What does God require?

Last summer I was cooking up enough pork carnitas to feed about 40 people at a family reunion. A by-product of this cooking extravaganza was fat. Through my kitchen window I see a bird feeder so the idea came to me to use the lard as a base for homemade suet. I added some birdseed and peanut butter and slopped the mix into a pan. After a day in the fridge I triumphantly took it out to the feeder. I took great delight in knowing I was giving our feathered friends some substantial calories. I set it on the flat platform of the feeder and went inside, contented that I had done my little part for creation.

My dog is the greatest beneficiary of my avian caretaking. Food scraps inevitably fall to the ground and Hunter, true to his name, is the first to realize that there’s food to be had. I figured the suet was a safe bet since it wouldn’t fall to the ground like bread crumbs. But I was wrong. Hunter had been out for an unusually long time the day after I served up suet in my front yard. I looked out the front door and he licking the ground under the feeder. I seemed to forget that, in the July sun, meat fat would not stay solid. In fact, it had melted and was dripping off the edge of the feeder at a pretty impressive rate. Hunter was all in! As he licked it off the ground, more of it dripped onto his head and back. I had to pull him away from the feast and immediately dump him in the utility sink to suds out the fat. I used Dawn detergent which clean up wildlife after oil spills! The yummy smells of the carnitas ingredients were not nearly as appealing when mixed with dog fur and dish soap. It took about a week before the aroma left him and any place he rested. My very noble efforts at feeding the birds met with complete failure. I had to scoop the remaining lump of suet off the feeder, throw it away, and come up with a better plan for keeping the birds of the air nourished.

Sometimes our finest efforts at using available resources in compassionate ways can be messy and completely miss the mark! Do we give up? Or do we try again?

I wonder what God expects of us? Can we ever be good enough? Does God have a clipboard, grading us on every gesture of kindness and failed attempt at goodness? The prophet, Micah, talks about what it takes to restore and maintain our relationship with God. The list gets absurd: ten thousand rivers of oil and thousands of rams. What if we went to church every week and said grace every night before dinner? What would earn us enough brownie points to win God’s favor?

The passage uses legal language. Micah’s exploration of divine justice was presented as a lawsuit. God proclaimed that the jury would be comprised of those who had been around a long time: the mountains and the hills. They were around when God first made the covenant with the people. They had witnessed the recent misbehavior of the Israelites. The offenses were listed and the verdict hung in the balance.

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, known as an advocate for the oppressed. He was a prophet in the 8th century BC when the situation of the Israelites shifted dramatically. They were such an insignificant segment of the population of the Ancient Near East that foreign rulers ignored them for quite awhile. They prospered and were fruitful and multiplied. But the tide changed when a new king came along who didn’t like the Jews. He defeated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel in 721BC. They were scattered over hundreds of miles and served as slaves. It was during this time that Micah prophesied to them, warning them to be faithful exclusively to God. As the Jews plummeted from prosperity to desperation, they cried out for Divine protection.

I knew a man—let’s call him Bob—who was the legal guardian for an old blind man. Let’s call him Hubert. Bob had written out countless checks for Hubert for 14 years. Hubert had more than a million dollars in his combined accounts. Bob confessed to me his struggle with his thoughts: This guy isn’t going to last too much longer. He could cut me in on a tiny percentage of his will, right? I’ve been a faithful and honest caretaker. It certainly won’t hurt him!

I wonder if we approach our relationship with God like that at times? I’ve been faithful. I’ve helped others. You’ve got a lot to give, God, so what do you say? Then God gives us less than we thought we deserved. The reward is something different from what we expected. We are challenged to be clear about why we give. Do we have pure motives behind our service? Even when we do, selfishness and self-righteousness easily creep in.

Micah provides insight into the nature of God and the way we relate to each other. Some of this minor prophet’s writings answer our most profound questions, particularly those focused on justice. In these verses we pick up on the emotions of God. The Creator of the universe seems hurt and pleads with the beloved people to remember all that has been done for them in the past. Surely if they remember those acts of kindness and the moments of rescue, they would not stray from God’s ways? Gratitude would keep them on the right track, right?

We’ve all cried out to God, “That’s not fair!” We levy accusations that God is not just because our lives have not followed the course we expected. If our co-worker seemed to be given a miraculous cure from disease, why hasn’t that happened for our brother who is such a good Christian? Does God enter into the fray of our human existence, arbitrarily disbursing gifts to some and ignoring others? Or is God happily perched far above the earth, letting us chart our own course? Maybe there is a middle alternative?

Micah was dealing with folks who had sinned egregiously against God. Micah didn’t sidestep the fact that God can get angry. Like any good parent, God could not overlook the Jews blatant disobedience and rejection of a sacred way of life. God responds with tremendous hurt. It’s like the parent of a wayward teenager who cries out, “If you only knew how I’ve sacrificed for you!” Or, an introspective cry from the gut, “What did I do that she would do this to me?”

Does anything suffice to move God to accept us, particularly when we have strayed far from our holy calling? Micah assures us that God doesn’t hang onto that clipboard, downgrading us for each impure thought. God is interested in the way we live our everyday lives. Acts of piety must stem from a motive of love otherwise they are empty. So what does God require of us?

Through the prophet, Micah, God offers three requirements that guide our interaction with each other and our Maker. The first is to act justly. Justice is a dynamic concept, something that people do. We are to work for fairness and equity for all. Our courts are to dole out fair sentences. The second requirement is kindness. The Hebrew word is Hesed which takes at least three of our words to translate it well: love, loyalty, and faithfulness. We are not to serve God out of a sense of duty or fear, any more than we would marry someone for those same reasons. We are to LOVE God and be loyal in our dealings with each other. Finally, we are asked to walk humbly with our God. We submit our will to the will of God. I love how our life pilgrimage is likened to a long walk with our Maker. Micah assures us that God wants our whole lives, not just a lengthy notarized checklist of good deeds. The apostle Paul phrased it like this to the early Christians in Rome: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices…” Each day, we live out our love for God through all we think, do and say. It sounds both simple…and very, very hard.

I think of a family who had two children in high school and one in the eighth grade. Only one of the teens had their license so the parents were constantly shuffling kids from school activities, to sports and lessons. All the while, they kept up with the demands of their careers. Each evening they mapped out the plan for the next day so that everyone could get to their engagements in a timely manner. The strain of the family schedule was so evident that their youngest asked to have a meeting with both parents present. They sat in the living room and the twelve-year old offered a well-rehearsed speech. He told them that he was willing to forego the great privilege of being a part of the community youth choir so that they would have one less taxi request several evenings of each week. He assured them that he would continue to cherish music but didn’t have to be a trained musician. He reminded them that it would also save them some money. The parents managed to keep from smiling. They knew that their son dragged into choir practice each week. But they also knew that he came home humming the songs he rehearsed and thoroughly enjoyed singing in concerts. The motive behind his alleged sacrifice was not, shall we say, pure! The mother politely thanked him for finely arguing his case. They would have to talk about it, she told the boy. But the father spoke up and said he had sufficiently considered the case and the answer was “No.” Their son would continue to sing and his willing sacrifice was not required. The boy’s shoulders sagged as he walked away.

Sacrifice is not difficult when we are grateful for the gifts God has given us. We sacrifice readily when we know that God does not require repayment. Rather than despairing of the debt we owe for the countless blessings we’ve been given, we worship our Creator by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. These are the requirements that gave the Israelites hope in the face of their sin. This is what God requires of us hundreds of years later. Our hearts overflow with joy when we care for those around us. Excited about our spiritual gifts, we serve others with glad hearts. Micah reminds us that God wants us–our whole being. Pure and simple!

Or is it?


