Quietly Faithful

There have been times when I’ve run into someone at our local grocery store who has attended services here but not become an active member of the church. Their only contact with me is in worship. Sometimes it take a moment for them to recognize me. More than once I’ve had folks say,

“Oh! Sorry. I didn’t recognize you without your robe.”

Can you imagine if I wore my robe from the sanctuary to Meijer to pick up some milk and bread after worship? How do you think it would strike people if I walked through downtown Rockford, doing my Christmas shopping, in my robe and stole? I cannot imagine that it would draw people into our church!

This passage from Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus chastising the religious authorities for their desire to set themselves apart by wearing flowing robes. Their goal was to communicate authority. Rather than hungering for righteousness, they yearned for accolades of distinction.

Imagine now that I stand at the dam downtown and lift my hands heavenward and begin to offer lengthy prayers—loudly. Or I go to Ramona’s Table with some family members and project a detailed grace across our table and into the whole dining room. How do you think that would go over? Would it pack out our sanctuary the next week with folks who were moved by my public praying? Maybe.

Probably not.

Jesus lambasts the Temple authorities for their lengthy prayers. By definition, prayer is our conversation with God. Sometimes we pray in communal settings like worship. But these priests and pharisees subjected folks to their loud praying knowing that those around them had no choice but to listen. With the professional clout that they enjoyed, they knew people would at least tolerate their praying and maybe even be impressed by it. Jesus was not. He was not fooled by their insincerity and publicly called them out for their vain attempts to bring the focus to themselves rather than the God they served. You can imagine how well that went over with them.

Maybe you remember when the disciples trailed behind Jesus and argued about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, who had supernatural hearing, called them on it and taught them that, in His movement, the one who wants to be first must be last. They must have wondered if they had hooked their wagon to the right guy .

The temple leaders’ longing for high regard combined with a low regard for the needs of the poor. They spent their days studying the Torah, the Jewish Law for how to live a righteous life. But they did not fulfill the very laws the memorized. While promoting themselves in public settings, they overlooked those who were most in need of mercy.

Richard Swanson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, writes, “Somehow in election years everyone is the friend of the deserving poor. Even politicians whose policies in every other year are corrosive to the connections that hold rich and poor together in bonds of mutual responsibility, even such politicians can demonstrate in an election year, how electing their opponent will be bad for the poor. That is because the poor have no real standing in such wrangles. They are just there as a figure of speech. When real policy-making demands real attention to the causes and effects of poverty, it will generally emerge that figures of speech do not vote or make campaign contributions or lobby effectively. Or, as in the scene at hand, they show up as stock figures that can be used to illustrate something else entirely…”

The widow who quietly gave her last penny to the temple offering was completely overlooked by those dropping heavy coins into the plates. Maybe some of you have been to Yesterdog in Eastown? They have a metal container high above the service container into which you are invited to toss your coins. The challenge, of course, is to see if you can make the shot. Even if you don’t make it, the sound of the coin hitting the outside of the can is entertaining. In the Jewish Temple there were five different plates for the collection that were horn-shaped. People dropped their coins into the broad opening and it went down into a container. The heavier the coin the higher the worth and the louder the sound. The “poor widow” would have placed her only remaining coins into the Temple fund, making almost no sound. She and her offering could be easily ignored. For everyone but Jesus, she was invisible. The religious elite were so focused on swishing through the common areas in their grand robes that they had no eyes for anyone who couldn’t add to their popularity. Jesus began this day with a tirade against the money changers who took advantage of the peasants. He ended with a commendation of a widow who sacrificed her all for God.

I wonder what the Temple Fund was used for. Perhaps it was like our congregation’s building fund. Our trustees administer this account out of which we pay for repairs, maintenance and improvements. Just over 100 years ago the building fund would have been used to add a foundation to our sanctuary. In 2012 we had to fortify that foundation on the east wall because it was sagging and leaking. We cut holes through the dining room walls to add steel plates to our tired foundation. The result was an open panel on the inside of the wall hat invited us to turn it into a display area for artwork!

In the time I’ve been at First Congregational U.C.C. we have needed to replace the roof twice. Our windows that date back to the 1870’s were sagging and needed to be re-leaded. We have upgraded the sound system several times and added the screen in the past few years. We could not have known how important that would be with the requirements to worship without hymnals or Bibles or bulletins for more than a year. We try to strike a balance between keeping our facility in good shape so as to maximize our ministry and reaching out charitably to others.

