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Star Witness

In reading the passage from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ baptism, I thought of a long-time member who lived to be over one hundred years old. She was very active: a golfer, walker and long-time swim teacher. She taught hundreds of kids over decades of instruction how to get into the water without fear and swim with joy. That’s no small feat! My memories of swim lessons as a girl are not particularly positive. I sat on the edge of the pool on cool summer mornings, shivering. I had to jump in before the sun had been up long enough to warm the concrete I sat on or the water I was asked to enter. My final exam was to swim ¾ of the way across the width of the pool to the teacher, who was treading water, swim around him and then return to the edge of the pool. I dog-paddled out to him with some level of calm. But when I got near him I panicked and grabbed onto the surprised teacher. It took me a few years to graduate from Beginners to Intermediate. Patient teachers along the way helped me face my fears and gain life-saving skills.

Isaiah 43 offers reassurance to us that the trials of life will never overtake us: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

Have you ever seen a small child learn to swim? They sputter and cough and gasp and we regret ever entrusting them to a swim coach. But then they learn. They float on their back peacefully, their eyes no longer big with fear but looking up at the sky that seems to envelop them. Befriending the water prepares a child for unexpected moments ahead. Baptism by water and Spirit is our entry into the Church. It was quite tame for most of us—sprinkling on our heads while held securely. But in some traditions it’s by full immersion and the preacher holds the person down a little longer on the third dunk. The message is clear: this is no small commitment. Your baptism is life-changing. This sacrament is a death to self and an acknowledgement of full reliance on God’s protection. It’s a unique entrance exam into club membership! For many organizations you offer words of allegiance and accept a membership pin. Then you sit down for cake and punch served afterwards to celebrate your new sense of belonging. Not in the Church! You get wet, your hair is slicked down and the words of the preacher remind you that you have died to self so that you can rise to new life in Christ.

Wait, what did I just commit to? I thought this was going to make my life easier?

There’s some amazing news in this story that we could easily overlook if we get lost in the details of a very human experience. God loves us so much that God entered our world vulnerably as a human being. The heavens are torn open and love descends in the form of a dove. It lands and stirs up a sense of calling in Jesus, who is anointed for ministry. Jesus’ baptism launches Him on His career in Mark’s gospel where there are no lengthy pauses or picnics. It’s full speed ahead until the heavens open again at the Transfiguration and, later, the crucifixion. In the wilderness the sweet dove is replaced with wild animals. Quite often adults who come to me excited to be baptized fall away from the faith a short time later. While baptism is a beautiful beginning point to a life of faith, there’s nothing easy about what follows. Temptations come our way. Recognizing them must be followed by resisting them. Our baptism doesn’t insulate us from the world’s pain. It gives us the spiritual tools to face that pain and triumph over it.

A picture is painted of John in just a few sentences. His clothing, his diet, and his words brand him as a fringe character. No wonder he is more at home in the wilderness than in the cities. He stands between the wilderness and the land flowing with milk and honey. Ted Smith writes, “John has become an all-purpose container for any kind of radical content.” He stands out and religious authorities show up in his rough neighborhood to check him out. Just three verses after our passage for today ends, we read, “After John was put in prison…” Baptizing his relative, Jesus, is one of the last things he did before he was imprisoned. He was killed as a star witness to this Messiah who was equally disruptive of the status quo. How many detective shows have we seen where the star witness is murdered before they can share what they know at a trial? It’s dangerous to get close to a controversial figure. It cost John his life.

John still calls out to us today as we struggle to embody our baptismal vows in daily living. He asks us to confess our sin, repent of it and enter into each new moment with hopeful expectation. Since God has broken through the heavens to claim us, we dare to have hope even when the world around us is marked by political strife and life-threatening illness. In baptism we reverse the direction of our life. The Greek word is metanoia which translates to mean that we turn around and repent. The whole church makes promises to accompany us on our bold journey of facing each temptation with spiritual strength. Our congregation has accepted the responsibility of accompanying countless parents in raising their children in the faith through the sacrament of baptism. If we think we can do it alone, we’re in trouble!

