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Peace

Perhaps you saw the movie, Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon in a 2014 film. It was based on a book written by Cheryl Strayed, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Cheryl based the story on a time when she lost her mother and was extricating herself from her marriage. Turning to destructive behaviors, including heroin use, she decided to channel her personal turmoil into a physical journey. With no previous hiking experience, she set out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the Mojave Desert up to the Bridge of the Gods in the state of Washington. The movie offers flashbacks into earlier portions of Strayed’s life that illuminate her present angst. In the course of her 1,100 mile solo hike through deserted terrain, Strayed faces her demons and arrives at the Bridge of the Gods ready to cross into a new life with a hard-earned peace.

We like these sorts of stories, don’t we? It starts young with stories like Cinderella, the girl charged with sweeping the cinders of the fire. Yet she becomes the princess of the most eligible bachelor in the land. We hunger to see wilderness areas become lush with flowers and streams. On the second Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Peace. What makes for peace? On the First Sunday in Advent I invited the congregation to write down on a slip of paper what they were waiting for this Advent season. Out of 55 sticky notes deposited in the offering plate, 24 individuals expressed the desire for some sort of peace. The second place answer falls from 24 answers for peace to 5 wishes for a just government and global responsibility. A hope for joy brought in four votes—three of those naming joy that we find in the context of family. Four people penned a desire for healing: for grampa to get better and for the miracle of speech for an autistic grandson. Three people yearned for God’s love–an acceptance of one another. Work and employment needs weighed on the hearts of two people. Two other people simply wrote the word, “Patience” on their paper. The remaining answers from individuals were clarity, truthfulness, humility rather than selfishness and better communication. What an insight into the hearts of our congregation these sticky notes provided! However the yearning for Peace won by a landslide!

One person practically wrote the script for Wild and other similar hardship stories with their answer. On their small piece of paper they expressed the desire to get out of the quick sand; to know their place and use their gifts for God and the Church; and to know their journey. Which path should they take?

How many of us can relate to that at some point in our lives? It boils down to a prayer of Rescue me, Use me, and Guide me.

Amen. Truth told. Sermon given!

Another person wrote that they are waiting for a child. Two words on a slip of paper that speak volumes. We gather in our sanctuaries each week carrying in with us hopes and dreams and sometimes battling despair. Some requests we dare to speak aloud in the context of worship. Others are buried so deep in our hearts that we sometimes forget what it is that we most desire.

What are you waiting for in this Advent season?

The Bible texts chosen for this time of year often speak words of warning. We’re focused on Christmas gifts and parties and decorations. Who needs warning? While in England my sister noticed the packaging of Sterling cigarettes. On all but one panel of the box, words of dire warning are printed. Clearly the British government has mandated that producers of cigarettes warn the consumers that what they are buying could well hurt their health. Sterling cigarettes did not disappoint! Each time you light up you would see the image of this poor man who appears to be on his death bed and subtle messages like SMOKING KILLS: QUIT NOW! But folks buy these and smoke them in spite of the government-mandated truth-telling. It’s easy to look past what we don’t want to see. Maybe that’s why those who put the lectionary readings together put these passages in front of us as we begin a new church calendar and our spirits are merry and bright. WARNING: YOU MIGHT JUST MISS THE WHOLE POINT OF CHRIST’S BIRTH IF YOU’RE WAITING FOR THE WRONG THINGS.

The lectionary text for the second Sunday in Advent is Luke 1: 67-80. It brings us into the presence of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Earlier in the story we learn that he loses his voice because he doubted an angel’s promise. It was an absurd promise—he’d be a fool to believe it. The angel tells him his elderly wife is going to have a baby. He leaves the temple after his time of service and returns home to his wife, who had long ceased hoping for a child. Before long she is, indeed, pregnant and Zechariah is still muted in this gestational chapter of their geriatric lives. It isn’t until the child is born—a boy, as the angel had promised—that Zechariah’s speech is restored. So what does he have to say after nine months of silence? He preaches a sermon! He becomes a prophet who speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s voice had been absent for 400 years leading up to Jesus. No prophets or prophecies. No miracles. The yearning of the Jews for a reappearance of their God had deepened. So, as Zechariah emerges from the wilderness of being word-less, he breaks God’s silence with words of prophecy.

I like to play a game when reading scripture and that is “Find the verbs.” If you look at this sermon that old Zechariah preached, notice the verbs: Looked favorably upon, redeemed, raised up, spoke through prophets, remembered the covenant, rescued. The power of God’s Holy Spirit has broken into the world again and the awe-struck father of a tiny boy prophesies that things are about to change. The wilderness is ready to bloom!

Part II of his sermon moves toward his little boy. He will become a prophet of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Remember what comes along with the job description of being a prophet: rejection, shunning, physical harm sometimes. Have you told your kids or grandkids that you hope they will become a prophet when they grow up? That you hope they will preach against the evils of their time, even stating the truth before leaders who will take offence? Probably not! Zechariah knows, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that his boy will somehow prepare the way for God’s anointed One. He will do it in such a way that folks will newly understand the salvation that God offers them. It comes in an unlikely way—not through memorization of scripture or performing a certain number of good deeds or because they have articulated a particularly beautiful prayer. Their salvation comes through forgiveness of sin!

Have you ever spent time in the wilderness of guilt, the desert of inadequacy, the forsaken land of regret? We can waste our lives stuck in these places! John the Baptist came to prepare the way for God’s Messiah who offers us forgiveness. After 400 years of God’s absence, Preacher Zechariah speaks of God’s tender mercy—not warnings of judgment! These people knew that they had strayed from God. They understood why God had left them to their own stubborn devices for four centuries. They had ignored the warning of the prophets for hundreds of years! The last thing they expected was for God to show up with mercy that dispels the darkness and brings about the dawn of a glorious new day. Zechariah prophesies that history is about to be rerouted and the path we are on will lead, not to our destruction or continued remorse over bad decisions; not to further wandering with no sense of direction. No! The presence of Zechariah’s God will guide OUR feet, all y’all’s feet, into the way of peace.

24 out of 55 answers expressed a desire for some sort of peace. These are a few of the prayers: National peace and compassion and morality. Peace around the world. I pray for peace, for people’s tolerance and understanding of each other. Waiting for stories of peace and love to be told on the news. Peace deep in my soul. Moments of stillness and reflection.

In Luke 3, beginning at verse 4. Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah who foreshadows the arrival of a messenger who will prepare the way of God’s Savior. It will be hard work. Have you ever had to clear rocks from a field to prepare it for planting? Were you assigned to weed a garden? Did you lay pavers in your yard to create a path? Then you will appreciate how hard the job description was for John! He was sent ahead of Jesus to make the paths through the wilderness straight, to fill in the valleys and bring down the mountains. This is commanded long before backhoes could do this sort of back-breaking labor! Crooked ways will be made straight and rough places smooth. All who travel upon these newly paved roads (that part of an election campaign promise in our state recently!) will arrive at the same place: a vantage point of clarity, a vista that showcases that God is present and offering salvation to our world. Wow! Imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth must have unpacked that sermon?!

The end of Zechariah’s sermon ends with a post-script that is succinct and startling: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

No stories about his first steps, his first word, blowing out the birthday candles or celebrating his bar mitzvah. Holy Spirit. Wilderness. Public ministry. That’s John’s life, in a nutshell. I suspect old Zechariah and Elizabeth had many sleepless nights worrying about their precious boy.

It is perhaps instructive to us that John’s preparation for his prophetic work took place in the wilderness. That was Jesus’ seminary setting as well! John the Baptist and the Son of God are not spared wilderness experiences in life. In fact, God intentionally sends them to wilderness camp trusting that, in that harsh setting, they will discover who and what they can rely on and who or what will let them down. The necessary training grounds for facing our hardships with holiness is a parched land devoid of distractions. Much as we seek to avoid wilderness chapters to our lives, it is in the trenches that we are most apt to experience God’s rescuing. How can God redeem, restore, save, forgive, liberate, and show mercy to us if we’ve never had to struggle? God sent John to pave the way for Jesus who would show us the way of peace.

Their earthly reward? John’s head ended up on a platter presented whimsically to Herod’s wife. We can only hope that Zechariah and Elizabeth had died before their beloved son met his end in this way. And Jesus? His earthly story ends badly as well—on a cross, crucified as a common criminal like a public lynching. So how does this lead our feet into the way of peace? Who would choose to enter into the wilderness if this is where it dumps us off?

The story that we read in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a story of God’s love for us. The story is much greater than John the Baptist, even though he fulfilled his job description honorably. It’s even bigger than the human Jesus. Through Christ’s bodily death God’s power to bring life out of death was showcased. Sacrifice precedes peace. Working for peace takes….work! It’s a holy task that often plants us in a desolate area. No one is exempt from wilderness time. But if we invite God into those hardships, we can expect a word of hope to break forth. One person wrote on their slip of paper that they are waiting for a new beginning. Another said they were hoping for peace, a ray of it in the world and a light of it in my family. A life of faith will teach us that striving peace may require great sacrifice of us. But we discover that we’re in good company. We are thrilled when we see how much more we can accomplish when we work alongside of others who imitate God’s grace. In looking back at our lives we want to be able to say that we didn’t ignore the warnings, that we didn’t wait around for others to do the work, that we would never eliminate the wilderness moments because those are the crucible in which we do our most important work. Those are the steps that lead into the way of peace. Is that what you’re waiting for this Advent season? Amen.

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Quietly Faithful

There have been times when I’ve run into someone at our local grocery store who has attended services here but not become an active member of the church. Their only contact with me is in worship. Sometimes it take a moment for them to recognize me. More than once I’ve had folks say,

“Oh! Sorry. I didn’t recognize you without your robe.”

Can you imagine if I wore my robe from the sanctuary to Meijer to pick up some milk and bread after worship? How do you think it would strike people if I walked through downtown Rockford, doing my Christmas shopping, in my robe and stole? I cannot imagine that it would draw people into our church!

This passage from Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus chastising the religious authorities for their desire to set themselves apart by wearing flowing robes. Their goal was to communicate authority. Rather than hungering for righteousness, they yearned for accolades of distinction.

Imagine now that I stand at the dam downtown and lift my hands heavenward and begin to offer lengthy prayers—loudly. Or I go to Ramona’s Table with some family members and project a detailed grace across our table and into the whole dining room. How do you think that would go over? Would it pack out our sanctuary the next week with folks who were moved by my public praying? Maybe.

Probably not.

