Domestic Disaster

So let’s just say, right out the gate, that we feel sorry for Leah. An unknown relative shows up at your family doorstep, penniless. Your dad fawns all over him and, in the end, your family life is never the same again. The relational carnage cannot be quantified. To start with, the Hebrew text that introduces Leah is “uncertain.” In other words, Biblical linguists have examined this adjective about Leah and they have several different possible translations that they offer with a disclaimer. It’s about Leah’s eyes–you know, the windows into the soul? Depending on the translation, this oldest daughter’s eyes were weak, lovely, tender, dull, or delicate. In contrast, the description of the younger sister, Rachel, ranges from beautiful with a lovely figure to beautiful of form and face. We can only imagine that Leah, the elder, had lived in the shadow of her sister’s natural good looks for what seemed like a lifetime.

But this story from Genesis 29 has a sense of cosmic justice to it. Jacob, the schemer, gets scammed! When he met his Uncle Laban, he met his match in duplicity. And that’s saying a lot because Jacob got straight As at every level of his Masterful Manipulation coursework! The story began with warm feelings and heartfelt embracing. Jacob arrived at his mother’s homestead, the endpoint to his pilgrimage. When Laban learns that Jacob is his long-lost sister’s boy, he welcomes him home. After a month of making himself useful on his uncle’s land, Laban asks Jacob to set his terms. It’s probably not the answer Laban expected. Instead of bargaining for a suitable hourly wage with benefits, Jacob professes his love for the younger daughter, Rachel. He offers seven years of labor in exchange for her hand in marriage. This sounds generous but you have to understand that there was always an expectation of a dowry for a bride. That’s just the way things were done in that era. And Jacob, who fled from his own family compound, arrived penniless. He would merit his bride through hard work. The passage tells us that those seven years seemed as a few days to the smitten suitor. Living in the same family compound, anticipating a sweet wedding day, Jacob is floating on air while going about his daily chores.

Here’s my warning: This is the high point of the story. It only goes downhill from this Hallmark movie scene!

After the seven years are up Jacob reminds his uncle that he’s done his time and asks for the marriage date to be set. Seven years, a biblical time frame that represents perfection and completeness, have passed. Yet Leah, the eldest daughter with the weak, tender, delicate, dull eyes, is still unattached. In a culture when women were married off in their teen years, this tells us something. Poor Leah hadn’t attracted even one serious suitor in spite of her father’s significant assets. If, for no other reason, it seems some guy would have sought her out as a bride to get a piece of her daddy’s real estate somewhere down the line. But not one person showed up to court poor Leah.

Laban pulled together a misteh, the Hebrew word that means a gathering of the male elders of the community. They had their version of a bachelor party the day of the wedding.  Let’s just state the obvious: this is not a good idea! It is altogether probable that Jacob, when he finally found his way to the altar, was not fully in his right senses. He pledged his love and fidelity to the heavily veiled bride and they made their way to the bridal suite. As the morning light filtered through their windows in silvery streaks, the Bible lets us in on a surprise: “In the morning, behold it was Leah!” There’s an exclamation point in this biblical statement. Meanwhile Rachel was probably in her own tent, eating the new Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, “Cancelled Wedding Cake.” (It’s true—look for it in your grocer’s frozen dairy case!) Furious, Jacob stepped over the rose petals on the floor of the honeymoon suite and stormed over to his new father-in-law. He demanded an explanation for how he ended up with the doe-eyed daughter rather than the one of his dreams!? Laban reminded Jacob that Leah was the elder and, it was their custom to always marry off the daughters in the proper birth order. Leah needed to be married off before Rachel would be available. That’s just the way things were done in their town. Jacob is outraged. The Deceiver has been deceived! I think of God’s challenge to the reluctant prophet, Jonah, when he pouted over the salvation of his enemies. God quietly asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Do you do well to be angry, Jacob? You can’t mess with birth order, favored child of your conniving mother! What you pulled off in your own family tent won’t work here! Jacob’s selfishness had blown up his relationship between him and his only brother. But now he has destroyed the harmony in another home where two sisters will never share secrets and swap outfits again. Jacob was forced to take things as they were presented to him. He couldn’t trick his way out of Laban’s deception. So his new father-in-law, who clearly had the upper hand, bargained for Jacob to work for him another seven years to pay the dowry for his second daughter, Rachel. That’s just the way things were done then! But, by the way (he whispered to Jacob behind the barn), you don’t have to wait the full seven years to gain her hand in marriage-wink, wink. Give Leah your full attention as a new husband should for one week. Then next weekend, we’ll throw another party and you can marry the gal you adore! That’s just the way things were done then!

Like I said in my disclaimer at the beginning of this sermon, I feel sorry for Leah with the weak, fragile, lovely, now crying eyes!