We speak of bubble-wrapped children in our culture today. Parents try to spare their children from any kind of hardship. Everybody gets a prize and no one is sent home from the party without a goodie bag. In baptism we are reminded that there has to be a balance between abandoning our responsibility to our children (neglect is on one end of the care spectrum) and controlling their every move. Lori Laughlin and her daughters have admitted to making mistakes in that area recently. She was released from prison over the holidays after a very public scandal over paying bribes to get her two girls into prestigious colleges. We do our children a disservice when we overly protect them and do their heavy but necessary lifting. On a rafting trip down the Little Muskegon River years ago one of our members got stuck in an eddy that is particularly strong right at the endpoint of the journey. We couldn’t imagine that the water was as powerful as she suggested until we spilled out of our boats to drag them out of the water. There are moments that seemingly come out of nowhere and we find that we are stuck in a whirlpool that threatens to pull us under. If our parents and other guardians haven’t allowed us to try out our chops on smaller problems, we will not do well. Baptismal love prepares us for the continual moments when we are released to try out our wings. Each time we entrust our children with freedom to make and learn from their own mistakes, they are readied to face bigger challenges.

In Mark’s Gospel there’s a secrecy motif. Jesus repeatedly tells folks who have witnessed a miracle not to tell anyone about it. He knows the danger that comes with being a key witness to controversial news. Jesus receives the Spirit and passes it on as a gift. He knows that His radical acts of mercy will cost Him His life at some point. But He doesn’t want to arrive at the cross until His earthly mission is complete. So He asks folks to keep what they’ve seen to themselves. His baptism is a rare parting of the heavens so that God’s presence can be easily discerned. I wonder if you wish that God would open up the heavens to answer your questions. Is it difficult to see God? Maybe you’ve had some memorable moments of God showing up in your life, bringing peace where there was only chaos? Maybe you had a wilderness period when you felt as if you were being stalked by wild beasts with no help from God? It’s been a rough week for our nation. It’s been a deadly year for our world. Much of the time we slog along, getting the job done without asking for much help. But then God shows up in glory and we realize that we have never been alone: in the water, in the fire, in the wilderness, on the boat. The more we cling to our faith in hard times, the more we will be able to draw on that strength again.

A Lutheran woman wrote, “That’s why I love attending a church with a rich liturgy, a church that has rituals. The thing I love is that even when you don’t feel like being with God, the Church, through liturgy, insists that you talk to God and also put yourself in a situation in which God can talk to you.”

When have you parked yourself in a place where you thought you would encounter God? When have you stuck with devotions, scripture reading, volunteer work you were ready to quit–because you knew it was the right thing to do? When have you offered a holy response to a secular problem? When have the heavens opened and God claimed you with a love that sent you into the next part of your journey refreshed. When have you gone out on a limb to be a  witness to your faith in Jesus Christ?

Ted Smith writes, “…for most of the Gospel this love lives out of sight, like a seed growing secretly. Only the demons know who Jesus is. The disciples stumble along, forever forgetting what they have seen and heard. The heavens seem not torn open, but sealed and silent—as they do so much of the time today.” So put on the life preserver we call Jesus. Allow Him to encircle you and the sweet children entrusted to your care. Know that He is always present in the boat with you. And when the waters get rough and you worry that you will capsize, cry out for God who called you by name at your baptism. Watch for the heavens to open and embrace you as a beloved son or daughter. Be a star witness to this Love no matter the cost. It will never fail us no matter what’s going on in the world around us.

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The Search

A church member forwarded a video to me this past week. It’s entitled “Point of Light” and features the actor, Tyler Perry, speaking of a key relationship in his childhood. He described his dad as a functional alcoholic who was abusive toward him and his young mother. Tyler lived in New Orleans and had a challenging route to get to school each day. He walked past drug dealers, poverty-stricken projects, gang members, and a graveyard to arrive at a six-lane intersection that was always busy. One day when he was a 13-year old middle school boy, he got to that intersection and heard a man calling out, “Will someone help me cross?” Everyone hurried by this man in a suit who stood still. Tyler offered to help and the man asked if he could have his shoulder. “Yes sir,” Tyler answered respectfully. The man carried a folding chair, a cooler filled with pralines and walked with a cane. He was blind. Tyler learned that the man was heading to his school, on the other side of the intersection, where he sold pralines to the students for 24 cents apiece. Soon Tyler became the daily “crossing guard” for Mr. Butler. They took that walk every day, Mr. Butler assuring this broken young man that “God will bless you for that kindness.” Perry states, “Mr. Butler was one of the first men in my life to see me. What made it all the more special is that he was blind. He was a point of light.”

