The Water Bowl

I heard a man tell a story about the gift given to him by a dying cat. In his neighborhood there was a stray cat that everyone saw on a regular basis. The cat was missing one eye. On that same side of her head her ear was mangled. She had a stump for a tail and one foot that was deformed. Her skin was covered with sores which were visible through patchy fur. She scrounged in the garbage for her meals. Clearly her life had been a struggle.

She always approached people and rubbed against their ankles, hoping for friendship. Repeatedly she was pushed aside because no one wanted the fleas she was carrying. No one trusted the sores that plagued her. She remained forgiving of their cruelty. The human community gave her the name, “Ugly”.

One evening the man heard a fight between a dog and cat. He went outside to see two dogs attacking Ugly. They ran away when he yelled at them but the cat had already sustained significant injuries. He gently picked her up and carried her up to his apartment. He tried to clean out her wounds but she was badly hurt. As he held her, she purred. She only lived several minutes in his care but she looked into his eyes and purred. In the last moments of her life she finally found someone who
was kind to her. He held her for awhile after she died, deeply moved that she had trusted him. He saw past her scarred body and realized she had great beauty. The brief moments he spent with a cat named Ugly changed him.

When the quarantine began many of the animal shelters in our country emptied out! Facing the reality that they would be shut in their homes for a lengthy period of time, folks quickly headed to animal shelters to find a loving companion. Children were excited to finally get the dog they had always wanted. People living alone knew that they would need a friend during a predictably lonesome time. So animals traded cages for warm beds. They had lots of time to bond with their new friends. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “My Rescue Dog Rescued Me”? Shelter animals and strays seem to have a lasting gratitude toward those who adopt them. They remember the time that they had no home, when they were hungry and thirsty with no one to provide for them. So when they are welcomed into a family that provides good ear rubs and a water bowl that is always filled, they show us their contentment.

In Galatians 5 we read, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” We encounter these attributes in our pets. We had a Blessing of the Animals service in our parking lot this past Sunday. Twelve furry friends joined in worship with their human families. Folks shared some stories about how their pets teach them to love! One man in our congregation shared how the family dog would always welcome the teenaged son home from school. His high school years were hard so he arrived home subdued. The dog would come right up to him, place her paws on the young man’s chest and look into his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to leave the unkind words of classmates behind and settle into his dog’s unconditional love.

Our dog learned early on that we don’t want him barking loudly. When he is particularly anxious around the dinner table for some scrap of food he doesn’t bark but makes conversational sounds. He reminds us that he’s there. When a UPS driver runs up to our door and leaves a package, there is no self-control! He barks to let us know that there is an intruder. But he has learned to exercise self-control, as difficult as that is for him, because he wants to please us. Animals that are reunited with their owners after a lengthy separation are forgiving of that time apart. They are kind toward their owner even if their needs are not perfectly met. They are endlessly forgiving of our foibles and how we sometimes forget to keep the water bowl full. In these animals who share our lives, we experience the fruit of the Spirit that reminds us of how we are to love one another.

In Exodus 17 the Israelites, who are newly liberated from the Egyptians, they find themselves in the austere setting of the wilderness. They have left a settled life of slavery for a nomadic life of freedom. We read that the Israelites journeyed by stages. One step at a time, their whole camp literally pulled up stakes and moved on to the next spot. Similarly our lives travel forward in stages. I suspect we will look back on 2020 and say that this was not a great phase of our life‘s journey. Some stages are easier than others and we learn not to take that for granted. Some have great gifts that we are only able to recognize later. With the upheaval of hurricanes recently we have seen how animals stick with their human companions at difficult times. They are resilient when we move them to different places, knowing that belonging to the pack is all that matters.
In this challenging time for the Israelites they asked a question that laid bare their sense of abandonment: Is the Lord among us or not? Even in their slave quarters in Egypt, they had a cherished sense of routine. They raised their families, had food to eat and knew what to expect each day. But in the wilderness, with no reliable supply of water or food, they wonder if God can possibly be with them. So Moses takes their plaint up with God. He begs God to do something about their needs, arguing that neglect of the chosen people would be a bad reflection on God. Moses also gives a reminder that these are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who were assured that they would be part of this sacred covenant. What if all of them were miraculously transported across the Red Sea only to die in the wilderness?

God listens to Moses who is at his wits end. God points to a large rock and instructs this exhausted leader to tap the boulder with his walking stick. Having seen the waters of the Red Sea part, Moses approaches the solid object with optimism. No sooner does he tap it and water gushes out. The Israelites would have an endless supply of fresh water. With their needs met, their question is answered: God is among them.