Jesus lambasts the Temple authorities for their lengthy prayers. By definition, prayer is our conversation with God. Sometimes we pray in communal settings like worship. But these priests and pharisees subjected folks to their loud praying knowing that those around them had no choice but to listen. With the professional clout that they enjoyed, they knew people would at least tolerate their praying and maybe even be impressed by it. Jesus was not. He was not fooled by their insincerity and publicly called them out for their vain attempts to bring the focus to themselves rather than the God they served. You can imagine how well that went over with them.

Maybe you remember when the disciples trailed behind Jesus and argued about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, who had supernatural hearing, called them on it and taught them that, in His movement, the one who wants to be first must be last. They must have wondered if they had hooked their wagon to the right guy .

The temple leaders’ longing for high regard combined with a low regard for the needs of the poor. They spent their days studying the Torah, the Jewish Law for how to live a righteous life. But they did not fulfill the very laws the memorized. While promoting themselves in public settings, they overlooked those who were most in need of mercy.

Richard Swanson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, writes, “Somehow in election years everyone is the friend of the deserving poor. Even politicians whose policies in every other year are corrosive to the connections that hold rich and poor together in bonds of mutual responsibility, even such politicians can demonstrate in an election year, how electing their opponent will be bad for the poor. That is because the poor have no real standing in such wrangles. They are just there as a figure of speech. When real policy-making demands real attention to the causes and effects of poverty, it will generally emerge that figures of speech do not vote or make campaign contributions or lobby effectively. Or, as in the scene at hand, they show up as stock figures that can be used to illustrate something else entirely…”

The widow who quietly gave her last penny to the temple offering was completely overlooked by those dropping heavy coins into the plates. Maybe some of you have been to Yesterdog in Eastown? They have a metal container high above the service container into which you are invited to toss your coins. The challenge, of course, is to see if you can make the shot. Even if you don’t make it, the sound of the coin hitting the outside of the can is entertaining. In the Jewish Temple there were five different plates for the collection that were horn-shaped. People dropped their coins into the broad opening and it went down into a container. The heavier the coin the higher the worth and the louder the sound. The “poor widow” would have placed her only remaining coins into the Temple fund, making almost no sound. She and her offering could be easily ignored. For everyone but Jesus, she was invisible. The religious elite were so focused on swishing through the common areas in their grand robes that they had no eyes for anyone who couldn’t add to their popularity. Jesus began this day with a tirade against the money changers who took advantage of the peasants. He ended with a commendation of a widow who sacrificed her all for God.

I wonder what the Temple Fund was used for. Perhaps it was like our congregation’s building fund. Our trustees administer this account out of which we pay for repairs, maintenance and improvements. Just over 100 years ago the building fund would have been used to add a foundation to our sanctuary. In 2012 we had to fortify that foundation on the east wall because it was sagging and leaking. We cut holes through the dining room walls to add steel plates to our tired foundation. The result was an open panel on the inside of the wall hat invited us to turn it into a display area for artwork!

In the time I’ve been at First Congregational U.C.C. we have needed to replace the roof twice. Our windows that date back to the 1870’s were sagging and needed to be re-leaded. We have upgraded the sound system several times and added the screen in the past few years. We could not have known how important that would be with the requirements to worship without hymnals or Bibles or bulletins for more than a year. We try to strike a balance between keeping our facility in good shape so as to maximize our ministry and reaching out charitably to others.

I’m so grateful for our congregation’s generosity in the past eighteen months. Amidst the challenges COVID forced upon us, we kept up with our commitment to give a tithe of our income away. PPP loans were used for salaries and building costs so we were able to honor our mission commitments. I believe that when we go out on a limb to give toward the well-being of others, like the blessed widow in Jesus’ day, something spiritual happens. God smiles when we demonstrate that we are willing to entrust our finances to the One we praise from one Sunday to the next. The poor widow contributed to the Temple Fund that was overseen by powerful people who were held in high esteem and who lacked for nothing. Our congregation, like other church families, is transparent about our spending. The Trustees spend hours prayerfully crafting a budget that both honors our responsibility to help out God’s people but also keeps us afloat. This is not an easy task. There will be no PPP loans this next year. We continue to have to contend with the COVID virus for the foreseeable future. We give toward the “Temple Fund,” but so much more than that. We are blessed with support staff members who have worked creatively and exhaustively to shape programming that continues to nourish our congregation spiritually. Whether we were in the building or not, we kept it heated, cleaned, watertight and in good repair. Amidst great financial insecurity, we have given away more than 10%, to help people like the widow in the Jerusalem temple.

Several weeks ago I asked folks through our congregation’s Facebook page if they supported charitable organizations other than our church. The responses were impressive. By being part of our parish, our membership is serving with folks who are generous to our world. Outside of what we give from our church budget, church friends are supporting at least these organizations: Guiding Light, the Humane Society, Compassion International, Feeding America, Family Promise, Sisters of Sobriety, Kids Food Basket, Hand to Hand, North Kent Connect, Eastern Star Charities, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Salvation Army and Heifer International. We have a culture of giving in our congregation like so many other worshiping bodies in our nation. We’ve learned that entrusting a portion of our livelihood to God makes for a more meaningful personal life. It also, when combined with other likeminded Christians, makes for deep friendships among people who are rolling up their sleeves to minister to the least and the lost. I am deeply appreciative of the giving hearts I witness in the name of the God of the widow who gave her all 2000 years ago.

The sobering statistic is that the greater our wealth, the more unlikely it is that we will give 10% away, as the scriptures suggest. Wealth weighs us down. Managing our assets takes time and costs us sleep. The widow, who quietly gave her all in a busy temple while larger coins made boastful clanking sounds, reminds us of a spiritual truth. We are called to trust God for our daily bread. Not for our 401K and an addition to our ample homes. Daily bread. Enough for today so that we don’t lose sight of our dependence on God. She didn’t need to know how God would provide for her when she emptied her purse for Temple life.

Her generosity was rooted in a faith conviction. She knew that God would care for her. Simple faith that’s not so simple.

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Prayer and Suffering

This past Sunday was the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death. On the Mother’s Day nearly six months later, my father wrote a reflection on the role of prayer when suffering. Her death at age 66 as a devout Christian prompted the kinds of questions that arise so easily when we are confronted with untimely, unjust death. I have given this to many people over the course of my ministry because he so beautifully probes the intent of prayer and what we might need consider to be a failure of prayer. So I offer you his sermon. He was a career Air Force Chaplain and then retired to serve a congregation where he and my mother developed deep and lasting friendships. It was very meaningful for me to preach his words (emotional as well!) on the anniversary of her death. Nine years after her death, my dad also died of cancer on my mom’s birthday. We took solace in knowing they were together again. I pray that you are blessed through this message that combines theology and love!

For six months I have assured you, Katie’s and my faithful and loving friends and family, that I would share my thoughts and beliefs on the power of prayer as it addresses suffering and disease. Part of this is for my own benefit because through all Katie’s suffering and her eventual death, I often had trouble adding it all up. The basic question that many of you have asked and which Katie and I discussed on more than one occasion is: What good is prayer if the condition about which one prays, in this case, Katie’s cancer, goes on unrelieved and unabated, leading finally to her death? Why pray, if we are involved in an apparent cosmic lottery where some who pray not at all are made well and those for whom hundreds pray with fervent devotion suffer and die? That’s the basic question and it is not an easy one with which to deal.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a little book many years ago entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Whenever I have asked groups to remember the title of that book, they always say, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People! Why do people change in their minds the “When” to a “Why?” Because that is what we all want to know and hope that book will tell us. It does not and does not pretend to.

Our question is not unique to us or even our era. It has been asked since the dawn of moral consciousness in the human mind. It is raised in the Bible by Habakkuk, Jeremiah and, of course, Job, among others. To begin to understand it we have to acknowledge a few basic facts of life. First of all, we will all die, early or late, quickly or slowly, justly or unjustly; but we will all die. Therefore, to pray for recovery from illness will, sooner or later, prove to no avail. At some time our prayer will fail. I have always contended that the job with the worst prospect of continued success was that of faith healer, because eventually they will fail in every case! So that is a given.

Secondly, if we believe in a God who seeks our good and not our harm, then there is nothing wrong with death itself as it must be part of God’s plan, if there is a God and if that God has a beneficent plan. So Christians who understand this do not fear death, even though they may not look forward to the process. Katie never feared death through the whole process. She did not welcome it or rejoice in it, but she did not fear it! So if we believe in a kind and good God who seeks our well-being, and part of whose plan involves the fact that we will grow old and die (or perhaps die without growing old) then somehow we have to reconcile this dilemma that has troubled us at least since the days of Job. To the believer, this too is a given.

So with these basic assumptions in place, our next question is then, “What is the purpose of prayer if not to make us well and at least postpone death?” The answer to me is found fairly clearly in the New Testament. Nowhere does it say that the purpose of life is to live long, or to live prosperously, or even to live well. The rich man who thought he had achieved that was called a fool?? It is to live lovingly. Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Old Testament and he replies with two (Mark 12: 29): “The first is ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The rest of the New Testament echoes this again and again. It is the dominant theme of the whole collection of books. It is, we must conclude, what God wants from us: Love for God and love for each other.

If this is what God wants, and God is in charge, we had better seek that which God wishes. I remember an Air Force chaplain friend of mine telling me his attitude toward inspectors when they arrive at his base to inspect the Chapel program. He said, “I try to find out as soon as I can what they want to hear and then tell it to them” While there is a certain duplicity in this, it does recognize the value of knowing who is in charge and that their will has a precedence over our own. Without the duplicity, something of the same nature is involved here.

So a valid prayer in this context is, “Lord, make me more loving of You and my neighbors.” For, in so doing, we are seeking to achieve the very things that Jesus says are the most important elements of God’s law. Jesus’ classic prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is instructive. He prays that the cup (symbolically meaning the cross) might pass from him, but then adds, “not my will, but Yours (God’s) be done.” From that I conclude that there is nothing wrong with presenting our own wants and needs to God in prayer, but the final criterion is not our will but God’s. We test our own desires and hopes against what we come to understand to be the will of God.

Once we accept that, then we seek in prayer that which is the loving thing to do and the loving state in which to operate. As we do this through a lifetime, we find that this giving up of our own selfish will in prayer and seeking instead to be instruments of God’s love, we find that the love we gave away keeps flowing back to us in multiplied measure.

