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In God’s Defense

I want to be asked to take the stand. I want to be a witness testifying in God‘s defense. I have heard God blamed and blasphemed. In the confessions of battle-weary patients in a psychiatric hospital, I’ve refrained from speaking in God’s defense when they have pressed charges against their Creator.

The hardest allegations to refute come from people who have told me that, in their abuse as children, they cried out to a God who never rescued them. The abuse continued. The need for healing leaves a gaping hole in their emotional and spiritual well-being. Many of them had parents who took them to church regularly, which complicates their theology. “If my parents modeled their faith in acts of cruelty, what does that teach me as an impressionable child? Why would I care about their God?” But something in that childhood religious training awakened a receptive spirit and they believed. They sang about Jesus’ love. They went to Sunday School and learned Bible stories. Yet very different lessons were taught behind closed doors. Many of these patients have spent a lifetime trying to resolve the disconnect between a powerful God that was preached at them and the everyday cruelty they endured.

I have no easy defense for their suffering.

It’s interesting to me how easily people blame God or badmouth Jesus for their life circumstances when they’ve never really invested in a spiritual relationship. It would be as if we blamed our benevolent Uncle Max for all our problems when we never really met Uncle Max face-to-face. He’s invited us to his house for dinner. He’s sent us birthday gifts that we have torn into. We haven’t taken the time to get to know him or thank him. But, when the chips are down and we can’t make sense of the latest crisis, Uncle Max‘s name surfaces. With vehemence, we excoriate the ways he has hurt us.

In the last year I can’t tell you how many times I was sure I had heard it all, only to discover that yet another story leaves me speechless. I no longer find it difficult to believe the statistic I heard many times in parish ministry that one in seven children suffers abuse, most often at the hands of their parent. When those children grow up, they are very likely to struggle with their mental health which prevents them from completing their education or choosing good partners for themselves. One in four men and one in three women are abused by their partners. These are the individuals I sat with on psych units, inviting them to share their story. Through tears and a clenched jaw, they cried out their abandonment not just by those adults entrusted with their care. They felt abandoned by the deity from whom they sought peace. 

This confusion began with abusive parents whose love the children seek almost no matter the damage the parent has done. A child’s default is to love their father and mother. Patients I met in their 50’s and 60’s were still trying to make that relationship work with their octogenarian bitter parent. The elderly parent continued to curse them and reject their overtures of love. The message was consistently cruel over the years: “You are a burden to me!“ Grown children have wept with me, aching for their parents’ affection before death separates them.

I always commend people for their desire to find an authentic faith when they could easily and understandably ditch the Church completely. Atrocities committed in the name of God would repel most of us for a lifetime. However, many patients clung to a barely flickering divine spark deep within that continued to summon them toward a divine Rescuer and loving Parent.

On the in-patient units, my empathy as a chaplain fueled a desire to find a fail-proof lesson that would assure them of God’s love. I wanted to wave a magic wand over their chaos that would bring healing and restore faith in God. I have learned that they won’t easily hear my assurances. It’s presumptuous for me to think that I have the answers when, in fact, they have been the ones to teach me so often! My theology, cultured in a delightful childhood, often contradicts their experience. Maybe the only solution to their pain is to blame someone who can’t physically retaliate. 

In my imagined lesson, I want to remind them about sin, that three-letter word that packs a punch. It reminds us that something other than God‘s will has a grip on our world. We experience trials in our communities and in our families. Some difficulties stem from our own decisions and others result from what others inflict on us. God gave us free will. All you have to do is look at the reactions to mask mandates during COVID to know that we are a people who cherish our free will! “I’m entitled to my opinions and my own choices,” we have yelled. I want to remind these patients that the alternative to free will is a scripted life where God is puppeteer and we are puppets with no choices to make. Some days that may feel like a relief! But few of us would want to be reduced to life as pre-programmed robots who can’t choose whom to love and how to shape our day. Free will is given in equal measure to all. Some use their freedom responsibly and others abuse it, even harming those closest to them. I was reminded in a conversation recently that “Hurt people hurt people.“

Yes.

Folks who weep about the abuse of their parents will tell me how their grandparents abused their parents. The destructive cycle stretches back generationally and the pattern continues. Many of my patients told me they swore they would never do to their children what was done to them. Many of them greatly improved on their parents’ example and I lavished praise for their commitment toward mercy. The easiest course is to do what was done to us. But so many in my “congregation” this year courageously changed course, raising their own children with great kindness and vulnerability. They used their free will to foster rich family relationships. Even so, they could not let go of the yearning for their elderly parent’s love.

