Thursday, February 27, 2020

What can we say July 4? 6th after Pentecost

    I always have some trepidation preaching the Sunday closest to July 4. This year, that Sunday is July 4. In my experience, American celebrate their religious freedom by not coming to church on such a Sunday! But there’s a bit of an I-dare-you feel among many church people, wanting flags, the national anthem, etc. I try to yield what I can yield; no use dinging people and burning what limited emotional capital you have with your people. My organist might play “America the Beautiful,” which does express entirely valid prayers for America.

   In preaching, I try to give people something they’ll infer is more what they crave. So a story of a soldier, without glorifying warfare. The late in life reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, with both dying (with considerable aplomb!) on July 4, the 50th anniversary of the July 4! And Scripture gives us plenty of thought on freedom, that gift of the Spirit liberating us not for fireworks, hot dogs and beer, but for holiness.

   2 Samuel 5:1-10 is about the establishment of a nation, the accrual of political power. Verse 10 interprets things: “David became greater and greater, for the Lord was with him.” Did they infer that? What was the greatness? David was a vicious autocrat, pummeling his foes, deceitful when deceit earned him another inch of power. There are dual plots in this story: David’s chicanery, his derring-do, clutching power, vs. God’s plan, will, gift. Maybe all national powers unfold in such a way. Maybe God works through and despite the tawdry, unholy ways of politics in the corridors of power.

   Psalm 48’s glorification of a single city makes much theological sense. Pilgrims streamed there for centuries, Jesus died there, Easter happened there. But the thicket of violence and strife as three religions and political powers have vied for the space? “God is greatly to be praised in God’s city, his holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth” is more aspirational, hopefully not just nostalgia or something spiritualized. I love the pride expressed in the Psalm, which pilgrims there still feel: “Walk around the city, count its towers, consider its ramparts.” I take groups there, and try not to disabuse them of too much of their joy in the towers and walls, which are either Crusader or Muslim or modern… God is there.

   2 Corinthians 12:2-10. Paul! I love Paul, then he’s hard to bear, then fabulous in the very next moment. He knows “someone” (it’s like our phrase “asking for a friend”) who was “caught up into the third heaven… and heard things not to be told.” Not the second or fourth heaven but the third. How’d he know where he was up there? Then he boasts that he’s not boasting. Paul!

   But then his elegant pondering on weakness. To speak of weakness is simply telling the truth, nothing shameful in it. God made us all as vulnerable, breakable – and so we are all broken, and weak. I wrote a whole book on this: Weak Enough to Lead, after wearying of so many books and talks about how to be a strong, effective leader. Paul would have us file simple resumes: I am weak. Good! The strong, the wannabe-strong, are so American, or Nietzschean, believing their skill and strength will get them wherever. Get a tattoo, as a pastor but as a Christian, on your forearm or forehead: “My grace is sufficient… My power is made perfect in weakness.” Tell your people about weakness, yours, theirs, everybody’s. That would be a surprise, good, shocking news in our world of tough guys.

   Mark 6:1-13. Don’t you love Jesus’ skeptics? “Isn’t this the local boy?” They’d seen him grow up in Nazareth. Unless those faked later Gospels are to be believed, he didn’t dash off miracles as a boy, adolescent or young man. Sam Wells has helped us see that Jesus’ unremarkability is precisely God’s point: “The ministerial period makes up perhaps 10% of Jesus’ life among us. What is the theological significance of the hidden 90% - the 30 odd years Jesus spent in Nazareth? Those Nazareth years demonstrate, in their obscurity as much as their sheer duration, in their simplicity, God’s fundamental purpose to be with us – not primarily to rescue us, or even empower us, but simply to be with us, to share our existence, our hopes and fears, our delights and griefs, our triumphs and disasters.” His wise claim is that “the most important word in theology is ‘With.’” God is with us. This shifts how we do ministry. We don’t do for others. We are with them. If you’ve missed A Nazareth Manifesto, get it. I’ve dubbed it the most important book in theology in a decade.

   Jesus was God with us. Emmanuel is his nickname! Then we also see “His family was with him.” Sort of. They are a bit slow to catch up – but what greater testimony could there be to the truth of the Gospel than that Jesus’ own brother James, who knew him from playing on the floor, doing chores around the house, waiting for the bathroom, etc., became not merely a believer but a leader in the church!

What can we say June 27? 5th after Pentecost

   2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27. I love it when, in preaching, you can say out loud a placename like Ziklag. Sounds exotic, but particular – like we’re stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. It’s a tragedy. Saul, slain in battle. David’s lament is eloquent, hard to improve upon by commenting on it. Years ago, I speculated about the idea of a book club in heaven, whose members are the biblical writers, Matthew, Paul, Isaiah, Moses, Peter, John, and David. Do they praise David for this beautiful lament? What other great sorrowful expressions of grief do they admire and wish they could have mustered? 

   I think of Homer’s vision (in the Iliad) of Andromache learning of Hector’s death: “‘My heart is in my throat, my knees are like ice… O God, I’m afraid Achilles has cut off my brave Hector, and has put an end to my husband’s cruel courage.’ She ran outdoors like a madwoman, heart racing. Black night swept over her eyes. She reeled backward, gasping, and her veil and glittering headbands flew off.” Consider Walt Whitman's marvelous poems, "O Captain, My Captain," and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," composed at the death of a public figure as pivotal as David, Abraham Lincoln. More personally, much of Emily Dickinson's poetry is fixated on death. And there's W.H. Auden’s “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking, silence the pianos and with muffled drum bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. He was my North, my South, my East and West, my working week and my Sunday rest.” Preachers are way too swift to correct or fix grief, whereas Scripture enables the grief to deepen, as it must.