As in any dysfunctional family where domestic disaster is generationally perpetuated, everyone became a victim with this wedding night trickery. There were no winners. Looking in on this story we see that being the ones who were considered “blessed”, namely Jacob-the-chosen-man-of-God, and Leah, the mother-of-many-strapping-sons, were not singing a happy tune. The story ends with the affirmation that “Jacob…loved Rachel more than Leah.” Leah may have gotten a husband thanks to her father’s sneakiness but she knew that she would never figure into her new husband’s daydreams, no matter how many heirs she bore him. Rachel ultimately got Jacob and his undivided adoration but she inherited a rift between her and her sister. She found it hard to trust her father as she once did. And, like so many of our foremothers in the Bible, she was barren. That’s about the worst sentence for any wife in those days as bearing children was the sure way to please your husband and family. That’s just the way things were done then! There were victims in every part of this domestic equation and everyone discovered that planning for their future was an exercise in futility!

I wonder how it has been for each of you in your family settings during these challenging days of COVID? Even in the most loving households, it’s difficult to stay upbeat when our world is falling apart. For some spouses this quarantine has reminded them of how much they enjoy time together. However other couples have fallen into increasingly distant silence because the emotional drift that started a decade ago went untreated. For some older siblings, the extra time together has allowed them to have difficult but needed conversations about how they hurt each other in their younger years and to ask for forgiveness. Others learned early into the quarantine to lock other family members out of their rooms and lives. What generational curses that we carry from our ancestors have cropped up as we sat across from each other for yet another Corona virus meal? Which alienated family member surfaced in this time of isolation, looking for healing or money or both?

We are reminded in this story that life in a family can be rough, even for those God chooses and uses. God understood the selfishness in Jacob that needed to be curbed. So Laban became the perfect father-in-law to give the Schemer a taste of his own medicine. To deepen his own spiritual life, Jacob needed to confront his own sin. Expanding our orbit in the world challenges our myopia. When we see a spoiled child who is assured by her parents that she is the princess, we know that her first year in school is going to be a painful lesson. She will be dethroned and put on an even playing field with her peers. The bully is going to be tutored in fair play when he spends time on the playground. God is at work in the domestic disasters where our families reside and Jacob offers us a few lessons. Even when we’re tricked by others, we need to stick to our part of the bargain. Our own integrity matters all the more when the other side has unfairly changed the rules. Inviting pity for our victimization or obsessing over our payback scheme will blind us to the fact that God is near and holds the perfect plan for us and for our least-favorite family member! To recognize this is to open ourselves up to Godly changes through confession, repentance and acceptance of God’s grace. This is not easy! But, when we do this, we can readily forgive others and extend that same gift of unmerited grace.

So what’s ahead for Jacob’s family as we leave this part of his story? Do the sisters make peace with each other? With their deceptive daddy? Does Jacob ever see his own parents again? Does he make peace with his twin brother at some point in his adult life? What we recognize as truth in his family is true in our own: God is at work in all that happens to us and our kinfolk. God chooses and uses us, smoothing our rough edges and magnifying our gifts. God loves us and calls us to work sacrificially toward loving the family rebel, the oddball, the one who left the fold in a huff years ago. As with Jacob’s clan, there will be reunions and rifts, grudges and grace, generational curses and gifts that are passed forward to us. And our job is to sift through all of this and decide what serves God’s purposes for our lives best and what needs to be left behind. We are called to no less than was Jacob: to live with our imperfections in such a way that we will be a means of blessing for those around us and for generations who follow.


Traffic Report

The lectionary readings bring us into the life of Jacob and his family for the next few weeks. Jacob’s saga is one that is marked by conflict. That’s the last thing we need as our nation and world seem to be marked by discord and strife these days. But this is the story of the one that God chooses as the patriarch of a great people. A couple of weeks from now we’ll read about God renaming Jacob “Israel”, meaning “one who contends with God.” Even in his interaction with God, Jacob wrestles! But his anointing as God’s chosen one leads to a naming of his many descendants: Israelites. That means that their very identity (and therefore, ours) is marked by wrestling with God!

Of course, a story about God choosing a human servant cannot simply be about conflict. There are flickers of light that come in the form of divine promise. God’s promise to Abraham is carried forward in this grandson who thrashed his way through life. The blessing of God is given to Jacob even though it should have been bestowed on his twin brother, Esau, who was older by a few moments. We enter the story at the point when Jacob has tricked his blind, elderly father into giving him Esau’s birthright. This infuriates his brother. His father isn’t so happy to learn he’s been had. To preserve the lives of her beloved family, the mother sends her scheming son away so that elder twin won’t kill the younger. Jacob’s sin forces him to flee for his life.

Before he hurriedly left, Jacob’s parents suggested he head to a town 1) for safety but also 2) to find a suitable bride. So the journey begins with the goal of fulfilling his parents’ wish for him. He is alone, scared and alienated when he finds himself in Hicksville with abandoned streets and no place to rest. This is certainly not the sort of place where he would expect a divine encounter. He finds an unyielding rock for his pillow and chooses a spot under the stars for a cold night’s sleep. Jacob’s most fervent prayer was probably for safety. All the elements of comfort and any sense of familial belonging have been stripped away. He doesn’t have the luxury of holding onto a religious agenda.