I think of the complete reliance our pets have upon us. It’s endearing when they make it clear that they need us. My dog sometimes paws at us when we stop petting him, as if to say, “Don’t stop! I love this!” My daughter, Maria, fell in love with a tiny bunny that fit into her hand at the Truffant Flea Market eight years ago. When Ingrid is very happy with an ear rub, she makes a noise that Maria calls “chittering.” She receives the rubs and bumps her nose against Maria’s hand if she stops. Our animal friends count on us to love them, feed them, and keep the water bowl filled.

I think back to the cat named Ugly. After a life of rejection and suffering she spent her last moments in the arms of someone who finally wasn’t afraid to touch her. She showed her gratitude toward this stranger by purring in spite of her grave injuries. He might seem like the savior but, in fact, he was deeply moved by the generosity of this wounded cat’s spirit. In her dying moments she accepted his love, forgiving the ugliness those who looked past her needs and rejected her. Our pets are such a gift to us with their wagging tails, their loud purring and their sweet requests for affection. Today we offer our blessing to them knowing how greatly they have blessed us. In these relationships that bridge human and animal worlds, we are reminded that God created us to be interdependent. Our faith calls us to acknowledge our complete reliance on God who more than tends to our needs. So each time that we fill the water bowl for our furry friend or spiky hedgehog or hopping rabbit, we remember that God made water come out of a rock! We are in good hands. God is among us, whatever the stage of our journeys!

Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!

Entitlement or Grace?

In the Old Testament book of Jonah we meet the most reluctant prophet ever. He is asked by God launch his ministry by preaching a compelling sermon to his enemies so that they might convert. It’s as if he were asked to do a revival in Baghdad a couple of years after 9-11. Imagine being asked to lead a mission trip to a Taliban training camp, making their lives easier, preaching in hopes that they might repent of their sin. I doubt that many of us would sign up for either destination. Is it possible that we don’t wish for some people to be redeemed? Could it be that we don’t want to share the gifts of our Christian faith with others whom we deem grossly undeserving?

I have various pieces of artwork that feature this familiar tale. They all depict a human form inside the belly of a great fish. We think it’s cute because we know he gets out of that dark, slimy prison. But it’s not a charming children’s story. Jonah, in my estimation, is the least admirable prophet because he drags his heels every step of his missionary journey. His heart is simply not in it. The fact that God would use someone like Jonah is good news to me.  There’s hope!

Jonah and Pinnochio | Christian Funny Pictures - A time to laugh

The story begins with God tapping unsuspecting Jonah with a mission: go to the great city of Nineveh and preach repentence to them. Jonah gives God a thumbs up then jumps on board a ship that goes the opposite direction! This is one gutsy guy! He thinks he can deceive God. He disobeys and thinks he’s going to get away with it. Why is he so against this assignment? It has to do with the destination. The Jews hated the Ninevites.

A little history. The Assyrians were the world superpower in the 8th century BC. Nineveh was the capital city of their empire. They waged war on the Northern Kingdom of the Israelites for three long years, ultimately taking the city. The prophet Nahum gives voice to the hatred toward these violent captors who were ruthless toward the Jews. In his writing Nahum daydreams about these enemies being slaughtered and addresses them directly: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses…’I am against you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?…Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?’”

Bedtime stories for little Jewish children of Jonah’s generation had to do with bringing their ancient enemies down and Nineveh was on the frontlines of their hatred. So Jonah must have felt like he picked the short straw when directed to bring his enemies into the fold of God’s love. Instead, his nationalistic fervor leads him to sail in the other direction, assuming God’s GPS had limitations. But God’s sonar knew right where this reluctant prophet floated. Jonah was ultimately cast overboard by his crew members when they learned he was messing with God. They didn’t want to do it and even tried to save him as he thrashed in the water. But before they could get to him, a great fish surfaced from the deep and swallowed him whole. Imagine the conversation over dinner in the mess hall after witnessing that! After that biblically significant time of three days, the fish obeys the call of God by vomiting Jonah up onto the shore. Even the fish is more obedient to God than the slimy prophet! Realizing that it was hopeless to escape God’s notice, Jonah finally obeys. But remember, obedience doesn’t always equate with genuine repentance!

In the earlier chapter we read that Jonah walks a full day into the city before uttering the first word of his carefully crafted sermon: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That goes down as the shortest fire-and-brimstone sermon on record! He didn’t give an “unless clause”: “…unless you repent of your sin!” Did he delight in preaching it more as a proclamation of truth than an invitation to change?

In spite of his lackluster sermon delivered from a cold heart, the whole city repents, including the King and even the animals! They put on the traditional outfit of penance—sackcloth—and fasted, hoping to win the favor of Jonah’s God. Verse 10 is a triumphant announcement which would have been the perfect ending point of the story: God sees their changed hearts and decides not to smite them. The Ninevites cry out, “Three cheers for Jonah’s God” and thank the reluctant prophet for his successful revival. Yay! Win-win, right?