The evening before my final day of work at a Christian mental health hospital, my husband and I went to an outdoor concert to hear Emmylou Harris. We have not followed her in our adult lives. I can’t say that her music has ever been meaningful or known to me. But the venue is a fantastic setting that always entertains and it was a heart-warming evening. I appreciated Emmy Lou‘s banter, perhaps because she is a wise 75-year-old woman who has been humbled by life. She smiled as she stated, “I had one helluva happy childhood. No one’s supposed to. Well anyway, I had nothing to write about … so I made stuff up.” She laughed and the audience did too. She understands what a gift it is to lack tragic content for her songs. She acknowledged that she writes sad songs because those seem to connect with her audiences. The lead-in act was Mary Chapin Carpenter who is equally talented. She commended her band for always being willing to perform her musical laments. In an interview she made this comment: “When songs make that connection, you don’t feel so alone in the world.” That kind of emotional connection is what Carpenter says she’s looking for when she’s seeking out new music: “I want it to take me somewhere and bring me to my knees and make me cry or make me feel great.” At Carpenter’s concerts, her longtime fans laugh when she introduces yet another melody in a minor key. Carpenter says she was inspired by something she heard many years ago from a musician who was asked why she sang so many sad songs. The singer replied: ‘Sad songs make me feel brave.”

One of the greatest strengths for those who wake up to discover that they have been given an in-patient room on a psychiatric unit is the fact that they are not alone. They emerge from their broken lives and whatever recent chaos landed them there and are given an opportunity to share their stories. Very common themes of shame, anger, hurt, and grace surface regularly. I have been so moved to witness the tenderness that emerges from those who have been lifelong victims. With shoulders slumped, they quietly admit to fellow patients that they give too much to others with nothing given in return. The well has run dry. Heads nod around the room. People confess that they have done foolish things. They take responsibility for creating a wedge between themselves and their loved ones. But they’re also weary of being judged by those same people, mistrusted even in their healthy moments because of their past. They admit to being criticized for having a mental illness. 

In those groups that I was privileged to lead, people listened to one another and became brave. Brave to share their hurt. Brave to encourage one another. Brave to begin to hope for a different future. Courageous enough to believe that God is there for them even if they felt ignored in earlier times of need. I am so humbled and impressed with the courage of the patients I have met over the past year. I can relate to Emmylou Harris who named her own childhood as rosy beyond all deserving. There is no crime in that. In fact, those of us who have such a strong foundation are often called upon to offer strength to those for whom the water is choppy, the boat is flimsy, and the swimming skills were never taught. Emmy Lou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter “lead groups” through their music. At a good concert we laugh, we cry, and we sing in harmony because it is our life‘s song as well.

We are each invited to find the places where our voice can make a difference; where our voice can point to an ever-present God who knit each of us together in our mother’s womb. The psalms introduce us to One who has never slumbered, never missed a step we have taken. We may not be able to convince those who have been particularly damaged in life of our personal faith convictions. Rather than debate and pressure people into accepting our way, we model it through our kindness. Rather than taking the stand to preach our theology at others and expect it to fit their experience, we offer prodigal acceptance. All of these graces were extended on a regular basis by a compassionate and capable staff in the psychiatric hospital where I was privileged to serve.

On the final week of my chaplaincy, I was able to lead a morning group on a unit that includes folks who struggle with addiction. These patients know how to go deep because they have faced their demons and some confess to having been spared from death more times than they can count. They learn to speak their truth in 12-step program meetings. I wondered what I should choose as my last topic after a year of being blessed by their vulnerability. I decided that the lesson on forgiveness always elicits rich sharing. The class members readily acknowledged their need for forgiveness. Some gave specifics for their embarrassing antics for which they carried great shame. Some spoke of attempts made in vulnerable conversations to ask family members for forgiveness. Most of them said it was particularly difficult to forgive themselves. They encouraged each other. They spoke of the community fostered on that locked unit because folks dared to be honest about the fact that they needed forgiveness. As always, they were the wise teachers and I was in their debt.

After the class I realized that forgiveness is a central theme for me. When my license plate fell off my car and was lost the day before the quarantine began, I had an opportunity for a vanity license plate. What I ultimately decided on was this: 4GIVTOO. Our world would be a healthier, more peaceful place if more of us engaged in the courageous conversations of these patient groups. We need greater trust to confess our sin to one another, to admit to our struggles of faith, and assure one another that God is good and has saved us more times than we will ever know. 

