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Witnesses to God’s Hesed

I was heading into one of the units with a person’s name in my head. This person had asked to speak with a chaplain so I headed into the unit with conviction and purpose. I was going to find them and take care of their spiritual needs. We try to get to folks within 48 hours of asking to speak with one of us and it’s gratifying to be able to check their name off the list—especially if you’re a list person, like me! So as I’m walking through the large open communal area, looking for my victim, I mean patient, I catch the eye of someone who is throwing her trash away. She looks at me—actually, she looks at my badge. We are known by our profession in the hospital. So she looks at the badge, then up at me and we have this exchange:

So, you’re a …. Chaplain?!?

I am a chaplain!

Like…. …..for God?

I am a chaplain for God! I’ve never said it that way but, yes, I am a chaplain for God.

Do you have a moment?

And off we went to a quiet part of the unit to talk. The person for whom I came wasn’t the one I saw that day. I was re-routed to someone who told me she wasn’t very religious but had some questions. I was honored to be able to sit with her and hear her story. I didn’t even get a check mark for that interaction—but that didn’t matter. That was the appointment I was meant to keep that day. And she sent me off with a memorable job title I haven’t forgotten: A Chaplain for God!

I’ve been packing out my office and finding things that I’ve carted around with me for 37 years of parish ministry. One thing that surfaced is a portable communion set. Garrett and I purchased this in the first months of our ministry so that we could take communion to those who are unable to leave their homes. We carried it into hospitals on occasion and many nursing homes. People appreciated being included in the life of the congregation even if at a distance from us.

Learning the details of ministry, like any new position, requires some humility. I remember taking this communion kit to an older couple’s home. We filled the little portable container with grape juice and had a small piece of bread that could be broken and shared. The couple took care of their 50-something year old son who was bed-ridden. At a very young age, he had contracted some dread childhood disease that stole his mind and control of his body. He lay in bed all day and they cared for him. The husband couldn’t hear but he could see. It was the opposite for her so they used their gifts together. When the doorbell rang, she told him and he went to greet their visitors. So we sat down at the kitchen table with this salt-of-the-earth couple and pulled the communion elements out of our little kit. What a privilege to be able to celebrate the sacraments! Our seminary education and ordination gave us the privilege of overseeing this meal. The couple sat quietly as we began the liturgy. I broke the bread into four small pieces. Then I poured the juice from the plastic container into one of the glass communion cups. It didn’t pour well and spilled onto their table. My response was to stray for the age-old liturgy by saying quietly, almost reverently, “Darn it!” The woman, in spite of not seeing well, understood what happened and hopped up to get some paper towels. She smiled as she mopped it up and assured me that it was fine. She sat down again and we managed to finish our time of communing together. She offered me such grace in a very human moment. Reflecting the Jesus of the Eucharist, she reminded me that we don’t have to be perfect. We have to be faithful to God.

After our congregation’s concert that celebrated 175 years of ministry, I talked with a woman who had read about it in the local paper and attended. She loved the music and talked with me afterwards. She said she could tell that this was a close congregation and a church that was centered on the Spirit. I told her I was blessed to hear her say that. I asked her how she had come to that conclusion. She noticed that we didn’t sweat the small stuff. If there was a technology issue with a song or someone needed prompting with the words they were singing, the congregation was supportive. We laughed at our humanness at times. And we prayed. And we SANG! She felt the Spirit in the way we sang in that first moment when we began to feel like we were back in our sanctuary in a somewhat “normal” way after two years of COVID restrictions. I celebrate that a stranger could gather with us for an event and draw the conclusion that we are folks who live our faith together in humble and loving ways. In a world that is marked by division and rancor, this is clearly the work of the One we serve!

