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So what’s the miracle?

My sister sent out Easter cards this year with a photograph on the front. It was of four of us sisters posing for a picture. We were dressed in our Easter finery, which included spring coats with matching hats, white gloves and patent leather shoes. The ensemble was laid out on the eve of Easter with great anticipation. We might wear the coat on a cool Sunday after Easter. We would occasionally pull the pretty dress out of the closet for a special occasion. But never again did we put all those special elements together for one particular outing. When Easter is over the dress is dry-cleaned and the bonnets are put away. The baskets are emptied of their eggs and stored in the attic for another year because Easter is over.

Or is it?

Melissa Fay Green, in her book The Temple Bombing, wrote about the events surrounding the hate-crime against the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. The temple was damaged by dynamite in 1958. The very next Friday, the shell of a building was filled to overflowing as congregants met to worship in the carnage. Their rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, looked out over the packed crowd and said, after a lengthy pause, “So, this is what it takes to get you to temple?”

What does resurrection look like? Does new life come out of dead places only one Sunday a year? Or are we Easter people who continually watching for signs of God’s renewal among us?

In the Book of Acts we encounter a description of a miracle that happened in the Temple a short while after Jesus’ resurrection. A man born with a crippling condition is deposited by his friends at his usual begging spot: at the entrance to the Temple called the Beautiful Gate. His disability stood in stark contrast to all that was considered beautiful in first century Israel. He asks Peter and John for a few coins, a request he has made to countless pilgrims for a lifetime. But instead of tossing him a few coins, the men stop to look intently at him. Instead of money that could by a crust of bread, they offer the social outcast something better: “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” No sooner do they invoke the powerful name of Jesus and the man’s ankles and legs are strengthened. They help him to his feet and he jumps about like a victorious athlete after winning the entire tournament!

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Instead of a hand out they give him a hand up. This healing gives the man the possibility of earning a living. Now he can move about freely and enter his world, no longer sidelined by sanctified discrimination. We can imagine the energy that surrounds that scene and the crowd it drew. Folks excitedly recount the miracle they just witnessed. With mouths agape, all stare at the man they recognized from their daily trips into the Temple. The man who was never before seen at eye level now dances among them, singing God’s praises.

People are drawn to sacred spaces after momentous events. When supernatural moments challenge our world view, we are drawn to a divine power. We want an interpretation of what we’ve witnessed. Remember how folks drove around on the evening of 9-11 looking for a worship service to attend? When our human framework for interpreting life has been blown to smithereens, we want the consolation of Someone more powerful than our best friends or enemies. The people who gathered at the Beautiful Gate were shaken because something stunning just disrupted their expectations for a normal day. The crowd expanded as folks hungered for another dramatic show of power. Instead, they got a sermon. In fact, the main event appears to have been the message and not the healing.

The lectionary text for this past Sunday builds on this miraculous healing with an interpretation. Today I’m asked to deliver a sermon…on a sermon! This was Peter’s second sermon in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. His text had to address the divinity of Christ. Those who believed that a crucified man was the Son of God had a monumental task to convince others of this unlikely truth. Undoubtedly there were those in the crowd who cried out not so long before, “Crucify Him!” Peter tries to convince these oglers that they made a grave mistake in crucifying Jesus. This would have been an unlikely message to teach to a throng of voyeurs who simply wanted another act to the magic show!

In his sermon, Peter unpacks the errors in their evaluation of this remarkable event at the Beautiful Gate. Thomas Long lists three crucial mistakes. First, the onlookers misunderstood the source of the healing. They assumed John and Peter possessed the power to straighten out this man’s legs. We easily fall into idolatry of the healers in our society. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have an impressive fan base on their respective television shows. We spend money on supplements that promise youthfulness. We listen to podcasts that give us hope for a new way of life. We buy tickets to hear speakers who divulge secrets about magical cures. Like the hemorrhaging woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ coat, we grab at the panacea offered by our community healers, sometimes traveling long distances for the cure. John and Peter quickly set the crowd straight by saying that it’s not about them. Rather, this healing has everything to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God they worshiped regularly in the temple was the one true healer.

Second, the crowd misunderstood the nature of life with God. They assumed that brokenness was the norm and healing the stunning exception. They believed that disappointment was the expectation and joy the surprise! Long writes, “Life is perceived to be barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be an incredible exception to the norm.”

Finally, the mob thought the healing required only a response of amazement. In his sermon, Peter urged them to repent. I suspect repentance was the furthest thing from their hearts as they watched the lame man jumping for joy! Events that fill us with wonder are invitations to reflect at a deeper level about who we are and what we’ve come to expect of our world. Maybe we need to confess that we limit God by our lowly expectations. We are surprised when our prayers are answered powerfully. Would our spouse be saddened if we found it highly unusual when they did something wonderful for us? Of course they would! What do we expect from those we love? Do we have room for joy or are we predisposed to pouting?

In the frenzy of a miraculous healing, Peter teaches this crowd about Jesus. A couple of times he talks about how they rejected Him. This is insider language because Peter’s denial of Jesus used that same word. Out of the pain of his own betrayal, Peter argues with this crowd what it means to be faithful. He assures them that there is still time to repent. Could you preach to a mob who was responsible for the murder of your dear friend? Could you offer them the gift of forgiveness? Peter affirms that the power to heal came not from them but was found in the name of Jesus. God has been at work all along and the power of the crucified Christ continues to effect miraculous changes in their world. Peter asks these awestruck believers to repent—to change their minds about who Jesus of Nazareth was and is! Peter preaches that those who accepted that Jesus as the Messiah would experience times of unimaginable refreshing. This miracle was a clear indicator of the kind of world God created for us and continually restores through Christ Jesus. For those who define their worth through shades of shame and guilt, Jesus’ resurrection confronts them with the reality of forgiveness. God is willing to wipe away the entire record of our misdeeds but we have to be willing to receive that gift.

I wonder what we have learned about how we are to live as Easter people? How did Peter’s sermon work on our forebears and how does it speak us into action today? Do we expect to see double rainbows out our windows in the calm of a Spring evening like we did last week? Do we anticipate the greening of the earth each Spring and for bulbs to courageously raise their blooms above ground even as snow threatens? Do we trust that rifts between family members can be repaired or do we construct higher emotional walls to keep them eternally at bay? When we walk through the doors of our sanctuary, do we expect to meet God or do we simply want to hum a few bars of our favorite hymn?

Annie Dillard challenges our expectations of worship in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk: “On the whole, I don’t find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

In what ways are we still resisting resurrection? Are we packing away our faith in God’s resurrecting power even as our Easter finery gets dry-cleaned for the next grand event? Do we cling to favorite sins that are viewed as normative in our communities? Can we embrace the opportunity at new life or do we prefer the usual combination of guilt and relapse? Are we so worried about doing everything perfectly that we sit safely on the sidelines doing nothing? Maybe we like the predictability to how things happen now that we reject new visions, new people, and new challenges for a rewarding life?

The people at the Beautiful Gate of the beloved Jewish Temple assembled to ogle a miracle but got a sermon instead. Peter delivered a mandate to expect new life to come out of dead places. In our own congregation we celebrated tremendously good news this past week. A woman who was taken into surgery to have a malignant vertebrae replaced was given a clean bill of health. The doctor went into the procedure expecting her spine to be porous, like swiss cheese, because of the cancer. When he opened her up he found that everything was…fine….healthy….normal. He closed her up and told the anxiously awaiting family that he has never seen anything like it. So what’s the miracle here?!

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

Do we expect resurrection on the Sundays after Easter? Do we believe there’s power in Jesus’ name? Do we expect disappointment or joy? Times of trial or moments of refreshing? Ongoing worry or dancing with paraplegics? Can we let go of our pessimism to embrace an abundant vision of reality?

Christ has risen and is moving powerfully among us…now and always.

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Throwing a Fit

Parishioners have gotten to know my dog, Hunter, since we’ve been doing our worship services online. He typically likes to add his voice to my sermon each week. He is a beloved part of our household and we are protective of him as he ages. He gets up slowly because his back legs are feeble but he still protects us. He no longer hears the doorbell when it rings. He doesn’t see well but is still able to catch food mid-air much of the time. He devours the treats we slip his way, belying his priorities.

When Hunter is given a savory bone from our dinner table, he wanders our estate, looking for a suitable hiding place. We know when he’s in this state of worship because he whines. He walks around our house with the bone in his mouth, looking tormented as he struggles to find the most secure nook. Garrett’s side of the closet is a favorite spot. But he’s also taken it outside, even burying it in the snow. I’m amazed at how he can sniff out a bone in the snow on a bitter cold day. He trots in victoriously like a King preparing to count his money. We joked that he’s a little bit like Peter at the time of the transfiguration. Perhaps you remember that Peter was so stunned by the glory on the mountain top that he wants to build a booth or pitch a tent. He wants to encamp for days to hold onto that sacred experience. We build a booth when we take seventy pictures of a breathtaking mountain only to discover that none of them measure up to the lived reality. In fact, we may have diminished our experience by trying to capture it through a lens rather than just living it. Hunter wants to build a booth to house his bone. He hangs onto the precious moment of unimaginable blessing in case we never toss him a bone again! He finds a protected place and relaxes–but only for awhile! He checks his bank balance by digging it up the next day then wanders the earth looking for another safety deposit box. You can never be too careful!

