A Pledge Under the Old, Oak Tree

Is there a tree that is special to your family? Is there a tree on the family farm where dinners stretched out on simple picnic tables giving space for animated conversation? Did someone put up a gazebo, sprinkle it with flowers and get married in the shade of its branches on a warm summer day? Is the tree near the driveway where your grandfather climbed into a Model T to start a new life with your grandmother in another part of the country?

Our family cottage is built on the shores of Lake Michigan. The property has been in the family since the 1890’s although our cottage was built in 1974. We have come up to Michigan for more than 120 years as a family, sitting on chairs along the bluff that afford a vista of the water below. It’s so beautiful that local artist James Brandeiss has painted three stunning sunset pictures from our bluff. One of them features two trees that stand proudly next to each other.

I wonder how many generations of our family, those still among us and those who have long since left this earth, would recognize those twin trees that withstood winter storms and summer heat? Our shoreline is ravaged with the high water levels. The bluff is a raw wound, open sand that loses the battle against wind and water on daily basis. One of those trees has already fallen.

I climbed over our safety fence when I was there a couple of weekends ago and cautiously leaned against the remaining tree. In my heart I thanked it for keeping a vigil over the lake for so many years. Much of its roots are already exposed as it stands with dignity on the precipice of a land that is disappearing. I imagined my grandfather scrambling past that tree to get down to the lake when he was boy. He and his six siblings bathed in the lake, he always told us. My mother spent summers there with her grandmother and aunt. No matter where we lived as an Air Force family, we tried to get to this piece of property for much of the summer. I stood against that tree that probably won’t survive the winter, reflecting on who has benefitted from her broad branches.

Is there a tree that is significant in your family life?

Joshua called a meeting of all the Israelites. “Y’all gather by the oak tree for a family meeting!” They numbered in the thousands. That’s some family reunion! It almost sounds like a rally of loud people who are excited to be together. Can you picture that?! Joshua chose this place because it had meaning for them. They were in Shechem which is the first place where God appeared to Abraham, the patriarch of their clan. It’s the place where Jacob and his entourage renounced their idols and buried them. In those moments of their history they were foreigners on this land. But now, at this point in our scripture passage, the land is theirs. The old oak tree that had witnessed so much of their ancestral story now belonged to them. Not because they deserved it, paid for it, or fought for it. Joshua makes it very clear that they are able to put together a revival on this sacred ground because God gave it to them. God has been there for them all along and this is God’s gift to them.

Joshua calls out, his voice thick with conviction, “Did we do anything to deserve it? No! Remember that–NO! The God of our ancestors has brought us into this promised land and given it to us. GIVEN—IT—TO—US!”

Joshua called this meeting because his newly-liberated people were claiming this familiar place. None of them had been there before. 40 years in the wilderness and, before that, 400 years of slavery in Egypt separated them from this land that had been formational to their tribe. So Joshua knew it was essential that they lay the spiritual foundation to rightly align their priorities in this new home. His people had lived for generations among foreigners who worshiped many gods. The Hebrew people had gone along with that. It’s easier to give in to the dominant culture than it is to fight it for generations. They still loved their God but threw in statues of other favorite gods for good measure. Better to cover all the bases than discover that your Deity Insurance Policy doesn’t offer the broad coverage you imagined!

No more of that, Joshua told them! They are told that they must revere and serve Yahweh, the name they had for their God.

Do you want to do that? Because if you do you will have to “put away” the other gods. The translation for this verb could not be stronger. They will have to radically renounce all that they had counted on in the past: their greatest comforts, their security blankets, their stash of weapons, their hoarded treasures, whatever they valued more highly than their relationship with their Maker. Joshua asks for commitment from the present generation who stands where the very first generation met Yahweh. They are told to make a choice—freely—but they must then be ready to adhere to it.

There’s a back-and-forth rhythm to this ceremony. Imagine the speaker at the podium calling out to the massed gathering:

Do you want to serve the God of our ancestors?


This isn’t easy! You have to incline your heart and obey God’s voice. Are you sure you want to do this?

The crowd roars, YES!

Joshua replies, NOT SO FAST! This is not an easy commitment! Maybe you’ve forgotten that our God is holy…and jealous! If you say yes but go back to worshiping your former gods, it’s not going to end well! Remember 40 years in the wilderness we just left behind?! That’s because our ancestors gave up on God. Are you sure you want to throw away all that you’ve counted on in the past and worship this God alone?