I’m so grateful for our congregation’s generosity in the past eighteen months. Amidst the challenges COVID forced upon us, we kept up with our commitment to give a tithe of our income away. PPP loans were used for salaries and building costs so we were able to honor our mission commitments. I believe that when we go out on a limb to give toward the well-being of others, like the blessed widow in Jesus’ day, something spiritual happens. God smiles when we demonstrate that we are willing to entrust our finances to the One we praise from one Sunday to the next. The poor widow contributed to the Temple Fund that was overseen by powerful people who were held in high esteem and who lacked for nothing. Our congregation, like other church families, is transparent about our spending. The Trustees spend hours prayerfully crafting a budget that both honors our responsibility to help out God’s people but also keeps us afloat. This is not an easy task. There will be no PPP loans this next year. We continue to have to contend with the COVID virus for the foreseeable future. We give toward the “Temple Fund,” but so much more than that. We are blessed with support staff members who have worked creatively and exhaustively to shape programming that continues to nourish our congregation spiritually. Whether we were in the building or not, we kept it heated, cleaned, watertight and in good repair. Amidst great financial insecurity, we have given away more than 10%, to help people like the widow in the Jerusalem temple.

Several weeks ago I asked folks through our congregation’s Facebook page if they supported charitable organizations other than our church. The responses were impressive. By being part of our parish, our membership is serving with folks who are generous to our world. Outside of what we give from our church budget, church friends are supporting at least these organizations: Guiding Light, the Humane Society, Compassion International, Feeding America, Family Promise, Sisters of Sobriety, Kids Food Basket, Hand to Hand, North Kent Connect, Eastern Star Charities, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Salvation Army and Heifer International. We have a culture of giving in our congregation like so many other worshiping bodies in our nation. We’ve learned that entrusting a portion of our livelihood to God makes for a more meaningful personal life. It also, when combined with other likeminded Christians, makes for deep friendships among people who are rolling up their sleeves to minister to the least and the lost. I am deeply appreciative of the giving hearts I witness in the name of the God of the widow who gave her all 2000 years ago.

The sobering statistic is that the greater our wealth, the more unlikely it is that we will give 10% away, as the scriptures suggest. Wealth weighs us down. Managing our assets takes time and costs us sleep. The widow, who quietly gave her all in a busy temple while larger coins made boastful clanking sounds, reminds us of a spiritual truth. We are called to trust God for our daily bread. Not for our 401K and an addition to our ample homes. Daily bread. Enough for today so that we don’t lose sight of our dependence on God. She didn’t need to know how God would provide for her when she emptied her purse for Temple life.

Her generosity was rooted in a faith conviction. She knew that God would care for her. Simple faith that’s not so simple.


Prayer and Suffering

This past Sunday was the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death. On the Mother’s Day nearly six months later, my father wrote a reflection on the role of prayer when suffering. Her death at age 66 as a devout Christian prompted the kinds of questions that arise so easily when we are confronted with untimely, unjust death. I have given this to many people over the course of my ministry because he so beautifully probes the intent of prayer and what we might need consider to be a failure of prayer. So I offer you his sermon. He was a career Air Force Chaplain and then retired to serve a congregation where he and my mother developed deep and lasting friendships. It was very meaningful for me to preach his words (emotional as well!) on the anniversary of her death. Nine years after her death, my dad also died of cancer on my mom’s birthday. We took solace in knowing they were together again. I pray that you are blessed through this message that combines theology and love!

For six months I have assured you, Katie’s and my faithful and loving friends and family, that I would share my thoughts and beliefs on the power of prayer as it addresses suffering and disease. Part of this is for my own benefit because through all Katie’s suffering and her eventual death, I often had trouble adding it all up. The basic question that many of you have asked and which Katie and I discussed on more than one occasion is: What good is prayer if the condition about which one prays, in this case, Katie’s cancer, goes on unrelieved and unabated, leading finally to her death? Why pray, if we are involved in an apparent cosmic lottery where some who pray not at all are made well and those for whom hundreds pray with fervent devotion suffer and die? That’s the basic question and it is not an easy one with which to deal.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a little book many years ago entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Whenever I have asked groups to remember the title of that book, they always say, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People! Why do people change in their minds the “When” to a “Why?” Because that is what we all want to know and hope that book will tell us. It does not and does not pretend to.