We have been forgiven over and over again. Like the fresh morning breeze, each beginning gives us hope for a new day. I don’t need to take the stand in defense of a God who has managed quite well to direct the universe. I show my hubris when I assume that my perspective will be universally appealing. My Christian duty is to listen empathically to those around me, trusting that their perspective will offer me healing even as I do my best to shine Christ’s light into broken places.

I readily forgive because I am forgiven too! Thanks be to God.

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Vine Valuation

My interactive devotion today stemmed from Jesus’ teaching in John 15. I headed out into the wilds of my yard ready to yank, cut, and destroy unwanted growth from my flower garden. This has been the summer of invasive vines. There are two main varietals, one of which is a grapevine. Highly valued in biblical writings, it has become my nemesis. Foolishly, perhaps, I planted two grapevines in my vegetable garden years ago. They have quietly gained momentum and, this summer, climbed to new heights! They are boldly climbing up my fruit trees, inhibiting their growth. They have killed a couple of pin cherry trees near the garden by choking the life out of them. (They’re a weak species and an easy target.) My vision of harvesting healthy bunches of juicy grapes has not been realized. The vines that are weighing down the fence that surrounds my vegetable garden have no grape clusters hanging from them—not one grape is within easy picking distance. When I looked skyward to see the vine that is having a party at the top of an apple tree, I see those grape clusters which are impossible to harvest! I may be imagining it, but I’m pretty sure those vines are smirking at me as I walk around my yard purveying their dominance.

But not today. I covered myself with clothing since a recent spontaneous weeding session resulted in a rash requiring a dose of prednisone. My daughter’s scrubs are my favorite outfit to wear for dirty projects. Instead of a stethoscope, the side pocket holds my phone. I wear a baseball cap that proclaims, “Half Full.” (I’m not so sure about that optimism when confronting these vines!) I have turned old, unmatched socks into arm protection by cutting out finger and thumb holes. They go under my gloves. Boots and socks complete the outfit. With clippers in hand and a tarp for hauling the verdant carnage away, I head to the side yard.

No one looks at that side of the yard. It’s easy for us to ignore it since it faces a big hill and the homes on that side of the house are in the distance. Our neglect of the yard is easy to conceal on that southern exposure. However, I am concerned about our air conditioning unit, which has been a lifesaver many times this summer. I noticed that it was nearly covered with vines, which can’t be healthy for a system whose very function is to inhale air and run it through a cooling system.

I also saw that the same vine had covered a Rose of Sharon bush that didn’t deserve to struggle to bloom in the grip of such an aggressive foe. So I started pulling on vines to find the root. As I jubilantly cut those sturdy stems, I had a pang of guilt. Didn’t Jesus say He was “the true vine”? Should I view this vine positively rather than with murderous zeal? Am I doubly guilty because I am delighting in the notion of doing a follow-up attack with a spray bottle of Round-Up? As I victoriously hauled one tarp-ful of hacked vines after another into the nearby woods, I wondered what could possibly be good about vines!

So I turned to John 15:1-2. “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

So God prunes the vine. What a concept! I planted a couple of grape root balls more than ten years ago and have never pruned them. In fact, I never really paid attention to them since my attentiveness to the things I plant is greatly curtailed by other obligations in my life (namely the fact that I drive off to work each day and tend to a household). I am certain there is great joy among the vines as I head down our driveway each day, giving them the freedom to wrap their tenacious tendrils onto the plants and trees I value! It’s a veritable reproduction rights rally taking full advantage of my absentee gardening style! God prunes the vine, which is life in Christ, so that all growth that doesn’t produce fruit is clipped off. The expectation is that we will bear fruit, not just grow without purpose.

I’ve heard so many stories this past year at the mental health hospital of how folks have latched onto some of my patients, demanding too much of them and giving nothing in return. In groups that I lead, folks confess how guilty they feel that they need to focus on themselves while hospitalized. They have nothing left to give. We explore if it is “selfish”, as they believe, to value themselves enough to say “no” to the unending requests of others. As the tendrils of others choke the life out of them, they have no energy to bear good fruit in their own lives. This lands them, in an exhausted, hopeless heap, on an in-patient psych unit. Slowly, through good medical care and compassionate conversations, life returns and their beautiful, authentic self begins to bloom.

What I can tell you about vines is that they are strong. They put down roots along their journey at ground level. They have tremendous climbing skills and stretch with amazing determination from one branch of a host tree to another. They reproduce with force, much more easily than the plants I have hoped would thrive in my garden! If ignored, they will waste their energy on overtaking whatever plants surround them rather than producing nourishing fruit. A pruned vine responds to the painful process by producing fruit that is of good use to others. Like small children who yearn for discipline, a productive vine needs intentional cultivation.