Three times they affirm their loyalty to God. Since there are no neutral parties to serve as witnesses to this mass pledge toward revival, Joshua chooses a boulder, joins with other family members, and heaves it under the old oak tree where Abraham met God and Jacob ordered his people to bury their false idols.

The stone is our witness to all that we’ve agreed to today. There can be no more wishy washy faith. You cannot divide your allegiance between gods. You are committing to a singular focus on the One who asks for your very lives. Joshua offers the words that have traveled like a challenge across the ages: As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!

Is there a tree that’s significant to your family, where promises were made and loved ones gathered? Where graduates posed for pictures and initials were carved into her bark? Perhaps the undertaker’s hearse carried a loved one away for the last time under the canopy of her gracious branches? Did you discover in those moments what really mattered to you? Were you crushed to find out that your security blanket couldn’t protect you?

Martin Luther challenged his people to get rid of their idols. His challenge revolutionized the Church. He stated that anything that we rely on and trust in is a “god.” What are the idols you have had to give up in this COVID time? What gods have failed you in the bitterness of this election year?

In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey writes, “A political movement by nature draws lines, makes distinctions, pronounces judgment; in contrast, Jesus’ love cuts across lines, transcends distinctions, and dispenses grace. Regardless of the merits of a given issue—whether a pro-life lobby out of the Right or a peace-and-justice lobby out of the Left—political movements risk pulling onto themselves the mantle of power that smothers love. From Jesus I learn that, whatever activism I get involved in, it must not drive out love and humility, or otherwise I betray the kingdom of heaven.” (page 245)

In this election year battle lines were clearly drawn, rules of engagement were made, changed, and remade. Enemies were characterized and vilified. It seems as if there is no neutral ground on which to stand. A question that surfaces from my gut is, do we have to buy into that?! Is there no other way to stand together under the family tree on land that is dear to us and join our hearts as one in worship of the God who created us? What would it cost us for this to happen?

For us to commit to a covenant renewal as we look with uncertainty at our future we must be ready to let go of our gods. Charles Raynal puts it this way in a commentary on the text: “Like Joshua, the covenant renewal will remind the people of the unique miracles of the Lord for the people and issue a call to forsake the false gods and insecurities in our common life, such as the love of North American wealth, the fear of terrorism, the trust in military force instead of the other choices required for building up alienated and oppressed people. We all need to rediscover Joshua’s way of single-minded loyalty to the Lord, the obedient refusal to give ourselves over to the temptations of compromise with the great wealth, powers, and fears that enthrall most people and all nations today.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, page 366.)

Those who lead this country forward will have to be healers. And we know that healing isn’t linear. There can be several good days and our hopes soar. But then the fever returns, the muscle aches and we have to take a nap just three hours into our day. There’s a reason Joshua asked the throng of family members three times to what faith convictions did they really want to surrender their lives? Change doesn’t happen overnight. Healing takes time, especially when the wounds are deep. Joshua’s style is affirmation followed by command. We like the affirmation. We can even make an affirmation to love and serve only God. But we aren’t so fond of the commands that follow: Incline your hearts to Yahweh and obey only that divine voice.            

Are you ready? Can you pledge your allegiance to Christ alone? I wonder if we can do it together?


Letting Go in Peace

I remember seeing a video years ago on a hidden camera sort of show that dealt with death in an unusual way. Folks checking out at a cash register could see themselves in a round mirror above the cashier’s head. It’s that kind of mirror that gives a full view of the store. Through clever technology they superimposed the Grim Reaper just behind the customer and I thought it was both funny and surprising at how seriously some people took this brush with their mortality. Take a look at it to see how some people feel when it seems like death suddenly comes knocking at their door!

I guess I find it surprising that folks would believe such a stereotyped apparition and that their response would be so visceral! But the reality is that few of us would respond calmly to news that our time on earth is nearing an end. We are a people who go to doctors for a diagnosis, fully expecting a treatment plan. We have much to live for on this side of heaven so we fight for more time with our loved ones. Alan Minter, a British professional boxer, was quoted as saying, “There have been injuries and deaths in boxing, but none of them serious.” If the video tells us anything, we can be sure that no one considers the possibility of imminent death, whether in a boxing match or suffering in a hospital with COVID, as anything but serious. We have seen people triumphantly leave a hospital to the cheers of medical staff after months of being on a ventilator. What leads them to fight for life when they have suffered so greatly?

