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Noticing Lazarus

The 16th chapter of Luke focuses on the dangers of wealth. Jesus tells
stories that warn believers of the corrupting allure of cash and property
and assets. Jesus teaches through His parables that unjust distribution
of wealth does not fit within His Gospel. Good News for one cannot mean harm for another.

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Lazarus has the distinct privilege of being the only person ever named
in one of Jesus’ moral tales. Lazarus translates to mean, “God helps.”
Lazarus is dependent on God for survival. In his earthly life, he parks
himself at the gate into a rich man’s compound. This man’s wardrobe is
described to make a point. Purple dye in the ancient Mediterranean
world was a rare commodity. It got its color from a snail that was
indigenous to that part of the world. Purple clothing was a luxury
industry and his outfit would have been the envy of all. The rich man
enjoys the privacy afforded by an early gated community. He has assets
to protect so he pays slaves to build a wall around his house. Lazarus—
and perhaps other indigents—choose him as their best chance at
getting a beggar’s income. Daily Lazarus’ crippled body is heaped up against the entry gate. Stray dogs, despised mongrels in the scriptures, lick his wounds. This main character in Jesus’ story is destitute and demeaned.
As the rich man goes in and out each day, tending to his estate, he
seems not to even notice Lazarus.

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The story abruptly shifts to the afterlife. The rich man, we read, suffers
in Hades, a place of eternal punishment. It conjures up such fearful images
that no one uses that word lightly. At first the man asks Lazarus to serve
him. He still thinks he can run his life as if he’s the King of his castle.
When told that Lazarus cannot cross the great chasm that separates
them, the rich man has a rare altruistic moment and begs that a
warning be sent to his brothers. “Shape up! Things are not as they
seem! What you do on earth matters so crack open that Bible open.
Throw the beggars some coins. Hark up before it’s too late!” The man
who had never even noticed Lazarus has a heart only for his brothers.
Lazarus, known as “God helps” to his loved ones, is finally in good
hands.


We all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor! We contribute money to
agencies that help the Lazarus’ of our world. In a few weeks our congregation will open our doors to families who are reliant upon our care. Through our acts of mercy, God helps homeless families, children who don’t know where they will sleep from one week to the next. Maybe some of us can remember times when our own finances were stretched thin. We
were ashamed, frightened, depressed. Then someone noticed us and,
out of a love for God, helped us.

We all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor. She is the one who is
overlooked, undervalued, abused and treated as a pariah. There are more people named “God helps” than I ever imagined. Jesus told stories about the Realm of God, where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless given shelter and the wounded are healed. In this parable that emphasizes the distance between the rich and the poor, we are challenged to look deep within. We are invited to a new understanding of who is part of our family. They are the ones God helps—through us. They are the ones who are needed to complete the picture of who belongs in Christ’s Church!


This next year is important for our congregation. We have endured such upheaval in the past eighteen months with the siege of COVID. And it’s not over yet! The financial impact of this pandemic is disastrous and widespread. The toll of isolation has led to a dramatic increase in mental illnesses. We worry about the long-term impact on our children. College students sit in their dorm rooms, frightened or forbidden from socializing. School children have learned to avoid touching each other but rejoice that they can at least sit in a classroom together. A backdrop of death has not spared any of us significant loss. We have survived but are still figuring out how to trust that God will lead us out of this depression. We wonder if God will truly help us when so many of our plans had to be abandoned and our hopes have been dashed.

This next year is important for our church family. As I prepare for whatever next chapter God has in store for me, they will look toward the horizon to chart a new course. The good news is that this congregation is strong! When some of our leadership met with a denominational leader last month, she affirmed the many gifts that are so evident in this congregation. We are creative. We are Spirit-filled. We not only survive difficult times but thrive in them. We are multi-generational. We know how to have fun together! We love each other. We serve God together. Each of us adds uniquely to the beauty of the puzzle!


The greatest sadness for me since we left the building on March 15,
2020, is our separation from each other. COVID scattered us. We’re still
living in our homes. But we have greatly changed when we go out and
where. In the past eighteen months our daily rhythms have changed significantly. Getting back to in-person worship with new restrictions is
unappealing to some and feels unsafe to those who are at risk. On Sunday mornings we join together for worship in pews and from our homes. Some have drifted away and others have newly joined. We have been
scattered and we yearn to be together in His love once again.


Our Stewardship Committee has invited our membership to claim their important place in the life of the congregation. Whether they come through our doors now or still worship from home, all are part of the puzzle. Our budget has been reliant on PPP loans for the past two years and those will not be renewed. This is an important year for us as we engage in conversations about who we are and where we are going. It will be a time of claiming our identity as a congregation and finding the next
pastor who will feel as blessed as I have been to minister alongside of
this faithful congregation. I pray that each person will feel moved to continue their support of the ministry that happens out of this sacred space. There is such strength in this church family: strength to change, faith to invite God into that movement and courage to expect transformation.


Though distance still separates many of us, I have no doubt that we share
the conviction that we are called to reach out to the Lazarus’ of our
community. Ours is a generous congregation. They respond with
compassion when a need is presented. Many of us have been
helped in our time of need by members of our church family. I live in a
lovely home now that was, in significant ways, built by this my congregation members after a devastating housefire. I use items on a daily basis that were given to our family in a housewarming shower that replaced the basic necessities we lost. After my surgery for cancer, church friends cared for my family by bringing meals or driving my children places. We have helped each other because we know that God notices the Lazarus’ of this world! Thank God we are strengthened for every task that is set before us because we know that GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!
Forever.

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Sea Legs on Land

I wonder if any of you have been privileged to live on a lake? Some early mornings the lake is still. It perfectly reflects the trees surrounding the shore. Occasionally a fish leaps for joy and breaks the glass surface. Ripples of water radiate out in circles before the calm is restored again. On those peaceful mornings, we can hear lake sounds clearly. Folks out for an early morning of fishing converse in normal voices yet we hear them as if they’re in our bedroom as we pull ourselves out of sleep for another day.

In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and asks Simon to row Him a short distance so that he can teach the early morning crowd about God’s inbreaking love. Simon dutifully agrees and Jesus, from a pulpit of wood on a glassy sea, with mist from the night hanging close, launches into a Sunday School class. No microphone needed.

When Jesus finishes His lesson plan, He directs the owner of the boat to let down his net into the sea. It’s difficult to read Simon’s mood since we can’t hear any tone to his words. But I can almost hear irritation in this fisherman’s voice as he reminds this wandering Teacher that he and his professional fishing partners had spent the night out and caught nothing. So, whatever this guy thought he knew about fishing, Simon knows better.

Even so…Simon obeys. “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

A wooden fishing boat was excavated on the shores of this 18-mile long lake that dates back to the first century. It is 27 feet long and 7 ½ feet wide. When Simon does as Jesus asks, after a fruitless night of fishing, his nets are so full that Simon calls for back-up help from his partners. There are enough fish to fill both expansive boats! Simon is so overwhelmed with the catch that he falls on his knees before the stranger. He confesses his sinfulness to the man he now calls, “Lord.”

The fishing industry was grueling in Jesus’ day. Our fishing ventures are recreational. We pay our bills through other “jobs.” In first century Galilee, powerful Roman landowners snatched up much of the property. So men who lost their family land went into fishing. They gave up their beds to spend the nights in cold, damp, rocking boats. Their perpetual hope was for a catch that would provide for their families. When Simon and his partners pull in this sort of catch, it is like winning the lottery. Their families would be set for years to come! Rather than settle into early retirement, Simon and three others drop everything and follow Jesus. They could have no way of knowing that they would have to keep moving if they wanted to keep up.

The families of these men who left their overflowing nets must consider them as crazy…UNLESS…there is something about this stranger that attracts them. Maybe they recognize that he can offer some sort of security that money cannot. Whether their families understood their commitment or not, Simon and friends leave all that is familiar to follow Jesus.

These are men who have sea legs. Walking on terra firma was the exception for them. After a day in the lake as a child, I remember feeling like I was still in the water when I laid my head on my pillow. Bobbing up and down in water was unusual for me. These men are at home in the sea. They spend each work day with the same companions in boats. There is little interaction with others and no need for polite conversation. These men leave a “sameness” for risk. They give up solitude for evangelistic crowds. They cannot have known then that they would do all that Jesus did and more to benefit and bless simple laborers like themselves.

We fashion our teaching ministry in the Church today on the simple setting of a boat on a lake with folks going about their daily chores. Jesus asks these fisherman to do something they did everyday—but to do it when it seemed like it wasn’t going to produce results. After a night of failure—which the men had learned could happen even when they put their best effort forward—Jesus tells them to put out their nets one more time before going home. In youth group sessions, Sunday school classes for four-year-olds and 80-year-olds, we attune ourselves to the teaching of Jesus and discover that there is abundant living when we do what he asks us to do. We do it not because it looks like we will cash in on something. We do it because there’s something about Jesus that prompts us to trust Him.

This story, like so many others in the Bible, is about God’s abundant provision. The wandering Israelites were sustained by manna and quail in the wilderness. Water flowed freely out of rocks wherever they encamped in the desert. When a poor widow took the prophet Elijah into her home, God made sure that she never ran out of flour and oil. In spite of her poverty, she had a continual supply of bread. Jesus fed a crowd of 4000 people a filling meal with donations of just ten barley loaves and three fish. In this story, an obedient fisherman does what a stranger asks him to do—expecting it to fail. God blesses Simon’s obedience and produces a huge catch that would support Simon’s family as he left them to follow Jesus.

Our stewardship theme for this year is often repeated in the scriptures: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Stewardship is about being grateful to God for everything that we have been given. Good stewardship is a way of life, it’s not just a congregational campaign or a short season. Like Simon, who is renamed Peter by Jesus, we are asked to be obedient even when we’re asked to do something that seems strange or useless. I wonder about our “sea legs.” Where are we most comfortable? When has Christ called you to walk into a situation that makes you feel unsteady? Most often the call comes during an ordinary day when we’re engaged in a routine activity, like it was for Peter. The call to follow Jesus revealed that God’s realm is an active place where our perception of how things work is turned upside down. Jesus’ call to the fishermen didn’t happen in a holy place or during a time of devout prayer. It happened in their stinky boat as they washed their nets to end a fruitless night of work.

