What holds you back from the Kingdom of God?

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question in conjunction with the Good Book Club points us towards Holy Week:

A few weeks ago, we asked what burdens the Church needed to let go of to make room for the Kingdom of God.  In the story of the rich ruler, with Holy Week just around the corner, the question becomes much more personal.  What is holding you back from inheriting eternal life?

The story of the rich ruler is often simplified into a fable about money. We get so caught up in Jesus’ command to sell everything (and our own anxiety about that commandment) that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Money, more often than not, is a symbol.  It stands for something else.  In the case of the rich ruler, and in my own experience as well, money stands in for self-reliance.  What holds the rich ruler and me back from inheriting the fullness of eternal life here and now is my pride – my certainty that I can handle things on my own.

Note the interaction between Jesus and the man.  After asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments.  “Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother.”  These are, if you had to categorize them this way, the easiest of the commandments to follow.  They are the obvious ones, the ones that mostly exist outside of your body.  It is the others that come earlier on the list, specifically, the “don’t put other gods before God” one, that are much harder to live by.

In his reply, “I have kept all these since my youth,” the ruler betrays his failure to follow the one that matters most.  He has made himself to be god.  It is by his own doing that he believes he will inherit eternal life.  Even his initial question shows us his sin, “What must I do?”  The same is true in my life.  When I start to get puffed up, thinking that it is somehow by my own strength that I can navigate life and bring about the Kingdom, that I lose sight of God’s will.  It is when I rely on my own ability to do things, that I find myself falling short of inheriting eternal life.

The rich ruler ended up sad and walking away from God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus because he knew that he could never give it all away.  He missed the point that to hand it all over can only happen when we realize that God is God and we are not.  Each morning, I try to make the choice to follow God, remembering that it isn’t by my own merits that I do it, but only by the grace of the God who calls me.


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The Calling of a Prodigal God

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It is week five of the Good Book Club, and we are more than halfway through Luke’s Gospel, with an eye toward Acts during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Next week, Lent’s penultimate week, will be Holy Week in the GBC, but before we get there, we have some famous parables, including the one commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” from which this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question comes.

Prodigal (n) – a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way – is often used to describe the younger son in the well known parable, but what if the point of this parable is the prodigality of the father?  Tell of a time you were aware of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.


Recently, I have found myself in several different conversations about call.  It is a hazard of the job, I suppose.  For some, it is the early inklings of a call to ordained ministry.  For others, it is the frustrations of the innumerable midway points in the process that make progress impossible according to physics.  For a few, these conversations have revolved around the second way we discuss call in the Episcopal Church: finding a job.  See, once you have, with God’s [significant] help navigated the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry and been trained for that vocation, is discerning a call to a position, or more colloquially, a job.

In the past, that process hasn’t really been about call.  The Bishop, to whom you are beholden throughout the process, would often simply place seminary graduates in congregations that needed holes filled.  Certainly, there was some discernment involved, but three people to fill three holes means everybody gets placed, whether they are all a good fit or not.  In this system, the job was usually for at time-certain, often two years, and then the next call process would commence.  Except, when you know your paychecks will cease on a certain date, you don’t have time really let the Spirit work, and so discernment can quickly dissipate while the search for a job takes over.  In many cases, it wasn’t until the third call that someone really had the chance to experience the fullness of discernment and the joyful nature of call.

When I think about the prodigality of God, I’m often reminded of my own difficulty with call.  It was the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of my senior year of seminary when I found out that I would not be placed.  What felt like an earth shaking moment in which the rug fell out from under me, has, in hindsight, been a moment wherein I relish in God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It didn’t fell good at the time, not unlike, I’m sure, the younger son returning home to his father’ house, but I quickly realized the gift that was waiting for me.  As I moved from discerning a vocational call to discerning a call to a position, I became aware of how joyous that process can be.  As I’ve said many times in the last ten+ years, riding the wave of the Spirit is a whole lot of fun.

I am grateful, everyday, to know what call feels like.  To have experienced it in TKT’s living room in Foley in April of 2007 and in a rental car in Bowling Green in October of 2016 is a gift of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It is my prayer for all in discernment, whether they will graduate from a seminary with an MDiv or a diocesan school for ministry with a certificate, that they will, sooner rather than later, get to experience the same gift and blessing.

And, lest this post be another point in the accusation of my penchant for clericalism, I would note that I think this type of discernment isn’t exclusive to those of us in the professional class of ministry.  When God’s call is followed, in our work and in our churches, the experience of God’s grace can be overwhelming, in a good way.  May God bless you with the reckless extravagance as you take your place in the building up of the Kingdom of God.


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A Weighty Text

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This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question looks back at the text the Good Book Club had assigned for Sunday.  In it, we find Jesus caught up in several different theological confrontations.  It began with some wondering if Jesus was harnessing the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons, and somehow, devolved into a series of “woe to yous” against the Pharisees and canon lawyers.  Our question comes from Jesus’ strong rebuke of the lawyers, “Woe also to you lawyers!  For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not life a finger to ease them.”

What burdens does the church carry or load on people today that it needs to ease?”

This question came to mind last night and again this morning as I reflected more and more on that most famous line in motor racing the Bible, John 3:16.  It seems there are two starkly contrasting ways in which this passage can be used.  One camp reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.  It is, I would argue, the burden the church has carried since the Enlightenment.  As knowledge became the idol and the ideal, more and more religious leaders have focused on the modern equivalent of hand washing routines; getting bogged down, most often, in a specific theory of atonement as the means-by-which-Jesus-saves-us-hands-down-and-to-question-is-to-be-of-Beezebul.