   With 2 Samuel 1 and these and other poems, shrieks really, we see how questions of suffering and beauty play out. The preacher’s job isn’t to squelch grief, but to discern the love, the loveliness, and odd catharsis in its expression. Notice, in a shocking way to us, how David is gracious to his foe, perhaps the way Churchill spoke glowingly and appreciatively at the funeral for his nemesis, Neville Chamberlain. There’s Gospel in this simple fact. Walter Brueggemann suggests that “this poem is a useful model for public grief among us,” busy as we get with power and our pet ideologies.

   Little details in David’s lament intrigue. “How the mighty have fallen” is a testament to what happens to all the powers, even those we treasure like our own – reminding me of Shelley’s poem, surveying a ruin in Egypt: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert… near them half sunk a shattered visage lies… On the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” So it is with the powers of this world.

   Notice the weeping of the daughters of Israel, drawing our minds to the weeping of the women who watched Jesus trudging toward Calvary bearing the weight of his cross. David alludes to the “heights” – but does he mean simply the high ground where the battle was fought, or is he subtly reminding us of Saul’s and Israel’s repeated idolatry at the “high places”? Saul’s sword “did not return empty” – but it did, even when he tried to use it to kill David himself! What a great, unusual, untidy, marvelous, and utterly unboring sermon could be preached on this great text!

   2 Corinthians 8:7-15. Paul launches the greatest, most theologically profound fundraiser ever. We need to recall that charity, giving for others, especially those you don’t know personally, simply did not exist until Paul started it. The model and motivation for generosity? No prosperity Gospel, no obligation, but a sensible, passionate reply to and imitation of Christ’s generosity! In my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I explore how the offering collection opens up an invitation for us to ponder all of our money in light of Christ’s generosity. Lots of stuff in just 10 pages there, including...

   Mother (St. now!) Teresa: “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which has value before God. This giving until it hurts is what I call love in action.” 

   Check out my book and this chapter, which focuses on God loving a “cheerful giver” (from this same 2 Corinthians fundraising letter!) – with examples like St. Francis’s friend Brother Juniper giving away all his stuff, even the clothes off his back, and the possessions of other friars! (it’s “cheerful,” the Greek meaning “hilarious”), or the grandfather in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: “He would take laundry right off the line. I believe he was a saint of some kind. There was an innocence in him. He lacked patience for anything but the plainest interpretation of the starkest commandments. ‘To him who asks, give,’ in particular.”

  Mark 5:21-43. There’s a painting I’ve loved so much I made it my Facebook photo a while back. It’s in a lovely new chapel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the village of Magdala, Mary Magdalene’s home town. At ground level, this painting shows the woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment - from her lowly, ground-level perspective.

   She must be a woman of considerable means, having spent huge sums on doctors, in a day when most people couldn’t afford any doctor ever. But all the cash and care money could buy didn’t bring her any health. She was sick and tired of being sick and tired – until she heard about Jesus. Due to her illness, she would have been regarded as unclean, not welcome in any crowd, much less coming face to face with this travelling rabbi / healer / maybe Messiah. But she presses forward, as close as possible without being noticed, barely brushing her hand against the low hem of Jesus’ robe.

   And, Voila! She is healed. Power flowed from him, into her – and he wasn’t even trying. No wonder we speak of the Master’s touch, the way simply being close to Jesus brings an unanticipated wholeness. Jesus notices, puzzling his disciples – and then he has more mercy on her, treating her like no one else would, as a whole, infinitely valued child of God.

   Mark’s storytelling technique is amazing – or perhaps things just unfolded in the way he reports. When that almost magical touch happens, Jesus is on his way to visit another child of God, a little girl, the daughter of a powerful Roman military man, Jairus. Important mission: saving a child. Jesus is unfailingly “interruptible.” Important things to do, yes, always, but along the way there’s always a person, someone requiring just some compassion, a kind look and word. Jesus shows us how to be attentive while we’re headed toward wherever we’re going.

   Jesus gets to Jairus’s house – late. We can’t be sure she’d have been alive if he’d ignored the woman grasping his hem. He would take his time later getting to Lazarus's tomb... The little girl has passed – and if we read slowly, we can overhear the loud wailing of her family and neighbors. Invite your people to feel their pain. Jesus did.

   I love the little details of this healing. He could have thundered a word from the yard. But he enters the home. He takes the girl by the hand. Ask your folks to picture that. Feel your hands. Precious Lord, take my hand… He speaks – and onlookers recalled what he said in his and their native language, Aramaic, so moving that Mark, writing in Greek, records the Aramaic! Talitha kum. Rise up, little girl. So tender. This 12 year old girl stood up. Imagine the sound of the shock, the rejoicing, maybe more intense than the wailing just moments earlier.

   And then, showing his immense compassion and understanding, Jesus speaks to her family: “Give her something to eat.” She’s been sick. She’s got to be famished. Let’s get back to normal. Little girls eat. Families feed their children. Envision Jesus standing in your home. It’s time to eat. He gets that you’re hungry. Enjoy. Be nourished. What a week to have Holy Communion!

What can we say June 20? 4th after Pentecost

    1 Samuel 17. That children love the David and Goliath story should give us some pause. It’s violent, ending in decapitation! Perhaps children, being small, love the small one winning – although I suspect Francesca Aran Murphy (in her fine Brazos commentary) is right about us adults and this story: “We yearn to believe that ‘strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9).”

   I’m not a fan of Richard Gere – but gosh, he was marvelous in the film King David! The Goliath scene is exceedingly well-done – although I’d also commend the way Brad Pitt played Achilles in his one-on-one contest with Boagrius in Helen of Troy! Our lection isn’t about the underdog winning against all odds. It’s about who’s God, and who isn’t – a theological contest waged then and now.