Now let’s turn all that to Katie and our year we shared during her final illness. There were certainly times when we prayed and fervently wished for a miracle of healing for her. There even were times when a momentary success would convince us that we had received such a gift. But the background out of which we worked and prayed was one in which Katie had, to a remarkable degree, prayed through the years that hers would be a life of love and giving to me, to our kids, to our wonderful friends in churches here and across the Air Force, and to the many children she served and loved in conjunction with her paid and volunteer work on their behalf. On our gravestone we have inscribed under her name, “Loving Advocate of Children.” Such she indeed was. So in her case we entered this time of trial, of suffering, of sadness and ultimate separation with that foundation of love shared and reciprocated. We said to each other many times as the year went on, and well before we had reason to assume that she would not recover, that whatever the outcome of her illness, we had had a glorious ride together with wonderful parishes, amazing children and a vast host of loving friends.

So what happened through all of this? Obviously, she did not recover. But our relationship deepened as at no other time in our love for each other and its expression to each other. I seriously feel that if I were now given the choice of an instant, sudden death, or a lingering one such as she had, I would think long and hard before choosing the sudden one. A year before that would have been my automatic choice! The values that the two of us gained by this experience were immeasurable. The opportunities to sit and just talk about life’s deeper matters, (such as why the righteous suffer!) were invaluable. Secondly, the kids came in with regularity over the seven months after her surgery until her death. I made sure that I got out of the way when they were here so that they too could have undisturbed and meaningful times to visit with her on this profound level. After we were told that she would not recover, I began, at her behest, to schedule in friends and family for visits which we all knew would be final ones. These were shared moments that I know they cherish and I know from Katie’s comments, that she treasured. Finally, the enormous outpouring of love and concern from our friends in Bath and the host of friends from our Air Force years, as well as her friends from childhood and college, was almost overwhelming. This was the tide of love that she had sent out, coming back in glorious echo of that which she had given over the years.

So if the valid object of prayer is not just to tell God what we want and when we want it, but to learn in prayer of God’s desire for our love to God and extending from that to love for our neighbors, then Katie’s life was one of answered prayer. If that is what God wants from us, that is what He got from her in mighty measure. I have always been amazed at her capacity to give herself to others, happily including me (perhaps preeminently me!), but also embracing everyone she met. One of my fondest memories of her is when I would be greeting people at the door of the church after worship on Sunday morning, I would look out across the little narthex of our church and invariably Katie would be there, surrounded by many friends, a glowing smile on her face as she listened to each one’s story and/or needs. She would remember them all and tell me about them when we were home so that I might know and act upon them as my ministerial contacts made appropriate.

So if our prayers were simply that she would get better, they were not answered. But if we understood that all life ends sometime and that the object of it all from birth until death is not to prolong it as far as possible, but to fill it with love and joy for others, and if this is what we prayed for Katie, then our prayers were answered amazingly. And at no time in my 42 years with her were they answered more than in the last months of her life. Small and large miracles of love occurred with such regularity that we would often sit in amazement at what had just transpired. On numerous occasions we sat together and wept at the sheer magnitude of some gift of love that had just been shared with us by one of you.

Would I have had her live longer? You bet I would! Would I have had her life a longer but less loving life? Not on your life!! Do I believe in prayer? Absolutely , if prayer is the process by which we learn of the will of God, if it is that we love God and one another, and that from that love comes the greatest blessing life can bestow: the fellowship of love with that God, with our families, and with the many friends with whom we have shared that love. As much as I miss her and long for her touch, her laugh, her smile, I know that I too am wrapped by that great mantle of love, fabricated largely by her hands and of which all of us are the blessed recipients. So it is my prayer not that I may live long upon the earth, but that for whatever years I have left and in whatever condition I live them, I may be, as she was, an instrument of God’s love. For I know that if I am such, I too, in whatever condition, will be sustained and illuminated by the love of those whom I have loved. You to whom this message goes are that group, those friends. I thank God daily for what you were to Katie and me over the years. We have been blessed by your friendship. I am exhilarated by the knowledge that each of us, as we share that gift of love with each other, will renew our strength, we will mount up with wings like eagles. We shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint. This is the gift of God and this is the answer to prayer. Thanks be to God that our faithful prayers of love are answered in measures we can not imagine or understand until we are surrounded by them and rest in their embrace.

In just such a way were your and my prayers for Katie answered abundantly. She illustrates the passage of Jesus in Luke 6:37-38: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Thanks be to God, Katie gave in generous measure. In her final months, she received back in overwhelming measure the love that she so freely gave. Truly her cup overflowed. We can pray for no more than this! Thank God for our answered prayers.

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All In!

Several years ago a couple met with me to plan their wedding in our sanctuary. After the rehearsal I checked with them to see if they had any questions before their big day. The groom voiced a few normal concerns and I told him what I often tell couples: With all the details that go into planning a wedding, it is likely that something won’t go off in exactly the way you planned. That unexpected detail becomes part of your wedding story. Rather than worry I invite you to do what you can for your wedding day. Choose joy.

With those words of advice, the couple headed off for a rehearsal dinner and an effort at sleep on the eve of their wedding.

On Saturday I awakened to the aftermath of a storm. The groom called me about 9AM to ask if we had power in downtown Rockford. I assured him that the downtown area is always prioritized if there is an outage. I hastily drove to the church to check things out and was surprised to discover that we didn’t have power. Our church sat silent, ready for their ceremony. Since it wasn’t going to be until the afternoon, I was sure the electricity would be restored by then. I called him and said as much.

The wedding party arrived early, as scheduled. The women stayed in the cool of the dining room while the men hung out in the youth room, taking off their jackets as the temperature rose in our building. The air conditioner was still and the church air grew heavy. As the hour of the wedding approached, I was stunned that we were still without power. I assured the couple we would go ahead with the service and it would be beautiful regardless. They smiled politely but I’m not sure they were buying it. I’m not sure I was either!

Our sound board operator was in place in case the electricity resumed. I was mic’d, in case that would make a difference. But the church remained powerless as the guests were seated and started fanning themselves with programs. The time came for the wedding party to enter. The congregation grew quiet as the parents were seated. When the bride and her father came into view, the people stood respectfully, smiling at the pair as they slowly made their way down the center aisle. The bride’s gaze was fixed on her fiancé who was equally focused on her. The sanctuary was quiet. Their friends and family were reverent. As the wedding ceremony began, I acknowledged that, even though we didn’t have electricity, we knew that there was power in this holy space. We could feel it as this couple stepped forward to join their two lives as one. They pledged their lifelong devotion to one another without microphones or music. It was a beautiful ceremony that ended with applause and jubilant bell ringing as the newlyweds triumphantly recessed out of the church. Ten minutes after the ceremony ended, the lights came on!

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, indoor and wedding

The bride stopped by the church about two weeks later to pick up an item that had been left. We spent some time talking about their honeymoon and found our way back to the unusual circumstances of their wedding day. I apologized for the consequences of an unpredictable “act of God.” She looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way! To have such complete silence as I entered with my dad was powerful! I was so moved by the way the quiet honored the occasion. It was perfect!”

The unexpected detail that could have emotionally derailed them as a couple turned out to be the defining memory of their day. Walking toward her beloved in the holy silence of the sanctuary, she knew God was near.

Have you ever met God when you were wrestling with unexpected change? Was there a holy moment that led you to lift your heart in worship to God? Did an inconvenience or forgotten detail or goof become the best memory of the evening? When has God crashed your party and left you with a blessing?

This story from the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel is about devotion. Mary, the dear friend of Jesus, is the perfect person to model this. When we meet her in the Gospels, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet. She forgets to do her hosting duties when He’s around, much to the chagrin of her sister. In this instance she embarrasses herself by anointing Jesus’ travel-weary feet with an expensive lotion usually reserved for burial. As if that weren’t scandalous enough, she wipes the remnant of the oil off his feet with her lovely hair. A woman’s hair in first century Israel was regarded as a very private part of her body. To say that this would have been an awkward moment at the dinner party is a gross understatement. But she seems not to have even known there were others around. The ointment was valued at a year’s salary and would have been a precious commodity for family burials. Mary presents it as an offering of love to Jesus who had brought her brother, Lazarus, back to life. Wiping his dusty feet with her crown of glory is an act of worship. She doesn’t give a thought to what others might think.

The word “devotion” means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. Mary gets caught up in a moment of devotion to the One she loves. It doesn’t matter who else is in the room. I wonder if you remember a time when you were so caught up in a worthy cause that you lost yourself? When have you been most devoted to the work of the Gospel?

There’s a contrast in this story between Mary’s worship and Judas’ protest. Mary offers her best in an act of sacrificial devotion while Judas pretends to be concerned for the poor. Is Jesus simply a calculated boost to Judas’ clout? As the treasurer of the group, he clearly values money over human needs. Jesus comes to Mary’s defense with a blunt command: Leave her alone! Mary is the only follower who seems to recognize that this moment with Jesus is precious. She unwittingly anoints His body for burial. The fragrance of the ointment would have lingered on both her and Jesus as He headed to the cross that very week. His disciples, however, scattered in fear.

Chapter 12 is a turning point in John’s gospel. Jesus has performed miracles that elevated Him to celebrity status. But in the appalled silence of an interrupted dinner party, we witness the greatest sign of Jesus’ ministry: love. Mary loves Jesus and devotes herself to serving Him, whatever the cost. The fact that we are still reading about this act of devotion tells me that her display of reverence turns heads as much as any of Jesus’ healings. Mary had experienced how Jesus brought life out of death so she offers herself unreservedly to Him.

This past Sunday I invited church members to commit to our church family by using their gifts. COVID has certainly challenged our leaders to explore new ways of doing ministry. As we reclaim elements of our congregational life, we need everyone to step into fitting areas of service. We invited folks to show their devotion to Christ by joining in our worship and volunteering in a capacity that brings them joy. What Mary models for us in this story is devotion to Jesus. She sets her sights on Him and nothing else matters. She is all in! Her service to Him brings a holy pause to a dinner party that we’re still talking about today. Following her example, all of us who are members of congregations need to embrace the invitation into remarkable service, using the gifts God has given us. While many worthy activities cry out for our attention, I know of nothing more important as living out our Christian faith to positively impact a hurting world. Are you in?

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Noticing Lazarus

The 16th chapter of Luke focuses on the dangers of wealth. Jesus tells
stories that warn believers of the corrupting allure of cash and property
and assets. Jesus teaches through His parables that unjust distribution
of wealth does not fit within His Gospel. Good News for one cannot mean harm for another.