In John’s Gospel the order to the events in Jesus’ life is different from that of the other Gospel writers. In John 2 we read the prophetic story of Jesus chasing the moneychangers off the temple grounds. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this disruptive event happens in the last week of Jesus’ life. In John’s Gospel this bold act shows up as Jesus is kicking off his ministry. We have to wonder why John would place that defiant moment at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Any Jew approaching the Jerusalem Temple would do so with awe. They would have a keen sense of belonging in this place that hosted the deepest spiritual moments of their ancestors. It was always a privilege to be in this sanctuary yet Jesus disrupted the scene by throwing a fit. The temple was an amazing structure. Herod the Great had tried to curry favor with the Jews by starting a renovation of the temple in 20 BC. 47 years later, Jesus showed up and spoke of tearing down the structure. The Jews within earshot of this preposterous claim were incredulous: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?“ I can hear their snide laughter.

The Jews were expected to sacrifice from their personal lives to keep the temple in good condition. They gave money to support the priests whose lives were dedicated to the spiritual well-being of their people. Money was allotted to help widows and orphans, a charitable outreach unequalled by other religions. When Jews entered the temple grounds, they found themselves in the Court of the Gentiles. Temple insiders authorized these non-Jews to be present in a sort of religious flea market. They sold animals to the pilgrims which served as their offering. There was a secondary need for having these merchant services on the temple grounds. Each individual paid a temple tax. Roman coins were not accepted in the Temple because they bore the image of rulers not unlike dear Abe on every one of our pennies. Those faces were understood to be graven images, thus violating the second commandment. The Roman coins had to be exchanged for Jewish currency. Banking and trading was not intrinsically evil but it had gotten out of hand. The money changers charged unfair rates of exchange. The price for animals was high, taking advantage of weary pilgrims who needed to make a suitable offering. The principle of supply and demand was brazenly on display in the Court of the Gentiles.  Jesus saw that it was a racket and threw a righteous fit!

Most images of Jesus portrayed in artwork display serenity. I’ve heard some people say that He is depicted as a “wimp.” If that’s the image you have in your mind, this story will confront you. As early as twelve years of age, Jesus claimed the temple as His Father’s house. This was heretical language. Knowing God with such intimacy, Jesus was incensed when people used the sanctuary for their own gain. It’s the classic tale of the teenager throwing a big party in her parents’ lovely home when they leave for the weekend. It’s all fun until the guests abuse the house because they don’t care about it. The girl has to oust her guests and repair the damage before the parents return. Jesus defended God’s honor by protecting the temple as a worship space. But the Jews turned it into Mall of America, attempting to buy their salvation for a fee. Jesus turned that bad theology on its head!

The story asks a question: What is Church? John features this story early in Jesus’ ministry to call out idolatry of place. He decries the inverted values by which we worship gods of our own making. We want to preserve precious moments as treasure. We refuse to relinquish them so they interfere with God‘s will for our lives. Like the Apostle Peter–and my dog Hunter–we want to build a booth, assemble a Shutterfly book, and buy a souvenir to mark an event. Time and again we discover that nothing equals the experience itself. Often we miss the beauty of the moment in our fervent effort at containing it.

A Mainline church in New York City owned a high-rise building across the street from their sanctuary. A developer asked to buy their unused space. A total of 60 stories, they sold twenty stories to the developer for five million dollars. This seemed like a win-win proposal but actually created great consternation. The congregation was not unified when deciding how to spend this unexpected windfall. Comprised of Wall Street executives and educated city folks, some of the membership wisely suggested they invest it! Great idea! Other people said that it goes against the nature of Christ’s Church to sit on piles of money. Their suggestion was to use it to support a homeless shelter. A compromise was reached: they split the income in half. Two and one half million dollars was invested and two and one half million dollars was spent to create shelter for some of the homeless population in that city. It really was an argument about idolatry. Do we deify our facility, putting the beautification of a facility above the calling to love the least of these? At what point is it irresponsible to give money to missions if our building is falling into disrepair? There has to be a balance, doesn’t there?

I wonder if Jesus is cleansing the Church in this time of COVID? Is He perhaps asking us to examine our priorities and be ready to change? Hulett Gloer writes, “The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its missions. Soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and money changers.” Is Jesus at work as we isolate at home?

My last morning in Jerusalem was spent in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This grand structure is built over the site of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. It is a massive compound that houses some 25 different sanctuaries. Each one is operated by a different Christian denomination. Each jealously guards their own space. Each cleric tries to out-bellow the other in worship. Before I left on my trip, a friend recommended that I soak in the cacophony of worship noises on my visit. I wandered from one unique sanctuary into another. Crusader crosses mark the basement walls from one thousand years ago. Sadly, this sacred space has become a breeding ground for territorial Christians who guard their own sacred turf like my dog protects his bone.

I have no doubt that Christ is worshiped in that holy space but there is a selfishness that cannot be ignored. Each night the door to this holy complex is locked. Guess who holds the key? For generations the same Muslim family has been entrusted with it because the Christians can’t trust each other. Every night a member of that Muslim family locks the door and re-opens it in the morning. Christians have built a spectacular sort of booth over a holy site, wanting to contain it. Christians from all over the world worship in that space. But I wonder what Jesus might do if He entered through those doors today?

We’ve had to explore what it means to be a church without a building this year. It has been disorienting. Not only have we lost our space but we can’t even gather together safely. After a year of transformed worship, we are anxious to get back in the building. We are ready to serve as a shelter for homeless families. Our youth director worked alongside our high school students to transform the youth room into a space that is both safe and comfortable for meetings. I can’t wait for them to gather and grow their faith in that appealing room. We are tailoring our sanctuary to suit the needs of a streaming audience. We have discovered that the Internet does not readily cooperate in a building that was constructed in the 1870s! It takes money to get good cell coverage. It takes money to have good lighting for a streaming product. It takes a good camera and a skilled person behind the camera. Part of our church budget is needed to make the technological improvements so that our sanctuary allows folks to join our worship from their homes. We anticipate that expanded congregation even when we can safely gather again. Do we idolize our building and insist it remain the same as it was a generation ago? Or do we adapt so that the Spirit of the living God can continue to be experienced by a broader congregation?

When Jesus made a scene in the temple courts, he was angry at those who took advantage of the faithful for their own gain. Jesus grieved that His people had lost sight of true worship. I hear Him crying out, “You’re missing the point! Forget the success plan you’ve carefully tailored to earn your way into heaven! Get on your face and rest in God‘s presence. Be in awe of God‘s power. Bask in the reality that God notices you! Don’t obsess over shiny stars by your name on the attendance ledger.”

Friends, with the renewed promise of resurrection, lay down your burdens in this long siege called COVID. Let go of your sadness, anger, and frustration.  Don’t’ feel like you have to bury God’s love. No one can steal it from you. Don’t hoard it, like it’s a limited commodity. Don’t try to out-preach another believer. God needs all of our voices. God has enough love for you and me and them, all of them, whoever they are! So lay it down in Jesus’ name, all of it! Amen!

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This IS Church!

I wonder what you’ve been watching this past year? I bet you have a sharpened opinion now on where you find the best programming: Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Youtube, Acorn…. The list could go on and on! We’ve had some time on our hands since last Easter and we’ve filled some of that time with programs. Even though I like to finish what I start, there are some series we started in our household but never finished. They weren’t worth our time or emotional investment. In the past month my son and I discovered a program that was touching, worthy even of an Easter sermon! It’s called Last Chance U and the particular episode focuses on a coach at East Los Angeles College. It’s a documentary that celebrates a triumph of the underdog. At this community college, a basketball coach by the name of John Mosley transformed a team into winners and put their modest school on the map!

Mosley had been a successful basketball player and coach in several different settings before accepting the part-time position at East LA College. He took a significant pay-cut even though he and his wife are raising three children. His wife supported this vocational move because she understood his sense of calling: to give underprivileged young men a chance to escape poverty and aimlessness. He brought with him significant basketball skills and a seemingly endless supply of energy. Perhaps the greatest gift he offered to these young men was his Christian faith.

The guys on the Huskies team learned to expect sermons from him. His half-time pep talks in the locker room were impassioned and sometime angry but they often morphed into prayer. The players closed their eyes when he prayed in Jesus’ name and headed back onto the court with the assurance that a power greater than their coach would fight for them. I’m surprised that the academic institution has allowed him to be so vocal about his Christian perspective. Perhaps he was granted such latitude because of the great success he has brought to their team. Maybe the administrators allow him to throw out scripture passages as motivation because they’ve been on the receiving end of his compassion. They have witnessed the broad capacity he possesses to love others. In the series we meet one of the star players who never had a dad in his life but was very close to his mom. When she developed advanced cancer, her son found team practices and games to be his safe space. As the mom lay dying, she told Coach Mosley that she was entrusting her son to him. In one of the sideline interviews, Mosley says with a smile that he will always be there for that young man—always. At the end of the season this orphaned student, along with eight other players on the team, was given a full scholarship to play for a 4-year university. Offering his players the opportunity for a better life is central to Mosley’s mission.