Jesus told them they would continue to fish but it would take on a holier purpose. Their teaching would open the flood gates so that all kinds of fish could swim through. This past week we installed an artistic representation of Open Doors in our church yard. These colorful doors have symbols on them that remind them of overlooked groups of people who are often told they matter less than others. As we offer a message of inclusion to our community, we celebrate that Jesus’ invitation to a dozen unlikely candidates for seminary means that all are invited to be part of Christ’s Church. The men who said “yes” to Jesus inaugurated a time of blessing that is still marked by an abundance of spirit and God’s loving provision.

This story from Luke’s Gospel reminds us of the central role of teaching in the Church. Our congregation has deepened our faith through various teaching settings. We talk openly with each other, trusting that our shared insights will be enriching. We present our children with Bibles and guide them through stories in Sunday School. In Vacation Bible School we teach them songs and dance with them as they learn about Jesus. Our youth work hard to raise money to go on mission trips where they serve neighbors who become friends. They lead devotions in their work crews and, as our congregation experienced last week, they sometimes lead us in worship. We continue to sit at Jesus’ feet by the ways we explore our faith in every setting of our church. We’ve certainly witnessed how our commitment to learning has prompted us to try new means of communication and gathering in the past 18 months. Giving up on our programming was never an option when the quarantine mandated that we stay home. Our sea legs were challenged as we learned to have meaningful conversations over zoom or spread out in the sanctuary with masks on! We set up tents to teach our little ones outside. Confirmation and wedding vows were spoken in our parking lot, not our beloved sanctuary! We didn’t know that our asphalt parking lot was holy ground–but it is! Our faith has been strengthened as we committed to stay unified through new ways of being Church!

On our church Facebook page this past week, I asked folks if they had any recent God sightings. Not surprisingly, several did. One member, on a routine phone interview, mentioned the importance of her family and church involvement. The interviewer asked if she would tell him more about why she goes to church and believes in God. He was clearly going off-script! Our church member felt nudged by God to share her faith…so she did! For half an hour the professional interview was set aside while they talked about the faith. He admitted that his health struggles and unanswered prayers had given him doubts. When the interview was ending, she stretched into uncomfortable territory and asked if she could pray for him. The request and her prayer brought him to tears. Sometimes it only takes a phone call to challenge our sea legs!

Another member has stretched by writing prayers on a daily basis and sharing them with our congregation. Her commitment to feed our faith has enriched her as well. One person has felt the powerful presence of God’s Spirit in the holy orchestration of doors closing and opening. One other has seen God’s abundant provision in the care and love with which family and friends surround each other amidst an unusual season of illness and death. She has been reminded through beloved hymns of her childhood that we are all “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Nature teaches us about God’s steadfast love. Dancing in worship under the guidance of our youth reminds us that our call to discipleship is joyful!

During the next few weeks, the Stewardship Committee will invite you to reflect on the crucial place each of you holds in our church family. Like a detailed and beautiful puzzle, if even one piece is missing, it feels incomplete. COVID has forced us to worship and study in uncomfortable new ways. The Gospel gives us sea legs as we realign our priorities. Like the disciples who had to learn to use their sea legs on land, we are urged to be ready to move into foreign territory so that Christ’s invitation can be heard by others. As one commentator on the text notes in a poem, choosing this new ministry territory is not easy but the rewards are great:

We never imagined

how difficult it would be

to follow and not lead

to listen and not talk

to take directions from you.

But here we are

talking too much

listening too little

and leading one another into troubled places.

Call us again

and we will listen this time.

Call us again and we will follow.

And if we should fail you again…

please suffer us to try anew.

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It’s a party!

We launched a new program year at our church yesterday! Last September we were newly in the building after a six month hiatus from in-person worship. We weren’t moving in the sanctuary. We weren’t singing. We were barely breathing! It felt good to be back for a new year feeling somewhat acclimated to the ups and downs of a global pandemic, if that’s possible! One of the lectionary passages for this week was from Matthew 22. I don’t know if I chose it because or in spite of the fact that it ends on a note of weeping and gnashing of teeth! It doesn’t get much more biblical than that! We began a new program year with a parable Jesus told to teach about the relationship between God and God’s people. In the faith, we call this intimate association a covenant. What does it look like to be God’s people? What are the dominant feelings that guide us each day when we set our sights on Jesus? And, in this story, Jesus asks generations of believers, “Who will accept the amazing invitation to be God’s people?

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The setting of this story is a wedding! It’s the king’s son and the king is clearly excited! In fact, if this were made into a high school production, only the king would have any lines. The ruling monarch over all the land sends out an invitation to the select and the chosen, inviting them to celebrate the joyous occasion of his son getting married! Folks seem interested. But the day arrives and when the herald is sent out to tell them, “Now!”, no one seems willing to leave their chores behind. Three times he sends out palace staff to get folks to the party and they even kill those servants! In any country, that is tantamount to declaring war on your leader. An ordinary king of Jesus’ day would have responded to their insolence with swift destruction! Why should a king have to beg society’s elite to come to the Buckingham shindig? His continued appeal emasculates him. One commentator on the text stated that God first seeks out, not wipes out, those who spite God’s gift. I suspect that very few of us continue to give nice gifts to demonstrably unappreciative people!

Here’s a description of how a royal wedding would have played out in Jesus’ time (from the Archaeological Study Bible): “A banquet always included wine drinking…The host provided robes for the guests, which were worn in his honor and as a token of his regard. Guests were welcomed by the host with a kiss and their feet were washed because of the dusty roads. The guest’s head was anointed, as well as sometimes his bear, his feet and his clothing. His head was decorated with garlands. The guests were seated according to their respective rank, their hands were washed and prayers were offered for blessing on the food. Often the meal was enlivened with music, singing and dancing or with riddles. A great banquet sometimes lasted seven days…”

Who would say “no” to a grand fete like this?! As usual, Jesus packed unbelievable elements into His story.

Why do the guests turn down the invitation when the actual day arrived? It’s not that they wanted to commit immoral acts or that they hated the king. They decided to do their chores, to go about their usual routine. They prioritized their God-given labor over time spent in the intimacy of God’s presence. Even the people in ancient Israel needed to be told that there’s a time to clock out and spend quality time with those we love.

The key notion to this story is invitation. Followers of a loving God are called to join the party. Jesus uses the image of a royal party to teach us about the life God has in store for us! It’s not a funeral. It’s not a Sunday School class. Life as a disciple of Jesus is a celebration! To repent and turn toward God is a call to joy! Perhaps, as we reconvene after the freedom of summer and the ongoing uncertainty of a virus, we need to be reminded that God repeatedly extends the invitation to join in the fun of being part of one big family.

After a couple of weeks as a chaplain at a mental health hospital, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a few group sessions in three different units. They are spiritual in nature but accept folks wherever they are at. I first go room-to-room and through the common areas to invite everyone to come. I take note of who attends, participates, and interacts. My observations are important as they round out the picture of who is actively working to get better. Who is saying “yes” to the opportunities given? Who is too tired or depressed to be with others? Staff members know that healing takes place in community and those who refuse to take part in the many offerings for wellness will probably not heal as quickly.

In Jesus’ short story there are two unimaginable actions. First, the favored guests refuse—even violently—to come to the party of the decade. Second, the king invites common folks off the street to come to the table. The guy holding the cardboard sign at the busy intersection is summoned. The ethnic business owner, accustomed to discrimination, is invited to stop sweeping the front stoop of his store and join the gathering. The single mom of three young children is told there’s a limo waiting for her on the other side of the playground, ready to escort the four of them to the best party ever! When the honored guests distinguish themselves through murderous insolence, the riffraff of the city are given a place at the table. Someone watching the round-up from an upper balcony murmurs, “Well, I never!”

Jesus suggested that God is willing to switch to the B Team if the A Team begins to wane. If the starting line up has lost their energy and their desire to win, a good coach will whisk them off the field and replace them with second and third-string players. These underdogs are incredulous and grab at the opportunity! As harsh as this parable sounds at its conclusion, God has the authority to bench those who refuse to answer the invitation to service! The grace and nondiscrimination of the Gospel is on full display in this story that Jesus told in the presence of the religious bigwigs of His day.

So what about the guy who is kicked out, weeping and gnashing his teeth? That’s the part that seems extreme to us. Remember that robes were provided at a royal wedding so that guests could enjoy the formal occasion at no personal expense. They would be expected to have a proper reverence toward the royal family and the event to which they were invited. If they accepted the invitation, they were expected to dress for the occasion. When he is approached by a palace staff member, he is referred to as “friend.” He has no answer when they ask him why he didn’t put on the robe he was given. He has no excuse. He wants the goods of the party without showing the respect due the king. Commentator Henry says that “Believer should often ask themselves what the king asks them: ‘How did I get in here?’ and ‘Am I wearing the wedding garment?’”

What Jesus asks of His followers who were invited to be part of His Good News was a transformed life. He didn’t advocate a “one-and-done” conversion. He knew that we either accept or reject the invitation to a grand and holy occasion with each decision, thought and word. Too often we prioritize our work, leisure activities and relationships over time spent in intentional worship of the One who gave us the gifts we enjoy. Later we may realize that the party has moved on without us and the gathering looks very different than we might have imagined! Jesus knows that His Church will bring unlikely categories of people together, those who regard each other as the “bad” or the undeserving. Weaving this tale in front of the very religious authorities who ultimately get Him killed, Christ promises that His movement will meet up with turmoil and even violence as the “good and the bad” find themselves vying for seats at the same reception. In Jesus’ teaching, the Church is always a minority movement that takes on the giants and false gods of their world. What does it mean for us to understand that our faith is a minority movement? Are there people who can’t be bothered to be part of Church even though they’ve accepted the invitation to join the family? Are there others, perhaps in lockdown units or prisons, who gladly say “yes” to group participation? Are persecuted Christians in far-away lands the ones who most readily share the good news that God loves them very much?