   David has been toting his brothers’ lunchboxes when they are off at war when he stumbles into his dramatic moment. The details make the story: Goliath’s armor weighs 5000 shekels. Saul’s armor is way lighter, but still too heavy for this lad. Goliath is 6 cubits and a span (9’ 6”) – and this is clearly our most fascinating textual variant maybe in all of Scripture: the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript of 1 Samuel has him at a mere 4 cubits and a span (6’ 6”) – huge by ancient standards! Copyists were more likely, over time, to make him taller – like the proverbial fish I caught.

   David bravely offers to fight – laughably. Saul scolds him: “You are not able to go” – perhaps reminding us of the hymn “Are Ye Able, said the Master.” The sturdy dreamers, those eager beaver disciples, answer Yes! – but of course, they are not able. David is able. Or lucky? His slingshot accuracy: was that little rock divinely guided? Sheer luck? Or was he a genius of a marksman (a marksboy)? Who knows? Preachers can leave such questions dangling – as that very uncertainty is the way we experience God, or luck, or some mix of those and skill and effort in daily life.

   David has a sharp tongue, considerable sass, his mocking verbiage more eloquent and nasty than Goliath’s. Who’s God? “A little child shall lead them,” and show them God – as Jesus would suggest that we too must become like children. I preached from this text at my aunt’s funeral. It struck me as fitting, with Jesus the Rock of Ages felling the giant, Death – but then I wonder if it’s easier to declare this in the hour of death than in the daily rigors of battling addiction or culture or depression or… fill in the blanks with the giants not so easily toppled. Again, in the sermon, it’s really fine to name this. People know already.

   2 Corinthians 6:1-13 won’t be my preaching text. But as I often do, an unused lectionary text can speak to me as a person and as a pastor. My life in ministry has its sufferings – but so paltry compared to what Paul endured. And yet I feel embraced by him and his story. I’ve not borne beatings. Well, verbal beatings, yes… I’ve not been imprisoned for my ministry, but I’ve barely made it through many sleepless nights. Ill repute, yes – and treated as an impostor, for sure. Sorrowful? On even the most fruitful days in pastoral life, maybe especially on those days. Paul is generous to enfold me in his experience and love.

   Mark 4:35-41. Jesus stills the storm from a small wooden boat in the teeth of a vicious storm. Archaeologists discovered a real fishing boat from Jesus’ time. Fabulous! But would you want to be in this thing weathering a major storm? I saw Walter Kimbrough preach on this once – walking down into the crowd, grabbing the guy on the end of the first pew and shaking him as he renarrated that “Wake up! Don’t you care if we perish?” moment. I tried this myself. People were as stunned as the disciples when the storm abated.

   God does not mind if we ask, Did these stories about Jesus really happen? Or are they symbolic? I suspect the answer is Yes? Jesus and the disciples leave a crowd on the shore to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Not all that far, maybe 3 or 4 miles. You can see all the way across. You probably know that this body of water is legendary for the sudden irruption (eruption!) of wind gales and terrible waves. The photo here is of me reading this story to pilgrims from our church travelling with me. When I opened the Bible, the sun was out and it was pretty calm. By the time I’d gotten people’s attention and read just these 7 verses, the wind was howling, and in another minute sheets of rain were pelting us and the ship was rocking nauseously.

   Such a storm overtook the disciples in a far smaller boat than the one we were in. Terrified disciples, having lots friends and maybe family in such wicked storms, panic – and remember Jesus is with them. And he is – astonishingly – asleep on a cushion. Lucky cushion… Easy to imagine them shaking him, startling him, as they ask “Don’t you care if we perish?” It’s not at all that he doesn’t care. He’s just the ultimate “non-anxious presence.” It’s as if he is enacting for them, and us, that verse from Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

   Not flustered in the least, Jesus stands up and speaks: “Peace. Be still.” Quirky question: was he speaking to the storm? Or to the quaking disciples? Yes? I hear echoes of the story of Jonah here. Storm rising, main character asleep, then the storm calms – and yet Jonah is the antithesis of Jesus. He’s on the run away from God, so terrified that he sleeps a sleep of denial. Mark 4:35-41 invites us to notice Jesus is with us in our storms, that he is the bringer of peace, that ours is to heed his call and not be like Jonah – and that God’s business isn’t just private, human souls but all of Creation.

What can we say June 13? 3rd after Pentecost

   Three texts, all inviting us to "see" differently. Hard to preach 3 texts, but they do interpret one another wonderfully.

   1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 begins so ominously, briefly encapsulating a dreadfully fractured relationship. “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; but Samuel grieved over Saul; the Lord was sorry he had made Saul king.” The preacher needn’t unpack all this for theological dogma. Can the Lord be sorry he did something? In the Bible, clearly, yes. Can you be angry with someone and grieve them? We’ve all been there, may be there today. God’s new thing is about to emerge, not because Saul, or Israel, or even Samuel gets it all together and flies right. It’s God’s thing, almost as if a womb of agony is what God needs to birth new life – the hope signaled by God asking Samuel to snap to: “Fill your horn will oil and go.”

   God’s new thing is by stealth, fudging on the truth (at God’s request), and much peril. Interesting: we think God wants us to be good, to keep our hands clean. But Bonhoeffer reminded us how our goodness can get in the way of God’s way; and that it is God’s will for us to get our hands dirty.

   Not hard for the preacher to dramatize the scene in Bethlehem. It’s worth noting the location – where eventually the very small one, the Lord God incarnate, will arrive to save the universe. The lineup of the 7 boys, tall and strapping, with military experience. One by one, Samuel examines each one, hearing (how?) God say Nope. Seven times. At the end of the row, Samuel – sure God hadn’t sent him on a wild goose chase – asks Is that all? Jesse, blushing a little, admits Well, there’s one more, little David, out in the field. For years I preached this as if Jesse thought David could not possibly be the one. Now I wonder: perhaps Jesse suspected he actually was the one, feared for him, and wanted to shelter him, keep him with him at home.