As I dumped piles of dismembered vines into the woods, I remembered another teaching of Jesus: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The weeds that grew among the sown wheat were allowed to grow together until the wheat was mature enough to survive the violence of weeds being plucked up around them. The instructions to the gardeners were severe: “Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.” I felt less guilty about yanking out vines and tossing them in the woods to die! If something grows, only to leach the life out of their surrounding culture, it rebels against God’s intent for good harvests. Communities rely on the mutual sharing of our gifts so that all needs are met. What I am able to provide with my gifts is different from others and all are needed. Pruning is painful but keeps us honest about how we need to use our personal resources for the common good.

So my AC unit can breathe and the flowers on the Rose of Sharon bush need no longer fear for their lives. The satisfaction I derived from my morning weeding session spared me at least a couple of therapy sessions! And I’m sure that I have undermined the arrogance of prodigal vines wasting their energy on useless climbing! Further uprooting and pruning are assured as the battle for my yard continues!

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It’s a wrap.

Walking back to my car after a day at work, I am tired and gratified. I was the chaplain on duty to lead worship at the psychiatric hospital where I have been working for nearly a year. Worship leadership is different here than in a church building. I travel between locked units, with bulletins and blue tooth speaker in tow. My accompanist for hymn singing is YouTube amplified on a 3” x 3” speaker that fits securely in my pocket. My chaplain badge identifies me as the one who will gather willing patients into the proper room on their unit so that we can attune our hearts to God.

The service I have prepared plays out differently on each unit, depending on how many show up and their level of mental health acuity. Two younger women made up the “congregation” at one of the services, one of whom overshared because of her mania. Her reflections where generously sprinkled with four-letter words for which she apologized halfway through our 45- minute worship window. She explained that she likes to be straightforward with her thoughts. I assured her that I was glad to have her authentic participation. At another service, an older gentleman didn’t want to commit to sitting for the service. He stayed just outside the door, particularly seeming to enjoy the music. I took a bulletin to him which he referenced occasionally. He disappeared without explanation after thirty minutes. A couple of months ago, the staff decided to allow a patient to join the service, something her behavior had prevented her from doing up until that point. Immediately following a responsive call to worship, she grilled me on a cruel God’s justice and how bad things will be for us if we…mess up…our lives.( Her language was a bit more colorful.) After the fourth angry inquiry into my theology on “sinners in the hands of an angry God…”, I suggested kindly that I didn’t wish to use time in corporate worship for theological debate. She wadded up the bulletin, throwing it out as she stormed out of the room. The experiment to include her in groups failed.

It has been a different experience to serve as a chaplain in this setting. The “congregation” continually changes. What inspires on one unit doesn’t work in another. The liturgy and sermon are unpredictably interactive and raw emotions run the gamut from tearful sadness when singing a hymn to fury over broken promises at home. The show must go on. My very first service here, a patient managed to kick their way out to freedom before we could grasp what was happening. Staff were stunned as those windows had not been breached by anyone in more than 40 years. I learned to keep any “equipment” that I carry onto a locked unit small and by my side. I don’t wear dangly earrings that could be yanked or necklaces that could be used to choke. Even my pen, if left on a unit, could be used for harm. While these possibilities are relatively slim, it could happen and I would be the fool for ignoring precautions. After 37 years leading services in congregations, it is safe to say that I have been stretched this past year!

You might think that I dread going into each of these five units on a Sunday. But I don’t! What a privilege it has been for me to bring a Word through the scriptures to folks who are at one of their lowest points in life. (Those who are homeless or who have spent time in jail would argue that those settings could certainly be more confining.) I am moved when I look around the room at those who are mustering the energy to sing the hymns while others wipe tears from their eyes as Alan Jackson sings, “Amazing Grace.” I give God thanks as patients recite the 23rd Psalm by memory, many using the words of the King James version of the Bible.