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Lazarus has the distinct privilege of being the only person ever named
in one of Jesus’ moral tales. Lazarus translates to mean, “God helps.”
Lazarus is dependent on God for survival. In his earthly life, he parks
himself at the gate into a rich man’s compound. This man’s wardrobe is
described to make a point. Purple dye in the ancient Mediterranean
world was a rare commodity. It got its color from a snail that was
indigenous to that part of the world. Purple clothing was a luxury
industry and his outfit would have been the envy of all. The rich man
enjoys the privacy afforded by an early gated community. He has assets
to protect so he pays slaves to build a wall around his house. Lazarus—
and perhaps other indigents—choose him as their best chance at
getting a beggar’s income. Daily Lazarus’ crippled body is heaped up against the entry gate. Stray dogs, despised mongrels in the scriptures, lick his wounds. This main character in Jesus’ story is destitute and demeaned.
As the rich man goes in and out each day, tending to his estate, he
seems not to even notice Lazarus.

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The story abruptly shifts to the afterlife. The rich man, we read, suffers
in Hades, a place of eternal punishment. It conjures up such fearful images
that no one uses that word lightly. At first the man asks Lazarus to serve
him. He still thinks he can run his life as if he’s the King of his castle.
When told that Lazarus cannot cross the great chasm that separates
them, the rich man has a rare altruistic moment and begs that a
warning be sent to his brothers. “Shape up! Things are not as they
seem! What you do on earth matters so crack open that Bible open.
Throw the beggars some coins. Hark up before it’s too late!” The man
who had never even noticed Lazarus has a heart only for his brothers.
Lazarus, known as “God helps” to his loved ones, is finally in good
hands.


We all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor! We contribute money to
agencies that help the Lazarus’ of our world. In a few weeks our congregation will open our doors to families who are reliant upon our care. Through our acts of mercy, God helps homeless families, children who don’t know where they will sleep from one week to the next. Maybe some of us can remember times when our own finances were stretched thin. We
were ashamed, frightened, depressed. Then someone noticed us and,
out of a love for God, helped us.

We all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor. She is the one who is
overlooked, undervalued, abused and treated as a pariah. There are more people named “God helps” than I ever imagined. Jesus told stories about the Realm of God, where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless given shelter and the wounded are healed. In this parable that emphasizes the distance between the rich and the poor, we are challenged to look deep within. We are invited to a new understanding of who is part of our family. They are the ones God helps—through us. They are the ones who are needed to complete the picture of who belongs in Christ’s Church!


This next year is important for our congregation. We have endured such upheaval in the past eighteen months with the siege of COVID. And it’s not over yet! The financial impact of this pandemic is disastrous and widespread. The toll of isolation has led to a dramatic increase in mental illnesses. We worry about the long-term impact on our children. College students sit in their dorm rooms, frightened or forbidden from socializing. School children have learned to avoid touching each other but rejoice that they can at least sit in a classroom together. A backdrop of death has not spared any of us significant loss. We have survived but are still figuring out how to trust that God will lead us out of this depression. We wonder if God will truly help us when so many of our plans had to be abandoned and our hopes have been dashed.

This next year is important for our church family. As I prepare for whatever next chapter God has in store for me, they will look toward the horizon to chart a new course. The good news is that this congregation is strong! When some of our leadership met with a denominational leader last month, she affirmed the many gifts that are so evident in this congregation. We are creative. We are Spirit-filled. We not only survive difficult times but thrive in them. We are multi-generational. We know how to have fun together! We love each other. We serve God together. Each of us adds uniquely to the beauty of the puzzle!


The greatest sadness for me since we left the building on March 15,
2020, is our separation from each other. COVID scattered us. We’re still
living in our homes. But we have greatly changed when we go out and
where. In the past eighteen months our daily rhythms have changed significantly. Getting back to in-person worship with new restrictions is
unappealing to some and feels unsafe to those who are at risk. On Sunday mornings we join together for worship in pews and from our homes. Some have drifted away and others have newly joined. We have been
scattered and we yearn to be together in His love once again.


Our Stewardship Committee has invited our membership to claim their important place in the life of the congregation. Whether they come through our doors now or still worship from home, all are part of the puzzle. Our budget has been reliant on PPP loans for the past two years and those will not be renewed. This is an important year for us as we engage in conversations about who we are and where we are going. It will be a time of claiming our identity as a congregation and finding the next
pastor who will feel as blessed as I have been to minister alongside of
this faithful congregation. I pray that each person will feel moved to continue their support of the ministry that happens out of this sacred space. There is such strength in this church family: strength to change, faith to invite God into that movement and courage to expect transformation.


Though distance still separates many of us, I have no doubt that we share
the conviction that we are called to reach out to the Lazarus’ of our
community. Ours is a generous congregation. They respond with
compassion when a need is presented. Many of us have been
helped in our time of need by members of our church family. I live in a
lovely home now that was, in significant ways, built by this my congregation members after a devastating housefire. I use items on a daily basis that were given to our family in a housewarming shower that replaced the basic necessities we lost. After my surgery for cancer, church friends cared for my family by bringing meals or driving my children places. We have helped each other because we know that God notices the Lazarus’ of this world! Thank God we are strengthened for every task that is set before us because we know that GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
Forever.

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Sea Legs on Land

I wonder if any of you have been privileged to live on a lake? Some early mornings the lake is still. It perfectly reflects the trees surrounding the shore. Occasionally a fish leaps for joy and breaks the glass surface. Ripples of water radiate out in circles before the calm is restored again. On those peaceful mornings, we can hear lake sounds clearly. Folks out for an early morning of fishing converse in normal voices and yet we hear them as if they’re in our bedroom as we pull ourselves out of sleep for another day.

In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and asks Simon to row Him a short distance so that he can teach the early morning crowd about God’s inbreaking love. Simon dutifully agrees and Jesus, from a pulpit of wood on a glassy sea, with mist from the night hanging close, launches into a Sunday School class. No microphone needed.

When Jesus finishes His lesson plan, He directs the owner of the boat to let down his net into the sea. It’s difficult to read Simon’s mood since we can’t hear any tone to his words. But I can almost hear irritation in this fisherman’s voice as he reminds this wandering Teacher that he and his professional fishing partners had spent the night out and caught nothing. So, whatever this guy thought he knew about fishing, Simon knows better.

Even so…Simon obeys. “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

A wooden fishing boat was excavated on the shores of this 18-mile long lake that dates back to the first century. It is 27 feet long and 7 ½ feet wide. When Simon does as Jesus asks, after a fruitless night of fishing, his nets are so full that Simon calls for back-up help from his partners. There are enough fish to fill both expansive boats! Simon is so overwhelmed with the catch that he falls on his knees before the stranger. He confesses his sinfulness to the man he now calls, “Lord.”

The fishing industry was grueling in Jesus’ day. Our fishing ventures are recreational. We pay our bills through other “jobs.” In first century Galilee, powerful Roman landowners snatched up much of the property. So men who lost their family land went into fishing. They gave up their beds to spend the nights in cold, damp, rocking boats. Their perpetual hope was for a catch that would provide for their families. When Simon and his partners pull in this sort of catch, it is like winning the lottery. Their families would be set for years to come! Rather than settle into early retirement, Simon and three others drop everything and follow Jesus. They could have no way of knowing that they would have to keep moving if they wanted to keep up.

The families of these men who left their overflowing nets must consider them as crazy…UNLESS…there is something about this stranger that attracts them. Maybe they recognize that he can offer some sort of security that money cannot. Whether their families understood their commitment or not, Simon and friends leave all that is familiar to follow Jesus.

These are men who have sea legs. Walking on terra firma was the exception for them. After a day in the lake as a child, I remember feeling like I was still in the water when I laid my head on my pillow. Bobbing up and down in water was unusual for me. These men are at home in the sea. They spend each work day with the same companions in boats. There is little interaction with others and no need for polite conversation. These men leave a “sameness” for risk. They give up solitude for evangelistic crowds. They cannot have known then that they would do all that Jesus did and more to benefit and bless simple laborers like themselves.

We fashion our teaching ministry in the Church today on the simple setting of a boat on a lake with folks going about their daily chores. Jesus asks these fisherman to do something they did everyday—but to do it when it seemed like it wasn’t going to produce results. After a night of failure—which the men had learned could happen even when they put their best effort forward—Jesus tells them to put out their nets one more time before going home. In youth group sessions, Sunday school classes for four-year-olds and 80-year-olds, we attune ourselves to the teaching of Jesus and discover that there is abundant living when we do what he asks us to do. We do it not because it looks like we will cash in on something. We do it because there’s something about Jesus that prompts us to trust Him.

This story, like so many others in the Bible, is about God’s abundant provision. The wandering Israelites were sustained by manna and quail in the wilderness. Water flowed freely out of rocks wherever they encamped in the desert. When a poor widow took the prophet Elijah into her home, God made sure that she never ran out of flour and oil. In spite of her poverty, she had a continual supply of bread. Jesus fed a crowd of 4000 people a filling meal with donations of just ten barley loaves and three fish. In this story, an obedient fisherman does what a stranger asks him to do—expecting it to fail. God blesses Simon’s obedience and produces a huge catch that would support Simon’s family as he left them to follow Jesus.

Our stewardship theme for this year is often repeated in the scriptures: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Stewardship is about being grateful to God for everything that we have been given. Good stewardship is a way of life, it’s not just a congregational campaign or a short season. Like Simon, who is renamed Peter by Jesus, we are asked to be obedient even when we’re asked to do something that seems strange or useless. I wonder about our “sea legs.” Where are we most comfortable? When has Christ called you to walk into a situation that makes you feel unsteady? Most often the call comes during an ordinary day when we’re engaged in a routine activity, like it was for Peter. The call to follow Jesus revealed that God’s realm is an active place where our perception of how things work is turned upside down. Jesus’ call to the fishermen didn’t happen in a holy place or during a time of devout prayer. It happened in their stinky boat as they washed their nets to end a fruitless night of work.

Jesus told them they would continue to fish but it would take on a holier purpose. Their teaching would open the flood gates so that all kinds of fish could swim through. This past week we installed an artistic representation of Open Doors in our church yard. These colorful doors have symbols on them that remind them of overlooked groups of people who are often told they matter less than others. As we offer a message of inclusion to our community, we celebrate that Jesus’ invitation to a dozen unlikely candidates for seminary means that all are invited to be part of Christ’s Church. The men who said “yes” to Jesus inaugurated a time of blessing that is still marked by an abundance of spirit and God’s loving provision.