Jacob’s story has very little relaxation in it. Even his sleep is disturbed! This Mesopotamian journey, with the stated goal of finding safety and a wife, is bracketed by two encounters that change the nature of the trip. The man who searched for a stone pillow and a pile of leaves for a bed was dominated by feelings of guilt, fear and sadness. His choice to steal his twin brother’s birthright led to confusion because he was immediately pushed out of the nest by a protective mother. As he fell asleep he was focused on the past. But in the dream, in which he encountered the living God, he was converted. The dream is optimistic with words of promise. It is forward-facing. Jacob assumed he traveled alone and clung to the goal of simply surviving. In a nameless place with an nondescript stone he discovered that, perhaps, this place was not so ordinary. In spite of his selfishness and cunning nature, he learned that God was with him. Walter Brueggeman states, “The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive.” In Jacob’s journey we learn that God redeems the messes we make even when we find ourselves in the darkest, hardest places of our lives.

The story is full of imagery but it is the divine speech that serves as the centerpiece to this spiritual memoir. There is a three-fold promise extended to Jacob who is heavy with sleep: I am with you. I will keep you. I will bring you home again. At his lowest point, Jacob is assured of God’s presence, protection and provision. The strange vision in the dream is that of a ladder or ramp that has angels climbing up and down. Heaven has dipped down to earth for a sleeping sinner. Jacob is reminded that God never left him, even though he is on the lam. When he awakens from his disturbed slumber, Isaac’s younger son abandons fear and trades it in for assurance because he believes and repents. He gives the nameless place a moniker that reflects his extra-ordinary epiphany: Bethel, which means “House of God.”

The dream offers us a traffic report that still is true for us today. God is on the move, bridging the chasm between heaven and earth. God’s messengers travel between two seemingly disparate domains in a universe where celestial realities are what really matter. I think of the change in traffic patterns when our quarantine first began in March. Our home is near the highway and we can usually hear a hum of cars in the background when we’re outside. But those first weeks that we hunkered down in our homes, fearful of an invisible killer, we heard almost no noise from Hwy. 131. No one dared to leave home. Fear perhaps eclipsed our view of God as our world shut down and we wondered how and when we would emerge on the other side of this pandemic. So what good news it is that, in our times of greatest isolation, the traffic nonetheless flows freely between heaven and earth.

My niece and her fiance were planning a beautiful wedding for May 9 in Akron, Ohio. Getting married in her home church where her parents were married and her grandfather served as pastor was going to be a grand occasion. My sister, the mother-of-the-bride, is a fantastic planner and every detail was carefully laid in place for her only daughter’s wedding. As COVID swept in, they made the very painful decision to postpone the wedding and wisely bumped it out to June of 2021. Vendors were understanding, assuring their future service even as they suffered great financial loss. Words of sorrow were sent out by text and their lovely invitations were followed up with an equally lovely declaration of postponement. The traffic seemed to stop in one family’s life in Akron, Ohio.

Turner Wedding on phone

But the bride and groom decided, after a time of stillness, that they still wanted to get married this Spring. I explored the legality of a zoom wedding and they found a new date. I dug out my ordination certificate and sent a copy of it to a courthouse in Oxford, Ohio, where the grand event was to happen. The couple planned to offer their vows alone in their apartment while family members joined in by zoom. Each household was invited to have their own beverage on hand to celebrate the union with a few toasts when the brief ceremony was over.

As we planned for the new ceremony, we discovered that several of their ideas for their wedding fit even better for their new circumstances. They were interested in the story of the first miracle: Jesus turns water into really great wine at a wedding. We incorporated that into our zoom ceremony with an assurance that crazy, unexpected things happen when Jesus shows up at weddings! They also had chosen a prayer by Thomas Merton that is often used at his Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. This is where Rachel and Drew were engaged and they particularly liked this one prayer. It offers these words: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end…therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost…I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” What a perfect reminder that God knows our journey every step of the way even when we think we are lost. With a promise that the bride would send out a zoom invitation to the select few who would be joining in on the big day, we marked our calendars and waited.

Turner Wedding TJ Maxx

My sister was unable to curb her creative instincts. Why would she zoom from home on her daughter’s wedding day when they could travel three hours south to at least lay eyes on the couple from a safe distance. So she invited the photographer to make the road trip with them to Oxford. She contacted the bridesmaids to see if they, too, wished to be present in something more than a virtual way. They did. So the plot thickened and about ten cars met in the empty parking lot of a T.J.Maxx about five minutes from the apartment-turned-wedding chapel. Each carload, as they joined the ceremony by zoom, had to somehow disguise the fact that they weren’t in their homes but in cars. I started off the worship service with an affirmation to the tiny square images of gathered guests, that this was a holy moment where God was present even if it was happening in a very different venue than hoped for. The love of this couple and their desire to commit their lives to each other in the presence of the God who brought them together was the centerpiece of a moment that would not have cake-cutting or cummerbunds, bridal gowns or a bouquet toss. The parents were asked for their blessing, which they triumphantly gave. Rachel and Drew were joined together as wife and husband in the quiet of their apartment which was transformed into a “House of God.”