If we accept the invitation to follow Jesus, we are asked to show up with a sense of joyful expectation and to dress for the occasion. When we proudly assert our autonomy, we are clothed with ourselves and not with Christ. Like the baptismal gown parents choose for their small child, we put on Christ with each decision to join His Church–or prioritize other tasks. The invitation is given by a God who earnestly yearns for us to take a place at the table with all the others who have come from every walk of life. It’s a wedding party, not a funeral! So who says “yes” to being God’s people? There’s a place reserved for you!

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Religion that Passes Muster

One of the lectionary passages for this past Sunday is written by James. He is believed to be the brother of Jesus. Imagine for a moment what he has witnessed in his life: His big brother, who was always a bit different from other kids, works in the family business alongside their dad. He never marries, which causes concern for his parents. At age 30 he leaves home to
begin a ministry with twelve other guys that draws crowds of people.
Word begins to circulate that Jesus, James’ big brother, is the Messiah.
Jesus is targeted by the very religious figures James and his family
were taught to respect. Ultimately, the authorities kill him in the most
torturous manner and the man behind the movement dies a criminal’s
death.
Let James’ personal history sink in for just a moment. James would have reasons to wonder if his a dysfunctional family—or if God is at work? The answer becomes clear when Jesus resurrects from the dead and appears to upwards of 500 people at a time. The Holy Spirit fills the fearful disciples with courage and the Church is born. James becomes an active apostle of his brother’s movement. In this letter he writes to early believers who
are persecuted for their strange beliefs. Because they are living in such
a pressure cooker of controversy, they are easily misled by the
surrounding culture. James confronts the anger that is spreading in the
church, offering wise counsel that unifies. He offers more than one
hundred imperatives in this letter, trying to guide the Church with clear
boundaries of moral demarcation.


The two easiest responses to such pressure, which we’ve seen in our own culture this year, are violence or surrender to despair. Amidst human chaos, James assures the believers that the God they serve is unchanging. I think of the first verse of a traditional hymn: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not; as Thou hast been, thou forever wilt
be…” Wondering where they can turn for support, James assures these
earliest Church members that God offers consistent care and guidance.
God instills a sense of purpose for otherwise aimless individuals. He reminds them that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of this text, says it this way: “The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.” God distributes these gifts equally to all believers. The rigid hierarchy of the Roman Empire has no place in the Early Church. This letter has come under fire over the ages
because Jesus is seldom mentioned. But, as we read this exhortation
from Christ’s brother, we find Jesus’ words and Spirit infused into the
writing.


The scattered Church is urged by James to persevere in living moral
lives even in the face of persecution. He doesn’t criticize the anger
among the believers. He challenges them to find constructive uses for it
so that the body of Christ is built up and kept pure. His words are as
relevant to us today as they were to this minority of Christians who
were under fire: Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. This requires great patience that is hard to come by when under fire. He reminds the church members to use their words carefully. Words have the power to build up or tear down. Like vows spoken between lovers, words have power to join us together for life or to destroy a relationship in a moment. We make choices by how we respond to our world. Will we have the discipline to put away wrong behavior and thinking? Will we receive the power of the Spirit? Or will we lash out against our neighbor without thinking? James calls on us to take our emotional and religious lives seriously. Those who are able to do that in the face of persecution become the leaders and, sometimes, the martyrs of a cause. The rules are given to offer safe boundaries in a threatening and changing society.

James urges the believers to be disciplined followers of Jesus who, to His dying moments on the cross, preached forgiveness of enemies. It was crucial that the followers of Jesus have a firm faith. Of necessity they were on the move, spreading the news further and further from home so that the Church could grow. They needed to be able to express their faith in different settings. It was impossible for them to get comfortable because the Spirit kept calling them to new ministry horizons.

This week I begin a new leg on my spiritual journey. I will report to Pine
Rest Christian Mental Health Hospital for my orientation as a chaplain resident. I will shadow other chaplains as they minister to patients whose lives have become unmanageable. There is much I don’t yet know about Pine Rest. What I do know is that it is the fourth largest behavioral health provider in the United States. It offers treatment programs for all ages and addresses different needs of different populations. As a year-long resident, I will go into all the different units, leading worship and group sessions. I will meet with individuals who ask for a chaplain and with those who have no desire to talk with me. Pine Rest is an avowedly Christian organization so I bring my faith with me into each situation. But there will be patients whose faith will be very different from my own and I will respect that. I will interact with many people just once, since patients are checked in and then discharged with some frequency. Some units house people for lengthy periods of time so I may meet with those folks more often. I will be exposed to many psychological diagnoses. I will seldom know if my words and presence have been helpful. After serving in this congregation for twenty-five years, getting to know you through the ups and downs of life, I feel a bit anxious about serving in this new setting. I wonder if my skill set
that has served me well in parish ministry for 36 years will transfer into
this itinerant parish?


As we move out of our comfort zone and into new settings, questions
arise. Who am I? What is my finished work and what is in process?
What are my giftings and what attributes make me who I am? How has
my family shaped me and what do I need to release in order to face
forward? Do I have to make peace with my past so that I can move
ahead unencumbered? Through his letter, James tries to prepare the
earliest followers of Jesus to be ready to serve wherever God leads
them. He names the ordinary elements to daily life that add up to a
lifetime. He reminds us that our words have power, our generosity is
contagious, and the need for patience will always confront us. Archie
Smith writes that such small acts “are the nuts and bolts of everyday
life, holding together the scaffold on which we build community and
the social order.”

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The name of the training I will pursue is Clinical Pastoral Education or
CPE for short. One of the CPE educators offered an image for ministry
that is helpful to me. Rev. Dr. Lisa Taylor stated that our pastoral
identity is like a tipi. Tipis are dwelling places where our life happens.
Our affiliations, like denominational and church ties, influence where
we find ourselves. Tipis are equipped for the journey. They are built
with the assumption of a transient lifestyle. They are durable and easily
assembled. Our sense of calling that leads us to pursue new adventures
strengthens us to switch jobs and still be competent. Tipis are mobile.
They can be relocated and reconstructed easily. Living in a tipi requires
us to be both staked so we are protected but also mobile. How do we
thrive in that sort of split calling?


When we are sent into a new setting, our Tipi is the framework that
shapes our ministry. This isn’t referring just to me as an ordained
pastor. All of us are summoned as Christians to be ready to pack up and
bring our faith to new people at a moment’s notice. Do we limit our faith
expression solely to Sunday mornings? Can we live it out in line at
grocery store or at the school board meeting? Does our tipi support us in the hospital room as doctors poke and prod and don’t always give us the
answers we need? Alistair Campbell said, “Pastoral care is surprisingly
simple. It has one fundamental aim: to help people know love, both as
something to be received and as something to give.”


Exploring the image of the tipi was enlightening to me. I realized that I
carry my ministry in my heart wherever I go because I’ve invited Christ
to dwell within me. Borrowing from Eugene Peterson’s translation of
John’s prologue, “The Word became flesh and moved into the
neighborhood!” Another translation I like states, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.” Jesus established residency with us and travels with us no matter where we go. Having a clear understanding of who Jesus is for us, we will be able to care well for others. It will not matter whether they are receiving in-patient care at Pine Rest or grieving the death of a loved one in our home parish. We listen closely to the stories of others, asking God to help us discern what they are trying to tell us about themselves through these stories. The key to effective pastoral care toward our neighbor is good listening. We talk less and we listen more.


N.T. Wright, in his commentary on James’ letter, praises the author for
getting practical about being a follower of Jesus. He suggests that James’
response would be along these lines: “Follow God in this way. There are
people who need your help; and there’s a messy world that will try to
mess up your life as well. Focus on the first and avoid the second.”

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com


As I experience my own version of the “first day of school” this week, I
feel certain that I can set up camp where God leads me because I have
a strong sense of who I am and whose I am. I will strive to be myself in
this new setting, remembering that my tipi dictates that I am both
staked and mobile. I may not always get that balance right but I’m not
called to be perfect. Like Jesus, I am called to look at my world both
inside out and upside down. Looking from the same vantage point at
every juncture will hamper us from seeing the truth. As we interact
with different people in new settings, we will understand our own
theology better. We continually explore who we are. When we humbly
commit to this sort of self-examination, by God’s grace we find that we
are blessed, in Peterson’s words, with a “religion that passes muster.”

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Sacred Space

What distressing news confronts us each day! As if a surge in COVID cases weren’t worry enough, I saw a report on flight attendants taking courses in self-defense. They want skills to be able to protect themselves against irate passengers. Already this year more than $1 million in fines has been charged to folks who get violent while suspended in space and strapped into airplanes. A drought out west has dried up lakes as heat levels continue to soar. Wildfires rage while courageous firefighters, including a son of our church, work endless hours to contain the flames. Haitians have, once again, been brought to their knees because of a double hit by Mother Nature: a strong earthquake that claimed over 2000 lives followed by a hurricane that relentlessly pounded thousands of newly homeless residents. The images of Afghan residents hanging onto moving airplanes in a desperate attempt to flee their country underscores the chaotic transition of our troops exiting while the Taliban swoops in. One crowded cabin after another is lifting off the ground as Afghan people catch a final glimpse of the land they call home before going aloft. Ironically, once they are off the tarmac, they begin to feel safe. My heart has broken countless times this past week looking in on our turbulent earth and political mayhem. Perhaps you felt a similar sense of helplessness, wondering what sort of a difference we can make in the overwhelming issues that cry out for our attention.

