Lent: Day One

I watched a four-part documentary on Netflix recently entitled, The Pharmacist. It tells the story of Daniel Schneider, a pharmacist from St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. His 22-year old son was shot and killed in the 9th District of New Orleans trying to buy cocaine. Daniel and his wife were blindsided by the revelation that their son, Danny, was caught up in the drug trade. The local authorities seemed complacent in their efforts to find the killer, expressing the attitude that these kids are asking for it when they get involved with drugs. So Daniel Schneider, the pharmacist, set out to find the killer on his own. He tape records all his conversations during this journey, even recording his own thoughts and tender times of grieving with his wife and daughter. His taped conversation is often directed toward his son, assuring him that he is going to bring about justice for his sake. Daniel also speaks to God in the form of prayer, asking for guidance and strength for a seemingly impossible task.

Daniel’s search leads him into the neighborhood where his son had been murdered. He was warned by family, friends and authorities that he should never go into that area, especially alone. But he was unfazed, a man set on putting to rest the unfathomable loss of his son. Going door to door he relentlessly pursued justice but also became known on those streets as the white man who was looking to find his son’s killer.

It was during this first year after Danny’s death that the pharmacist began to notice how many prescriptions came in to his pharmacy for oxycodone. Most of these came from the same doctor who had non-traditional hours stretching late into the night and the weekends. Daniel’s quest to solve his son’s murder became an education in drug addiction in his town. This one doctor, Jacqueline Cleggett, was running a pill mill that fueled an epidemic of overdoses with young people. Daniel refused to fill some prescriptions because he knew that they were lethal doses and he didn’t want to be responsible for another drug-related death. The FBI and DEA were working to expose the medical violations of the prescribing doctor. However, it was the tenacity of a grieving father who wished to ensure that no other family had to experience his loss that brought an end to Dr. Cleggett’s career. Daniel put himself in danger countless times and described himself as someone who was “making a lot of noise.” His loss led to a compassion for other youth who were being destroyed by addiction. He spoke to students at schools about his son, Danny, and the risks of drug use. His determination to rebuild communities and restore a young generation to good health resulted in him playing a role nationally in bringing down Purdue Pharma, who marketed Oxycodone as the best and safest pain pill available. He has become a key player in national efforts to expose the problems of opioid addiction in our country. Daniel Schneider, with God as his guide, became a prophet who took on a giant and saved countless strangers in the process.

Rebuild. Repair. Restore.

It’s amazing how God will move in our hearts to bring about changes on a scale much greater than we could have imagined.

The prophet Isaiah, in the 58th chapter, is given the difficult task of calling a self-righteous people into worship. Did you hear the whining in the passage? They justify themselves, pointing to their acts of religiosity as evidence that they deserve God’s blessing. But God points out through the prophet that doing churchy acts to earn brownie points in heaven is not holy. When you have to point out your humility to God, you’re probably not very humble! So Isaiah maps out in clear terms what is expected of them. Rather than focusing on their own needs and continually proving their worthiness in God’s eyes, Isaiah points them toward others. Breaking the chains of injustice must be the heart of their concern. Their attention should be drawn to those who are struggling under the burdens of daily life. Prisoners should be cared for and released. Hungry people should have a share of their overflowing tables and those without adequate clothing should be covered by the generous donations of God’s people. Being a people called apart by a loving God means we will labor to reconcile people to each other. We meet their physical needs. We restore them to their communities where social companionship will nourish and protect them. We work against predators and find release for those who are in bondage. We do this by walking alongside of the beaten and bedraggled. Like the pharmacist, we walk into neglected neighborhoods trusting that Christ goes with us. We take on corrupt systems never getting so discouraged that we back down. It is this sort of engagement with strangers that brings us into God’s presence.