Marvelous Confusion

The Gospel of Mark begins at a fast clip. Tom Wright equates John the
Baptist’s arrival to someone storming into your room and screaming
at you to get up NOW! You’re late for work! You’ll miss the bus! Your
flight leaves in an hour. You overslept! Get up! You’re groggy from
having just fallen asleep in the wee hours of the morning, so the human alarm clock resorts to splashing water on your face. NOW you’re awake and planting your feet on the floor for a whirlwind of a day.
In Mark’s succinct gospel, the arrival of John the Baptist replaces the birth story. That scene is not nearly as sanguine as shepherds in a barnyard! I wonder where we are asleep today, in our personal lives, our church, and our community? Are there voices crying out to us to wake from our lethargy and MOVE?
Mark’s gospel is known for its brevity. In that sense, it’s perfectly
tailored for life in 2022. We’ve grown impatient with too much
information on any one subject. We scroll past posts with mild interest.
We send multiple texts to avoid phone conversations. We submit to the rules of brevity each time we tweet—using 280 characters or less. Our
increasingly shortened attention spans love Mark! So fasten your
seatbelts as we jump into the fray on Jesus’ baptism day!
John is introduced as a fringe character. He wore the clothing of a penitent, subsisted on a diet of insects, and set up shop in the austerity of the desert. Though his ministry gave the appearance of a freak show,
throngs of people streamed out to him. Maybe they understood his odd
presentation as a rejection of the present powers in Jerusalem. The
Roman Empire was known for its brutality and John displayed defiance
to cultural norms set by the Jerusalem bigwigs. When Jesus submitted
to be baptized by John, He offered a show of support for this unlikely
revolution happening just off to the side of the city. John’s efforts at paving the way for that very moment in history were fulfilled.
The Jews were known for their ritual baths. They highly valued
cleanliness and required bathing in one of the public settings when they
became ritually impure. Whether they were sick, touched a dead body,
or had a baby, certain natural parts of daily life transmitted spiritual
cooties that could only be removed through yet another ritual bath.
John’s baptism was a one-and-done cleansing. It added the expectation of
honest introspection. Baptism by John was a commitment toward the
kind of confession that Dr. Laura required of anyone courageous
enough to call her on-air counseling booth. Remember how people winced when she saddled those who were trying to blame others for their own messes with rightful responsibility? When Jesus got dunked by John, He had an authentic encounter with God. The shock waves from His counter-cultural movement still reverberate among us today, inviting honest introspection.
Mark described that the heavens were torn open as Jesus arose from the
water. The only other place Mark used this word was when the curtain
in the temple was torn from top to bottom on the day of Jesus’ death.
Both of these moments, at the beginning and ending of His earthly
ministry, were moments when the boundaries between earth and
heaven blurred. The voice of a loving father was heard, a Dad telling his
son that he loves him.
I wonder how many of us heard words like that from our fathers? Our
mothers? For those who never heard that kind of affirmation from your father, what would that do for you if you had heard those words of affirmation regularly? Anything is possible! That kind of parental blessing empowers children to rise out of poverty, to turn handicap into triumph and impossible dreams into reality. Imagine God saying to you every moment since your baptism, “You are my precious child. I love you so very much.” How might that message change you?
With this message from heaven delivered to Jesus, we are left with no
doubt that Jesus was anointed for ministry. Tom Wright reminds us that
this happens in our own lives and those of our church friends: “A good
deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different
reality even when we can’t see it. Sometimes, at decisive and climactic
moments, the curtain is drawn back and we see, or hear, what’s really
going on; but most of the time we walk by faith, not by sight.”
The story moved forward from this baptism with breathtaking
briskness. Being baptized, it turns out, does not inoculate us against
temptation. Jesus, still damp from the Jordan River waters, found
Himself in the wilderness, alone except for the wild beasts. His
ordination was preparation for a very real encounter with the evil of
our fallen world. For forty days Jesus was face-to-face with Satan, the
embodiment of all that is wicked. The big guns were brought out to test
the faith of the Son of God. As if that weren’t terrifying enough, He was
expected to co-exist with ferocious creatures hanging around.
I remember going on a camping safari in Tanzania. We Peace
Corps Volunteers couldn’t afford the price of air-conditioned bus tours with comfy lodges for our nightly rest. Instead, we camped out in the midst of the Serengeti Plain, a sheath of canvas separating us from all things that move. I was awakened in my pup tent in the middle of the night by the earth trembling beneath me. I unzipped the flap to see two elephants storming toward me. My canvas bedroom, I realized, would present no obstacle to such a big creature. Fortunately, the pair changed course before they got too close. But sleep eluded me the rest of the night as I grappled with the reality that I was in their territory and vulnerable
indeed. Jesus dwelt alongside of these creatures and lived to tell of it. In
His ministry, He would be the wild One who refused to be tamed by the
conventional religion of His day. The final note of the story was an
assurance that the angels of God took care of Him. In Jesus’ baptism
and wilderness trial, we are reminded that we worship a God who
completely understands us in both our times of triumph and
The final episode of this three-part short story is the commencement of
Jesus’ preaching ministry. He went back to His home territory of Galilee
where He would be known as Joseph’s boy. He learned, before He
preached His first sermon, that His relative, John, had been arrested and imprisoned. John’s wild ways caught up with him and Jesus had painful proof that His ministry had high stakes. His people had waited a long time for the Messiah to appear. David’s kingdom thrived one thousand years earlier and Jews had been watching for a Messiah ever since. There
had been 400 years with no communication from God before Jesus
showed up. So Jesus preached a concise message: Repent! This could be
translated as an invitation to turn your brain around inside your head
so that you are looking in a different direction! Through our repentance
we are urged to participate in the new age He inaugurated and to turn
away from the voices that tempt us to travel a different path. As baptized
followers of Jesus, we can expect to be lured off course in spite of our
best efforts.
My dear Julian of Norwich, who was born in 1342, was given sixteen
visions in a near-death experience. She offers these words of wisdom
from one of them: “Our life in this world consists of a wondrous
mixture of good and bad. We contain within us both our risen Lord
Jesus Christ, as well as the misery and woe of Adam’s sin. Protected by
Christ, although dying, we are touched by his grace and raised to hope
of salvation. Afflicted by Adam’s fall, as well as our own sinfulness and
woe, we feel so benighted and blinded that we can scarcely find any
comfort. And our God opens the eye of our understanding so that we
might see, sometimes more, sometimes less, according to the ability
God gives us to receive it. Now we are raised up to one, now allowed to
fall to the other. And this fluctuation is so confusing that we hardly
know where we stand…But what a marvelous confusion! And it
continues throughout our life. But God wants us to trust that he is
always with us.”
I don’t know how many of us would refer to the challenges of
discernment as “marvelous confusion.” I have assured countless
confused parishioners over the course of 35 years that discernment is
difficult! Most times we are given just enough guidance to move
toward one decision. We usually don’t get confirmation of our choice until
later. As baptized believers, we are urged to immerse ourselves in
Jesus’ teaching, trusting in God’s Word, rather than trying to buy a fail-
proof insurance package for our life to flow forward perfectly. We wrestle with how to live within the power structures of our world while still being faithful Christians. I can assure you that I’ve never thought to describe that angst as “marvelous confusion”!
Maybe we need to be reminded that Jesus looked nothing like the
Messiah the Jews expected. His style of leadership promised failure.
Mark had a special interest in the “Kingdom of God”, which he mentioned fourteen times in his gospel. What we witness, from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is that His values don’t mesh with the dominant culture…then or now in this newly-arrived kingdom!
Marilyn McCord Adams writes, “..divine vocation immediately thrusts
us into liminal space. Unless we are willing to let old identities dissolve
and allow ourselves to be reshaped into crucifixion-resurrection
disciples, our sense of divine vocation is fraught with demonic
potential.” The disciples don’t understand this until they cower before the cross. That’s when all their hopes and understanding of Jesus “crash and burn.”
Maybe we could describe the state of the disciples, as Jesus hung on
the cross, as “marvelous confusion?” That scene can be interpreted as
marvelous only because the cross didn’t claim Him. Marvelous because
death led to eternal life. Marvelous because God’s love triumphed over
forces of evil and a gift was given to every person who ever lived.
Jesus inaugurated His ministry with a proclamation of Good News. I
wonder what that might be for you as you stand just a couple of weeks
into a new year? I wonder what the Good News might be for the
communities in which we live? our church in a time of transition? Do we dare hope for Good News to emerge for our nation? For our world that is literally sick and tired? I wonder if we might be living in a time of “marvelous confusion”?