A couple of weeks ago I led worship on a unit that had several COVID+ patients. Only the healthy residents could attend the service but I still had to wear an N-95 mask, shield, medical gown and plastic gloves. I might as well have been leading a service on the moon! Yet the women who sat with me sang the hymns I had chosen and spoke earnestly of their desire to serve Jesus. I am blessed by the transparency with which these patients speak of their hardships, any one of which could lead to my admission onto one of these units. Our church congregations would do well to mimic the willingness of these patients to share the raw elements of their life that have left them disappointed, angry, or betrayed. I have been surprised so many times when someone who seems particularly psychotic offers to read a scripture and does so beautifully. I was moved as one patient voiced her prayer that those gathered in a circle this Sunday morning would find peace. “We’ve all become so close,” she exclaimed with a smile. She looked around the circle at others who nodded their agreement. These “congregations” may be transient but their sharing is deep. There is no “My life is just fine, thank you” façade. Their prayers are unapologetically from the gut. Jesus is clearly present in the lives of these hospitalized congregants.

I had to set the alarm to get to work on time to begin my sabbath duties. Thanks to coffee and a shower, I felt ready for the day. I played my chosen hymns for today’s service over our sound system so that my husband could hear organ, guitar and voice on surround sound at 7AM. I sang along, even pausing in my kitchen at one point to lift my hands in worship of the One whose glory I seek to carry into weary corners of our world. As I left, my husband reminded me that today would be my last time of serving as a regularly scheduled worship leader. I retired from parish ministry in April and will conclude my Chaplaincy Residency in three weeks. I will not be leading worship at the hospital again. While I may do supply preaching on occasion, I am done leading worship on any kind of a regular basis. My Sunday mornings will be strangely free.

Singing “Amazing Grace” at the last of five services today, I felt a mix of emotions as I reflected on the privilege it has been to craft worship services that have given a variety of congregations an opportunity to attune ourselves—once again—to the work of the Spirit in our lives. One of my scripture passages for this last service was from Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

What a wonderful season it has been for nearly four decades, praising God alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” I wonder what will mark the next season? I choose to trust the One who has guided me faithfully. Walking to my car, I place my badge in my briefcase. For this pastor and chaplain, it’s a wrap!

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“Who will tell me about Jesus?”

Driving south out of Grand Rapids, there’s a billboard the proselytizes a product in bold letters:

Church Cannabis Company: Baptism by Fire!

So, I’m confused. Take the word cannabis out and I get it. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing to those who are alienated from each other. The Holy Spirit has power lead us in directions that we never would choose on our own. The Holy Spirit can bring life out of death, resurrection out of crucifixion. But what does cannabis have to do with the church?? Can a newly legalized substance bring the same kind of Holy Spirit power as baptism in the church can provide? What is truth in this highway  advertisement?

I think of Pilate interviewing Jesus and sneering at him, “What is truth?“ How ironic that he would say that to the One who identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” We continually have to sift through the elements of our culture and our world to understand what is truth and what will fail us.

As Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb, in the dark of morning, she thought she knew the truth about Jesus. She had kept a vigil at the foot of the cross. Most of the disciples were unable to do this. She had seen her Savior die a horrific death. His body had been claimed by two converts to the faith even though it could have cost them their political careers. He was dead and buried and she went to anoint his body to honor Jewish customs. When she saw that the stone was rolled away, suddenly she questioned what the truth was. The disciples, at her beckoning, ran to the tomb to investigate. It says that John saw the emptiness and believed yet we don’t know exactly what it was that he understood as truth.  Mary remained and, looking into the tomb, she saw two angels. She gave no indication of being alarmed. She was caught up in the grief of losing her Savior. It was only when Jesus spoke her name that her clouded vision became crystal clear and she could see Jesus. Within the confines of a dark grave, resurrection triumphed over crucifixion. Since that time, generations across the globe have had to determine what is truth about that morning. We are called to consider what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.

We have this wonderful story from the Book of Acts about Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch was on the court of the queen of Ethiopia. He had traveled to Jerusalem to worship. He was a convert to the Jewish faith and had embarked on a lengthy journey to worship in the Temple. On his way back, being pulled in a chariot, the Rolls-Royce of his day, he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The man was educated. He had access to a library, which was rare indeed. He was trying to understand the truth of the Scripture that he was reading.

Phillip was minding his own business when the Holy Spirit prompted him to approach the chariot. He was the answer to the Ethiopian’s prayers. When the convert to the faith was asking about the suffering servant in Isaiah, Phillip was ready to give his sermon. He preached about Jesus as the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy. Jesus was the lamb that was slain and who now reigned over an eternal kingdom. Even the one who served on a royal court with high honors would not be able to imagine the immensity of that kingdom.  He wondered what was the truth of that scripture. Phillip dropped everything to give interpretation that would answer the foreigner’s questions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected Savior. The man from the royal court asked to be baptized in a body of water they were passing. Phillip obliged and one of the most unlikely candidates for membership in the Early Church was welcomed into the fold  of the Messiah who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.

