I have served as a pastor for twenty-seven years.
Being a pastor is a calling I never sought or pursued. Growing up in a pastor's home, I decided early on that the life of a pastor wasn't for me. But God had other plans. And God normally gets what he wants.
Beginning with my first Sunday in the pulpit in 1993 until this very day, I have faced the same fear. Every week, I am afraid that I won't have anything to say when the next Sunday comes. Fortunately, that hasn't happened - at least, not yet. But I live with the troubling possibility that it might happen at some point.
Thankfully, God has been gracious in giving me a word to share every time I am privileged to preach. I am sure that I have not always spoken the exact word that God has given me, but I have tried my best to stay as close as possible to the leadership of the Spirit.
While God has always given me a word at the appropriate time, I have to admit that I have been at a loss for words for about twenty-four hours now.
What I saw last night on television when our President showed up in front of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. was profoundly troubling, disturbing, and upsetting. I will leave the politics of the matter for another time, but I do have some theological reflections to share.
Last night, after making sure that the area was safe and secure, the President stood before the church building and lifted a Bible in hand.
Without any specific explanation, we were left on our own to figure out exactly what he intended that act to mean. In that moment, was the Bible a symbol of something? Was it an icon? A charm? A talisman? Was the President suggesting that his earlier speech was supported by the Bible? Was the President suggesting to American Christians that his holding the Bible indicated that he was "on their side"?
It's hard to know exactly what the act was intended to communicate, but I have to say that it left me speechless.
When I watch the world, I typically look for stories in Scripture that help me make sense of the things that are happening. Today, I was drawn to a story in 1 Samuel. Stunned by a crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites decided that they would be wise to take the ark of the covenant into battle the next time. They were certain that the ark (which represented the very presence of God) would guarantee their victory. With the ark in hand, they believed that they would be invincible. That symbol, for them, carried magical power.
Much to their surprise, even with that great symbol in hand, the Israelites learned that they were not invincible:
So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated
and every man fled to his tent.
The slaughter was very great;
Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.
The ark of God was captured,
and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died
1 Samuel 4:10-11
I leave it to you to develop your own application of the story.
But for me, the story tells me that we cannot put God in a box. We are on shaky ground whenever we presume that God is in our camp. And relying on grand religious symbols - such as church buildings or Bibles or even the ark of the covenant itself - does not provide us with a mandate, special protection, or a guarantee that we are actually doing the work of God.
The Old Testament prophets in particular castigated the people of God for meaningless and empty religious ritual, calling instead for changed hearts and changed lives.
Jesus took his place in that same tradition. He was relentless in his criticism of those who used religion for their own purposes.
Perhaps you saw something different last night. But to me, that's what I saw. And I found it devastating and dangerous.
Frankly, it left me speechless.