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This is the One: The Song of Songs

Singing moves me. When I use the energy and breath inside of me to produce sounds and notes and words, I feel my toes begin to tap, my hips begin to sway and my arms stretch out. It’s hard to sing while locked in place.

Songs in Scripture are moving events. When God does something miraculous, people interrupt in songs of praise and thanksgiving. The only way to truly recognize the movement of the eternal, all-powerful God in history is to sing!

Miriam sings for the hope that horse and rider be tossed into the sea and the people of Israel walk free from their oppressors. Mary sings for the new life God has planted in her body to up-end all the social structures of their world. The early church, persecuted and underground, sings about the way in which Jesus became a servant, humbling himself unto death–even death on a cross.

But of all the songs in Scripture, one song dares to call itself the “Song of Songs”: The greatest of all songs. The song that all other songs wish they could be.

This Song of Songs begins with rippling desire– “If only he would give me some of his kisses, Oh, your loving is sweeter than wine!” These are the words of a lover who waits for the kiss of the one her heart pounds for. The song begins with intoxicating passion, delight, desire, and unbridled love.

This song is at once about three dimensions of human love; it is about our God-given desire for one another, our passionate love affair with the Lord our God, and our exuberant delight in creation.

But above all, this song wants to move us. We cannot hear and sing a song in response to this, the greatest of all songs, without feeling our body tingle; we cannot hear and sing it without our heart pounding in our ears and a flush creeping up our neck. This is a song sung with a full body and a full heart. This is a song without shame, without judgment, without fear, and without limits.

This is the Song of Songs.

“Do not be afraid”

This post was originally shared at Durham Church’s Easter Vigil worship service by Carynne McIver, a member of our church family. Carynne rewrote the story of the women approaching the tomb on Easter morning.

She lay in bed, gazing at the ceiling.
Yet another sleepless night.
The past few days seemed like a blur. Had it only been a week since they came to Jerusalem?

All the crowds, the palms, that donkey that seemed both ridiculous and majestic all at once. So many stories–angels and demons, bridegrooms, lamps, vineyards… She had heard from John about the dinner where they had all promised to remember him with bread and wine.

Nothing he said made any sense when she tried to puzzle through it, but then when she stopped thinking and just LET GO of the clatter in her head, it felt more right than anything else she’d ever heard.

The way she’d felt for the last few months–she didn’t remember feeling that before, ever. Not in the temple, not listening to the pharisees or praying on the sabbath. Even that sense of peace she felt when she was able to wander alone in the fields didn’t really come close to the confusing glow she felt now.

Or had felt.

The faint predawn glow peaked through her window.
“Mary?” she whispered.
“Is it time?” asked Mary, the quick reply betraying her own insomnia.

They rose decisively but with the plodding movements of bone-deep exhaustion. Gathering the ointments Mary had traded for her only remaining valuable cloth, they broke their fast with just a few sips of water and quietly stepped into the silent street.

Walking along the familiar path, Mary felt a shudder at the memory of the steps taken here just three days before. She had held her breath for what felt like years as he slowly made his way through those awful crowds. She hadn’t known what to do–she never felt like she knew what to do around him. But it hadn’t seemed to matter. Nothing seemed to matter, really.

They crept closer, feeling a heavy mist weighing on them with every step. There it was–the stone. Mary’s heart beat faster. She wanted to run, or to fall screaming and curse the Lord, as she had done every night since.

Why? Why, when it was all finally starting to come together? She didn’t care that he seemed unsurprised, that he spoke of the sign of Jonah and the kingdom of heaven. What was a distant kingdom compared to here? And what did it all matter if now he was gone forever?

Now they were just steps away from the tomb. Mary reached out and took her friend’s hand, squeezing it and somehow finding renewed strength between them. Taking a deep breath, she lay a finger on the cold stone.

A violent shake seized her, knocking both women to the ground. Breathless, they looked up and where Mary’s hand had been touching stone just moments before was now a hollow opening. The rock was moved to the side and a misty creature sat on top of it, gray cloth swirling frantically about it despite the still morning air.

“Do not be afraid.”

That was all she heard, but it was enough. She had heard this before–and with the same conviction. Time seemed to freeze. She felt a rushing in her ears and everything she had seen came flying back through her mind. Sheep…kingdom…bread of life…the crossed wood that held his body for an unnaturally short time.

