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Traffic Report

The lectionary readings bring us into the life of Jacob and his family for the next few weeks. Jacob’s saga is one that is marked by conflict. That’s the last thing we need as our nation and world seem to be marked by discord and strife these days. But this is the story of the one that God chooses as the patriarch of a great people. A couple of weeks from now we’ll read about God renaming Jacob “Israel”, meaning “one who contends with God.” Even in his interaction with God, Jacob wrestles! But his anointing as God’s chosen one leads to a naming of his many descendants: Israelites. That means that their very identity (and therefore, ours) is marked by wrestling with God!

Of course, a story about God choosing a human servant cannot simply be about conflict. There are flickers of light that come in the form of divine promise. God’s promise to Abraham is carried forward in this grandson who thrashed his way through life. The blessing of God is given to Jacob even though it should have been bestowed on his twin brother, Esau, who was older by a few moments. We enter the story at the point when Jacob has tricked his blind, elderly father into giving him Esau’s birthright. This infuriates his brother. His father isn’t so happy to learn he’s been had. To preserve the lives of her beloved family, the mother sends her scheming son away so that elder twin won’t kill the younger. Jacob’s sin forces him to flee for his life.

Before he hurriedly left, Jacob’s parents suggested he head to a town 1) for safety but also 2) to find a suitable bride. So the journey begins with the goal of fulfilling his parents’ wish for him. He is alone, scared and alienated when he finds himself in Hicksville with abandoned streets and no place to rest. This is certainly not the sort of place where he would expect a divine encounter. He finds an unyielding rock for his pillow and chooses a spot under the stars for a cold night’s sleep. Jacob’s most fervent prayer was probably for safety. All the elements of comfort and any sense of familial belonging have been stripped away. He doesn’t have the luxury of holding onto a religious agenda.

Jacob’s story has very little relaxation in it. Even his sleep is disturbed! This Mesopotamian journey, with the stated goal of finding safety and a wife, is bracketed by two encounters that change the nature of the trip. The man who searched for a stone pillow and a pile of leaves for a bed was dominated by feelings of guilt, fear and sadness. His choice to steal his twin brother’s birthright led to confusion because he was immediately pushed out of the nest by a protective mother. As he fell asleep he was focused on the past. But in the dream, in which he encountered the living God, he was converted. The dream is optimistic with words of promise. It is forward-facing. Jacob assumed he traveled alone and clung to the goal of simply surviving. In a nameless place with an nondescript stone he discovered that, perhaps, this place was not so ordinary. In spite of his selfishness and cunning nature, he learned that God was with him. Walter Brueggeman states, “The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive.” In Jacob’s journey we learn that God redeems the messes we make even when we find ourselves in the darkest, hardest places of our lives.

The story is full of imagery but it is the divine speech that serves as the centerpiece to this spiritual memoir. There is a three-fold promise extended to Jacob who is heavy with sleep: I am with you. I will keep you. I will bring you home again. At his lowest point, Jacob is assured of God’s presence, protection and provision. The strange vision in the dream is that of a ladder or ramp that has angels climbing up and down. Heaven has dipped down to earth for a sleeping sinner. Jacob is reminded that God never left him, even though he is on the lam. When he awakens from his disturbed slumber, Isaac’s younger son abandons fear and trades it in for assurance because he believes and repents. He gives the nameless place a moniker that reflects his extra-ordinary epiphany: Bethel, which means “House of God.”

The dream offers us a traffic report that still is true for us today. God is on the move, bridging the chasm between heaven and earth. God’s messengers travel between two seemingly disparate domains in a universe where celestial realities are what really matter. I think of the change in traffic patterns when our quarantine first began in March. Our home is near the highway and we can usually hear a hum of cars in the background when we’re outside. But those first weeks that we hunkered down in our homes, fearful of an invisible killer, we heard almost no noise from Hwy. 131. No one dared to leave home. Fear perhaps eclipsed our view of God as our world shut down and we wondered how and when we would emerge on the other side of this pandemic. So what good news it is that, in our times of greatest isolation, the traffic nonetheless flows freely between heaven and earth.

My niece and her fiance were planning a beautiful wedding for May 9 in Akron, Ohio. Getting married in her home church where her parents were married and her grandfather served as pastor was going to be a grand occasion. My sister, the mother-of-the-bride, is a fantastic planner and every detail was carefully laid in place for her only daughter’s wedding. As COVID swept in, they made the very painful decision to postpone the wedding and wisely bumped it out to June of 2021. Vendors were understanding, assuring their future service even as they suffered great financial loss. Words of sorrow were sent out by text and their lovely invitations were followed up with an equally lovely declaration of postponement. The traffic seemed to stop in one family’s life in Akron, Ohio.

Turner Wedding on phone

But the bride and groom decided, after a time of stillness, that they still wanted to get married this Spring. I explored the legality of a zoom wedding and they found a new date. I dug out my ordination certificate and sent a copy of it to a courthouse in Oxford, Ohio, where the grand event was to happen. The couple planned to offer their vows alone in their apartment while family members joined in by zoom. Each household was invited to have their own beverage on hand to celebrate the union with a few toasts when the brief ceremony was over.

As we planned for the new ceremony, we discovered that several of their ideas for their wedding fit even better for their new circumstances. They were interested in the story of the first miracle: Jesus turns water into really great wine at a wedding. We incorporated that into our zoom ceremony with an assurance that crazy, unexpected things happen when Jesus shows up at weddings! They also had chosen a prayer by Thomas Merton that is often used at his Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. This is where Rachel and Drew were engaged and they particularly liked this one prayer. It offers these words: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end…therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost…I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” What a perfect reminder that God knows our journey every step of the way even when we think we are lost. With a promise that the bride would send out a zoom invitation to the select few who would be joining in on the big day, we marked our calendars and waited.

Turner Wedding TJ Maxx

My sister was unable to curb her creative instincts. Why would she zoom from home on her daughter’s wedding day when they could travel three hours south to at least lay eyes on the couple from a safe distance. So she invited the photographer to make the road trip with them to Oxford. She contacted the bridesmaids to see if they, too, wished to be present in something more than a virtual way. They did. So the plot thickened and about ten cars met in the empty parking lot of a T.J.Maxx about five minutes from the apartment-turned-wedding chapel. Each carload, as they joined the ceremony by zoom, had to somehow disguise the fact that they weren’t in their homes but in cars. I started off the worship service with an affirmation to the tiny square images of gathered guests, that this was a holy moment where God was present even if it was happening in a very different venue than hoped for. The love of this couple and their desire to commit their lives to each other in the presence of the God who brought them together was the centerpiece of a moment that would not have cake-cutting or cummerbunds, bridal gowns or a bouquet toss. The parents were asked for their blessing, which they triumphantly gave. Rachel and Drew were joined together as wife and husband in the quiet of their apartment which was transformed into a “House of God.”

When the ceremony was over and few toasts were offered, my sister asked the couple to be sure to stay put as there would be a delivery in about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, one of the bridesmaids parked down a ways from their apartment and quickly decorated their car with items she had brought with her. When the couples’ car was appropriately festooned with cans and ribbons, she gave the signal and the other cars rode into this quiet neighborhood on a COVID morning for a noisy parade. Family members surfaced through sunroofs with colorful signs and custom-designed wedding face masks. The couple emerged from their home stunned and smiling. The photographer captured it all as families posed at a safe distance from each other, beaming with joy.

The traffic report for that day? The ladder between heaven and earth is busy with angels who transform our times of isolation and darkness into holy celebrations of joy. Events happen between places where nothing is expected! This Ohio couple entered into the Old Testament tradition that holds a deep respect for sacred space that is often a complete surprise because it appear ordinary.

After the dream, Jacob continues on a journey of theological importance. He knows now that God travels with him. God reminds him that, though he possesses very little with him as a fugitive, he carries nothing less than the promises to which his nomadic ancestors had clung. Through this schemer, God will fulfill the promise made to old  Abraham that he would be blessed and his descendants, who would be as numerous as the stars that twinkled above sleeping Jacob, would be blessed through him. In this moment, as angels traveled powerfully between heaven and earth, Jacob’s story opens up far beyond himself and any bride he might hope to find at the end point to his destination. A divine visitation transformed an unnamed place with an unyielding pillow into a sanctuary. From that extraordinary moment in the life of a trickster, all families of the earth would be blessed.