This story from Luke’s Gospel reminds us of the central role of teaching in the Church. Our congregation has deepened our faith through various teaching settings. We talk openly with each other, trusting that our shared insights will be enriching. We present our children with Bibles and guide them through stories in Sunday School. In Vacation Bible School we teach them songs and dance with them as they learn about Jesus. Our youth work hard to raise money to go on mission trips where they serve neighbors who become friends. They lead devotions in their work crews and, as our congregation experienced last week, they sometimes lead us in worship. We continue to sit at Jesus’ feet by the ways we explore our faith in every setting of our church. We’ve certainly witnessed how our commitment to learning has prompted us to try new means of communication and gathering in the past 18 months. Giving up on our programming was never an option when the quarantine mandated that we stay home. Our sea legs were challenged as we learned to have meaningful conversations over zoom or spread out in the sanctuary with masks on! We set up tents to teach our little ones outside. Confirmation and wedding vows were spoken in our parking lot, not our beloved sanctuary! We didn’t know that our asphalt parking lot was holy ground–but it is! Our faith has been strengthened as we committed to stay unified through new ways of being Church!

On our church Facebook page this past week, I asked folks if they had any recent God sightings. Not surprisingly, several did. One member, on a routine phone interview, mentioned the importance of her family and church involvement. The interviewer asked if she would tell him more about why she goes to church and believes in God. He was clearly going off-script! Our church member felt nudged by God to share her faith…so she did! For half an hour the professional interview was set aside while they talked about the faith. He admitted that his health struggles and unanswered prayers had given him doubts. When the interview was ending, she stretched into uncomfortable territory and asked if she could pray for him. The request and her prayer brought him to tears. Sometimes it only takes a phone call to challenge our sea legs!

Another member has stretched by writing prayers on a daily basis and sharing them with our congregation. Her commitment to feed our faith has enriched her as well. One person has felt the powerful presence of God’s Spirit in the holy orchestration of doors closing and opening. One other has seen God’s abundant provision in the care and love with which family and friends surround each other amidst an unusual season of illness and death. She has been reminded through beloved hymns of her childhood that we are all “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Nature teaches us about God’s steadfast love. Dancing in worship under the guidance of our youth reminds us that our call to discipleship is joyful!

During the next few weeks, the Stewardship Committee will invite you to reflect on the crucial place each of you holds in our church family. Like a detailed and beautiful puzzle, if even one piece is missing, it feels incomplete. COVID has forced us to worship and study in uncomfortable new ways. The Gospel gives us sea legs as we realign our priorities. Like the disciples who had to learn to use their sea legs on land, we are urged to be ready to move into foreign territory so that Christ’s invitation can be heard by others. As one commentator on the text notes in a poem, choosing this new ministry territory is not easy but the rewards are great:

We never imagined

how difficult it would be

to follow and not lead

to listen and not talk

to take directions from you.

But here we are

talking too much

listening too little

and leading one another into troubled places.

Call us again

and we will listen this time.

Call us again and we will follow.

And if we should fail you again…

please suffer us to try anew.

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It’s a party!

We launched a new program year at our church yesterday! Last September we were newly in the building after a six month hiatus from in-person worship. We weren’t moving in the sanctuary. We weren’t singing. We were barely breathing! It felt good to be back for a new year feeling somewhat acclimated to the ups and downs of a global pandemic, if that’s possible! One of the lectionary passages for this week was from Matthew 22. I don’t know if I chose it because or in spite of the fact that it ends on a note of weeping and gnashing of teeth! It doesn’t get much more biblical than that! We began a new program year with a parable Jesus told to teach about the relationship between God and God’s people. In the faith, we call this intimate association a covenant. What does it look like to be God’s people? What are the dominant feelings that guide us each day when we set our sights on Jesus? And, in this story, Jesus asks generations of believers, “Who will accept the amazing invitation to be God’s people?

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The setting of this story is a wedding! It’s the king’s son and the king is clearly excited! In fact, if this were made into a high school production, only the king would have any lines. The ruling monarch over all the land sends out an invitation to the select and the chosen, inviting them to celebrate the joyous occasion of his son getting married! Folks seem interested. But the day arrives and when the herald is sent out to tell them, “Now!”, no one seems willing to leave their chores behind. Three times he sends out palace staff to get folks to the party and they even kill those servants! In any country, that is tantamount to declaring war on your leader. An ordinary king of Jesus’ day would have responded to their insolence with swift destruction! Why should a king have to beg society’s elite to come to the Buckingham shindig? His continued appeal emasculates him. One commentator on the text stated that God first seeks out, not wipes out, those who spite God’s gift. I suspect that very few of us continue to give nice gifts to demonstrably unappreciative people!

Here’s a description of how a royal wedding would have played out in Jesus’ time (from the Archaeological Study Bible): “A banquet always included wine drinking…The host provided robes for the guests, which were worn in his honor and as a token of his regard. Guests were welcomed by the host with a kiss and their feet were washed because of the dusty roads. The guest’s head was anointed, as well as sometimes his bear, his feet and his clothing. His head was decorated with garlands. The guests were seated according to their respective rank, their hands were washed and prayers were offered for blessing on the food. Often the meal was enlivened with music, singing and dancing or with riddles. A great banquet sometimes lasted seven days…”

Who would say “no” to a grand fete like this?! As usual, Jesus packed unbelievable elements into His story.

Why do the guests turn down the invitation when the actual day arrived? It’s not that they wanted to commit immoral acts or that they hated the king. They decided to do their chores, to go about their usual routine. They prioritized their God-given labor over time spent in the intimacy of God’s presence. Even the people in ancient Israel needed to be told that there’s a time to clock out and spend quality time with those we love.

The key notion to this story is invitation. Followers of a loving God are called to join the party. Jesus uses the image of a royal party to teach us about the life God has in store for us! It’s not a funeral. It’s not a Sunday School class. Life as a disciple of Jesus is a celebration! To repent and turn toward God is a call to joy! Perhaps, as we reconvene after the freedom of summer and the ongoing uncertainty of a virus, we need to be reminded that God repeatedly extends the invitation to join in the fun of being part of one big family.

After a couple of weeks as a chaplain at a mental health hospital, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a few group sessions in three different units. They are spiritual in nature but accept folks wherever they are at. I first go room-to-room and through the common areas to invite everyone to come. I take note of who attends, participates, and interacts. My observations are important as they round out the picture of who is actively working to get better. Who is saying “yes” to the opportunities given? Who is too tired or depressed to be with others? Staff members know that healing takes place in community and those who refuse to take part in the many offerings for wellness will probably not heal as quickly.

In Jesus’ short story there are two unimaginable actions. First, the favored guests refuse—even violently—to come to the party of the decade. Second, the king invites common folks off the street to come to the table. The guy holding the cardboard sign at the busy intersection is summoned. The ethnic business owner, accustomed to discrimination, is invited to stop sweeping the front stoop of his store and join the gathering. The single mom of three young children is told there’s a limo waiting for her on the other side of the playground, ready to escort the four of them to the best party ever! When the honored guests distinguish themselves through murderous insolence, the riffraff of the city are given a place at the table. Someone watching the round-up from an upper balcony murmurs, “Well, I never!”

Jesus suggested that God is willing to switch to the B Team if the A Team begins to wane. If the starting line up has lost their energy and their desire to win, a good coach will whisk them off the field and replace them with second and third-string players. These underdogs are incredulous and grab at the opportunity! As harsh as this parable sounds at its conclusion, God has the authority to bench those who refuse to answer the invitation to service! The grace and nondiscrimination of the Gospel is on full display in this story that Jesus told in the presence of the religious bigwigs of His day.

So what about the guy who is kicked out, weeping and gnashing his teeth? That’s the part that seems extreme to us. Remember that robes were provided at a royal wedding so that guests could enjoy the formal occasion at no personal expense. They would be expected to have a proper reverence toward the royal family and the event to which they were invited. If they accepted the invitation, they were expected to dress for the occasion. When he is approached by a palace staff member, he is referred to as “friend.” He has no answer when they ask him why he didn’t put on the robe he was given. He has no excuse. He wants the goods of the party without showing the respect due the king. Commentator Henry says that “Believer should often ask themselves what the king asks them: ‘How did I get in here?’ and ‘Am I wearing the wedding garment?’”

What Jesus asks of His followers who were invited to be part of His Good News was a transformed life. He didn’t advocate a “one-and-done” conversion. He knew that we either accept or reject the invitation to a grand and holy occasion with each decision, thought and word. Too often we prioritize our work, leisure activities and relationships over time spent in intentional worship of the One who gave us the gifts we enjoy. Later we may realize that the party has moved on without us and the gathering looks very different than we might have imagined! Jesus knows that His Church will bring unlikely categories of people together, those who regard each other as the “bad” or the undeserving. Weaving this tale in front of the very religious authorities who ultimately get Him killed, Christ promises that His movement will meet up with turmoil and even violence as the “good and the bad” find themselves vying for seats at the same reception. In Jesus’ teaching, the Church is always a minority movement that takes on the giants and false gods of their world. What does it mean for us to understand that our faith is a minority movement? Are there people who can’t be bothered to be part of Church even though they’ve accepted the invitation to join the family? Are there others, perhaps in lockdown units or prisons, who gladly say “yes” to group participation? Are persecuted Christians in far-away lands the ones who most readily share the good news that God loves them very much?

If we accept the invitation to follow Jesus, we are asked to show up with a sense of joyful expectation and to dress for the occasion. When we proudly assert our autonomy, we are clothed with ourselves and not with Christ. Like the baptismal gown parents choose for their small child, we put on Christ with each decision to join His Church–or prioritize other tasks. The invitation is given by a God who earnestly yearns for us to take a place at the table with all the others who have come from every walk of life. It’s a wedding party, not a funeral! So who says “yes” to being God’s people? There’s a place reserved for you!

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Religion that Passes Muster

One of the lectionary passages for this past Sunday is written by James. He is believed to be the brother of Jesus. Imagine for a moment what he has witnessed in his life: His big brother, who was always a bit different from other kids, works in the family business alongside their dad. He never marries, which causes concern for his parents. At age 30 he leaves home to
begin a ministry with twelve other guys that draws crowds of people.
Word begins to circulate that Jesus, James’ big brother, is the Messiah.
Jesus is targeted by the very religious figures James and his family
were taught to respect. Ultimately, the authorities kill him in the most
torturous manner and the man behind the movement dies a criminal’s
death.
Let James’ personal history sink in for just a moment. James would have reasons to wonder if his a dysfunctional family—or if God is at work? The answer becomes clear when Jesus resurrects from the dead and appears to upwards of 500 people at a time. The Holy Spirit fills the fearful disciples with courage and the Church is born. James becomes an active apostle of his brother’s movement. In this letter he writes to early believers who
are persecuted for their strange beliefs. Because they are living in such
a pressure cooker of controversy, they are easily misled by the
surrounding culture. James confronts the anger that is spreading in the
church, offering wise counsel that unifies. He offers more than one
hundred imperatives in this letter, trying to guide the Church with clear
boundaries of moral demarcation.