One day Tyler was a bit late arriving at the intersection. Mr. Butler was there, standing still. Tyler approached him but decided not to say anything, following an instinct that it would be good to test Mr. Butler’s keen sensitivity. After just a moment of standing there with the quiet man, he said, ”I know you’re there, son.” When Tyler wondered aloud at how he could’ve known, the blind man assured the boy that he had been listening for him. He shared his faith by telling this adolescent boy from a broken home, “Sometimes in life, son, when you pray, you said all you can say, all you have to do is stand and wait and listen.” Mr. Butler was a point of light into Perry’s darkness as he was growing up. By offering a shoulder and a willing spirit, Perry received a gift far greater from this blind man who could see so clearly!

Sometimes we go on a search by traveling long distances. Other times we go on a search by standing still and waiting on God.

When Jesus was eight days old his parents did what was customary for Jewish parents in the first century: they took their infant son to the Jerusalem Temple to have him dedicated into God’s service. As this young couple, of meager financial means and far from home, entered the vast structure of the Temple courts, their journey was interrupted by two unlikely figures. One was an old man who came to the Temple everyday to worship. He believed a promise by God that he would live to meet the Messiah. Prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple that day, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this baby was the Jewish Messiah when these parents brought him in. He asked to take the child in his arms and said a blessing over him. Likewise, elderly Anna, who had lived in the Temple courts for years, sang the praise of this boy who would bring redemption to the oppressed Jewish nation. These two servants of God had been on a lifelong search for the One who would save them and their people. Their search kept them in the same place each day: the Temple. Anna fasted and prayed continually. Simeon’s life was guided by the Spirit. Their search didn’t take them far geographically but took them to a deep place spiritually. They recognized the Messiah when He arrived because they listened for Him.

The wise men also embarked on a search. They loaded up their camels to embark on a pilgrimage that took about a year of travel. They left their homes, their families, their communities, and their work to find a child that God revealed to them as a newborn King. A star that kept changing positions was their map. As the star moved, they redirected their course. Somehow I connected their journey to this beep in our house that we can’t quite locate. It seems like it’s in one area but then, when I’m on the upstairs landing, I can tell that it’s below me. When I’m downstairs, I know that it’s above me. When I’m in the kitchen it seems like it’s near the front door. When I’m in the dining room, I’m sure it’s coming from the laundry room. I’ve timed it: each beep is about 12 minutes apart and we keep searching for it. But it is elusive! I think of the wise men who must have had frustrating moments when their directional signals were challenged and the end destination unknown. They persevered, searching for an elusive king, until they found him. When they did, they offered him the gifts they had carried for many long miles. The star provided a point of light that lit the way and rewarded them in the end with great joy.

We enter this new year praying that there will be more light to show the way than we had in 2020. We religiously scanned the horizon in the year past, looking for hope when there seemed to be none. We found new avenues for channeling our love when physical distance kept us apart. My greatest joy at Christmas was that we could all be together, that we could hug our grandson and laugh together. The simple gifts of presence became very clear to us. The foundation of our faith is still being tested and strengthened as we continue the search for meaning in what feels like a foreign land. Like the beep in our home, we are continually distracted by one grim news story after another, being challenged to find a steady place where we could be still with the Holy.

Mary and Joseph suffered losses because of this Child. Simeon’s words must have seared like a knife when he predicted a future with great emotional suffering for the young mother. But they also received tremendous gifts with His birth. They encountered God in powerfully direct ways, enough to carry them into a very uncertain future. They received gifts fit for a King from foreign scholars who showed up after a lengthy journey only to fall on their knees and worship the child. Simeon and Anna were rewarded for their own journeys of piety that were lived out in the Temple on a daily basis.

Photo by Felix Bu00fcsselmann on Pexels.com

We enter the new year, continuing our search. I pray that last year taught us that the guideposts to our journey can be elusive and confusing. If we rely on our own senses, we will surely get lost. If we open ourselves up to serving others, helping others cross the busy intersections, we will be rewarded beyond measure. We would do well to learn the lesson Mr. Butler taught young Tyler while crossing a busy street: Yes, sometimes in life, dear son, precious daughter, when you pray, when you’ve said all you can say, all you have to do is stand and wait and listen. In those rare moments of connecting with others in Christian outreach, we will know that we are finally home.

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A Prayer for a New Year

This morning our congregation met by the miracle of Zoom to enjoy our breakfast while welcoming a new year. Here’s a litany I wrote that several church members offered to welcome 2021.