Turner Wedding outside of apartment

That certainly happened in a small apartment in Oxford, Ohio. We can be sure of the same traffic report for our own lives: in the darkest, hardest, most disappointing places of our lives, God is with us promising presence, protection and a homecoming more glorious than we can imagine!

 

 

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Florence

This past weekend I strapped on my face mask and hopped on a plane for Lubbock, Texas. I traveled in from the northern territory of Michigan to officiate at the celebration of life ceremony for my Aunt Flo. Others know her as Florence Littauer, a prolific author and Christian speaker who traveled the globe to offer a message of hope. My father had performed all priestly duties for the family for generations so, in his absence, Florence thought I might be a suitable stand-in for her service whenever that time arrived. So I arrived at my cousin’s home as the latest family marry-er and bury-er. What a great honor it was for me to be given the chance to say a few words of remembrance about a woman who was a masterful wordsmith! It’s impossible to adequately cover the immensity of Florence’s life and ministry in any kind of memorial service. Fortunately most people who knew her have read her books and those writings help us better understand who she was. So I’ll try to capture her essence from the family perspective.

 

I remember one conversation between Florence and her two brothers when she was doing a little funeral pre-planning.  She envisioned the service taking place in the Crystal Cathedral, where she had spoken to a filled sanctuary years ago. Her suggestion was that the congregation would sing the doxology after the words of remembrance were completed. That would be the signal for some poor chap in the balcony to begin to slowly crank her glorious body on a guide wire that would allow her to float slowly over the congregation. Her arms spread in an angelic pose, her body would ultimately arrive in the front of the sanctuary. Her brothers were already laughing at this point. I can hear her emphasizing the singing: “Praise God from whom all blessings Flo, Flo, Flo…” This is classic Florence Littauer—having good fun at her own expense while entertaining others with her great sense of humor.

 

Florence was born on April 27, 1928 and died on July 11, 2020. Her life was bracketed with two global crises. One was economic—the Great Depression—and the other is a pandemic that ground her social outings to a halt in the last months of her life. But Florence had an indomitable spirit. She grew up in a family where there was joy. I have childhood memories of my dad getting together with his two siblings and their mother. They laughed! They used their keen verbal skills to recount crazy stories and then roar with laughter. My grandmother would sometimes raise an eyebrow and try to conceal a smile. But she was all in!

east coast old pic of dad and sibs as adults in doorway

East coast haverhill doorway Lauren, MIchelle and me

I can’t tell you how many times I heard a reference to their upbringing that happened “in three rooms behind the store.” Struggling to raise three children during the depression, Florence’s parents opened a literal Ma and Pa convenience store that was open to the community every day of the year except for Easter and Christmas. I did a tour of Haverhill, Massachusetts a couple of years ago with Florence’s daughter, Lauren, her husband, Randy and several other family members. We took pictures of ourselves standing on the same front stoop where my grandparents had welcomed customers into their care. I called Aunt Flo and asked her to describe these three rooms in which five people lived their lives. For probably 45 minutes she walked me through every part of that building. She detailed what her life had been like in their unusual home. I didn’t realize it at the time but my aunt was drawing a diagram of the floor plan as we spoke. Florence was living with my cousin, Marita, at the time of the phone conversation so she sent me the diagram later. It looks nondescript to all of us but Florence was reliving memories from her childhood as we talked. In those very modest quarters, three future speakers grew up. In spite of their limited income, my grandparents paid for lessons so as to develop their children’s sizable gifts. Aunt Flo was treated to elocution lessons, a word so fancy we don’t know what it means! In other words, Florence got coached in speech. I think those lessons took, right? All three children learned as their careers took shape to curb their Boston accents, putting “Rs” in the right spots and taking them out where they ought not to be!

Florence diagram

 

Florence became a teacher of high school students. She got them so fired up about her engagement that the students completely planned her wedding and their class project extraordinaire became a lead article in LIFE Magazine. This first job was the beginning to a long career in teaching folks in different settings, encouraging them to stretch into their greatest potential. She was a leader who motivated folks into action. I remember her telling a story about how she had gone out to the parking ramp after a shopping outing. She had totally forgotten where she parked her car. (She would be the first to tell you that her personality type wasn’t always great with the small details of daily living! That’s where her meticulous husband, Fred, stepped in!) As she wandered, other people joined her in the search. It became an adventurous group project. When they finally found it, everyone cheered. Strangers became friends through her spontaneous leadership!

 

Fred and Flo were a striking couple. At the end of her life, Florence told Marita that she wished to be “really amazing”. Any of you who knew them know that, together, Fred and Flo were “really amazing”! They color-coordinated their outfits. I remember they arrived at one family gathering in matching teal. In fact, I was so impressed that Fred was wearing a pair of Italian leather loafers that were, you guessed it, teal! They flashed beautiful smiles. Their gifts fit together perfectly. Their greatest joy was their family: three wonderful children, Lauren, Marita and Fred; five fine grandchildren and six great grandchildren who step into a blessed legacy!

But their greatest sorrow also emerged from that same family setting. They lost two young sons, Freddy and Larry, leaving a deep wound that could only be healed through faith. Fred and Florence allowed God to use that double tragedy to minister to others. It awakened a deep sense of compassion for others whom they encouraged through their writing and speaking. One woman expressed her gratitude to them in her words of condolence: “Florence and Fred were instrumental in a very dark time in my life. She was speaking at a ladies’ retreat in Frankfort, KY two months after we had lost a daughter to suicide. As they both spoke on the closing day it turned the course of my life upside down and led me to complete healing only the Lord could orchestrate through them.”

 

Florence’s greatest body of work became a description of personality types. As people learned to better understand themselves, they were able to connect more effectively with their loved ones whose personality type was different from their own. She became known particularly for her Silver Boxes story that has influenced countless people to use their words to build up and encourage. It stemmed from an impromptu children’s message she was asked to give so she chose a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that had been important in shaping the spiritual life of her own children: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may be grace to those who hear.” The young woman who excelled at her elocution lessons grabbed onto a passage about speaking and made it come alive for generations of people. With her keen sense of humor she was able to teach profound lessons of faith in an engaging manner. I am sure that all of us here have had a good laugh with Florence even as we benefited from her wisdom. A couple of email messages gave praise for this great attribute that came from the close quarters behind a store in which the Chapman family of five lived. Doreen wrote, “So grateful to have been mentored by the incredible, amazingly knowledgeable and laughter-filled Florence Littauer.” Another woman described how she was given the delightful task of driving Florence to the airport after one of her speaking engagements. She writes, “That trip was a hoot! One lesson I learned, the deeper the clothing discount/bargain, doesn’t make it look better on me!” What great advice from the woman we remember as being a strong, dynamic, and colorful presence. While in Lubbock, I stayed in my aunt’s room and her closet confirmed that she was well qualified to give out fashion tips! Florence wasn’t afraid to cover any number of different subject areas with obvious expertise.

 

Last week I dug into the story about Jacob’s ladder for our worship service. Maybe you remember that Jacob, our fine patriarch in the faith, was fleeing from his family because he had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. Worried that the older twin would kill his scheming younger brother, Rebecca hurriedly sent her son away from the home with unimaginable heartbreak. (Something tells me this family would have greatly benefited from Florence’s personality inventory!) On his first night out, camping fearfully under the stars, he had a dream. He saw a ladder going between earth and heaven with angels climbing up and down. In that dream God spoke to Jacob, assuring him of His presence, protection, and homecoming. When Jacob awakens he knows that he has had a visitation from God almighty. He trades in fear for assurance because he now knows that he is no longer traveling alone. The dream turns his flight into a pilgrimage of faith and Jacob was forever honored as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

 

My Aunt Flo dared to dream beyond her circumstances at critical junctures in her life. Not only did she rise above tragic losses with her faith in a loving God still intact. She shared that faith with others who had lost their way and assumed that they were traveling alone. The dream of Jacob reminds us that the connection between heaven and earth is intact. What seems like an unbridgeable chasm between us and those who have left this earthly realm is, in fact, an active travel route. That doesn’t ease our grieving for those we can no longer see or hug or laugh with. But we have this tremendous assurance that all is well for those on the other end of the ladder and that they will be there to greet us when our time comes to change to a heavenly vantage point.