The lectionary readings are taking us through the early kings of Israel. This is the second week that we meet up with Solomon, the third king who is revered for his great wisdom. Chapter 8 gives us a peek into the emotional scene of Solomon dedicating the new Temple that he built to bring glory to God’s name. We skip through this chapter, leaving out certain parts of the prayer. The lectionary committee that put this cycle of readings together wanted us to hear the fifth of seven requests this sage king presented to God. He prayed that people far from Israel would hear of the great God honored in the Jerusalem temple. He prayed that God might hear the prayers even of the foreigners as they approached the temple. If these outsiders could catch just a glimpse of God’s glory, they might also find refuge in the God of the Israelites. As Solomon was swept up in a dedicatory prayer of this beautiful new sanctuary compound, he considered the plight of the refugee.

I called Deb Hoekwater, the Refugee Church Engagement Coordinator for Bethany Christian Services. I asked her if she expected a wave of Afghan refugees to alight in Michigan in the near future. The simple answer is yes. She’s not sure of the timing. The usual referral process for someone to come to our country is two years. She said it is very unusual that thousands of Afghan citizens are being flown out of the country who haven’t been screened. The government is working on a different referral process that can speed up the process. Bethany staff members are fielding many calls from Afghan citizens who have successfully resettled here. They are panic-stricken about the well-being of their families amidst the violence of the past week. They are desperately seeking a means of rescue for their loved ones but finding there is little they can do. Deb and other Bethany workers spend time talking with them over the phone. One man, who has been resettled in the United States for awhile, told her with great excitement that he saw his father’s face on one of the screen shots of an overloaded airplane leaving his homeland. He didn’t know where his father was being taken but took heart in knowing his dad was out of harm’s way and beginning his journey toward freedom. If some of these people make it to Michigan, it will be churches that welcome them “home.

Solomon was thinking of such people while caught up in a conversation with his Maker!

With the completion of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant could be moved from its temporary resting place into a forever home. This symbolized the triumph of the Jews leaving behind a nomadic lifestyle as a nation and becoming truly settled. Their God would now have a home base out of which the faithful could proclaim God’s wonderful works. With great pomp the religious treasures that were central to their itinerant worship life were carefully placed in their new home as sacred relics. The Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting would serve as historical reminders of their years in the wilderness. Lifting his hands heavenward, Solomon gave thanks for God’s faithfulness in establishing a home for the Israelites. He was incredulous that one as great as God would allow a temple to be built in the divine name. God didn’t need the temple but the temple needed God! Solomon prayed that God would hear the prayers lifted up in this holy sanctuary. He begged God to forgive the penitent who turned their faces heavenward. The builder of the Temple was overcome with gratitude that this sacred space provided a place of contact between citizens of heaven and earth. No longer housed in a collapsible tent, the ark was safely lodged within the new Temple walls.

Twenty years ago a retired pastor purchased an abandoned church building in an effort to reinvigorate it. I would see him mowing the lawn of the church grounds in the summer and shoveling a walkway up to the grand sanctuary doors in the winter. His hopes for filling the pews with devoted followers of Jesus never panned out. There’s an odd conflict-of-interest when the pastor trying to grow the church owns the building that houses the congregation! The pastor never attached his name to the building but people learned that it was his piece of real estate. His name was perhaps connected to that space more than the God he sought to serve so it did not survive. Fortunately, another congregation purchased the building when it was sold and it is, indeed, a vibrant community of faith, owned by a whole congregation of believers, who sing praise to God in Grand Rapids.

In his prayer Solomon questioned, almost as an aside, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Solomon confirms that God’s dwelling place is in heaven. But, by giving divine blessing to Solomon’s structure, God gets naming rights. Folks travel from near and far to worship the God of Solomon in a sanctuary whose beauty was legendary.

There’s a funny mention of a piece of furniture in this prayer. The placement of the Ark in the temple was called the “divine footstool.” Here, at last, was the place where God could rest with the chosen people. If you have a building named after you, you will probably want to know what business it houses, right? So, if the temple had God’s name attached to it, Solomon reasoned, God would stop by to rest with the pilgrims. Solomon prayed that God would equally welcome the foreigner to this sacred space as well as someone who could trace their roots back to Father Abraham.

The NIV Application Commentary states this: “Rest was the consequence of Israel’s inheriting the land, the uncompromised fulfillment of all God promised. The rest of God demonstrated that creative activity was complete and that the work of the creator was perfect.” After all that the people had endured (400 years of slavery, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, a battle to claim their own land), the image of the footstool invited the Jews, finally, to rest.

When have you rested from your labors, content that you had completed what God asked of you? We too often forget that God instituted the law of Sabbath as one of the ten commandments: Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Without a holy directive to cease from our labors, God seems to know that we would work ourselves to death. It might not lead to a physical death but we easily lose our way spiritually if we never get off the treadmill. The sabbath was created so that we could put our feet up in the presence of our God, knowing we had done what we could for another week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after the horror of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, wrote this about the command for Sabbath rest: “To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we use no money…on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world’s chief idol…a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for humanity’s progress than the Sabbath?”

A central feature in the replenishment of the Sabbath is time spent in God’s creation. When we live responsibly in our world, we take delight in our home. One of our members has spent the summer painting lakes with reeds and shimmering sunlight. An environmentalist, out for a clean-up day on that lake, floated past Lynn and took interest in what she was painting. The artist was grateful for the commitment of the environmentalist and the environmentalist was captivated by Lynn’s painting. The environmentalist paddled away with a still-wet painting from Lynn. Each felt blessed by the work of the other.

Beautiful images on Facebook capture lakes and trees, wildlife and mountains. These stand in stark contrast to the videos we’ve watched of fleeing Afghans and desperate Haitians. How does God’s startling beauty propel us toward our neighbor? Sometimes we might prefer to go deeper into the woods, becoming hermits in our cottage or the hull of our boat. How do we balance the urgency to respond to crises yet know when to put our feet up, as God does on occasion? Are we able to rest in the assurance that we have done what God asks of us?

Solomon and his people were exhorted to make the name of God great. I wonder if we look for ways to make God’s name great? Have we assured others that God is always near and ever willing to forgive? Have strangers whose lives are quite different from our own experienced God’s mercy through us? Have we prayed for any of the people we saw on our screens this week or did we turn away because it was unsettling? Deb at Bethany urged us to pray for them now. I’d love to see our congregation resettle an Afghan family in the near future. Our first task is to reclaim our hosting responsibilities for homeless families in our sacred space in November. After nearly two years of hiatus, we will once again offer sanctuary to families who rely on our kindness. These are neighbors who are refugees from having their own homes and safe spaces to raise their children. What a privilege it is to shelter them in our church building while they work toward an independent future. Sabbath rest reminds us to put our feet up for a day to replenish our spirits. Only then will we be equipped to joyfully accomplish the work God places before us.

At this ceremonial dedication of the temple, Solomon moves his people from past to glorious present. This is the continuous cycle in our life: shedding old ways so that we can respond appropriately to present needs. Solomon had served as king long enough to recognize his own propensity toward sin so he humbly asked for forgiveness in this dedicatory prayer: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”

Having been refreshed in our sacred space this past Sunday, we continue to face many questions: Who, us? Help them? When shall we do that? And how? In our busy world, we will wrestle with finding the balance between work and rest, weeding our gardens and putting our feet up. The God of Solomon assures us that both service and sabbath are central to a life of faith. The revival we experience in the Sabbath of each week invigorates us to re-enter the world. May our prayers, like that of Solomon, be the fuel to our journey.

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Prayer and Politics

I was drawn to a passage from 1 Kings 3 because of the beautiful prayer that King Solomon offers at the advent of his reign. His prayer for a discerning heart and listening ear is such a refreshment to us when we look at dominant forms of political leadership today. I spent more time than usual on background research for this sermon because preaching politics and religion can raise eyebrows and blood pressure. This story inextricably enjoins those two aspects to our lives.

The heir to the throne prays that God will grant him leadership skills that lead to peace. He seems to grasp that peace is possible only when there is justice for everyone. Solomon demonstrates great humility when he asks for wisdom and not the usual royal perks of wealth and power. Solomon invokes his father‘s name but then expresses his unique desire to serve. He wants to be anointed on his own merits and not simply coast in the afterglow of his father’s reign. His prayer is that he will be able to judge between good and evil, a biblical theme that stretches back to Adam and Eve. His request for a listening heart is remarkable. Our leaders (and we ourselves) would do well to pray for that earnestly. Feeling inexperienced as he steps into this daunting position, Solomon confesses his yearning for self-understanding. If we back up to see how Solomon gets to the top of the heap, we witness something that is common to ancient coronation stories. The way up is bloody. His father, who is known as a valiant warrior, doesn’t hesitate to annihilate other pretenders to the throne. So the ascension to the throne is violent. His very first act is to forge an alliance by marrying a foreign princess. This sounds wise but it paves the way for a future of idolatry and family chaos. She is among the first of 700 wives and 300 concubines. A lust for power distracts Solomon from his professed desire for Godly wisdom!


In his book, Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson comments that Solomon was “born to the purple” and never knew anything but the sheltered, extravagant life of a king’s palace. He wishes to judge his beloved people with wisdom but, over the course of forty years, we see that he lacks the discipline and personal experience to turn this devout prayer into consistent reality. Like the Egyptian pharaohs who built their empire on the backs of the Jewish slaves, Solomon launched an impressive building program. To pay for these, he taxed the empire heavily. As was common in Solomon’s time, most of his labor force was comprised of conquered foreigners. But he also conscripted 30,000 Israelites into hard labor. Solomon‘s mighty temple cost much more than a hefty line-item in the royal budget. His own people sacrificed, sometimes with their lives, to erect this sacred compound for a God who granted the king’s wish for wisdom. Power often corrupts so Solomon struggles with that commitment toward wisdom and a just way of overseeing his people. Few of us would want to face the temptations that come with such an elevated position of authority.