When the ceremony was over and few toasts were offered, my sister asked the couple to be sure to stay put as there would be a delivery in about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, one of the bridesmaids parked down a ways from their apartment and quickly decorated their car with items she had brought with her. When the couples’ car was appropriately festooned with cans and ribbons, she gave the signal and the other cars rode into this quiet neighborhood on a COVID morning for a noisy parade. Family members surfaced through sunroofs with colorful signs and custom-designed wedding face masks. The couple emerged from their home stunned and smiling. The photographer captured it all as families posed at a safe distance from each other, beaming with joy.

The traffic report for that day? The ladder between heaven and earth is busy with angels who transform our times of isolation and darkness into holy celebrations of joy. Events happen between places where nothing is expected! This Ohio couple entered into the Old Testament tradition that holds a deep respect for sacred space that is often a complete surprise because it appear ordinary.

After the dream, Jacob continues on a journey of theological importance. He knows now that God travels with him. God reminds him that, though he possesses very little with him as a fugitive, he carries nothing less than the promises to which his nomadic ancestors had clung. Through this schemer, God will fulfill the promise made to old  Abraham that he would be blessed and his descendants, who would be as numerous as the stars that twinkled above sleeping Jacob, would be blessed through him. In this moment, as angels traveled powerfully between heaven and earth, Jacob’s story opens up far beyond himself and any bride he might hope to find at the end point to his destination. A divine visitation transformed an unnamed place with an unyielding pillow into a sanctuary. From that extraordinary moment in the life of a trickster, all families of the earth would be blessed.

Turner Wedding outside of apartment

That certainly happened in a small apartment in Oxford, Ohio. We can be sure of the same traffic report for our own lives: in the darkest, hardest, most disappointing places of our lives, God is with us promising presence, protection and a homecoming more glorious than we can imagine!





This past weekend I strapped on my face mask and hopped on a plane for Lubbock, Texas. I traveled in from the northern territory of Michigan to officiate at the celebration of life ceremony for my Aunt Flo. Others know her as Florence Littauer, a prolific author and Christian speaker who traveled the globe to offer a message of hope. My father had performed all priestly duties for the family for generations so, in his absence, Florence thought I might be a suitable stand-in for her service whenever that time arrived. So I arrived at my cousin’s home as the latest family marry-er and bury-er. What a great honor it was for me to be given the chance to say a few words of remembrance about a woman who was a masterful wordsmith! It’s impossible to adequately cover the immensity of Florence’s life and ministry in any kind of memorial service. Fortunately most people who knew her have read her books and those writings help us better understand who she was. So I’ll try to capture her essence from the family perspective.


I remember one conversation between Florence and her two brothers when she was doing a little funeral pre-planning.  She envisioned the service taking place in the Crystal Cathedral, where she had spoken to a filled sanctuary years ago. Her suggestion was that the congregation would sing the doxology after the words of remembrance were completed. That would be the signal for some poor chap in the balcony to begin to slowly crank her glorious body on a guide wire that would allow her to float slowly over the congregation. Her arms spread in an angelic pose, her body would ultimately arrive in the front of the sanctuary. Her brothers were already laughing at this point. I can hear her emphasizing the singing: “Praise God from whom all blessings Flo, Flo, Flo…” This is classic Florence Littauer—having good fun at her own expense while entertaining others with her great sense of humor.


Florence was born on April 27, 1928 and died on July 11, 2020. Her life was bracketed with two global crises. One was economic—the Great Depression—and the other is a pandemic that ground her social outings to a halt in the last months of her life. But Florence had an indomitable spirit. She grew up in a family where there was joy. I have childhood memories of my dad getting together with his two siblings and their mother. They laughed! They used their keen verbal skills to recount crazy stories and then roar with laughter. My grandmother would sometimes raise an eyebrow and try to conceal a smile. But she was all in!

east coast old pic of dad and sibs as adults in doorway

East coast haverhill doorway Lauren, MIchelle and me

I can’t tell you how many times I heard a reference to their upbringing that happened “in three rooms behind the store.” Struggling to raise three children during the depression, Florence’s parents opened a literal Ma and Pa convenience store that was open to the community every day of the year except for Easter and Christmas. I did a tour of Haverhill, Massachusetts a couple of years ago with Florence’s daughter, Lauren, her husband, Randy and several other family members. We took pictures of ourselves standing on the same front stoop where my grandparents had welcomed customers into their care. I called Aunt Flo and asked her to describe these three rooms in which five people lived their lives. For probably 45 minutes she walked me through every part of that building. She detailed what her life had been like in their unusual home. I didn’t realize it at the time but my aunt was drawing a diagram of the floor plan as we spoke. Florence was living with my cousin, Marita, at the time of the phone conversation so she sent me the diagram later. It looks nondescript to all of us but Florence was reliving memories from her childhood as we talked. In those very modest quarters, three future speakers grew up. In spite of their limited income, my grandparents paid for lessons so as to develop their children’s sizable gifts. Aunt Flo was treated to elocution lessons, a word so fancy we don’t know what it means! In other words, Florence got coached in speech. I think those lessons took, right? All three children learned as their careers took shape to curb their Boston accents, putting “Rs” in the right spots and taking them out where they ought not to be!