 

This upcoming weekend was to be a Chapman family reunion for the families of Florence, Jim, and Ron. We had such a good time partying with Florence at her 90th birthday party in California that we decided to meet again. When the save-the-date cards came in the mail, Aunt Flo called me. She told me she was a fan of this event! She thought it would be great to be together. She told me several times with her dry wit that, if she could make it until then, she would for sure be there. When COVID swept in, we regretfully cancelled the reunion. But Florence must have dreamed beyond these earthly hardships because we all gathered for a Chapman reunion this past weekend! We just moved it up by a week and changed it to her newest hometown of Lubbock. She also changed her location from the earthly end of the ladder to the heavenly gate. With her death we are reminded that this reunion is much greater than what meets the eye. Not only have we expanded our Chapman reunion to include all of you. We know now that it included Florence’s husband, Fred, and their precious little boys, Freddy, III and Larry. It welcomed Walter and Katie back into their joyful and articulate family. It made a place for Jim and Katie at the table. All of us, together, on both ends of a stairway to heaven, knew that God was with us.

As Florence stood before her Maker, hand-hand once again with her beloved Fred, we can imagine that she was shown the impact of those many silver boxes she had handed out in her earthly life, words of blessing passed forward from one person to the next. From three rooms behind the store to a mansion in the sky, Florence joins the reunion in spirit, no longer in flesh. I can hear her exclaim like her ancestor in the faith, Jacob, “Surely You were with me all along, and I did not know it!” What good news this is for all of us!

Well done, thou good and faithful servant, Florence. Enter into the joy of your Master!

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Whine Not!

Last week I looked ahead to the lectionary passages for the next program year. Our Christian Education Director and I are trying to coordinate my preaching with our childrens’ curriculum, finding people and themes that could easily translate into a Sunday School lesson. So, with that in mind, I dug through several months’ worth of Bible readings. I stumbled on this passage from Numbers which is meant to be read during Lent.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[a] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous[b] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous[c] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  Numbers 21: 4-9

I have to admit that I laughed as I read it thinking simultaneously that 1) it would be a great story to preach but 2) I wouldn’t do that to our children! If they sat listening to that story being preached in our sanctuary their view of God might be forever changed! So I decided I’d grab onto it for our on-line worship during the summer when our families are on the move. My disclaimer for those reading with children: There are graphic images of snakes biting people—but it can’t be much worse than most video games they’ve been playing during this ongoing time of COVID limitations! So off we go on a wilderness journey!

Context always matters, right? So let’s review some of the details. If I were a journalist with a little notepad for my facts here’s the cryptic details I would jot down:

**The enslaved Israelites cry out to God for liberation. God hears their cry and appoints Moses as leader.

**Moses goes into this job position kicking and screaming but falls in love with this God and does a bang-up job with a stubborn people.

**God parts the waters of the Red Sea so the Hebrews can escape from the enslaving Egyptians. No sooner do they get to the other side and they start complaining because life isn’t comfortable.

**God gets so sick of their whining that the decision is made that these folks aren’t ready to enter a land of their own. God decrees that they will wander the wilderness for four decades so that only their descendants will make it into the new land. Maybe that generation will have learned to have faith?!

**In this passage the massive crowd of Hebrews gets a little too close to another nation who starts attacking them to protect their boundaries. Moses’ people pray for God to grant them victory over these foreigners and God honors their prayers.

That catches us up to the passage that begins at verse four. The Hebrews continue their aimless migration through the desert and grow impatient. So they resort to what comes naturally to them: they complain against God and their fearless leader, Moses. It’s always easier to take pot shots at those at the top than to scrutinize our own behavior! The translation for their impatience in this text could be something like this: “The spirit of the people became short.” When I read that textual explanation, I knew we would easily connect to their emotional state!

Remember how we felt when the quarantine first started? When meat wasn’t around; when toilet paper couldn’t be found; when we couldn’t eat out on a whim; when we couldn’t work out at the gym; when we couldn’t hug our loved ones; couldn’t leave our homes for a quick run; when we couldn’t meet for worship; when grocery shopping was a feared trip…our spirits became short.

One older woman was so tightly wound that she staged a literal sit-in on the floor of Costco nearly two weeks ago because she was asked to wear a mask. She sat down in the middle of one of the aisles proclaiming that, as an American, she has her rights. And that includes not wearing a mask in a store where they are required. With that rebellious act, “Costco Karen”, as she’s become known, launched her own 15 minutes of fame. Our spirit grows short with the many pressures put upon us and our reactions are so rebellious that Europeans have banned Americans from entering their newly-opened countries. We act as spoiled children who pitch a fit when demands for the greater good don’t sit well with us.

When our comfort level is challenged, we are not at our best.

The last time there was a pandemic was 1918. On the heels of that terrible plague we read about “the Red Summer.” White mobs attacked African Americans in six different cities, the violence lasting sometimes more than a week. With tensions high from the suffering that the nation had endured with the Spanish Flu, white folks lashed out. They sought to drive black folks from industrial jobs and from their neighborhoods. In all six riots that summer of 1919, local authorities either were not able to contain the violence or actually aided the white aggressors. Sound familiar?! Though initiated by whites, the violence was blamed on blacks since they armed themselves to fight back. The very worst attack happened in rural Elaine, Arkansas where federal troops joined with local whites to fight blacks. The headline in the Arkansas Gazette read, “Negroes plan to Kill All Whites,” a thinly veiled, truly “fake news” effort to blame the black population for the violence. But the numbers tell the story: five whites died while more than 200 blacks were killed.

At the tail end of the last pandemic our country has endured, the spirit of the people became short. Just as we are seeing in our cities this summer, deadly race riots broke out that crushed the life out of hundreds of black citizens, some of whom had recently returned from fighting in World War 1.

When our physical needs are unmet and threats loom, we readily murmur against God and our leaders as did our ancestors in the faith. Rather than remembering how beautifully God has cared for us particularly in hard times, we hang the blame for all that ails us on God and walk away. It’s noteworthy that Moses’ people, in their wilderness discomfort, point back to their days as slaves with fondness! How soon we forget the hard-earned victories God has given us!

Indiana Jones

So, as the Jews whine in the wilderness, God unleashes a horrifying version of “snakes on a plain.” Not on an airplane but on the flat, wide-open plain of the wilderness! Perhaps this story conjures up images of Harrison Ford in a pit of snakes when playing the character, Indiana Jones? It’s as if God proclaims to these impatient people, “So if you thought life was bad yesterday, just look at what’s slithering toward you now! I’ll show you what can happen when you live without gratitude and think only of yourselves!” The snakes bite some of the people, some of whom die, and the whole camp is, understandably, terrified. They run to the very leader they had just been maligning over their dinner of roasted quail and beg him to intercede for them. They knew Moses had the connection because of his deep faith so they demand, “Pray that God will remove the snakes from us.” They do preface that with a confession of guilt—for having spoken badly of God moments earlier. But their primary concern is for immediate, personal rescuing. So they simply ask for the snakes to be taken back to whatever pit they had come from. They would happily get back to their usual level of discomfort and their love for complaining. They didn’t ask for God to renew their spirits or to heal their hearts. They prayed for relief from their physical afflictions without giving a thought to their spiritual well-being. Fix it, God, and let me get back to the way things always were.

indiana jones 2

I wonder if we’ve ever done that—when the chips are down and disease looms and relationships are broken and politics are heavy and money is tight? Do we want the quick fix that the Hebrews demanded? Or are we ready to confess our guilt at a deep level and submit to a holy makeover? We have a glimpse of that in King David’s prayer from Psalm 51. His raw confession gives us an insight into why God loved David so much in spite of his sinfulness: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

ama symbol

Moses did as he was commanded. He made the image of a snake out of bronze and wrapped it around a stick that he held up for the people. This has become the symbol for the medical community today. The Hebrews on the plain were told to look at the snake and they would be healed of their snake bites. I wonder how many of them thought the restorative power came from the metal sculpture as opposed to the God who had provided the healing? When we look for a quick way out of our problems, we tend to give credit for success to the wrong person or power. There are times we need to sit in our unfortunate circumstances long enough so that we can give God our undivided attention and prepare our hearts for a spiritual reboot.

Whining seems easier…but it’s deadly.