Litany as a Year Ends and Another Begins

Health

As we look back on 2020 we remember a virus that took our world by storm. We retreated to our homes. We stopped hugging. We left our offices and schools. Play dates ceased. Money became tight. Some people lost their homes. Others lost their lives. We grieve the loss of those who loved us and whose imprint upon us is lasting. In the thick of the pandemic, we mourn the loss of what once was. We welcome this new year with the promise of vaccinations and renewed freedoms. We are mindful that we will not be the same when we emerge from COVID and we thank God for the deep lessons we have learned in this time of trial.   (Light a candle)

Jobs

We are thankful that God gifts us with vocations, particular talents that serve our communities well. We rejoice when our labors can positively impact someone else. We are amazed at how we have learned to do our work in new ways with the limitations of COVID. We pray for those who are now unemployed or underemployed because of the virus. We continue to act with generosity toward those who are in need, knowing that Jesus modeled this in His own life. As we enter a new year we invite God to use us so that our work in home, office or school can be of benefit to our families and world.   (Light a candle)

Children

We look back on 2020 and praise God for the tremendous joy of new babies joining our families. We are thankful for parents who sacrifice so that their marriages are strong and model for their children a way of forgiving and loving. We rejoice in baptisms as parents commit to raise their child in the nurture of Christ’s Church. We pray for our children and youth who crave the routine of a school day. We are in awe of parents who have had to become home-schoolers for children who are tired of learning on screens. We pray for the mental well-being of the youngest members of our cities and towns. We pray for the estimated 18 million children in our country who are food insecure. Remembering that Jesus took small children in His arms and blessed them, we commit in 2021 to be strong advocates through prayer and action for our world’s children.    (Light a candle)

Worship

Our understanding of worship broadened in 2020. Words like Zoom and Streaming entered our congregational life. We taped directional arrows on the floor. We eliminated group singing. We worshiped in our pajamas and yearned to see our church friends. As we enter a new year we are assured that worship happens in our hearts every moment of every day. We miss our church family dearly and greatly anticipate the day that we can be together again safely in our sanctuary. But our worship has not ceased. We embrace the opportunities to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ through creative acts of kindness. We willingly sacrifice from the well-being of our own lives to support those for whom each day is a trial. Having faced our mortality squarely in the past year, we thank God for the gift of each day and the companions with whom we share our journey.  (Light a candle)

Nation

Even as the Corona Virus raged through our communities, our politicians stormed at each other with angry words. As our world narrowed to our homes, we tuned in to news programs that reminded us too often that we are a divided nation. We use different lenses through which we interpret current events. As we stand on the brink of a new year we invite God to unite us as we face issues of economic crisis and prejudicial attitudes. We pray for the new administration at the helm of our national politics that they may be guided by Christian virtues. We rejoice in the strong tradition of America to fight for the underdog and to place our trust in God so that freedom might ring forth for all. May this year be a time of reshaping our society into the likeness of the world God promises is yet to come.   (Light a candle)

World

It seems as if our world has shrunk in the past year. We realize we are tragically linked to a town called Wuhan in China. Our hearts have been stirred by our Italian neighbors who sang from their balconies for the renewal of their spirits. We have witnessed medical personnel of all nationalities responding courageously to a sickened world, sometimes giving up their own lives through their tireless service. We are grateful for scientists who worked together in unprecedented unanimity to find a vaccination that can bring relief and healing to our troubled globe. For the beauty of the earth, the treasured relationships that mark every culture, governments that have accomplished much by working alongside of other nations in the severe testing of 2020, we are thankful. We greet 2021 with hard-earned hope and an awareness that Christ’s love grows in the darkest places.   (Light a candle)

Faith

God of our ancestors, Creator of the universe, Lover of every soul that ever was or is or shall ever be, we humbly come into Your presence. We thank you for stirring within the depths of our being a hunger to be united with You. We thank You for the gift of Your Son, Jesus. We praise You for His earthly ministry which culminated in His willingness to lay down His life for the salvation of the world. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, call us into lives of servanthood. Forgive us our past so that we can leave baggage behind. Invigorate us in 2021 to run the race You set before us, our eyes focused on the prize of eternal life in Your glory. Renew our faith as we step out boldly to transform the ordinary into the holy. Through Your grace we pray. Amen.     (Light a candle)