I’ve mentioned before that the one tattoo I would ever get is a beautiful calligraphic rendition of the Hebrew word, HESED. Instead of getting inked, my daughter made a clerical stole with the Hebrew word on it. She invited congregation members to sign the back of it! It takes several of our words to capture the meaning of it. Sometimes words are put together in pairs to convey the proper meaning. The translation I like is “lovingkindness.” Hesed described the kind of love God has for us. We hear it in our reading from Exodus today, when Moses is getting to know this God who asked him to side with his own people, the Jews, and put his life (and sanity!) at risk by leading them. Up on the mountain top for the second time (since the first time he came down with the tablets of the law in hand, they were dancing around a golden calf), Moses meets God. This divine being offers a brief resume to Moses who is already fed up with his people. God reassures him, encourages him by saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

God’s true nature is described as “hesed”: loving kindness, devotion, loyalty, mercy and goodness. It’s used some 250 times in the Old Testament. Its frequency should profoundly affect how we view God, not as a vengeful deity watching for us to trip up. Rather, we meet a loving Parent who, even after a transgression as egregious as dancing around a golden calf, assures us of love! Generations have carried that God of hesed love in their hearts and shared that faith with their children and grandchildren. What a gift it is for us to know that these are God’s attributes that we are encouraged to share with others.

The first picture to go up on the walls of my office at First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ—and the last to leave—was this block print done by Japanese artist, Sadao Watanabe.  When I was installed as pastor at this church, my father presented it to me. Watanabe was a Christian who depicted Biblical themes in his artwork. He was very popular when my parents were living in Japan. This image is of the prophet Elijah dropping his cloak down to the fledgling prophet, Elisha. Elijah is whisked off in a chariot of fire, entrusting his spiritual legacy to the one who had studied under him. I began my service at First Congregational with the blessing of my parents. My father’s ample gifts for ministry certainly shaped my leadership with this beloved congregation. He loved to teach and preach from the Bible, always finding ways that the message was relevant for the here and now. He led with creativity and a unifying spirit. My mother served alongside of him, quietly caring for those in the church with supportive words and prayer. I am so grateful for the mantel of ministry they passed on to me. I met the God of HESED in my childhood home and rejoice in how our congregation taught our children and youth about God’s lovingkindness. On mission trips, in VBS, in supporting Compassion children in other parts of the world, by leading zoom Sunday School classes during a global pandemic, we were faithful to the mandate of sharing the gospel with all generations.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who inspire and equip us to live our Christian faith. I’ve talked with church members whose loved ones have died. They described how, in their last days, their loved ones began to interact with an unseen world. They sometimes mentioned names of family members who had died earlier. These invisible interactions sometimes brought smiles to their faces, something you would not expect to see in a dying individual. Our faith reminds us that there is something spiritual going on that is so much greater than anything we can see or imagine. We stand in awe in privileged moments when this world and the next seem to converge and the distance between us is momentarily bridged. In our congregation, we meet in a space that has nourished generations! Just as they carried in with them the influence of their ancestors, we bring with us each week the presence of those in our lives who witnessed to God’s HESED. That cloud of witnesses is closer than we think, encouraging and equipping us for the tasks at hand. The Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “quick and the dead.” Some of us may not feel quick but we are not dead! We are the living, moving, breathing Body of Christ called to witness, on this side of heaven, to eternal truths that give us hope. The work my congregation and I offered was to faithfully instill a sense of the holy in the midst of ordinary daily experiences. It is most often in the small gestures that we meet the God of HESED and can offer the ongoing refrain, like the writer of the 136th Psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever!”

The final memento I brought home from my office is this guy. I loved him from the time I first saw him at a shop in the Breton Village Mall. My mother and I called it “the jelly bean mall” because a centrally located candy shop sold little packs of jelly bellies, which were newly on the market and beloved by my children. This figurine of a man wearing a clerical collar was somehow standing amidst the candy choices and my mom bought him for me. I loved the joy on his face as his hands are raised in obvious prayer. He exudes a love for God and a powerful connection to the Spirit. I wanted that at that early stage in my ministry. He’s been on my desk all these years. He suffered some abuse over the course of time. He fell off my desk a couple of times and both of his hands have fallen off and been glued back on! Not all the fingers are intact. So he’s aged a little bit as have I. I was disappointed to learn a short while after receiving him that the title for this particular figurine was, “Thank God I’ve retired!” What?! I thought his smile reflected the joy of his active service to God, not retirement from ministry! But his zeal for his Creator has inspired me for years.