In one of the locker room scenes, Mosley is giving one of his boisterous pep talks. Then he quiets it down and asks, “You know what we’re going to do now?” One of the young men mutters, “Go to church?” The players knew when their coach was going to launch into a sermon, pray, or recite scripture. But Mosley replied, “We’re not going to go to church. This IS Church!”

What is Church? Have we been out of church? Or have we been going all along? Is it a building with stained glass windows, pews, and a bell we ring into the community? Or have we learned, in the past year, that Church happens in more ways than we ever imagined possible? Where is Church? Is it found where a crowd of believers gather to sing hymns and bow their heads in prayer? Or does it happen in our homes when we set out communion elements and share in the feast remotely with other believers? Does Church happen when we sit on our beds, wearing our pajamas, drinking our coffee while we sing hymns at the top of our lungs–by ourselves?

We have discovered that new life comes from unlikely places in the past year. Christ has been at work in each of us so that we could affirm at unlikely times and unusual places: This IS Church!

A couple of weeks ago a man stopped by the our church looking for some financial assistance. We sat at a distance from each other in the sanctuary so that he could tell me of his struggles. His mother had just died and he needed gas money to make it to Indiana. He needed to bury her and close out her life there. He told me he had hoped to move her near him but she became sick and died before he could do that. He confessed his emptiness. He missed his mom and wished they had more time together in recent years. He started to talk about his faith and I realized that he needed a pastor. He asked me a few questions and showcased a great knowledge of the Bible in our reflection. As light streamed through our stained glass windows and danced around the pew where we sat, he expressed his amazement that God gave up the beloved Son, Jesus, for us! He grew quiet and hung his head, reflecting on this miraculous gift. That very morning I had stopped at CITGO to pick up some more gas cards. I wanted to have a few available just in case someone stopped by. I told him his timing was just right. We both knew that God orchestrated our meeting. As I sent him off with a couple of gas cards and a prayer, I thought to myself, “This IS Church!”

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

We have been to Church in a lot of new settings this past year!

Church happened when I went to the local motel to pay for several nights lodging. It was for a couple who have been living out of their car. COVID cost them their jobs. They both have health challenges and and rely on an unreliable vehicle. I talked with the woman over the phone, asking about their circumstances and offering words of encouragement. When I told her we would be able to pay for several nights, she wept. After the phone call, I stopped by the motel with my church checkbook. I met with the owner who is of a different religion. We have worked together before, across cultures and faiths, to put a temporary roof over the heads of individuals who find themselves in desperate circumstances. Our congregation—this Body of Christ in Rockford, Michigan—have supported a pastor’s discretionary fund. Their compassion brought Church to these two women who had lost hope. In the modest shelter of a Colonial Motel room, we offered them resurrection. We assured them through our actions that there is always new life in Christ. That morning I came in to the woman’s message on our church answering machine: “You’ve helped so many people and that is a really beautiful thing. But if you can help us, we’ve been living in our car…”

How good it is that word is out in our community that we can be counted on for respite in troubled times.

When have you brought Church to someone who wasn’t sure they dared to hope for new life? There’s been so much bad news this past year. Even now, the COVID numbers in Michigan are headlining in national news. I wondered if we would have to stay virtual after all our planning to reunite in person—even if at a distance and masked! We repeatedly hear news of shootings in our towns and cities. In California a disgruntled employee turned a gun on folks he knew. The price of his anger: four deaths and another shock to our nation. Rage simmers just below the surface for many people. The prophet Isaiah ministered during the time that the Israelites were overtaken by the Babylonians and marched far from home as slaves. After half a century of servitude, God opened the way for the people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, why say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

When have you been the bearer of good news to a people who have come to expect only disappointment? When has Church happened on somebody’s doorstep, by a hospital bed, in a Zoom conversation with people you missed? When have you coached someone not just on how to play a sport or master an instrument? When have you coached someone into discipleship in the name of the resurrected Christ?

One of our members, who has been tested as a frontline worker this past year, was recently approached at the workplace by a young colleague. He said to her, “You’re the only person around here who goes to church. Why do you go?” Nearly twenty years his senior, she told him, “My faith keeps me safe and gives me the strength I need to deal with my struggles.” This person isn’t preachy but she lives her faith. She mentions church in her conversations which is code for, “I’m a Christian—if you want to talk faith!”

After a year of confronting our mortality, people are hungering to talk about eternal matters. About truth. About a God who loves us for who we are. Church happens in the most unlikely places when we invite Jesus to use us. Church happens when we dare to tell someone we will pray for them. Church happens when we invite someone to go to a worship service with us or send them a scripture verse that offers encouragement.  

George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland stated, “I simply argue that the Cross should be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. That is where church-men ought to be and what church-men ought to be about.”  (Beyond Playing Church: A Christ-Centered Environment for Church Renewal by Michael Slaughter. Anderson, IN: Bristol House, 1994, p. 69.)

In the darkest times, we experience new life in Jesus. I asked folks on our church Facebook page what blessings have surprised them during this COVID year. Guess what? Folks’ answers assured me that God is with us! Church happened! We found gifts amidst the COVID carnage! Maybe you can relate to some of these answers: I learned to appreciate the little things. Slow down. Quality time with my kids—maybe I missed something in the past because I didn’t have time to really watch them grow and learn. Folks from all over the world joined in our worship and Bible Study. Random acts of kindness. My sense of community deepened. Creativity abounded, like sewing and cooking and bread baking and woodworking! I added new and let go of old. I changed priorities. Deep conversations with my spouse and family. We understand each other better! Reading. Long walks. An appreciation for nature…and for quiet.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene headed to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. When she discovered that the tomb was empty, she ran to the place where the fearful disciples were hiding. Peter and John raced back with her, mystified by the empty tomb as well. They returned to their hideout, leaving Mary alone. She was unable to leave without the assurance that her beloved Jesus was safely at rest. She worshiped Him even in death. We read that when He revealed Himself to her, she fell at His feet and wept. This is Church. Mary encountered the risen Christ and couldn’t get enough of Him. He had a mission for her. His resurrection was not simply for her. It was for the disciples—and the world. He told her to share the good news of His resurrection with the beloved disciples who had abandoned Him in death.

“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of one bringing good news…” I can only imagine how effortlessly Mary covered the distance between the tomb and the disciples’ hide-out. She is the very first missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ. When she burst through their doors, she cried out, “I have seen the Lord…”

This IS Church when we attest to the ways that Christ is alive within us. This IS Church when we act with kindness to those who have lost hope. This IS Church when we encourage the gifts of a stranger or offer financial help. This IS Church when we break bread at our dining room table, fully confident that we meet the risen Christ in that meal. This IS Church when we assure a hospitalized family member of our love on speaker phone because we can’t be with them. This IS Church when we help a friend move in the thick of a pandemic when workers are hard to find and COVID threatens us.

What we have been doing this past year, as frustrating as it may have been, IS Church! The celebration today that met in our building on Easter morning and in our parking lot and streamed into our homes IS Church…because the risen Christ cannot be contained or owned or denied. Like Mary, run with that good news wherever God leads you.

Christ is risen. Risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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Unmasking the System

Walking into the hard days of Holy Week, we sit with the Beloved Disciple, John, for an advanced lesson. Jesus teaches His witless disciples a theology of the cross. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t make sense to His followers. The disconnect between His understanding of the future and theirs is on full display in John 12. As Jesus’ popularity increases, momentum builds. People travel to hear Him. Everywhere He goes, crowds gather. The disciples interpret this as success but Jesus knows He’s wrapping up the farewell tour.

Jesus is attracting a very diverse group of followers. In this instance, some non-Jews are looking for Jesus. There is yearning in their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps it’s not by chance that they address themselves to Philip. The text reminds us that Philip is from Bethsaida in Galilee. That region was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It may have been clear to these visitors that Philip was from their home area. They found the natural contact person for gaining an audience with Jesus.

Philip seeks out Andrew with their request. Then the two of them find Jesus to let Him know that His fan base is expanding! Perhaps there is a problem because the Galileans are not Jewish. They let Jesus decide what to do. Earlier He told His disciples that there would be “other sheep” who would be welcomed into the fold of His love. He knew that His message held an appeal for a broad cross-section of people. In the verse that immediately precedes this passage, we hear the religious authorities voice their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity. They exclaim in private: “Look, the whole world is going after Jesus.” This bruises their egos but is good news to Philip and Andrew. Even so, Jesus surprises them with His response.

Rather than welcoming these men and fielding their questions, Jesus seizes the opportunity to lecture about His death. In somewhat veiled language, He let’s them know how and when He will die. My guess is that this deterred the men who had been  seeking Him out! Philip and Andrew must have glanced at each other, shaking their heads. It was a lost opportunity for boosting the fan club enrollment.

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The image Jesus offers is that of a grain of wheat that must die to its present form in order to multiply. We’ve seen how a sunflower seed bursts open against the pressure of a growing sprout within. We have black oil sunflower seeds in a feeder by our front door. My dog sniffs around since I recently put stale bread crumbs out there too. Now we have dried sunflower seed shells tracking in through our front doors. When the seed receives rainwater, soil and sun, it begins to grow and the original container for the seed is destroyed. However, it is through this natural growing process that a harvest is possible. One seed can grow a plant that yields hundreds of times over the value of the original seed. That seed dies to self for the sake of a new generation.