   The logic of Scripture seems to be God can use anyone. God prefers the small, the unlikely, the un-able. It works here – with the theologically quotable line, The Lord does not see as we see. But it then adds, The Lord looks on the heart. Was it that David had a good heart? As the story unfolds, we discover David has a wicked, conniving, do-anything-to-get-ahead heart. He was good-looking… which the writer seems to brag about, but it’s part of David’s downfall.

   2 Corinthians 5:6-17 echoes and explicates this theme of discipleship as alternate vision. John Calvin spoke of the inspiration of Scripture as putting on corrective lenses to see things clearly, or rightly. Paul’s rationale for seeing differently, the lens through which we now look, isn’t just Scripture but what Scripture delivers to us: the crucified Lord. It is Christ’s death that compels a new way of viewing the world, others and ourselves. Death and suffering alter the vision for pagans, right? A sympathy, which might be a terror that This might hit me as well calms our rancor, and we see broken humanity with some mercy. How much more when pondering the cross – the innocent suffering of God’s pure, beautiful, holy Son, not only as tragic victim but as the one dying for us, in our place?

  Folks miss this logic, which Paul is at pains to clarify to those Corinthians who were passionate zealots for salvation by grace alone. Christ died – why? “So we might no longer live for ourselves, but for him.” I recall exiting the theater after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A man, who’d brought his family, was sobbing outside. I asked him, Why are you crying? He said Jesus suffered, so I don’t have to. Then he and his family climbed into a huge shiny SUV with a Carowinds sticker on the bumper. Nothing evil there – but the idea that I live as I wish, and Jesus died so I get to go to heaven and escape difficulty is all over this man and most of American religion.

   Paul, poster child of the saved-by-grace people we like to think we are, clarifies in verse 10 that we “must appear before the judgment seat to receive recompense for what you’ve done or not done.” We saved by grace people are still accountable for what we do with our bodies, and minds, and time. I love Steve Martin’s comedy routine where he muses, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you died, and then suddenly you are in this court with God as the judge – and you’d think What? You’re kidding? That was really true? Oh no!!!” He’s thinking the joke is on the atheists – but I wonder about us saved-by-grace people. We will stand before a judgment seat. A preacher will have to labor strenuously to avoid being manipulative with such a thought, right?

   Paul’s ruminations move me, always. He’d rather be away from the body and with the Lord. No wonder we have so many hymns about heaven, or spirituals that long for heaven – or freedom, at least! We “walk by faith, not by sight.” I’ll never forget my Reformation professor David Steinmetz explaining how, for Martin Luther, the organ of faith is the ear, not the eye, which can deceive: “The eyes are hard of hearing.”

   Mark 4:26-34 interestingly also introduces an alternate seeing. We who typically read a Bible indoors might ponder the fact that most of what Jesus said and did happened out of doors. Here, he's certainly pointing toward a cultivated field, and some bushes nearby. What is the Kingdom of God like? It is like such a field, or a bush. Can you see it?

   Fascinating: Jesus points out how vegetables grow. The farmer does his thing, but the growth happens when he’s asleep. In fact, the farmer can neglect things, and growth still happens. There is some generative power in the seed, some impulse of life, that you can’t see when you look at a seed, and its sprouting you certainly can’t see as it’s underground, hidden, or it doesn’t sprout at all. God gives the growth. The Kingdom involves some efforts, some labor, some attentiveness. But the growth is from God, while the farmer takes a nap or does his other chores.

   Everything important works this way. The respiration going on in your chest right now, the beating of your heart, the circulation of blood, the digesting of your food: you can’t see it, but it’s life. Jesus’ words are echoed in the great Thanksgiving hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come”: “First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear… We are God’s own field… Grant, O harvest Lord, that we Wholesome grain and pure may be.” Go outside. Look at growing things. Be a growing thing, for God, for others.

   The connection between God’s work and ours is exemplified in the old joke: a priest, strolling through a beautiful garden, complimented the gardener, noting what can be achieved when “human toil and divine providence work together.” The gardener, wryly responded, “You’re right, but you should have seen this garden when nothing but divine providence was working on it.” We labor. The growth is God’s. Jesus would even delight in (and see God in) the mess of an uncultivated patch of earth.

   After meditating on a vegetable plot, Jesus turns to a mustard tree. Bush, really. He calls the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds,” which botanically isn’t accurate. He is impressed by how such a small seed defies gravity and becomes a bush that can be 7 or even 9 feet tall! A little nothing of a seed becomes a big bush that provides for God’s beloved creatures, the birds. I love St. Francis’s famous sermon to the birds, urging them to be grateful for trees, seed, water, air, their wings and beaks. If we ponder them and the bushes, we are ourselves transformed into something lovely, simpler, useful.

   I’m also intrigued that Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a 7 foot tall bush. You’d think he’d go for Cedars of Lebanon, or Redwoods of California, truly awe-some trees. The Church, God’s way in the world, isn’t impressive by worldly standards. God’s way is smaller, and humbler, more accessible. I used to complain a little about a shift in our culture: sketches of Colonial American cities show us that the Church steeples were by far the tallest structures, but not it’s the banking towers. I won’t lament that any longer. The dwarfed churches are like the mustard bush, in the shadow of larger trees, providing a little nest for birds. “Even the sparrow finds a home in your courts” (Psalm 84).