As I retire from parish ministry, I can feel how my body parts don’t function quite as easily as they once did. I’m not as “quick” as I was when I first placed this preacher man on my desk But I share in his gladness of heart, rejoicing simply because I have been privileged, like Moses, like Elijah and Elisha, like my father and mother and countless saints who have dropped that mantle of ministry down to me, to have experienced God’s HESED in the Church of Jesus Christ. I thank my beloved church family for walking with me on this amazing journey of faith. Their love will always be one of the greatest gifts in my life. Together, with smiles and upraised hands, we can affirm what we know as truth: God’s steadfast love endures forever! GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!

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Walk with Me

I’m excited to share that I have just published a book entitled, Walk with Me: A Year of Worship in the Gospels. Our congregation received a grant of about $10,000 to use for vitalizing worship during one year. I met with a creative worship planning team and we shaped new ways of meeting Jesus. Our people looked forward to each service, never being sure what would move their hearts from one week to the next. The book tells the story of how we used the grant. It offers pastors, worship teams, Diaconate members, and passionate church members lots of new ideas for enlivening your worship and using the talents of your congregation in new ways. The details to 55 worship services are given to enhance the planning process for other congregations. Our church family never went back to “business as usual” after that grant year. Adding new elements to each service has become the expected and anticipated experience! This book tells a love story between pastor and people as we walked with Jesus through the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. My last Sunday with this remarkable congregation is this Sunday so I’m thankful to be able to share our story with others. The link for the book is below.

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Body Talk

We sometimes ran into each other when picking up our children after school. We had kids in the same class in elementary school. One morning she looked particularly uncomfortable. I asked her how she was doing. She knew I was a pastor. She told me that she was having a particularly difficult day. She had struggled with intestinal issues for 12 years and had found no resolution. She had seen doctors and specialists. She had all the tests run that made sense to pursue. But she lived with a stomach that could cramp up and tie in knots. She kept working through the pain–usually. She tended to her son’s needs. She had learned over the course of 12 years that she couldn’t just stop living her life. So she pushed her way through the unpredictability of how each day might play out. She voiced your disappointment that a doctor’s visit that past week with a specialist at Mayo had not revealed any issues. She had been so hopeful about a possible new diagnosis that would make sense of her suffering. But the doctor said he was sorry he couldn’t find anything wrong with her.

I knew she was a strong Christian. She was part of Bible study group at her church and the members in that small group prayed for her regularly. She told me she was beginning to think it might be a Spiritual issue. She wasn’t sure why she felt that way but was beginning to wonder if there wasn’t something that couldn’t be diagnosed medically.

That next week she found me at in the parking lot and told me that a crazy thing had happened at her Bible Study. A woman joined the group who hadn’t been a part of it before. She knew this woman from a previous connection and knew that she was a true prayer warrior. It seemed odd that this woman would join their group mid-way into the study. As women were wrapping up the class session with light-hearted conversation, the woman asked my friend about her health. She was surprised to be asked. When she told her what was going on, the woman stated matter-of-factly, “I think it’s spiritual in nature.” My friend said her jaw dropped. How could this woman know that this was her very thought as well? The woman asked her if she had considered fasting for healing. She said she had not. But that week, she began to fast. She called her father, who lived out of state, and he mentioned that he had felt led to pray for her and was fasting for her healing. Again, her jaw dropped. Something, she told me, was at work. God was doing something great and she didn’t know where it would lead. But she had hope—for the first time, in a new way!

One week later, on my day off, we connected at the school again. She approached me briskly. Her eyes were lit up and she had this broad smile on her face. She whispered to me that she thought she was healed. “In fact, I don’t want to say “I think.” That introduces doubt. I am healed. This week I have had no stomach issues whatsoever. My father has found the things in his life have gone better . There have been so many amazing spiritual moments this week. I wish we had two hours so we could sit down and I would tell you about the amazing things I’m seeing around me.“

While I believe God‘s sovereignty over all earthly trials, there’s a bit of skepticism I had about whether this healing would be lasting. After all, she had been battling this for 12 years.  I told her that her situation reminded me of the woman who sought out Jesus because she had hemorrhaged for 12 years. She had spent her money and time pursuing medical care that had accomplished nothing. In the end, she just touched the hem of Jesus’ garment as he talked to others and found immediate healing.  Why would I doubt that this woman, 2000 years later,  found healing after fasting, prayer, and active involvement in the faith community. Over the next weeks, every now and then she would mention her wellness and her gratitude for that. I stood in awe of the healing power of Jesus  and the role that fasting plays in our faith journey.

