Childhood’s Faith


The following post was written by Rev. Ed Moore.

Last summer Mary and I moved from Burlington, NC, where we’d lived for six years, to Harrisonburg, VA, so she could begin her new position as Dean of the School of Business Shenandoah Valleyat James Madison University. This was something of a homecoming for me, since I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley.

In one of those ironies life occasionally tosses at us, I learned that our new home would be only a mile or so from Massanetta Springs, a retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church USA, where I’d attended summer camp for a number of years in my childhood (we EUB’s – Evangelical United Brethren – leased the space for a couple of weeks each summer and remained immune to predestination). Now I drive through Massanetta several times a week, after an absence of many years.

I’ve had some of the experiences one commonly does when revisiting a place from childhood. The old hotel at Massanetta looks smaller than I remember it; trees newly-planted when I attended church camp are now mature; the hillside where most of the cabins are located appears steeper; the swimming pool less challenging. Memories formed in childhood and early adolescence had clearly been filtered by the mind, a common occurrence.

Not long ago I pulled into a parking lot at Massanetta and watched a group of kids playing basketball (boys and girls together; the EUB saints of old would have been mortified). As I watched, an unexpected feeling surfaced, a yearning at once deep and troubling. I found myself wishing for the faith I’d had when I was a kid at church camp, the enchanted faith that easily believes timeless truths abound in the Bible; that the parting of the Red Sea really happened; that there is an upward trajectory to the human story that will one day culminate in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem; that the tribal doctrines of my denomination (EUB’s again) came straight from the mouth of God; and that the basic goodness of people and noble institutions could simply be assumed. I longed for the faith which began to erode with my friends’ coming home in coffins from Viet Nam, with classes in intellectual history and biblical criticism in college and seminary and (true confessions) with my early experiences in the pastoral ministry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt, I think, a similar longing when she recalled her “childhood’s faith” and “lost saints.”[i]

Advent will soon begin, wisely set by our ancestors to commence in the darkest part of the year. There’s more than just metaphor in this. We need to be reminded that the enchanted faith of childhood must yield to the world of adults with its complexities, ambiguities, flawed heroes and ethical dilemmas. The baby soon to be born in Bethlehem literally incarnates this Truth for us, in his own journey from the manger to Pilate’s judgment hall. I wonder if Jesus ever longed for his lost angels, who rocked the heavens when he was born, then opted out of the Passion.

Those called to preach the Good News this Advent and Christmas enjoy the great privilege of proclaiming a faith that does not deny the power of darkness, but, instead, meets it head on when it appears most potent, and claims there is, indeed, a Light that begins with Mary’s labor pains and cannot be put out, all the might of Rome – and the world’s sin – notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s mere resurgent enchantment that makes me wonder if even Pontius Pilate dwells in that light at last.

[i] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43. “How Do I Love Thee?” is the popular title.


Rev. Moore is the Director of Educational Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative and an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Photo by Flickr user Richard Bonnett, via CC

Walking Lenten Devotional


With Ash Wednesday just a week away, here is some information about a new Lenten practice you might want to consider.  Published by Church Health Center, Walking to the Cross is a devotional designed to be used during the 40 days of Lent.  The guide Walking to the Crossencourages you to incorporate walking, along with reflection and prayer, into your daily Lenten practices.  From the booklet: “Just as Jesus traveled the long journey to the cross, we believe that walking is an act of spiritual and physical devotion.”

Each week of the program starts with a psalm and the chance to set a “movement goal” for yourself.  This goal is entirely personal and can range from simply increasing physical activity to a specific daily number of steps/miles goal.  You could challenge yourself to try types of physical activity you’ve never engaged in before, such as yoga, a Zumba class, or even jump roping in your office.

You can purchase print copies of Walking to the Cross for $4 each (bulk discounts are available) here or here.  A Kindle version for $2.99 is available here.  An abbreviated online version is available for free here.

-Katie Huffman

There Is Endless Potential in the Clay: A Lectionary Reflection on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139


Welcome to the tenth and final post in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in these weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our tenth guest post is by Ed Moore, reflecting on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139.* 

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I considered becoming an archaeologist. I had toyed with the idea as an undergraduate (religion major, as many “pre-mini’s” were back then) and then attended a lecture by Duke’s renowned Eric Meyers on his recent dig in the Middle East. I was fascinated as Meyers explained that strata in a ruin inhabited across millennia by different peoples could accurately be dated by identifying the various types of pottery.

With just a few shards, an expert could give a fair estimate of the date when this or that group “owned” the place. I thought my interest in archaeology had been shelved when I opted for the pastoral ministry, only to discover within a few months of arriving in my first appointment (a congregation founded in 1788 – Asbury preached there several times, the locals were quick to say) that identifying strata in a congregation’s past was nearly as demanding as digging up Nineveh. And some of the pottery shards were, well, surprising.