Jesus summons believers to be ready to suffer on behalf of others and not for our own gain. Disciples then—and now—find that hard to grasp. Jesus prepares His disciples for His imminent death. He wants them to understand that He willingly gives up His life out of a profound love. We are more accustomed to seeking the easy way out. We wish to avoid suffering. When we have to go through trials, we question how it will benefit us. Think of the news frenzy when Ted Cruz packed up his family to escape to the tropics. As his constituents sought refuge from freezing temperatures and uninhabitable homes, the Cruz’ flew to Cancun. His constituents exploded with anger. Their exodus pf this elected official from a national disaster even shaped the story line of a Simpsons’ episode! We are a people who have come to expect folks to act selfishly, not sacrificially. We don’t like it but we accept that self-interest will prevail over voluntary personal risk. Those in my generation saw it when Popeye pummeled Bluto; when the road runner fled from the assault of Wile ol’ Coyote. Our children see justice get played out as violent victories in video games. We accept this as normal.

Jesus goes further in this lesson by suggesting that only those who hate their lives will save it. Why would Jesus, the One who came that we might have abundant life, exhort us to hate our lives? I like the interpretation that Biblical scholar, Dale Bruner, offered in his commentary: The one who hates their life is “the person who dies to the supremacy of his or her own self-preservation and advancement at all costs.” Jesus’ teaching steers followers away from a “what’s in it for me” attitude and directs us toward the challenging notion that we must be ready to give up our lives for others. I’m not sure that this lecture made sense to His disciples or those who so earnestly sought Him out.

The Greek word used in this passage for “world” is “kosmos.” It translates best to mean “the System.” Jesus’ crucifixion judges the world, the kosmos, the System. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, He was taking on the System. In this unlikely teaching, as His disciples are ready to grow His fan club, Jesus targets the systems that hold us captive and lead us from abundant life into forms of death. It was interesting to me that, in her interview with Oprah, Meghan Markle used two different terms in reference to her husband’s family. There was the Family and there was also the Firm. Decisions made by the Firm, the corporate entity that manages the well-being of Queen Elizabeth’s family, may not always reflect the wishes of individual family members. Grand Rapids’ philanthropist Fred Meijer’s business was so successful that he had to entrust the management of his grocery empire to a Board of Directors. They didn’t always operate as Fred might have. Jesus’ ministry brings us together as a united family. Because we love each other, we are called to expose the forces that crush us and our neighbors.

Our culture upholds an expectation that we will succeed by fighting our way up the corporate ladder. Pushing other people down, when necessary, is a given so that we can advance our own agenda. This happens between business execs. It happens across fences in neighborhood yards. We do it so that we can support our family. We do it to feed our egos. Laying down our lives for others does not fit within the equation for the American Dream!

This past year we have witnessed far too often how one death can become a movement that takes on some aspect to the System. Several weeks ago the city of Minneapolis awarded George Floyd’s family the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever: $27 million. When two of the carefully selected jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin learned of this unprecedented financial award, they were dismissed and two more neutral individuals were chosen. The death of Floyd sparked outrage in our country and added fuel to the fire of a protest movement that was already well underway. We recently marked the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death. Her face is painted across parking lots, on buildings and down main streets of major cities. Her tragic death has pushed the issue of police reform forward. The logo chosen to remember her speaks to her basic humanity: Say her name. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer unmasked the system that needs reform in a statement he issued: “For White America, these deaths were the latest reckoning and a just alarm that things must change—that America, united, must listen, understand and act to end the injustice that’s hurt and held our country back for far too long.”

As people of faith, we are called to identify the primary aspects to the System that hold us captive and walk us toward forms of death. Can we invite Jesus to work with us to unmask the wrongs and bring healing? Will we recognize fake news and extricate ourselves from its grip? Martin Luther King courageously unmasked a racist system by continuing to march peacefully as violence against them increased. In his famous “I have a dream…” speech, he restated his resolve to unmask the System by letting the nation see their hateful actions: “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”

The very next day King was assassinated while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel room. His death unmasked the System that sought to silence him. Like a grain of wheat that died to self, his death brought an abundant harvest. King’s sacrifice brought down judgment on our nation that still challenges us today.

Jesus vulnerably voiced His sadness in this passage: “Now my soul is troubled.” I suspect we have said that many times this past year, in so many words. We have had to face inequity in our world. We have remained vigilant, courageously naming the wrongs that have become normative. There was nothing easy for Jesus when approaching the hour of His death. He prayed for God to remove that final trial but closed His prayer with an invitation: “Not my will but yours be done.” As His disciples campaigned for more card-carrying followers, Jesus gave this lesson about a grain of wheat dying. He voiced the necessity of hating our lives. He knew that His days were numbered. So we stick close by His side in this final leg of our Lenten journey. We resolve to finish the course with a God who allowed the System to showcase their ugliness so that we could recognize and name it today. We stay the course. We finish the race. We look ahead knowing that resurrection from all forms of death is just around the bend. Thanks be to God!

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Change in Status

Our congregation recently marked the one-year mark that we moved out of our building. Except for three months in the late summer and early fall, we have worshiped remotely. Not only has our congregational life been confined to individual houses. Our work life has sent us into nooks in our homes where we set up shop thinking it would only be for a short while. My sister transitioned from her office to a card table with a plastic chair for months on end. She needed physical therapy because the unyielding furniture did a number on her spine and hips. We never imagined we would be isolated for so long. Mandated to stay out of community, we were expected to teach our children, run our businesses, and cater our own meals (in spite of sold-out ingredients) with no advance notice.

And we have done it! Each one of us deserves a medal for adaptation but I suspect we would settle for hugs from the loved ones we have missed!

So now we begin to consider leaving our homes as vaccinations are administered. We accept that we have to continue to observe basic safety precautions but warm weather is calling us beyond the walls of our homes. I’m hearing that many of us are feeling anxious about the thought of freely mixing with other people. Even those who are fully immunized experience a gut reaction against meeting a friend for lunch or going back to the office a few days a week. We have become so reliant on the safety of our dens that we have almost forgotten how to interact with others easily. We long for companionship yet hold back from re-entering our world.

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Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque. I have been following his daily devotions this past year while squirreled away in my home or working in a quiet church building. I appreciate his theory of the three domes which he described in his January posts. Picture three conical domes that fit inside each other. The smallest and inner dome is comprised of my personal interests. Rohr calls it the world of “My Story.” It’s me living each day based on my needs. I thrive thanks to self-help books. I seek to fulfill my deepest desires. I immerse myself in my interests and can find it pretty rewarding! Many of our members have talked about what a relief it was initially to be mandated to stay home. We ate meals with our loved ones. We tackled home projects, read books, and slept in. We self-actualized by learning new cooking techniques and organized neglected files. When we focus all our efforts on ourselves, we risk settling for an inwardly-focused life. In our increasing narcissism, we easily take offense at others and are fearful of anyone foisting changes upon us. Every aspect to our lives, when we live exclusively in this smallest dome, resembles a selfie: Look at me! Tell me how great I look! What can you do for me today? Fixating on ourselves gets…boring, right? Think of how yucky it is to wear a mask, breathing our own breath for any length of time. Even if we’ve brushed and flossed our teeth, after 20 minutes of talking with our co-worker, our mask smells rank! Too much of me becomes unpleasant!

We place another dome over “My Story” and that is called “Our Story.” “Our Story” is the narrative of whatever group we claim as our own. We commonly base this allegiance on race, nationality, gender, religion, or occupation. We might call those in this second dome “my people.” We find value in associating with those who share our attributes and values. Being part of a group is the necessary training ground to lifelong trust. Church involvement fits under this dome as congregations live their faith together. Unchecked group-think, however, leads away from a healthy sense of belonging with others to an ardent defense of “our group.” We are willing to sacrifice for “us” so as to defeat “them.” We broadcast our group commitment by wearing the right swag and joining the proper on-line group. We seek out fame. Sometimes we even strive for domination, like rival gangs in an urban setting. The Bible values both of these domes as evidenced in Jesus’ command: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. God works in us on both a personal and communal level.

The largest dome encompasses the first two. This one Rohr refers to as “The Story.” It is here that we encounter patterns that are always true regardless of personal story and cultural bias. We cannot peg anything easily in this realm because it is so beyond our human level. We realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and our best human communities. In order to find our way to “The Story,” we have to take responsibility at both the personal and group levels. We admit our errors that hurt us and others. We look at the group with whom we affiliate and notice their prejudice. We become aware of our blind spots. We are humbled by our blunders and discover that we need something more than personal satisfaction and communal belonging. We embrace the necessity of forgiveness. We are moved with compassion for those in need. We care for the earth as our home. We love others because we experience Divine love. When we live in the realm of “The Story,” Rohr states that we are saved from the smallness of “me” and the illusions of “we.” When all three domes are honored as worthy of our love and attention, we mature spiritually.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is written in the characteristically dense language of the Apostle. As we sift through it we notice a once/now structure. He begins by pointing out our status as individuals: The 47th selfie you took of yourself today may look great but you’ve missed the point! Your self-absorption has isolated you from all that matters. You have used your independence to serve your own personal needs which has damaged you and others. Paul warns the readers to be very clear about whom they follow. There are good guys and bad guys. There is God and Satan. Know that you are choosing your leader with each decision, thought and word. For all of us “My Story” is flawed and incomplete. We need community.