The Corona virus has knocked us down. We never imagined this would be a marathon as we closed our doors when the quarantine was decreed. While nearly four months of limitations have passed, our patience has worn thin. Garrett and I were doing a crossword puzzle recently and the newly minted word was used: “hangry.” We are hungry and angry and scared and hot and tired. We are looking at others with suspicion. We are focusing on the categories people fall into and ignoring the sorry state of our own hearts. We are at our worst when the snakes are unleashed against us and it becomes each person for him or herself. This is the time that we need to sit in our present circumstances, as uncomfortable as they are. God will sit there with us. God will turn our heads to face forward when we’re tempted to look back on times of slavery as “the good ol’ days.” If we have lashed out at others, God will correct and forgive us. God meets us in the healing and, when that happens, our whining ceases and we give God the glory.

 

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Church in Storm

I don’t remember why I went into our garden shed that day. A rider mower fills the bulk of the space while various and sundry outdoor items have been dumped there over the years…like, 22 years! So I opened the shed door to accomplish some outdoor task and was drawn into the chaos. When I see a mess my mind spirals out of control, determining what needs to be done and in what order. It’s really a curse! It is very difficult for me to concentrate when my surroundings are in disarray. Sometimes that leads to immediate cleaning action. However, if it’s an area that really isn’t under my control, I walk away. On this particular day in May, wearing flip flops and running shorts, my organizational self was drawn into this neglected part of our real estate.

We made this shed out of a pre-fab kit when my now-22-year-old daughter was a newborn. I’ve never cleaned it. Out of sight, out of mind. As I gave a critical look into the nooks and crannies of this 10’ by 12’ structure, I could see that mice have lived handsomely in this space. I had an old wooden crate used to carry Faygo pop bottles. It could have looked quaint on a front porch with flowers in each square. But it sat unused in the shed for more than two decades. It was, in fact, the perfect mouse hotel. Private rooms for all! So that had to be set aside for the burn pile. Acorn shells were jammed into corners and dried oak leaves made for a soft bed. I went to our garage to find a broom and trash bag. Old paint and building supplies were used by the hibernating residents. Crummy shelving units gave even more surfaces for mice to set up shop.

Something caught my eye as I dug around in the stuff along the edges of the shed. It was a painted canvas. I remembered it well. Entitled “Church in Storm”, it was an original given to my husband and me when we married 35 years ago. We were married in the Graham Taylor Chapel of the Chicago Theological Seminary where we met and earned our Masters of Divinity degrees. Folks started arriving for the July 7 wedding on July 5, checking into the Hyde Park Hilton. On the evening of the 5th a group of us went out for Chicago-style stuffed crust pizza then reconvened in the Commons of the seminary administrative building. There were some family members and a few friends so we opened gifts in this dark-paneled space. Seminary draws a unique collection of people, perhaps as a reminder that those called to serve the world in Jesus’ name will be regarded as “fools” or “clowns.” So our friend group from seminary was beautifully varied and one individual was with us that night. He set up an easel in a corner of the room and covered an apparent work of art with a sheet. There was to be a grand unveiling of his gift to us! With bated breath, our parents and siblings watched as the sheet was pulled off ceremonially. We all looked at the abstract lines that boast a finger painting style. I don’t remember too many comments in response to the artwork. The fellow-student-turned-artist gave a snort and announced, “I call it ‘Church in Storm’!”

It never did hang in our home. At some point it ended up in our shed and, therefore, survived our house fire that claimed all the art we did have hanging on our walls. It remained hidden from view, in all its glory, in a mouse hotel that lacked for any other décor. To their credit, the mice did not nibble on it at all. Perhaps they saw something in those strong lines that our wedding weekend guests did not. So, after sweeping out the leaves, filling a couple of trash bags, and moving the old wood to a burn pile, I hung the painting in a prominent place—in my well-organized shed.

 

Three years ago 15 of us in a travel group quietly walked through the Garden of Gethsemane located on the Mount of Olives. Some of the oldest olive trees are believed to be nearly 2000 years old. It was powerful to imagine that some of them might have sheltered Jesus when he prayed there on the last night of his life. He anguished over the suffering and death that He knew awaited Him but His prayer focused on the needs of His followers. He prayed for their unity.

Garden of Gethsemane arrow

So it seemed fitting to see a broken directional sign pointing to the nearby chapel. The arrow was split down the middle but, nonetheless, indicated which direction to go to find the church. Jesus knew, as He knelt in that very place, that His Church would fall prey to divisive human tendencies. We follow similarly vague signs into the Church today and sometimes give unclear signals to others about where to meet Christ.

Some 25 years later Paul offered guidance to the gathered believers in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. The early church was a mix of those who self-identified as Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). The Jews had dietary restrictions that non-Jews didn’t share. No longer Jew or Gentile, Paul reminded them that they were a new group which he called “the church of God.” Their rules were different. “Don’t worry about the rules from your past life. If you go to someone’s home for dinner and they serve you pork chops, enjoy them!” It’s what we teach our children as parents: eat what is put in front of you at your friend’s house! God made everything and everyone so don’t put up obstacles where they aren’t needed. However, ensure that the way you use your freedom doesn’t challenge someone else’s faith. In Paul’s time and in ours today we struggle as a Church to find the balance between the twin principles of freedom and restraint.

“All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial,” Paul wrote.

We can put on camo and carry loaded machine guns into the state capital to protest restrictions due to COVID. But that may not be beneficial.

Demonstrating because we feel that our rights have been violated is permissible but it may not build up our community that is stressed to the breaking point.

We can re-open our churches or not, depending on what we interpret to be safe timing. We can require masks and social distancing—or not. We can continue to stream our services to keep folks safe at home or open our buildings for the faithful to gather in person. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.

That sounds so helpful but we also know it can cause friction because of different interpretations. Maybe my seminary colleague’s art should be prominently displayed to remind us that the Church has always been in a storm by its very counter-cultural nature. Surely this is, in part, why Jesus prayed for us on the eve of His death.

Paul urges the followers of Jesus in this port city to clear away as many unnecessary obstacles as possible from those who might be easily led away from faith in Jesus. But the one obstacle he insisted should not be removed is the cross. In all our deliberations about how to use our freedom, we Christians must be ready to sacrifice from our own well-being if it builds up our community.

Oh.

I met recently with a young man who had grown up in a very conservative Christian family. They had clearly defined boundaries for where and how to live life. Now in his mid-twenties and making a living in Seattle, he told me how he was discovering that “non-believers”, those outside the church of his upbringing, were…interesting. They had much to offer! It was a surprise to him that they could inspire him to good actions even though they did not share a belief in Jesus. He told me that he has begun to seek out a broader group of people so that he can listen to them. He now has a love for folks that his parents might have suggested he avoid in his earlier years. He was learning how to use his freedom.

It was a great conversation to have with this young adult. Tribalism is still our easiest inclination. The big world he was now navigating on his own had gifts he had not expected. He began not only to see the beauty in those around him that fell outside of his earlier boundaries. He sought them out. He didn’t impose his Christian belief system on them. He met them where they are, trusting that they would meet the living Christ through his actions. Through open conversations he was able to point others to the One who keeps him anchored in the storms of young adult life.

It seems to me that this is the beginning to peace. We follow the broken sign that, nonetheless, gets us to the Church. When we clean out the dusty, neglected corners to our world, both inside and outside the Church walls, we meet God’s cherished people. We sacrifice for them, choosing to live with discomfort if it helps others. Somehow the storm lifts as we offer them Christ’s peace.