Not so fast. This is where our reading begins. Jonah’s anger burns when God acts with mercy. He offers the oddest prayer to God. In essence he yells at God saying he knew God would do this. He knew God was a softie and always willing to forgive a remorseful sinner so that’s why he—Jonah—fled in the first place. He didn’t want these enemies-of-the-state to be forgiven and he knew God would extend grace. So he invites God to kill him off right then, right there. If he had to head home with the news that he was responsible for the salvation of Nineveh, he would be utterly rejected by his own people.

I imagine God asking quietly: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah has a clear understanding of God’s goodness…but wants God’s wrath for these heathens. Even after three days facing his mortality in the belly of a great fish, Jonah’s hatred for his enemies hasn’t abated. In fact, if we review the history of Jonah’s people, the Israelites, our ancestors in the faith, we see that they sin repeatedly, unabashedly and seldom repent of their sin. Yet Jonah thinks that they are entitled to God’s grace whereas his enemies are not. The Ninevites display a remarkable showing of penance and they weren’t even raised to believe in this God! Their confession of sin disgusts Jonah. He simply isn’t having it. “Let ‘em burn”, he rages in his heart.

Princes Lady Diana Free Printable Masks. - Oh My Fiesta! in english

Just over 23 years ago on September 10 I was in the hospital, spending the day with laboring to give birth to my fourth child. For several hours, when the labor was easier, Garrett and I had the TV on. Pretty much every channel was covering the death and recent funeral of Princess Diana. She had been laid to rest four days earlier but the world wasn’t ready to let her go. She was royalty, a sainted hero of her people and the world, who could do no wrong. She was entitled to a mass funeral procession and a memorial service with Elton John singing his now-beloved requiem. We remember her two young boys trailing behind her casket, carrying the sadness of the world on their small shoulders. It was hardly the right TV programming to distract me from my own increasing pain!

Catholic, Charity, Mother, Nun, Teresa

Every now and then there would be a news report about another death, one that happened five days after Princess Diana’s: Mother Theresa. She died in Calcutta where she had poured out her life caring for the desperately poor alongside her Sisters of Mercy. Her death was almost completely eclipsed by the global mourning over Diana. Her funeral mass was a week after the princesses’ lavish memorial. The tiny saint’s body was laid out on a slab of ice to prevent decay. While some world leaders took time out of their busy schedules to pay tribute to Mother Theresa, her funeral followed the ancient order of a mass for the dead in which prayers were made for her soul. God was urged to have mercy upon her and to receive her into eternal keeping. Her funeral, rather that worshiping her, reminded viewers of the universal need for God’s grace. The juxtaposition of these two women in death laid bare our human notion that only certain people are deserving of God’s grace. Too often we assume that we not only have access to that list but have a say-so in shaping it! The sermon I heard as I labored toward welcoming my fourth child into our family was that of entitlement versus grace. Welcome to our conflicted world, baby girl!

Before we turn the page on Jonah and write him off as misguided, we would do well to see how his life mirrors our own. Jonah was all too ready to throw his enemies under the bus. He prays for God’s justice to be meted out toward them. In his small-mindedness, this can only mean annihilation. He cried out to God for rescue from the belly of the great fish. In spite of his disobedience, God dramatically rescued him. Jonah reasoned that he was entitled to God’s good grace. Too often we follow suit. We demand justice when what is needed is God’s mercy. Our myopic prayer is, “Be loving to me—but not to them!” We want to keep our God and the best of God’s gifts for ourselves. We’re often like spoiled children, assuming we are deserving of our parents’ Visa Gold Card to buy the life of our dreams. We are entitled to the best whereas those poor schmucks over there have it coming!

It’s interesting to note that the whole city of Nineveh repents of their sin when a foreign prophet comes in and mumbles a really pathetic sermon. Clearly it wasn’t his words or oratory skills that converted them. So what did? Their hearts were unguarded such that they were able to encounter God—one they had never met before—in spite of the messenger! The “heathens” met and worshiped God whereas Jonah, who had grown up with this God and been rescued a couple of times, sat in a heap of his own pity. He was pouting and unimpressed. If Jonah were our child, sulking because there was no petting zoo at his birthday party, we would want to shake some gratitude out of him! We would probably raise our voices to teach this selfish child a lesson. But I imagine God dealing quietly with Jonah. God asks the prophet a reflective question: Is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s answer shows he is still inwardly focused: “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Gently building the case away from entitlement, God continues the effort to move the reluctant prophet’s view away from his own self-interest: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

And that’s where the story ends. Not at the triumphant conclusion of one of the greatest movements in national penance we’ve ever read about. It ends with a quiet confrontation of one of God’s chosen servants about the sin of entitlement and the universal need for grace. Who are our Ninevites? Do we want them to be saved? Or have we already turned our back on them and walked away?