In his daily meditation for September 14, Richard Rohr addresses the subject of suffering. He reminds us that there are no dead ends with Jesus. Even when our circumstances seem hopeless, Christ meets us in our suffering. He transforms it into a teachable moment. We don’t ask for these trials nor do we necessarily appreciate them at the time. In fact, most of us will choose the easy path over the steep, rocky path if given the choice. But suffering happens. Problems show up on our doorstep. Reminders of our mortality confront us and how we respond to these moments is telling. Richard Rohr writes about the approach we are invited to take toward our suffering. Facing our challenges with faith can bring relief not just to us but to those who see how our faith shines out in dark valleys. Inasmuch as we have held onto our faith in a loving God in dark times, we become crucial companions to others when they face their own trials. We claim our identity as wounded healers instead of bitter pessimists who have given up on God.

Rohr writes, “What we do when faced with our deepest wounds determines whether there is authentic spirituality at work or not. If we seek to blame other people, accuse, attack, or even explain and make perfect, logical sense out of our wounds, there will be no further spiritual journey. But if, when the wounding happens, we find the grace and the freedom to somehow see that it’s not just a wound, but a sacred wound, then the journey progresses. Then we set out to find ourselves, to find the truth, and to find God. It’s all about what each of us does with the wound.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Wounded Healers, September 14, 2020.)

We have been walking with Moses in recent weeks through the lectionary texts. We have witnessed his courage, his exasperation with his people and, above all else, his complete trust in God. We appreciate this as he faces his death in Deuteronomy 34: 1-12. He isn’t looking over his shoulder, trembling with fear. He isn’t railing at God, asking for more time. He isn’t even questioning God’s determination that, after all he’d done to lead his intransigent people for 40 years in the wilderness, he wouldn’t be allowed to lead them into the Promised Land. I am upset for him when it comes to this Divine Decision that seems harsh for such a faithful servant. But Moses is at peace. What we read from Deuteronomy 34 is his obituary. It is glowing. It exalts Moses as the pre-eminent prophet who had the distinct honor of meeting God face-to-face. Because of his powerfully personal relationship with God, Moses could let go of his life. Even though he fell short of his end goal he was at peace because he dwelt in the safe embrace of his Creator.

I stumbled across an unexpected news story this past week. It was about the memorial service for a cat! In 2008 a cat showed up during the Christmas holidays at the Southwark Cathedral in London. She was looking for food. When she received it, she settled into the cathedral for good. She was named Doorkins Magnificat and became a favorite presence in this architectural gem of a cathedral. She sprawled out on the pews as if she owned the joint. She scampered across the altar during mass. She napped in the hay of the nativity scene one year, giving evidence to the presence of animals at Jesus’ birth. She died on September 30, blind, deaf and beloved. So much so that the Dean of the cathedral hosted a live streamed memorial service for this internationally beloved feline “parishioner” on Wednesday. Not everyone in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church thought it fitting but people tuned in from all over the world. The loss of an aged cat named Doorkins Magnificat gave permission for people to grieve other losses. Presenter Kate Bottley said the service allowed her to grieve the passing of an aunt. She stated, “I hadn’t cried yet, until today. I watched this and cried and cried and cried, because you know what? This wasn’t about a cat. It’s ok if you don’t get it, it’s ok if you think it’s silly, but for me this helped, it really helped.”

On All Saints Day our congregation pauses to remember those who paved the way of faith for us by their own example. We put death in its proper context: the natural endpoint to our earthly lives with an assurance of eternal peace. We read aloud the names of loved ones we have lost, perhaps enabling us to more fully entrust them into God’s eternal keeping. Sometimes hearing the names of complete strangers invites us to grieve our own loved ones. This year has been a time of unequalled loss for our generation. I suspect all of us, by now, know of someone who has died from COVID. Even if it’s not someone close to us, it reminds us that death is never far from us. It can tap us on the shoulder when we are in our prime. Some of the losses we have mourned remind us that there is no guarantee that we will get to the “promised land” of our own dreams. Can we let go in peace as Moses did, with the assurance that we have handed off our earthly endeavors to those who can carry the torch of our faith forward? Can we be at peace in dark times because our eyes are fixed on Jesus who calls us home?