photo of man laying on sidewalk
Photo by Harrison Haines on

We have twelve students in our confirmation class this year. They worship at the Jewish Temple for a Shabbat service. They travel to four churches during the course of the year to experience different kinds of worship experiences in a variety of denominations. This past week they journeyed to Division Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids. Heartside Ministry is usually one of the favorite congregations they visit because they are so warmly received. They love the bagels that are up for grabs on the way into the sanctuary at Mars Hill. But authentic and kind outreach wins out over free food even the hearts of middle schoolers! For suburban children to travel into the Heartside neighborhood is instructive in and of itself. The membership of the church is a mix of people. Certainly they reach out to the homeless in that area. Some folks obviously suffer from mental illnesses and their conduct in the service is not very “churchy.” Some people don’t have the luxury of a shower and that’s evident to those sitting near them. Others who worship there on a regular basis are well-educated, well-off and well-dressed. They wish to be in a Body of Christ that is not all of one stripe. Our confirmands feel uncomfortable initially because many of the people are quite different from them…until they have a conversation with one of the parishioners. This past week a woman took time to meet with our group, telling them that no matter how little she has (in terms of money, family, resources, willpower to fight addition) Heartside Ministry is her FAMILY. As long as she has them, she knows she will be OK. She knows that she will be loved by “her people” and by her God! The confirmands and their chaperones were aware of how vastly different many of these people’s daily lives are from our own. Yet the message that comforts them is the same message that comforts us: God is love and that love is always available to us. Jesus paid the price and you can trust Him with your burdens. The Gospel becomes so real for our children when they worship with a community whose home base is Division Avenue! By the end of the morning, they announce to me that it is their favorite worship experience.

Sometimes we repair a breach by sitting next to folks on hard chairs in musty buildings, joining our voices together to praise God! By walking down streets that scare many away, we restore the dignity to an overlooked neighborhood. The ancient ruins of a run-down urban area are rebuilt with smiles of love and offers of hope. Our youth return to our sanctuary with an expanded understanding of what it means to call ourselves Christians.

Three congregations gathered for our Ash Wednesday service tonight. All three congregations represented here tonight have newly elected to serve the homeless in our area through Family Promise. When I asked how many there had volunteered in some capacity for the family shelter, most of the hands went up? I am certain that we have already been changed by being given even a glimpse into the hard lives of families who have no place to call their own. This past week a family of seven stayed with us: two young parents, two young adult relatives and three children, ages 3,2 and 6 months. They spent two evenings at the ER because of the health concerns of one of the adults. The night I stayed at the church they arrived at the church at 11:20PM, the mother trudging through the new snow with the baby in a carry cradle. The three year old walked in on her own and the two year old was over the shoulder of the 20 year old young man. They were hungry so we reheated the evening meal of spaghetti which they enthusiastically ate at 11:30 PM. The wife had to pick up her husband at 1:30AM since he works second shift. He came back to the church to enjoy his dinner at 2AM. They were on the road to the day center by 7AM. I was tired simply from spending the night at the church but I was exhausted looking in on their life! Our congregations have chosen to rebuild families by giving them safe space to rest each night. While we have not turned stones into bread, we have brought food from our homes to nourish their weary bodies. We have played with their children and transformed our space into a home for a week. This is the kind of fast that God asks of us!

The temptation to focus on our own needs is great. The preoccupation with flattering selfies is an obvious sign of our egotism. I think of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, preparing for His ministry. He was offered dominion over all the people scattered in all the communities of the world if he would bow down to Satan. In the austerity of the desert, after he had fasted for 40 days, He was tempted to turn the rocks strewn all across the arid landscape into bread. How wonderful that must have sounded. I made the mistake of having high schoolers bake bread as a fund-raiser in the church many years ago. The problem was that it was during a lock-in when they were fasting in order to raise money to combat hunger. The moral of the story for me was “Don’t ask starving students to bake aromatic bread in the church kitchen when committed to fasting for 30 hours!” I turned a well-intended fast into a torturous evening! Jesus refused to turn the stones into bread because He chose the fast that would prepare His Spirit for the work ahead.

sliced bread on white surface
Photo by Mariana Kurnyk on

The 40 days of Lent are roughly a tithe of the year: 40 days out of 366 this year! What a great opportunity we have to be more earnest in our commitment to follow Jesus. Perhaps you take on spiritual disciplines that add something to your life each day. Perhaps you give up something that helps you to feel in some small way what Christ suffered for us. It is the motive behind our Lenten disciplines that matters. Isaiah pointed out that the Israelites were cruel to their workers on the days they fasted. Even though they gave up food, they made sure other needs were met. Dressing the part of the penitent by lying in sackcloth and ashes did not earn God’s favor. Joyfully serving the needs of others in whatever way we are able is what brings us God’s protection and aid.

Isaiah paints a picture of what changes when we gladly serve the needs of others in sacrificial ways. God continually satisfies our needs in desperate places. Our bodies are strengthened for service and our cities are rebuilt. Our legacy of faith serves as the foundation upon which future generations establish their own relationship with God. And a final image makes me wonder why we ever get tempted away from following in the way of Jesus: “…you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

On a cold winter evening that we call Ash Wednesday, I will hang on those promises and work alongside of Jesus by following the urging of Isaiah to rebuild, repair and restore!