9371760700_d5ac835f13_hJeremiah knew about potters, their wheels and shards. In the reading for September 8, he imagines Yahweh sitting at the wheel, shaping the destinies of nations, just as a potter would a common vessel. As preaching technique, this is powerful stuff. Everyone who heard Jeremiah had seen potters at their wheels, and watched them gently form the wet clay into the desired shape. Occasionally the potter would be dissatisfied with the way the work was going, would collapse the clay back into a lump, and would start all over again. The shape hadn’t been right, and the work needed a fresh beginning. Just as Jesus’ parables drew upon the commonplace to connect with his listeners – lost sheep, prodigal offspring – so Jeremiah used everyday imagery as a vehicle for the prophetic Word. If you heard Jeremiah describe God at the wheel, you would remember the sermon next time you passed the neighborhood potter’s shop.

This time of year tends to evoke memories for United Methodist pastors, since many of us began serving new appointments on the first of July. It is inevitable that, as we leave one place of ministry for another, we reflect back upon what was good – and not – in the place we’ve been. If we’re not careful, we begin to dwell upon the “if only” scenario: if only I had been more pastorally sensitive in that situation five years ago, I’d have avoided serious conflict. If only I’d been more decisive in dealing with that difficult staff issue, the congregation would have been healthier. If only I’d been a better listener, preacher, counselor, manager, fund raiser . . . you get the idea. Yes, of course, the New Jerusalem would have descended had I only gotten my act together.

But I didn’t, and now it’s moving time again. This sort of selective remembering is really an archaeological dig. As we go down through the layers of ministry, we find shards of what-might-have-been. We gaze fondly upon them (as the Puritans loved to say), pick them up, and allow their sharp edges to wound us afresh. Each one is a stark reminder of some brokenness, either in ourselves or in the parishes we served. Stratum after stratum, year after year, they surface, each a relic of some shortcoming or missed opportunity.

When I was assigned the lections for September 8 and read again that passage from Jeremiah, I remembered a church camp experience from years ago. At the end of the week we had a consecration service (the planners weren’t clear about the meaning of that theological term, but meant well), in which we were asked to recall some sin we needed to confess. We were to write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and toss it in the campfire as we all sang, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” You know the lyrics, straight from Jeremiah, “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will . . .”

8329324494_2572067fa7When we allow those freshly re-dug shards from the past to wound us, we miss the grace the Psalmist understood so well when she wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . and are acquainted with all my ways. . . In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” It’s helpful to hear the Psalmist’s words through the prism of that old hymn. God, as Jeremiah imagined God at the potter’s wheel, is constantly about the work of re-forming when something gets out of shape, because there is endless potential in the clay. Lord, help us wait, “yielded and still,” for the gracious, reshaping touch of the Spirit.


Ed Moore is the Director of Educational Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative, and an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection

• Our memories are imperfect, and as such they can wound long after the fact. Why is that shard from a past ministry still hurting you? Why do you dig it up so often? The process of remembering can itself can become unhealthy, overweight with baggage that dulls the spirit. How can the healing of your memories begin?

• Sometimes it is helpful to note what scripture does not say. In this passage from Jeremiah, the prophet doesn’t mention the importance of water in the potter’s craft; he assumed everyone knew it. The potter always works with wet hands, shaping the clay until it yields to his skill. The waters of baptism are on the Spirit’s hands, too, molding the clay of your life and shaping it gracefully. How can the memory of your baptism be a means of healing and wholeness for you?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Living Wholly in Christian Community: A Lectionary Reflection on Hebrews 13


Welcome to the ninth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our ninth guest post is by Christi O. Brown, reflecting on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.* 

The sermon was delivered, hands had been shaken, and the church doors were locked for the day. Now, it was time for the pastor’s favorite part of the week – Sunday afternoon. The family lingered over lunch, and then, ah, a glorious nap.

Five o’clock rolled around all too quickly. The young adult group from church would be arriving soon. They were in the midst of a six-week study on holistic health. They trickled in, chit-chatting about their latest projects, weekend trips, and job interviews. Then after an opening prayer, they turned to the sermon for the day, which had focused on Hebrews 13, a particularly apt scripture for this group. One of them looked at the pastor. “I liked your message this morning. But I wondered if you have thoughts about how to put it into practice.”

This is exactly the kind of question the author of Hebrews was responding to in chapter 13. As Tom Long has noted in his book Interpretation: Hebrews, the stylistic shift of this chapter indicates the formal part of the preacher’s sermon is over. Now it is on to the announcements, joys, and concerns – the point where teachings are put into practice.