It’s important that we understand what is meant by wisdom in Solomon’s era. The Book of Proverbs, which is attributed to Solomon, states, “The start of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh.” So wisdom was the expression of trust in God and conduct that would bring honor to God. That God granted wisdom to Solomon is seen as affirmation of God’s blessing. Solomon’s wisdom gives him the ability to see individuals for who they are. He doesn’t fall prey to simply categorizing people. The well-known story of two women coming to him showcases his ability to be an impartial judge. One woman argues that the baby is hers and the other states that she is lying. These women are poorly regarded because they are prostitutes. Yet King Solomon never doubts that the real mother will care well for her child. When we go before a judge, we want to know that they will judge the case on its merits. This is essential to a fair judicial system. When Solomon sentences the baby to be sliced in half so that each woman can have a portion of the child, he trusts that the real mother will love her child too much to agree to that. He sees the women at a human level and responds to this complex situation with measured wisdom. The scene plays out as Solomon imagines and the child is returned to the rightful mother. No DNA testing needed!

I asked my congregants how many of them avoid talking about religion with your family. A few hands went up. The more challenging area of conversation is probably politics. When I asked how many of our pilgrims presently feel alienated from a family member or close friend because of political differences everyone raised their hand except for man. (He later told me that peace prevails in his family because they know not to talk politics!) Most of us embrace the same hopes and dreams. But we pledge greater allegiance to our belief system than to the basic humanity and needs of those around us.

The definition of politics in the expansive database called Wikipedia states that “politics is a set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.” It goes on to say that the word “politics” may be used positively but more often carries a negative connotation. Isn’t it sad to think that the area of our lives that describes our social interactions is viewed negatively? Politics occur whenever people gather to make decisions that involve their particular group. I remember being shocked when I learned that two professors at my seminary were embattled in a legal dispute against one another. One alleged harassment by the other. It was an early lesson that politics prevail even in ministry training grounds. There are politics in offices and classrooms, churches and neighborhoods, families and governments.

The National Prayer Breakfast is one of the places in our society where politics and religion overlap. It has been a tangible affirmation of the central role of faith in the life of our country. In 2002, then President of the United States, George W. Bush, offered words to promote healing in our nation. The February prayer breakfast occurred just five months after the 9/11 attacks. These are some of the words he spoke to a nation reeling from the unthinkable:
“Since we met last year, millions of Americans have been led to prayer. They have prayed for comfort in a time of grief: for understanding in a time of anger: for protection in a time of uncertainty. Many, including me, have been on bended knee. The prayers of this nation are part of the good that has come from the evil of September 11, more good than we could ever have predicted. Tragedy has brought forth the courage and the generosity of our people.“

Newly-elected President Biden and other invited guests met for the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast remotely. Video clips from different leaders were shared, one of which came from Andrew Young. Young identifies himself with my denomination (the United Church of Christ) from his earliest years. Because of his status as an ordained pastor and career politician, he has been a long-time participant in the National Prayer Breakfast and in congressional prayer events. He has worked tirelessly to form friendships across the aisle, engaging with those who disagree with him-a lost art. He stated, “Our prayers were always confession. We talked about our needs. We prayed for each other and we became friends.“ Wisdom dictates that our faith deeply impact our politics so that justice is meted out equitably. Young reminds us that “We are commanded, we are advised and we must find a pathway to unity, and that path is the path of forgiveness. America has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.“

Preach it, brother Andrew!

Where there are politics, there are alliances and egos. We slide too easily into an assumption that folks in other belief camps lack rational abilities. We discredit their thinking patterns and look down on them as intellectually and morally inferior. Solomon demonstrates the kind of insight that prompts us to respect others whose viewpoints are different from our own.

In times of stress we reach for support that justifies our worldview. Heather Marie Elkins states, “When an individual or a community perceives its structural integrity to be collapsing under the weight of external threat or inner disintegration, an urgent search for a sustainable narrative begins. The traditions and truths that we have inherited begin to lay out the landscape through which we will have to travel. To be human is above all to have a story. To be holy is to be part of God’s story.“



I had the great privilege and joy of baptizing a sweet baby boy into the faith and family of Jesus Christ last week. Looking at this ancient story, I imagined I could preach a somewhat sanguine sermon about a well-respected king’s prayer for wisdom. But I was drawn into the murky waters of religion and politics co-mingling. So what advice do we offer this little boy so that he understands that his story is God’s story? When his world disappoints him, how do we teach him to navigate the growing pains that surface with these confusing moments? The New Testament tells us that we, as followers of Christ, will often be rejected for our values since we do not belong to this world. His baptism reminds us that we are spiritual beings who only feel at home when we are with our Creator. We are challenged to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus rather than worshiping the world’s values. We are invited through this passage to pray for the hearts of those who hold political power. We pray that God might guide them to feel compassion for others. The biblical wisdom that Solomon requested brings our souls into alignment with God‘s ways because we have a propensity to drift out of spiritual alignment. Thomas Blair writes, “The marks of true wisdom have to do with the acknowledgment of our need, our want, and our emptiness… an open, honest, and long-term quest to be serving and not self-serving. It all goes back to our alignment with God.”

With wisdom comes humility. When we are attentive to the movement of the Spirit, we accept that we will have different opinions about right political actions. We know that there can be no one nation or ruler identified as completely faithful to the gospel. Those who claim most loudly to be the representative of God are often the ones who have strayed into the easy territory of self-righteousness. The more difficult path is clinging to a faith that enables us to peacefully disagree with the political positions of other Christians. Wisdom prevents us from having a regimented political framework that dictates our stances. There may have been times when we favored the leadership of a non-Christian over a professed Christian because they more fully exemplified the gospel Jesus lived out. The minute we think we have a set formula for judging our world, God schools us in wisdom.

Though Solomon shows his full humanity in the course of his forty-year reign, he is lauded as a monarch who had the well-being of his people at heart. The inaugural prayer that he offered reveals a deeply faithful young man raised by a devout father. We would do well to pray as he did: to hear both sides of a story with a discerning mind. We would do well to highly value wisdom as the means by which we more closely align our souls to the will of God. Solomon receives what he does not ask for: wealth, honor and a long life. But what he is remembered for is his great wisdom and the construction of a beautiful temple that brought the faithful into God‘s holy presence. The grace with which he subjected his exalted position to a deep faith is a remarkable legacy into which I baptized a sweet baby boy!

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Alone

Recently I hosted a family gathering of twelve people to send my son off to a new life in LA with love. Foolishly I had decided on fresh green beans for the meal so I dumped the enormous bag of beans onto the island to prepare them for the meal. Knowing I would be stuck there for a good long while, I turned on our kitchen TV to see what might entertain me while I snipped off thousands of stems. I noticed a show on wildlife in the Serengetti, a place where I had taken a safari decades earlier. I decided to “revisit” this remarkable place while occupied in the kitchen.

With the opening scene, I questioned my choice. The documentary opened with a pride of lions stalking an isolated buffalo. Ganging up on the poor creature, they sank their teeth and claws into his back end while the outnumbered animal tried to escape. So much for light-hearted entertainment. The whole show emphasized the reality of jungle life where trying not to become an aggressor’s meal is the necessary preoccupation. I found that I consistently favored the weaker of any two enemies. But that got complicated because sometimes the tide turned and the hunter became the hunted. In the opening chase, the most determined lion who worked hardest for the buffalo supper found herself without her feline companions and the buffalo rallied against her. I have to confess that I took satisfaction seeing her cowering in a tree while the buffalo threw his impressive weight around, searching for her.

Re-runs of Jeopardy will be my future choice.

In a brief passage from 1 Kings, the beloved prophet Elijah is on the run and ends up trembling in a cave. This is strange when you look at the competition he just crushed. On Mount Carmel the man of God invites the prophets of a foreign god, Baal, to prove the strength of their god. He stands on the sidelines of the event, inviting them to go to whatever lengths are needed to catch Baal’s attention. The expectation is that a powerful deity can project fire from heaven to consume their offering. In spite of incantations, self-flagellation and other antics, Baal misses the party. Elijah then orders that gallons of water be poured on his altar. With confidence, he cries out to Yahweh, his people’s God, and shields his face as fire descends from heaven. His teepee of drenched logs instantly becomes a bonfire. 400 prophets of the false god, Baal, are subsequently hunted down and killed that day. The word heard around that impressive campfire is, “The Lord is God. The Lord is God!” Three cheers for Elijah’s successful evangelism!

The murder of her prophets does not go over well for Queen Jezebel. She is so wicked that her name has become a contemporary noun, meaning a shameless or immoral woman. In her fury, she proclaims that she intends to finish off Elijah just as he had ordered the death of the false prophets. The victorious prophet who so confidently called upon his God experiences a reversal of courage and flees for his life. The excitement of the previous scene gives way to an isolated desert where Elijah sits alone with suicidal thoughts. Believing that he is the only person left to defend Yahweh, he seeks shade from a lonesome broom tree while contemplating his fate. Having seen God throw down flames to consume an animal sacrifice, he calls out for God to fry him as well. He is depressed. He is deflated. As he loses all hope, he loses his sense of purpose. In the eerie quiet of the desert, under a solitary tree on a wide-open horizon, God hears the cry of his anointed one: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

Are you surprised to learn that you’re not the only person of faith who’s cried out to God, “I have had enough!”

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the opening scene depicts her in a heap on the floor. She is newly divorced. A rebound relationship has gone sour. She is devastated and alone. She cries out to a God she’s not sure she believes is real. This is the beginning of her healing. Can you think of a time when you, like Elijah, retreated into the wilderness of self-doubt? Have you lived through a period when life lost all color and sleep seemed the only option? What we find surprising in this scene from Elijah’s life is that he had just presided over one of the greatest moments in his career! He makes the prophets of Baal look foolish thereby exalting Yahweh. He calls down fire from heaven and it shows up in force! But, when confronted with the hatred of an evil woman, he fears for his life and runs for cover. The roar of the crowd is silenced and Elijah is left alone and depressed. What good is he to his God now?