Garden of Gethsemane peace

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Hero

I can almost feel the ripple of a cape caught in the air currents in the wake of my stride. For some completely unknown reason I broke into a run (i.e., jog) as I set out from my home on a cool but humid morning. The last time I did anything more than a walk was last October when my sister and I participated (notice, I didn’t say competed) in a 5K at the Holland Fair Grounds. I’m never fast but feel deserving of whatever my heart desires after pushing my body past its slovenly instincts. At the end of our annual fall race I imagine keeping up the charade of being fit all winter. What is to stop me from moving my workout into our basement treadmill rather than our country road? If I built on my tip-top racing form all winter rather than dropping off from any physical discipline, maybe I could even place next year with my muscles gleaming and sculpted in the home stretch! But somehow, with the onset of wintry darkness and encompassing cold, I return home at the end of my work day with thoughts about dinner and not improving my race time.
As we slammed into COVID hibernation in March I imagined that it could be the perfect time to start back into my fitness quest. I’ve never been a morning person so working out before the workday wasn’t realistic. But, if I could have some flexibility to my schedule and take a shower mid-way into my ministry schedule, that had some appeal. Nada. It may seem like I had much less to do with Bible Studies and in-person worship put on indefinite hold. But there were many new agenda items added to my new routine. Initially all meetings were cancelled and we sat in a fearful stupor, wondering if the Corona Virus would knock at our door. We watched the news non-stop those first weeks, our strength sapped as horrifying statistics about suffering and death became fodder for restless nights. I don’t know of too many folks who commit to new regimes of physical prowess after learning that more than two dozen refrigerator trucks have been moved into NYC to “store” dead bodies.
Colleagues and I began to meet by zoom weekly to offer support and figure out how to minister to our flock while physically separated from them. We wrestled with how to honor parishioners who died during that time when we could not meet with them or offer the comfort of our sanctuaries. We all took crash courses in how to use Zoom and began to open up the business of our churches through this miraculous means of gathering. We gave each other tips for how to best stream services in our empty buildings or piece worship together by sending videos to our now-crucial techy staff person. We asked for forgiveness for cursing the clogged internet when it thwarted our efforts to lead worship through a screen.
Somehow the motivation to literally hit the ground running never occurred to me even though my mental and physical health could have greatly benefitted from that. Upping my level of endorphins during a pandemic of historic proportions clearly would have been beneficial. But no.

hero 2
So my sister, Lisa, sent out her annual challenge to me to get off my duff and enter a race. Only this year she moved up the date from fall and pitched The Super Run Virtual 5k out of Orlando, Florida. As if the joy of training for a race wasn’t enough, she celebrated that we would be sent a cape and other swag that we could wear as we ran our own private 5k. She brought my son-in-law into the fun as well, knowing that he is literally a Superhero to children in need of a boost in local hospitals. He was all in and, of course, had already run a few races in a cape. Lisa’s challenge motivated me to move. I told myself that I could walk it. Since I would be doing it alone I wouldn’t have to grind my teeth as women clearly my age or older effortlessly ran past me. There would be no despair over a five-year old child running alongside a fit parent, the two of them conversing as easily as if they were sitting outside of Rocky’s eating a double scoop ice cream cone. Not that I notice those things when I run in a race (perhaps I do have a competitive spirit?). So my husband and I began to break our quarantine with 5k walks and I rejoiced that no one would see how late I crossed a finish line.


But then the date didn’t work for the three of us and I was let off the hook. No June 27 Super Run. Maybe another Saturday this summer. In spite of the reprieve, I’ve moved mentally into my usual summer fitness routine. I love the way I feel after I push myself physically. I know that at any age (and especially at my age) I’m in a use-it-or-lose-it stage. So I headed out this morning to beat the heat and, for some completely unknown reason, I broke into a jog. As usual, I told myself that I could slow to a walk at any time. Truthfully, I have to make that promise to myself any time I go out for a run. But then my competitive spirit kicks in and today I ran the whole way. After an 8-month hiatus, it is both pitiful and triumphant!


As I loped along Herrington and then House Streets, I thought of the cape I wasn’t wearing for a race. I realized that there are so many folks who have shown themselves to be heroes in the past four months. Medical professionals who have put their own lives at risk by caring for the sick and dying deserve our praise—and an increase in pay! Government officials who have had to make decisions regarding public health policies in the face of frustrated and furious constituents have earned my respect. Police and firefighters who have responded to emergency calls and recently faced rioting crowds while the virus looms are heroes. I admire folks who wear stifling masks while marching in peaceful protests to demand changes to systemic racism that has plagued our country for generations. Heroes are those in helping professions who give calm to anxious clients through zoom and Facetime appointments. Though I have worn a clerical stole while recording my sermons, perhaps my colleagues and I have needed to put on capes to reassure our people, through the lens of an I-Phone, that God is near in spite of evidence to the contrary.
In my Spiritual Direction Practicum we studied the work of Joseph Campbell who delved into the notion of heroism across many cultures. We were asked how we are heroes of our own story. Most of us in the class felt uncomfortable with that notion. You know, like the man who rescued someone trapped before an oncoming train refuses accolades: “I was just doing what anyone else would do.” Well, except for all the other people lining those same tracks who were more anxious about having time to pick up a Starbucks coffee before work than they were about saving a stranger. So my classmates and I had to unpack our understanding of heroism. To be the hero of our own story means we have leaned into times of trial in the world around us and pushed past our very selfish inclinations. We have forfeited personal security for communal health. We have so highly valued the well-being of others that we have stepped out on a limb to serve them.
This sounds like being a Christian to me.
So I got a reprieve from racing against my own clock this weekend with a cape flapping in the breeze. I’ll have to focus on other ways to wear a cape—or to drape a stole around my neck as a servant in the name of Christ. That’s a race we’re always running, whether we realize it or not. In addition to the fun of a competition, The Super Run invites participants to raise money for a favorite charitable cause. My husband and I will enjoy deciding where our tithe will go this month in addition to the support of our church. So many people have been heroic during COVID through their financial generosity. As shelters and food pantries have struggled to pay bills for a greatly increased client base, people of faith have supported them. Our church has donated toward local restaurants that started cooking meals for exhausted medical personnel and first responders. Heroes quietly write checks. They make phone calls of encouragement. They drop cards in the mail. They make compassionate decisions by zoom. Before the deadly threat of a virus, they enter into the suffering of others hardly aware that their cape is fluttering behind them.


As I jog a solitary race on a road that is closed to through-traffic for the summer, I thank God for the heroes who run into danger sans cape or expectation of fanfare. I ponder how I might stretch courageously into being the hero of my own story—for Christ’s sake.

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On Our Knees

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of kneeling.

Since the sickening video circulated of George Floyd having the life squeezed out of him, I’ve noticed the power of kneeling. Last Tuesday night a curfew was set for the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Protesters refused to leave as 7PM approached. The Police Chief spent 37 minutes after the stated beginning to the curfew, listening to protesters. He urged them to leave and go to a safe place rather than defy a mandate. One of the young protesters asked the officer to kneel with him. He did so. Then the front line of protesters asked that all the officers present, with shields and guns held in check, would kneel. The Chief did not honor that request. Kneeling puts you at risk. It places you where you can easily be kicked and attacked. The Police Chief couldn’t take the risk of having the whole brigade of law enforcers in a vulnerable position. Whether this was the final straw or some other unmet demand, the protesters refused to go home and the supervising officer, with great emotion, gave up the effort to bring peace without force.

I went into our sanctuary to pray this past week. I chose the front pew on the side of the lectern where we have kneelers. Praying in that position is very different than sitting in the pew. There’s a sense of subservience when we kneel. It takes physical strength and balance to kneel. I rested my elbows on the wooden support in front of me and thought of the officer who rested his whole body weight on Mr. Floyd, hands in pockets as if it were a comfortable pose. There’s a disconnect between those two actions: kneeling and a relaxed hands-in-pocket pose. Officer Chauvin used a typically subservient position as a means of domination. Rather than subjecting himself to a higher authority, as kneeling suggests, he held a disinterested facial expression for more than eight minutes to control a perceived threat. Unmoved, he refused to heed Floyd’s pleas for mercy.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of kneeling.

Most religions suggest the kneeling position for honoring their deity. The Bible is full of references to kneeling, first for the Jews of the Old Testament and then for the early Christian believers in the New Testament. Isaiah offers a vision of the captive Israelites making the arduous journey back to their beloved homeland through his prayer: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” Have your knees ever given out on you when you’ve heard bad news? Have you learned how much we rely on the strength of our knees in the painful months that lead up to knee replacement surgery? Have you felt your knees tremble as you got down on one knee to propose marriage to your beloved, praying for a “Yes!” answer?

man kneel in front of woman
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Maybe you are familiar with the expression, “Well, the handwriting is on the wall…”? It comes from the prophetic book of Daniel, chapter 5. Starting at verse 5, we read: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” When have you witnessed something that caused your knees to knock? Have they ever failed to support you?

grey steel grill
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In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. One man owes an enormous sum of money to his master, an amount he could never repay in a lifetime of active labor. When his master shows up, asking for payment, he throws himself down before the man, begging for mercy. The master has mercy on the man and forgives this huge debt that he owes. Jesus weaves the story carefully. As the man, light-hearted now, skips away from his debt, someone who owes him a very small amount of money crosses his path. The man who was newly released from his debt demands that this guy repay him immediately. Again, the debtor falls to his knees and begs for mercy. The newly forgiven man was grateful for his master’s mercy but his heart was not changed. Unyielding, he refused to release the man from his minor IOU and had him thrown into prison. Bystanders witnessed both moments of kneeling, two men begging for mercy. They saw the arrogance of the first man who stood over the second, perhaps hands in pocket. Like crowds with video footage of atrocities on their IPhones, the onlookers in Jesus’ story reported the first debtor’s hard-heartedness to the forgiving master. The grace extended initially was rescinded and the cruel debtor was thrown into prison where he would spend the rest of his life. He was granted but refused to offer mercy.