DSC_0043This passage indicates what it means to be embodied Christians living faithfully in community. Hebrews 13 is a marker of what the Bible has to say about holistically living out the Christian faith. The formula in this passage is profuse, including mutual love, hospitality, empathy, simplicity, honoring relationships, praising God, giving thanks, doing good, and sharing. Overall, it is a reminder of the importance of Christian community in our ability to live wholly. None of the things the author exhorts us to do can be accomplished alone. We need to have others in our lives with whom to share mutual love, support, and accountability. As embodied members of Christ, it is our duty and privilege to care for, nurture, and help others, fully empathizing with their circumstances.

Though we’re not imprisoned in jail or tortured like some of the early Christians this letter addresses, we are each imprisoned and tortured by our own vices. Living in Christian
community, the author of Hebrews recognizes that we must try to understand the pain and struggles of others and to be vulnerable with one another, sharing even our most shameful challenges. And it isn’t easy. The obstacles that prevent us from living holistically – whether they include overeating, avoiding exercise, working too many hours, or becoming impatient with our families – often seem like things we should be able to manage ourselves. However, this passage reminds us that the Lord is our helper, and that it is grace that strengthens the heart. The grace to live wholly is found in true Christian communities. As we run the race with perseverance, Christ is our anchor and our community is our coach. Though it’s not easy to run or stay on track when pursuing balance, the good news is that the race is not run alone.

DSC_4295Living as embodied members of Christian community is extremely helpful in times of transition, which is the one thing most young adults have in common (as do United Methodist pastors.) Change is the norm: young adults are often living in a liminal space – betwixt and between towns, jobs, serious relationships, kids. It is challenging to live holistically when nothing seems grounded or stable. This is why the mutual love and hospitality that the author of Hebrews mentions as present in a Christian community are so important. It is via the love and encouragement of others that all of us are able to press on toward living our lives as fully and faithfully as possible. In our times of discouragement, it is helpful to remember that even the author of Hebrews asks for prayer in order to pursue the goal of acting honorably. This act demonstrates the need for Christian community, where we most strongly experience the prayer, support, and grace we need to fully live.

brownChristi O. Brown is a pastoral associate at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, S.C., and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Questions for reflection:

• The Bible recounts numerous stories of God’s calling folk individually – Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple at Jerusalem, Saul on the Damascus Road, Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism – but in each case, the call is to equip them to be sent
back into the community of God’s people. How might the struggle to be healthier – mentally, physically, spiritually – be God’s summons to be shaped for a more powerful ministry in the church?

• In the self-help section of any bookstore are hundreds of titles: diets, self-esteem guides, toolkits for a happier marriage, and manuals to more effective management of every imaginable topic. Is the cry for self-help a lament that community has been lost?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Freedom From Infirmity: A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:10-17


Welcome to the eighth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our eighth guest post is by W. Joseph Mann, reflecting on Luke 13:10-17.* 

In his woodcut, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the artist Robert Hodgell depicts a man bent over, not unlike the woman in today’s scripture from Luke. Strapped to the man’s back are large rocks, and written on them is the question, “What shall I do to be saved?” He tries to walk forward, but his burden is too great. Behind him are laughing faces, deriding him and adding to his woe.

This “pilgrim” makes little progress because he has burdened himself with the weight of his own salvation. This ill-health is deeply spiritual, marked by our human desire to save ourselves, rather than to accept the freedom that Jesus offers us.

458px-Juan_Rodríguez_Juárez_-_Jesus_with_the_Sick_Woman_-_Google_Art_ProjectLike the pilgrim and the ailing woman in this passage from Luke, many of us have seen the forces in life that can cripple us. We have seen parishioners burdened by the weight of grief, sadness, loss of work, economic woes, the failure of important relationships, or the inability to meet their own goals or others’ expectations. This weight can literally cripple and bend us over – we can see the pain in faces, in slumped shoulders, and in the broken rhythms of life. This ill-health taxes all of our abilities to cope, and we lose a sense of hope and promise.

We cannot straighten up, and we fear we never will. And there are those crippled by devastating diseases, diseases that make crooked our bones and leave us, as the woman in Luke, “bent over.” Those who are bent know diminished freedom and individual power. Such illness requires remarkable adaptation to the “healthy” world, a world where bones, at least for the moment, are straight and strong and allow us to move wherever we want to go. To revive us and give us health and freedom, we seek doctors, clinics, and hospitals – we seek to heal ourselves. But often, like this woman in the synagogue, health care cannot straighten us, cannot unbend us.

So this woman went to the synagogue. What a remarkable thing that preachers look out each Sunday and see a congregation of people, who, like this woman, are bent over by sin, illness, and burdens too heavy for them to bear. Why did this woman come? Did she come to synagogue as any observant Jew would, as her Sabbath right and duty? She does not appear to come asking for anything. She does not call out to Jesus – Jesus calls out to her. Wesleyans understand the wooing grace of God, a grace that comes to us before we call upon it.