What can we say June 6? 2nd after Pentecost

    1 Samuel 8:4-20. Saul, chosen, flawed, rejected, the Bible’s classic tragic figure. Big, strong, rich; he even had a frenzied experience of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:12). He was the beneficiary, or rather the unlucky one, of a theologically wacky process narrated in our text. “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old’” (a frank but unflattering opening remark), “‘and your sons do not follow in your ways’” (similarly frank and unflattering). 

   “Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us” (they had tried this years earlier with Gideon, who wisely refused – perhaps like Frodo destroying instead of wielding the ring of power) “like other nations” (which was the one thing Israel was not supposed to be). “But the thing displeased Samuel” (another understatement – but why? Perhaps he was displeased that they were so frank and unflattering as to reject his sons. What does his desperate lunge to install his greedy sons tell us about his heart? Was he clinging to hopes they would turn out all right after all? Did he seek some validation through them? Was he, in old age, shortsighted regarding what was required in such tough times? How did the author of 1 Samuel get this peek into Samuel’s sentimental confusion? And how did he know Samuel’s displeasure was shared by God – who if anything felt more jilted than did Samuel?). 

   “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘They have rejected me from being king over them.’” Francesca Aran Murphy's insight intrigues (in her Brazos commentary): God does not appear much in the story going forward. Has God withdrawn? Does it seem to wayward people God has withdrawn? We would all do as poorly as they did – or worse. Saying We need no government or army, God is our King would be a deeply pious riff, but the Midianites and Philistines wielded real swords and clubs. Dealing with them spontaneously, haphazardly, armed with nothing but a prayer made no sense. And the world was changing. The Bronze Age was yielding to the technologically superior Iron Age. Nomadic, tribal culture was yielding to urbanization and more centralized power all over the world. Israel was under siege, and would likely be squashed within a generation. The Bible’s radical vision of life with God never seems to mesh well with the demands of real societies trying to adjust and survive. The Prussian chancellor Bismarck famously said “You can’t run a government based on the Sermon on the Mount.”

   How surprising then that the Lord, nursing feelings of rejection, told Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (1 Sam 8:7). To their veering away, God didn’t toss down thunderbolts; no, God let them have what they wanted. “God gave them up” (Romans 1). When people insist on their will instead of God’s, God “gives them up,” God lets them have their way. The name Saul means “asked for.” What rich irony!

   But they aren’t abandoned to their own devices. There’s a warning (1 Samuel 8:9). Pastors warn – but who wants to hear warnings? Was Samuel’s tone accusatory? Or tender pleading? The warning is a laundry list of troubles (taxes, wars, demeaning labor). But the people only hardened their hearts, shouting “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that he may go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). “Our” battles, not the Lord’s. It’s as if they want to return to Egypt, where the powerful extracted from everybody else!

   Like Oedipus of Greek tragedy, Saul is doomed at the outset. He’s not flawed so much as the people who want him are flawed – and he’s caught in the nexus of their failure, a scapegoat of sorts. And yet… shock of all shocks, miracle of all miracles, God winds up using the very kingship God didn’t want the people to have, which emerged out of idolatrous and rebellious motives, and established his own son, Jesus, the Messiah on Israel’s throne forever. God is, once again, more amazing than our wildest imaginings. By the way, my new book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, explores the Saul story in more depth, with connections to leadership today.

   2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 explores God’s craziness from a different angle. The lectionary weirdly lops a logically tight section off before it’s done – this lovely text we often read at funerals. The text explains itself, and should be read slowly, lingering over words and phrases – even in the sermon. Preaching at Oxford during the dark days of World War II, C.S. Lewis picked up on “The Weight of Glory” and spent what must have been fifteen startling, wonderful minutes preaching on that phrase – one of the truly great sermons in Christian history. Read it in preparation to preach, or just to expand your soul.

   Henri Nouwen also went deep on the way momentary affliction prepares for glory in his story about fraternal twins chatting in the womb. The sister announces to her brother, ‘I believe there is life after birth.’ He protested: ‘No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing to do but cling to cord that feeds us.’ But she insisted: ‘There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light, where there is freedom to move.’ She couldn’t convince him. Later, she added, ‘I have something else to say, and I’m afraid you won’t like that either, but I think there is a Mother.’ Her brother became furious. ‘A Mother!?’ he shouted. ‘What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let’s be content.’ Hurt deeply, she didn’t say anything for a long time. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and with no one else to talk to, finally she said, ‘Don’t you feel those squeezes once in a while? They’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.’ ‘So?’ he replied. ‘Well,’ the sister said, ‘I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our Mother face to face. Don’t you think that’s exciting?’ The brother didn’t answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk.

   Mark 3:20-35.  Roman Catholics might be right in their interpretation that Jesus was Mary’s only child. For us Protestants, the plain reading of Mark 3:31 and 6:3 is that Jesus had 4 brothers and at least 2 sisters. If Jesus is one with us in our human struggles, I find comfort that he had siblings to tangle with. And I’m even more moved by the fact that at least James, his brother, became a leader of the Church after Jesus’ resurrection; if anyone could have raised his hand and said He’s just a guy, I’d know, he used to steal my toys, it would be his brother.

   Here’s a fascinating moment: in Mark 3:21, Jesus’ family (which members of his family aren’t specified) hear about a crowd jammed into a house to hear him. “When they heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Jesus’ impoverished family had to be puzzled by his fame, and especially his bizarre interactions with the demonic world. If families today don’t understand the complexities of mental health issues, they are in good company. St. Francis’s own family thought he’d lost his wits – and Pope Francis’s mom was devastated when she learned he was entering the priesthood instead of medicine.

   We know that the first Christians faced daunting conflicts with family. It cost you business back then, and lots of believers were shunned and ridiculed. They must have found solace in hearing that Jesus himself left his family befuddled. We might ask if our belief and commitments to Christ are serious enough to raise even an eyebrow from family members.