When I was leading a group discussion on a psychiatric unit recently, there was a man who stormed out, angry at something another class member had said that he perceived to be false. I sought him out afterwards to apologize for any hard feelings. He immediately said he was sorry , admitting that he should have not been so explosive. Then he cried out to me, the chaplain who stopped by his room, “Who will tell me about Jesus?“

The question caught me by surprise. I had gone in to placate someone who was angry about the group dynamics of the class I had led.  Now he was asking for a Sunday school lesson. My job is not to convert but to invite patients into their own understanding of the deepest convictions in their lives. So I spent time with him, getting to know his circumstances. I learned that his mental illness and struggle with addiction had cost him his marriage and custody of his children. He was deeply grieved as a young father.  He was hopeless about triumphing over a mental illness diagnosis that had put his life on a downward spiral. He was raised in a home where he was told that everything was his fault. There was no appreciation for spiritual matters. He spoke to me of the ways that God has been present to him throughout his life. Years earlier, God protected him during a home invasion when he cried out for help. His addiction had brought him near death several times but God had revived him. He wondered why? What was this purpose for which he was being saved? He named these moments of grace when he could hear a directive from God that led him down right paths. He carried with him a worldview shaped by being demeaned in his childhood home and losing his own family because of an illness that he could not control.

 The question he cried out to me became clear when he said that, recently, the Holy Spirit was prompting him to look into the person of Jesus. I was stunned to think that God moved in such a specific manner so as to proselytize this man who was despairing of hope and bereft of joy.  Forty-five minutes into our time together, I began to talk about Jesus at his repeated request: “Who will tell me about Jesus?“

What would you say to someone who has no background in the faith and is crying out for understanding about Jesus? As I started offering Sunday School Lesson 101, I was aware of how unlikely  some of our beliefs are about this man called Jesus. Born of a virgin, hailing from a backwoods town in an insignificant part of the world, being born a Jew (historically a persecuted race), crucified as a despised criminal and dying a public death to intimidate others into obeying the rules in the mighty Roman Empire.

But wait! Death is not the end of the story! Even though he was laid in a tomb with a boulder in front of it, the Holy Spirit (through baptism fire!) brought him back to life. Truth! Resurrection out of death. Can you believe it? We are incredulous even though we have been going to church for years.

There are people in our world who want to know about truth. In our own city there’s an investigation into the truth of the death of a young African man. During Holy Week, video footage was released and, once again, we recoiled in horror and were filled with grief. Local and national news look in on this senseless  death with a question of “What is truth?” A review board investigates the death, but nothing will bring solace to a family who grieves a son.

We are seekers of truth on a daily basis, and we sometimes forget where to turn. We forget our spiritual mooring. This young in-patient’s question, that came from the gut, awakens me to the need to preach my faith in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I am sensitive to delivering the sermon in the manner that is most likely to be heard. Many times, that will not be through words but by example. When I have an opportunity and an invitation to share what I believe, I had better have a response ready. I am called to have my spiritual antennas up to notice the hunger of those around me who are struggling to believe. There are people at every crossroad in our daily life who are searching for truth. Some are sitting in the pews here every Sunday morning. Some are in our neighborhood or serving on community boards with us. Some are the folks who badmouth religion most loudly. Inwardly they are asking, “What is the truth? Who will teach me about Jesus?”

The truth is, we are all continually learning about Jesus. We meet Him in unlikely corners of our world. We see Him at the intersection when a red light gives us ample opportunity to look into the eyes of the man holding the sign. We meet Jesus when our child or grandchild asks to read stories together from their Children’s Bible. We meet Jesus when one family member finally reaches out to another to invite them for Easter supper after a lengthy stalemate in relationship. We meet Jesus on our knees and at the wheel; in our office and walking a dirt road. We meet Jesus in an African father who asks for peaceful protests after his son is gunned down during Holy Week. We meet Jesus when an American friend crosses the border into the Ukraine to fight for the citizens of another country. We meet Jesus when we whisper a prayer for mercy in the depths of a depression. We meet Jesus when we pack our bags to go where we feel led to go. The Truth of Jesus is that endings are often times beginnings and new life begins when we dare to walk into the unknown.

Who will teach others about Jesus? We need to be ready!

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Witnesses to God’s Hesed

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

So….you’re a chaplain?

I’m a chaplain.

Like…. …..for God?