And Jesus saw her. What a remarkable blessing: this woman is seen by our Savior, and in this seeing comes a call to him, a healing touch, and a response of praise. The church is the Body of Christ, and Jesus reaches out to us and calls us as well. Our opportunity, like that of Jesus, is to look about us and see. We can see those bent over and unable to stand, crippled by a spirit, and we can offer healing to them.

We can announce the Good News that Christ Jesus sees and knows our burdens and illness. We can be set free, even on the Sabbath, for such work is of the Lord. We only give praise. Praise that we all are made whole in Jesus Christ. Praise that we can participate in this healing work. All of us stand before God as broken sinners, unable to straighten up. In the church we confess our human condition and create solidarity with all like us who are broken. And we celebrate that the eyes of Christ are upon us. In the fellowship of the church we are called and touched and embraced.

In this story the woman is healed; she is made straight. We know that when we see, touch, and announce freedom from the burdens that weigh us down, not all of us are cured. But as in this Gospel story, we are all set free and given wholeness, purpose, and promise through Jesus Christ.

Joseph Mann File 0728/02  frame 26A © Duke University Photography  Jim WallaceW. Joseph Mann is adjunct professor of parish work at Duke Divinity School and an ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection:

• There is a deep indignity in that bent-over pilgrim in Hodgell’s woodcut and in the woman in Luke 13: neither of them is able to look another human being in the face. Grace empowers us to see Christ face-to-face, but in that eye contact there is obligation. Do we cling to unhealthy aspects of ourselves because we fear the moment of being straightened and obliged to look Christ in the eye?

• The woman in Luke’s story still comes faithfully to synagogue, despite her illness, seemingly called or driven by something. When congregants bring their woundedness to church, what are the risks to the pastor’s own health and well-being? What resources help clergy manage the risk?

The Contest of Faith and the Christian Athlete: Reflections on Hebrews 11:29-12:2


Welcome to the seventh in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our sixth guest post is by J. Warren Smith, reflecting on Hebrews 11:29-12:2.* 

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As a teacher of early Christian history, I often hear students who have an introductory knowledge of the early Church pose two criticisms of the Church Fathers. First, they feel that the early Christians disregard the literal meaning of Scripture and instead focus on the spiritual meaning of the passage. The second criticism is that the Church Fathers have a dualistic view of the soul and the body and so denigrate the body and glorify the soul.

Yet when we, as modern Christians, read in Hebrews the comparison of Christian life to an athlete running a race, we are the ones who are quick to offer a spiritual interpretation. We see the image of the race as mere metaphor, so we interpret the advice about “laying aside every weight and sin which clings close” not as instructions concerning the bodily disciplines, but the spiritual ones. We tell ourselves, “It simply means that we must eliminate any form of sin, any excessive or inappropriate love of anything other than God.”

At a profound level, that is true. But by spiritualizing the metaphor of the runner in the race, we fail to take seriously the relationship between disciplines for the soul and disciplines for the body. We do not see that because the soul and body are united, the spiritual disciplines include care for the body as well as the soul. The body, as Gregory of Nyssa said, outwardly mirrors the emotional and mental stress of the soul. Yet we act as if the soul is unaffected by what happens to the body, as if our intellectual judgments can be detached from our bodily habits.

In the area of spirituality, this bifurcation of the soul and the body often begins innocently enough. For example, to help people get beyond the childhood forms of prayer (kneeling with hands folded by their bedside) we tell them, “That you pray is what is important, not how you pray. You can pray anytime, anyplace, in whatever posture is comfortable.” While the basic point is certainly right – that we should not get hung up on the forms of prayer – we are naïve if we think that the position of the body has no influence on how well the mind can concentrate in prayer. As if we can be as attentive to God lying down in a soft, warm bed as we can while sitting upright on the floor with legs crossed! An athlete knows better; she knows that mental and physical disciplines are inseparable. And so did the teachers of the early Church.