The two easiest responses to such pressure, which we’ve seen in our own culture this year, are violence or surrender to despair. Amidst human chaos, James assures the believers that the God they serve is unchanging. I think of the first verse of a traditional hymn: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not; as Thou hast been, thou forever wilt
be…” Wondering where they can turn for support, James assures these
earliest Church members that God offers consistent care and guidance.
God instills a sense of purpose for otherwise aimless individuals. He reminds them that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of this text, says it this way: “The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.” God distributes these gifts equally to all believers. The rigid hierarchy of the Roman Empire has no place in the Early Church. This letter has come under fire over the ages
because Jesus is seldom mentioned. But, as we read this exhortation
from Christ’s brother, we find Jesus’ words and Spirit infused into the
writing.


The scattered Church is urged by James to persevere in living moral
lives even in the face of persecution. He doesn’t criticize the anger
among the believers. He challenges them to find constructive uses for it
so that the body of Christ is built up and kept pure. His words are as
relevant to us today as they were to this minority of Christians who
were under fire: Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. This requires great patience that is hard to come by when under fire. He reminds the church members to use their words carefully. Words have the power to build up or tear down. Like vows spoken between lovers, words have power to join us together for life or to destroy a relationship in a moment. We make choices by how we respond to our world. Will we have the discipline to put away wrong behavior and thinking? Will we receive the power of the Spirit? Or will we lash out against our neighbor without thinking? James calls on us to take our emotional and religious lives seriously. Those who are able to do that in the face of persecution become the leaders and, sometimes, the martyrs of a cause. The rules are given to offer safe boundaries in a threatening and changing society.

James urges the believers to be disciplined followers of Jesus who, to His dying moments on the cross, preached forgiveness of enemies. It was crucial that the followers of Jesus have a firm faith. Of necessity they were on the move, spreading the news further and further from home so that the Church could grow. They needed to be able to express their faith in different settings. It was impossible for them to get comfortable because the Spirit kept calling them to new ministry horizons.

This week I begin a new leg on my spiritual journey. I will report to Pine
Rest Christian Mental Health Hospital for my orientation as a chaplain resident. I will shadow other chaplains as they minister to patients whose lives have become unmanageable. There is much I don’t yet know about Pine Rest. What I do know is that it is the fourth largest behavioral health provider in the United States. It offers treatment programs for all ages and addresses different needs of different populations. As a year-long resident, I will go into all the different units, leading worship and group sessions. I will meet with individuals who ask for a chaplain and with those who have no desire to talk with me. Pine Rest is an avowedly Christian organization so I bring my faith with me into each situation. But there will be patients whose faith will be very different from my own and I will respect that. I will interact with many people just once, since patients are checked in and then discharged with some frequency. Some units house people for lengthy periods of time so I may meet with those folks more often. I will be exposed to many psychological diagnoses. I will seldom know if my words and presence have been helpful. After serving in this congregation for twenty-five years, getting to know you through the ups and downs of life, I feel a bit anxious about serving in this new setting. I wonder if my skill set
that has served me well in parish ministry for 36 years will transfer into
this itinerant parish?


As we move out of our comfort zone and into new settings, questions
arise. Who am I? What is my finished work and what is in process?
What are my giftings and what attributes make me who I am? How has
my family shaped me and what do I need to release in order to face
forward? Do I have to make peace with my past so that I can move
ahead unencumbered? Through his letter, James tries to prepare the
earliest followers of Jesus to be ready to serve wherever God leads
them. He names the ordinary elements to daily life that add up to a
lifetime. He reminds us that our words have power, our generosity is
contagious, and the need for patience will always confront us. Archie
Smith writes that such small acts “are the nuts and bolts of everyday
life, holding together the scaffold on which we build community and
the social order.”

Photo by AdamLowly on Pexels.com


The name of the training I will pursue is Clinical Pastoral Education or
CPE for short. One of the CPE educators offered an image for ministry
that is helpful to me. Rev. Dr. Lisa Taylor stated that our pastoral
identity is like a tipi. Tipis are dwelling places where our life happens.
Our affiliations, like denominational and church ties, influence where
we find ourselves. Tipis are equipped for the journey. They are built
with the assumption of a transient lifestyle. They are durable and easily
assembled. Our sense of calling that leads us to pursue new adventures
strengthens us to switch jobs and still be competent. Tipis are mobile.
They can be relocated and reconstructed easily. Living in a tipi requires
us to be both staked so we are protected but also mobile. How do we
thrive in that sort of split calling?


When we are sent into a new setting, our Tipi is the framework that
shapes our ministry. This isn’t referring just to me as an ordained
pastor. All of us are summoned as Christians to be ready to pack up and
bring our faith to new people at a moment’s notice. Do we limit our faith
expression solely to Sunday mornings? Can we live it out in line at
grocery store or at the school board meeting? Does our tipi support us in the hospital room as doctors poke and prod and don’t always give us the
answers we need? Alistair Campbell said, “Pastoral care is surprisingly
simple. It has one fundamental aim: to help people know love, both as
something to be received and as something to give.”


Exploring the image of the tipi was enlightening to me. I realized that I
carry my ministry in my heart wherever I go because I’ve invited Christ
to dwell within me. Borrowing from Eugene Peterson’s translation of
John’s prologue, “The Word became flesh and moved into the
neighborhood!” Another translation I like states, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.” Jesus established residency with us and travels with us no matter where we go. Having a clear understanding of who Jesus is for us, we will be able to care well for others. It will not matter whether they are receiving in-patient care at Pine Rest or grieving the death of a loved one in our home parish. We listen closely to the stories of others, asking God to help us discern what they are trying to tell us about themselves through these stories. The key to effective pastoral care toward our neighbor is good listening. We talk less and we listen more.


N.T. Wright, in his commentary on James’ letter, praises the author for
getting practical about being a follower of Jesus. He suggests that James’
response would be along these lines: “Follow God in this way. There are
people who need your help; and there’s a messy world that will try to
mess up your life as well. Focus on the first and avoid the second.”

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com


As I experience my own version of the “first day of school” this week, I
feel certain that I can set up camp where God leads me because I have
a strong sense of who I am and whose I am. I will strive to be myself in
this new setting, remembering that my tipi dictates that I am both
staked and mobile. I may not always get that balance right but I’m not
called to be perfect. Like Jesus, I am called to look at my world both
inside out and upside down. Looking from the same vantage point at
every juncture will hamper us from seeing the truth. As we interact
with different people in new settings, we will understand our own
theology better. We continually explore who we are. When we humbly
commit to this sort of self-examination, by God’s grace we find that we
are blessed, in Peterson’s words, with a “religion that passes muster.”

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Sacred Space

What distressing news confronts us each day! As if a surge in COVID cases weren’t worry enough, I saw a report on flight attendants taking courses in self-defense. They want skills to be able to protect themselves against irate passengers. Already this year more than $1 million in fines has been charged to folks who get violent while suspended in space and strapped into airplanes. A drought out west has dried up lakes as heat levels continue to soar. Wildfires rage while courageous firefighters, including a son of our church, work endless hours to contain the flames. Haitians have, once again, been brought to their knees because of a double hit by Mother Nature: a strong earthquake that claimed over 2000 lives followed by a hurricane that relentlessly pounded thousands of newly homeless residents. The images of Afghan residents hanging onto moving airplanes in a desperate attempt to flee their country underscores the chaotic transition of our troops exiting while the Taliban swoops in. One crowded cabin after another is lifting off the ground as Afghan people catch a final glimpse of the land they call home before going aloft. Ironically, once they are off the tarmac, they begin to feel safe. My heart has broken countless times this past week looking in on our turbulent earth and political mayhem. Perhaps you felt a similar sense of helplessness, wondering what sort of a difference we can make in the overwhelming issues that cry out for our attention.

The lectionary readings are taking us through the early kings of Israel. This is the second week that we meet up with Solomon, the third king who is revered for his great wisdom. Chapter 8 gives us a peek into the emotional scene of Solomon dedicating the new Temple that he built to bring glory to God’s name. We skip through this chapter, leaving out certain parts of the prayer. The lectionary committee that put this cycle of readings together wanted us to hear the fifth of seven requests this sage king presented to God. He prayed that people far from Israel would hear of the great God honored in the Jerusalem temple. He prayed that God might hear the prayers even of the foreigners as they approached the temple. If these outsiders could catch just a glimpse of God’s glory, they might also find refuge in the God of the Israelites. As Solomon was swept up in a dedicatory prayer of this beautiful new sanctuary compound, he considered the plight of the refugee.

I called Deb Hoekwater, the Refugee Church Engagement Coordinator for Bethany Christian Services. I asked her if she expected a wave of Afghan refugees to alight in Michigan in the near future. The simple answer is yes. She’s not sure of the timing. The usual referral process for someone to come to our country is two years. She said it is very unusual that thousands of Afghan citizens are being flown out of the country who haven’t been screened. The government is working on a different referral process that can speed up the process. Bethany staff members are fielding many calls from Afghan citizens who have successfully resettled here. They are panic-stricken about the well-being of their families amidst the violence of the past week. They are desperately seeking a means of rescue for their loved ones but finding there is little they can do. Deb and other Bethany workers spend time talking with them over the phone. One man, who has been resettled in the United States for awhile, told her with great excitement that he saw his father’s face on one of the screen shots of an overloaded airplane leaving his homeland. He didn’t know where his father was being taken but took heart in knowing his dad was out of harm’s way and beginning his journey toward freedom. If some of these people make it to Michigan, it will be churches that welcome them “home.

Solomon was thinking of such people while caught up in a conversation with his Maker!

With the completion of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant could be moved from its temporary resting place into a forever home. This symbolized the triumph of the Jews leaving behind a nomadic lifestyle as a nation and becoming truly settled. Their God would now have a home base out of which the faithful could proclaim God’s wonderful works. With great pomp the religious treasures that were central to their itinerant worship life were carefully placed in their new home as sacred relics. The Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting would serve as historical reminders of their years in the wilderness. Lifting his hands heavenward, Solomon gave thanks for God’s faithfulness in establishing a home for the Israelites. He was incredulous that one as great as God would allow a temple to be built in the divine name. God didn’t need the temple but the temple needed God! Solomon prayed that God would hear the prayers lifted up in this holy sanctuary. He begged God to forgive the penitent who turned their faces heavenward. The builder of the Temple was overcome with gratitude that this sacred space provided a place of contact between citizens of heaven and earth. No longer housed in a collapsible tent, the ark was safely lodged within the new Temple walls.