Florence diagram


Florence became a teacher of high school students. She got them so fired up about her engagement that the students completely planned her wedding and their class project extraordinaire became a lead article in LIFE Magazine. This first job was the beginning to a long career in teaching folks in different settings, encouraging them to stretch into their greatest potential. She was a leader who motivated folks into action. I remember her telling a story about how she had gone out to the parking ramp after a shopping outing. She had totally forgotten where she parked her car. (She would be the first to tell you that her personality type wasn’t always great with the small details of daily living! That’s where her meticulous husband, Fred, stepped in!) As she wandered, other people joined her in the search. It became an adventurous group project. When they finally found it, everyone cheered. Strangers became friends through her spontaneous leadership!


Fred and Flo were a striking couple. At the end of her life, Florence told Marita that she wished to be “really amazing”. Any of you who knew them know that, together, Fred and Flo were “really amazing”! They color-coordinated their outfits. I remember they arrived at one family gathering in matching teal. In fact, I was so impressed that Fred was wearing a pair of Italian leather loafers that were, you guessed it, teal! They flashed beautiful smiles. Their gifts fit together perfectly. Their greatest joy was their family: three wonderful children, Lauren, Marita and Fred; five fine grandchildren and six great grandchildren who step into a blessed legacy!

But their greatest sorrow also emerged from that same family setting. They lost two young sons, Freddy and Larry, leaving a deep wound that could only be healed through faith. Fred and Florence allowed God to use that double tragedy to minister to others. It awakened a deep sense of compassion for others whom they encouraged through their writing and speaking. One woman expressed her gratitude to them in her words of condolence: “Florence and Fred were instrumental in a very dark time in my life. She was speaking at a ladies’ retreat in Frankfort, KY two months after we had lost a daughter to suicide. As they both spoke on the closing day it turned the course of my life upside down and led me to complete healing only the Lord could orchestrate through them.”


Florence’s greatest body of work became a description of personality types. As people learned to better understand themselves, they were able to connect more effectively with their loved ones whose personality type was different from their own. She became known particularly for her Silver Boxes story that has influenced countless people to use their words to build up and encourage. It stemmed from an impromptu children’s message she was asked to give so she chose a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that had been important in shaping the spiritual life of her own children: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may be grace to those who hear.” The young woman who excelled at her elocution lessons grabbed onto a passage about speaking and made it come alive for generations of people. With her keen sense of humor she was able to teach profound lessons of faith in an engaging manner. I am sure that all of us here have had a good laugh with Florence even as we benefited from her wisdom. A couple of email messages gave praise for this great attribute that came from the close quarters behind a store in which the Chapman family of five lived. Doreen wrote, “So grateful to have been mentored by the incredible, amazingly knowledgeable and laughter-filled Florence Littauer.” Another woman described how she was given the delightful task of driving Florence to the airport after one of her speaking engagements. She writes, “That trip was a hoot! One lesson I learned, the deeper the clothing discount/bargain, doesn’t make it look better on me!” What great advice from the woman we remember as being a strong, dynamic, and colorful presence. While in Lubbock, I stayed in my aunt’s room and her closet confirmed that she was well qualified to give out fashion tips! Florence wasn’t afraid to cover any number of different subject areas with obvious expertise.


Last week I dug into the story about Jacob’s ladder for our worship service. Maybe you remember that Jacob, our fine patriarch in the faith, was fleeing from his family because he had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. Worried that the older twin would kill his scheming younger brother, Rebecca hurriedly sent her son away from the home with unimaginable heartbreak. (Something tells me this family would have greatly benefited from Florence’s personality inventory!) On his first night out, camping fearfully under the stars, he had a dream. He saw a ladder going between earth and heaven with angels climbing up and down. In that dream God spoke to Jacob, assuring him of His presence, protection, and homecoming. When Jacob awakens he knows that he has had a visitation from God almighty. He trades in fear for assurance because he now knows that he is no longer traveling alone. The dream turns his flight into a pilgrimage of faith and Jacob was forever honored as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.


My Aunt Flo dared to dream beyond her circumstances at critical junctures in her life. Not only did she rise above tragic losses with her faith in a loving God still intact. She shared that faith with others who had lost their way and assumed that they were traveling alone. The dream of Jacob reminds us that the connection between heaven and earth is intact. What seems like an unbridgeable chasm between us and those who have left this earthly realm is, in fact, an active travel route. That doesn’t ease our grieving for those we can no longer see or hug or laugh with. But we have this tremendous assurance that all is well for those on the other end of the ladder and that they will be there to greet us when our time comes to change to a heavenly vantage point.


This upcoming weekend was to be a Chapman family reunion for the families of Florence, Jim, and Ron. We had such a good time partying with Florence at her 90th birthday party in California that we decided to meet again. When the save-the-date cards came in the mail, Aunt Flo called me. She told me she was a fan of this event! She thought it would be great to be together. She told me several times with her dry wit that, if she could make it until then, she would for sure be there. When COVID swept in, we regretfully cancelled the reunion. But Florence must have dreamed beyond these earthly hardships because we all gathered for a Chapman reunion this past weekend! We just moved it up by a week and changed it to her newest hometown of Lubbock. She also changed her location from the earthly end of the ladder to the heavenly gate. With her death we are reminded that this reunion is much greater than what meets the eye. Not only have we expanded our Chapman reunion to include all of you. We know now that it included Florence’s husband, Fred, and their precious little boys, Freddy, III and Larry. It welcomed Walter and Katie back into their joyful and articulate family. It made a place for Jim and Katie at the table. All of us, together, on both ends of a stairway to heaven, knew that God was with us.