Etched in Stone

Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in Epiphany before the season of Lent begins. We shift the focus from the expansion of Jesus’ earthly ministry to His willing journey toward the cross. The New Testament reading (Matthew 17: 1-9) brings us up a mountain with Jesus and His inner circle of disciples. Christ is transfigured into a radiance so brilliant that the disciples have to look away. The Old Testament lectionary reading (Exodus 24: 12-18) invites us to look in on a similar scene that takes us back nearly 1500 years from Jesus’ life. God has liberated the Jews from 400 years of slavery in Egypt by parting the waters of the Red Sea. They escape from their captors. Moses is their (sometimes) fearless leader and now they are safely in the wilderness where their future stretches before them with great uncertainty. How will they survive in the austere setting of the desert? Now that they can govern themselves, what laws will they follow? Who’s in charge? Do we believe God is still with us, as evidenced in the miracle of the parted sea? Or do the challenges of surviving each day blind us to the protective presence of God?
On Transfiguration Sunday we are reminded that things are not always as they appear! Moses is summoned by God to go up the mountain, leaving his people behind in the good care of his brother Aaron and Hur. Moses anticipates bickering because he announces, before turning with his walking stick toward the mountain, that all disputes can be brought to these two men. They will listen and serve as judges in Moses’ absence.
So Moses begins his hike with an aide, Joshua. God commands, “Come up and wait….”

Not many of us are good at waiting, especially when we’re in a setting where our creature comforts are absent! So Moses’ ascent, from the very beginning of the trip, is an act of obedience. If you read on in this story you see that he is called to “come up” four times, each time going higher and further away from his people. Hearing God’s voice, Moses obeys.

Lenten stones
This passage marks the transition from the giving of the law to an act of worship. God’s voice prompts obedience and Moses waits at each juncture of the journey. The reward or culmination of his pilgrimage is a stunning encounter with God in the form of thunder and fire. The law is etched in stone to give a legal framework for the new life of the wandering Israelites. But their lives are not meant to simply be marked by blind obedience. God wants a relationship with them. So Moses is given a front row seat to the fantastic and holy fireworks show while the terrified Israelites watch with grim fascination from below. This God is worthy of their devotion!

Holy Lands mountain
Moses’ faith is in good shape before the climb. He doesn’t need this encounter with God. His people do! They need to know who is in charge and what power backs their leader. The Sinai experience offers this. God pulls out all the stops on that mountain peak to impress upon the skeptical Israelites the Divine endorsement of Moses. The very tangible take-away from this epiphany is a set of community rules that are etched in stone. But people typically need a reason to adhere to a new moral code so God offers that in a shock and awe presentation on the top of Mount Sinai. When Moses descends the mountain to rejoin his people, laden with 10 commandments carved on rock, his face is shining. The folks in the valley recognize that he spent time with the Almighty because God’s glory rubbed off on this faithful servant. They could only glance at Moses indirectly because his face was radiant. For a people embarking on a new journey with a God they barely know, this was the endorsement Moses needed to win their support. The journey that began with obedience and ended with worship prepares the people for what will be a 40-year trek through the wilderness. They could not know at the time how much they would need their faith in this God as a compass and traveling companion!
Moses is called up the mountain, which is risky business. But then he is told to wait when he gets to the right elevation. I wonder if we’re willing to sit and wait for God when answers to our deepest prayers take too long? Do we have the patience to accept God’s timeline so that we can become a beacon of light for others? Or will we get caught up in the arguments and popularity contests in the valley below? Maybe you remember that the people didn’t fare so well in their leader’s absence. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for more than 40 days with fire blazing at the crest. How could their leader survive this? Feeling abandoned they turned to Aaron and asked for answers. Aaron lost faith in God and doubted Moses return. He betrayed his brother’s trust and took the reins in hand. He ordered the people to bring any metal they had taken with them from Egypt. He melted it down and formed a golden calf which became the center of their worship. As Moses shows up, both weary and euphoric from his divine encounter, the people are dancing with wild adoration around a hand-crafted statue. Fear superseded faith. And these are the people who had just experienced God’s miraculous grace when the waters were parted and they crossed from slavery to freedom on the other side. What is our response to life’s challenges when God doesn’t show up soon enough? Do we grow fearful when we can’t force God’s appearance? Does our fear lead us to worship more tangible gods like money, beauty, intelligence, or professional success? How quickly do we forget the good things that God has done for us when we are asked to climb up a mountain for God—and then wait?
I wonder how readily we set the scale at zero before beginning something new? In our prayers we ask God to remove our prejudices and help us identify our wrong priorities so that we can see the face of Christ in those around us. Are we open and ready to listen to others and weigh in on what they say with loving honesty? Or are we so full of our own thoughts and opinions that we miss the gifts of those around us? When we are obedient to God and are willing to wait, we catch a glimpse of God’s glory. When we least expect it, like a flash of lightening against a blackened sky, God transfigures the ordinary into something glorious.
We stand at the foot of a mountain, understanding that we will embark on a 40-day journey called Lent this week. Erica Brown Wood writes, “Like Jesus, we set out into a spiritual wilderness to face temptations, to overcome our worst fears, to die to ourselves in order to gain faith that God is, indeed, present, loving, and wonderfully protective of our welfare.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1) Like Moses, we will be asked to keeping climbing higher, soldiering through our fears and into God’s glory. The Lenten journey offers the opportunity for us to situate ourselves at God’s feet, seeking obedience no matter the cost.
I had sinus surgery several weeks ago. My anesthesia for a one-hour probe through my sinus cavities was two Xanax! That actually did the job! The only thing I remember from the procedure is my surgeon’s voice saying two or three times, “Now, you’re going to feel some pressure.” And then I FELT this crunch that didn’t hurt but sounded impressive! At the one week re-check I asked the doctor if it was cartilage breaking. It turned out that was an optimistic guess. “No, it was actually your bone! We were reshaping your bone so that the sinus passages would be wider. Can you believe that we can do that?”
Well, no, not actually. I’m a bit sorry that I asked!
There are times when something as hard as bone or stone has to be chiseled away to open new passageways to God. God became a mason on the top of Mount Sinai, etching rules for living on heavy tablets. This holy order for the community would bring the Israelites peace. During the frenzy of worshiping an inanimate object, Moses descended the mountain and brought his frightened people a clear plan that we still follow today. There’s lots of pressure to deviate from the Ten Commandments. They sound pretty straightforward—until we begin to try them out. While we may not be tempted to murder someone, we probably harbor ill feelings toward them that hinder our interaction with them. While we may not covet our neighbor’s spouse, we undoubtedly feel jealous at times of those who seemingly have it all put together nicely. In Lent we invite God to put some pressure on us, to open up pathways to our heart that we have closed off for years. We place ourselves before God asking for a true read on our morality. Where do I need to direct my efforts? How have I blocked You from showcasing your power in the way I live each day? When have I failed to reset the scale to zero so that a broken relationship has a chance to heal? When have You invited me to go up another level in my faith walk, God, yet I’ve preferred to stay put?