“Do not be afraid.”
She heard this in her head, repeated over and over in that kind but firm voice. She felt herself letting go–all the painful images, the clenched fists and the gritted teeth vanishing. The rest she had been craving for days suddenly arrived all at once and she felt a deep and powerful energy in her very core.

The angel was still speaking but Mary took in nothing else. The other Mary was gazing at him with wide eyes and seemed to be drinking in his every word. Something about the disciples, someone was raised, go to Galilee…she didn’t care. It didn’t matter what the words were, because she knew what the message was: Do not be afraid. She wasn’t quite sure why or how, but she knew now that somehow it would all be put right. The nightmare was over.

She felt Mary take her hand and, still dazed, they both slowly walked away.

Dry Bones

L1000839This post was originally shared at Durham Church’s Easter Vigil worship service by Anna Wilcox, a member of our staff. Anna reflected on the passage of the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel 37. Anna grew up in Durham and graduated from Appalachian State in 2011 with a degree in Athletic Training. Anna also works at Reality Ministries, a non-profit that serves teens and adults with developmental disabilities. 

 

Two years ago, my brother-in-law, Jay, was diagnosed with Leukemia: Cancer of the blood.  This is his story.

During Jay’s battle with Leukemia, his team of doctors felt confident that the BEST way to fight the cancer was for him to have a Bone Marrow Transplant. Bone Marrow is a spongy substance that lives deep inside your bones. This marrow produces immature blood cells, which eventually grow and develop into the blood that runs through your whole body.

The idea of the transplant was fascinating to me. Basically, they used chemo to kill as much of Jay’s unhealthy blood and bone marrow as possible, then they took new, healthy marrow from the hip of a donor and injected it into Jay’s body. This new marrow swam through his veins and eventually made its way into Jay’s bones. As the new, healthy, bone marrow settled into Jay’s body, new blood grew from his bones.

During the course of this process, the idea is that all of Jay’s unhealthy blood would be flushed out, and his body would begin to produce new blood, as if it was the blood of the donor. As the donor’s bone marrow grew in Jay’s body, Jay’s blood type would change to that of the donor. It was literally like having someone else’s blood growing and coursing through his veins.

As I reflected on the passage about the Valley of the Dry Bones, I was not only reminded of Jay’s transplant, but I also saw all of us, dry and dead, in need of a donor. Jesus was the Bone Marrow donor for all of us on the cross. What would it mean if we saw His blood coursing through our veins? What would it mean if our own blood type changed to his? What would it mean if we saw communion, eating his body, drinking his blood, as a chance at new life every single week?

What I’ve learned is that the new life Jesus offers us through his blood does not always come in the form of physical healing. Jay died last October.

But what’s more true is that on the Cross, Jesus offers his blood for us. On Easter, Jesus offers his breath, his Holy Spirit, and gives us the hope of eternal life with him, both on this side of heaven and in the life to come.

Two of my dearest friends, Tiffany and Blaire, have been working really hard to put movement to Jay’s cancer story. As you watch them, remember that we are all sick, but that we are all offered new life through the blood and breath of Jesus this Easter.

The Way of Jesus – Prayer

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman, co-pastor of Durham Church.

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Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

- Philippians 4:4-7

This Thursday, many people will sit around a table full of food and feel an unexplainable desire to pray. Even if they do not feel this urge at any other moment in their week; even if they haven’t intentionally talked to God in 2013, some will pause awkwardly, look around the table, and say, “Should we say grace?” The urge to pray is a mystery.

But maybe even a greater mystery still is that many people who pray every week in church, who talk about prayer and read about prayer and tell people that they will pray for them, are still pretty baffled about prayer. What is prayer? What happens when we pray? Why do we pray? What happens if we don’t pray? The meaning of prayer is a mystery.

But maybe the greatest mystery of all is that awful, churning feeling in the pit of your stomach that comes when all eyes look to you to be the appointer pray-er. Shouldn’t talking to God, our Creator, be the most natural thing we ever do? But the thought of praying out loud strikes fear into many of us. I am well acquainted with that look of terror that comes when I ask someone to pray before a meeting or small group. The fear of prayer is a mystery.

The rhythm and order of this Philippians passage will be our guide as we seek the way of Jesus in our prayer life this week. Our scripture begins with joy and gladness. For the same reason that a table of our favorite foods and favorite faces sends us seeking words of thanks, joy and gladness lead us into prayer.

