Sunday, March 16, 2014


Abraham responds
to God’s call to follow and
in faith
enters a new home

Nicodemus responds
to Jesus’ questions and
learns faith
will help him
enter a new home
the kingdom of God.

May we respond
to your Word
with faith
that opens our eyes
to see
we already have a home
in your presence.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Southerner's Snow Serenity Prayer


Give me the serenity to accept the things that must be cancelled outright,
The creativity to re-schedule the things that just need to be postponed,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

the church parking lot, rendered absolutely useless by an impenetrable 3-inch-deep blanket of snow

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

some things stay the same

A few weekends ago I served as a chaperone for one of our senior high youth events at a retreat center in central Virginia. It is one of the many youth trips I’ve had the pleasure of attending over the past five years in my role as Associate Pastor at this congregation. The following is a portion of a letter I wrote after the event to the parents of the youth group now that I begin a transition into a new role in the congregation:

My new call as senior pastor will undoubtedly change the amount of time in which I interact with the youth group at Epiphany. In the short term, I will still be fairly involved in the programs, but eventually I will step back as we call a new associate pastor and adjust staff responsibilities. However, I will not disengage from the youth group (and going to youth events) entirely. A desire from the congregation for me to have regular contact with youth ministry is something I heard loud-and-clear in the call process for senior pastor and also read in the survey results. I hope to work with a new associate pastor in new ways that allow us both to have a hand in shaping youth ministry, which is not limited to the youth group. It also includes confirmation and the other ways youth are active in the life of our congregation. In addition, the creativity and commitment from our cadre of Timothy Ministers will be invaluable as all this begins to take shape.

I guess it goes without saying that change is afoot. But, really, when you stop and think about it, isn’t the church always changing? Seniors graduate, middle schoolers become new high schoolers, elementary school students become new middle schoolers. Pastors leave and new pastors are called. Families move away; new families join. And, of course, there are deaths and there are births. But the changes that the church experiences are not primarily due to life cycles and school schedules. To be honest, the Holy Spirit is the true agent of change. The Spirit is always moving among the church, bringing about new ministries, new possibilities, new strengths and new ways to witness to the power of the cross. This change can be invigorating, but it can also be a little frightening at times. 

This weekend, as I looked out at the rows of youth swaying to the rhythms of the worship songs, I was momentarily struck by all this change and motion. I’d seen it dozens of times before, their arms all linked across each other’s shoulders and drifting back and forth like waves in the sea, but this time it seemed to symbolize the great shifting in my own vocational life. I felt almost adrift. Then, in the midst of all this my eyes wandered over to the stage. I noticed that standing middle of it all—still and very solid—was the altar of the Lord, set with the bread and wine for our worship. It was a moment of peace and realization for me: in the midst of whatever God’s people face, Christ will provide stability. There, in the midst of all our comings and goings—in the midst of all our hello-ing and goodbye-ing, our readjustments and reassignments and, of course, our living and dying—will be Jesus. Always. Constant. A Mighty Fortress. “Though the waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psalm 46). This is good. This where my hope needs to rest. Not with me or with any particular role or set of gifts I think I may have or anyone else has. The change brought about by the Holy Spirit is always anchored in the real presence of Christ. [And any metaphorical relationship that Scripture bears to spending a weekend with 300 energetic youth on an icy mountain is completely unintentional, by the way].

All this is to say that I am thankful for the 5 years I’ve been the associate pastor at Epiphany Lutheran Church and I’m so grateful I’ve been extended the call to serve for many more! I am most thankful for that constant presence of Christ I have found among you.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Spiritual but not religious" lets people off the hook

Many people who are a lot more articulate than I am have made observations about what might be meant when people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and about the rise of those who claim to be "religiously unaffiliated." I hear these terms fairly often, as well, although I can't say whether or not I hear them more or less often than I used to. And, to be fair, I don't actually hear all that many people claim these things with my own ears (maybe because 95% of the people I regularly come into contact with, by virtue of my day job, are so-called "religiously affiliated"? I probably need to work on changing that somehow). Nevertheless, I do read a fair amount about it and pay attention to various discussions on-line, so I thought I'd offer a brief explanation of what I hear when people say they are "spiritual, but not religious":

When people say they are "spiritual, but not religious" what they really mean is, "I'm spiritual, but I am not church-going." Or, perhaps to broaden it a bit, they mean, "I'm spiritual, but I eschew consciously worshiping the same things with other groups of people."

Likewise, when someone describes themselves on a form (or somewhere else) as "religiously unaffiliated," what they really mean is they do not affiliate with an organized, named religious community.

To say it another way, everyone is religious. Everyone has a religion...or, as is often the case (even with church-going folk) more than one. There is no such thing as "not religious" or "religiously unaffiliated." As humans, we do not have a choice about that. It comes with the territory of being a species that, by nature, asks questions, seeks meaning, creates value structures and makes sacrifices of time, energy, and often health, to maintain them. No living, sentient human can avoid this, and to try to deny one's religiosity is to be ignorant about the formalized systems of meaning and values one has already constructed. It is to be ignorant that each person already pins their hopes for a "good life" or the future on something, even if it is only themselves and their own abilities. That, in an of itself, is religious.