Lenten stones 2
In our congregation we are writing our names on stones and putting those in a basket near the exit. Folks will pick out somebody’s rock as they leave worship each Sunday and carry that person in their prayers for the week. The next Sunday they will bring that rock back and take a different one for the next week. Inanimate stones come to life with a name marked upon them, giving us the opportunity to expand our prayer life. As we enter into a 40-day period of heightened spiritual discipline consider what word of God needs to be chiseled into the hard places you have put in place for your own protection. God is willing to serve as the Divine Mason but you must be willing to be obedient. That which is etched in stone must be lived by heart or we lose God along the way.
This Ash Wednesday we begin a walk with Jesus that culminates with the cross. Erica Brown Wood offers us a reminder as our Lenten journey commences:
“If we would guard our epiphanies with our lives, as we guard our own children, then our faith might be strengthened step by step along the way of our pilgrimage, until we find ourselves headed toward the promised land that is the kingdom of God.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


What’s in the contract?

There are interesting pairs of words in Romans 8: 18-28. Some almost serve as antonyms: glory versus groaning; freedom versus bondage to decay; hope versus longing; Spirit versus bodies. Paul’s writing captures our attention because he describes a world that every generation has recognized. He closes this description of a conflicted world with a promise: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Really?! Who is able to come up with just one example of senseless suffering? Paul takes on a topic that has led generations to question God’s goodness.

So let’s dig at this theological problem! The promise at the end of the passage identifies the recipients of God’s transformational goodness: those who love God and who are called according to Godly purpose. Doesn’t that seem exclusive? It does until we remember that God is ever-present, always willing to forgive our sin and reclaim us when we ask. No one is ever turned away from God’s presence. But, to remain in God, there are a few basic requirements—as there would be for receiving the hospitality of any person. We must love God. We must trust God. When we do this, we will obey God. We will live in God’s house with a willing acceptance of the house rules. If we want to live according to our own set of rules, we probably won’t want to stay with the house-parent who doesn’t tolerate our shenanigans! To those who accept the call to live in a way that embraces God’s purpose, they are summoned, they listen, they respond and ultimately submit to the Way of Jesus.

Don’t you love that word, submit?! Yikes!