Then that beautiful line, “The Lord is near.” God’s nearness may be what made joy bubble up in the first place, but it is certainly what calms our anxious worries and gives us courage to bring our needs and praises to God.

God draws near to us, and we pour out our hearts to God, and when the giving and taking subsides, peace and safety reign over all.

“The peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”

Prayer was created to be a mystery. Tapping into the very heart of God and receiving God’s peace will exceed our understanding. Prayer is not supposed to be logical or reasonable or understandable.  But prayer is so completely filled with God’s peace that it grabs our hearts and minds and plants them deep in Jesus. Which is a mystery…and a miracle!

The Way of Jesus – Enemy Love

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman, co-pastor of Durham Church.
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‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’

- Luke 6:27-28

Jesus said that we will have no greater love than to lay down our lives for our friends. I like that. Every time I stand at the communion table and look around at so many beautiful faces, I marvel at how Jesus may have felt at his own table, breaking bread and imagining his broken body, filled with love for his friends.

What’s much harder is to lay down our lives for our enemies.

But that’s precisely what Jesus did.

In this passage from Luke, Jesus forces us to face the worst things that we do to one another here on earth. Hate. Curses. Abuse. These are the actions that ruin lives. These fuel wars and spill blood. They destroy reputations and relationships with a single word.

We have enemies for a reason. We can do such great harm to one another.

Which means that what’s most amazing – and most alarming too – about loving our enemies is that no one can remain an enemy when they are embraced with love. But we do not want to embrace enemies. We want to keep them at a great distance so they cannot hurt us.

Dorothy Day, an incredible activist and practitioner of enemy love, said, “Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.” Enemy love forces us to get close to our enemies. Enemy love destroys any boundaries we might try to place around love. Enemy love is love for all – Jesus love.

Marcia Owen is a Durham hero. She is the founder and director ofthe Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. The first time we had coffee, the power of her humor and story-telling about enemy love made me laugh out loud one minute and wipe tears from my eyes the next in one raucous 45 minute conversation. She told me that she’d long been an activist against gun violence, but when he had her first child, everything changed. She loved her son so much that she couldn’t contain love anymore. Every child could be her child. Every mother’s pain was her pain.

She’s written a breathtaking book with former Duke Chapel dean Sam Wells called Living Without Enemies. They cite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s observation that getting to know our enemies will break our hearts with compassion. Marcia and Sam then ask:

“What makes a person lash out and make someone an enemy? It comes from a feeling of profound powerlessness and fear that says, ‘I’m not big enough for this.’ Living without enemies is radical acceptance…You lead with your soul by taking a moment to say, ‘I accept all that is, all the suffering I’ve caused, all the suffering I’ve endured. I just accept it. There are no enemies.’ Then you can begin to see the glorious nature of each one of us.”

In our “Way of Jesus” sermon series at Durham Church, we move from focusing on suffering one week to focusing on enemy love the next week, and it turns out, the two are intimately intertwined. We fear facing suffering, and so we hold onto enemies. Compassion — being willing to suffer alongside another person — leads us down a path toward freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom to love our enemies.I’ll let wiser teachers have the last word. Again from Marcia and Sam: “Living beyond fear … means hearing God say, ‘Love, just love. Find your way to love that person, find your way to love that forest, find your way to love all things, especially the things you find so unlovable and so frightening.’”

The Way of Jesus – Suffering

Reflection written by Durham Church member Carynne McIver, who loves to spend time in nature, read about the world, and eat good food. Carynne works as the Development Officer at the Center for International Understanding.

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My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.
- James 1:3-4

On my morning commute, I’ve been noticing the most beautiful skies. Oranges and purples blending together in the quiet gray of early morning make me catch my breath and inspire me to pray. In the midst of rush hour traffic, homeless people at the corners, my own stress for the work day ahead beginning to mount…. what can this lovely sky be but a quick message from God? “Hang in there! I love you!” I hear in my head.

So I start to talk back–about the sky, the day ahead, all the sad and scary things I’ve heard about lately and don’t know how to fix. Often my prayers turn into a long list ofnames: “Please be with this family… with him… with her cousin…. with their parents… with every other person on this planet whose suffering I don’t even know about.”

James tells us that the best way to deal with suffering is to “count it all joy.”