A Developing Image

Remember the miraculous technology of Polaroid camera? You aimed, shot and a film panel emerged from the underside of the camera. The intrigue was that it was amorphous at first. Then a very grainy image began to appear. We watched with fascination to see the image we captured. It was instant gratification instead of having to finish with a roll of film, remove it from the camera, drop it off to a film processor and then wait two weeks for it to be ready for pick up. A polaroid allowed us to watch the development of an image before our very eyes.

At Christmas we begin to recognize Jesus in the grainy Advent image as the answer to our prayer, “Lord Jesus, come!” or, in the original Greek, “Maranatha!” In the past four weeks we have heard in the Advent scriptures that we were to be alert, awake and attentive to God’s inbreaking movement. We have sought to empty ourselves of our surface wishes, trusting that God is ready to give us the deepest desires of our hearts. This Advent hope calls for us to open a wide-angle lens on our surroundings so that we don’t miss the subtle messages of God’s presence that are easily eclipsed by our own chaos. Just as we peered at a polaroid picture, newly emerged from the darkness of the camera, hope allows us to live without a full understanding of how God’s purposes are being fulfilled.

Walter Brueggemann writes, “…hope is the conviction, against a great deal of data, that God is tenacious and persistent in overcoming the deathliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace. Christians find compelling evidence, in the story of Jesus, that Jesus, with great persistence and great vulnerability, everywhere he went, turned the enmity of society toward a new possibility, turned the sadness of the world toward joy, introduced a new regime where the dead are raised, the lost are found, and the displaced are brought home again.”

We just completed a study of Craig Barnes book, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls. He observes that our North American culture has become increasingly nomadic. No longer staying for generations on the family farm, we move between cities, houses, jobs and relationships. We focus on material goods to satisfy our spiritual yearning. No matter what we acquire, we are continually disappointed.

I spoke with a 30-something year old man recently who was depressed because he worked at a well-paying but meaningless job. It didn’t use his talents or education. His job carried the benefits so there was pressure to keep working there indefinitely to ensure good medical coverage for him and his wife. She wanted him to seek help for his depression but was anxious at the thought of him going in search of a new position that would be fulfilling for him. I sat with him as a spiritual counselor and he asked if I knew of any good employment opportunities. I was not there to serve as a human job fair. I was there to assure him that God is near and trustworthy. Through his tears and his request for prayer at the end of our conversation, he recognized that his deepest desire was to be known and loved by God. Searching for anything else left him feeling adrift and empty.

Barnes writes, “From the perspective of contemporary nomads, every night is just another night of exhaustion from serving Caesar, Quirinius, and Herod. It’s just another ordinary year under the tyrants of boring jobs, broken hearts, and the inability to find a place where they can finally get a little peace on earth. But from the perspective of heaven there was high drama going on that silent night long ago that had the capacity to change all our nights and days. That’s what happens today: the Son of God is born again and again into the hearts of the homeless, which means divinity has made its home with those who are just quietly wandering through the dark.”

Our human tendency is to look for contentment from the superficial aspects to our life. We try to put down roots in that place, with those things, in that relationship, as if it will take care of our needs forever. But Jesus’ birth story reminds us that, to be a Christian means to be on the move. Mary and Joseph were not at home when she gave birth. The shepherds were out in their fields, away from their beds. The magi traveled for over a year to find the newborn King. Those who were entrenched in their palaces and positions of power—Caesar, Quirinius, and the innkeeper—missed the birth. Mary and Joseph had to flee for their lives when Herod issued an edict to kill all the baby boys to snuff out any threat of a king. Jesus’ ministry was one of itinerant evangelism. He healed people in the towns to which He traveled. He took on the religious authorities who set up shop in the Temple as if it were their home and not a sanctuary to worship God. He traveled from Galilee to Samaria to Jerusalem, with no place to lay His head because serving God means being on the move—not for a bigger house or better job, but in order to more fully serve the One who broke into our world in the form of a newborn child.

There is movement in Christ’s arrival. Those entrusted with the Good News of Jesus were not at home. Very little was still in spite of the lyrics to our carols. As the picture of the delivery of the young messiah comes more fully into focus, the polaroid becomes a still shot for a moment—as Mary and Joseph, in a crude place of refuge, hold this baby boy who holds their future. There is so much that is unsettling in this story but, for one night, there is peace as Jesus first opens His eyes to gaze at those entrusted with His care.

A photograph, no matter how perfectly it captures a moment, is quickly dated. We look back on our wedding pictures and smile at the style of our tuxedo, the hairstyle that bears the mark of that era. We see loved ones posing with us in those images who are no longer with us. We recognize an innocence in our relationship that matures, of necessity, through the deep joys and inevitable trials of life. No matter how hard we try to settle in a permanent place, we are always in flux. We discover that meaning is not found in a particular place, no matter how magnificent. We discover that, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, our lives are rich.

My dad was an Air Force chaplain who was assigned to a new base about every four years. People assume that it was difficult for our family to be on the move, continually forging new relationships. But my parents made sure that our primary need for community was met in the context of a family of six children and two loving parents. Wherever we moved, we immediately became part of a faith community. We learned about Jesus in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School through the tender leadership of teachers and preachers. My parents developed deep and lasting relationships in each of the place to which they were sent because, in those human relationships, they looked for something greater than themselves. They worshiped together and found ways to be the Body of Christ, whether they were stationed at the Air Force Academy in all its grandeur or in a converted parachute hanger that served as the base chapel in Misawa, Japan! Wherever we lived, we connected deeply to other Christians who also knew that their residence was temporary but the Christian friendships had the power to travel a lifetime.

5 things you may not know about the Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel •  United States Air Force Academy

Even if we worship in the same sanctuary for our whole lives, as some of you here have done, we know that we can never settle down as a congregation. As followers of Jesus, whose movement was initially called “the Way”, we are continually alert to new claims on our time, talent and treasure. We know that we can’t keep doing things the same way because time and the culture outside these walls doesn’t stand still. The past two years have certainly underscored to Christ’s Church that we need to be creative about how we live safely and responsibly as disciples of Jesus. COVID has forced us to be on the move, flexible in our planning and generous in our attitudes toward each other. Some churches that were too settled in their earthly placement have closed. Some believers, who weren’t willing to adapt to new forms of worship, have drifted from the faith. The temptation to look for answers in the concrete world around us is ever-present. We are so easily distracted by all that glitters and is gold. At Christmas, we look in on a miracle that assures us that God has heard our cry: “Maranatha! Lord Jesus, come!” As the carol affirms, “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Maranatha is not a desperate cry but a powerful affirmation of hope in our troubled world. Jesus meets us where we are and leads us to the people and places where we can best serve.