In Matthew 20 the mother of two of the disciples approaches Jesus and kneels before Him. She asks Jesus that her boys, James and John, would be given privileged positions in Jesus’ movement. Any of us who are parents understand how we seek the very best for our kids. But her kneeling was to promote a selfish act. In private she asked the CEO of her sons’ company to fast-track them to senior positions. Jesus let her know that they had misunderstood His movement then launched into a sermon about how they needed to lead in order to climb His corporate ladder: “..whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” No corner offices were cleared out for James and John. No signing bonuses were offered for new positions. They were told not to elevate themselves but to willingly step down to the bottom corporate rung. The mother’s kneeling was manipulative. It came from a selfish place and Jesus didn’t honor it.

There are many examples of people of faith kneeling to worship God. Our call to worship on Sunday came from Psalm 95. The psalms were used as the worship book for the Jews. Verse six gives us a glimpse into their form of worship: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture…”

Before departing from the beloved members of the Ephesian congregation, Paul knelt and prayed with them. It was an emotional experience for all of them. It reads, “When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.” Can you imagine closing your family reunion on bended knee together, praying for God’s mutual blessing as you go your separate ways? What a beautiful image that is of our ancestors in the faith!

Finally, we witness Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying with such intensity that He sweat blood. This intimate time in God’s presence gave Him the strength He would need to endure the cross. What an amazing example of willing subservience Christ offers us!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of kneeling!

In a pre-season game in 2016, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. In subsequent games that season, he took a knee as a silent protest against racial injustice and police brutality in our country. This act became a call to action for the Black Lives Matter movement and it also cost him his career as a football player. It’s an act that has been revisited in the news the past few weeks with hurt feelings between teammates and friends. Four years later, in the heat of our current tensions, police officers are being asked by angry mobs to kneel with them to show their solidarity with African Americans. In some cases, this kneeling has led to healing moments of unity. In other escalated marches, violence has ensued in spite of the kneeling. Since Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, hijacking a symbol of worship for God with a worship for domination, kneeling has become a symbol with conflicting messages.

This is a heavy time for our nation as we sort through anger, hatred, and frustration that stem from systemic racism. We wonder how we can make a difference. We are already weary from the strain of the COVID-19 virus and increasingly wonder what the future holds for us. Before what God do we kneel? Do we submit to any manner of authority or do we lash out at our surrounding culture? How do we stay anchored when our world is in such a state of upheaval?

In 2 Chronicles King Solomon gathers his people to dedicate the beautiful temple he built early in his reign. He is overwhelmed with gratitude for the beauty of this sanctuary he constructed for God. Wanting to call his people to renewed faith, he offered a lengthy prayer that we read in chapter six. It says, “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord…he knelt on his knees in the presence of the whole assembly and spread out his hands toward heaven…” Solomon’s prayer was long. He took his time inviting God to guide him as a Sovereign King. He begged God to be the true leader of his people. He acknowledged the inevitability of their sin and entreated God to forgive them. He closed with an invitation for God to take up residence in this structure that would become so central to the worship of the Jews: “Now rise up, O Lord God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your faithful rejoice in your goodness. O Lord God, do not reject your anointed one. Remember your steadfast love for your servant David.”

A revered leader of our country placed himself at God’s mercy generations ago when racism was addressed at great cost to our nation. Abraham Lincoln confessed, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of kneeling.

We Christians need to reclaim kneeling for its intended purpose: to set ourselves before our God in willing subservience. We take a vulnerable stance before our community by putting ourselves at their feet. We kneel on our own and with our families offering whole-hearted devotion to the One who gave Jesus the strength to fight for justice for the least of these, the God who upheld Jesus even as He endured the cross. We are on our knees in this time of trial and there’s no other place we should begin. God have mercy upon us.

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A Pentecost Prayer

As if a global pandemic and fearful quarantine were not enough to endure, we find ourselves as Americans facing our continued systemic racism. Sadly we are unable to gather with each other in our sanctuaries today on Pentecost Sunday to confess our sin and pray for courage as congregations. Our church’s Facebook page has become an important avenue of communication in the past ten weeks. I invited people to respond to the horror of George Floyd’s death and the national reaction in the form of prayers last week. From those I wove together our “Prayers of the People” for our on-line worship this morning. Perhaps our church family’s words will give voice to your own. I invite you to add your prayer to these.

God of all power and mercy, we are thankful for your Holy Spirit. We celebrate the gift of the outpouring of Your Spirit on Pentecost when men who were afraid huddled behind closed doors and were surprised to discover what Jesus meant when He said He would not leave us alone or without power. And so today we celebrate the birthday of the Church. We ask that You would continue to join people together of different languages, races, and nationalities.

We recognize that on that day the Holy Spirit entered into a mob and turned them into converts in the power of Your Holy Spirit. We praise You that Your Spirit still moves among us, bringing unity among diverse peoples. We cry out to You for Your unifying power today. Even as restrictions begin to lift and we dare to venture short distances from our homes, we look in on crimes of racial injustice that sicken us. During these unsettling times, God of justice, we pray that You embolden us to live out our faith. Open our ears to the pleas of the oppressed and give us the strength to stand with them. When angry words are hurled and violence ensues we look to the example of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who mobilized orderly masses to march for peace. Teach us to show the love of Christ when righteous indignation wells up within us. May those of us who enjoy unearned privileged position be willing to step down to join our voices with those who face discrimination on a daily basis. May our courageous and compassionate response to the evils of our world lead those who doubt your power to a place of belief.
This week we pray for the family and friends of George Floyd. We pray for the Twin Cities, our own hometown of Grand Rapids, and so many other cities that have exploded into fiery anger at the injustice of his death. We confess that too often our law enforcement agencies and individuals act out of a racial bias and innocent lives have been lost. We pray for our police officers who are now, as a whole, slandered because of the cruel actions of a few. We are a broken people and we cannot heal ourselves. So we invoke Your Pentecost power today, life-giving breath that invigorates us to do Your will, whatever the cost to us. We promise to place the well-being of our community above personal desire. We open our hearts so that there is room for Your Spirit to dwell.
We pray for members of our congregation who are battling illness, depression, isolation, and broken relationships. We yearn for the freedoms we took for granted before the shelter-in-place mandate and fear that some of them will not return for quite some time. You have taught us during this pandemic that we are linked to one another and so we pray for the unity of the Pentecost crowd as we offer the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

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Just One Child

In the midst of a global pandemic that has confined families to homes, pushed businesses to the brink of disaster, medical systems into crisis mode and nations into financial stress, I want to pull us back to our micro-reality. One child. Just one child. We are caught up in the tragic news of the lives of residents in Midland, Michigan being washed away in a flood of historic proportion. We are reminded that funds are still needed to reforest millions of scorched acres of land in Australia. Colleges are making decisions about whether to only offer on-line classes in the fall. Family budgets are stretched to the breaking point. But I want to rejoice in the value of just one child. On Sunday our congregation celebrated Christian Education Sunday and, even though our Sunday School year was wildly interrupted in March, teaching has continued in new ways. More than ever we celebrate the presence of children in our congregation.
For our worship, one family acted out a version of the story that has been passed on to us from Luke’s Gospel. People brought their children to Jesus, hoping for a blessing. It’s akin to our desire to baptize our children into the care of Christ’s Church. The disciples shooed them away, certain that Jesus juggled far too many demands to drop to a knee and hug a child. But Jesus, irate at this judgment call, took the boy in His arms and blessed Him. It’s the story of just one child who had the hug of a lifetime from the Son of God!

red lantern lamp turned on
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In 1 Samuel 3 we learn that the priest in charge of the Israelites’ spiritual well-being was Eli. He was an older man and his sons had not been faithful to the holy call on their lives. So God withheld the life-giving Word. Eli and Sons Ltd. was a bust. It doesn’t always work to pull the next generation into our line of work. Eli’s sons rejected God, abused the privileges that came with their position and lorded it over their congregants rather than serving them. As is often the case with adult children who inherit sizable gifts from their parents, these boys expected to receive acclaim as a right. They were too lazy to develop the skill, self-discipline, and attitude of service needed to be good leaders. So the story has overtones of darkness. Visions of God’s presence were rare. Old Eli could barely see BUT the lamp of God had not gone out. In spite of faithless leadership, God had not abandoned this place or these people.