This is a lovely phrase but what I really think when I hear that is “Are you kidding me??” It’s true that sometimes when I look back on difficult times in my life, I can recognize the growth or unexpected gifts they brought and be grateful in retrospect. But that is a far cry from being able to name suffering as joy in the moment. It seems impossibly overwhelming and frankly something I don’t even want to try.

Then one day while gazing at the morning sky, I suddenly hear myself asking God to help me love it more. To give the joy that I find in the beauty of creation at least as much weight as the suffering that I so easily dwell on.

I don’t truly believe that the world has more suffering than joy, even though my thoughts and prayers have a small joy-to-suffering ratio. So even if I can’t take suffering and turn it into joy, I wonder if I can begin to approach “counting it all joy” by seeing more joy in the midst of suffering? It is easy to pass over the beauty of a morning sunrise or a happy conversation with a friend, and to only see problems around me. What would happen if I let myself rest in these joy-filled spaces and let joy flow into the suffering that feels so heavy? 

Suffering is real and hard – and I really have no idea how James thinks we are supposed to count it as joy. The world is a broken place, and I don’t think Jesus expects us to pretend it isn’t. But being broken doesn’t mean it can’t also be beautiful.

The Way of Jesus – Sabbath

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman, co-pastor of Durham Church.

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Then Jesus said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath.

-       Mark 2:27-28

 

My last act before I turn off my light at bedtime is to check the clock, which means my last thought is constantly, “Ugh, late again. There’s no way to get enough sleep.” Then when my son’s cry from the next room wakes me in the morning, my eyes pop open to see the time, and I think, “Not enough, not enough.”

Sound familiar?

Our days are ruled by “not enough.” Not enough is usually a close companion to “go, go, go,” which is our usual marching order as we race through not-enough days.

Since we are all busy trying to fit in all the good and mundane and wonderful and abysmal acts that make up our days, is Sabbath just one more thing we have to schedule and do? Is Sabbath a rule that we are subjected to keep?

In this scripture, Jesus says no. Sabbath was created for us. Sabbath was made to be pure gift.

Abraham Heschel is one of the most famous Jewish theologians and philosophers ofthe 20th century, and has written a breathtaking book called The Sabbath. He describes the Sabbath as a gift. By keeping Sabbath, Jews learn to be “attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”

If Jews learn to be attached to holiness in time, Christians learn how to be attached to the value in time. Time is money. Time is for productivity. Time is for giving back.

But if all we see is productivity, we are probably missing holiness. We are too busy to name and “consecrate” those precious moments that emerge in the course of our days.

Have you ever been too busy to properly celebrate an important moment?

Sabbath will teach us to see the sacredness in our days. Keeping Sabbath, which is really about receiving the gift of abundance, presence, intimacy, and rest, will teach us to live the rest of our days differently.

Where do you need Sabbath as a gift?

Sabbaths are cathedrals in time, cathedrals of holiness in our present moment. And Jesus is the Lord of that cathedral. Indeed, Jesus is Lord over all of our time, all of our days, and all sacredness in this world. Ask Jesus, the Lord of Sabbath, to speak to you about how you spend your time. Ask Jesus to begin to teach you what it means to receive rest as a gift.

The Way of Jesus – Eating

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman, Durham Church co-pastor.

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“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.”
-       John 6: 54-56
When I was newly engaged, glowing with excitement to plan my perfect day, I made a list of all of my favorite things that I wanted to include. Under the “food” category, I only had one word: Potluck.

I didn’t imagine that all my guests to come bearing a cobbler or casserole. But I could not deny that my favorite foods were all potluck foods: baked mac and cheese, green bean casserole, scalloped potatoes, butter biscuits, and that incredible salad with dry ramen noodles. As I imagined a table laden with my ideal meal, my imagination would always tilt toward the end of the table, that glorious land populated by pies, pudding cakes, cookies and brownies. Only at a potluck can you walk away with a plate half-full of desserts and not get any surprised looks.

But the potluck holds a treasured place in my memory for more reasons than the abundance of dessert. As a professor who writes about food describes the blessing of a potluck, he says, “Walking down that long row of white-papered tables still represents for me what church is all about: an invitation to fill our hunger, both spiritual and physical, with a community that is grateful for God’s good gifts.”

How does Jesus show us how to hunger and how to eat? How does Jesus give us the gift of eating? How do we eat together in ways that reveal Jesus to the world?