Elijah assumes that his life’s work is finished. Remember Job’s friends who suggested that he wouldn’t suffer from his depression if he just had enough faith? Do you recall that they suggested that he must have done something wrong to deserve the death of all his children. “Confess and then everything will be fine,” they advise. They did their best work when they kept silent company with him. This quiet chapter of Elijah’s life reminds us that God redeems the life of those who find themselves in the pit of despair. Whatever circumstances took them down into that dark space, God offers a glimmer of light to begin the journey back to the surface. God shows compassion by sending a meal that gives the deflated prophet enough strength to travel away from the wilderness, out of his depression, and into a life of renewed purpose. He learns an important lesson of the faith: our worth is not defined by courageous acts of obedience or assaults against evil. God is not lounging, waiting to see what we will do in our own strength. It is God’s unconditional love that hydrates Elijah’s parched soul. God’s reassuring presence enables him to hear, once again, the sacred call upon his life.

In a Nazi death camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discovered that the essence of his worth came from God’s presence in that horrific place. God sustained him such that his writings from that last chapter of his life still inspire faith in us today. When we get to the end of our own skill set, God shows up in power. Taking her life in her own hands, Corrie TenBoom felt led to smuggle a Bible into a Nazi internment camp. She knew that each prisoner was routinely searched. An act of defiance like that could bring immediate execution. God showed up in force when the guards didn’t detect the Bible and she was able to use it as a source of inspiration for the women crammed into her squalid living quarters. We may cry out, “I’ve had enough!” God hears that as an invitation to conversation. Just as we witnessed in the story of manna and quail last week, we observe that God provides just enough for the next leg of our journey. When we feel most alone, we discover that God’s companionship is enough.

Enough.

The wilderness is known as a stark setting in which we are most apt to meet God. Monasteries are often established in lonesome places. I spent three days alone on the Isle of Iona at the end of a fabulous European trip. I wanted that breathing room so that I could prayerfully reflect on all that I had experienced. That time remains precious to me. I relished the quiet of my simple cell surrounded by the beauty of Scotland. Eating meals and taking walks alone, I was reminded that my chief companion at any given time is Jesus. Alice Walker writes that “wisdom requests a pause.” When we clear our schedules and shift our gaze heavenward, we meet God. I greet my transition into chaplaincy in the setting of a mental health hospital with some apprehension . But it has become clear to me that this is what God wants for me and from me. So I move forward in faith. I have counseled many of you who have made difficult decisions because you knew that you were doing what God was asking of you. Wisdom requests a pause and, when granted, we discover that we are never alone! God moves us forward.

Jesus provided bread for the multitude who flocked to hear His teaching. They didn’t have to pass a Bible literacy test in order to receive their meal. God’s love generously provides for our every need. It allows us to view our lives in a new light. Even a brush with death can lead to more meaningful living. God uses us to bring hope to others who have lost their way then brings the right people into our lives when we need help. Enough nourishment is given for us to continue the journey.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel aren’t mentioned in this passage but their threat looms over Elijah. I wonder what threats form a backdrop to your day? Is it financial concern, job security, or marital stress? Is it a feeling of inadequacy you’ve carried with you since childhood? Do you beat yourself up for a past decision? Do you feel socially rejected like Elijah, alone even in a crowd? Has depression eclipsed your vision of the joy God intends for you?

The Bible stories we most often remember have grand acts of God defeating enemies and exalting the faithful: waters parting, slingshot slaying a giant, city walls a-tumbling down. But we learn from this low point in the great prophet’s life that God’s greatest desire is to be in relationship with us. In this depressive, suicidal episode that follows great triumph, Elijah discovers he must trust God. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, doubting ourselves and mistrusting our world, we meet a God who wants us to know that we are loved. Thomas Steagald writes, “God is contending for the hearts of the faithful. These battles are not won by plagues or dramatic demonstrations of power—nor as it turns out, by fire, wind, or earthquake—but rather by the ministry of angels, the gift of food, and the still, small voice.”

When you find yourself in the wilderness, listen for the still, small voice. You are not alone. You are loved. There is a better day.

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What is it?

Each summer there is a day when the church fridge cries out to me to be purged of all that is unclean! Even though our food ministries have narrowed greatly this past year, there still is an accumulation of food items that are abandoned in our refrigerator. I saw this jar that was in the very back corner of a middle shelf. Pulling it out, I wondered, “What is it?” Lemon marmalade! What says “church supper” like a jar of lemon marmalade? It appears to be unopened but is, nonetheless, a bit sticky. The label assures me that it was “Cheerfully prepared for Horrocks Market.” When I checked the “best used by” date, it was clearly marked: March of 2017. Hmmm. That means it was sold years before 2017. It also told me that it had hidden in our fridge for years! What is it for? Who brought it in? How could we miss it? So many questions from a jar of specialty jam!

In Exodus 16, we read the familiar story of God sending daily food to the Israelites who are wandering through the wilderness. They are six weeks into their life of freedom from Egyptian captors but the setting is harsh and food is impossible to find for a nation of people. God sends an unknown food staple that is described as a flaky substance, almost as frost, that appears each morning. On the first manna morning, they mutter to each other, “What is it.” The question gives identity to the mystery food item which is named manna, meaning, “What is it?”

Poor Moses and Aaron get more than they bargained for when the food and water supply runs short in the desert. The Israelites grumble and the two brothers at the top of their ad hoc political order are held accountable. Suddenly the refugees look back on their life of slavery as luxuriant. A “Back-to Egypt Committee” forms and quickly gains momentum. In the rough conditions of their freedom, they wish to go back to slavery.

Many times we look in on these spiritual forebears and judge against them for their whining. Perhaps, now that we faced our own wilderness of COVID quarantine, we can be more generous of spirit. Remember the panic that erupted when grocery shelves were emptied of basic food items and bottled water? Remember how many of us gained weight this past year because food offered comfort in that frightening time? When our world is rocked, we become very concerned with where our next meal is coming from!

It’s instructive to see that God responds to this grumbling with compassion. Everyday there is a new supply of this “What is it” foodstuff and water flows freely even out of rocks! There is no need to hoard or overeat. God teaches these struggling believers to trust in divine provision. God teaches them (and us!) that blessings will come to us from the most unlikely circumstances. Their national identity is being reshaped from slave to free. But there’s nothing easy about letting go of a mindset of dependency even on an enslaving master. After all, they have been an enslaved people for 400 years! Slavery becomes an identity as much as it is a despised lived reality. In our world, we are now invited to take off the mask and walk into a sports arena with throngs of fans. But we greet that long-awaited permission with anxiety because we’re still not sure our world is safe. Much as we yearn for certain privileges, we carry with us a recent past history that emphasizes elusive but real threat. Accepting this new gift of freedom is challenging to accept. With the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were given the liberation for which they had fervently prayed. But it didn’t come in the packaging they expected. So they pined away for the familiar life of slavery.

The verb “to complain” that is used in this text means something like “to grumble” or “to express resentment.” The nation of God’s chosen people bring their gripes to Aaron and Moses but they also direct their discontentment toward God! Their gratitude evaporates in the face of hunger and they blame God for their misery when, in fact, God had orchestrated their escape. Instead of getting understandably angry with this throng of ingrates, God promises relief: Bread every morning and meat at night. Water will be ever-replenishing and their needs will be met. God understands the frustration and fears of these people who have forgotten their identity as God’s beloved children. It’s not an easy lesson to learn a new way of life so God takes us by the hand and leads us, step-by-step, into a new day.

God is the provider of every good and perfect gift. I wonder what those gifts are for you? I wonder if you’re able to live a doxological lifestyle when hardship confronts you? While we certainly don’t seek out suffering, our greatest spiritual growth happens in those times of testing. It can be in the isolation of the wilderness that we most nearly experience God’s presence!

Thomas Steagald assures us that God certainly had a plan to provide for the newly-freed nation but their whining against their liberator ruined the party! There is good news for the liberated captives but they can’t hear it. Suffering changes their worldview and they grab onto whatever seems sturdy. Clinging to faith in an unseen God when faced with hungry children and weary elders is a luxury! The Jews look around their makeshift camp and ask God about the promised blessings? Where are they? How can we live in this precarious situation indefinitely? When we are literally on the move each day, not knowing where we will pitch our tent at night, what is the source of our strength that will get us to the promised land? Rein Bos writes, “Life is no longer under the oppression of fear and anxiety but under the ‘regime’ of freedom. The place of shortage, threat, and death is re-described, rearranged, and even recreated by the Lord to a place of abundance, promise, and life. The place that was thought to be a place of death, thirst, and enemies can become the locus of the glory of the Lord; the wilderness turns out to be more brilliant than Egypt.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3)

When did you learn to prefer the new life of the wilderness to the old way of doing things? I talked with some of our young parents at our congregation’s celebration of Vacation Bible School last week. They are running from vacation sites to swim camps to family gatherings and finally back home. They have enough time to wash their clothes and check their mail before heading out again! They confessed to looking back with some yearning to the fearful times of the COVID quarantine when we were mandated to stay put in our houses. A virus cleared our calendars overnight! The quiet home life they experienced when our movement was restricted has taken on an air of “the good ol’ days.” How do we carry the lessons of the pandemic into a world that has already ramped back up to a proverbial treadmill pace? We know that the freedom we’ve experienced this summer from COVID restrictions are celebrated but we wonder what sort of daily pace we want to reclaim. What lessons do we learn from the past that grant us wisdom and balance in the present moment? The Jews are released from their chains but they eke out a living in an inhospitable land. They do not yet have any rules established for how to be a community of faith since the ten commandments have not yet been given. Their focus is on survival. They want to believe that God has a plan for their future but what is it? And when will they get there? Like fidgety children half an hour into a long journey, they cry out, “Are we almost there yet?”

One of the gifts of the global pandemic is that we’ve learned to be adaptable. We have had to sacrifice from our old ways of doing things. We reluctantly accepted the drive-by graduation celebration, the parking lot wedding, or the neighborhood picnic where everyone brings their own food and eats at a distance from  each other. We prefer the grand celebrations of the past, the parties that take months to plan and a paycheck to fund! But in these creative responses to necessary social distancing, God has surprised us with joy! We discover that being together is what really matters, not the food or home décor or whatever other external element we fixated on in the past.