The back story to our passage is that a woman named Hannah was unable to have children. She earnestly prayed in the sanctuary in Shiloh for a child, promising God that, if she was blessed with a son, she would dedicate him to a holy life of service. A year later she gave birth to a son and committed to give him over to Priest Eli once he was weaned. At age three she brought him to Eli who had failed to raise his own sons well. This baby for whom she had long prayed was left in Shiloh in the embrace of an old man who could not even see the beauty of his small face. Hannah made her way home. A deal’s a deal. A pledge made in prayer must be kept. (If it makes you feel any better, she did have other children after Samuel. But still…) God had a plan. Since Eli’s biological sons weren’t going to make good on the commitment to lead God’s people, God would form a different kind of family. It came to Eli in the form of an energetic toddler who must have turned his sedentary life upside down. Samuel was tutored in the ways of worship not out of a sense of entitlement but because God gave it to him as a gift.
In the first verse of chapter three we learn that the Word of the Lord was rare. It came to Eli but his sons’ narcissism interrupted the natural order of children following in their father’s footsteps. Young Samuel, however, matured in his faith. The dedication made on his behalf by his mother, became his life’s calling. Even though he was following the guidance of the old priest, he still didn’t yet know God’s voice. When the time was right, God called to the boy in the dark of night. On the third try, Eli finally understood that it was a different Father or Master who was calling out to Samuel. He attuned the boy to the One he was meant to serve. God moved to the next level. Samuel heard the divine voice and was ready. Through this one child, prayed over by a devout mother, God began to speak to the Israelites. God’s Word came alive once again.
Our Christian Education Coordinator and I had a great time going to the homes of our first grade graduates this past week. We stayed on the lawn, apart from each other and from the children as we presented them with their own Bibles. It is our custom to give these to them once they have learned how to read. They were ready for us, some dressed in “church clothes” for the first time in months. They were excited to receive their own copy of God’s Holy Word. As we conversed from a distance with their parents, all of us starved for conversation, several of the children sat quietly on their front porches on a cold May morning, reading their new Bible. The Word of God comes alive for them now. Some who have younger siblings are looking forward to reading their Bible aloud to their little brother or sister. Others will, no doubt, sit in their parents’ laps and share the joy of being able to read Bible stories on their own. In Psalm 68 it states, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. He sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing.” Families are woven together in so many beautiful ways. What a gift it is when the Word of God is valued and the traditions of the faith are passed on from one generation to another. It is our privilege and responsibility to faithfully raise the children in our Church to serve God. Through just one child, God’s Word spreads powerfully into our world.
I am so impressed with the children and young adults living through this very challenging time of a global pandemic. Our seniors have been robbed of their graduation ceremonies and open houses. Young couples have had to forfeit the wedding of their dreams. Proud first graders received their Bibles on their front porches, not in the warm physical embrace of their church family. Yet none of those I’ve spoken to have lamented the losses. They have taken it in stride much more readily than their parents. This is a generation of minimalists who say “No thanks” when we offer them Great Grandma Gertrude’s beautiful set of dishes. They are more apt to rent than own. They choose to live in small spaces rather than big homes with a rented storage unit on the side. They have a broad acceptance of differences in people. They call a spade a spade when looking in on our country’s polarized politics. I am counting on these fresh faces who so value authenticity to lead us out of our adult messes. Through each child raised in the Church, God’s speaks so that the Light of the Lord is not extinguished!

person covered with gray blanket
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A friend told me about her five-year old granddaughter who became very ill several years ago. She sustained a 104-degree fever for three days. When she finally began to feel better and a small amount of energy returned, she confided in her mom that God had visited her in those fevered nights. “I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. God and I talk to each other.
Our calling is to claim our own vocation as disciples of Jesus and to awaken a sense of that in our children. We teach them to listen for God’s voice. But many times, out of their trusting spirituality, they remind us that God is still speaking. When we introduce them to the faith, the darkness of our world is lightened by each precious child. As we increasingly entrust our well-being into their capable hands, as old Eli had to do with young Samuel, we can rest assured that the lonesome will be placed in families. The lamp of God will never go out and the Word of the Lord will not fail us!

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A Military Recruit

Reflecting on the service of our soldiers this weekend I was struck that our spiritual journey is akin to that of a military recruit. We are all stripped to a level of sameness. We start learning the rules and obeying our Commander. I spent four years in Middle and High School living in base housing on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. My father was a Chaplain for the cadets there. We hosted the doolies (freshmen—and they were all men when we lived there) at our house for dinner and I heard stories I could not believe. They could be subjected to a room inspection without notice. Their bed had to be made with perfectly square corners. The bedding had to be pulled so taut and tucked in so well that the inspecting officer could bounce a quarter off of it! Looking down on their cement campus you see a grid pattern etched into the pavement. For their entire first year, doolies had to walk straight lines and make square corners. They were mandated to salute any higher-ranking officer (pretty much anyone else) and infractions meant punishment. The most common disciplinary measure for simple errors was a certain number of “tours” that needed to be marched. Each tour was one hour. So, if you thought staying after school for an hour of detention was cruel, try marching in a uniform in either the blazing Colorado sun or in a freakish July snowstorm (yup, it happened once!). You’re concentrating on making square corners and walking long stretches of concrete while your classmates cast a knowing glance your way.

army authority drill instructor group
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Another way you give up your power when you join a branch of the military is with your personal appearance. As soon as a recruit arrives their outer presentation is homogenized. They submit to a one-size-fits-all hair cut. You have no “civies” left in your perfectly arranged closet, just variations on the uniform. No sweat determining what outfit to wear each day. Every unique element to your personhood is removed or diminished and your instinctual response changes very quickly to “Yes, sir!” (Is there a “Yes, ma’am!” now as well? Or is there a more androgynous response?)
The first year at any of the military academies is brutal. I could see the weight lift as first-year cadets moved out of the ranks of the lowly (the term “doolie” comes from the Greek word doulos meaning “slave” or “servant”) and gained just a few more privileges. They made it! They succeeded! They felt proud of mastering the rules and began to have an attitude of “I’ve got this!” We know what that feels like. With some maturity, however, we recognize that highpoints are a gift and the topography to our life can change in an instant. One moment a cadet might be aloft in a glider, looking down on the Rocky Mountains on a crystal clear Sunday afternoon. But the next day the quarter doesn’t bounce off their sheets and they failed to salute an officer in the mess hall. Punishment is meted out.

Like a military recruit, we think we’ve got it all figured out and that’s when we begin to relax the rules. At some point, we hit up against a challenge and realize how little we know. Our bubble pops. We are stripped bare all over again. This time it’s not our civilian clothing or hairstyle that we lose. It’s our ego. Just as we had begun to put our shoulders back and look others confidently in the eye, we get shot down. Suddenly we’re walking straight lines and making square corners once again. There’s nothing natural about that!
There’s a plea Jesus’ disciples cry out in one of those humbling moments: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” I love that. I get that. I am reassured by that! If they were traveling, eating, theologically wrangling with Jesus but still couldn’t learn the lesson, I feel better about my own idiocy. Living our faith is called “spiritual discipline” for a reason. We’ve never learned the last lesson. We’ve discovered in the past 9 weeks that a whole new set of challenges confront us even when we’re simply staying home! “How hard can that be,” we might have thought in early March. Now we know. We’ve never got life figured out and our instinctual responses to our surroundings need to be continually reformed.

So we continue with a faith that God is with us. We are relieved when we find out that God doesn’t expect us to ace the course. In fact, we will never earn a pass on the dreaded room inspection. Jesus’ disciples were humbled repeatedly and that’s our place as pilgrims. Even as we march a tour on unyielding cement, silently derided by our peers who are grateful their sins go undetected, we discover that God will build us up with grace. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. But the supply will never run out. There’s enough for our lifetime.