Twenty years ago a retired pastor purchased an abandoned church building in an effort to reinvigorate it. I would see him mowing the lawn of the church grounds in the summer and shoveling a walkway up to the grand sanctuary doors in the winter. His hopes for filling the pews with devoted followers of Jesus never panned out. There’s an odd conflict-of-interest when the pastor trying to grow the church owns the building that houses the congregation! The pastor never attached his name to the building but people learned that it was his piece of real estate. His name was perhaps connected to that space more than the God he sought to serve so it did not survive. Fortunately, another congregation purchased the building when it was sold and it is, indeed, a vibrant community of faith, owned by a whole congregation of believers, who sing praise to God in Grand Rapids.

In his prayer Solomon questioned, almost as an aside, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Solomon confirms that God’s dwelling place is in heaven. But, by giving divine blessing to Solomon’s structure, God gets naming rights. Folks travel from near and far to worship the God of Solomon in a sanctuary whose beauty was legendary.

There’s a funny mention of a piece of furniture in this prayer. The placement of the Ark in the temple was called the “divine footstool.” Here, at last, was the place where God could rest with the chosen people. If you have a building named after you, you will probably want to know what business it houses, right? So, if the temple had God’s name attached to it, Solomon reasoned, God would stop by to rest with the pilgrims. Solomon prayed that God would equally welcome the foreigner to this sacred space as well as someone who could trace their roots back to Father Abraham.

The NIV Application Commentary states this: “Rest was the consequence of Israel’s inheriting the land, the uncompromised fulfillment of all God promised. The rest of God demonstrated that creative activity was complete and that the work of the creator was perfect.” After all that the people had endured (400 years of slavery, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, a battle to claim their own land), the image of the footstool invited the Jews, finally, to rest.

When have you rested from your labors, content that you had completed what God asked of you? We too often forget that God instituted the law of Sabbath as one of the ten commandments: Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Without a holy directive to cease from our labors, God seems to know that we would work ourselves to death. It might not lead to a physical death but we easily lose our way spiritually if we never get off the treadmill. The sabbath was created so that we could put our feet up in the presence of our God, knowing we had done what we could for another week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after the horror of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, wrote this about the command for Sabbath rest: “To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we use no money…on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world’s chief idol…a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for humanity’s progress than the Sabbath?”

A central feature in the replenishment of the Sabbath is time spent in God’s creation. When we live responsibly in our world, we take delight in our home. One of our members has spent the summer painting lakes with reeds and shimmering sunlight. An environmentalist, out for a clean-up day on that lake, floated past Lynn and took interest in what she was painting. The artist was grateful for the commitment of the environmentalist and the environmentalist was captivated by Lynn’s painting. The environmentalist paddled away with a still-wet painting from Lynn. Each felt blessed by the work of the other.

Beautiful images on Facebook capture lakes and trees, wildlife and mountains. These stand in stark contrast to the videos we’ve watched of fleeing Afghans and desperate Haitians. How does God’s startling beauty propel us toward our neighbor? Sometimes we might prefer to go deeper into the woods, becoming hermits in our cottage or the hull of our boat. How do we balance the urgency to respond to crises yet know when to put our feet up, as God does on occasion? Are we able to rest in the assurance that we have done what God asks of us?

Solomon and his people were exhorted to make the name of God great. I wonder if we look for ways to make God’s name great? Have we assured others that God is always near and ever willing to forgive? Have strangers whose lives are quite different from our own experienced God’s mercy through us? Have we prayed for any of the people we saw on our screens this week or did we turn away because it was unsettling? Deb at Bethany urged us to pray for them now. I’d love to see our congregation resettle an Afghan family in the near future. Our first task is to reclaim our hosting responsibilities for homeless families in our sacred space in November. After nearly two years of hiatus, we will once again offer sanctuary to families who rely on our kindness. These are neighbors who are refugees from having their own homes and safe spaces to raise their children. What a privilege it is to shelter them in our church building while they work toward an independent future. Sabbath rest reminds us to put our feet up for a day to replenish our spirits. Only then will we be equipped to joyfully accomplish the work God places before us.

At this ceremonial dedication of the temple, Solomon moves his people from past to glorious present. This is the continuous cycle in our life: shedding old ways so that we can respond appropriately to present needs. Solomon had served as king long enough to recognize his own propensity toward sin so he humbly asked for forgiveness in this dedicatory prayer: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”

Having been refreshed in our sacred space this past Sunday, we continue to face many questions: Who, us? Help them? When shall we do that? And how? In our busy world, we will wrestle with finding the balance between work and rest, weeding our gardens and putting our feet up. The God of Solomon assures us that both service and sabbath are central to a life of faith. The revival we experience in the Sabbath of each week invigorates us to re-enter the world. May our prayers, like that of Solomon, be the fuel to our journey.

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Prayer and Politics

I was drawn to a passage from 1 Kings 3 because of the beautiful prayer that King Solomon offers at the advent of his reign. His prayer for a discerning heart and listening ear is such a refreshment to us when we look at dominant forms of political leadership today. I spent more time than usual on background research for this sermon because preaching politics and religion can raise eyebrows and blood pressure. This story inextricably enjoins those two aspects to our lives.

The heir to the throne prays that God will grant him leadership skills that lead to peace. He seems to grasp that peace is possible only when there is justice for everyone. Solomon demonstrates great humility when he asks for wisdom and not the usual royal perks of wealth and power. Solomon invokes his father‘s name but then expresses his unique desire to serve. He wants to be anointed on his own merits and not simply coast in the afterglow of his father’s reign. His prayer is that he will be able to judge between good and evil, a biblical theme that stretches back to Adam and Eve. His request for a listening heart is remarkable. Our leaders (and we ourselves) would do well to pray for that earnestly. Feeling inexperienced as he steps into this daunting position, Solomon confesses his yearning for self-understanding. If we back up to see how Solomon gets to the top of the heap, we witness something that is common to ancient coronation stories. The way up is bloody. His father, who is known as a valiant warrior, doesn’t hesitate to annihilate other pretenders to the throne. So the ascension to the throne is violent. His very first act is to forge an alliance by marrying a foreign princess. This sounds wise but it paves the way for a future of idolatry and family chaos. She is among the first of 700 wives and 300 concubines. A lust for power distracts Solomon from his professed desire for Godly wisdom!


In his book, Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson comments that Solomon was “born to the purple” and never knew anything but the sheltered, extravagant life of a king’s palace. He wishes to judge his beloved people with wisdom but, over the course of forty years, we see that he lacks the discipline and personal experience to turn this devout prayer into consistent reality. Like the Egyptian pharaohs who built their empire on the backs of the Jewish slaves, Solomon launched an impressive building program. To pay for these, he taxed the empire heavily. As was common in Solomon’s time, most of his labor force was comprised of conquered foreigners. But he also conscripted 30,000 Israelites into hard labor. Solomon‘s mighty temple cost much more than a hefty line-item in the royal budget. His own people sacrificed, sometimes with their lives, to erect this sacred compound for a God who granted the king’s wish for wisdom. Power often corrupts so Solomon struggles with that commitment toward wisdom and a just way of overseeing his people. Few of us would want to face the temptations that come with such an elevated position of authority.

It’s important that we understand what is meant by wisdom in Solomon’s era. The Book of Proverbs, which is attributed to Solomon, states, “The start of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh.” So wisdom was the expression of trust in God and conduct that would bring honor to God. That God granted wisdom to Solomon is seen as affirmation of God’s blessing. Solomon’s wisdom gives him the ability to see individuals for who they are. He doesn’t fall prey to simply categorizing people. The well-known story of two women coming to him showcases his ability to be an impartial judge. One woman argues that the baby is hers and the other states that she is lying. These women are poorly regarded because they are prostitutes. Yet King Solomon never doubts that the real mother will care well for her child. When we go before a judge, we want to know that they will judge the case on its merits. This is essential to a fair judicial system. When Solomon sentences the baby to be sliced in half so that each woman can have a portion of the child, he trusts that the real mother will love her child too much to agree to that. He sees the women at a human level and responds to this complex situation with measured wisdom. The scene plays out as Solomon imagines and the child is returned to the rightful mother. No DNA testing needed!

I asked my congregants how many of them avoid talking about religion with your family. A few hands went up. The more challenging area of conversation is probably politics. When I asked how many of our pilgrims presently feel alienated from a family member or close friend because of political differences everyone raised their hand except for man. (He later told me that peace prevails in his family because they know not to talk politics!) Most of us embrace the same hopes and dreams. But we pledge greater allegiance to our belief system than to the basic humanity and needs of those around us.

The definition of politics in the expansive database called Wikipedia states that “politics is a set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.” It goes on to say that the word “politics” may be used positively but more often carries a negative connotation. Isn’t it sad to think that the area of our lives that describes our social interactions is viewed negatively? Politics occur whenever people gather to make decisions that involve their particular group. I remember being shocked when I learned that two professors at my seminary were embattled in a legal dispute against one another. One alleged harassment by the other. It was an early lesson that politics prevail even in ministry training grounds. There are politics in offices and classrooms, churches and neighborhoods, families and governments.

The National Prayer Breakfast is one of the places in our society where politics and religion overlap. It has been a tangible affirmation of the central role of faith in the life of our country. In 2002, then President of the United States, George W. Bush, offered words to promote healing in our nation. The February prayer breakfast occurred just five months after the 9/11 attacks. These are some of the words he spoke to a nation reeling from the unthinkable:
“Since we met last year, millions of Americans have been led to prayer. They have prayed for comfort in a time of grief: for understanding in a time of anger: for protection in a time of uncertainty. Many, including me, have been on bended knee. The prayers of this nation are part of the good that has come from the evil of September 11, more good than we could ever have predicted. Tragedy has brought forth the courage and the generosity of our people.“

Newly-elected President Biden and other invited guests met for the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast remotely. Video clips from different leaders were shared, one of which came from Andrew Young. Young identifies himself with my denomination (the United Church of Christ) from his earliest years. Because of his status as an ordained pastor and career politician, he has been a long-time participant in the National Prayer Breakfast and in congressional prayer events. He has worked tirelessly to form friendships across the aisle, engaging with those who disagree with him-a lost art. He stated, “Our prayers were always confession. We talked about our needs. We prayed for each other and we became friends.“ Wisdom dictates that our faith deeply impact our politics so that justice is meted out equitably. Young reminds us that “We are commanded, we are advised and we must find a pathway to unity, and that path is the path of forgiveness. America has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.“

Preach it, brother Andrew!