At a wonderful family reunion last weekend, we projected family pictures on an outdoor screen of past gatherings of our clan. My grandmother’s sister was beloved “Aunt Jean” to several generations. There were many pictures of Thanksgiving meals seated around her table. But, to accommodate the large group in her relatively small house, the table she had to use was the ping pong table in her unfinished basement. It was covered with a table cloth and folding chairs surrounded it. The Maytag washer and dryer functioned as a food service station. Anyone over 5’10 inches tall knew to protect their head from exposed pipes when they moved about. We pointed this out to our kids who have been raised in a Martha Stewart world with virtual pages of Pinterest suggestions. What we learned in the wilderness of COVID is that a front porch on a chilly afternoon is a cherished spot to sit with loved ones, masked and bundled, just because we can be together. Joy is always available if we are willing to see it.

In this story we meet the Israelites at a time when their relationship with God was finally deepening. There’s nothing like a crisis to bond folks together. This stage in the life of the Jews is akin to new parents learning to understand the needs of their newborn child. What does this cry mean? Is that gas—or the first smile? What is it? When I arrive at his house, my grandson immediately takes me on a tour of many different items. I find myself encouraging conversation by repeatedly saying, “What is it?” And then I give it a name. It is a red truck. It is a seatbelt. It is a UPS truck (the best possible gift!). We learn about life when we ask God, with an open spirit, “What is it?”

This passage invites us to reflect deeply about our own trust in God and our compassion toward others for whom life is difficult. It reminds us that we need not hoard the gifts God sends our way. About the time that we found every store lacking in TP, our congregation was told that a church member had purchased several cases of the precious commodity that we distributed liberally and at no charge. Our own experiences with scarcity and holy provision ought to have awakened in us a desire to serve those who live on the edge all the time, those whose support systems are weak and contingency plans non-existent. The times when we nervously ask, “What is it?”, God teaches us—again—that our needs will be met and companionship for every part of our journey is assured. In the New Testament Jesus is referred to in several passages as manna. We have met and we worship the One who feeds us and satisfies us in body, mind, and spirit. His answer to our prayers will far exceed our flimsy expectations. Do we believe this?

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Home Boy

The first church both Garrett and I served right out of seminary was in Lombard, Illinois. A western suburb to the Windy City, its claim to fame is lilacs! I have the whiskey bottle to prove it! My mother found a Jim Beam bottle that celebrates the town’s centennial at an antique mall and gave it to me as one of the most unique souvenirs I have of Garrett’s and my first hometown.

Every spring the town cranks up the machinery that culminates in the Lilacia Ball! Every local Rotarian or Lion or business owner makes an appearance. Some young woman blushes with pride to be crowned the Lilacia Queen! Garrett and I were invited one year because I was asked to give the invocation before the meal. Sometimes prayer really is your meal ticket! I looked out over a room of people dressed in their finery, many in varied hues of purple. We found it amusing that the two local funeral homes each had their own table filled with employees. Normally I saw these folks in the somber setting of a graveside service. But at the Lilacia Ball they were drinking and smoking as if there were no tomorrow! Even though it was a suburb of somewhat significant size, it still perceived itself as the small prairie town that it once was. Every town chooses their unique branding and Lombard chose lilacs.

Before Jesus came along, Nazareth was nothing to brag about. A town of 200-400 residents, this boiled down to a couple dozen extended families who shared a total of about ten acres of land. Most were farmers who worked hard for their meager living. As is often the case in rural towns, it clung to conservative values and adhered to traditional Jewish culture. Everyone would have known everyone else in this village that was nestled in the hills some twelve miles from the Sea of Galilee. Take a walk with me as we drop in on a Shabbat service in the Nazareth synagogue. Whenever you go on a tour, you expect to cover some distance. In this story we will wade into a crazy mix of emotions as the hometown folks encounter the One who put them on the map: Jesus of Nazareth.

This past week I worked at one of the home sites on our youth mission trip. We scraped and washed down a mobile home in preparation for a paint job. It’s not gratifying work because things look worse rather than better! In this story that Mark tells, the more we scrape below the surface, the more the ugly attitudes are exposed.

By the time Jesus returns to His hometown to reunite with his family and friends, He is already well-known. He is a known entity! The synagogue ruler, Jairus, recognizes Him while on His opening tour. A blind man named Bartimaeus understands that Jesus is Savior even though he cannot see. Poor people and rich rulers, the lowly and the lofty, recognize who Jesus is. Even the demons cry out His name. But when Jesus stops home, none of His homies recognize Him for who He is.

Boys in religiously conservative Nazareth would have learned how to read. The main purpose for this skill was so that they could read from the scrolls during their worship service. So Jesus steps into a familiar space when He stands in the synagogue to read before the townsfolk. His teaching astounds these folks but also seems to strike a nerve. They move quickly from being captivated to feeling jealous. They remember Him as the carpenter whose quality work is in their homes and barns. They are unable to mesh His past with the man who stands before them: a popular speaker, healer, and religious authority. As they murmur among themselves, they name the other members of Jesus’ family: His mother Mary, His brothers and sisters.  We assume that they are still living in backwoods Nazareth so how did this one get away and become such a smarty pants? Perhaps what most terrified them was the fact that His teaching moved them! They cannot—and will not—see Him in the present tense. Mary’s little boy is frozen in time on His home turf.

When I was growing up, we spent most of our summers on the shores of Lake Michigan at a family cottage. We all had our first jobs in Saugatuck (name any food establishment that dates back 50 years and one of the six of us worked at it!). We hung out with townies on our off hours but then moved on to college and life beyond that small tourist town. As a married mother of four and ordained pastor, I needed to have some dirt delivered to our cottage one summer. A burly guy backed into our yard in a dump truck. When he presented me with the receipt, I thought he looked familiar. When he was a teenager, he had a coarse mop of red hair so he was nicknamed “Brillo.” I asked him if he remembered my friend, Ava. When he remembered who I was by association, he gave a grunt of affirmation: “Anyone who partied with Ava is a friend of mine.” Well, I don’t know that I partied with Ava or Brillo and certainly our lives had gone in significantly different directions. But I noted that I was embraced as one of the old gang! If this whole ministry gig falls through, there’s a place where I still belong!

When Jesus shows up in off-the-beaten-track Nazareth with a band of brothers, He is perhaps remembered by His peers as a home boy. They had played together, studied together, worshiped and grown up together. While their Nazarene lives hadn’t changed much, Jesus’ clearly had! Jack Kingsbury writes, “The motive sparking their question … is unbelief, for they find it incredible that one whose origins they know should be able to do such astounding things.”

Jesus is not just ignored after the scripture reading. He is outright rejected. His boyhood cronies are offended that He should have succeeded so greatly while their lives look much the same. Mark lets us know that Jesus has an obedient faith which the townies lack. How could they miss the arrival of the One who would put their village on the map forevermore? Perhaps we understand. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we cling to what is familiar only to discover that our faith withers on the vine. We refuse to see what we don’t expect to see!

As we continue to hike into this rocky emotional terrain, I’m surprised by something. Mark tells us that Jesus’ power is short circuited by the hard-heartedness of His townies. He is human, after all, and having your home community utterly reject you would be difficult to overcome. Jesus counts on us to work with Him so that mighty acts of healing and renewal can happen. We have the freedom to choose our own belief system. But the regimented faith of the Nazarenes shows us the potentially dire effect of looking past Him so as to keep our worldview intact. We miss the light show when God acts in power. As fireworks of healing illumine the sky around us, we close the blinds more tightly. I suspect we do understand how Jesus’ community could reject Him: they didn’t want to change their window on the world!

After being rejected at home, Jesus pairs up His disciples and sends them off to other villages to try out their ministry bag of tricks. The instructions are few but comprehensive: Wear your walking sandals (they didn’t have Merrell hiking boots!). Don’t take a suitcase or even a change of clothes. You will have to rely on the kindness of strangers. Only take with you a walking stick that will help you cover some ground. Oh, and by the way, it may also be needed to fight off wild animals. Good luck! Have a great trip! Buhbye!

Twenty of our middle and high schoolers headed off on a mission trip this last week. Some years our youth go out of country to serve others. Other years they drive all day to get to their destination, laughing, napping, and littering the rental vehicle with food wrappers. This year, they drove eight miles north to work on the homes of our community members. Unlike the pairs of disciples, they dragged a suitcase or duffel bag into a middle school that was transformed into a dormitory for 200 youth and chaperones. They slept on the floor right next to lots of other sleeping, breathing bodies. They pitted out their fresh clothing on long, sweaty work days. The best meal they had all week were the burgers and watermelon at a church member’s home after an afternoon of swimming and boating. Ask any parent—I would be willing to bet that these kids fell into a deep sleep the moment they got home. Only rest could replenish them from the rigors of leaving home to serve others in the heat of each day.

When we act in faith, we are given a level of authority. With authority comes responsibility. With responsibility comes risk. Jesus sent His guys out after they saw how He endured rejection from those who knew Him best. He wanted them to know that rejection, at some point in the journey, is inevitable. So move on. Go to another town where people will receive you. Don’t even let particles of their DNA cling to your dirty tennis shoes. Jesus warned against a form of spiritual cooties. Shake the dust off your feet and move on down the road! Times a wastin’ so don’t take too long trying to convert the know-it-alls!

So what is asked of these men who must have been terrified as they were sent packing? The same thing that is required of us as we journey through each day. Michael Lindvall writes, “…they need not have polished words…They are simply called to speak the Truth in love, from the heart, in their own words, and never be ashamed.” We are summoned to follow their example and to become evangelists. We must tell our story of faith with words—they don’t have to be eloquent. We offer our story in spite of anxiety or embarrassment, trusting that God will use our testimony for the well-being of others. With faith we are entrusted with authority which leads to responsibility. When we speak of our faith, our risky behavior begins to change the world.