Nope. It doesn't really work like this.
I do not believe this is just semantics. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, offers a definition of a god. He says, "A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in times of need." A few sentences later he is even more confrontational: "that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your God." I know I have not yet met every single person in the world, but I'm pretty sure that applies to everyone. Everyone, after all, pins their hopes for the future on something by virtue of the fact that they probably expect to be breathing into the future. Note that, in Luke's gospel, when Jesus gives warning about the dangers of worldly affluence, he describes wealth as a master, a god. He does not speak as if there is one God and we should serve Him because God is good or that it is right. He says, rather, "No one can serve two masters." He acknowledges that for many people mammon assumes that role of future-holder. Sundry other things may be substituted in that place, especially in our era. One can easily say, then, that having any one of these gods necessitates having some type of religion, some way of structuring these hopes for the future.

However, thanks to a multitude of cultural influences, the term religion has come to be synonymous with "organized religion," be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, or what have you. But Luther's definition, I believe, is far more descriptive and helpful in pinning down everyone--not just the self-proclaimed religious--when it comes to examining everyone's value systems. In short, to be able to describe one's self as "not religious" is basically to be let off the hook. Besides narrowing the meaning of "religion" to mean only organized and named religious groups or patterns of thought, such a category ("not religious," "religiously unaffiliated") does not focus the same level or depth of critique on everyone's inherent value system. As Luther, and Aquinas before him, observed long ago, everyone is "doing it." Everyone places their heart in something. Everyone, if they know what's good for them, should take the opportunity to examine that with equal emphasis.

Where this thinking takes me, I'm not sure. I know that, on a personal level, when I hear someone describe themselves in those terms I reach a different conclusion about them than they probably want me to reach. The conclusion I reach is that, sure, they have values and are probably very religious and structured about them. They most certainly give worth (read: worship) to something. They just don't want to be identified with a particular sect or denomination or group-think. And that's OK. But I know they're religious. The two of us actually have more in common than they realize. I often wish they could sit down and admit it and really give some deeper thought about those things in which they "find refuge in times of need"...the things they really do worship. Maybe they do give deeper thought to it, but I still don't want either of us to feel that they've been allowed a free pass, as if my step, for example, towards identification with the church is qualitatively different than their step away from it.

But I also think it might open the door for a new kind of evangelism in this post-Christendom age we are encountering in the West. With such a definition in-hand, it allows practitioners of an organized religion to throw the question back to those whom they may be trying to convince of the validity of their faith with an equal challenge, equal footing. No longer should the "religiously-affiliated" feel put in the place to argue the merits of having religion versus not: You say you're not religious? Really? Are you breathing? Tell me, then, about the places you entrust your heart and your future. And I'd love to tell you about mine. Now, let's talk.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sonnet: Luke 13:10-17

Those eighteen years had been for her a prison,
Her posture bent in mean captivity,
Until that Sabbath when she stood up, risen—
The gracious touch of God had set her free.
With face at long last pointed toward the skies
She sang her hallelujahs with thanksgiving:
This man of mercy heard her silent cries!
His word of peace restored her joy of living.
For that, indeed, is Sabbath’s true intent,
Despite the rules that man has put in place:
A time for God to straighten what is bent,
Correct sin’s inward curvature with grace.
            Your word alone true Sabbath rest imparts.
           O Christ, with selfless love unbend our hearts!
© Phillip Martin, 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Katy Perry as Holy Spirit metaphor?

I know this piece of human interest news (see the video link below) lapsed out of the public consciousness over a year ago, but I was just thinking about it today as my daughter's kindergarten year comes to a close. This song, which I initially deplored, has grown on me ever since it was chosen as the theme song for the year in the elementary school my daughter attends. For better or worse, this song is seared into my memory alongside the conflicting feelings we had as we wandered the halls of the school during that first Open House evening. They played it again during the night of kindergarten orientation (which is really a kindergarten parent orientation). I generally have an aversion to all things cliché, but Perry's "Firework" jived nicely with their goal to "Illuminate the Possibilities." It doesn't hurt that we have nothing but positive things to say about this first year. So, congratulations, Katy Perry.

As I reflected this evening on this song and my recollection of this footage from a benefit concert for children with autism, my mind drifted to the following verses of Scripture:

"[Jesus said] 'I have said these things to you while I am with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.'" John 14:25-26

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." Romans 8:26-27

In so many ways I am still a kindergartner in my journey of faith. Perhaps we are all a bit autistic when it comes to prayer, the most elemental of spiritual practices. Stuck in our minds--always trapped in ourselves to some degree--so often we lack the speech to communicate our deepest needs. How does the song go? What do we mean to say? Nevertheless we are unique and beautiful and valued, and God knows it. When it comes even to prayer, we are not orphaned. The Father sends us the Spirit who gives us even the words we can speak back to him. What grace! Even in our proudest moments when we think we are at our most eloquent, his Advocate stands patiently by the piano with his microphone. We are not alone, and he knows what we're trying to say. What's more, he's ready to join in our song, ready to coax the words and the melody out of us, ready to sustain us when the speech falters...yes, to illuminate the possibilities of our faith.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sonnet: Luke 7:11-17

At Nain's town gate two crowds approach each other:
One driven by disciples' fresh obsession,
One gathered to support a grieving mother
Whose only son is borne in death's procession.
And how her cries reveal a deeper anguish!
This widow mourns much more than loss of life:
Bereft of hope, she now is left to languish
And wander, nameless, as misfortune's wife.
So as these dual pageants then converge
Divine compassion counters human pain
As Jesus's touch disrupts the doleful dirge.
The son is raised, but two their lives regain.
          We march through life by grief and sorrow broken
          Until your words of life to us are spoken.

© Phillip Martin, 2013

Mario Minniti, Miracle of the Widow of Nain (1620)