In verse three Paul shifts into the first-person plural: We, all of us, once lived among those who were busy building their resumes to promote their personal best. We were lost in sin and didn’t know it because “everyone was doing it.” If any reader was feeling smug about escaping the snare of peer pressure, Paul bursts that little ego bubble mercilessly. We were part of a group but our priorities were wrong. William Stringfellow wrote, “Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issues of ethics—and…of politics—is how to live humanly during the fall…” Perhaps what we are made of has been revealed more clearly in the past year of isolation and fear. Maybe we have retreated deep into our shell so that the light of a new day is barely discernible. So Paul reminds us that it is only when we acknowledge the reality of the powers to act selfishly that redemption can happen. It is only when a church undergoes self-examination that it can recognize and name the way it has become a power. We need the season of Lent every year to be reminded that we cannot overcome the forces of evil that surround us. Rather, we choose to follow Christ as He journeys toward Jerusalem. We witness to His strength and admit our own powerlessness.

Verse four beautifully describes a status shift. It features those of us who have transparently struggled through “My Story” and “Our Story” to find ourselves still on the dusty road with Christ. In spite of our lostness, God notices us. In spite of the stench of sin that clings to us, God reinvigorates us by placing us alongside of Jesus. Paul makes sure that none of us backslides into myopic arrogance by thinking we’ve earned this status shift. In verses 8 and 9 Paul issues a blunt reminder: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul was never one to mince words! Before we know it, the stinky face mask is removed, God holds our fully-revealed faces, and life-giving breath fills us with renewed purpose. “I am” and “We are” is abandoned for “God is.” A whole new life stretches before us, by God’s grace. We become the very person God created us to be. I love the sound of that. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good work. We feed the hungry. We love beyond our own tribe. We recognize our unity as children of a loving God who calls us to leave the obsession with self behind. God invites us to claim our story even as we celebrate the narratives of others. Following trusted guides who have navigated the potential pitfalls of “My Story” and “Our Story” faithfully, we find ourselves elevated beyond the pettiness of human life to the glory of God’s presence. The shift in status is God’s gift and it’s never too late.

We have spent months in virtual seclusion. We have expanded to safe pods, savoring the tenderness of hugs like never before. We may find it challenging to leave the safety of our homes as COVID begins to lose its grip. But we must remember the image of the three domes. Staying fixated on ourselves is deadly. Ian Markham writes, “Egotism and selfish preoccupation are so damaging to our being that our spirit is not alive to God and to love.” As a stroke victim labors under the direction of a rehabilitation coach, we must push ourselves slowly but surely back into our world. We can’t get stuck in a small circle that focuses on defending itself against all others. With our fears elevated unlike any other year, it would be easy to seek out “our” group and fully entrust our well-being to them. Only family. Only my closest friends. Only my church group.

Limiting our interaction to those within our circle of trust puts us in the driver’s seat and ejects God. Closing ourselves off to the beauty of complete strangers suffocates our God-intended humanity. Will we hang on to the wheel and avoid the places where we feel threatened? Or will we trust God with our journey? Will we leave our safe zone in good faith that God can shift our status from once to now, from lost to found, from lonely to home?

As we slowly leave COVID behind, we must carefully choose our Guide. Intentionally, sacrificially, we follow Christ’s lead.

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Irish

For those of you chilling your green beer for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration tonight, listen up! Let me broaden your understanding of this holiday with a brief bio about dear Patrick! We started a new study at my church this week: Saints and Greats of the Faith. Since we commenced the study this week, it made sense to examine the life of the man behind all things Irish.

Patrick was born in Romano Britain, living during the 5th century. The exact details of his life are a bit sketchy. From his later writings we know that he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16 and carted off to Ireland where he served as a slave for six years. He tended the sheep of his master so another disciple of great faith understands what it means to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd of the sheep. His father was a deacon in the church and his grandfather served as priest. But young Patrick, at the time of his kidnapping, wasn’t a particularly devout disciple. Few 16-year-old boys are now, for that matter! But kidnapping and slavery can do a number on whatever construct you have of your teenaged life. During those unimaginable years of forced labor, his relationship to the God of his childhood deepened.

During his time of captivity God told him that he would soon go home and that a ship was at the ready. This didn’t mean, however, that his master understood this vision. The man who owned him certainly didn’t walk him to the boat, sending him off with a fond farewell. Patrick had to flee from his master, trusting the voice he had heard. He traveled some 200 miles, if you can imagine, to get to the eastern coast of Ireland. Even then, there wasn’t a ship’s captain holding up a sign with the name of Patrick inscribed on it. An exhausted and impoverished slave, he had to convince a skipper to take him aboard. God’s promises are true but don’t always come neatly wrapped with a bow! When his boat docked, he traveled by foot with other passengers 28 miles to find his way home. This wandering band of nomads grew weak with hunger. Patrick, with his fervent faith, prayed for God to sustain them. Not long after that public prayer, an unfortunate herd of wild boar appeared and a feast of roast pork ensued! The folks who traveled with this 22-year-old young man took note of his spiritual prowess and were impressed. This was the very beginning of his popular rise to Sainthood.

Patrick did arrive home, clearly changed by his experience. He pursued the Christian faith with great zeal, studying in France for a time. His spiritual accomplishments were noticed and God’s plan became clear in a vision. Patrick heard the Irish calling out for him, begging him to rejoin them. He took this vision seriously. I suppose you would have to, if you were being asked to return to the land of your enslavement! He left family and culture behind once again, this time by choice, and headed to the western coast of Ireland. He docked his boat in one town and they made it clear that he wasn’t welcome. Sometimes complete strangers help us in the task of discernment! These folks must not have been the ones Patrick heard in his vision. So he hopped back into his boat and paddled further north along the coast. Isn’t it interesting how we can assume we know where God is leading us, sacrifice to get there, then learn that we haven’t yet arrived where God will use us? The good news is that, a short distance up-stream, Patrick disembarked and was welcomed. That was the beginning to a lifetime of Christ-like leadership among a people who revered him. He baptized thousands. He ordained priests and sent them out to establish new faith communities. He made enemies when he inspired wealthy women from prestigious families to renounce their heritage and become nuns. He converted princes to the faith, who left highly privileged positions to enter the monastery. He is attributed with planting 300 congregations. The primary place of his ministry was in Armagh where both a Catholic parish and Church of Ireland were named after him.

There is plenty of folklore about this great man of the faith. He is reputed to have taught about the Trinity by using a three-leaf clover as a visual aid. He is credited with banishing all the snakes from Ireland after an uncomfortable encounter with some slithering reptiles. Ireland is still known as a land without such creatures. There were reports of his walking stick, completely detached from any root system or other form of nourishment, sprouting green shoots. All of this falls in the category of myth but it has made its way into revered memory. In stained glass images of the saint, you are likely to see him holding a shamrock, standing on defeated snakes and/or holding a walking stick bedecked with healthy greenery. We celebrate his inspiring life on March 17 as that was understood to be the date of his death.

This was all the more interesting for me to research this year since my Ancestry.com DNA panel was further refined in recent months. As more individuals send in their vials of saliva, looking for some sense of personal identity, the data base expands and my information becomes more specific. Before the recent report, my ethnic passport credited England with more than 75% of my DNA roots. I easily embrace the British, having lived three of my first five formational years in jolly old England. My dad picked up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on the way home from work and I devoured it. I fed pigeons in the quaint British parks, Mary Poppins-style. I loved the Beatles music and laughed at Monty Python’s odd version of humor! James Cordon singing with celebrities in a car makes me smile. I readily embrace being a part of these people!

Another 12% of my DNA comes from Scotland. My great aunt Jean, after whom I was given my middle name, donned a three-piece wool suit on special occasions. It was tailored out of the bright red MacDougall tartan. I have a picture of her father, my great-grandfather, in full Scottish kilt attire, playing the bagpipes. Three sisters and I had the amazing experience of digging into our MacDougall roots in 2018 by visiting two of “our” castles in Oban, Scotland. The crisp seaside air invigorated me as I considered that my ancestors, perched at the top of impressive stone structures, breathed in this same air as they played their bagpipes and savored their beloved haggis (A lot like meatloaf, truthfully. Just don’t ask what’s in it!).

A token amount of “me” traced back to Nordic Vikings who conquered my ancestors then settled into family life with lovely Scottish lasses. No wonder I was drawn to St. Olaf College where Scandinavian immigrants welcomed the frigid temps of winter as reminders of home-sweet-home.

But all of that changed when a new breakdown of my ethnic constitution was emailed to me this year. COVID changed a lot of things about my life, one of which was connecting me to another homeland. What we thought was an overwhelming percentage of English blood was newly divided into two parts: half remaining with the English and the other half traveling across western waters to land in Ireland. More than one-third of my ethnic heritage is Irish! No wonder I’ve always favored green! How awesome that I can now add  “Luck of the Irish” to my resume! Surely that’s an asset that I haven’t yet exploited! So, for my two classes on Saint Patrick this week, I’ve dressed the part. Even before knowing of my Irish roots, I purchased bright green suede pumps for just the right occasion. I even stopped by a department store today to check out their discounted St. Patrick’s Day swag. I guess I haven’t fully bought into my Irish identity yet since I wasn’t willing to pay full price to broadcast my roots! But I’ve got plenty of green in my wardrobe!