I remember the wristbands we wore about twenty years ago: WWJD. What would Jesus do? Do we believe that Jesus has enough love to go around? Or is it a limited commodity that we need to hoard? Entitlement or grace? Jonah’s struggle still confronts us.


Crazy Forgiveness

We spent this past summer, as a congregation, in an extended family reunion. Our scripture passages traveled through Genesis, reminding us of the stories of our ancestors in the faith. They were not necessarily the tales that make us beam with pride! However, as with our own family trees, sometimes we find in the raked up pile of dead leaves something of great beauty. The passage from Genesis 50 is one such high point for the family of Abraham and Sarah.

In the Joseph narrative the father plays an ongoing critical role. He has served as the buffer between competitive brothers who have grown into men. Backing up several decades, Joseph faced peril when his father was more than 60 miles away from him and his older brothers were tending the sheep. In this story we jump in where Jacob has died, leaving the scheming older brothers without any protection from the old man. They have reunited with the younger brother they sold into slavery years earlier. They are shocked that Joe is not only alive but now elevated to a position of great authority, second in national command. He is charged with oversight of a national relief program through which folks traveling to Egypt because of a widespread famine would be given food. This is what led to the migration of Joe’s brothers to the country where he had landed in chains years earlier. In their unlikely encounter, foreigners throwing themselves at the mercy of a ruler, Joseph ultimately reveals himself to the brothers. The tables have turned. Joe’s elderly father learns that his son is alive! He is carted endless miles in the company of his guilt-ridden sons for a tender reunion.

In this passage, Jacob has died. The older brothers are terrified because Joe holds the power to do them in. Without the father keeping the peace, why would Joseph treat them with anything but revenge? An eye for an eye, right? So the brothers contrive a deathbed wish of the father who can no longer refute what they say. Dear old dad, they informed young Joe, had pleaded for him to forgive the sins of his older siblings. They are still conniving in an effort to win mercy from their powerful brother. The assumption is that someone who holds power over others will use it to exact justice. Given what they had done to him years earlier, they legitimately had it coming.

Nineteen years ago we kicked off our new program year in our congregation with celebrative worship and Sunday School classes reconvening. People reconnected with each other over coffee, telling tales of their summer adventures. Two days later our Tuesday morning Bible Study class met for the first time. Before class started we had heard about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Folks assumed it was a terrible accident. We talked about it in class, prayed for the victims then the students headed home 90 minutes later. During that time three more planes crash landed into buildings and fields, confirming that it was an act of terror. I remember my office administrator and me talking in hushed tones, trying to make sense of the senseless. We didn’t know how to respond to such an assault on our national security. I remember we posted a note on the church doors that read: “The Church is closed due to a national emergency.” Then, like everyone else, we fled for home where we surrounded ourselves with our loved ones and stayed glued to the TV.

19 years later we still ask ourselves what justice looks like. To protect ourselves from further aggression, we put new security measures in place that we still live with today. Think of how different it is to check in for a flight now than it was 20 years ago. We went to war and sought to hold accountable those groups that orchestrated the 9-11 attacks. We hunted down leaders in spider holes and fast asleep in heavily armed quarters. An eye for an eye, our Old Testament lesson proclaims. Our understanding of human justice guided us in our retribution. Did that make us feel better? Safer? Certainly it did, to some extent. But we wrestle with a bigger issue as Christians. What does our love of a forgiving God suggest as the correct response to those who targeted us as enemies and killed more than 3000 of our loved ones? The cost of forgiveness is great. It requires repentance that can only come after a long time of actively seeking to understand each other. Forgiveness in the face of such suffering does not come from our human effort. It can only be found when we submit to the One who instructed us to love our enemies.

Years earlier, without the protection of the father, Joe’s brothers turned their jealousy into an act of terror. They sold him as a human slave to a traveling caravan of merchants. They shook the dust off their feet and headed home to a completely new reality. Their father was never the same again, believing his son was killed by a wild animal. The brothers, who made up the lie to cover their unthinkable crime, lived with guilt and shame. Meanwhile, young Joe suffered at the hands of his captors but ultimately was elevated, by God’s grace, to a position of power. Absent his own family, he established a new community in Egypt. Once his family migrated to Egypt at Joseph’s invitation, Jacob became a father figure not just to his own children. At the time of his death the Egyptian servants mourned his passing just as family would do. Joe hung onto his faith, a man who belonged to two communities.