   Later, there’s another crowd. Jesus’ mother and brothers must have arrived a little later than the others, for they are outside, on the periphery. Someone reports this to Jesus – suspecting he’d asked to have them ushered in to the front row. But Jesus replied “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And then gesturing toward the crowd circled around him, he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).

  Jesus came, not to bind families more strong together and make them happy. He actually divided families. Jesus’ ultimate mission was to create a new family, a little scary to those in happy families or who cling to the dream of one, strangely hopeful to those in broken families, and a vital joy for all of us. Pete Scazzero, in his great program Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, speaks of church as “re-familying.” You’re adopted into this new family, not related by blood (unless you count Jesus’ blood!) but by faith. We speak of a church “family,” and that’s our vision. Mind you, families have their dysfunctions, and their squabbles. But you stick with family – as God invites us to stick with church.

   And the “unforgivable sin”? Wise pastors suggest to anyone who’s fretting over maybe having committed it that, if you are genuinely worried about this, you probably have not done so. Joel Marcus explains such sin would be “a total, malignant opposition to Jesus that twists all the evidence of his life-giving power into evidence that he is demonically possessed. Those guilty of such blasphemy would not be overly concerned about having committed it.” I’d turn this and ask Why worry so much over Did I commit that one that’s unforgivable? What then about the mass of quite forgivable sins I’ve committed – and been forgiven?

***
  Check out my book on preaching - not how to preach so much as how to continue preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and the Wonder of Preaching.

What can we say May 30? Trinity Sunday

   Trinity Sunday. For me, it’s been a fool’s errand when I thought to explain the Holy Trinity during my sermon. Feels more like a classroom exercise to me. In preaching, I hope to embody something I witnessed back in a Div school talent show. Students were invited to impersonate professors, and the crowd had to guess whom was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he fumbled into incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.

   I’ll explicate one of our 3 astonishing texts, with God-as-Trinity serving as the wallpaper, the background music. Speaking of… Jeremy Begbie points out that if you sing a C, the note fills the whole room, no more in one place than another. If you add the E and then the G, each note fills the room, one doesn't crowd out the other - and the chord they form together are far more lovely than the single note. God the Trinity is like that. Same 3 first notes, by the way, of the hymn we'll sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

   Isaiah 6:1-8. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Hmm. 742 BC? That had to be a year of upheaval, turmoil, jockeying for power, anxiety – maybe like 2020. Or 2021. I love the way the architecture, the fixtures, the art of the sanctuary came to life. I wonder if I can tease that out for my own sanctuary, helping people imagine such a miracle that just might be the unseen reality. I love Amos Wilder’s thought on worship: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.”

   Or Annie Dillard’s (in Teaching a Stone to Talk): “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

   Isaiah 6 is yet one more of the Bible’s call narratives that all fit the same pattern: God unexpected calls, the one called explains why he or she is insufficient, then God reassures – not that he or she is sufficient, but that God will use whom God will use. In Isaiah’s case, he senses his unholiness, rendering him unfit for holy use.  When we interview candidates for ordination, they generally speak of their abilities, education and cool experience; not many speak of their unworthiness, their unholiness – which seems to be what this God is looking for, not ability but availability, and maybe even disability. These thoughts and others led me to write Weak Enough to Lead – which explores the Bible’s thoughts on leadership, which are vastly different from, and almost antithetical to ours.

   For us who preach, we may find ourselves properly humbled, discouraged, and then encouraged to find ourselves in great company. God says Go, tell them. Isaiah says (or sings?) “Here I am Lord.” God, not leaving well enough alone, clarifies that they won’t understand, their hearts are fat, their ears heavy, their eyes are shut. It will turn out that they won’t get your message – at least not for a very, very long time. Such is the preaching life. We preach, maybe, not to get results, not to grow the church, not to gauge my worth or their worth, but because God says Preach. It’s for God.

   Romans 8:12-17 pokes around in the intimacy that is the Holy Trinity. Not ineffable, infinite beings but Jesus the child in the Spirit’s arms calling God the Father Abba. Lovely. Recalling the Rublev icon: that loving fellowship of 3 has room at the table. We are invited into that eternal fellowship, to rest in the love, and to share in that threesome’s labor over all of creation.

  Paul loves the theme of Adoption. In my book on Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series), I had some fun pointing out that Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Lafayette, the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Aristotle, Confucius, and Nelson Mandela were adopted. Queen Esther and Superman were adopted, and so was Buddy the Elf, and Harry Potter. Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Isn’t church a question to discover our true origin?

   Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then, pondering the woman who bore her, she tries to fathom if her giving her child up was a rejection? or rather a relinquishment? Some might rush to condemn a mother who “abandons” her baby. But isn’t there a wrinkle in the story – that a woman who did not have to carry the child for so long actually did, at considerable physical cost. What if being surrendered at birth was a loving relinquishment, not rejection, a humble acquiescence in the face of crushing circumstance? What does God relinquish for us – and we for God?

   With adoption, we get a glimpse of a different kind of belonging, not inferior, maybe superior, or maybe not. Nikondeha wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

   John 3:1-17. A beloved text. John 3:16 was never the verse until the modern American revival movement – so chalk it up to Billy Graham I suppose. People adore it – so why not explicate it carefully? The verse isn’t a problem, although it diminishes the breadth of the Bible’s vision for us and creation. Or does it? If we read it slowly, we see it’s better than we dreamed. It doesn’t say “For God so loved you, you religious person, that he gave his son – that is, had him crucified in your place – so that whoever believes in him, that is, whoever confesses his sin and agrees Jesus saves him, will not perish but go to heaven.” Instead it says God so loved – the world, the kosmos, the whole thing!  He gave his son – but he gave him when the Word became flesh, at Christmas, and in his healing and teaching, and in his crucifixion and resurrection, which for John is way more about the glorification of God than me getting off for my sins. Belief, for John, is way more than mental assent or repentance and feeling forgiven. It’s following, it’s union with the living Christ, it’s being part of the Body.