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

Do you have a moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walk with Me

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

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Body Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Between Campsites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lenten Lethargy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Price of Glory

The beatitudes are a sort of Christian resume. They are a familiar passage for us. Also known as the Sermon on the Mount, this is a powerful and controversial teaching of Jesus. He lists the individuals who are blessed because of their particular condition or status in life.  I suspect it was as confusing a list when Jesus preached it as it is for us now. If you were looking to hire someone, would you want someone who says that they are meek or poor in spirit? What does that even mean in a modern culture? Why would Jesus say that “meekness” is a blessed state of life when we would classify it as a detriment? We might laud the efforts of peacemakers but run from that position if someone offered it to us. Who wants to be sent to Israel, Ukraine, or the Minneapolis police department for peacemaking negotiations? Working for peace seems noble but it is risky as well. And what about those who are in mourning? My guess is that they don’t feel blessed to be in that emotional state?

There is no doubt that Jesus inverted the world’s values in lifting up these human circumstances above all others. He did not celebrate those who are wealthy, proud, accomplished, or well-respected by their peers. He didn’t glorify those who organize well or those who foster a sense of teamwork on their projects. Jesus ignored the very characteristics we put on a résumé to make sure that ours rises to the top of the pile.

I visited an elderly woman recently in a care facility. She had asked to meet with a chaplain. Communication was difficult with her. At times, she scrunched up her face and was tearful about her life circumstances. But she also had this beautiful smile that she flashed as we talked. I wondered what would have landed her in this group home, away from family. There were silences when neither of us spoke. Her emotions shifted erratically between broad smiles and tearful moments, with no clear reason for the changes.

About fifteen minutes into our visit, she looked me in the eyes and, with one of her sweet smiles, said, “I love Jesus.“ Her speech was garbled so I repeated it in the form of a question: “You love Jesus?“ She continued to smile and nodded. I smiled back and slowly said “Jesus loves me, this I know.“ She bobbed her head so I continued: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong: they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.” She moved her head to the familiar rhythm of the song. As our time approached for me to leave, I asked if she would like me to close with a prayer. She nodded her approval. I offered a prayer and an “amen.” I felt moved to ask her if she knew the Lord’s prayer. In slow and slurred speech, she started reciting it: “Our Father…” I saw that as an invitation to continue together, so we took our time, saying those ancient words of conversation with God. I left her room, certain that I was the one to receive the blessing from her.

Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those dwelling in care facilities where visits are few and memories grow dim. Blessed are those who mourn the loss of spouse or child. Blessed are those with declining abilities and aching loneliness. Blessed are the peacemakers who labor for peace no matter where they find themselves. These are attributes that may not be on resumes. But these are the very people toward whom we gravitate. Jesus beckons to us with strange words of promise: “Blessed are you who feel the pain of your poverty, your failure, and your weakness, for you will surely find God’s strength and comfort as you acknowledge your need before Him.” (The poverty paradox by Krister Sairsingh)

The paradox of the Gospel is that Jesus promises glory for those who dare to confess their unworthiness!

Paul wrote a letter to the Romans. Our passage today begins with Paul stating that we have been adopted as God’s children. As in our culture, this was a process which meant full inclusion in and rights to family membership. What beautiful words those were for the believers in the Roman church. We find it unimaginable that God claims us as adopted children when we have not petitioned for such exclusive family membership! But the glow of the promise suddenly dims when Paul goes on to say that belonging to Christ means that we will suffer with Him! It sounds a lot like Jesus’ warning to disciple wannabes: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The air hisses out of the party balloon. The ink isn’t yet dry on the adoption papers and we question our commitment. “This is not the family for which I prayed!” We want the privileges without the cost.

A clergy friend of mine wrote about this passage and said that he didn’t mind the notion of cheap grace for his own life. I can picture him smiling as he confessed his struggle with the requirements of discipleship. He offered these words: “I like the idea that there’s much I need not suffer because Jesus already did; I like the idea that God simply chooses to love each one of us and there’s nothing any of us can do to cause God to love us any more or any less; I like taking ‘not by works, but by grace’ as literally as I possibly can and extrapolating it as far as I can.”

As parents, employers, or neighbors to those who are not neighborly, we are warned against offering grace as a cheap commodity. Let’s not reward bad behavior by letting it continue. Punishment is just and sometimes people have to learn a lesson. So why would we suffer? Why would we have to suffer with Jesus if He has already endured the cross? Didn’t He redeem us from our sin through His crucifixion? I thought the cross was a one-and-done penance that sets me free?

When we get to the end of this passage we begin to understand the requirements. We suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with Him.