The image of the athletic contest (agôn) occurs repeatedly in the letters attributed to Paul. In I and II Timothy the author, writing as an old man, speaks of having “fought the good fight of faith” and having “finished the race.” In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul tells his readers that he possesses the virtue – self-control – required of all athletes who run the race to win the victor’s crown. For without self-control, the athlete would never endure the rigors and hardships of training. The regimen of diet and exercise not only conditions the body by building up strength and endurance, it also prepares the body for the contest by simulating the pain and adversity of the contest. Because of this preparation, the athlete will be not be surprised by the strain and pain of the race or the boxing arena. Indeed, Paul says that he can endure the hardships of his apostolic ministry because he disciplines his body, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

This athletic self-control is necessary for the contest of discipleship. For the goal of self-control is subduing our bodily appetites, making our body, as well as our mind, captive to Christ. Only if the whole person is ordered toward one prize can the Christian finish the race. As Jesus said, “A slave cannot serve two masters. For he will hate one and love the other.” Likewise, we can’t do whatever we want with our body while still faithfully serving God with our minds. When we live into the metaphor of the athlete and view the physical regimen of diet and exercise as a spiritual discipline, the body and its appetites can be ordered to the service of Christ and his Church. Only then can the body be an instrument for the Kingdom. Then at last we will discover true wholeness, the unity of soul and body under the headship of him who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.


J. Warren Smith is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Duke Divinity School.


Questions for Reflection

• To read John Wesley’s journal is to marvel at his energy. He rose early every morning, prayed, read his Greek New Testament, wrote and answered letters, then kept a list of appointments. Often he spoke of walking miles from one place to the next, thinking it nothing unusual. Do you think his care of the body strengthened him spiritually for the work of the ministry? How much weariness of soul might be healed by following Wesley’s example?

• American culture is sometimes criticized for its emphases on youth and beauty, setting up ideals that are beyond the reach of most people. Do these cultural ideals discourage us from honoring the bodies we have? Why do we cede so much authority to secular ideals at the expense of appropriate self-care? Is this a theological problem that we need to name and confront?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Strength in Numbers: Reflections on Luke 12:32-40


Welcome to the sixth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our sixth guest post is by Rev. Jason Byassee, reflecting on Luke 12:32-40.* 

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There are many versions of Christianity that hold the faith to be merely a matter of belief. We might ask potential believers, “Can you swallow that the world was created by a good God who sustains it in existence?” “Would you buy that Jesus is the Son of this God?” “Ok, if that’s not too much, can you handle a Holy Spirit who revolutionizes our existence?” And maybe they can. But such questions don’t require us to do much more than hold those beliefs in the space between our temples.

In Luke 12, Jesus is in one of his demanding moods. He wants us to act. “Sell your possessions, give alms, be ready for the end.” These are the sorts of demands that can set us to intellectual dissembling. “He didn’t really mean…” or “Viewed in its historical context…” I wonder instead whether life built on the strength of community could make some of this discipline seem . . . doable.

In the last six months or so a friend and I have tried to train for a marathon. Only we each have some pounds to lose. Or dozens. We’re Methodist ministers, we go to potlucks; it’s not easy, ok? The first few times we tried to run, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. The alarm would go off at 6 a.m., and I would rejoice to see that it was raining outside. Can’t possibly run today. Or I’d think of an excuse before I ever set the alarm the night before. Anything to avoid the date with soreness and sleepiness the next day.

Then something happened. I realized that whether I made it out there or not, my friend would be there. If I didn’t show up, he’d run alone in the dark. Suddenly the decision of whether or not to run wasn’t just about me and my level of comfort or tiredness or athleticism. It was about my friend, who, if I failed to get up, would be left alone to struggle against his body and the trail. I started showing up more.

3658043028_2102714e18_bAs we ran, we got to listening to one another’s stories differently. Something happens as you crawl toward 26.2: first we hit six miles, then eight, 10, then a half marathon. And it takes us hours. We’ve taken to calling each other “cellmate.” We’re beginning to finish each other’s sentences and to ask for retellings of stories about each other’s cousins.

This is how relationships are supposed to work. You can’t cram it all into a power lunch.
You have to have long stretches of unstructured time where you’ve both long since run out
of things to say.

Something else happened: our bodies started to change. We’d run for hours and feel great all day – energized, like we’re flying. We pressed through injuries so that weak muscles and joints went from wounded to better to strong. We began to run not just for negative reasons, like guilt. And we made progress through friendship to health. Now we wouldn’t not run.

This is how the early Methodists pursued God. Theirs was a mutual, corporate sort of holiness. They banded together in small groups to ask one another how their pursuit of God had gone: “So, did anyone sin this week?” They also had to do works of mercy like visiting in prisons and feeding the hungry. And they had to give financially to the group to support mission.

Notice: all these acts are public, bodily, externally verifiable – done together, never alone. Methodists loved the individual pursuit of holiness too. But a relationship between me and Jesus was never enough. St. Basil asked Christians in the fourth century, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash? Who will wash yours?”

People who work in public health know that you can’t correct a public malady with individual solutions alone. Want to stamp out smoking? You don’t just pass out information and trade on guilt. You also tax the bejezus out of cigarettes. You make smoking illegal in many places. And you build a culture of disapproval around it. You have to change a whole ecology of behavior.