In this final pause before Easter we have the opportunity to more fully commit ourselves to that relationship with Jesus. It could easily be put on the back burner as we rush through each day. Sometimes it is only when we are brought to our knees in a time of despair or agony that we begin to deepen our spiritual roots out of desperation. Lent invites us to engage in spiritual discipline when we’re not necessarily desperate. Fasting is one of those disciplines that has been valued and practiced for thousands of years.

When you look in the Scriptures, there are countless examples of people fasting for specific purposes. In the wilderness and when moving into their own land, the Israelites were urged to fast. David fasted before battles, inviting God to give the Hebrew people the victory. In the time of rebuilding the temple, Priest Ezra and Governor Nehemiah urged the people to fast for the successful completion of this sanctuary. Daniel fasted regularly to maintain a spiritual acuity. Jonah called upon the Ninevites to fast and repent and God forgave them—much to Jonah’s disgust! John the Baptist invited his followers to deepen their faith commitment by fasting. Anna, the elderly woman who took baby Jesus in her arms when he was dedicated in the temple, was known for her fasting and prayers. Believers in the Early Church fasted with regularity to heighten their awareness of God. More than 75 times, fasting is mentioned in the Bible.

Why are we invited to fast? Jentezen Franklin describes fasting as “body talk.” We do something sacrificial that we feel in our bodies. It let’s God know that we are serious about our faith. The prophet Isaiah assures us that withholding food from our bodies with spiritual intention will loose the things that hold us back in our faith. Fasting will undo heavy burdens. The bad habits that hinder our health and destroy our ability to serve God can be broken when we fast for God. Often those who are seeking clarity of vision for the next step of their faith pilgrimage will combine fasting with scripture reading, meditation and prayer. Franklin describes how he did a 21-day fast when he was 19 years old. He heard God affirming, “Because you have sought me out, I am going to advance your ministry.” For ten years, his ministry was clearly directed by the God he sought to please.

When we fast, it adds extra power to our prayers. I think back to the early video game, Super Mario. He had the ability to jump up to stars over his head and he would have a brief surge of power and energy. That is what fasting does to our prayers: it shows the sincerity of our conviction, our willingness to submit to God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus began His ministry with 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. He had the strength to resist temptation and He emerged from that setting empowered for His redemptive ministry.

When we fast we stand alongside of those who live with hunger on a daily basis. 811 million people are estimated to go to bed hungry each night. 14 million children under age five worldwide suffer from severe malnutrition. We watch the images of mass displacement of families in Ukraine and mobs of people taking refuge in subway tunnels. We can’t help but wonder where food will come from and how long they can last in these dire circumstances. Intentional efforts by many organizations have sought to eradicate hunger and they were making good progress on that goal. In 2019, 8.9% of the world’s population was undernourished. In 2020 there was global conflict, a global pandemic, and a world recession that set us back in trying to make sure that people have enough food to survive. When we choose to fast and we do it quietly for God, we feel a physical solidarity with these folks that we may not know but who are part of our human family.

When fasting, I always commit to a particular cause that I offer to God. I fast for a person or situation. It’s a no-strings-attached offer on my part that seeks to bring to God’s attention someone or some situation that needs extra attention. I may never know the impact of that sacrifice but there may be times when I hear how someone’s life has changed while I’ve prayed for them. Like my friend outside the school, there are wonderfully rewarding times when we hear from someone that our fasting has led to their healing. What a powerful testimony this is for us to continue to seek out ways to practice spiritual disciplines.

We need to fast for the right reasons. There are Biblical examples where folks’ acts of piety are to advance their own agendas. Jezebel fasts and prays that Naboth will die so that her husband, the king, can take over his lush vineyard. In the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee, we read that the Pharisee fasts two times per week. He boasted of this whereas the humble man simply came before God quietly. The man who came to God with humility was forgiven. Inauthentic fasting did not buy God’s favor. Our spiritual discipline can’t be used to manipulate God for our own purposes.

