Religion that Passes Muster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by AdamLowly on

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

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

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

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

Photo by Katerina Holmes on

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


Sacred Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prayer and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preach it, brother Andrew!

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Re-runs of Jeopardy will be my future choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


What is it?

Each summer there is a day when the church fridge cries out to me to be purged of all that is unclean! Even though our food ministries have narrowed greatly this past year, there still is an accumulation of food items that are abandoned in our refrigerator. I saw this jar that was in the very back corner of a middle shelf. Pulling it out, I wondered, “What is it?” Lemon marmalade! What says “church supper” like a jar of lemon marmalade? It appears to be unopened but is, nonetheless, a bit sticky. The label assures me that it was “Cheerfully prepared for Horrocks Market.” When I checked the “best used by” date, it was clearly marked: March of 2017. Hmmm. That means it was sold years before 2017. It also told me that it had hidden in our fridge for years! What is it for? Who brought it in? How could we miss it? So many questions from a jar of specialty jam!

In Exodus 16, we read the familiar story of God sending daily food to the Israelites who are wandering through the wilderness. They are six weeks into their life of freedom from Egyptian captors but the setting is harsh and food is impossible to find for a nation of people. God sends an unknown food staple that is described as a flaky substance, almost as frost, that appears each morning. On the first manna morning, they mutter to each other, “What is it.” The question gives identity to the mystery food item which is named manna, meaning, “What is it?”

Poor Moses and Aaron get more than they bargained for when the food and water supply runs short in the desert. The Israelites grumble and the two brothers at the top of their ad hoc political order are held accountable. Suddenly the refugees look back on their life of slavery as luxuriant. A “Back-to Egypt Committee” forms and quickly gains momentum. In the rough conditions of their freedom, they wish to go back to slavery.

Many times we look in on these spiritual forebears and judge against them for their whining. Perhaps, now that we faced our own wilderness of COVID quarantine, we can be more generous of spirit. Remember the panic that erupted when grocery shelves were emptied of basic food items and bottled water? Remember how many of us gained weight this past year because food offered comfort in that frightening time? When our world is rocked, we become very concerned with where our next meal is coming from!

It’s instructive to see that God responds to this grumbling with compassion. Everyday there is a new supply of this “What is it” foodstuff and water flows freely even out of rocks! There is no need to hoard or overeat. God teaches these struggling believers to trust in divine provision. God teaches them (and us!) that blessings will come to us from the most unlikely circumstances. Their national identity is being reshaped from slave to free. But there’s nothing easy about letting go of a mindset of dependency even on an enslaving master. After all, they have been an enslaved people for 400 years! Slavery becomes an identity as much as it is a despised lived reality. In our world, we are now invited to take off the mask and walk into a sports arena with throngs of fans. But we greet that long-awaited permission with anxiety because we’re still not sure our world is safe. Much as we yearn for certain privileges, we carry with us a recent past history that emphasizes elusive but real threat. Accepting this new gift of freedom is challenging to accept. With the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were given the liberation for which they had fervently prayed. But it didn’t come in the packaging they expected. So they pined away for the familiar life of slavery.

The verb “to complain” that is used in this text means something like “to grumble” or “to express resentment.” The nation of God’s chosen people bring their gripes to Aaron and Moses but they also direct their discontentment toward God! Their gratitude evaporates in the face of hunger and they blame God for their misery when, in fact, God had orchestrated their escape. Instead of getting understandably angry with this throng of ingrates, God promises relief: Bread every morning and meat at night. Water will be ever-replenishing and their needs will be met. God understands the frustration and fears of these people who have forgotten their identity as God’s beloved children. It’s not an easy lesson to learn a new way of life so God takes us by the hand and leads us, step-by-step, into a new day.

God is the provider of every good and perfect gift. I wonder what those gifts are for you? I wonder if you’re able to live a doxological lifestyle when hardship confronts you? While we certainly don’t seek out suffering, our greatest spiritual growth happens in those times of testing. It can be in the isolation of the wilderness that we most nearly experience God’s presence!