Our question is not unique to us or even our era. It has been asked since the dawn of moral consciousness in the human mind. It is raised in the Bible by Habakkuk, Jeremiah and, of course, Job, among others. To begin to understand it we have to acknowledge a few basic facts of life. First of all, we will all die, early or late, quickly or slowly, justly or unjustly; but we will all die. Therefore, to pray for recovery from illness will, sooner or later, prove to no avail. At some time our prayer will fail. I have always contended that the job with the worst prospect of continued success was that of faith healer, because eventually they will fail in every case! So that is a given.

Secondly, if we believe in a God who seeks our good and not our harm, then there is nothing wrong with death itself as it must be part of God’s plan, if there is a God and if that God has a beneficent plan. So Christians who understand this do not fear death, even though they may not look forward to the process. Katie never feared death through the whole process. She did not welcome it or rejoice in it, but she did not fear it! So if we believe in a kind and good God who seeks our well-being, and part of whose plan involves the fact that we will grow old and die (or perhaps die without growing old) then somehow we have to reconcile this dilemma that has troubled us at least since the days of Job. To the believer, this too is a given.

So with these basic assumptions in place, our next question is then, “What is the purpose of prayer if not to make us well and at least postpone death?” The answer to me is found fairly clearly in the New Testament. Nowhere does it say that the purpose of life is to live long, or to live prosperously, or even to live well. The rich man who thought he had achieved that was called a fool?? It is to live lovingly. Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Old Testament and he replies with two (Mark 12: 29): “The first is ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The rest of the New Testament echoes this again and again. It is the dominant theme of the whole collection of books. It is, we must conclude, what God wants from us: Love for God and love for each other.

If this is what God wants, and God is in charge, we had better seek that which God wishes. I remember an Air Force chaplain friend of mine telling me his attitude toward inspectors when they arrive at his base to inspect the Chapel program. He said, “I try to find out as soon as I can what they want to hear and then tell it to them” While there is a certain duplicity in this, it does recognize the value of knowing who is in charge and that their will has a precedence over our own. Without the duplicity, something of the same nature is involved here.

So a valid prayer in this context is, “Lord, make me more loving of You and my neighbors.” For, in so doing, we are seeking to achieve the very things that Jesus says are the most important elements of God’s law. Jesus’ classic prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is instructive. He prays that the cup (symbolically meaning the cross) might pass from him, but then adds, “not my will, but Yours (God’s) be done.” From that I conclude that there is nothing wrong with presenting our own wants and needs to God in prayer, but the final criterion is not our will but God’s. We test our own desires and hopes against what we come to understand to be the will of God.

Once we accept that, then we seek in prayer that which is the loving thing to do and the loving state in which to operate. As we do this through a lifetime, we find that this giving up of our own selfish will in prayer and seeking instead to be instruments of God’s love, we find that the love we gave away keeps flowing back to us in multiplied measure.

Now let’s turn all that to Katie and our year we shared during her final illness. There were certainly times when we prayed and fervently wished for a miracle of healing for her. There even were times when a momentary success would convince us that we had received such a gift. But the background out of which we worked and prayed was one in which Katie had, to a remarkable degree, prayed through the years that hers would be a life of love and giving to me, to our kids, to our wonderful friends in churches here and across the Air Force, and to the many children she served and loved in conjunction with her paid and volunteer work on their behalf. On our gravestone we have inscribed under her name, “Loving Advocate of Children.” Such she indeed was. So in her case we entered this time of trial, of suffering, of sadness and ultimate separation with that foundation of love shared and reciprocated. We said to each other many times as the year went on, and well before we had reason to assume that she would not recover, that whatever the outcome of her illness, we had had a glorious ride together with wonderful parishes, amazing children and a vast host of loving friends.

So what happened through all of this? Obviously, she did not recover. But our relationship deepened as at no other time in our love for each other and its expression to each other. I seriously feel that if I were now given the choice of an instant, sudden death, or a lingering one such as she had, I would think long and hard before choosing the sudden one. A year before that would have been my automatic choice! The values that the two of us gained by this experience were immeasurable. The opportunities to sit and just talk about life’s deeper matters, (such as why the righteous suffer!) were invaluable. Secondly, the kids came in with regularity over the seven months after her surgery until her death. I made sure that I got out of the way when they were here so that they too could have undisturbed and meaningful times to visit with her on this profound level. After we were told that she would not recover, I began, at her behest, to schedule in friends and family for visits which we all knew would be final ones. These were shared moments that I know they cherish and I know from Katie’s comments, that she treasured. Finally, the enormous outpouring of love and concern from our friends in Bath and the host of friends from our Air Force years, as well as her friends from childhood and college, was almost overwhelming. This was the tide of love that she had sent out, coming back in glorious echo of that which she had given over the years.