Jesus was a real man who got hungry and who ate many, many meals that were important enough to his life and calling to show up in our scriptures. He sees all our human hungers and works to feed us, body, soul, mind, and strength. He uses food to connect people who never wanted to have anything to do with one another. He often uses food as a metaphor to take us deeper into his Father’s Kingdom reality. And he gives us himself to feed us more deeply than we can even understand.

We are hungry for a new relationship with hunger and with eating, and while there are tons of options to choose from, they all feel weak and empty without a clear connection to Jesus.

Do I buy food that is local or organic or non-GMO? Do I share meals with neighbors and friends? Do I start a compost pile? Do I try being vegetarian or vegan or lactose-free or gluten-free or paleo? Do I work to eliminate food deserts and increase access to healthy food among people who are poor in our community? Do I work to eat healthy and keep a steady weight? Do I buy what we can actually afford or do I buy food that is good for our bodies and for the earth?

We are all searching for the Jesus way of eating. The important truth is that many of us struggle with real difficulties around disordered eating. For some, these are true issues of life and death. As a church with weekly communion, we know that eating is central to our life of prayer, and so we continue to pray for our community — that we can experience healing in our relationships with food.

What are you truly hungry for?

The Way of Jesus – Peacemaking

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman, co-pastor of Durham Church.

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Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
- Matthew 5:9
In a moving sermon from our joint worship service, pastor Julio Ramirez Eve, pastor of our sister church Iglesia Emanuel, challenged us to listen to suffering voices crying out to Jesus for healing. Then, pastor Julio challenged us to raise our own voices to cry out against injustice, oppression, and discrimination in all its forms. Yet, it is easy to feel weary as we walk on the path of listening and responding to injustice, which might be why Jesus promised that this is a path showered with blessing and belonging. Peacemakers are called “children of God.”

In the Message translation of this passage, when we walk in the way of peacemaking “that’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

How do we walk in the way of peacemaking in our world today?

Wars and violent deadly conflicts are ongoing in Columbia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Mexico, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Eqypt. Can we even keep track of the news about violence in our world, much less listen, grieve, and cry out for peace?

At the same time as we pay attention to the cries from around the world, we also have to listen to the cries of our city and our neighbors. About 30 people die to violence every year in Durham, that’s a death every other week. While many organizations are working to address root causes of violence and work with offenders in the criminal justice system, only one is paying attention to the need for listening, grieving, and crying out for peace. The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham holds vigils at the site of murder in Durham to grieve those whose lives have been lost.

The Religious Coalition writes about the impact of violence on families in our community: “The family and friends of victims frequently report a sense of shame about their beloved’s violent death, regardless of the facts of the incident. Survivors are surprised and disheartened by the silence from the community-at-large to the sudden, tragic death of a loved one.”

Naming grief and mourning violence is an essential step on the way of peacemaking.

My experience at vigils has shown me that mourning is filled with blessing. Standing with people I’ve never met and lamenting the loss of a precious child of God has helped me discover who I really am, and my place in God’s family.

How will you take a step into the way of peacemaking? 

The Way of Jesus – Obedience

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman, co-pastor of Durham Church.

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A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in thevineyard today.’ “‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went. “The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go. “Which one of these two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first one.”

- Matthew 21:28-31
It’s amazing how intrinsically satisfying it is to play with a baby. The activities are not remarkable (as I type this, I am watching my husband clap his hands and listening to my one-year-old son James laugh hysterically). It’s not the games or the rhyming books. It is James’ abundant response. His response is an incredible reward, far beyond the simple offering of a silly face, a tickle, a clap. His response is so amazing that I often describe my daily work as trying to make James laugh.

Obedience is a word that puts ice in our veins. We get a little short of breath. We all feel like bad children who are hovering in that terrible moment when we know we’ve messed up; we know anger, disappointment and punishment are coming; and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Themere mention of the word “obedience” immediately makes us feel disobedient.

Shame. Fear. Disappointment. Inadequacy.

Obedience is a rough word.

And then I hear another peal of laughter from the living room. I remember the amazing scripture from Matthew 7: “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

I love clapping and singing and rhyming books and silly faces because they are a good gift to James. And he responds in the best way he possibly can, which is to delight in the gifts. When I clap, he claps too. When I dance, he dances too.

Alas, I am evil. So, how much more does our heavenly Father delight in taking part in our daily lives? Does our heavenly Father desire anything more than our response ofjoy?

Can we learn to delight in responding abundantly to God’s good gifts? When God asks for something, will obedience be our response of joy?