Whew!

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Localized Anesthesia

Some of you walked or ran 2.23 miles on May 8 to mark the birthday of Ahmaud Arbery. On February 23 25-year old Ahmaud was attacked and killed as he ran through a neighborhood just two miles from his home. The news surfaced almost two months after the murder because of a short video showing the encounter. Georgians, newly released from a shelter-in-place mandate, took to the streets and cried out for justice. Within 36 hours of involving the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, a father/son duo were arrested. They had decided that Ahmaud was the one who had been burglarizing area homes and took justice matters into their own hands. Very quickly our country was up in arms over another case in racial profiling which resulted in the death of an innocent and unarmed black man.
On Wednesday the local news covered the story of Breonna Taylor, a young woman who grew up in West Michigan. Now living in Kentucky, police stormed her apartment on March 13, believing that a drug dealer operated out of her home. She and her boyfriend were asleep when three plainclothes police officers kicked through their door prepared for a drug bust. Breonna’s boyfriend shot at the midnight intruders. They returned fire and Breonna, a nurse who has been working on the front lines fighting COVID 19, was shot eight times. Breonna is African-American. The police officers are white. They had the wrong apartment and fired more than 20 bullets before pausing to see who lived there.
As the COVID lockdown wears on us in strange ways, we are sickened to hear these stories of injustice. The word “lynching” has been used in Arbery’s case which kicked up something deep in our nation. We are so shocked that this continues to happen that we are tempted to seal off a part of our hearts for self-protection. Turning off the news, one way or another, is the easy way out. We administer localized anesthesia to numb our outrage.
I’ve been doing pastoral phone-calling of parishioners during the COVID 19 siege. Sometimes people don’t take my call because my home caller ID comes up under the name of my husband’s law firm. When they see Solomon Law Firm calling, they ignore it, convinced that they are victims of robocalls. When I begin to leave a message, announcing who I am, they pick up the phone with an apology. When life is going well, we don’t seek out the services of an attorney. Too many people have learned not to trust any administrators of justice.
In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is approached by an expert in the law, a Pharisee, a religious attorney. His aim is to put Jesus to the test. His question is aimed to get Jesus in trouble. In typical fashion, Jesus throws the question back at him. What does the Law tell us? The attorney answers well and Jesus praises him. A+ for content and brevity. But that’s not enough because the attorney really didn’t care about Jesus’ answer. Remember? The text says, “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus…” How many of you want to converse with folks who are set on justifying themselves? Those are the phone calls you don’t pick up!
The question the attorney asks pushes the limits of liability: “And who is my neighbor?” In other words, how can I get away with the least amount of responsibility? Instead of giving specifics that could get Him in trouble, Jesus tells a story that has traveled the distance of 2000 years: The Good Samaritan.
Jesus chooses the setting carefully. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was long and winding. It’s a rocky 17-mile long journey that is 2500 feet above sea level at its highest and descends to the lowest place on the planet that is not covered by water: Jericho. It was a well-traveled route by religious pilgrims and merchants. Thieves hid around blind corners of the road or in the many caves found along the way. They worked in tandem, attacking the innocent travelers before they had a chance to respond. It became known as “The Bloody Pass.” Jesus set up the story in a place that would instill fear in His listeners. The tale of an innocent man being ambushed was believable. But making a despised Samaritan the hero was not!
As the Corona Virus continues to dominate our news, a justice issue is resurfacing. A disproportionate percentage of the COVID patients are people of color. In Washington, D.C., where African Americans make up 46% of the population, 81% of those diagnosed with the virus are black. In newly opened Georgia, 56% of the COVID victims are black even though they comprise only 32% of the population. What does this point to? Facts we’ve known for a long time. People of color have lesser opportunities for good jobs which means inferior health care which enhances the possibility of pre-existing symptoms. Many who work at lower-income jobs have greater exposure to the disease because they work in the public domain. The Hispanic community in our country has been hard hit by the disease for similar reasons. Confronted anew with these injustices, do we anesthetize ourselves to the mandate for change?
At a church in our predominantly white town, the pastor and music director are African American. They have found themselves less than welcomed. The musician has been pulled over six times in his life, five times here in Rockford in the past few years. Not once has he been ticketed. The Corner Bar, a beloved local eatery that dates back to 1873, has lost a couple of great workers—both African American—because they were repeatedly stopped when driving after dark. Our friends call this DWB or Driving While Black. The restaurant workers decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. They could make the same salary in a town where they weren’t being hassled by local justice systems.
Localized anesthesia is when we numb ourselves to feelings in particular areas. Sometimes we have to do that to survive. It’s what front-line workers are doing right now to be able to function. But all anesthetized areas need to be reawakened at some point. Healing requires that we walk through the areas we’ve intentionally numbed. There is no shortcut. There is no exception. Our beaten victim in Jesus’ parable is going to need to heal on the outside but he will also have emotional scars that are less visible. In order to heal on the inside, he must go into the depths of his past to relive it and let it go.
The surprise element to Jesus’ story is the rescuer. The highly esteemed professionals are first presented: a priest and a Levite. Both positions have privileged access to the Jewish temple life. Surely they would stop to help the bloodied man on the side of the road? But they don’t! Perhaps they fear for their own safety if they slow down their own journey? If thieves had done this to an innocent pedestrian, they could be lurking and ready to pounce again. An instinct toward self-preservation runs deep in all of us. The religious authorities anesthetize themselves from the world’s pain and hurry past. Jews despised Samaritans, half-breeds of another race. Yet it was a Samaritan who was moved with pity when he came across this victim and took it upon himself to get him medical help. We can imagine the inconvenience of loading a grown man onto his donkey, finishing out the arduous 17-mile journey, putting himself at greater risk of attack by his kindness. He spent his own money to get the man good medical care and promised to check back to ensure his well-being.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asked. Defeated in his trickery, the attorney hangs his head and admits, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Bingo. School’s over. Jesus moves on and we’re still talking about that interruption to His journey today!
This past week I put a question to our membership on FaceBook: Who are the Good Samaritans in our world today. They are counselors who tenderly care for the emotional well-being of their clients by zoom now. They are frontline medical and rescue professionals who are putting their own lives at risk through their merciful actions. They are folks in food pantries, emergency housing programs and nursing homes caring for vulnerable groups. They are folks who deliver groceries to your doorstep so that you don’t have to shop amidst throngs of others.
I asked how our congregants had acted as Good Samaritans in the course of our shelter-in-place time. Blessed with a steady income, many have contributed money to some of the helping organizations I just mentioned. Some bought toilet paper and gave it away. Another person took on an extra job of sanitizing surfaces in a local grocery store each evening and gave away the money he earned from that job. Two teachers, thankful for their own security, gave their stimulus check money to former students who are suffering financially right now. Some folks sent checks to prison ministries, reaching out to a suffering yet forgotten population. Some started making and giving away facemasks. Others baked bread and left it on people’s doorsteps. (I’ve heard that yeast is hard to come by in stores right now as people bake away their stress!) Rather than anesthetize ourselves to painful realities in our world, what a beautiful story it is when we join forces in our churches to extend mercy to those around us in Jesus’ name!
When my mom was dying of terminal cancer at age 66 she was understandably subdued. Always optimistic and energetic before, heading toward certain death was more difficult that I can begin to imagine. She told me that one of her doctors suggested a prescription of anti-depressants to take the edge off of her grief. She was matter-of-fact several times with her doctors who looked in on terminal cancer from the outside. She said that she had good reason to be sad and didn’t wish to emotionally numb herself in this last stage of her earthly life.
Father Henri Nouwen wrote, “The great challenge is living your wounds through, instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them” Administering local anesthesia to the areas of our life that overwhelm us seems like the best solution. But the only way we will be able to move forward with strength in any crisis is to feel those emotions so that we can put them in proper placement and make room for the here and now. I expect there will be a staggering siege of PTSD in our world as we emerge at some unknown future point from COVID 19. Rather than trying to move forward too quickly to reclaim the past and make it fit to the future, we are called to emulate the Good Samaritan: to be moved with pity. Strangely, it is when we huddle together in the trenches, tending to each other’s needs, that we find healing.
As Jesus challenged at the end of His parable, “Go and do likewise.”