So too with holiness. Ancient Methodists knew that you would need friends, communities, churches, and eventually whole societies to pursue holiness if you wanted individuals to do the same. It’s no accident my friend and I are running. We’re in a town that’s built running trails. There are shops that provide the gear. Our culture increasingly frowns on fatness. In fact, our culture’s banging of the drum of health runs the risk of substituting for faith – are we seeking eternal life as we bound around the track?

My friend and I are only halfway to 26. But I’ll bet we’ll get there. Not because either one of us can do it alone, but because (and only because) we’ve done it together. And that’s how to pursue selling possessions, giving alms, and waiting actively for Jesus’ return. …And how to avoid the doughnut shop.


Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference and a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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Questions for reflection:

• There’s a long history in America of talking about Jesus as “my personal savior,” and of “getting right with God” so that I can go to heaven. How does this emphasis on individual faith stand against the need to wash another’s feet, and to submit to having one’s own feet washed?

• Is the time right for a community-based campaign against obesity, as it once was for a unified effort against smoking? Does obesity compromise the church’s witness in the world by diminishing the energy and well-being of laity and clergy, and in so doing, constitute an impediment to the Holy Spirit?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Being Rich Towards God: a Lectionary Reflection


This is the fifth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our fifth guest post is by Susan Pendleton Jones, reflecting on the lectionary reading from Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

One word holds together the assigned gospel, epistle, and Old Testament lessons for this week: greed – the unhealthy, human tendency to trust primarily in ourselves and what we can acquire rather than putting our trust in God.

3400039523_ec5b55a7ecIn Luke, a man who has recently lost his parents wants Jesus to make his brother divide the estate with him. It appears that the man wants an advocate, someone who will be on his side, not a judge who will make a fair ruling. Jesus senses the man’s greed and responds by telling him a parable. A rich farmer, whose crops are so plentiful that he runs out of room in his barns, tears down his small barns and builds bigger ones. He decides to store up his abundance for many years to come, reasoning that, “then will I eat, drink, and be merry,” not knowing that later that very night he would die. In these verses, the man uses the words “I” or “me” twelve times. This farmer’s problem is not so much with his actions as with the motivation behind his actions. He believes himself to be in total control of his life and destiny. Seeing this lack of faith, God calls him a fool.

Greed takes the form of idolatry in Colossians, as the apostle admonishes his audience: “put to death” all earthly things such as evil desire and greed. Similarly, the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Hosea is framed in the context of the people of Israel not being satisfied with Yahweh and desiring idols who will please them more. Even though Yahweh calls his “son” Israel out of bondage in Egypt, the people turn to other gods: sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols. They refuse to be content with the good that Yahweh has done for them even though they have been gently led, even cradled, by a loving, forgiving God through the wilderness. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Each of these lessons on the problem of human greed offers a similar solution: the discontented, overly self-concerned person needs to have a fresh encounter with God. In the gospel lesson Jesus, who speaks more about money than any other topic, reminds his listeners that there is far more to life than the abundance of one’s possessions. If we store up and rely primarily on our “earthly treasures,” then we will have a much more difficult time being rich toward God, seeking first life in God’s Kingdom, which keeps us in communion with God and others.


Colossians invites readers to turn from “earthly” temptations, things such as impurity, evil desire, and greed, by appealing to Christ, the one who was raised from the dead. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ has ultimately conquered these “earthly” things, the “powers of death.” If Christians have died and been raised with Christ through baptism, and if their minds and their lives are truly “hidden” with Christ in God, then they will not succumb to the temptation of these powers. Christians, he writes, are to clothe themselves with the “new self ” that is lived in the image of its creator.

In the Old Testament lesson, the God of Hosea responds to Israel’s ingratitude by offering forgiveness, an opportunity for a new and renewed relationship with Him: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” In all of these lessons God offers Himself anew to the one who is moving down a path toward self-destruction.

So, how do we escape the snares of acute selfishness that manifests itself as greed? How do we find the renewal that brings us to wholeness? The answer to our deepest longing is not to turn inward to self-obsession or to turn outward to false gods of material goods or fleeting promises. It is to look “otherward” – toward a God whose arms are outstretched, not only in a cruciform, self-giving fashion, but also in a loving embrace that offers forgiveness and welcomes us home. Only when we allow the One who has come to give his very life for us to truly befriend us, will our affections and our yearnings be changed. And we know this, first and foremost, as a gift. It is not something else to attain, particularly not on our own – for doing so would be adding to the original problem. Rather, when we accept God’s love and forgiveness as a gift freely offered and when we then live into our baptism, we respond with glad and generous hearts that seek to please God and God’s people. By living our lives in harmony with God’s desires, we store up treasures, not for ourselves and our earthly consumption, but for the Kingdom of God and our blessed participation in it.