As Florence stood before her Maker, hand-hand once again with her beloved Fred, we can imagine that she was shown the impact of those many silver boxes she had handed out in her earthly life, words of blessing passed forward from one person to the next. From three rooms behind the store to a mansion in the sky, Florence joins the reunion in spirit, no longer in flesh. I can hear her exclaim like her ancestor in the faith, Jacob, “Surely You were with me all along, and I did not know it!” What good news this is for all of us!

Well done, thou good and faithful servant, Florence. Enter into the joy of your Master!


Whine Not!

Last week I looked ahead to the lectionary passages for the next program year. Our Christian Education Director and I are trying to coordinate my preaching with our childrens’ curriculum, finding people and themes that could easily translate into a Sunday School lesson. So, with that in mind, I dug through several months’ worth of Bible readings. I stumbled on this passage from Numbers which is meant to be read during Lent.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[a] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous[b] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous[c] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  Numbers 21: 4-9

I have to admit that I laughed as I read it thinking simultaneously that 1) it would be a great story to preach but 2) I wouldn’t do that to our children! If they sat listening to that story being preached in our sanctuary their view of God might be forever changed! So I decided I’d grab onto it for our on-line worship during the summer when our families are on the move. My disclaimer for those reading with children: There are graphic images of snakes biting people—but it can’t be much worse than most video games they’ve been playing during this ongoing time of COVID limitations! So off we go on a wilderness journey!

Context always matters, right? So let’s review some of the details. If I were a journalist with a little notepad for my facts here’s the cryptic details I would jot down:

**The enslaved Israelites cry out to God for liberation. God hears their cry and appoints Moses as leader.

**Moses goes into this job position kicking and screaming but falls in love with this God and does a bang-up job with a stubborn people.

**God parts the waters of the Red Sea so the Hebrews can escape from the enslaving Egyptians. No sooner do they get to the other side and they start complaining because life isn’t comfortable.

**God gets so sick of their whining that the decision is made that these folks aren’t ready to enter a land of their own. God decrees that they will wander the wilderness for four decades so that only their descendants will make it into the new land. Maybe that generation will have learned to have faith?!

**In this passage the massive crowd of Hebrews gets a little too close to another nation who starts attacking them to protect their boundaries. Moses’ people pray for God to grant them victory over these foreigners and God honors their prayers.

That catches us up to the passage that begins at verse four. The Hebrews continue their aimless migration through the desert and grow impatient. So they resort to what comes naturally to them: they complain against God and their fearless leader, Moses. It’s always easier to take pot shots at those at the top than to scrutinize our own behavior! The translation for their impatience in this text could be something like this: “The spirit of the people became short.” When I read that textual explanation, I knew we would easily connect to their emotional state!

Remember how we felt when the quarantine first started? When meat wasn’t around; when toilet paper couldn’t be found; when we couldn’t eat out on a whim; when we couldn’t work out at the gym; when we couldn’t hug our loved ones; couldn’t leave our homes for a quick run; when we couldn’t meet for worship; when grocery shopping was a feared trip…our spirits became short.

One older woman was so tightly wound that she staged a literal sit-in on the floor of Costco nearly two weeks ago because she was asked to wear a mask. She sat down in the middle of one of the aisles proclaiming that, as an American, she has her rights. And that includes not wearing a mask in a store where they are required. With that rebellious act, “Costco Karen”, as she’s become known, launched her own 15 minutes of fame. Our spirit grows short with the many pressures put upon us and our reactions are so rebellious that Europeans have banned Americans from entering their newly-opened countries. We act as spoiled children who pitch a fit when demands for the greater good don’t sit well with us.

When our comfort level is challenged, we are not at our best.

The last time there was a pandemic was 1918. On the heels of that terrible plague we read about “the Red Summer.” White mobs attacked African Americans in six different cities, the violence lasting sometimes more than a week. With tensions high from the suffering that the nation had endured with the Spanish Flu, white folks lashed out. They sought to drive black folks from industrial jobs and from their neighborhoods. In all six riots that summer of 1919, local authorities either were not able to contain the violence or actually aided the white aggressors. Sound familiar?! Though initiated by whites, the violence was blamed on blacks since they armed themselves to fight back. The very worst attack happened in rural Elaine, Arkansas where federal troops joined with local whites to fight blacks. The headline in the Arkansas Gazette read, “Negroes plan to Kill All Whites,” a thinly veiled, truly “fake news” effort to blame the black population for the violence. But the numbers tell the story: five whites died while more than 200 blacks were killed.

At the tail end of the last pandemic our country has endured, the spirit of the people became short. Just as we are seeing in our cities this summer, deadly race riots broke out that crushed the life out of hundreds of black citizens, some of whom had recently returned from fighting in World War 1.