Do we have the kind of relationship with our Creator that leads us to believe that God is good? If we can trust this promise, it will color our view on the troubles that inevitably come our way. If we don’t have a relationship with God, when something random happens, we will be the first to demand, “How can a good God can be in charge of things down here if this terrible thing just happened to me?” Magnify that angst to the struggles that whole communities are experiencing and Paul’s words jump off the page at us: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”

Amen! Preach it, brother Paul!

It’s interesting to me that people who have no real relationship with God nonetheless have no problem pointing the finger of blame toward heaven. Agnostics repeatedly use God’s name in vain even though they deny the very existence of God. It’s hard to find peace when you’re in the thick of the storm with no end in sight. And it’s nearly impossible to meet God for the first time when your world is falling apart. But we like to be able to hang the blame on someone for our trials so we disown the One who is not going to offer a self-defense: the very God who loves us for who we are!

So an important question for us to ask is what we think we are promised as children of God? As Christians we claim the cross of Christ for our symbol. The cross is where an innocent man died an excruciating, shameful, public death for the sake of a world that abandoned Him. So what does that tell us we can expect for following Him? Suffering. That certainly doesn’t sell. Not in this culture. We run from pain. We freely assign blame. We forget that our commitment to live a holy life in a secular world will be costly for us. We easily get angry with God that something didn’t go our way but we fail to notice or care about the extreme suffering of other folks, whole groups of people:  refugees, political prisoners, hopeless women caught up in the sex trade, innocent children left in the care of the system since their parents have failed in their duties. You fill in the blank. To be a follower of Jesus means that we will look at the BIGGER PICTURE because it’s only in embracing our eternal destiny as a unified global family that we can even come close to the promise of GLORY.

I think of the words folks offer to someone in a rough time that are meant to give hope: “Well, you know, God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Have you questioned that in your lifetime? Have you wanted to scream at someone who has made that suggestion to you? It’s a mutation of a promise Paul made to the Corinthian believers in chapter ten of his first letter: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10: 13) So how has this promise been misused?

I have this image of an Amazon warehouse distribution manager who has to decide which delivery people are going to deliver which packages. “Allison has recently had back surgery so I’ll give her a lighter load. Jeb is strong as an ox so I’ll give him the heaviest packages, a whole truckload of them. Gary’s wife divorced him so he’s not firing on all cylinders but I think it’s time he gets back in the groove. So I’m going to push him hard with his delivery route.” There’s a built-in assumption that we should only be given a load that we consider to be fair. The trite promise that God will never give us more than we can handle encourages that image of the Amazon Warehouse God. So then we think the problem must be with us if we’re not staying on top of things! If God will never give us more than we can handle and I am being crushed under this current load, I don’t have enough faith. Or God has it in for me. Or what I believed to be true about the universe isn’t true and God really isn’t in charge.

What is your unwritten, unspoken covenant with God? When have you gotten mad at God for breaking one of your rules?

I find that I have to play the role of advocate or defense attorney for God. Let’s review the terms of the contract! God gave us freedom. We Americans particularly cherish our freedom. We would not want a scripted, robotic life. So our choices and those of others in a sinful world will bring consequences. We see that in our children as they thrash their way into adulthood, sometimes learning from their mistakes and sometimes not. Believing in Jesus does not insulate us from struggles. Again, look at the cross! Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, speaks of his traveling team being tested far beyond their capabilities:

“We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength…” (2 Cor. 1:8)

I wonder if anyone said to him, “Well, God will never give you more than you can handle!”

They might have pointed Paul to the Psalms: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121: 1-2) Or maybe Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;” Or we remember the beautiful promise made to the Israelites who had been overtaken and hauled off to Babylon as slaves for 50 years: “…those who wait on God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40: 31)

The promise made in 1 Corinthians 10 is that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability when facing the inevitable trials that come our way. God will always provide a means of escape. So does that mean that POWs can expect their chains to fall off and their prison doors open in the night so that they can escape? Clearly not! What are we promised as believers? From what might we be given escape?

There are times in my ministry when I’ve needed to visit people in the hospital who have children with life-threatening diseases. I remember going to see a mother who was holding her young son in the oncology ward of the hospital. He was about four years old, completely worn down by chemotherapy and just resting in his mother’s arms. They were in one of the family lounges that you pray you never need to access, the room darkened and quiet. That little boy did not cry out, “It’s not fair. Why did God do this to me? Why me?” He was too young to have bought into the popular myth that our faith should protect us from hardships. All he knew is that he was loved in the midst of his weakness and that safe embrace was enough for him. I left that scene and barely kept it together until the elevator doors closed and I let out my tears. Because my adult heart was screaming out, “This is not fair. This is not right!”