There are health benefits to fasting as well. Animals often use fasting to overcome illness. A man in California lived to be 123 years old. His secret? He stated that he didn’t drink or smoke. He said he fasted one meal per day. Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan, eating nothing from sunrise to sunset, so as to deepen their commitment to God. In the past I have fasted one day a week and found that to be a useful reboot to my physical well-being. On a spiritual level, it allowed me to choose a particular prayer cause each week and feel like I was contributing to the healing of that person or situation.

Some of you are not able to fast—from food. Your blood sugar doesn’t allow for it or there are other health concerns. Pregnant women should not commit to a rigorous fast. So we can choose other ways to fast. We can limit time on our phones or sitting in front of screens. We fast from spending unnecessarily. We fast from arguments with someone who seems to make our lives difficult. We can add on to each day meaningful ways to connect with God: scripture reading, a prayer group or Bible study, being physically active and using that time to commune with God. We can fast from Starbucks coffee or other luxury items and commit the money saved to a worthy cause. We find a fitting way to deliberately withhold from ourselves the things that we enjoy doing so that God sees, through our Body Talk, that we are hungry for that relationship.

My friend’s miraculous healing after twelve years of ineffective treatments has stood out to me over the years about how we underutilize the spiritual discipline of fasting. We expect little from God and are not disappointed when it seems like God didn’t show up as we hoped. When we are facing physical danger, like Queen Esther, we would do well to fast. When we feel besieged by forces that work against God’s will for us, we should consider fasting. When we want our family members to know and love God, we can fast for present and future generations. When we are daring to embark on a new endeavor, we should invite God into the process through our Body Talk. Since our church is facing a transition, we should certainly consider fasting.

Through the prophet, Joel, God entreats the Israelites to show their desire to be holy. These words call out to us today as we face changes ahead: “…return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and weeping, and with mourning: and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Hallelujah!

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Between Campsites

My family moved to Colorado in 1971. My father was called to serve as chaplain to the cadets at the Air Force Academy. The eight of us squeezed into a small home on the base and worshiped each week in the grandeur of the Air Force Academy Chapel. The beauty of the mountains beckoned us to explore so we shifted from some tent camping we had done when we were very young into hauling a pop-up camper into the mountains. We would time ourselves when we set up camp! We learned how to work together with precision to crank up the roof, slide the two ends out of the box, rest them on poles that affix to the base, and pull the outdoor furniture from the small camper into our “yard.” A good time would be under three minutes. My mom would open several cans of Dinty Moore stew which she cooked over a small gas burner in the cabin. It tasted gourmet to the six of us hungry children. We spent the day hiking with backpacks of snacks and swimming in the KOA pool. At night, we slept in pairs in small spaces with an invigorating circulation of fresh mountain air.

For the past several years I feel as if I have been hiking between campsites vocationally. I wondered what I would like to do after parish ministry as a capstone to my career. Pastoral care has always been  foundational to my ministry so I pursued spiritual direction through Marywood at the Dominican Center. I became a certified Spiritual Director in the Spring of 2020. I had considered CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education–for many years but didn’t know how I could take a unit while serving this church full-time. I learned my sixteen hours of clinical work weekly could be done in my congregation! So my dream of pursuing chaplaincy as a continuation of offering pastoral care moved forward in earnest.

When I learned of the year-long residency, I had a deep sense of calling that this might be the right next move for me. I had a lot of questions. What would it be like to minister in a Christian Mental Health Hospital? What aspects to my career in the Church would carry over into this new form of ministry? How would I establish a pastoral relationship with folks I might meet with only once? How would I serve Christ in a setting where staff and patients have a variety of belief structures? When I was accepted to the residency program, I began to look for answers to those questions. I found myself loving patients in a way I could not have anticipated. I am amazed at the strength with which they face challenges that are unimaginable to me. “Trauma” is an everyday word on the units where I serve yet these patients hang on to hope when I would have given up long ago.