When our physical needs are unmet and threats loom, we readily murmur against God and our leaders as did our ancestors in the faith. Rather than remembering how beautifully God has cared for us particularly in hard times, we hang the blame for all that ails us on God and walk away. It’s noteworthy that Moses’ people, in their wilderness discomfort, point back to their days as slaves with fondness! How soon we forget the hard-earned victories God has given us!

Indiana Jones

So, as the Jews whine in the wilderness, God unleashes a horrifying version of “snakes on a plain.” Not on an airplane but on the flat, wide-open plain of the wilderness! Perhaps this story conjures up images of Harrison Ford in a pit of snakes when playing the character, Indiana Jones? It’s as if God proclaims to these impatient people, “So if you thought life was bad yesterday, just look at what’s slithering toward you now! I’ll show you what can happen when you live without gratitude and think only of yourselves!” The snakes bite some of the people, some of whom die, and the whole camp is, understandably, terrified. They run to the very leader they had just been maligning over their dinner of roasted quail and beg him to intercede for them. They knew Moses had the connection because of his deep faith so they demand, “Pray that God will remove the snakes from us.” They do preface that with a confession of guilt—for having spoken badly of God moments earlier. But their primary concern is for immediate, personal rescuing. So they simply ask for the snakes to be taken back to whatever pit they had come from. They would happily get back to their usual level of discomfort and their love for complaining. They didn’t ask for God to renew their spirits or to heal their hearts. They prayed for relief from their physical afflictions without giving a thought to their spiritual well-being. Fix it, God, and let me get back to the way things always were.

indiana jones 2

I wonder if we’ve ever done that—when the chips are down and disease looms and relationships are broken and politics are heavy and money is tight? Do we want the quick fix that the Hebrews demanded? Or are we ready to confess our guilt at a deep level and submit to a holy makeover? We have a glimpse of that in King David’s prayer from Psalm 51. His raw confession gives us an insight into why God loved David so much in spite of his sinfulness: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

ama symbol

Moses did as he was commanded. He made the image of a snake out of bronze and wrapped it around a stick that he held up for the people. This has become the symbol for the medical community today. The Hebrews on the plain were told to look at the snake and they would be healed of their snake bites. I wonder how many of them thought the restorative power came from the metal sculpture as opposed to the God who had provided the healing? When we look for a quick way out of our problems, we tend to give credit for success to the wrong person or power. There are times we need to sit in our unfortunate circumstances long enough so that we can give God our undivided attention and prepare our hearts for a spiritual reboot.

Whining seems easier…but it’s deadly.

The Corona virus has knocked us down. We never imagined this would be a marathon as we closed our doors when the quarantine was decreed. While nearly four months of limitations have passed, our patience has worn thin. Garrett and I were doing a crossword puzzle recently and the newly minted word was used: “hangry.” We are hungry and angry and scared and hot and tired. We are looking at others with suspicion. We are focusing on the categories people fall into and ignoring the sorry state of our own hearts. We are at our worst when the snakes are unleashed against us and it becomes each person for him or herself. This is the time that we need to sit in our present circumstances, as uncomfortable as they are. God will sit there with us. God will turn our heads to face forward when we’re tempted to look back on times of slavery as “the good ol’ days.” If we have lashed out at others, God will correct and forgive us. God meets us in the healing and, when that happens, our whining ceases and we give God the glory.



Church in Storm

I don’t remember why I went into our garden shed that day. A rider mower fills the bulk of the space while various and sundry outdoor items have been dumped there over the years…like, 22 years! So I opened the shed door to accomplish some outdoor task and was drawn into the chaos. When I see a mess my mind spirals out of control, determining what needs to be done and in what order. It’s really a curse! It is very difficult for me to concentrate when my surroundings are in disarray. Sometimes that leads to immediate cleaning action. However, if it’s an area that really isn’t under my control, I walk away. On this particular day in May, wearing flip flops and running shorts, my organizational self was drawn into this neglected part of our real estate.

We made this shed out of a pre-fab kit when my now-22-year-old daughter was a newborn. I’ve never cleaned it. Out of sight, out of mind. As I gave a critical look into the nooks and crannies of this 10’ by 12’ structure, I could see that mice have lived handsomely in this space. I had an old wooden crate used to carry Faygo pop bottles. It could have looked quaint on a front porch with flowers in each square. But it sat unused in the shed for more than two decades. It was, in fact, the perfect mouse hotel. Private rooms for all! So that had to be set aside for the burn pile. Acorn shells were jammed into corners and dried oak leaves made for a soft bed. I went to our garage to find a broom and trash bag. Old paint and building supplies were used by the hibernating residents. Crummy shelving units gave even more surfaces for mice to set up shop.