What are we promised by the One who created us, who shaped this world for our home? Presence. A loving presence that will enable us to hold up in the tough times. Over the course of our adult lives we learn this wisdom. Tough times come. Usually tough times go. God’s path of escape is the knowledge that we are never alone. God’s goodness redeems the times of upheaval that violate our plans. We discover that the hard times are when God the Potter does the most shaping. I don’t believe in a God who sits around in a celestial distribution warehouse each day, deciding what challenging load of packages to send someone’s way. I do believe that God shows up with glory when we bring trials on ourselves, when someone else does us in or when the universe we live in sends some freak-of-nature challenge our way. Not everything is good in our world, right? But God works for good in everything, reminding us that this world is only a shadow of what is to come. God reminds us that we are shaped for eternity which is just on the other side of today. The ultimate goodness God offers us is freedom from the constraints of our earthly bodies that have heroically tried to survive in this groaning world. The promised escape from our temptations finally comes in a welcome to heaven where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21: 4)

What are we promised as disciples of Jesus Christ? Maybe we better review the terms of the contract we drew up because God is near, loving, forgiving, redeeming. God works together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to holy purpose!



Meet my grandson, Levi! As we celebrated Christmas in the church I couldn’t resist the temptation to use him as a visual aid! When talking about a baby why not lay eyes on one to make the story real? He’s four months old and has found a warm place on this planet where his needs are met and he is loved! As with any baby, no sooner did we meet him and we couldn’t imagine our world without him! He fits. He’s one of us. There’s room here for him!

Levi in worship!

Matthew’s gospel serves as the bridge between the Old Testament to New. Matthew opens up his book by listing a family tree that sets the stage for proving that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He then gets down to business by telling his version of the birth story. The Greek word for “birth”, used in verses 1 and 18 of chapter one, can be translated “genesis.” So the New Testament opens with a story of beginnings, not unlike the Old Testament. But this time the starting point isn’t in the creation of plants and animals, day and night, heaven and earth, male and female. It’s the creation of a new life who is born like every other new life: as an infant completely reliant upon adults for his well-being.

Verse 18 offers a straight-forward account of a miraculous conception: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” That does not sound like the introduction to a bestselling novel, does it? That sounds like a story our book club would easily skip for lack of flair. But the second sentence tests to see if we’re paying attention. A woman who is not yet married, and who is morally pure, is pregnant and the creative power behind this developing fetus? The Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that moved over the face of the deep in Genesis is at work again but this time it narrows to an insignificant spot on the globe called Israel and to a young couple who were looking forward to a married life together.

This tale tells the earth-shattering history of a Holy Hybrid. Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit but will be carried and delivered by a woman. Unimaginable. “You must be dreaming,” Mary’s parents may have said, when she tried to explain her circumstances to them. The genealogy with which Matthew begins his Gospel, the Good News Herald, gives a hint of the scandal. Mapping out the genealogical proof that Jesus was the fulfillment to the promise made to Father Abraham, Matthew begins with the Genesis of Jesus’ ancestors. Patrilineal lines were what mattered and so the wording follows a standard order: “Abraham who was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,” and so forth, leading up to baby Jesus. But that’s where it gets awkward: “…and Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” Any historian delving into dusty records of ancestry could smell a scandal that could not be disguised by changing a few words in the log book. Jesus was a Holy Hybrid whose birth rocked first his parents’ lives but then rippled out to His chaotic world.

In this calmly-conveyed tale we are given insight into Father Joseph’s Godly temperament. The news that his fiancée was pregnant led him to consider quietly severing their commitment and letting her return to her family with minimal disgrace. As he slept on this decision God showed up—again! In his dreams Joseph understood that he had been visited by God Almighty and that he could trust the promise that his fiancée had not strayed and that he, Joseph, was meant to parent this tiny child. In fact, this baby was already assigned a name, Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Yeah, right,” any of us might have said. “You must be dreaming,” Joseph’s family must have screamed. “You’re a good man, Joe. Don’t tarnish your reputation by hitching your life to hers!”

But Joseph had been dreaming. He knew he had met the God of new beginnings, the God of universal “genesis” and, now, the creation of a new life. And so, as the earliest sliver of sunlight parted the darkness of the night, Joseph awakened and followed the instructions from the dream. He took Mary as his wife and trusted the good news that God was indeed with him, with Mary, with the baby and their world.