Even as I have begun to find my way in this new expression of ministry, I have felt mounting grief, anticipating my departure from my beloved congregation. In fact, my supervisor helped me identify a learning goal for this second unit: “To attend to grief as I transition from parish ministry to chaplaincy.” The First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ has been so remarkably hospitable toward me and my ministry for a quarter of a century! The thought of moving away from these relationships is unfathomable to me. I know I won’t understand the impact of leaving this congregation until I begin to live it. Because I am convicted that my call into chaplaincy is from God, I am obedient.

The image I have for this time of transition is of me hiking between two appealing campsites. There’s beloved community at each one. The way is navigable but it requires loading my supplies in a backpack. Some items are in common with both settings but some are unique to only one of those campsites. I have needed to ponder what my experience is on this journey from one form of ministry to another? Hiking from one beautiful campsite to another, what gifts do I take, leave, or add to my ‘backpack’?”

Last summer, after announcing this professional shift, I preached about the image one of the Pine Rest chaplains developed. It was the image of a TIPI. In trying to imagine how I would use my pastoral gifts in locked units of a psychiatric hospital, it was instructive to me to consider that I carry my pastoral identity within me. Just as our camper in my youth was staked and mobile, my ministry has shifted likewise after 37 years in parish ministry. It is staked in my belief that God has called me to this new chapter and that God will equip me whatever the next stop along the way. I can’t know the future but I do have the present moment. Initially I struggled to understand how I carry Jesus with me into settings where He is neither sought after or understood. The TIPI image reminds me that Christ is always within me whether I reference Him by name or not. His light shines through me in all settings of staff and patients. One favorite translation of John 1:14 comes to mind: The Word took on flesh and pitched a tent among us. Whatever campsite is home, I preach and teach Jesus, whether I use spoken words or not. Jesus is firmly settled in my soul, offering me love that I share readily with others in each precious moment of my pilgrimage. One family in my church was struck by that image of the TIPI I shared last August and gave me a little tent ornament that has been on my desk at Pine Rest. It is a reminder of the journey I have been making between two different campsites, carrying Jesus in my heart at all times.

Amidst the tears I have–and will continue–to shed as the time of my departure from the church approaches, I draw on my belief that God calls us to lives of celebration. We share such good news that Christ walks with us that it would be unfaithful of me to only dwell in sadness. My parents taught me to watch for opportunities to rejoice. My father called himself the “minister of fun.” He and my mother led people on trips around the world with the one stipulation that they had to abide by “the pleasant rule.” They intentionally created communities of contentment and peace wherever they went. They knew how to seize the moment and make memories with friends and family. After my mother died, we divided up her belongings. I took home with me her wind breaker. The first time I wore it, months after my mother had died, I felt something in one of the pockets. I reached in and drew out an unopened pack of birthday candles. This represented her perfectly. No matter where she went, she was mindful of what celebration to honor. In her “backpack” she had candles so that someone would know they were special. I bring into my ministry a desire to celebrate the marking points in people’s lives. We have had church retreats in Grand Haven that have been marked by tears and laughter. Traveling between two campsites this year, I have looked for ways to bring joy to my patients and to my dear congregation.

Most of us live fairly stable lives. However, they do not remain stationary. Our families lose and added members. Vows are spoken and broken. We move between houses and careers. We fight illness and run races. We feel close to God and, at other times, feel bogged down in a spiritual wilderness. The change I have been experiencing has been challenging but I have learned anew that God shows up with greater clarity in the uncertainty of traveling between campsites. God has gently taught me what is still needed in my backpack and what can be retired. God has reminded me that celebration of each moment is a necessary component of Biblical living. I have learned to advocate for patients as I have sought to spiritually nourish my parishioners in three congregations. I have had to leave behind an assumption that my co-workers will share my Christian beliefs and have dipped deep into the well of Christ’s Living Water to discern ways to shine His light on those not seeking Him. I have new visions of who God is, based on a wide variety of folks who sit around the campfire: staff who have differing belief systems and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their respective roles; patients who hang on to hope in spite of unimaginable suffering they have experienced. These individuals have surprised me with their teaching of wisdom and mercy. I have stretched in my ability to carry my pastoral authority within me. I have realized that I am nourished by stories that are shared around the campfire no matter where my tent is pitched. I am witnessing, with the unwelcome buzz of the alarm clock each morning, that God will guide—and sometimes carry—me on this vocational journey.