Susan Pendleton Jones is associate dean for United Methodist initiatives and ministerial formation and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection:

  • From Enron to Goldman Sachs to angry, confrontational politics, greed appears to be endemic in our society. If the beginning of greed is dissatisfaction with who and what we are – the Israelites leave Yahweh for Baal, the farmer yearns for ever larger barns – then what is the origin of this dissatisfaction? Whose voice has captured us?
  • What would it look like authentically to “live into our baptism?” In our vows, we promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “reject the evil powers of this world,” but we don’t name them. If we were asked to name what we renounce and reject when we’re baptized, what would we say?

(Images by flickr users Mykl Roventine and Great Beyond, both via Creative Commons)

The Abundant Life of Bread: Lectionary Reflections on Luke 11:1-3


This is the fourth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our fourth guest post is by Professor Norman Wirzba, reflecting on the lectionary reading from Luke 11:1-3

We worship a God who loves bread. This should not be surprising to us, particularly if we recognize that in the sharing of bread we become companions to one another. A companion is someone who comes with (com) bread (panis). Companions share and nurture life, giving daily routines a flavor that lasts long after they have physically departed from us. When people gather around freshly baked slices they share stories, express hopes, find help, and confess their worries.

We need companions to make it through life. We need bread daily to keep us alive. This is why we ask, “Give us each day our daily bread.” But what happens when we forget to ask, or think it silly to ask? After all, why ask for bread when we can just as well go into a store and purchase a loaf from among the multiple varieties on the shelf? Who has time to bake bread, let alone sit around and eat it slowly with others?

The Lord’s Prayer is a daily prayer because we need a constant reminder that God is interested in companionship as much as he is in the feeding of our physical bodies. God wants us to know life in its fullness and abundance. God wants us to taste and experience the inexhaustible, triune communion life that welcomes, nurtures, and celebrates the world. That nurture begins with the feeding of our physical bodies, but it extends into the feeding of our social bodies and souls. It extends, even, to God’s daily feeding of the entire creation, so that altogether we can be healthy, whole, and at peace.


In my house, there is no greater excitement than the aroma of bread baking in the oven. We all become fairly giddy with anticipation, jostling for position as we each seek the first slice. When we calm down, pass the butter and jam, and stop smacking our lips, we then rest in each other’s company and in the love of our bread baker. We slow down. We talk about the day. We step out of our own obsessions and preoccupations so that we can attend to each other. We don’t spend hours doing this. But we do enough to know that what makes our living possible and a joy is the simplicity of bread and the fellowship it makes possible.

In a world where fragmentation, loneliness, and speed rule, and where bread is little more than a product, we need the fellowship of companions more than ever before. The fullness of life is diminished when we mostly eat alone or on the run. Though our bellies may be full, even overfull, we are left craving for the fulfillment that comes from being in reconciled relationships with God and our neighbors. Sometimes the craving for companionship is so powerful that we might, like the midnight seeker in Luke, go pounding on the door of a friend to ask for bread. The need is so great that we will not take “No” for an answer.

Sometimes “No” is all we get. Or we find the bread but not the fellowship. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the people we knew were like God, whose door is always welcoming and whose oven is always baking? Luke shows us that God is not only a heavenly Father – God is also a heavenly Baker. Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness if our churches were places where the ovens are always baking, extending genuine fellowship to a lonely world in need of communion?


In the Eucharist, Christ has become our food and drink so that we can become the food that nurtures others into his abundant, communion-building life. As John’s Gospel puts it, Christ is the “bread of life,” the bread “come down from heaven.” When we partake of this bread we are transformed from the inside so that we can be hospitable to each other as God has been hospitable to us from the beginning of time. When Christians gather around the Lord’s Table they gradually learn that every table is a place for fellowship, a place around which bodies are nurtured, souls are inspired, and relationships are healed and reconciled.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” I can’t think of a better place for pastors and church members to rethink their life together. What could be more wonderful than to share and enjoy the bread of fellowship that unites us to each other and to God? What could be more necessary than to receive and give again the transforming “bread of life” that sustains and heals our bodies and souls, our neighborhoods and communities, indeed the whole of creation?

147608_norman_wirzba_highresNorman Wirzba is professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School. Read more here.

Questions for reflection:

  • The first resurrection appearance in Luke’s Gospel is at Emmaus, when Jesus breaks the bread. In that moment, the disciples recognize him as the Lord. Charles Wesley used this text as basis for his hymn, “O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread,” which affirms that we meet the Risen Christ in the Eucharist. How many United Methodist congregations understand this part of their heritage? Would a renewed understanding be health-giving to pastors and congregations?
  • The words “company” and “companion” both derive from the image of shared bread. In uttering the Lord’s Prayer, a request to God to help us satisfy a physical need (bread), we also admit our hunger for companionship. How are loneliness and isolation – the loss of companionship – destructive of health, and what are ways the church may offer healing?