Levi sermon 1

No matter the circumstances surrounding a pregnancy, when a baby is born we look into their little faces and easily find….love. Babies don’t choose the adult world into which they are born. From the moment we meet them they let out a cry asking for tender care. And we offer the best of what we have. But the world into which our babies and grand babies are born is rough! We continue to be a people who walk in darkness, straining for a glimpse of the light. We witness that darkness in so many aspects to our world today: in our divided nation where truth is increasingly elusive and encampments along party lines get in the way of essential policy decisions for the good of the people. Darkness is felt by those in broken relationships who have given up on the dream for happiness for themselves and their children. Our poor stewardship of our earthly home is casting a dark shadow across oceans and lands, harming human and animal life.

We are still a people who walk in darkness but we believe that there is light yet to shine on our chaos. And the source of that redemptive glory comes to us in the form of a helpless child who is willing to bless us with a smile. No matter how far we have strayed from the mark of living a holy life, God shows up still! God shows up in dreams, in visions, in voices, in the words and hugs of other people, in scripture, in our prayers. We are called to respond like Joseph did, the one who was slighted in Matthew’s genealogical records: We do what is right with modesty and stand firm in our belief that God penetrates the darkness of our dreams with the promise of a Savior.

When has your troubled sleep been interrupted by the Word of God that saved you? From what moments of exile—whether chaos of your own making or victimization done to you—has God rescued you and planted you in a place of sunlight and growth? When have you fallen on your face and admitted to your Creator that you needed a Savior who could push past your lowly expectations to make your wildest dreams come true?

At the end of a long work day, when the other workers had left, a man worked at his desk trying to wrap up another day of details. His boss stood in the doorway, uncharacteristically quiet. The boss owned the company, had several homes scattered throughout the United States. He had a wife and two children, a picture-perfect life. But he was empty. As the sun set on another work day he approached this hardworking employee whom he knew to be a Christian. More to himself than to the worker, he shared how he was part of a church. He was part of a running group of guys who attended worship together. They accepted him as part of the group but they had something he couldn’t locate: peace and joy. Where could he find that? It wasn’t a gift that came simply by hanging with these church friends. His money couldn’t buy it. His thriving business that he led with a heavy hand couldn’t deliver that. Before a hardworking employee who wasn’t really being asked for answers, the selfish man was admitting that he needed a Savior who could free him from his sin. How had he separated himself from God (that’s what sin is, after all!)? He assumed that he was the center to his universe, not God. No wonder he was bored!

Levi sermon 3

When we start asking the right questions to the only One who can part the darkness, our dreams become our reality. In something as tiny as a baby, God changes our world! Jesus saves us from our own poor intentions. He removes our apathy and fires us up with love. When we finally ask from the gut what our life is really all about, Jesus parts the darkness and shares the only Good News we need to hear: God is with us in every precious life—here, now, and always!



I’m spending my vacation week recovering at home from rhinoplasty. That’s the word on the discharge papers. It’s not easy to admit that I needed a surgery by that name. I suspect the word has a common root to ‘rhinoceros’ whose striking feature is their horn. So my horn had some tweaking. Not plastic surgery, as the official name suggests. Restoration of the functional capacity was the goal.
It’s hardly a way to spend a week off but I’m thankful for the respite. I learned more than a year ago that I had a infection in the upper region of my sinuses. Antibiotics were prescribed. That worked for awhile but then the headaches started up again and the “clouded” head symptoms returned, not unlike a head cold. I often felt sub-par with less energy than usual. I forget if it was two or three rounds of antibiotics that drove my PCP to send me off to a specialist. I love specialists. They pinpoint the problem pronto and speak with confidence about the solution. My ENT doc walked me over to a computer screen where he pulled up images of my head from the vast abyss on on-line medical records.

“So, you’ve got chronic sinusitis. There are signs of it in the images from 18 months ago and even more severe in the pictures from 7 months ago.”

Chronic. So I’ve been fighting this for much longer than I realized.

Sinusitis. My problem is all in my head!