Today we stand with Jesus while palms of victory herald Him as King. Hosanna means, “Save us.” Jesus continually traveled between His home territory of Galilee and the center of the Jewish faith in Jerusalem. It would have taken a couple long days of walking to cover that distance. He and His disciples would have had to find a place to rest each evening, probably warming themselves by a fire. They may not have had cans of Dinty Moore stew but they would have broken bread together. Jesus warned the disciples, before they signed on to His movement, that it was not going to be a cushy position. They traveled between campsites from the moment their revival tour began. They were welcomed in some places as celebrities and chased out of other towns. Jesus was able to speak a word of judgment or extend grace. He hit up against the demonic that destroyed lives. Other times he was hosted in the homes of merciful individuals who knew, somehow, that He came from God. He scooped up children in His arms to bless them. He also held the frail hands of town elders whose strength was waning. Whatever campsite was Jesus’ temporary home, He welcomed others with the glorious love of His Father.

Today we are aware that we will travel from the sidelines of a parade to the foot of the cross. It is a journey we would rather not make. If we allow ourselves to really feel the impact of Jesus final journey, we will weep. We will grieve the loss of what was. Even as we worship together on Good Friday, looking in on His disciples as they abandon Him on His darkest day, leaving Him alone, we know that our journey is not over. Somehow, in the dark of a rock-hewn tomb, behind the tonnage of a boulder, in spite of a guard charged with securing the grave, we know that Jesus found His way out! Jesus defeated death! We will find our way to Easter where there will be great rejoicing, one journey at a time, one campsite to another, collecting wood for a fire that lights our path to the way of God.

So put on your hiking boots and grab your walking sticks. We’re about to set out on the final leg of our Lenten journey. There’s good news! Wherever we go, we carry Christ within us. His light will guide us. His love binds our hearts together—in this moment and forever!

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Lenten Lethargy

Just over a month ago we made a commitment to keep pace with Jesus as He walks toward Jerusalem. It is out of love that He moves toward the cross, teaching us along the way how we are to live as His followers.

There are four passages in Isaiah that feature the Suffering Servant. The servant is often identified with Israel but is more likely an individual. The role of the person is, not surprisingly, he suffers. It’s not because of anything he’s done or that someone has done to him. This servant is called to witness to God and this leads him into suffering. His preaching is costly!

The passage from Isa. 52:13-53:12 describes better than any place else the kind of voluntary suffering that we take on for the sake of others. It is arguable that this is one of the greatest chapters in the OT. As Christians, we see in the description of this willing servant a precursor to the Messiah. Jesus took on Himself the weight of the world for the redemption of even the lowliest sinner. This was a new concept. In Biblical times, the assumption was that someone suffered because of their own sin or that of their parents. For a person to intentionally put themselves in harm’s way for the well-being of others was not a common value.

My parents traveled to India many years ago. They learned that the Hindu faith teaches reincarnation: we suffer because of the way we lived our last life. There is much misery in India because few are prompted to do anything for anyone else. Since we are all living exactly the life we deserve, why work for change or labor to improve anyone else’s life. There is no motivation to do anything about suffering in this society. So slums are ignored and begging children elicit no pity. Each tries to live their own best life now so that they will be elevated in their next life. Everyone focuses inward.

Though secularism has permeated increasing numbers in our country, we are established on Christian principles. We highly value working to improve the plight of others. When we know that someone is suffering unjustly, we become motivated to help. We might even be willing to endure our own suffering to be of service to them because we are moved by their anguish. As we look in on our Ukrainian neighbors, fleeing for their lives or courageously fighting for their homeland, we witness willing suffering for the sake of others. Men in their fifties are loading their families on trains and buses then heading back to defend their territory. When people willingly put themselves in peril for the sake of a cause much larger than themselves, the world notices because it is rare.

In Isaiah 53 the servant of God is rejected rather than glorified. All will be astounded when they find out who he is! The Kings in this passage represent the human race before whom this servant has come. They defend themselves. There is no reason they should have known he would be the Chosen One. He grew up in front of them, was unattractive and rejected by all! How could they know that he was the servant of God? The kings assume he is being punished for something he did wrong. It is, therefore, just that he suffer, so why should they have done anything about it? They are defensive, an unfamiliar stance for royalty.