   In that same Birth: The Mystery of Being Born book, I spent a section ruminating on John 3. So I’ll close this blogpost with this excerpt:

   The famous evangelist George Whitefield was once asked by a woman, “Why do you go on and on about being born again?” He replied, “Madam, I do so because you must be born again.” Billy Graham travelled to every corner of the globe preaching this “new birth,” which for him was accepting Christ as your Savior, commencing a personal relationship with God. The emotional wave was experienced at the close of every revival meeting when the crowd would sing “Just as I am.” People in stadiums, and those watching via television were always invited to bow their heads, right on the spot, and pray the simple prayer of faith. In that moment of acceptance, “You become a child of God, adopted into His family forever. He also comes to live within you and will begin to change you from within. No one who truly gives his or her life to Christ will ever be the same.”

  John Wesley worried about the tepid to vapid responses to Baptism in people’s lives. “Justification implies only a relative, the new birth a real change. God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, He does the work in us.” What fascinates here is that the men talking about being born again rarely if ever link it to birth itself. How is discipleship like birth? Let’s look once more to the words of the writer Anne Enright, who shows no evident interest in religion: 
 “A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” Isn’t this what being with Jesus, a child who came out of his mother, is like? The past is laughably past. Every small thing, devoted to this Jesus, matters.

   Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. Does the darkness symbolize ignorance, untruth or evil? Is it stealth so he won’t be observed? The longest darkness any of us has ever been in was in the womb, waiting to be born. When you were born, the first time, wasn’t it true that “God called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:9). How is this new birth like the first?

   Jesus speaks of being born of water and the spirit. Recall your first birth. You were in water. Then you emerged, gasping for air, for a breath – or we can say “spirit,” as the Hebrew ruah, and the Greek pneuma both mean air, and then by extension, spirit. It’s always water, and then the spirit when getting born.

   That you “must” be reborn intrigues. The Greek, deĩ, implies throughout John’s Gospel something of a divine necessity, a holy compulsion. Jesus “had” (deĩ) to pass through Samaria – not because it was the shortest route, but because he was on a saving mission to the Samaritan woman. You must be born again. It’s not must as in You must do your homework, or You must report for jury duty. It’s more like You must come to my birthday party! or You must come with me to the hospital to see Fred before he dies. It’s love, it’s a deeply personal, can’t-miss-it necessity. And yet, you might just miss it.

   You can’t grit your teeth and get born the first time, and you can’t when it’s “again” either. Back in October of 1955, I didn’t think, Hmm, nice day to get born, let’s do it. An entirely passive, unchosen event. Even the mother has zero ability to turn a microscopic zygote into a breathing, squawling person. Birth happens to you, and in you. Rudolf Bultmann, reflecting on Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’s search for salvation, clarifies that “the condition can only be satisfied by a miracle… It suggests to Nicodemus, and indeed to anyone who is prepared to entertain the possibility of the occurrence of a miraculous event, that such a miracle can come to pass.”

   Jesus didn’t ask Nicodemus to feel anything. There are, of course, intense feelings at birth. The mother giving birth may be overwhelmed with an intensity of joy, or anything else along a broad spectrum of emotion. The one being born though: is birth an emotional high for the baby?

   Of course, the feelings mother and child share in childbirth are the pains, the excruciating squeezes, the tearing of flesh and sometimes the breaking of bones. Could Jesus have imagined such agony when pressing us toward a new birth? Jesus courageously embraced pain, and invited us to follow. Paul, imprisoned and beaten multiple times within an inch of his life for following Jesus, wrote that “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God… provided we suffer with him” (Rom. 8:15-16). No wonder we prefer a happy emotional kind of rebirth at a revival, over against the costly discipleship that is the new life Jesus has in mind for us. It isn’t the feeling, but the fact of the new birth, and the hard facts of union with Jesus in a world puzzled or hostile to his ways.

   Jesus wasn’t asking Nicodemus to behave a little better. Bultmann explains it perfectly: “Rebirth means… something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself.” My first birth defined my origin as a Howell. I have the DNA, I favor my dad, I am who I am. How could I come by a new and different origin? Let’s look to St. Francis of Assisi.

   After fitting in and even excelling as a child and youth, enviably popular, chic and cool, Francis heard the call of Jesus. Taking the Bible quite literally, Francis divested himself of his advantages, including his exquisite, fashionable clothing, which he gave away to the poor. His father, Pietro, a churchgoing, upstanding citizen, took exception, locked his son up for a time, and then sued him in the city square. Giotto’s fresco in the basilica where Francis is buried shows a stark naked Francis, handing the only thing he has left, the clothes off his back, to his father. But his eyes are fixed upward, where we see a hand appearing to bless him from up in the clouds. At this moment, Francis declared, “Until now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who are in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” A biblical moment, if we have regard for “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 2:23), or “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).

   Nothing individualistic when Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” – as the “you” in verse 7, interestingly, is plural – so Jesus isn’t speaking just to this one man but to his people, even to us. Y’all together must be born again.

What can we say May 23? Pentecost Sunday!

   Pentecost. Finally! At my place, we always read Acts 2:1-21 at the very opening, and then another of the lections just prior to the sermon. I'm unsure if I'll use Romans 8:22-27 or John 15:26-16:15 - but will reflect on both (along with Acts 2) in this blog. 