The brothers assume that justice is meted out with reciprocity. When he weeps at their request for mercy, they fear for their lives. Fulfilling the dream Joseph had decades earlier, they bow down to the one they had sold for a handful of change. In an ironic turn of events, they offer to become his slaves. This, they hope, will pay off the debt which may spare them their lives. But young Joe changes up the narrative. He interrupts the generational cycle of victimization with something the older brothers never saw coming: forgiveness. This is the wildcard that can only be described as crazy! Joe sees something good in these siblings who had tried to get rid of him. He sees their changed hearts. As they weep together, a dozen men grieving the loss of their father and a long-ago loss of innocence, Joseph reminds them of who truly has authority. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”

Charles Colson’s prison ministry takes people into prisons to meet with inmates, to worship with them and get to know them. A group of them visited a large penitentiary where an execution was scheduled for the next day. As usual, every person from the ministry team was accounted for upon entering for the prayer meeting. Afterwards the inmates filed out and Colson’s team was shocked to discover that they were one man short! A frenzied search in the facility located the Christian man sitting in a prisoner’s cell, praying with him. It was the cell of the man who was to be executed. The irate group of missionaries upbraided the man for putting their program at risk. “How could you do this to us?” they yelled. The man answered, “My name is Judge Brewer. I am the judge who sentenced this man. I am here because we both need time to forgive one another.”

In commenting on this text from Genesis, Claudio Carvalhaes states, “For us, as for Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness never comes without weeping.” That’s how we know God is at work. When our own efforts at achieving justice meet with failure, God steps in. When we are unable to forgive someone who has wronged us, the One who instructs us to love our enemies enables us to let go. Our world urges us to ask for the maximum punishment but we discover that we still feel weighted down with sadness after the sentencing. Some people die having carried hatred toward their enemies for decades. Their God-given gifts dried up because they invested their energy into human equations for justice.

The story ends with young Joe proclaiming that God brought good out of their evil. The way its phrased could make it seem like God was the author of the original sibling betrayal years before. This is troubling. Why would God cause significant harm so as to teach a lesson in forgiveness a lifetime later? Timothy Cargal offers an answer that makes more sense of the God I know and serve. He writes, “God is neither directly nor indirectly responsible for the plan to sell Joseph into slavery; rather, God actively engages what they have done so that ultimately it has a redemptive rather than destructive result.”

In this playing field of daily human activity, our interaction is often harmful toward one another. Many times that hurt is unintentional and immediately regretted. But sometimes it is intentional and that kind of malice is deeply damaging. In the midst of our power struggles and insecurities, God is at work. Just as Jesus brought healing and even restoration of life, God redeems our messes into moments of forgiveness. When undeserved mercy is offered, tears flow, hearts are healed, and God is praised.


What Manner of Love?

Illusionist David Blaine rose to new heights in his impressive professional life last week. Strapped to 52 helium balloons, he ascended into the sky at the rate of about 500 feet per minute. He ultimately floated more than five miles above the surface of the earth. During this time he communicated with folks watching from below, sharing his awe for the amazing view with his 9-year old daughter, Dessa. He trained for the stunt for two years. He finally detached himself from the balloons and fell toward the Arizona desert before releasing his parachute. He landed upright and jubilant to have conquered yet another seemingly impossible feat. When reunited with his daughter, he hugged her and said, “I did this for you.”

I shook my head when I heard that because it would never cross my mind to show my love for my children in that way. Nor do I think my kids would appreciate me taking on such a daunting experiment for their sake! Of course, Blaine’s profession and very nature is to push his human limits. But I will settle for making a good dinner for my family so that we can sit together and get caught up on life!

By what manner of love are we to care for those around us?

For many parents the past six months have been disappointing. Their graduating seniors have not been able to march to the beat of “Pomp and Circumstance” with their classmates. Open Houses have been cancelled. The freshman dorm experience has been replaced with working on-line to complete the homework professors have assigned. Much anticipated wedding celebrations have been put on hold or greatly changed. First day of school outfits have been the same shorts and t-shirts they wore all summer with school supplies set out near their in-home study area. Parents have been broken-hearted that they couldn’t provide for their children the typical sorts of parties that celebrate their accomplishments. So what manner of love do we owe our children as parents when a pandemic sweeps in?

The Christian mystics say that God’s love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. There are so many rules we teach our children so that they will be happy, healthy, law-abiding citizens. But Paul’s writing reiterates the teaching of Jesus. If you love one another, every other law we’ve mandated will be observed. Human law must bow down to the demands of love, not the other way around. Laws become burdensome. One much-needed regulation multiplies into several others as interpretations of situations challenge the original intent. We witness how our laws are not evenly applied. Is it possible that we could ever subject our human laws to this holy standard of Godly love on earth? Or should we just give up on that now and settle for minimal harm in our own neighborhoods?