So if the valid object of prayer is not just to tell God what we want and when we want it, but to learn in prayer of God’s desire for our love to God and extending from that to love for our neighbors, then Katie’s life was one of answered prayer. If that is what God wants from us, that is what He got from her in mighty measure. I have always been amazed at her capacity to give herself to others, happily including me (perhaps preeminently me!), but also embracing everyone she met. One of my fondest memories of her is when I would be greeting people at the door of the church after worship on Sunday morning, I would look out across the little narthex of our church and invariably Katie would be there, surrounded by many friends, a glowing smile on her face as she listened to each one’s story and/or needs. She would remember them all and tell me about them when we were home so that I might know and act upon them as my ministerial contacts made appropriate.

So if our prayers were simply that she would get better, they were not answered. But if we understood that all life ends sometime and that the object of it all from birth until death is not to prolong it as far as possible, but to fill it with love and joy for others, and if this is what we prayed for Katie, then our prayers were answered amazingly. And at no time in my 42 years with her were they answered more than in the last months of her life. Small and large miracles of love occurred with such regularity that we would often sit in amazement at what had just transpired. On numerous occasions we sat together and wept at the sheer magnitude of some gift of love that had just been shared with us by one of you.

Would I have had her live longer? You bet I would! Would I have had her life a longer but less loving life? Not on your life!! Do I believe in prayer? Absolutely , if prayer is the process by which we learn of the will of God, if it is that we love God and one another, and that from that love comes the greatest blessing life can bestow: the fellowship of love with that God, with our families, and with the many friends with whom we have shared that love. As much as I miss her and long for her touch, her laugh, her smile, I know that I too am wrapped by that great mantle of love, fabricated largely by her hands and of which all of us are the blessed recipients. So it is my prayer not that I may live long upon the earth, but that for whatever years I have left and in whatever condition I live them, I may be, as she was, an instrument of God’s love. For I know that if I am such, I too, in whatever condition, will be sustained and illuminated by the love of those whom I have loved. You to whom this message goes are that group, those friends. I thank God daily for what you were to Katie and me over the years. We have been blessed by your friendship. I am exhilarated by the knowledge that each of us, as we share that gift of love with each other, will renew our strength, we will mount up with wings like eagles. We shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint. This is the gift of God and this is the answer to prayer. Thanks be to God that our faithful prayers of love are answered in measures we can not imagine or understand until we are surrounded by them and rest in their embrace.

In just such a way were your and my prayers for Katie answered abundantly. She illustrates the passage of Jesus in Luke 6:37-38: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Thanks be to God, Katie gave in generous measure. In her final months, she received back in overwhelming measure the love that she so freely gave. Truly her cup overflowed. We can pray for no more than this! Thank God for our answered prayers.


All In!

Several years ago a couple met with me to plan their wedding in our sanctuary. After the rehearsal I checked with them to see if they had any questions before their big day. The groom voiced a few normal concerns and I told him what I often tell couples: With all the details that go into planning a wedding, it is likely that something won’t go off in exactly the way you planned. That unexpected detail becomes part of your wedding story. Rather than worry I invite you to do what you can for your wedding day. Choose joy.

With those words of advice, the couple headed off for a rehearsal dinner and an effort at sleep on the eve of their wedding.

On Saturday I awakened to the aftermath of a storm. The groom called me about 9AM to ask if we had power in downtown Rockford. I assured him that the downtown area is always prioritized if there is an outage. I hastily drove to the church to check things out and was surprised to discover that we didn’t have power. Our church sat silent, ready for their ceremony. Since it wasn’t going to be until the afternoon, I was sure the electricity would be restored by then. I called him and said as much.

The wedding party arrived early, as scheduled. The women stayed in the cool of the dining room while the men hung out in the youth room, taking off their jackets as the temperature rose in our building. The air conditioner was still and the church air grew heavy. As the hour of the wedding approached, I was stunned that we were still without power. I assured the couple we would go ahead with the service and it would be beautiful regardless. They smiled politely but I’m not sure they were buying it. I’m not sure I was either!