   We love the idea of Pentecost – and yet, as mainline Protestants, suffer s kind of reticence about the Holy Spirit. Which isn’t wrongheaded. I’ve heard so much sappy chatter in my lifetime about who’s got the Spirit (and thus who doesn’t), where the Spirit is (and thus isn’t), powerful emotional experiences that feel to me to be more about intuition and native-born gushing than a movement of the Spirit – so then, perhaps in the way Protestants have barely spoken of Mary in order not to be Catholic, I’ve shied away so as not to be confused with the emotivism that dominates so much of American religiosity. 

   Try what helped me: to teach a series on the Holy Spirit (which issued, for me, in a little book, The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit - which I would commend to you, not because it's mine, but because it's short, and one example of how clergy might try to explain the Holy Spirit to church people - and to themselves!). Shyness about Holy Spirit talk syncs with the Holy Spirit’s persona, oddly enough. Frederick Dale Bruner shrewdly suggested that the Holy Spirit is the “shy member of the Trinity,” preferring to stay backstage, deferring to the glory of Jesus and the Father. Even on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t make a grand, personal appearance. It’s wind? Too much whisky early in the day? Fire on the head?  [I love the way old icons took this literally.]  It’s the people of God who take center stage, their hair tussled and singed, staggering a little, bolting out into the street, talking a mile a minute...

   The disciples catapulted onto the streets in Acts 2 were - astonishingly - understood by pilgrims from all over the place, in all those languages birthed at the Tower of Babel – whose ill effects are now being reversed.  I love rattling off (and I practice ahead of time) the list of peoples present in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9-11) – and can’t avoid chuckling when I get to “the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene” (what about the rest of Libya?).

   No “speaking in tongues” here. It’s not confusion or uber-Christianity, but understanding, beginning, and unity. How do we find the language to speak to people out there? No church jargon, and certainly no judgmental declamations. How do we talk about the best news ever to people who hear nothing but awful news and a jaded and cynical? 

   When rethinking Pentecost, it’s worth recalling that, in Judaism, Pentecost is the day that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. And don’t be tempted to say We have the Spirit, the law is kaput. The Spirit enables the fulfillment of the law; have you read Matthew 5??  The Spirit doesn’t unleash a burst of emotion; the Spirit plants and grows holiness in us. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5). He/she is the “Spirit of Holiness” (Rom. 1:4).

   Growing things? Pentecost was also the celebration of a harvest. The Spirit, when you were sleeping, caused things to grow – and we humbly give thanks to God for the fruit of the earth. Do you garden? Or do you know someone who farms?  Tell your people about the Spirit moving over the fields.

   At Pentecost, the Spirit rushed, not on this or that individual, but on the Church, on the Body. It’s the church that is birthed, not a gaggle of solo Christians who happen to be near one another, on Pentecost. All preaching needs to speak to the Body (a major point in my book, The Beauty of the Word - not on how to preach but how to continue preaching!). I stumble into preaching as if I have a batch of little direct lines to each individual out there, and the sermon is You, you individual, go do this yourself, or believe this yourself. But preaching is to the Body, for the Body, and of course even from the Body. 

   Peter’s sermon is placed right here in Acts, we might presume, as an exemplary early Christian sermon. It would be tough, in our culture, to preach such a sermon: a pastiche of Bible quotes from obscure prophets primarily, and David looks like a crystal ball prophet. Could such a sermon work? Only if the preacher has immense trust in such texts, and lets them linger, read slowly with pauses, trusting them to do their work. I think of St. Francis, commencing his order, appealing to the pope for support. His strategy? His defining of his movement? It’s just a laundry list of Bible verses, stuff Jesus said we should do. How lovely.

   Acts preaching only worked because of the lifestyle of the Body. Read Acts 2, 3, 4, and onward. Radical stuff! The emperor Julian the Apostate, trying to shed Christianity from the empire, complained, “The Christians care, not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” In today’s political climate it is unpopular to speak of caring for the poor. But this is Christianity. I’ll take Jesus over political sway or social preference any day. Preachers (and these are very tough days in which to preach) have to find humble, gentle but direct ways to say “This just is Christianity.”

   The Gospel text: at the Ascension, Jesus leaves, and the disciples must carry on down here - perhaps the way Gandalf kept leaving the hobbits to fend for themselves, trusting them with the fate of Middle Earth! But we are never as alone as they were. The Spirit Jesus leaves behind does amazing things, according to John 15:26-16:15. The Spirit bears witness to Jesus - so the pressure isn't all on us!  The Spirit convinces the world of sin - and us who are in the world but not good at being not of the world.  

  Jesus tantalizes by suggesting things will be even better for the disciples once he's gone! Why shouldn’t Jesus just stay? “Only through the internal presence of the Paraclete do the disciples come to understand Jesus fully” (Raymond Brown). The Spirit's business isn't a starring role anyhow. The Spirit is deferential, glorifying the Father and the Son, like the stage director you never see but who makes the show unfold and keeps the stars in the bright lights, looking good.

   Romans 8:22-27. For Paul, this same Spirit does amazing, tender, desperately needed work in each Christian's soul. Romans 8 in its entirety is a deep ocean we'll never fully sail across or understand its depths. Back in verse 15, sadly not in today's lectionary sectioning, the Spirit undercuts any sense that we are docile slaves, and any slavery to anything not of God; the Spirit stirs in us the reality that we are adopted into God's family - the greatest privilege of which is being able to pray with the same intimacy to God that Jesus exhibited.  The Spirit invites and liberates us to pray, "Abba! Father!" 

   And then Paul, so powerfully, speaks of the Spirit groaning within us, helping us in our weakness, sighing in us when we are clueless how or what to pray. Wow. I have used this often during the pandemic, and people resonate. When you sigh, in despair (as it feels to you!), this is actually God’s Spirit praying in you. Oh my. Such comfort, and hope. "Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me" - please, and now. "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, and make me love Thee as I ought to love."