The lessons I learn from the Patron Saint of Ireland today are what impact me most. Just because God calls you in a new direction doesn’t mean that the path will be clear or easy. Just as you arrive at one place, sure that you have landed in the port of God’s choosing, you may discover that your gifts are rejected and you need to travel further. Following the prompting of Christ will often lead you away from all that is familiar. The very nature of the Christian faith is to avoid excessive attachment to the things of this world so don’t get too comfy at any one stage of your journey. When the layers of familiarity are peeled away, as they were for 16-year-old Patrick when pirates carted him far from home, we are most open to the moving the Spirit. We learn that God keeps pace with us all along. When we are famished for our physical needs to be met, God dishes up a healthy serving of reassuring Presence along with sustenance for our bodies. When we do what God asks of us, our life may not flow more easily but the imprint we leave in the communities to which God calls us will be immeasurable.

So raise your stein of green beer to St. Patrick today. May his tireless devotion to the poor inspire us to quiet acts of mercy. May his unflinching gaze upon the rescuing God be our inspiration beyond the shamrock shakes and green beaded necklaces of today.

Slainte!

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Restraining Order

When I pastored a church in suburban Chicago I worked with a couple in the community who faced more hurdles than most. The woman was attractive and in her mid-thirties. She had struggled with addiction and promiscuity in her earlier years. But then she met a somewhat older man who was good to her. He saw past her insecurities to an inner beauty. They married and became very involved in our church for a time, having the fervor of converts to the faith. The woman had never been in a more stable situation in her adult life and she was able to leave the past behind in the protective care of her new husband.

They asked to meet with me to talk about some difficult news. He had been diagnosed with a chronic disease that would make each day much more challenging. They had to face his mortality squarely. He underwent several procedures and the younger wife bore the brunt of caring for him. It was a demanding situation that would tax even the strongest marriage. The wife began to backpedal from his health needs. She relieved her anxiety by reverting back to the addiction that had claimed much of her young adult years. The weakening husband continued to love her even as she distanced herself from him. The final straw was when he discovered that she had sold some of his medicine to make money to support her own habit. He flew into a rage, even punching a hole in the kitchen wall because he was so heartbroken at her betrayal. Frightened by this atypical showing of anger, she fled and took out a restraining order against this otherwise gentle, loving man.

With enforced time apart the couple began to think through their marriage, his illness, and her past. When the restraining order expired, the husband again sought out his wife and she came home. She asked his forgiveness for betraying his trust. He asked that she pardon him for his outburst. The last I knew of them, they were still working on their marriage as their love was tested by his disease. Even in his vulnerable condition, his love for his unstable wife led him to fight for her. He always, always believed in her.

In the story of the rainbow, I notice that God self-imposes a restraining order. Humanity is so wicked that God decides for a Divine Reboot by sending a devastating flood. Only Noah and his family survive. As the water recedes and the beauty of creation resurfaces, God has had some time for introspection. Clearly God’s intention for humanity and the world has not panned out. Rather than enjoying an Edenic setting in which to live their lives, families of the earth sin against one another and God. After the flood God seems to come to terms with the fact that the created order was not always going to follow the blueprint God had in mind. Since the people were not going to change, the broken-hearted Creator did. In this story it is stunning news that God is changed—and changing. Out of this deep sadness, God initiates the first covenant with humanity.

We have begun our Lenten journey. The gritty ashes from Ash Wednesday have long since washed down our drains to infuse the groundwaters far beneath the earth’s hard surface with holiness. In this Lenten passage, we meet a God who repents! Since punishment hasn’t driven men and women to penitence, God changes so that the relationship can be maintained. We could easily skip over this poignant lesson while focusing on the gift of the rainbow. But we need to pause here before we move on. God loves us so much that a divine restraining order is self-imposed! “…never again…” is heard between heavenly sobs as God grieves an ideal for creation that will clearly not be realized. The freedom granted to creation has led and will lead to sin. So God performs a major reboot of heartfelt hopes for humanity. In the ancient world turbulent water was frightening and represented chaos. Fishermen earning a living wage for their families lost their lives when storms blew in suddenly. After the angry flood waters recede, God promises that the chaos of their world will never separate them from the love of their Maker again.

In this scripture passage God refers to the rainbow as a bow. A bow was commonly used by ancient people to kill animals for food and to protect themselves from their enemies. The bow in the sky is unstrung. It cannot be used to harm. I don’t know what tactic you use to remind yourself of some task, but God chooses a rainbow as a sort of string tied around the finger. We set alarms on our phones to ping us into a meeting at the right time. God casts an arc of colors into the sky as a note-to-Self to never again punish humanity for their wickedness. God has the compassion of a mother who sees the good in her boy even as he misbehaves. God’s heart is touched as a father suffers alongside a hurting child. The intimate glimpse of God we are given in this story is that God refuses to give up on Creation even as the Creation refuses to change. Like a wedding ring that signals to the world that someone is married, the rainbow is a tangible reminder to God of a promise made. It is a promise built on an abiding love for us, for children of the living God who struggle to live holy lives.

We see in our world the beauty of different people, places, and animals. Spouses are drawn together because of their complementary talents, not because they are identical in all things. God’s design is for affirmation in our variance. In Lent, we recognize the imbalance between God’s plan and the way we live each day. We choose to be part of Christ’s Church so that we can grow in our faith and more closely approximate God’s plan for creation rather than fighting amongst ourselves. Jane Ferguson writes, “The church can respond to God’s call to be a place where ‘all the colors of the rainbow’ were welcome and equal in God’s sight, in terms of race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. The church can seek constructive dialogue with communities of other faiths or communities on the other side of denominational or doctrinal divides. Previously unimaginable partnerships may be formed, and a reconciliation may blossom. The patience and forgiveness spilling forth from hearts broken open by God’s love may paint the walls of the church, color its people, and emanate from its doors and windows into the world.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2; Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, page 30)

When we see a rainbow, we remember that God invests in us. God is all in, whether we do good deeds each day of the Lenten season or fail miserably in spite of our best intentions. Just as we persevere in relationships in spite of their brokenness, God refuses to give up on us. In this first contract God makes with Noah, do you notice what’s asked of us earthlings? Nothing! Can it be a contract if only one side promises certain goods to be delivered with no expectation of payment from the other party? That’s a losing proposition for a business owner! God promises to refrain from ever acting out of destructive anger again toward a people who are bound to fail repeatedly. We see God punish the Israelites when they act like selfish ninnies right after witnessing a miracle. But the rainbow is God’s memo-to-Self to never again destroy the inhabitants of the earth for acting like, well, for acting like earthlings. God will ride the ups and downs of being in relationship with flawed men and women because they are beloved sons and daughters.

In Lent we meet that self-restraining God in the person of Jesus. We have entered into the most somber season of the Church year because we have turned with Jesus to face Jerusalem, knowing what lies ahead. The self-limiting action of God in Genesis 9 foreshadows a Son who will lay down His perfect life for a broken world. For a very brief time the Son cannot feel the love of His Father as witnessed through His words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The sky turns pitch black and a storm rolls in as God wails over the sacrifice needed to right humanity once again.

In this story of the rainbow, I take solace in the lesson that change is always possible. We meet a very different God when we read the words of the Psalmist in the 103rd psalm. Far removed from a vengeful destroyer of nature, we read this: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.”

We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes upon our brows: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the Lord.” It’s a long journey to shift the focus from ourselves to others; from judgmental glances to affirmations of worth. It’s a struggle to leave behind our favorite sins and most unhealthy habits. We fight to live in transparency with our loved ones rather than secrecy. So, as winter gives way during Lent to springtime storms, we remember a God who self-imposed a restraining order with a rainbow serving as a reminder. “Never again…” we cry out as we begin this journey.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy, have mercy upon us.

Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!

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Leaving Home

I invite you to take a tour with me. Like most journeys this past year, it will have to be virtual. But I want you to imagine that you are in the place that became known as Jesus’ home. We typically think of Him as being One who had no place to lay His weary head. But in Mark 2:1 we read, “When he returned to Capernaum, after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” Even though Jesus walked hundreds of miles to bring the Good News of a loving God to many small towns and the big city of Jerusalem, He had a place that He called home.   

The name of that village is Capernaum and it sits at the far northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. I had the great privilege of walking in Jesus’ footsteps there several years ago and found it impactful because of its authenticity. I’m want to share a few pictures with you from the archaeological excavation of Capernaum.

In the verses that precede this passage, Jesus entered their synagogue on the Sabbath. He went into their sanctuary and the people were astounded at the authority with which He taught.

Our group of 15 people were there in October of 2017.  I was able to walk through the stately remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD.

I peered out the window and felt the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Sea of Galilee. I sat on a bench that stretches along the west wall of that structure, trying to wrap my heart around the fact that Christ had been healing and teaching in that same spot, even if a few feet lower than where I sat.