Finally someone was going to deal with it! The solution? A kick-butt round of antibiotics. They were touted as stronger than the other rounds I had already tried. I headed off for my week on the lakefront in August with a green plastic bottle of prescription pills.
I always felt better after treatment. But then, after a month or so, I could feel the symptoms creeping back. I got to take another round of antibiotics on a trip to Texas in the fall. (Remembering to do anything on a regular basis while on the road is a challenge!) Another set of images in November and visit to the specialist revealed that all the drugs I had faithfully taken that year had not conquered this bacteria. It was thriving in my head. The last ditch effort before surgery was to take steroids. Maybe that would blow open the cranial passageways and prove to be the miracle cure. If not, I could meet with his associate to talk about surgery because he was retiring at the end of the month.
The timing of a hefty prednisone regimen in early December is not all bad! My husband and I returned from a vacation in Texas days before Thanksgiving and then the mountain climb to Christmas began. I had energy! Even in the middle of the night… (reference “Roid Rush” post from earlier!) The long and short of it is that I needed surgery. I spent 15 minutes with my new ENT doc who said he could do it as an office procedure but the soonest date was the very end of January. That gave plenty of time for the production of grossness in my head to continue its admirable work so that the surgery would be a welcome relief!
My husband drove me to my 8AM surgical appointment the morning of January 31. I had picked up my own anesthesia at the pharmacy. Two tablets of Xanax and I didn’t care what was done to me! I do remember seeing a needle about 4 inches long he was getting ready to stick into the depths of my nostrils to numb them. I do remember that. I do remember a voice cutting through the fog, saying, “Now you may feel some pressure.” Sure enough, I felt it (no pain however). I heard it, too, something like cartilage-crushing sounds. I was warned that the roadways in my sinuses might need some widening so that was being done while I hadn’t a care in the world. My doc could easily get a side job as a household duct-cleaner or jack-hammerer of roadways. An hour or so later my husband was called into the room. I remember him coming in but nothing else. He took pictures of me in varied poses of incoherence during the post-op “consult” thinking I would be interested in them. We did not post them. I was pushed out of the office in a wheelchair clutching a sick tray. People entering the building for their 10AM allergy check may have turned tail when they saw the likes of me emerging from their doctor’s office!
I hadn’t asked much about how I would feel afterwards. Would I have packing that would occlude my breathing and would I have to have packing removed? No and no. So that’s good. No other questions. But, like most medical procedures, it’s when you’re in the morass of post-surgical misery that you turn to Dr. Wikipedia. What are normative recovery symptoms? I learned that significant congestion from freaked-out nasal passages is normal—for a week or more! I also learned that I was forbidden from blowing my nose (to deal with said congestion) for at least a week. Though I was very uncomfortable, I certainly didn’t want to blow out of my head any hard work the doctor had accomplished. I didn’t want to have to “feel pressure” again as a corrective procedure. So no blowing. For the same reason, DO NOT SNEEZE! Hmmm. Significant fatigue for a week is normal. Check. With blocked nostrils I had an impeded sense of taste so it has been a week of dieting too.
I didn’t know what to expect so I didn’t know what to ask. The surgery was Friday morning. My Alma Mater’s choir was in town for a concert on Saturday evening (St. Olaf College). Garrett asked a few days before the surgery if I would like to go—Yes!–but we would have to play it by ear. Actually, we had to play it by nose. And the answer was obvious on Saturday. Ain’t no way I can go anywhere and even less chance that I will enjoy even the best music given my condition. Plus, I tend to get emotional when I hear them sing both out of nostalgia and an appreciation for their rich tones. The last thing I needed was to turn into a sniveling mess recovering from sinus surgery at a public concert!
Looking at my nose for external signs of the violation (there are none!), I see my dad’s nose. I have his build, his blood pressure, his profession and, I realized recently, his nose. A female version of it fortunately, but it’s familiar. As a preacher my dad had great language skills. He had words that became standard for us kids to hear. Schnoz was part of his vocabulary. In the 1940’s it surfaced with Yiddish roots: shnoytz. Our Jewish friends borrowed it from the German word, schnauze or ‘snout.’ So my rhinoceros horn or pig snout still looks like my dad’s even after the surgical attack. As I battle my congestion I remember how he always carried with him his “sniffer.” It was a small canister a little bigger than a tube of ChapStick. He unscrewed a white lid and a rounded form smelling of Vic’s VapoRub appeared. He would stick that up both sides of his nose with some regularity and inhale deeply to keep things open. Maybe there’s more of my dad’s nose I inherited than I realized!
So the week I took off to do some writing has turned into a time of convalescing. I greatly underestimated the recovery process. Isn’t it just like us to take our healthy bodies for granted, never slowing down to thank God for the ease of movement until something happens? Fortunately, I hadn’t made plans to use my vacation week to do some hiking. In spite of my initial protestations, gracious church folks have brought in meals. Tomorrow will be the first time I foray out into the world and I think I can do it. My congestion is clearing, my taste buds are reawakening and my energy is on the rise. And my dog and I have done some writing together!
So I’m trusting that my Chronic Sinusitis has been defeated. I go back into the war zone on Friday for the post-op appointment. I’ll return the metal tray I borrowed and ask them to confirm that the gentle pace of my recovery is normal. Good members of the church will bring us our dinner. And I’ll gear up for Sunday in the pulpit, schnoz intact, flavor of life restored! Thanks be to God!