Maybe it helps to remember that the Israelites, for forty long years, carried a mobile sanctuary through their wilderness roaming. It was called a tabernacle. They didn’t know where they would lay their heads from one night to the next but they knew that they were called to claim holiness at every stop along the way. Paul and other early church evangelists were called “apostles”, those who are “sent out.” They were not allowed in the Greek temples nor in Jewish synagogues. They were religious rejects so Paul taught the earliest disciples that they were “in Christ.” The household of God is in constant flux but we understand that there is a holiness to our journey. We create a hospitable home wherever we are so that people will meet Christ in us. Though the picture has not come into full focus, we radiate the light of the Christ Child to those who have spent years wandering in the dark. The good news at Christmas is that we are assured that Christ can be found in all the places and circumstances of our journey. Our joy, that we share with others, is found in the glimpses we have of Him along the way. That is the light that will always lead us home until the picture is fully developed and, one day, we meet Him face to face! In the meantime we pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”














Mary might have been named after Moses’ sister, Miriam. Miriam is the Hebrew form of Mary. A devout Jewish family would be proud to name their daughter after such an important female figure in the faith. Miriam is credited with shaping a legacy of gratitude for her people. After God parted the waters for the Hebrew slaves to escape from the Egyptians, they found themselves safe and free on the opposite shore of the Red Sea. Their captors drowned in the waters that had momentarily opened to produce dry ground for the Jews. Astonished, they must have jumped for joy that God saw fit to liberate them. Amidst the yelling and leaping and hugging, Miriam understood who needed to be thanked. Before they moved into their new life of freedom, she sang her song, one of the first praise songs in the Old Testament. In Exodus 15 we read, “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’” She danced her way through a song of gratitude to a God who rescued them.

Mark Hillmer writes, “Without that praise elicited by Miriam, Israel may well have gone the silent ways of the literature-less, liturgy-less, and history-less Philistines and Syrians whom God also ‘brought up’ at the end of the Late Bronze period. Thanks to Miriam, God’s chosen people Israel took their significant place in human history. Her call to praise founded Israel on the rock of thanksgiving. Because of her, Israel stopped to give God the glory, a task that became uniquely Israel’s.”

Years later Hannah prayed to God that she might be able to have a child. A year later, she held a boy named Samuel in her arms. When the child was weaned, Hannah dedicated him to the service of the Lord, entrusting him to an old priest named Eli. Before departing the temple, she sang a song of praise to the God who gave her this son who would grow up to anoint the first Israelite kings into service: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God…” Hannah learned from Miriam the necessity of praising God before moving on with the miracle.

So Mary sang her magnificat as part of a lineage of women who knew to pause in a moment of triumph. They had been taught to give God the glory when a gift appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

How does God turn the world order on its head, exalting the meek and bringing down the mighty? By moving in the hearts of the marginalized. People looking in on their simple lives would find nothing worthy of celebration. But Miriam, Hannah, and Mary modeled worship at its best with their heartfelt songs of praise to the God who turned their mourning to dancing. Martin Luther acknowledged the power of Mary’s song when he wrote of “the hiddenness of God in the lowliness of Mary.”

God is the subject of the impressive array of verbs used in her song. God has done great things, extended mercy, performed mighty deeds, scattered the proud, brought down rulers, lifted up the humble, filled the hungry with good things… Mary’s Magnificat tells the story of a God who loves her and her people. This God has a distinctive way of ruling that exalts the lowly and humbles the lofty. Mary sang of a reversal of a system that had oppressed the poor for generations. When God is at work, the world radiates a holy light!

God’s salvation of the world was announced in the meeting of two women who could be easily overlooked. Elizabeth was so old that she might have been regarded as “no longer a woman.” Mary was so young that she might have been “not yet a woman.” They are both shocked by their unexpected pregnancy yet each embraces the truth that nothing is impossible when God is at work! These two share a dream that one day the promises of God, spoken through the prophets, would come true. God would have to win a victory over those in thrones and chariots. Elizabeth and Mary lived in the jurisdiction of Herod the Great whose renowned cruelty received backing from the Roman army. How could anything of importance happen without his knowledge or approval? Yet these two related women met in the power of the Spirit. A baby leapt in the womb. Mary felt her world shift as Elizabeth spoke prophecy about her child. God took the initiative and is the hidden hero in the narrative.

No sooner than their initial greeting was exchanged and Mary began to sing. She sang of God’s love for her and a world of struggling nobodies. Her melody exuded hope that the power structures that used good people for personal gain would be overturned. Her pure voice broke the darkness as she magnified God for choosing her for such a holy task. Though her life was threatened by this illegitimate pregnancy, Mary expressed joy. Not because she was getting what she wanted. She rejoiced because she was in God’s holy presence so she could trust her future, no matter how unconventional. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It is there, in that wilderness, in that empty-handed, I-give-up surrender that joy is most likely to occur. Don’t ask me why. It just does. And that is how you know God is present—because no one else knows how to make life out of death. No one else knows how to come into a dark room and turn on all the lights, surprising everyone inside with the last thing any of them ever expected: pure, unkillable joy.”

Isn’t that the surprise element in many of our favorite Christmas stories? Scrooge couldn’t take the joy from Bob Cratchett and his family because they knew that love is the best gift of the season. Mr. Potter wasn’t able to ruin George Bailey’s business because the Bailey family had lovingly served their community for decades. Those same neighbors in small-town USA sacrificed from their meager means to restore hope to George and his family. And a hard-working angel earns his wings! Even after the Grinch made off with the treats and toys in every single home, the Whos in Whoville gathered in the city square on Christmas morning. They sang a song welcoming the holy occasion. Their pure joy wrought a miracle in the Grinch’s chest: his undersized heart grew three sizes that day! Caught up in an unfamiliar feeling of love, he returned the goods to a people who easily forgave him.

Finally, we think of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Charles Schulz was asked and willing to craft a story that would be televised in American homes in 1965. But he insisted that the true story of Christmas needed to be told. Otherwise, he stated, “Why bother doing it?” A project backed by the mega-corporation, Coca-Cola, they never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages in this made-for-TV special. Even though poor Charlie Brown selected a pathetic tree for the pageant, Linus redeemed his failure with the assurance of what Christmas is really all about. A young boy’s voice filled thousands of living rooms in what the producer called, “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.” Forgetting their disappointment with Charlie Brown, all was forgiven as Linus recited from Luke 2: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

With the focus back where it belongs, Charlie Brown’s friends forgave him. They were able to see the potential in his modest tree. They broke into singing around a glittering tree, their joy unmistakable.

Our favorite holiday movies reflect the theme that joy is available for those who understand the true meaning for the season. The joy that Mary and Elizabeth shared is not contingent on circumstances. It is deeper than happiness, more lasting than LOL. It is unmatched by even the best present or a table full of your favorite people. When God is the mover and shaker behind our holidays and our year, bursting into a song of praise ought not to surprise us! When we encounter God, no one can keep us from rejoicing!

That may seem like a tall tale given the chaos in our world right now. How dare we smile when bigotry continues to limit potential and hate talk fuels angry diatribes on line and in families. As natural disasters wreak havoc and wars leave children orphaned, isn’t it irreverent to sing God’s praises? As a virus knocks us down, claiming lives and impairing futures, where do we discern our Creator’s work?

When has God broken through your hardship and filled you with joy? When have you discovered that God’s plans for your life are better than anything you could ever devise? When has the God of Jesus Christ turned your world on its head, standing up for the needs of the lowly? Rescuing you from a mess of your own making? Letting you know that all is well even if it seems like all is lost? Miriam, Hannah and Mary remind us of our spiritual heritage. We are part of a long lineage of folks whose impulse is to praise our Maker in all circumstances. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us of this inheritance through her words: “The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room.”