“A Most Beautiful Thing” is a documentary that is newly released on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. It tells the story of the first African-American high school crew team from the 1990’s. Many of the young men who got into the boat together came from rival gangs. But, once in their vessel, they strained to the same rhythm and competed for a shared prize. This program gave the young men hope for a different future than the past they had lived. Being on the water gave them a peace they didn’t know before. Several of them reunited and decided to race together again. Arshay Cooper, who continues to transform the lives of Chicago youth through a row team, suggested to his former teammates that they invite several Chicago Police officers to train with them. It was not a popular suggestion at first. But the friends agreed and the cops showed up for the training regimen. They climbed into the boat together to compete at the Chicago sprints rowing event as a public display of unity. When folks can gather safely again, they intend to have a cook-out together with their families.

What manner of love is asked of us as Christians in an increasingly secular world?

In writing to a diverse urban congregation in Rome, Paul impressed upon them the urgency of acting NOW: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…” Do we awaken with a sense of urgency? We do when it comes to finding a vaccine that will effectively eradicate the COVID virus that has so disrupted our lives. But do we have a strong sense of mission about what we can do in the present moment even with restrictions that keep us separated? Paul challenges those early believers in Jesus to awaken from their sleep. It’s been nearly six months since we shut down our society to stay safe from an invisible enemy. Huddled in our homes with the news continually streaming, it was easy for us to step away from a sense of responsibility toward others and into a survival mode. As we say goodbye to the summer-that-wasn’t, we’re called to awaken from our Quarantine Slumber and look for new ways to serve as a congregation. After decades of living as the “Me Generation”, a deadly virus has reminded us that we don’t have the control we thought we did. Our values have been exposed as too often self-centered and destabilizing. “Just do it”, an advertising campaign that has made billions, falls flat as a motto when we must wear a mask simply to survive a grocery outing.

In this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers the good news that we have the real possibility of genuine transformation because of what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ. Though our world seems to have spun out of control, Paul assures us that the very axis on which our lives turn has not changed. God was, is and will always be in control and Christ is particularly near in our time of need. So we reconvene in safe ways as a congregation to reassure our children that faith in Jesus is what will keeps us anchored. The need is greater than ever for our families to relinquish their plans into the loving care of their Creator. Rev. Barbara Lundblad offered these words in a sermon she preached in 2005: “Christianity is not a ‘spiritual’ religion, it is an incarnational religion. It believes that God has a body, that God takes up space, that God will not remain ethereal and vague, distant and detached. In his body, God takes up space, God becomes a fact, an undeniable fact that must be dealt with and encountered, must be either acknowledged and followed, or else ignored and denied.”

And so we acknowledge and follow. In our congregation we make plans to teach our children through zoom Sunday School classes. We registered them for the new year in our parking lot, offering ice cream bars for them and their families. We’ve started back in our sanctuary for worship where they will remain seated with their parents until it’s safe to meet in classrooms again. We affirm that God uses us, uses our bodies, to make an imprint for good in our panicked world.

Paul affirms that love does no harm to a neighbor. Those who read his words in this letter would have remembered Jesus’ teaching about who our neighbor is: the most despised member of another tribe or race, a rival gang, or someone with a different lifestyle. This is who we are to actively love and serve. With the fear and suspicion that dominate our culture we have replaced the Golden Rule with an unwritten plan to keep our distance from others. Don’t do anything to them and, maybe, they won’t do anything to me. Rather than stepping out in risky expressions of caring, we find ourselves safe—and alone. We have felt a profound loneliness in the past months and may have come to finally understand that we are meant to live in community. We need each other. My gifts are meant to be shared with you as I receive what you have to offer to me. Rather than insisting that our personal freedoms supersede those of others, we are learning that we must work together in order to triumph over the sin that divides us.

Paul spells out three pairs of immoral behavior: wild parties, promiscuous hook-ups and conflict within families and faith communities. He puts those on a par with each other. Quarreling and jealousy are as damaging as drinking our lives away, Paul would say. But he reminds us that love can accomplish in us what even the best laws cannot: a transformation of the heart. There is an urgency to use these isolating, fearful times to do some soulful introspection. Am I turning to God with my fears and questions, trusting that I can grow through this time, not merely survive? Am I inviting God to use me so that I can serve as the Body of Christ, leaving my footprints in places that point to His healing love? Or am I holed up and focused on insuring my own safety against an alien world?

Paul uses the imagery of night and day. The time of darkness is coming to a close and a new day is dawning. So put on clothing that will be appropriate for the demands of a new day. What might that look like? It might be rowing gear that puts you into a boat with teammates who look different from you. Yet you strain toward a prize you all can share. It might be teaching your students in zoom classrooms with the same passion you offered in a physical room. It could be putting on a firefighter or police uniform to provide rescue to those who could put your own well-being at risk. It could be wearing a cross necklace so that folks understand that it is your faith that supports you. I hope that for many of you it will be an outfit of love that will be shared with our own church children and youth so that another generation will be taught the manner of Christ-like love that will keep them upright in a continually changing world. So wake up! It’s a new day. The time is now. The call to faithful discipleship is urgent. You needn’t soar to great heights like David Blaine to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. The law is simple: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.


