cool and like-minded co-conspirator taking on this responsibility with me. i’ve been playing with how best to get the kids to buy-in to the group for the summer, despite all the seasonal distractions (vacations, nice weather, being twelve, etc.). whatever their finished, pithy form, i’ve settled on a few goals for what i’d like to see happen in the group: i want the kids to dig deeper into the spiritual side of following Jesus; i want them to explore their emerging, christian identities; i want them to talk with our church-community about what they’re learning; and i want them to live out what they’re learning in loving service and proclamation. basically, i want us together to become more like Jesus in how we think, feel, and act.

but this is far harder to accomplish in a forty-five minute class than on paper. take this week’s lesson for example: the assigned texts (for the whole church–we’re doing a churchwide curriculum to foster conversation around dinnertables; this summer’s curriculum is built around the theme “things that make for peace”) were leviticus 25.8-55 and luke 4.16-21, the laws instituting the jubilee year and Jesus’ proclamation of jubilee. after a quick walk to our local dunkin donuts (a great way to win the hearts of six pre-teens!), we sat down, me with my coffee, them with their donuts and cool-lattas and croissant, to explore the passage.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Concerning Denominations

Last night i woke up around 3:30 am. I haven’t installed the new-to-us air conditioning unit in the bedroom window as of yet and yesterday was the first day in the chicago summer to feel like it spiked ninety degrees. So i was up in the not-yet-grey hours of the morning, dehydrated and unable to fall back to sleep.

Naturally, i turned to Karl Barth to keep me company while I drank a cup of decaf chocolate-hazelnut tea (good stuff) and sat next to the window. As I struggled through Church Dogmatics‘ thick prose, the distance between Barth’s germanic-reformed meaning of evangelical and my own rocky mountain, non-denominational take on the word kept pushing its way to the fore of my mind.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Swords to Plowshares and the Rest of the Story

At church on Sunday we sang a song that has been running through my mind ever since then. It’s a folk-gospel-influenced tune written, if i’m not mistaken, by a couple in the church. The lyrics basically follow the first few verses of Isaiah 2.

We tend to gravitate there:

In the last days the mountain of Yahweh’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of Yahweh.

Perhaps rightly so. We discover ourselves in a world brimming over with violence, with self-interest erupting into the clash of nation-states and the clash of spouses, friends, coworkers. A future emptied of these painful altercations, where that energy is redirected to productive creativity rather than sharp-edged retorts and piercing statements (or, to switch fields, rather than to the military-technological complex)–what more could we request?

But perhaps it is more testament of our haggard, world-weary souls than to the warm-and-fuzzy character of God’s eschatological intervention. A close look at the text will begin to point us in this direction; setting the text in its broader context drives this point home with unsettling insistence.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

True Religion

on reflection, i think the basic is christian stance is one of confusion. if we identify with the disciples more than anyone else (perhaps after Jesus), then confusion is our fundamental response to God's revelation of himself.

when i read the Gospels, i can't help but be caught by how strange Jesus seems to act. picture the night of the last supper as narrated by john. the guys are at a party, eating some good food, telling stories, nudging each other in the ribs at private jokes. suddenly Jesus starts speaking about leaving them. what a mood killer. just a day or two ago he rode into jerusalem with the crowds fronting him as a political revolutionary. now he's talking about leaving. but it fits, a little, cuz Jesus has been talking about death. he's been a sort of funk this entire trip to jerusalem. like he's paranoid of the other establishment religious leaders. but he's the miracleworker. he's the one with the big ideas. so they go with it.

the disciples must be so confused. they must cringe at the moment to moment fear of having their feet knocked out from under them. you never know what to expect with Jesus.

i sometimes think that when i'm most disoriented feeling, when i don't know quite what God is doing in my life, only that he is actively surgically altering something or other within me, then i am closest to true religion. similarly, when i'm "caring for the orphan, the alien, and the widow"--however poorly my attempts at it go--i am often quite certain that i have no clue what i'm doing. all my actions seem inconsequential; if God is present here--if Christ is present here--i can't see how. and that confusion is, perhaps, the holy presence of God.
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