This week we welcome Jesus into our world once again. Mary’s little boy was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He wasn’t the King His people expected but He gave them much more than they ever would have requested. Whatever your circumstances, no matter your past, Jesus will transform your life. His promise to His disciples still gives us hope: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22)


Greetings, Favored One

My next guest needs no introduction. We met Gabriel about six months ago in the Jerusalem temple when old man Zechariah, feeling his aches and pains, climbed the stairs to the incense altar. He had a startling vision. Gabriel, in all his glory, turned the priest’s allotted time of duty into an earth-shattering revelation! The angel told him some pretty crazy stuff, so outrageous that the respectable man of God questioned this holy messenger. “Your elderly wife is going to have a son and you are to give him the name John.”

Casting doubt on the message of God’s emissary can carry a stiff penalty. For his disbelief (you could hardly blame the old guy), Zechariah was muted. No voice. No way to tell of this remarkable experience. But his brush with angel wings left its mark on the cleric. As he left the temple, wide-eyed and radiant, folks knew he’d had an encounter with the living God while serving in the sanctuary. Zechariah went home and had several months of quiet to reflect on the experience. Everything Gabriel said came true! When the child was born, his voice was restored. The priest’s doubts melted away as he held his baby boy in his old man arms. “We shall name him John.”

Today we meet Gabriel once again! He’s on the move for God, this time visiting a young woman. If delivering news of a pregnancy for an old woman was difficult, this time his message was more absurd. As he floated into view, he praised the bride-to-be with a blessing from God: “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” His words of blessing were not enough to allay her alarm. He moved quickly into words of reassurance that he knew she needed: “Do not be afraid…”

It can be frightening to be visited by an angel!

When has God shown up and offered you reassurance?

A woman was leaving an AA meeting. There weren’t many secrets in small towns and her struggle was practically public knowledge. She often felt on the periphery of community life, sideways glances coming her way in the local diner. At the bar, she fit in. But her life needed a reboot. She attended meeting after meeting, wondering if it would help. She had no other choice but to change course. Leaving a meeting one dark, winter evening, she felt led to take a different way home. She said it seemed as if she was no longer the one at the wheel. She was frightened but obedient. As an unseen force served as her GPS, she found herself approaching a church. She had never been much of one for organized religion. But she knew to turn into the parking lot. Her hands moved to turn off the ignition and exit the car. She approached the side door of the church and it was open. The lighting was soft and a table of lit votive candles drew her in. She easily found the sanctuary and took a seat in the back. No one was there but the space welcomed her. She looked around this foreign territory and the weight she had carried for years melted away. She slumped into the wooden pew and wept quietly. In that space she felt safe. All fear melted away as she understood that she was led there and was meant to be there. That was the beginning to a routine of concluding each AA meeting with a visit to the church. Confession and a palpable assurance of pardon.

“Greetings, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you.”

Gabriel wanted the young woman to understand that she was known. He called her by name: “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.”

Mary. In the depths of her soul, she understood that this was a holy encounter custom-tailored for her. God had noticed her. The fear lost its grip and she listened to Gabriel’s words.

A parish pastor, two decades into his career, was discouraged. He knew something in his life had to change and he was pretty sure it related to his vocation. He felt like a stranger to himself and to his God. He kept praying though he no longer felt God’s nearness. He tried to stay open to God’s presence but felt as though he was in the wilderness. One night, he had a dream. Later he would tell crowds of people that it was more like a visitation. In the dream he was walking in a barren setting and he saw Jesus walking toward him. Jesus was dressed in a long robe, as he might imagined from the illustrations in his long-ago children’s Bible. He was both terrified and overjoyed. In this nocturnal meeting, Jesus called him by name. But it wasn’t the name by which God had called him in the past. He was given his father’s name at birth so the family called him by a nickname—Bobby– to minimize confusion. From his early calling into ministry and in each parish he served, he felt known by God as Bobby. But, in this meeting, Jesus called him Robert. He was being prepared for a new venture with his grown-up name. When he awakened, he didn’t remember many words but he felt loved into a new calling. He was left with a clear directive to attend a certain conference in a particular place. Several weeks later, he obeyed. At that conference, he got excited about a ministry of equipping pastors for planting congregations. His heart was filled with a passion for ministry once again. In time he would be the key note speaker at national conferences that prepared pastors to establish churches in places where the Gospel was not preached. He confessed to our group something he learned from his night time encounter: Jesus always shows up in the wilderness and calls us by name. Like Simon, who was renamed Peter by Jesus. Or the woman from Magdala who grieved in the garden outside the tomb until Jesus said just one word to her: Mary. She fell at His feet, knowing it was the Savior she loved.

Do not be afraid, Robert, you have found favor with God.

Gabriel knew that he had news to deliver that would rock Mary’s world. Having set her heart at ease and assuring her that she was beloved by the God she served, Gabriel spoke the message he was sent to deliver: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Mary’s world shifted on its axis with this announcement. She was engaged but not yet married. She asked for clarification, understanding at her young age that this could not be true: “How can this be…” The same question had muted old Zechariah for several months. But Mary seemed to ask with curiosity and an open spirit. The explanation was far from detailed but gave her what she needed to know. In that moment, in a stirring deep within, she knew that she was being entrusted with a life that would be precious not just for her but for an aching world.

There were not the usual gifts to Mary’s pregnancy. Mary was young and engaged to a carpenter. They lived in a backwoods province that was poorly regarded. One of Jesus’ disciples, years later when being urged to meet and follow Him, would judge Jesus’ pedigree with these words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock would bring public scrutiny and could lead to her being stoned to death. This child would never play the part of a traditional oldest son and He would die a criminal’s death. Nothing about the scene would lead anyone to believe that God Almighty was involved. With few details given, Mary shifted at the center of her very being. From that moment, she knew that she no longer lived for herself. Gabriel assured her that the God she served was behind this miraculous new creation. Revealing the news about elderly Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel concluded his visit with the bride-to-be with a promise: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

She sat in her doctor’s office, stunned with the news that she was pregnant. She had been told she wouldn’t be able to have children. She and her husband had gone through the stages of grief and learned to live with contentment. Their circumstances were pleasant and their relationships, rewarding. But now there would be a baby? She was in her late 30’s so tests were done. An ultrasound revealed some concerning factors that could indicate that the child would suffer from disabilities. In sharing the results with the couple, the doctor asked if they wanted to continue with the pregnancy. They were both shocked at the question.  Something from deep within told this mother that this child was special. God’s eye was on this unborn baby and, regardless of future health or wellbeing, the child was meant to be in their care. The pregnancy continued normally and, with both excitement and trepidation, the birthday arrived. A perfect little boy entered their world, with a healthy cry and all parts working well. The unexpected child they held would grow up to be a gifted musician. He captured the beauty of God’s world with his voice and instrument. His music sang out God’s glory for the unlikely gift of his life. His mother would recall the doctor’s warnings that his life might not be worth living.

But she hung onto a promise: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Young Mary, no longer naïve, had listened closely to the angel’s words. How would she respond to this unsolicited call on her life? Would she try to reject God’s consecrating presence in her life? Would she profess unworthiness, like her ancestor in the faith, Moses? Would she try to run from God’s calling, like Jonah? Would she cry out to God that this sacrifice asked to much of her, like Elijah as he despaired of his life? Or would she submit, like her relative Elizabeth, who already felt the stirrings of new life in her womb? Was she remembering the words of elderly Sarah when she learned she would finally bear a son for old Abraham: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

Mary’s answer was anchored in a hope she would need when this beloved Son faced His crucifixion. Her answer reflected a resurrection faith before she could understand the destiny of this boy for her and for her world: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” The deep faith with which Mary was raised dictated obedience. She submitted to God’s will and prepared to welcome a Son who would one day pray, “Not my will but Yours be done.” He was His mother’s Son. The unfathomable loss she suffered would lead to salvation for all. The Spirit moved and, at great risk to herself, Mary said “yes.”