Several foundations are stacked on top of each other. You can see the lowest exposed foundation is angled to the ground and is not flat. Subsequent foundations needed to correct the sagging that inevitably happens over the course of decades. You can see how the top foundation provides a flat and stable footing for the synagogue constructed on the ruins of Jesus’ synagogue several hundred years later. Thousands of first century coins were found in the Capernaum synagogue, reminding us that people have historically sacrificed from their livelihoods, no matter how meager, to maintain the costs associated with congregational life.

After astounding the faithful in that synagogue with His authoritative teaching, we read that Jesus headed to the home of Peter and his brother, Andrew. This is not a long walk—only about 100 feet south of the synagogue. We can assume that these brothers were very involved in the life of their congregation.

The scriptures tell us that they had moved their families from Bethsaida, which is on the northeastern side of the lake. The tariffs on processed fish were collected at the customs office that was manned by Levi at Capernaum. Jesus called him to leave his hated position to became one of the twelve disciples. If the two brothers lived in Capernaum, they didn’t have to pay that tariff. So two astute businessmen who fished for a living left Bethsaida and settled five miles west in Capernaum.

As you make the 100-foot walk between the synagogue and Peter’s home you can see the excavation of a neighborhood. Believed to house a population of between 1000 and 1500 residents in Jesus’ time, it is always referred to in the Gospels as a city. It was near a major trade route and the fishing industry was prosperous. We can assume Peter and Andrew made a good living as fishermen.

As was common of any ancient settlement, folks clustered their homes together. This offered protection against the elements and possible intruders. It also meant that neighbors were easily able to recognize need in their community since everyone lived so closely together. These would have been modest homes that consisted of several roofed rooms clustered around an open courtyard. Each home or compound opened out onto the street. Peter and Andrew lived in a double lot, indicating that they raised their families together. Walls were built of drystone black basalt that would not have supported a second story. The areas that were covered had roofs made of crisscrossed tree branches melded together with a natural mud clay. The whole of the village covers a one-mile stretch of land that has been largely excavated.

As you approach Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law suffered in bed, you will only be able to get so far in our walking tour today. Walls surround sacred history and a church building sits atop these precious ruins! Early pilgrims to the faith turned Peter’s house into a chapel. There is evidence that the walls of the home were enlarged at one point. Different unearthed items dating back to the first century reveal that the private home became a place of public gathering for worship purposes. Small pots for cooking and fish hooks for domestic industry were replaced with lamps and large storage jars.

As early as 50 AD, one large room stood out from others. The walls, arched ceiling, and floors were plastered smooth, which was unlike the other modest buildings in the city. Graffiti on those walls sends a message from some of the earliest believers that they were Christians: “Christ have mercy” and “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant.” The numerous crosses indicate that this space was used for worship. The two large courtyards opened onto the main street where crowds gathered outside Peter’s door hoping for healing. In this story these devout Jews waited until the sun set so as to honor the laws of the sabbath. The cross that you see at the far side of the structure identifies the place where early pilgrims believed the crowds stood in hopeful expectation.

You can’t get too close to the interior room believed to have housed Jesus because it is protected. In the 4th century Peter’s house was set apart from the rest of the town with an enclosure wall.

In the 5th century an octagonal church was built over it to serve the multitude of pilgrims who journeyed to the sacred sight. A new church has since been built atop this holy space. The floor serves as a clear window through which you can look into this 1st century chapel. It has become cloudy after years of use by countless pilgrims. But the sense of holiness that I felt as I looked into the space that Jesus called home was overwhelming. It was here that Jesus rebuked the fever that Peter’s mother-in-law was fighting, as if it were a wild creature that had a hold of her. In that space she served Jesus and the other men out of a profound sense of gratitude.

The verb for her service is the same one that describes the work of church deacons. In essence, this recovered woman “deaconed” Jesus and she became the first individual to serve Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  Later, while teaching a sold-out crowd in this intimate space, friends of a paralyzed man clawed a hole into the roof above Jesus’ makeshift classroom and lowered the helpless man into the room. Jesus “deaconed” him by restoring health and mobility to him.

Capernaum was home to Jesus. It quickly became a destination for people seeking miraculous healing, like the pilgrims who travel long distances to Guadalupe or Fatima. Capernaum was home for Jesus but it wasn’t restful. He became their local celebrity and their streets clogged with visitors when He was in residence. Verse 33 states that “the whole town gathered at the door.” Word spread quickly and everyone wanted a piece of Jesus. Townies seldom appreciate tourists except for the income they bring into the village. So, after the healing, the two brothers wanted to keep Jesus to themselves. They hoarded His enviable power, wanting to make sure He always had a reserve for them. But, when they awakened the next morning, Jesus was gone. They found Him in a solitary place and bubbled over with enthusiasm: “Everyone is looking for you!”

I wonder what Jesus was praying about early in the morning while it was still dark? His overnight success made it clear that devotional time with God would be hard to find. Maintaining any balance between public and private was going to be a challenge. Did He ask God to give Him direction about where His earthly home would be? Should He stay in Capernaum, the place He called home, and settle for being a big fish in a small pond? Was His ministry to be a one-town wonder? Was His prayer offered in the words of a song from the ‘80’s: Should I stay or should I go?

Like a gentle breeze that scatters the seeds of a dandelion, Jesus knew the answer. The Spirit would be His guide, leading Him from town to town along the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful area where rural life was valued by hard-working people. The Spirit would lead Jesus to Jerusalem where He would ultimately give up His life for the sake of a needy crowd and a band of greedy disciples. Those who flocked to Him for His healing touch would ultimately nail His hands to a cross and reject the wholeness He offered. In the dark of that morning in a solitary place Jesus knew that He wouldn’t be one to settle down. He would disappoint His disciples by pushing on, away from their families and a familiar life they loved on the lakeshore. There were too many people like the beloved woman who languished with a fever in a town named Capernaum. Jesus told the men to pack their bags because time was short and the list of needs was long. As inviting as it seemed, Jesus knew He needed to leave home.

We know from the archaeological data that there were two communities that coexisted peacefully in 1st century Capernaum: Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. The movement Jesus started in the synagogue moved into Peter’s house. The rock upon whom Jesus would build His Church opened his home as the first Christian sanctuary. Merely 100 feet apart, these two worship spaces shaped a peaceful community that Jesus called home. Isn’t it interesting that our Christian faith took root not in sacred buildings but in humble homes of ordinary people? We’ve learned this year that our faith cannot be reliant on a building. This year we had to leave our spiritual homes in order to stay together as congregations. Our ministry has not stopped. I hear stories of soup being dropped off on folks’ doorsteps, flowers being delivered to surprised widows and carols being sung to the person still recovering from surgery. We may have left the buildings but we’re traveling with Jesus each time we pick up the phone or drop a card in the mail to offer words of encouragement to a lonesome friend. We’re on the road with Jesus when we take time to pray for the church member who just received a difficult diagnosis. We practice our faith when we confess our needs and patiently wait for God’s answer. We’ve chosen to get out of our comfort zone when we take a stand for our beliefs by peacefully marching in our communities. The life of faith requires us to leave home knowing that a world awaits our ministry. We stretch our boundaries assured that worship happens anywhere—and everywhere…because Jesus goes with us. Ironically, it is as we follow after Him, searching for wholeness, that He brings us home.

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Naked Faith

Years ago my mother was driving my young family down to Amish country one hour south of their home in Akron. A mother of six, she never gave up having a station wagon. It was just too practical. So my two young sons were in the rear-facing seat in the way back and my mom drove through those Ohio hills with confidence—and speed! After a time, conversation between the two brothers lagged. One son leaned forward to me, in the middle seat, and told me he didn’t feel “vewy good.” Well, that’s not good, is it? Before I could think of what that meant and what to do, he vomited all over the back area of the car. Poor boy. We pulled over quickly and opened the back hatch. My mother was impressed with the volume my son produced as he sat there feeling sickly and looking very uncomfortable.

What do you do when you need new pants and you’re in Amish country? We were not optimistic but he clearly needed new pants. We stripped him down to his undies, mopped things up as best we could, and went on a search of a store that would offer a change of clothes. We imagined it might have to be cotton cloth in a solid color with a safety pin as a closure. Did the Amish folks in this area only sell their own style of clothing? To our amazement, we found an A&P store that stood as a gleaming oasis of modern products in a desert mirage. It carried, among other things, cheaply made sweat pants. We grabbed his favorite color, green, and headed back to the car. He could not have been more pleased! Virtually naked and defiled, he was transformed into a happy child in a new outfit. We enjoyed an afternoon wandering through Berlin, Ohio as if nothing had happened in that back seat of the station wagon. Those became my son’s favorite pants for the next year because of what they represented: a transfiguration from soiled to dignified and a chance at new life!

If you’ve ever taken a class in public speaking you’ve probably heard the tip for how to get rid of your fears: imagine you audience is naked. I’m not sure how much that would lower my anxiety actually! But this is the stuff of our nightmares: beings exposed, unready, or vulnerable before an aggressor. The enemy might take the form of an unexpected college exam or a bear chasing us through the woods in the dark of night. Our psyche processes our fears while we sleep, dreaming us into preposterous but gripping places of vulnerability.