Something caught my eye as I dug around in the stuff along the edges of the shed. It was a painted canvas. I remembered it well. Entitled “Church in Storm”, it was an original given to my husband and me when we married 35 years ago. We were married in the Graham Taylor Chapel of the Chicago Theological Seminary where we met and earned our Masters of Divinity degrees. Folks started arriving for the July 7 wedding on July 5, checking into the Hyde Park Hilton. On the evening of the 5th a group of us went out for Chicago-style stuffed crust pizza then reconvened in the Commons of the seminary administrative building. There were some family members and a few friends so we opened gifts in this dark-paneled space. Seminary draws a unique collection of people, perhaps as a reminder that those called to serve the world in Jesus’ name will be regarded as “fools” or “clowns.” So our friend group from seminary was beautifully varied and one individual was with us that night. He set up an easel in a corner of the room and covered an apparent work of art with a sheet. There was to be a grand unveiling of his gift to us! With bated breath, our parents and siblings watched as the sheet was pulled off ceremonially. We all looked at the abstract lines that boast a finger painting style. I don’t remember too many comments in response to the artwork. The fellow-student-turned-artist gave a snort and announced, “I call it ‘Church in Storm’!”

It never did hang in our home. At some point it ended up in our shed and, therefore, survived our house fire that claimed all the art we did have hanging on our walls. It remained hidden from view, in all its glory, in a mouse hotel that lacked for any other décor. To their credit, the mice did not nibble on it at all. Perhaps they saw something in those strong lines that our wedding weekend guests did not. So, after sweeping out the leaves, filling a couple of trash bags, and moving the old wood to a burn pile, I hung the painting in a prominent place—in my well-organized shed.


Three years ago 15 of us in a travel group quietly walked through the Garden of Gethsemane located on the Mount of Olives. Some of the oldest olive trees are believed to be nearly 2000 years old. It was powerful to imagine that some of them might have sheltered Jesus when he prayed there on the last night of his life. He anguished over the suffering and death that He knew awaited Him but His prayer focused on the needs of His followers. He prayed for their unity.

Garden of Gethsemane arrow

So it seemed fitting to see a broken directional sign pointing to the nearby chapel. The arrow was split down the middle but, nonetheless, indicated which direction to go to find the church. Jesus knew, as He knelt in that very place, that His Church would fall prey to divisive human tendencies. We follow similarly vague signs into the Church today and sometimes give unclear signals to others about where to meet Christ.

Some 25 years later Paul offered guidance to the gathered believers in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. The early church was a mix of those who self-identified as Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). The Jews had dietary restrictions that non-Jews didn’t share. No longer Jew or Gentile, Paul reminded them that they were a new group which he called “the church of God.” Their rules were different. “Don’t worry about the rules from your past life. If you go to someone’s home for dinner and they serve you pork chops, enjoy them!” It’s what we teach our children as parents: eat what is put in front of you at your friend’s house! God made everything and everyone so don’t put up obstacles where they aren’t needed. However, ensure that the way you use your freedom doesn’t challenge someone else’s faith. In Paul’s time and in ours today we struggle as a Church to find the balance between the twin principles of freedom and restraint.

“All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial,” Paul wrote.

We can put on camo and carry loaded machine guns into the state capital to protest restrictions due to COVID. But that may not be beneficial.

Demonstrating because we feel that our rights have been violated is permissible but it may not build up our community that is stressed to the breaking point.

We can re-open our churches or not, depending on what we interpret to be safe timing. We can require masks and social distancing—or not. We can continue to stream our services to keep folks safe at home or open our buildings for the faithful to gather in person. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.

That sounds so helpful but we also know it can cause friction because of different interpretations. Maybe my seminary colleague’s art should be prominently displayed to remind us that the Church has always been in a storm by its very counter-cultural nature. Surely this is, in part, why Jesus prayed for us on the eve of His death.

Paul urges the followers of Jesus in this port city to clear away as many unnecessary obstacles as possible from those who might be easily led away from faith in Jesus. But the one obstacle he insisted should not be removed is the cross. In all our deliberations about how to use our freedom, we Christians must be ready to sacrifice from our own well-being if it builds up our community.


I met recently with a young man who had grown up in a very conservative Christian family. They had clearly defined boundaries for where and how to live life. Now in his mid-twenties and making a living in Seattle, he told me how he was discovering that “non-believers”, those outside the church of his upbringing, were…interesting. They had much to offer! It was a surprise to him that they could inspire him to good actions even though they did not share a belief in Jesus. He told me that he has begun to seek out a broader group of people so that he can listen to them. He now has a love for folks that his parents might have suggested he avoid in his earlier years. He was learning how to use his freedom.

It was a great conversation to have with this young adult. Tribalism is still our easiest inclination. The big world he was now navigating on his own had gifts he had not expected. He began not only to see the beauty in those around him that fell outside of his earlier boundaries. He sought them out. He didn’t impose his Christian belief system on them. He met them where they are, trusting that they would meet the living Christ through his actions. Through open conversations he was able to point others to the One who keeps him anchored in the storms of young adult life.

It seems to me that this is the beginning to peace. We follow the broken sign that, nonetheless, gets us to the Church. When we clean out the dusty, neglected corners to our world, both inside and outside the Church walls, we meet God’s cherished people. We sacrifice for them, choosing to live with discomfort if it helps others. Somehow the storm lifts as we offer them Christ’s peace.

Garden of Gethsemane peace