At the mobile home community that was the locus of our mission activity last week, folks couldn’t miss us. Our vans stuck out too far in their narrow streets. Our team members played music and laughed together. Residents ate lunch with their workers and everyone did devotions together. The Spirit moved with a beautiful contagion that was all the more powerful after the viral infection we’ve fought the past fifteen months. One resident drove by the many work sites in his car, smiling out the window as he observed a miracle of change in his neighborhood. As we packed up to leave at the end of the first day, two men in a creaky car drove by and asked if we had trash we needed to dump. We said yes and they took it off our hands. They got caught up in the movement of the Spirit that wafted in with the mission teams and they wanted to do their part. As the neighborhood changed, the townies noticed!

The limited perspectives on Jesus by the people who should have known Him best actually limited His power. Their misunderstanding neutralized Jesus so that His only option was to journey on until they found individuals who would listen with open hearts. That can still be difficult to find today!

These mission trips pack a spiritual wallop into the hearts of our young people. We look forward to hearing from them in the fall when they are back from the adventures of summer. We need to hear their stories and they need to tell them! In their absence, I offer a prayer that was written years ago by a young man at the close of a week long mission trip. Both of his parents suffered from significant mental illnesses and his only sibling lived with debilitating cerebral palsy. His home life was loving but traumatic. A week serving others in Jesus’ name gave him a voice that emerged in the form of this sermonic prayer:

Today we are all one in the body of Jesus Christ and we have gathered together to worship our Father, in Love and in hope for the future. Our Father rests among us, watching and listening. I come to you to speak the word. God is the Master, the Creator and our Savior. We are his children. I ask you today to listen and watch, because now is the time. Jesus has come and cleansed us of all sin. It’s always easy to lose the way, but Jesus will still be there. Fear is quick to knock us off balance, but do not be fooled, because God has given us his perfect Love and it has cast out all fear. Remember your faith when you drive home today. Remember your faith when you speak to your family. God is miraculous. Can we imagine His Majesty? I believe that it takes Love to dream, Courage to believe, Humility to see and Wisdom to be. PEACE BE WITH YOU. AMEN.

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Our Just Deserts

We are given a poignant insight into the heart of God in a narrative from 1 Samuel 8: 4-20. I feel sorry for both Samuel and God in this story. The Israelites see their power structure crumbling. Samuel is their connection to God. A prophet, he serves as God’s mouthpiece. But he’s getting old and his two sons are up to no good. The rule of succession dictates that the father elevate the sons to his prophetic position in his state of decline. The Hebrew people know they are doomed. So they cry out to Samuel, asking him to appoint a King for them. Living by an alternative system of government to the surrounding tribes has been taxing. They want to conform: “Give us a king so that we can be like the other nations.” They want to fit in.  Some things never change from generation to generation.

Samuel feels like a failure with this request. God’s governance over the chosen people was to guide them directly through prophets, not to shape royalty out of regular folks. Samuel doesn’t want a monarchy to be established on his watch. But God assures the weary prophet that the people are not rejecting him. The Israelites are rejecting God. God gave them freedom to choose their way of life. So God invites Samuel to give them what they want. Samuel feels guilt. God is resigned. It’s a tough moment in the history of the Jews.

We hit up against an unlikely paradox in this story. God is omnipotent yet humanity is free. This is a remarkable model for power that few leaders choose. Parents understand it however. When our grown children insist on charting a path of destruction in spite of our best guidance, we shake our heads but stand close by. We brace ourselves for the consequences we believe will inevitably come their way. With every choice, they receive their just deserts. In other words, they get exactly what they deserve. Sometimes the path of rebellion has minimal repercussions. Other times, the carnage is painful to witness. As parents, it grieves us to know that our grown children must have the freedom to make their own mistakes.

In this snapshot into the impatient, insecure Israelites, we notice that God meets us where we are at. Our choices may have long-term consequences but God never abandons us. To this generation of adults crying out for a human ruler, God responds, “I’ll still be with you if you choose a king but here’s what the king may do to you…” God strings together a litany of policies that monarchs use to control their people. Taxes, conscripted military service, greed, forced servanthood will be their just deserts if they replace God with a King. Even the best leaders govern their people through these tactics. In contrast to those policies, God liberates, defends, protects and loves. The two models of governance could not be in greater opposition.

The issue at stake in this passage is how will God’s people choose to be governed? What is the foundational protocol for empowering leaders? Is it bribes? Birthright? Is it a popularity contest or, like Samuel tried, succession? Is it a voting process that become hotly contested for its efficacy? Will we raise up leaders who close their eyes to the injustices surrounding them in order to protect the status quo? Is maintaining the power structure more important than shaping a national ethic of compassion?

On June 1 Pope Francis issued an extensive revision to the laws that guide the Roman Catholic Church. After decades of scandal surrounding abusive priests who were reassigned from one parish to another, even as rumors or accusations of sexual misdoing surfaced, the Pope clarified the fitting and harsh response of ecclesial leaders to these transgressions. This revision will not undo the damage that has driven countless believers away from the church. But it may restore some confidence in an institution that, at times, seemed to protect the hierarchy rather than act justly. When politics and faith collide, can there be authenticity or do we expect leaders to protect other leaders? This story perhaps raises more questions than it answers!

Samuel’s allegiance to God stands in stark contrast to the willingness of the Hebrew people to dethrone God. Samuel comes to God’s defense but his sermon falls on deaf ears. I’ve often felt like I was the defender of God! It’s amazing to me how often folks blame God for their mishaps but never thank God for the many gifts in their lives. Quite often the struggles are born out of human sin. Yet God is blamed. What if we did that with a human relationship? Every time something goes awry, we blame the same person. But we never invest in a loving relationship with them that affirms their gifts to us. How long would that relationship endure? We live in a society that readily abandons faith—and Church—for perceived insults. Yet the Offended haven’t had a conversation with their Maker in years! Often the underlying problem to our social issues is spiritual in nature but we hang it on our favorite scapegoats. As long as we blame our problems on others, especially an amorphous deity, we fail to make peace with the inevitable challenges we face. Sadly, embitterment toward God is rampant in our nation today. We are an increasingly secular country where God doesn’t factor into our daily decision-making. But that doesn’t stop us, avowed atheists included, from pointing the finger at God for the slightest discomfort!

In the New Interpreter’s Bible one commentator offers good insights into this passage from 1 Samuel. He writes, “In this story, the elders and Samuel both suggest dangers that still face us in the modern church. The elders have a legitimate concern for justice, but are willing to erode the authority of God for the sake of stronger centers of human power. Samuel is protective of the integrity of God, but represents a vested interest in the way things have always been done. Chapter 8 offers no simple right-and-wrong way to adjudicate the claims of citizenship and faith. It merely demands an awareness of the interrelated character of these claims.”

I was hoping for a simple explanation!

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I wonder when your faith has led you to establish firm, counter-cultural boundaries? When has your stance gotten you in trouble or made things awkward for you? How does your understanding of citizenship and discipleship interact? When you pull up alongside a disheveled person who is holding a sign inviting donations, do you roll down your window and hand out a couple bills? Or do you write a check to a charitable organization that addresses the root causes of poverty in our city? Or do you hope the light changes soon so you don’t have to avoid making eye contact with a pitiful figure who looms outside your car window? As our reasoning capacities mature over the course of our years, we discover that there are seldom easy answers to our faith crises. Job’s wife offered a solution that still is popular today for those facing hardship: Just curse God and die.

But martyrs have died for the Christian faith over the ages! Why would they do that? What belief system is worth dying for? If you want a good but startling answer, read some of the letters written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. He was a German pastor who worked to bring Hitler’s reign of terror to an end. When this was discovered, he was sent to an internment camp. His letters reflect a beautiful faith that recognizes that he is at the mercy of evil leadership. But God kept company with Bonhoeffer in that death camp. He was killed by firing squad just days before the war ended. When does our faith lead us to say “no” to prevailing attitudes even when it’s costly to us? Political power is usually maintained by force and threat of physical harm. Jesus leads by love. Jesus preaches that we have a choice about how we live each day but reminds us that we can’t serve two masters. Jesus takes on Himself the guilt of others, hoping that the least likable person will encounter God through His willing sacrifice. Do we follow Christ’s example? Or do we keep at a safe distance from our cultural clashes?

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Father Richard Rohr writes about the first spiritual experience he had when he was just five. Alone by the Christmas tree he was overwhelmed with a sense that the world was good, that he was good and that he was part of the good world. He realized that his family didn’t know what he was experiencing and it felt like a good secret to keep. He experienced in that holy encounter that he was chosen and loved and he wanted to keep that to himself. He writes, “…see how my ego was already getting involved? Like the Apostle Paul, I now believe that chosenness is for the sake of letting everybody else know they are chosen, too… Our job is to be who we say we are and who God says we are—carriers of the divine image…I can only imagine how differently our lives, families, and nations would look if we trusted the foundational promise of Christian incarnation. When you can see Christ in all things (including yourself!), you will see and live differently.” (Post from April, 2021 on the Center for Action and Contemplation daily reflection)

While the Israelites cry out for a king who will go to battle for them and make a great name for their nation, Rohr suggests that we are to choose a life of “simplicity, service, generosity, and even powerlessness…” Powerlessness? That doesn’t sell! Can you imagine a candidate running a campaign that boasts those attributes? This seems the very opposite of everything that we would describe as “kingliness.” But it also paints a clear picture of the One we claim to follow. Jesus’ ministry, more than one thousand years after poor Samuel took a stand for God, models the necessity of reaching for God during trials rather than relying on false security. When our community cries out for justice, we often grab onto the nearest promise of safety that has flesh and voice. What we receive for our short-sighted security grab is our just deserts.

Jesus calls out to us, wherever we find ourselves marooned, reminding us that we are not alone. His sovereignty goes against the sort of power most rulers flash in order to impress. But He introduces us to a God who liberates, defends, protects and loves.

Do you want a king to be like the other nations? Or will you spend your life in the shelter of this loving God? The choice is yours.