A Prayer

God of grace and mercy, we awaken with a remembrance of the unimaginable horror of this day 19 years ago. We lift up those who continue to grieve deeply the loss of loved ones because of the attacks of 9-11. We pray that your healing power continues to bring them peace. We are saddened by the way the attacks undermined our sense of national security. But we are grateful to remember how this act of terror unified us as a nation. We are thankful for the heroism that shone forth from the ashes of destruction. We pray for that same unity today in our country. We pray that we continue to learn that our security can only be firm if established in You. On this day of remembrance may we turn to the healing grace of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.


The Sea is So Wide

In 2009 our family headed to the East Coast for a tour of different ballparks. The itinerary was set by our newly graduated son, James. It was his family “senior trip.” One side venture was a pilgrimage to my old haunts in Camp Springs, Maryland. My dad was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base when I was in elementary and Jr. High School. We found my house and then, from my distant memory, retraced my steps to my elementary school where I had proudly served as a crossing guard. Finding the Jr. High School proved to be a bit more challenging. I remembered that it was Roger B. Taney Jr. High. We tried to pull it up on our phones but it wasn’t there. Finally, in an on-line article, we learned that the school had been renamed years earlier: Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

This prompted some research on our part. What would lead to a name change, we wondered? The name attached to my childhood school belonged to a Maryland native who served as Chief Justice on the United States Supreme Court from 1836-1864. He was the author of the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that upheld slavery. This then dictated that blacks couldn’t hold U.S. citizenship or vote. Proud of their native son, the school had been named after him in the 1960s.

The Washington Post published an article on March 5, 1993 about the name change. The neighborhood surrounding the school at that time was 83% black. Sheila Jackson, the PTA President for one of the Elementary Schools that fed into the Jr. High, celebrated the name change. She said that she and her husband had determined that they could not, in good conscience, send their four children to a school named after a man who so devalued their race. Tia Joseph, a 13-year old student at the school clearly articulated the power in a name: “I believe almost everyone would want to have a school named in honor of a man who showed himself worthy of such a proud title.”

So the school named for one Maryland Chief Justice was replaced with another: Thurgood Marshall Middle School. Another son of the state, Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. He was a civil rights activist and founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educaitonal Fund. 14-year old Anganette announced to the press that she was looking forward to throwing out her Roger B. Taney school swag to replace it with a name that better represented her. After the school board voted unanimously in favor of the change, they received a 30-second standing ovation then recessed so the audience could celebrate with cookies and punch!

The story from Matthew 14 is featured in three of the four gospels. It follows immediately on the heels of the miraculous feeding of the 5000. Having witnessed Jesus’ supernatural powers, the disciples’ faith is put to the test when a violent storm sweeps in while the 12 of them are alone on the Sea of Galilee. We learn about His power over nature in this story about boating-gone-awry. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus in the storm. He calls out to them, “It is I.” Good Jews that they were, they would have heard the name “Yahweh”, the Hebrew name for God that translated as “I am who I am.” God incarnate was on the seas that day just as God had been present in the burning bush before another man of faith generations earlier.

Peter was a disciple of Jesus who followed the lead of his master completely! When he realizes that it’s Jesus out on the water he makes a very strange request. In the windswept blur of a terrifying storm, Peter asks for proof that it’s Jesus in a way I certainly would not suggest! He calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Somehow I imagine the other disciples saying, “What?? Are you out of your mind?! Peter, no!” But Peter doesn’t just jump into the water on his own power. He’s smart enough to know that he will have to rely completely on Christ if he’s going to do something so impossible. If Jesus calls him, he is willing. If Jesus calls him, Jesus will equip him. Jesus’ response to Peter’s proposal is both simple and terrifying: “Come.”

I admit that my warning antennas go up when I read this story about Peter. As a parent I can hear the challenge to my kid: “If Peter jumped out of a boat, would you?” Peter was that adventurous, impulsive, passionate friend your folks warned you about. “Don’t hang with Petie. He doesn’t have a lick of sense! He doesn’t think before he acts!”

teenage boys sitting on edge of boat
Photo by Denniz Futalan on

Folks have followed the directives of Jesus and done some illogical things. Perhaps you remember the story about John Chau, a 26 year old American who tried to spread the Gospel to natives on the island of North Sentinel? The island residents are members of a tribe that has lived there for 30,000 years. They have a long history of vigorously repelling outsiders from their shores. Young John knew this but felt called by Jesus, in November of 2018, to bring Christianity to them. One of the arrows shot at him on the first day of his visit pierced his Bible. The second day the arrows pierced him and he died.