(Images by flickr users madlyinlovewithlife and MattGerlachPhotography via Creative Commons)

Beyond the Gospel of Us: Reflections on Colossians 1:15-28


This is the third in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our third guest post is by Rev. William H. Lamar IV, reflecting on Colossians 1:15-28.

The Christ of whom we sing gives us “stuff.” Intangible stuff like love, joy, peace, and hope. Tangible stuff like family, friends, food, and shelter. I do not disparage these good and necessary gifts, nor the gracious giver, but much of what I hear (and often say) about Christ sounds transactional. Christ seems to be praised and worshiped because of what we get from Christ. Churches grow because Christ provides us with well-behaved children, prosperity, and decent parking and seating to first-time visitors. We preach 
of Christ’s Visa-like ability to be “everywhere you want to be.” Stretched beyond the boundaries of any interpretive charity, this can seem like a plain and simple quid pro quo.

Would our pews be emptier if we talked more about God and less about what God can do for us? Should we begin our God-talk by stating plainly that God’s past performance is not indicative of God’s future results? Must we always be at the center?


I was talking not long ago with a leader of a faithful, prosperous congregation. This congregation has a children’s ministry that is second to none. Its facilities for the young 
are Disneyesque. The teachers are well trained. There is always a waiting list for the ministry’s activities. The leader told me that she was accosted one day by some parents complaining about the ministry’s deficiencies. The leader was taken aback. She had heard only glowing reviews about the ministry in the past. But she was confident that the ministry could be enriched and improved. When she met with the parents she asked if there were problems with curricula, with biblical concepts, with formation. The answer – an emphatic no! The problem? A church not far away had better technology for their children’s ministry, and the parents wanted to know when they could expect an upgrade in the ministry’s technological infrastructure. Their children could not do Jesus 2.0 in a Jesus 3.0 world!

The hymn in this passage seems to say, “Lift up your heads!” Lift your heads above what you want and what you can get, and focus on Christ and what he embodies. Songs and speech begin and end in Christ.

The work of Christ begins and 
ends in God. This Christ hymn 
does not begin with the needs of 
the Colossians, although the author 
is both aware of those needs and 
concerned about them. Rather, it 
implies that the best way for the
 Colossians (and for us) to live “with all the strength that comes from his glorious power (1:11)” is to look into the mystery of the Triune God and to worship. Not to mold mystery into a formula that is easily understood and so domesticated that it can carry none of the power that prepares us “to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father (1:11-12),” but to experience it in its wildness.

Christ is the image of the invisible God. All things, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is 
the beginning, the firstborn of the dead. In him, in his body, 
all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Could it be that the early church was on to something by grounding speech and act in the reality of God in Christ?

So what to do with all of this Christ-talk, all of this God-talk in today’s church, with its focus on “what can God do for you”?

We must proclaim that to see Christ in a brother or sister is to see God. We must proclaim that no power, principality, or ruler exists who was not created through Christ and for Christ. We must proclaim that Christ is before all things – nation, race, political party, and socioeconomic status. We
 must proclaim that Christ holds all things together – the Haitian earthquake, the Gulf oil spill, the war-torn lands of the earth, 
the disease and infirmity and stress and fatigue that plague our health and the well-being of those around us. We must proclaim that Christ is the head of the church, especially when it appears that we, the church’s leaders, have lost our way. We must proclaim that in Christ’s incarnate body the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

Imagine song and speech in our churches where Christ is subject. The needs of our bodies and hearts are subsumed in his body and sacred heart. Proclaiming the justice and joy that Christ brings is proclaiming what we need. This proclamation, and this proclamation alone, alerts the world that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”

That is good news.

bill lamarWilliam H. Lamar IV is pastor of Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Md., and a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where he designs, resources and facilitates educational opportunities related to Christian leadership and pastoral imagination. 

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Questions to Consider:

In our liturgy for the Eucharist, we proclaim as Christian
community “the mystery of faith,” which is, “Christ has
died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How often in
our ministries do we preach and teach mystery as central
to the faith? When God is projected as a cosmic ATM
and faith as purely transactional, could the theological
problem be a loss of mystery?

Jesus told Nicodemus that, unless he was born from
above, he would not see the Kingdom of God. What
we see is not only physical, but also spiritual. When we
cannot discern Christ in a brother or sister and in that
discernment see God, is that symptomatic of our spiritual
unhealthiness? Is spiritual wellness prerequisite to seeing
the Kingdom of God?

These reflections and the accompanying questions to consider first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.