Where there are politics, there are alliances and egos. We slide too easily into an assumption that folks in other belief camps lack rational abilities. We discredit their thinking patterns and look down on them as intellectually and morally inferior. Solomon demonstrates the kind of insight that prompts us to respect others whose viewpoints are different from our own.

In times of stress we reach for support that justifies our worldview. Heather Marie Elkins states, “When an individual or a community perceives its structural integrity to be collapsing under the weight of external threat or inner disintegration, an urgent search for a sustainable narrative begins. The traditions and truths that we have inherited begin to lay out the landscape through which we will have to travel. To be human is above all to have a story. To be holy is to be part of God’s story.“



I had the great privilege and joy of baptizing a sweet baby boy into the faith and family of Jesus Christ last week. Looking at this ancient story, I imagined I could preach a somewhat sanguine sermon about a well-respected king’s prayer for wisdom. But I was drawn into the murky waters of religion and politics co-mingling. So what advice do we offer this little boy so that he understands that his story is God’s story? When his world disappoints him, how do we teach him to navigate the growing pains that surface with these confusing moments? The New Testament tells us that we, as followers of Christ, will often be rejected for our values since we do not belong to this world. His baptism reminds us that we are spiritual beings who only feel at home when we are with our Creator. We are challenged to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus rather than worshiping the world’s values. We are invited through this passage to pray for the hearts of those who hold political power. We pray that God might guide them to feel compassion for others. The biblical wisdom that Solomon requested brings our souls into alignment with God‘s ways because we have a propensity to drift out of spiritual alignment. Thomas Blair writes, “The marks of true wisdom have to do with the acknowledgment of our need, our want, and our emptiness… an open, honest, and long-term quest to be serving and not self-serving. It all goes back to our alignment with God.”

With wisdom comes humility. When we are attentive to the movement of the Spirit, we accept that we will have different opinions about right political actions. We know that there can be no one nation or ruler identified as completely faithful to the gospel. Those who claim most loudly to be the representative of God are often the ones who have strayed into the easy territory of self-righteousness. The more difficult path is clinging to a faith that enables us to peacefully disagree with the political positions of other Christians. Wisdom prevents us from having a regimented political framework that dictates our stances. There may have been times when we favored the leadership of a non-Christian over a professed Christian because they more fully exemplified the gospel Jesus lived out. The minute we think we have a set formula for judging our world, God schools us in wisdom.

Though Solomon shows his full humanity in the course of his forty-year reign, he is lauded as a monarch who had the well-being of his people at heart. The inaugural prayer that he offered reveals a deeply faithful young man raised by a devout father. We would do well to pray as he did: to hear both sides of a story with a discerning mind. We would do well to highly value wisdom as the means by which we more closely align our souls to the will of God. Solomon receives what he does not ask for: wealth, honor and a long life. But what he is remembered for is his great wisdom and the construction of a beautiful temple that brought the faithful into God‘s holy presence. The grace with which he subjected his exalted position to a deep faith is a remarkable legacy into which I baptized a sweet baby boy!

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Alone

Recently I hosted a family gathering of twelve people to send my son off to a new life in LA with love. Foolishly I had decided on fresh green beans for the meal so I dumped the enormous bag of beans onto the island to prepare them for the meal. Knowing I would be stuck there for a good long while, I turned on our kitchen TV to see what might entertain me while I snipped off thousands of stems. I noticed a show on wildlife in the Serengetti, a place where I had taken a safari decades earlier. I decided to “revisit” this remarkable place while occupied in the kitchen.

With the opening scene, I questioned my choice. The documentary opened with a pride of lions stalking an isolated buffalo. Ganging up on the poor creature, they sank their teeth and claws into his back end while the outnumbered animal tried to escape. So much for light-hearted entertainment. The whole show emphasized the reality of jungle life where trying not to become an aggressor’s meal is the necessary preoccupation. I found that I consistently favored the weaker of any two enemies. But that got complicated because sometimes the tide turned and the hunter became the hunted. In the opening chase, the most determined lion who worked hardest for the buffalo supper found herself without her feline companions and the buffalo rallied against her. I have to confess that I took satisfaction seeing her cowering in a tree while the buffalo threw his impressive weight around, searching for her.

Re-runs of Jeopardy will be my future choice.

In a brief passage from 1 Kings, the beloved prophet Elijah is on the run and ends up trembling in a cave. This is strange when you look at the competition he just crushed. On Mount Carmel the man of God invites the prophets of a foreign god, Baal, to prove the strength of their god. He stands on the sidelines of the event, inviting them to go to whatever lengths are needed to catch Baal’s attention. The expectation is that a powerful deity can project fire from heaven to consume their offering. In spite of incantations, self-flagellation and other antics, Baal misses the party. Elijah then orders that gallons of water be poured on his altar. With confidence, he cries out to Yahweh, his people’s God, and shields his face as fire descends from heaven. His teepee of drenched logs instantly becomes a bonfire. 400 prophets of the false god, Baal, are subsequently hunted down and killed that day. The word heard around that impressive campfire is, “The Lord is God. The Lord is God!” Three cheers for Elijah’s successful evangelism!

The murder of her prophets does not go over well for Queen Jezebel. She is so wicked that her name has become a contemporary noun, meaning a shameless or immoral woman. In her fury, she proclaims that she intends to finish off Elijah just as he had ordered the death of the false prophets. The victorious prophet who so confidently called upon his God experiences a reversal of courage and flees for his life. The excitement of the previous scene gives way to an isolated desert where Elijah sits alone with suicidal thoughts. Believing that he is the only person left to defend Yahweh, he seeks shade from a lonesome broom tree while contemplating his fate. Having seen God throw down flames to consume an animal sacrifice, he calls out for God to fry him as well. He is depressed. He is deflated. As he loses all hope, he loses his sense of purpose. In the eerie quiet of the desert, under a solitary tree on a wide-open horizon, God hears the cry of his anointed one: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

Are you surprised to learn that you’re not the only person of faith who’s cried out to God, “I have had enough!”

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the opening scene depicts her in a heap on the floor. She is newly divorced. A rebound relationship has gone sour. She is devastated and alone. She cries out to a God she’s not sure she believes is real. This is the beginning of her healing. Can you think of a time when you, like Elijah, retreated into the wilderness of self-doubt? Have you lived through a period when life lost all color and sleep seemed the only option? What we find surprising in this scene from Elijah’s life is that he had just presided over one of the greatest moments in his career! He makes the prophets of Baal look foolish thereby exalting Yahweh. He calls down fire from heaven and it shows up in force! But, when confronted with the hatred of an evil woman, he fears for his life and runs for cover. The roar of the crowd is silenced and Elijah is left alone and depressed. What good is he to his God now?

Elijah assumes that his life’s work is finished. Remember Job’s friends who suggested that he wouldn’t suffer from his depression if he just had enough faith? Do you recall that they suggested that he must have done something wrong to deserve the death of all his children. “Confess and then everything will be fine,” they advise. They did their best work when they kept silent company with him. This quiet chapter of Elijah’s life reminds us that God redeems the life of those who find themselves in the pit of despair. Whatever circumstances took them down into that dark space, God offers a glimmer of light to begin the journey back to the surface. God shows compassion by sending a meal that gives the deflated prophet enough strength to travel away from the wilderness, out of his depression, and into a life of renewed purpose. He learns an important lesson of the faith: our worth is not defined by courageous acts of obedience or assaults against evil. God is not lounging, waiting to see what we will do in our own strength. It is God’s unconditional love that hydrates Elijah’s parched soul. God’s reassuring presence enables him to hear, once again, the sacred call upon his life.

In a Nazi death camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discovered that the essence of his worth came from God’s presence in that horrific place. God sustained him such that his writings from that last chapter of his life still inspire faith in us today. When we get to the end of our own skill set, God shows up in power. Taking her life in her own hands, Corrie TenBoom felt led to smuggle a Bible into a Nazi internment camp. She knew that each prisoner was routinely searched. An act of defiance like that could bring immediate execution. God showed up in force when the guards didn’t detect the Bible and she was able to use it as a source of inspiration for the women crammed into her squalid living quarters. We may cry out, “I’ve had enough!” God hears that as an invitation to conversation. Just as we witnessed in the story of manna and quail last week, we observe that God provides just enough for the next leg of our journey. When we feel most alone, we discover that God’s companionship is enough.

Enough.

The wilderness is known as a stark setting in which we are most apt to meet God. Monasteries are often established in lonesome places. I spent three days alone on the Isle of Iona at the end of a fabulous European trip. I wanted that breathing room so that I could prayerfully reflect on all that I had experienced. That time remains precious to me. I relished the quiet of my simple cell surrounded by the beauty of Scotland. Eating meals and taking walks alone, I was reminded that my chief companion at any given time is Jesus. Alice Walker writes that “wisdom requests a pause.” When we clear our schedules and shift our gaze heavenward, we meet God. I greet my transition into chaplaincy in the setting of a mental health hospital with some apprehension . But it has become clear to me that this is what God wants for me and from me. So I move forward in faith. I have counseled many of you who have made difficult decisions because you knew that you were doing what God was asking of you. Wisdom requests a pause and, when granted, we discover that we are never alone! God moves us forward.

Jesus provided bread for the multitude who flocked to hear His teaching. They didn’t have to pass a Bible literacy test in order to receive their meal. God’s love generously provides for our every need. It allows us to view our lives in a new light. Even a brush with death can lead to more meaningful living. God uses us to bring hope to others who have lost their way then brings the right people into our lives when we need help. Enough nourishment is given for us to continue the journey.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel aren’t mentioned in this passage but their threat looms over Elijah. I wonder what threats form a backdrop to your day? Is it financial concern, job security, or marital stress? Is it a feeling of inadequacy you’ve carried with you since childhood? Do you beat yourself up for a past decision? Do you feel socially rejected like Elijah, alone even in a crowd? Has depression eclipsed your vision of the joy God intends for you?

The Bible stories we most often remember have grand acts of God defeating enemies and exalting the faithful: waters parting, slingshot slaying a giant, city walls a-tumbling down. But we learn from this low point in the great prophet’s life that God’s greatest desire is to be in relationship with us. In this depressive, suicidal episode that follows great triumph, Elijah discovers he must trust God. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, doubting ourselves and mistrusting our world, we meet a God who wants us to know that we are loved. Thomas Steagald writes, “God is contending for the hearts of the faithful. These battles are not won by plagues or dramatic demonstrations of power—nor as it turns out, by fire, wind, or earthquake—but rather by the ministry of angels, the gift of food, and the still, small voice.”

When you find yourself in the wilderness, listen for the still, small voice. You are not alone. You are loved. There is a better day.