Others choose to read John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  The action of God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of judgment or condemnation (cf. John 3:17), but was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  The measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but rather one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement  Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life, then, isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy, but rather, it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

So, what burden does the church carry or load on people that it needs to ease?  Well, it seems in a tradition that prides itself on having learned clergy and a well-educated laity, is to get out of our heads, roll up our sleeves, and believe the Kingdom of God into existence wherever God has called us to be.


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The Lord’s Prayer – Good Book Club Week 3

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In partnership with the Good Book Club, this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question deals with the lesson that we will read on Saturday (Luke 11:1-13): What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples?

Based on the request of Jesus’ disciples, it was not uncommon for a Rabbi to teach his disciples how to pray.  This makes sense, given that each Rabbi, steeped in the tradition of his school, would have different areas of focus.  The same is true, one might say, of Episcopal priests.  If it is true, and I think it is, that each of us only really has three sermons that we say in different ways, over and over again, then it would follow that our prayers and those we invite from our congregations, would fall in line with those areas of interest.

What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus teaches?  We learn his priorities.  By addressing God as Father, Jesus invites us to pray to one whom we know and who knows us deeply.  We hear echos of his first sermon from the scroll of Isaiah.  The Kingdom of God, that place where the blind see and those who are oppressed are set free, is at hand.  We are reminded that throughout history, God has been faithful, offering the sustenance needed for today, with the call to faith that comes with the promise that tomorrow will be the same.  In asking God that we might be forgiven, we are called to repentance, and by suggesting that we might forgive others, we are being called to follow the example of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and peace (shalom).

Finally, by asking God to save us from the time of trial, as my friend Scott Gunn noted in a piece on the Pope’s suggested edit to the Lord’s Prayer, we are naming our dependence upon God, asking that God might be at work in our lives, steering us clear of those things that would lead us from the path of righteousness.  We are, in effect, asking God for the road map to the Kingdom.

I am often asked why Episcopalians say the same things all the time.  Doesn’t it eventually just get said by rote?  Well, unfortunately, it does, but the same temptation exists in the “Father WeJus” model of prayer.  Rather than getting lost in the saying, the Lord’s Prayer, and others like it, that we say with regularity, invites us to dig deep into its meaning, to understand the words we are saying, and to live into the ramifications of our prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we learn that Kingdom Living is a two way street, God provides us plenty of opportunity and grace, but ultimately, we have a part to play in the work of re-creation.


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Good Book Club – Week 1

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“Luke’s goal in writing his two-part story is to provide an orderly account so that his readers might know the truth about Jesus.
To what end do you read the scriptures?”

Today is Ash Wednesday.  It might be my favorite day of the Church year.  While everyday there is the opportunity to confess our sins and repent and return to the Lord, the language we use on Ash Wednesday is the most poignant.  The Litany of Penance makes clear those sins of commission and omission that I would rather ignore.  The recitation of Psalm 51 takes pieces of scripture that have been spread all throughout our liturgy and reminds us of how they fit together as a word of prayer to God.  The absolution, which is more a prayer on behalf of all those gathered, is a helpful reminder that God’s desire is not to punish us wicked sinners, but rather, that God’s greatest hope is that we all might be restored to right relationship.  The smudge of ash upon my forehead, and the reminder that I came from and will return to dust, gives me the chance to recall my own mortality – something I would otherwise only do when I got onto an airplane.  It is a beautiful liturgy, filled with imagery and action that point us to our need for forgiveness and God’s amazing grace, but above it all, I adore the invitation to a holy Lent.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

As I spoke these words at 7:15 this morning, this week’s Acts 8 Blogforce question in conjunction with the Good Book Club immediately came to mind.  There, in the midst of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I was reminded of why I read the Bible, and, more importantly, why I should.  Truth be told, I mostly study the Bible.  Four times a week, I sit down and read the lessons appointed for the following Sunday, looking for something to reflect upon, something to dig into, something to study.  About every other week, I spend hours diving even further into it.  I read commentaries, do word studies, and sit and stare into space, listening for God’s voice, over and above the monkey chatter in my brain, for a word to speak on Sunday.  So much of my engagement in the Scriptures is to study and mediate, that I sometimes forget to just read the Bible.

The gift of the Good Book Club, for me, is the opportunity to just read the Bible.  I have already so enjoyed just reading about the birth of John the Baptist, the Magnificat, and the Nativity of our Lord.  No looking for the kernel of truth.  No seeking a sermon hook.  No getting lost down the rabbit hole of a Greek verb.  Just reading the story, the greatest story every told, of God’s great love for creation.  To what end do I read the Scriptures?  Well, at least for the next three months, it will simply be to hear God’s love story, yet again.


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The Good Book Club

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Beginning on Sunday, February 11th, Episcopalians around the globe will join with our Presiding Bishop in a journey through the Scriptures.  During the season of Lent, we will read the Gospel according to Luke.  Following that, we will read Luke’s second installment, the Acts of the Apostles during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Various Episcopal organizations are taking part in the Good Book Club.  You can read more about who is offering what on the Resources page.  I will be joining the Club by engaging in the Acts 8 Movement’s weekly BLOGFORCE challenge.  Each week, the Acts 8 Movement will present a question on a particular theme or issue in the readings that may have implications for the church and society.  As such, during Lent and Easter, I will be dedicating one day of blogging to the Good Book Club.  I invite you, dear reader, to join in as well, as together, we read the Scriptures and grow in faith.