I wonder where you have seen the Spirit at work, moving us from incredulity to obedience? I think of a church member who retired from teaching only to move across the country to pursue an advanced degree. Nothing about it made sense at first but she knew God was behind it. I think of a businessman who felt led to leave a secure position to start his own company. The vocational shift wreaked of risk but he felt God’s prompting and obeyed. It has led him across the world and brought him back to his home sanctuary regularly to offer God praise. More importantly to him, it led him to establish an orphanage as his business took root overseas. It now supports one hundred children with room, board and schooling. If they wish to work for his company when they are done with their schooling, they have a secure future. I think of a couple in our congregation who felt God’s leading to double the number of children in their family by adopting two children.  Knowing the calling came from above, they never considered the costs, only the benefits. They expanded their hearts and the walls of their home to make room. I think of how God moved in the midst of depression and led a member to write daily prayers as a means of blessing to others. I think of a young man in the congregation who is choosing our churchyard for an Eagle Scout project. He’s excited to beautify the grounds of his home church. I noticed how a woman in the pews last week felt the movement of the Spirit when technology failed. In a pinch, this woman of petite stature stood before her church family and preached a sermon about joy. Her spontaneous proclamation was received with applause.

Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.

I wonder where you have seen the Spirit at work, leading you to obey in spite of the risks.  I wonder when the impossible has made sense and moved you to tears. I wonder when you have allowed God to be your GPS and found yourself in a holy place where God lifted the weight off your shoulders. When has God called you by name and welcomed you as a beloved child?

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.


Quietly Faithful

There have been times when I’ve run into someone at our local grocery store who has attended services here but not become an active member of the church. Their only contact with me is in worship. Sometimes it take a moment for them to recognize me. More than once I’ve had folks say,

“Oh! Sorry. I didn’t recognize you without your robe.”

Can you imagine if I wore my robe from the sanctuary to Meijer to pick up some milk and bread after worship? How do you think it would strike people if I walked through downtown Rockford, doing my Christmas shopping, in my robe and stole? I cannot imagine that it would draw people into our church!

This passage from Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus chastising the religious authorities for their desire to set themselves apart by wearing flowing robes. Their goal was to communicate authority. Rather than hungering for righteousness, they yearned for accolades of distinction.

Imagine now that I stand at the dam downtown and lift my hands heavenward and begin to offer lengthy prayers—loudly. Or I go to Ramona’s Table with some family members and project a detailed grace across our table and into the whole dining room. How do you think that would go over? Would it pack out our sanctuary the next week with folks who were moved by my public praying? Maybe.

Probably not.

Jesus lambasts the Temple authorities for their lengthy prayers. By definition, prayer is our conversation with God. Sometimes we pray in communal settings like worship. But these priests and pharisees subjected folks to their loud praying knowing that those around them had no choice but to listen. With the professional clout that they enjoyed, they knew people would at least tolerate their praying and maybe even be impressed by it. Jesus was not. He was not fooled by their insincerity and publicly called them out for their vain attempts to bring the focus to themselves rather than the God they served. You can imagine how well that went over with them.

Maybe you remember when the disciples trailed behind Jesus and argued about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, who had supernatural hearing, called them on it and taught them that, in His movement, the one who wants to be first must be last. They must have wondered if they had hooked their wagon to the right guy .

The temple leaders’ longing for high regard combined with a low regard for the needs of the poor. They spent their days studying the Torah, the Jewish Law for how to live a righteous life. But they did not fulfill the very laws the memorized. While promoting themselves in public settings, they overlooked those who were most in need of mercy.

Richard Swanson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, writes, “Somehow in election years everyone is the friend of the deserving poor. Even politicians whose policies in every other year are corrosive to the connections that hold rich and poor together in bonds of mutual responsibility, even such politicians can demonstrate in an election year, how electing their opponent will be bad for the poor. That is because the poor have no real standing in such wrangles. They are just there as a figure of speech. When real policy-making demands real attention to the causes and effects of poverty, it will generally emerge that figures of speech do not vote or make campaign contributions or lobby effectively. Or, as in the scene at hand, they show up as stock figures that can be used to illustrate something else entirely…”

The widow who quietly gave her last penny to the temple offering was completely overlooked by those dropping heavy coins into the plates. Maybe some of you have been to Yesterdog in Eastown? They have a metal container high above the service container into which you are invited to toss your coins. The challenge, of course, is to see if you can make the shot. Even if you don’t make it, the sound of the coin hitting the outside of the can is entertaining. In the Jewish Temple there were five different plates for the collection that were horn-shaped. People dropped their coins into the broad opening and it went down into a container. The heavier the coin the higher the worth and the louder the sound. The “poor widow” would have placed her only remaining coins into the Temple fund, making almost no sound. She and her offering could be easily ignored. For everyone but Jesus, she was invisible. The religious elite were so focused on swishing through the common areas in their grand robes that they had no eyes for anyone who couldn’t add to their popularity. Jesus began this day with a tirade against the money changers who took advantage of the peasants. He ended with a commendation of a widow who sacrificed her all for God.

I wonder what the Temple Fund was used for. Perhaps it was like our congregation’s building fund. Our trustees administer this account out of which we pay for repairs, maintenance and improvements. Just over 100 years ago the building fund would have been used to add a foundation to our sanctuary. In 2012 we had to fortify that foundation on the east wall because it was sagging and leaking. We cut holes through the dining room walls to add steel plates to our tired foundation. The result was an open panel on the inside of the wall hat invited us to turn it into a display area for artwork!

In the time I’ve been at First Congregational U.C.C. we have needed to replace the roof twice. Our windows that date back to the 1870’s were sagging and needed to be re-leaded. We have upgraded the sound system several times and added the screen in the past few years. We could not have known how important that would be with the requirements to worship without hymnals or Bibles or bulletins for more than a year. We try to strike a balance between keeping our facility in good shape so as to maximize our ministry and reaching out charitably to others.

I’m so grateful for our congregation’s generosity in the past eighteen months. Amidst the challenges COVID forced upon us, we kept up with our commitment to give a tithe of our income away. PPP loans were used for salaries and building costs so we were able to honor our mission commitments. I believe that when we go out on a limb to give toward the well-being of others, like the blessed widow in Jesus’ day, something spiritual happens. God smiles when we demonstrate that we are willing to entrust our finances to the One we praise from one Sunday to the next. The poor widow contributed to the Temple Fund that was overseen by powerful people who were held in high esteem and who lacked for nothing. Our congregation, like other church families, is transparent about our spending. The Trustees spend hours prayerfully crafting a budget that both honors our responsibility to help out God’s people but also keeps us afloat. This is not an easy task. There will be no PPP loans this next year. We continue to have to contend with the COVID virus for the foreseeable future. We give toward the “Temple Fund,” but so much more than that. We are blessed with support staff members who have worked creatively and exhaustively to shape programming that continues to nourish our congregation spiritually. Whether we were in the building or not, we kept it heated, cleaned, watertight and in good repair. Amidst great financial insecurity, we have given away more than 10%, to help people like the widow in the Jerusalem temple.

Several weeks ago I asked folks through our congregation’s Facebook page if they supported charitable organizations other than our church. The responses were impressive. By being part of our parish, our membership is serving with folks who are generous to our world. Outside of what we give from our church budget, church friends are supporting at least these organizations: Guiding Light, the Humane Society, Compassion International, Feeding America, Family Promise, Sisters of Sobriety, Kids Food Basket, Hand to Hand, North Kent Connect, Eastern Star Charities, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Salvation Army and Heifer International. We have a culture of giving in our congregation like so many other worshiping bodies in our nation. We’ve learned that entrusting a portion of our livelihood to God makes for a more meaningful personal life. It also, when combined with other likeminded Christians, makes for deep friendships among people who are rolling up their sleeves to minister to the least and the lost. I am deeply appreciative of the giving hearts I witness in the name of the God of the widow who gave her all 2000 years ago.