In verse 4 the theme begins to change: ours were the sufferings he bore. We thought he was being punished for his own sin but he wasn’t! Job endures unimaginable hardship but he never concludes that his suffering benefitted anyone else. This is a whole new thought for the Israelite nation. The Kings realize that their sin has contributed toward the servant’s suffering. He bears it willingly even though he is without fault. God uses the servant to bring redemption for others. Even though this is written more than 500 years before Jesus, we hear His story and, in His story, we hear our own.

On this Lenten journey, we have put ourselves in the place of the transgressors. Like sheep without a shepherd, we have strayed. The ashes that marked the beginning of Lent remind us of our common mortality. We have committed during this holy season to intercede for others. This means we put ourselves between the suffering individual and the enemy. Graphic images on the news each night from another side of the world show what it looks like to take a stand against an enemy for the sake of others. Intercessory prayer is more than benevolent thoughts. It is also action that puts us at risk by offering to help. This is a costly prayer because of the hardship it might bring us. I wonder who is living this sort of life? Mother Theresa is an easy example. She dedicated her long life to aiding the lowliest, sickest people in her country. We recognize this sort of servanthood so readily! It stands out from usual worldly values.

Most of us will never come close to matching her lifelong investment of showing mercy. But there are those among us who sacrifice willingly. We look at those who work in missions, halfway houses, and not-for-profit organizations. We admire those who take foster children into their homes and underpaid teachers who teach in challenging school districts. We praise Red Cross volunteers who drive into disaster zones, working long hours with little sleep. Sometimes we look away because we fear that our work ethic pales in comparison to others and we feel guilty. But Jesus calls out to us on the road to Jerusalem to stay the course. We join hands as Christians to find the strength to voluntarily take on the needs of those around us. Each day God places opportunities before us to shine the light of Christ in the darkest places.

Sometimes in our churches we encounter folks bring their kids to church so that they will “get religion.” The parents haven’t necessarily cared about the faith but they hope the church can straighten their child out. When the kids graduate, the parents drift. Their motive wasn’t to become involved in the church and offer themselves sacrificially. It wasn’t out of love for Jesus and the other members of the church that they attended. It was a quick fix for their children who might just benefit from a little religion. We, who are experiencing Lenten lethargy, understand the joy and responsibility of continually shaping a vibrant church family. We have folks in our congregation who stay overnight in the church to host homeless families for a week. Some help out by showing up early on Sunday to do some cleaning of our facility after the guests leave. The curious thing about Christians to those looking in from the outside is that we give of ourselves for the sake of others. We do it in little ways each day. We do it when no one is looking. Aware that our lives are a gift and time is short, we discover that it is in giving away of ourselves that our lives derive their greatest meaning.

Several years ago we decided that it would be meaningful in our congregation to recognize one individual who exemplifies the sort of servanthood that Christ modeled. We called it the “Devoted Disciple Award” and invited church members to use a particular form to nominate someone. Wonderful essays came in with names of folks who quietly make our congregational life run smoothly. One individual came up to me during the week, as these nominations were coming in, and said, “I don’t assume that I will be chosen but I wanted to tell you that if I were, I would not want to accept it. You would need to go to the next person.” Hmmm. This person, I knew, could easily be the one who was chosen. And she didn’t want it. I realized that all the folks who were being recommended for this new honor were the sort who work behind the scenes, happily staying out of the limelight. Receiving some sort of certificate or ceremony went against the very fiber of their volunteerism. I talked with church leaders who had helped shape this “Devoted Disciple Award” and we agreed to call it off. With a smile we proclaimed that the greatest servants among us wanted no special treatment. And that, we decided, was precisely the kind of disciple who needed no acclaim.

We began the Lenten journey by smearing the grit of ashes and the oil of anointing on our foreheads to remind ourselves that we are all in this together. We are humbled to know that we are no greater than any other and that our world is reliant on common folks like us to make a difference for Christ. Though we are wearied from a violence we have witnessed along the way, we commit to journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, whatever the cost.