What does Jesus expect of us? Are we listening? Are we feeling the nudges? Are the stories in the news connecting with us such that we hear Jesus calling out to us, “Come”? Or are we staying in the shallows where we can ensure our own safety? When we were in San Antonio last November we took a boat ride through the scenic canals of that city. Our tour guide had a good sense of humor. He told us about a tourist years ago who had fallen into the water during one of his tours. The man thrashed around in the water and cried out for help. The guide calmly called out to him, “Stand up.” Finally, the panicked man listened to him and…stood up! He was in 2 feet of water that barely covered past his knees. Do we stay in the shallows when Jesus calls to us or are we, like Peter, ready to go deep knowing that it is Christ who will keep us upright?

Senator John Lewis

Senator John Lewis, whose death we grieved as a nation last month, leaves behind a compelling legacy of following Jesus. He was arrested 24 times, protesting peacefully for equal rights for African Americans. He was jailed, beaten with chains, lead pipes, stones and bats. He led the march from Selma to Montgomery, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with 600 marchers. An ordained pastor, he knelt to pray and was beaten on the head by state troopers who left him for dead. He bore those scars on his skull for the rest of his life. If Jesus called you, would you follow? Would you go where you know you’re not welcome? Would you step into harm’s way to shield another from attack? As a young adult Lewis expressed the need to become involved in “good trouble, necessary trouble” in order to achieve change. He followed that conviction throughout his long life, memorably marching alongside of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a horse-drawn carriage, his body was carried across the same bridge where he was beaten 55 years earlier, an honored statesman. Bold voices are now suggesting that the Edmund Pettus Bridge be renamed in Lewis’ honor. Pettus was a soldier in the Confederate Army and served as an Alabama Senator from 1897-1907. After the Civil War he was politically active in the KKK. Do the citizens of Alabama hang on to that history? Or do they listen to the voices of their people and choose a name that inspires us to follow Lewis’ commitment to good and necessary trouble?

Marion Wright Edelman is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She has been an advocate for the well-being of underserved children for decades. She adopted the Breton Fisherman’s prayer for her organization: “Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” In her newsletter, Edelman wrote about a theologian friend who sat in a Jiffy Lube waiting room while her car was being serviced. Looking for some reading material, she found a magazine on boating. She read about traffic rules that must be followed in open waters when boats encounter each other. It described two kinds of boats: burdened and privileged. She writes, “The craft with power that can accelerate and push its way through the waves, change direction, and stop on demand is the burdened one. The craft dependent on the forces of nature, wind, tide, and human effort to keep going is the privileged craft. Since powerful boats can forge their way forward under their own power, they are burdened with responsibility to give the right of way to the powerless or privileged vessels dependent on the vagaries of the tide, wind, and weather. “Who wrote this thing?” my friend asked. “Mother Teresa? What’s going on in our land when the New Jersey State Department of Transportation knows that the powerful must give way if the powerless are to make safe harbor and the government of the United States and the church of Jesus Christ and other people of God are having trouble with the concept?”

Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.

The 12 disciples, hanging on for dear life as their boat pitched in the wind and waves, carried on their frightened shoulders the identity of the early Church and the precarious existence of future believers. When they cried out for rescue they learned that Jesus was there all along. Peter goes down in history as an example of what to do and what not to do. In this terrifying moment, his devotion to Jesus grabs our attention. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Seriously?! And Jesus doesn’t talk him out of it. Jesus doesn’t tell him it’s really shallow and he’ll be alright after all. Jesus doesn’t tell him to suck it up and be a man. Jesus doesn’t baby him and give him the easy way out. It’s a one-word invitation that is somehow heard over the crash of waves in the dark of night: “Come.” And Peter got out of the boat, sights set on his Savior, and walked across the water. Of course, he got freaked out when he saw what Jesus was enabling him to do and he sank. But, for a moment, he grabbed onto the power that comes from following Jesus.

The Church sets sail in choppy waters all the time. The storm was stilled only after Peter stood in there for all of us. He asked Jesus to help him do a hard thing and then he did it. He didn’t hide in the hull of the boat, pretending that the storm wasn’t there. He didn’t give in to despair and decide that the ship was going down. He relied on Jesus and stepped out of the boat and into complete reliance upon  his Savior.

after the storm-clouds and sun

Will Willimon reminds us of the high calling that comes to us as disciples: “So if in the dead of night, or maybe near dawn, you should hear a voice, calling your name, a strange voice calling you to rise up, to sail forth, to risk the storm, to defy the waves, there is a good chance that voice could belong to none other than your very Lord and Savior. Who would dare to call an ordinary, not very spectacularly faithful one like you to such high adventure, to such risk and struggle? I think you know who.” ‘(Pulpit Resource, Vol 33, No. 3. Year A. July, August, September, 2005, p.28.)