The sobering statistic is that the greater our wealth, the more unlikely it is that we will give 10% away, as the scriptures suggest. Wealth weighs us down. Managing our assets takes time and costs us sleep. The widow, who quietly gave her all in a busy temple while larger coins made boastful clanking sounds, reminds us of a spiritual truth. We are called to trust God for our daily bread. Not for our 401K and an addition to our ample homes. Daily bread. Enough for today so that we don’t lose sight of our dependence on God. She didn’t need to know how God would provide for her when she emptied her purse for Temple life.

Her generosity was rooted in a faith conviction. She knew that God would care for her. Simple faith that’s not so simple.


Prayer and Suffering

This past Sunday was the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death. On the Mother’s Day nearly six months later, my father wrote a reflection on the role of prayer when suffering. Her death at age 66 as a devout Christian prompted the kinds of questions that arise so easily when we are confronted with untimely, unjust death. I have given this to many people over the course of my ministry because he so beautifully probes the intent of prayer and what we might need consider to be a failure of prayer. So I offer you his sermon. He was a career Air Force Chaplain and then retired to serve a congregation where he and my mother developed deep and lasting friendships. It was very meaningful for me to preach his words (emotional as well!) on the anniversary of her death. Nine years after her death, my dad also died of cancer on my mom’s birthday. We took solace in knowing they were together again. I pray that you are blessed through this message that combines theology and love!

For six months I have assured you, Katie’s and my faithful and loving friends and family, that I would share my thoughts and beliefs on the power of prayer as it addresses suffering and disease. Part of this is for my own benefit because through all Katie’s suffering and her eventual death, I often had trouble adding it all up. The basic question that many of you have asked and which Katie and I discussed on more than one occasion is: What good is prayer if the condition about which one prays, in this case, Katie’s cancer, goes on unrelieved and unabated, leading finally to her death? Why pray, if we are involved in an apparent cosmic lottery where some who pray not at all are made well and those for whom hundreds pray with fervent devotion suffer and die? That’s the basic question and it is not an easy one with which to deal.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a little book many years ago entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Whenever I have asked groups to remember the title of that book, they always say, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People! Why do people change in their minds the “When” to a “Why?” Because that is what we all want to know and hope that book will tell us. It does not and does not pretend to.

Our question is not unique to us or even our era. It has been asked since the dawn of moral consciousness in the human mind. It is raised in the Bible by Habakkuk, Jeremiah and, of course, Job, among others. To begin to understand it we have to acknowledge a few basic facts of life. First of all, we will all die, early or late, quickly or slowly, justly or unjustly; but we will all die. Therefore, to pray for recovery from illness will, sooner or later, prove to no avail. At some time our prayer will fail. I have always contended that the job with the worst prospect of continued success was that of faith healer, because eventually they will fail in every case! So that is a given.

Secondly, if we believe in a God who seeks our good and not our harm, then there is nothing wrong with death itself as it must be part of God’s plan, if there is a God and if that God has a beneficent plan. So Christians who understand this do not fear death, even though they may not look forward to the process. Katie never feared death through the whole process. She did not welcome it or rejoice in it, but she did not fear it! So if we believe in a kind and good God who seeks our well-being, and part of whose plan involves the fact that we will grow old and die (or perhaps die without growing old) then somehow we have to reconcile this dilemma that has troubled us at least since the days of Job. To the believer, this too is a given.

So with these basic assumptions in place, our next question is then, “What is the purpose of prayer if not to make us well and at least postpone death?” The answer to me is found fairly clearly in the New Testament. Nowhere does it say that the purpose of life is to live long, or to live prosperously, or even to live well. The rich man who thought he had achieved that was called a fool?? It is to live lovingly. Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Old Testament and he replies with two (Mark 12: 29): “The first is ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The rest of the New Testament echoes this again and again. It is the dominant theme of the whole collection of books. It is, we must conclude, what God wants from us: Love for God and love for each other.

If this is what God wants, and God is in charge, we had better seek that which God wishes. I remember an Air Force chaplain friend of mine telling me his attitude toward inspectors when they arrive at his base to inspect the Chapel program. He said, “I try to find out as soon as I can what they want to hear and then tell it to them” While there is a certain duplicity in this, it does recognize the value of knowing who is in charge and that their will has a precedence over our own. Without the duplicity, something of the same nature is involved here.

So a valid prayer in this context is, “Lord, make me more loving of You and my neighbors.” For, in so doing, we are seeking to achieve the very things that Jesus says are the most important elements of God’s law. Jesus’ classic prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is instructive. He prays that the cup (symbolically meaning the cross) might pass from him, but then adds, “not my will, but Yours (God’s) be done.” From that I conclude that there is nothing wrong with presenting our own wants and needs to God in prayer, but the final criterion is not our will but God’s. We test our own desires and hopes against what we come to understand to be the will of God.

Once we accept that, then we seek in prayer that which is the loving thing to do and the loving state in which to operate. As we do this through a lifetime, we find that this giving up of our own selfish will in prayer and seeking instead to be instruments of God’s love, we find that the love we gave away keeps flowing back to us in multiplied measure.

Now let’s turn all that to Katie and our year we shared during her final illness. There were certainly times when we prayed and fervently wished for a miracle of healing for her. There even were times when a momentary success would convince us that we had received such a gift. But the background out of which we worked and prayed was one in which Katie had, to a remarkable degree, prayed through the years that hers would be a life of love and giving to me, to our kids, to our wonderful friends in churches here and across the Air Force, and to the many children she served and loved in conjunction with her paid and volunteer work on their behalf. On our gravestone we have inscribed under her name, “Loving Advocate of Children.” Such she indeed was. So in her case we entered this time of trial, of suffering, of sadness and ultimate separation with that foundation of love shared and reciprocated. We said to each other many times as the year went on, and well before we had reason to assume that she would not recover, that whatever the outcome of her illness, we had had a glorious ride together with wonderful parishes, amazing children and a vast host of loving friends.

So what happened through all of this? Obviously, she did not recover. But our relationship deepened as at no other time in our love for each other and its expression to each other. I seriously feel that if I were now given the choice of an instant, sudden death, or a lingering one such as she had, I would think long and hard before choosing the sudden one. A year before that would have been my automatic choice! The values that the two of us gained by this experience were immeasurable. The opportunities to sit and just talk about life’s deeper matters, (such as why the righteous suffer!) were invaluable. Secondly, the kids came in with regularity over the seven months after her surgery until her death. I made sure that I got out of the way when they were here so that they too could have undisturbed and meaningful times to visit with her on this profound level. After we were told that she would not recover, I began, at her behest, to schedule in friends and family for visits which we all knew would be final ones. These were shared moments that I know they cherish and I know from Katie’s comments, that she treasured. Finally, the enormous outpouring of love and concern from our friends in Bath and the host of friends from our Air Force years, as well as her friends from childhood and college, was almost overwhelming. This was the tide of love that she had sent out, coming back in glorious echo of that which she had given over the years.

So if the valid object of prayer is not just to tell God what we want and when we want it, but to learn in prayer of God’s desire for our love to God and extending from that to love for our neighbors, then Katie’s life was one of answered prayer. If that is what God wants from us, that is what He got from her in mighty measure. I have always been amazed at her capacity to give herself to others, happily including me (perhaps preeminently me!), but also embracing everyone she met. One of my fondest memories of her is when I would be greeting people at the door of the church after worship on Sunday morning, I would look out across the little narthex of our church and invariably Katie would be there, surrounded by many friends, a glowing smile on her face as she listened to each one’s story and/or needs. She would remember them all and tell me about them when we were home so that I might know and act upon them as my ministerial contacts made appropriate.