Our sound board operator was in place in case the electricity resumed. I was mic’d, in case that would make a difference. But the church remained powerless as the guests were seated and started fanning themselves with programs. The time came for the wedding party to enter. The congregation grew quiet as the parents were seated. When the bride and her father came into view, the people stood respectfully, smiling at the pair as they slowly made their way down the center aisle. The bride’s gaze was fixed on her fiancé who was equally focused on her. The sanctuary was quiet. Their friends and family were reverent. As the wedding ceremony began, I acknowledged that, even though we didn’t have electricity, we knew that there was power in this holy space. We could feel it as this couple stepped forward to join their two lives as one. They pledged their lifelong devotion to one another without microphones or music. It was a beautiful ceremony that ended with applause and jubilant bell ringing as the newlyweds triumphantly recessed out of the church. Ten minutes after the ceremony ended, the lights came on!

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, indoor and wedding

The bride stopped by the church about two weeks later to pick up an item that had been left. We spent some time talking about their honeymoon and found our way back to the unusual circumstances of their wedding day. I apologized for the consequences of an unpredictable “act of God.” She looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way! To have such complete silence as I entered with my dad was powerful! I was so moved by the way the quiet honored the occasion. It was perfect!”

The unexpected detail that could have emotionally derailed them as a couple turned out to be the defining memory of their day. Walking toward her beloved in the holy silence of the sanctuary, she knew God was near.

Have you ever met God when you were wrestling with unexpected change? Was there a holy moment that led you to lift your heart in worship to God? Did an inconvenience or forgotten detail or goof become the best memory of the evening? When has God crashed your party and left you with a blessing?

This story from the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel is about devotion. Mary, the dear friend of Jesus, is the perfect person to model this. When we meet her in the Gospels, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet. She forgets to do her hosting duties when He’s around, much to the chagrin of her sister. In this instance she embarrasses herself by anointing Jesus’ travel-weary feet with an expensive lotion usually reserved for burial. As if that weren’t scandalous enough, she wipes the remnant of the oil off his feet with her lovely hair. A woman’s hair in first century Israel was regarded as a very private part of her body. To say that this would have been an awkward moment at the dinner party is a gross understatement. But she seems not to have even known there were others around. The ointment was valued at a year’s salary and would have been a precious commodity for family burials. Mary presents it as an offering of love to Jesus who had brought her brother, Lazarus, back to life. Wiping his dusty feet with her crown of glory is an act of worship. She doesn’t give a thought to what others might think.

The word “devotion” means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. Mary gets caught up in a moment of devotion to the One she loves. It doesn’t matter who else is in the room. I wonder if you remember a time when you were so caught up in a worthy cause that you lost yourself? When have you been most devoted to the work of the Gospel?

There’s a contrast in this story between Mary’s worship and Judas’ protest. Mary offers her best in an act of sacrificial devotion while Judas pretends to be concerned for the poor. Is Jesus simply a calculated boost to Judas’ clout? As the treasurer of the group, he clearly values money over human needs. Jesus comes to Mary’s defense with a blunt command: Leave her alone! Mary is the only follower who seems to recognize that this moment with Jesus is precious. She unwittingly anoints His body for burial. The fragrance of the ointment would have lingered on both her and Jesus as He headed to the cross that very week. His disciples, however, scattered in fear.

Chapter 12 is a turning point in John’s gospel. Jesus has performed miracles that elevated Him to celebrity status. But in the appalled silence of an interrupted dinner party, we witness the greatest sign of Jesus’ ministry: love. Mary loves Jesus and devotes herself to serving Him, whatever the cost. The fact that we are still reading about this act of devotion tells me that her display of reverence turns heads as much as any of Jesus’ healings. Mary had experienced how Jesus brought life out of death so she offers herself unreservedly to Him.

This past Sunday I invited church members to commit to our church family by using their gifts. COVID has certainly challenged our leaders to explore new ways of doing ministry. As we reclaim elements of our congregational life, we need everyone to step into fitting areas of service. We invited folks to show their devotion to Christ by joining in our worship and volunteering in a capacity that brings them joy. What Mary models for us in this story is devotion to Jesus. She sets her sights on Him and nothing else matters. She is all in! Her service to Him brings a holy pause to a dinner party that we’re still talking about today. Following her example, all of us who are members of congregations need to embrace the invitation into remarkable service, using the gifts God has given us. While many worthy activities cry out for our attention, I know of nothing more important as living out our Christian faith to positively impact a hurting world. Are you in?