It’s difficult for me to name any great suffering I’ve experienced because of my faith. In fact, my Christian beliefs have turned into a career that paid my mortgage and my grocery bill, my kids’ college expenses, and a few theological books along the way (I’m discovering my book fanaticism as I pack out my office!). I have had the luxury of processing my beliefs and preaching my theology for more than thirty years to anyone who shows up on a Sunday. What do I know about suffering for the Gospel?

Current statistics from opendoorsusa offer us this glimpse into Christianity around the globe. One in eight Christians worldwide experiences high levels of persecution. 309 million Christians are subjected to high levels of persecution and discrimination. In the past year, 4761 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 50 different countries. 4488 were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in those 50 countries. 4277 churches or Christian buildings were attacked in a year’s time in those 50 countries. The number of Christians killed in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa has risen by 2.7%, year after year. (opendoorsusa.org, 2022)

The paradox of the Gospel is that there is glory for those who speak on behalf of Christ. However, for many, their sacrifice is greater than we can fathom!

What is the practical significance of glory? We read in Romans 8: 6: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” By sending Jesus to deal with sin, God has done what we and the Law could not. We are offered a life completely free of the burdens, sorrows, and ailments of this life. So what does this “glory” look like? It’s not a word we commonly use!

Perhaps it is something like this: As you lay in a hospital bed, day in and day out, with a foggy mind and emotional instability, you smile at your visitor and say, “I love Jesus.” Glory shimmers in that moment!

Is that assurance in the end stage of life worth the suffering? What are you willing to sacrifice to know Jesus in the depth of your soul when nothing else seems solid? Proclaiming the Gospel is costly! The disciples learned that lesson repeatedly and painfully. Jesus suffered in the wilderness and all the way to Gethsemane. The price of His glory increased with each obedient step of His journey.

Perhaps that glory shines out to us in the least likely places.

In 1979, Mayor Jane Byrne of Chicago chose to move into the urban housing development called Cabrini Green. She did this to bring attention to the needs of that impoverished population. While there were some good things that happened in the 25 days that she (allegedly) lived there, it turned into an occupied territory for the residents. Many were frisked, questioned and evicted. She intended to have an apartment there the whole time of her term as mayor but she left after 25 days, favoring her Gold Coast home just eight blocks away.

Marion Stamps was an activist who raised her children in Cabrini Green.  She mopped up the negative impact of Mayor Byrne’s time there. Marion was the on-site prophet and activist, a trusted insider effecting long-term change. Mayor Byrne’s initial surge in popularity disappeared when people saw that the changes were short-lived and she wasn’t willing to live among her impoverished constituents for even one month. The housing area fell into disrepair rather quickly after she moved out. The greatest hope for this neighborhood didn’t come from the top politician in the area. It came from a woman who fought against the violence and despair of the projects to raise her own family of five daughters, all of whom became public servants. What does it look like to effectively and authentically renovate an area where murder happens on a regular basis? Marion wasn’t willing to sit idly by. She had a passion for those around her and sacrificed her time and energy, working against an indifferent ruling class to improve the future of her neighbors.

Can you see the glory shining out from a housing development called Cabrini Green?

We continually learn that Jesus and our culture each expect something very different from us. My clergy friend was brutally honest about his discomfort with this text. Robert wrote, “’Take up your cross’ has always sounded bitter and severe to me. And maybe one day being a follower of Jesus will demand something extremely painful of me. But for now, it seems to be as simple as a trade-off, as simple as letting go of the inconveniences I whine about—parsonage living, congregants who don’t seem to ‘get it,’ conference paperwork—because those, I have to confess, are the things that presently obscure God’s glory for me.”

I wonder what obscures God’s glory for you?

This colleague complained about persistent malaise the last few times he came to our lectionary study group. I missed his insights and candor as we met without him. I was surprised to learn he was hospitalized and, as quickly as I heard that, word spread that he had died—of a cancer they only discovered the final week of his life. Just like that, his life was over and his reflection on challenging Biblical texts was cut short. He was given rest from his wrestling match with the requirements of discipleship. I still grieve his absence.

His final words of reflection on this inversion of the world’s values minister to me still today: “Is the gift of the Holy Spirit something worth suffering for in order to receive it? I think so. Especially if ‘suffering’ is understood simply as what must be relinquished in order to receive…the price of glory, as it were. This doesn’t solve the ‘must’ problem. But it does offer me a more matter of factness about the whole thing. Make your choice, Robert, and know that it means challenges and aggravations, but so what? That’s a small price to pay for glory.”