So if our prayers were simply that she would get better, they were not answered. But if we understood that all life ends sometime and that the object of it all from birth until death is not to prolong it as far as possible, but to fill it with love and joy for others, and if this is what we prayed for Katie, then our prayers were answered amazingly. And at no time in my 42 years with her were they answered more than in the last months of her life. Small and large miracles of love occurred with such regularity that we would often sit in amazement at what had just transpired. On numerous occasions we sat together and wept at the sheer magnitude of some gift of love that had just been shared with us by one of you.

Would I have had her live longer? You bet I would! Would I have had her life a longer but less loving life? Not on your life!! Do I believe in prayer? Absolutely , if prayer is the process by which we learn of the will of God, if it is that we love God and one another, and that from that love comes the greatest blessing life can bestow: the fellowship of love with that God, with our families, and with the many friends with whom we have shared that love. As much as I miss her and long for her touch, her laugh, her smile, I know that I too am wrapped by that great mantle of love, fabricated largely by her hands and of which all of us are the blessed recipients. So it is my prayer not that I may live long upon the earth, but that for whatever years I have left and in whatever condition I live them, I may be, as she was, an instrument of God’s love. For I know that if I am such, I too, in whatever condition, will be sustained and illuminated by the love of those whom I have loved. You to whom this message goes are that group, those friends. I thank God daily for what you were to Katie and me over the years. We have been blessed by your friendship. I am exhilarated by the knowledge that each of us, as we share that gift of love with each other, will renew our strength, we will mount up with wings like eagles. We shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint. This is the gift of God and this is the answer to prayer. Thanks be to God that our faithful prayers of love are answered in measures we can not imagine or understand until we are surrounded by them and rest in their embrace.

In just such a way were your and my prayers for Katie answered abundantly. She illustrates the passage of Jesus in Luke 6:37-38: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Thanks be to God, Katie gave in generous measure. In her final months, she received back in overwhelming measure the love that she so freely gave. Truly her cup overflowed. We can pray for no more than this! Thank God for our answered prayers.


All In!

Several years ago a couple met with me to plan their wedding in our sanctuary. After the rehearsal I checked with them to see if they had any questions before their big day. The groom voiced a few normal concerns and I told him what I often tell couples: With all the details that go into planning a wedding, it is likely that something won’t go off in exactly the way you planned. That unexpected detail becomes part of your wedding story. Rather than worry I invite you to do what you can for your wedding day. Choose joy.

With those words of advice, the couple headed off for a rehearsal dinner and an effort at sleep on the eve of their wedding.

On Saturday I awakened to the aftermath of a storm. The groom called me about 9AM to ask if we had power in downtown Rockford. I assured him that the downtown area is always prioritized if there is an outage. I hastily drove to the church to check things out and was surprised to discover that we didn’t have power. Our church sat silent, ready for their ceremony. Since it wasn’t going to be until the afternoon, I was sure the electricity would be restored by then. I called him and said as much.

The wedding party arrived early, as scheduled. The women stayed in the cool of the dining room while the men hung out in the youth room, taking off their jackets as the temperature rose in our building. The air conditioner was still and the church air grew heavy. As the hour of the wedding approached, I was stunned that we were still without power. I assured the couple we would go ahead with the service and it would be beautiful regardless. They smiled politely but I’m not sure they were buying it. I’m not sure I was either!

Our sound board operator was in place in case the electricity resumed. I was mic’d, in case that would make a difference. But the church remained powerless as the guests were seated and started fanning themselves with programs. The time came for the wedding party to enter. The congregation grew quiet as the parents were seated. When the bride and her father came into view, the people stood respectfully, smiling at the pair as they slowly made their way down the center aisle. The bride’s gaze was fixed on her fiancé who was equally focused on her. The sanctuary was quiet. Their friends and family were reverent. As the wedding ceremony began, I acknowledged that, even though we didn’t have electricity, we knew that there was power in this holy space. We could feel it as this couple stepped forward to join their two lives as one. They pledged their lifelong devotion to one another without microphones or music. It was a beautiful ceremony that ended with applause and jubilant bell ringing as the newlyweds triumphantly recessed out of the church. Ten minutes after the ceremony ended, the lights came on!

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, indoor and wedding

The bride stopped by the church about two weeks later to pick up an item that had been left. We spent some time talking about their honeymoon and found our way back to the unusual circumstances of their wedding day. I apologized for the consequences of an unpredictable “act of God.” She looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way! To have such complete silence as I entered with my dad was powerful! I was so moved by the way the quiet honored the occasion. It was perfect!”

The unexpected detail that could have emotionally derailed them as a couple turned out to be the defining memory of their day. Walking toward her beloved in the holy silence of the sanctuary, she knew God was near.

Have you ever met God when you were wrestling with unexpected change? Was there a holy moment that led you to lift your heart in worship to God? Did an inconvenience or forgotten detail or goof become the best memory of the evening? When has God crashed your party and left you with a blessing?

This story from the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel is about devotion. Mary, the dear friend of Jesus, is the perfect person to model this. When we meet her in the Gospels, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet. She forgets to do her hosting duties when He’s around, much to the chagrin of her sister. In this instance she embarrasses herself by anointing Jesus’ travel-weary feet with an expensive lotion usually reserved for burial. As if that weren’t scandalous enough, she wipes the remnant of the oil off his feet with her lovely hair. A woman’s hair in first century Israel was regarded as a very private part of her body. To say that this would have been an awkward moment at the dinner party is a gross understatement. But she seems not to have even known there were others around. The ointment was valued at a year’s salary and would have been a precious commodity for family burials. Mary presents it as an offering of love to Jesus who had brought her brother, Lazarus, back to life. Wiping his dusty feet with her crown of glory is an act of worship. She doesn’t give a thought to what others might think.

The word “devotion” means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. Mary gets caught up in a moment of devotion to the One she loves. It doesn’t matter who else is in the room. I wonder if you remember a time when you were so caught up in a worthy cause that you lost yourself? When have you been most devoted to the work of the Gospel?

There’s a contrast in this story between Mary’s worship and Judas’ protest. Mary offers her best in an act of sacrificial devotion while Judas pretends to be concerned for the poor. Is Jesus simply a calculated boost to Judas’ clout? As the treasurer of the group, he clearly values money over human needs. Jesus comes to Mary’s defense with a blunt command: Leave her alone! Mary is the only follower who seems to recognize that this moment with Jesus is precious. She unwittingly anoints His body for burial. The fragrance of the ointment would have lingered on both her and Jesus as He headed to the cross that very week. His disciples, however, scattered in fear.

Chapter 12 is a turning point in John’s gospel. Jesus has performed miracles that elevated Him to celebrity status. But in the appalled silence of an interrupted dinner party, we witness the greatest sign of Jesus’ ministry: love. Mary loves Jesus and devotes herself to serving Him, whatever the cost. The fact that we are still reading about this act of devotion tells me that her display of reverence turns heads as much as any of Jesus’ healings. Mary had experienced how Jesus brought life out of death so she offers herself unreservedly to Him.

This past Sunday I invited church members to commit to our church family by using their gifts. COVID has certainly challenged our leaders to explore new ways of doing ministry. As we reclaim elements of our congregational life, we need everyone to step into fitting areas of service. We invited folks to show their devotion to Christ by joining in our worship and volunteering in a capacity that brings them joy. What Mary models for us in this story is devotion to Jesus. She sets her sights on Him and nothing else matters. She is all in! Her service to Him brings a holy pause to a dinner party that we’re still talking about today. Following her example, all of us who are members of congregations need to embrace the invitation into remarkable service, using the gifts God has given us. While many worthy activities cry out for our attention, I know of nothing more important as living out our Christian faith to positively impact a hurting world. Are you in?


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.

Photo by Dids on

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.

Photo by Timur Weber on

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

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!