In a story from 2 Kings we read about two prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Elijah has been the mighty spokesperson for God but his life is nearing an end. We look in on a story of leadership succession in which everyone is primarily concerned about their own well-being. As the pair travel from one town to another, almost like a presidential motorcade, prophets from each town line the street to watch this Godly man pass by. Just as pilgrims line up for miles to be in the holy presence of the Pope, these men of God want a glimpse of Elijah and maybe a piece of his spiritual mojo. They know that Elijah is on his last journey and they don’t hesitate to say this to poor Elisha. Perhaps they line the streets, wondering if God is still in charge as the leadership changes. Elisha is learning on this final journey that being a prophet is no privileged position. David Lose writes that prophets are completely vulnerable and utterly reliant on God’s grace. To be a good prophet is to love God’s people enough to tell them the truth about their condition. If they are naked and defiled, you tell them that then you set about to improve their lot. As Elisha doggedly follows after his beloved master, we witness a repeated cycle. At each stop on the final tour, the other prophets call out the news that Elijah is surely going to die. Elisha confirms their news but asks them to be quiet. He can’t bear to hear it. The journey continues and the same verbal exchange happens at the next stop.

But the third stopping point is different. The prophets have no words because God is at work. When God shows up, our language fails. The prophets stand in reverent silence as Elisha wails his grief. Being a prophet is no easy task. Elisha is separated from his teacher and left vulnerably staring up into the heavens. I wonder why Elijah tried to dissuade Elisha? Was he testing his devotion? Did he worry that the younger servant would be unable to endure an encounter with God? As the fiery chariot carries Elijah away, Elisha tears his clothes in anguish. He is left alone with his naked faith.

Our faith is tested by how we respond to the unknown. When we are stripped down to the essence of our being, are we thinking of God, of our neighbor, or of ourselves? I read an account of a rabbi’s treatment during the holocaust. He was struggling to survive in a concentration camp. The Nazis loved to denigrate the Jewish faith so they stripped the rabbi of all his clothing and commanded him to preach naked while they beat another prisoner in front of him. He was sickened and resistant but the soldiers prodded him to keep going. The rabbi realized that he could not stop them from the murderous violence they were bent on but he could preach. He could surround the dying man with the Word of God that assured him he was loved. In that moment the scene was transfigured from a heinous murder into an altar to Almighty God. Transfiguration happens in the least likely places.

Elisha cried out to Elijah, “Father, father!” When the elder prophet asks Elisha for a final wish, he asks to inherit a double share of the holy man’s spirit. He wants to be Elijah’s heir, his spiritual son. Elijah wisely reminds the younger that he cannot grant such a wish, only God can. It is a bold request. He had witnessed the hardships the seasoned prophet had faced. He had endured times of yawning solitude and religious persecution. He knew that his only chance at continuing Elijah’s ministry was to have an even deeper faith to draw from. He knew the risks that came with the position and wanted to arm himself with the word of God. It was a bold request he made.

I wonder if we’ve considered that vulnerability is intrinsic to our Christian faith? Are we able to see hardships as reminders of our complete reliance upon God? Or do we cry out that God has wronged or abandoned us? I wonder how vulnerable we are willing to be with each other as believers, how willing we are to stand in our community with a naked faith that won’t let us fall? It is in those unexpected moments, those times of change, that we show what we are made of. Do we believe in and serve a powerful God or do we rely on our own strength? Do we allow God’s grace to transfigure the ugly moments in our lives? Do we invite God to transform our vulnerability into strength, to clothe us with dignity in our humble state? Or do we settle for our mundane lives of predictable answers and waffling faith?

I read the account of a surgeon who was in the hospital room of a patient and her husband after surgery. He had removed a tumor from the woman’s cheek and, in the delicacy of the procedure, cut one of the facial nerves. Her smile drooped on one side. Her husband was with her, sitting on the side of her bed. Quietly she asked him if it would change. The husband shook his head. The woman vulnerably looked in a mirror at her new smile. The husband told her in the quiet of that room, “I sort of like it. It’s cute.” He turned his head and planted a tender kiss on her newly shaped mouth. The surgeon felt like he was looking in on a private moment of transfiguration. A surgical error was transformed into a new expression of their marriage vows. On the day of our wedding, we stand at the altar, young and innocent. We can’t know the road we will travel as a couple. But our faith assures us that God blesses us when we dare to stand naked for the sake of our faith. God makes something beautiful of it. David Lose states that “To be a prophet is to enter deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom you are sent.” Transfiguration for one woman began by her choice of a seat on a creaky city bus. Rosa Parks changed the lives of her people. Who would guess that sitting down could transfigure a nation? We can’t walk the journey for others or force them to join our movement. But we can urge them to keep their eyes open and watch for God.

A couple of weeks ago two men were collecting trash on their usual route in a Louisiana neighborhood. They noticed a strange car parked out in the middle of a field. Its location aroused suspicion. One of the waste workers, Brandon, realized it looked like the car described in an Amber Alert the night before. These men acted fast, blocking the only exit from the field and calling the police. The kidnapper was apprehended and a 10-year-old girl restored to her grateful family. These men had their eyes open as they picked up folks’ trash that day. Both of them fathers, they put themselves in harm’s way to rescue someone else’s child. Merrick commented after hte girl was safe: “Thank God, man, because I got a little girl. I’m on the job doing what I got to do.” A forsaken field is transfigured into a place of redemption because two men stepped out in faith.

This was the gift the older prophet offered to Elisha and Elisha did not back away from the challenge. He made a daring request to follow in the example of Elijah at even greater cost to himself. As he stood there naked, his ripped clothing at his feet, he began to understand the source of his strength. It didn’t have to do with anything he could create or command. It had to do with obedience. His power would come from God. As he turned to make his journey home, he was a different man. The prophets who had spoken down to him on the journey in now stood back with reverence. It seems that transfiguration happens off the beaten track, by the grace of God.

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Living Lent

She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our church building has been in varied stages of lockdown, like the rest of our world. So there haven’t been many folks who have rung our church doorbell, asking for help. But, on a cold winter morning, Jennifer did.

She was a thin young woman with a tired expression. She smiled—I could tell just from her eyes since we were both dutifully masked. She wondered if we ever help people with expenses so I invited her to go upstairs to the Fellowship Hall where we could sit at a distance from each other and talk privately.

Once settled into hard plastic chairs with two tables between us, I asked her what was going on in her life. She needed assistance with room rent. She had landed at the Colonial Motel the night before. Her money had gone into an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her for a time had suggested it was time for her to move on. I asked if she had anyone who would help her. I could see her eyes welling up with tears, a courageous smile under her mask. She quietly said, “I had a difficult home life.” I didn’t ask for details because they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.

I asked her if she had children. Our congregations works with Family Promise, making sure homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her that Family Promise would house her and help her get back on track with her children, she shook her head. She told me that they weren’t with her. “Are they with their father,” I asked. She nodded, her eyes again filling with tears. Their ages? 11, 10 and 6. “Do you ever see them?” She shook her head. Her ex had bankrupted her through enough custody hearings to exhaust her meager funds. She hadn’t seen them in several years so she couldn’t be sheltered as a family. I gave her a couple of other suggestions of places that might offer her long-term support. What she needed from our church was enough money for one more night at the Colonial Motel. Affter that her dad would receive a paycheck and he would help her out. “Is your dad good to you?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

I excused myself to go downstairs to my office to get the checkbook for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. I could just write out a check or turn folks like her away. But I wanted to give her a chance to sit with someone who would listen. I sensed she needed to experience the unconditional love of Christ. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills directly through utility companies, landlords, pharmacies, or car repair shops. But I knew her needs were greater than just one night at a hotel. So I made an exception. I wrote out a check to her. I told her I was glad to meet her and prayed that she would find a place to stay on a more permanent basis. We both stood up and she offered her tired smile again.

But then she surprised me: she asked if she could have a hug. Like most of you, I haven’t been doling out hugs this year, especially to strangers. But I made an exception. With our masked faces angled away from each other—the new COVID clasp—I offered her a hug and felt God in the embrace. Christ repaired the breach through the way that we connected in the safety of a church gathering room, emptied by a pandemic. The woman who hasn’t been able to hold her babies for years asked for a hug. Nothing could have felt more right to me.

Our church joined a sister church in our community for an Ash Wednesday service tonight. When Pastor Dawn and I talked about the usual Lenten practices, she suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. It’s been an unimaginably challenging year. We’ve lived Lent for 11 months so sacrificing from our lives seems redundant. What I invite you to do this year is to lay down your burdens at the feet of the One who has sat with us, listened to us, and rescued us more times than we know.

The prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of a God who is wearied by folks trying to earn brownie points for heaven. God turns from the spiritual show-offs who flash their good deeds before others like a woman in a fur stole laying down a $100 bill to pay for a cup of coffee. God tells the shallow servants, “Don’t bother. This isn’t what impresses Me. I want you to open your homes to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive this cold winter without a home or a friend.”

This is how we rebuild the ruins. This is how we restore the streets where people live. I have dim memories of how it felt to open our church building to homeless families not so long ago. We invited people into our space to lay down their burdens. This is how God is glorified! So I invite you to do the same this Lenten season. As we begin our Lenten journey I urge you to start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in–always! Entrust your burdens to Him because He will carry them!