Thomas Steagald assures us that God certainly had a plan to provide for the newly-freed nation but their whining against their liberator ruined the party! There is good news for the liberated captives but they can’t hear it. Suffering changes their worldview and they grab onto whatever seems sturdy. Clinging to faith in an unseen God when faced with hungry children and weary elders is a luxury! The Jews look around their makeshift camp and ask God about the promised blessings? Where are they? How can we live in this precarious situation indefinitely? When we are literally on the move each day, not knowing where we will pitch our tent at night, what is the source of our strength that will get us to the promised land? Rein Bos writes, “Life is no longer under the oppression of fear and anxiety but under the ‘regime’ of freedom. The place of shortage, threat, and death is re-described, rearranged, and even recreated by the Lord to a place of abundance, promise, and life. The place that was thought to be a place of death, thirst, and enemies can become the locus of the glory of the Lord; the wilderness turns out to be more brilliant than Egypt.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3)

When did you learn to prefer the new life of the wilderness to the old way of doing things? I talked with some of our young parents at our congregation’s celebration of Vacation Bible School last week. They are running from vacation sites to swim camps to family gatherings and finally back home. They have enough time to wash their clothes and check their mail before heading out again! They confessed to looking back with some yearning to the fearful times of the COVID quarantine when we were mandated to stay put in our houses. A virus cleared our calendars overnight! The quiet home life they experienced when our movement was restricted has taken on an air of “the good ol’ days.” How do we carry the lessons of the pandemic into a world that has already ramped back up to a proverbial treadmill pace? We know that the freedom we’ve experienced this summer from COVID restrictions are celebrated but we wonder what sort of daily pace we want to reclaim. What lessons do we learn from the past that grant us wisdom and balance in the present moment? The Jews are released from their chains but they eke out a living in an inhospitable land. They do not yet have any rules established for how to be a community of faith since the ten commandments have not yet been given. Their focus is on survival. They want to believe that God has a plan for their future but what is it? And when will they get there? Like fidgety children half an hour into a long journey, they cry out, “Are we almost there yet?”

One of the gifts of the global pandemic is that we’ve learned to be adaptable. We have had to sacrifice from our old ways of doing things. We reluctantly accepted the drive-by graduation celebration, the parking lot wedding, or the neighborhood picnic where everyone brings their own food and eats at a distance from  each other. We prefer the grand celebrations of the past, the parties that take months to plan and a paycheck to fund! But in these creative responses to necessary social distancing, God has surprised us with joy! We discover that being together is what really matters, not the food or home décor or whatever other external element we fixated on in the past.

At a wonderful family reunion last weekend, we projected family pictures on an outdoor screen of past gatherings of our clan. My grandmother’s sister was beloved “Aunt Jean” to several generations. There were many pictures of Thanksgiving meals seated around her table. But, to accommodate the large group in her relatively small house, the table she had to use was the ping pong table in her unfinished basement. It was covered with a table cloth and folding chairs surrounded it. The Maytag washer and dryer functioned as a food service station. Anyone over 5’10 inches tall knew to protect their head from exposed pipes when they moved about. We pointed this out to our kids who have been raised in a Martha Stewart world with virtual pages of Pinterest suggestions. What we learned in the wilderness of COVID is that a front porch on a chilly afternoon is a cherished spot to sit with loved ones, masked and bundled, just because we can be together. Joy is always available if we are willing to see it.

In this story we meet the Israelites at a time when their relationship with God was finally deepening. There’s nothing like a crisis to bond folks together. This stage in the life of the Jews is akin to new parents learning to understand the needs of their newborn child. What does this cry mean? Is that gas—or the first smile? What is it? When I arrive at his house, my grandson immediately takes me on a tour of many different items. I find myself encouraging conversation by repeatedly saying, “What is it?” And then I give it a name. It is a red truck. It is a seatbelt. It is a UPS truck (the best possible gift!). We learn about life when we ask God, with an open spirit, “What is it?”

This passage invites us to reflect deeply about our own trust in God and our compassion toward others for whom life is difficult. It reminds us that we need not hoard the gifts God sends our way. About the time that we found every store lacking in TP, our congregation was told that a church member had purchased several cases of the precious commodity that we distributed liberally and at no charge. Our own experiences with scarcity and holy provision ought to have awakened in us a desire to serve those who live on the edge all the time, those whose support systems are weak and contingency plans non-existent. The times when we nervously ask, “What is it?”, God teaches us—again—that our needs will be met and companionship for every part of our journey is assured. In the New Testament Jesus is referred to in several passages as manna. We have met and we worship the One who feeds us and satisfies us in body, mind, and spirit. His answer to our prayers will far exceed our flimsy expectations. Do we believe this?