There was one scene in the movie, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, that brought me to tears. Tom Hanks played the role of Fred Rogers, legendary creator of supportive TV programming for children. Based on Rogers’ life as a TV personality and ordained Christian minister, in one scene Mr. Rogers is visiting a man dying of cancer. The man lived a rebellious life that distanced him from his own family. He spent the last year of his life trying to make amends for his mistakes. He sought out his grown children who weren’t ready to forgive him. Mr. Rogers stopped by the house when the man was confined to his hospital bed, set up in a small living room. Family members were keeping a vigil in a time of precious reunion. Before he left, Fred quietly spoke into the man’s ear, causing him to nod and smile. The son walked Mr. Rogers to his car and asked him what he had whispered to his father. “I asked him to pray for me. Anyone who’s going through what he’s going through must be very close to God.”

Can you imagine how amazed this lost soul must have felt to be entrusted with the responsibility of praying for such a Godly man? If your loved one had made painful mistakes throughout your life, costing you much joy, would you appreciate it if a pastor asked for that relative to pray for them? Would you believe it possible that they had a clear view of God in this very last chapter of their life? Would you be willing to forgive them their past and believe that God dearly loved even them? Or would you cling to your own interpretation of who gets into God’s eternal presence and who does not?

We would never view death as being “not serious.” We treasure our earthly life too much to readily greet death. But, as people whose faith has been shaped by the saints in our past, we rest in the assurance that our present trials are only temporary. The way we face them will either transform us more into Christ’s likeness. Or they will derail us from God’s presence so that we slog through each day with bitter remorse. Moses was remembered as a prophet whose “eyes were not weak or his strength gone” as he breathed his last. The people who tested his leadership grieved his loss, knowing that they met God through him. With his eyes fixed on the Promised Land he would never enter on earthly terms, Moses let go in peace. He knew that what awaited him on the other side was even more beautiful. For all the saints, like Moses, who from their labors rest, we thank you.


All Saints Prayer

God of all nations, we come before You today on the brink of an election. We are weary of negative ads. We are skeptical of promises easily made. We yearn for leadership that will place the needs of the wider community above their own self-interests. We place before You the deep rift in our nation from a myriad of dreams and strong opinions about how to achieve them. Sometimes it feels as if we are hopelessly lost. So we beseech You to help us find our way. We pray for Your blessing upon our elected leaders that they may know You and seek to serve You.

Help us to anchor ourselves in Your love for we know that alone brings healing to us and those around us. We recommit to live on this earth as Your Son, Jesus, did, reaching out to the poor and oppressed. Help us to recognize and relinquish the false gods to which we cling. Give us generous hearts so that we can ease the financial burden of those who are deprived of the most basic needs. Inspire us to assist those whose lives were devastated by earthquakes in Greece and Turkey this past week. We pray for our friends in the south who are cleaning up after yet another hurricane. Open our eyes to see the faces of children who are counting on us to speak up for them and to make sure that they have every opportunity to grow into adulthood with strength of body, mind, and spirit. We pray for the refugees in our country who fear for their safety. Fill us with Your Spirit so that we advocate for just systems that make room for the least of these. Help us to work alongside of our neighbor in spite of differing politics to bring healing and hope to those too weak to cry out on their own behalf.

We pray for patience and safety as the COVID virus continues to ravage our communities and world. Help us to continue to respond to the challenges it presents in our homes, schools, and church family. We pray for those fighting the virus now. We pray for those who have lost loved ones. We pray that we will work together as nations to find a cure so that we can get back to Your work of healing our world.

Today we remember the impact of particular saints who loved us and helped us to know You. We are keenly aware that we are who we are because of who they were. May we freely give of our many gifts to those around us, as they did in their generation, leaving an imprint of Your goodness in our wake. We ask this in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.


Strangely Familiar

Moses is weary. He’s on a journey with no clear destination and just wants to see God. He says, “We don’t want to go a step further if you can’t assure us that You will be with us.” He’s been leading a nation of complaining wayfarers through wilderness and is tired of trying to figure out correct directions with none of the usual road signs.  God has been leading the way—a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night—but Moses yearns to know this God: “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight…Show my your glory, I pray.” Or, in Modern English parlance, “For Pete’s sake, will you just let me catch a glimpse of you?!”

It makes me think of a memorable dream I had recently. I seldom remember my dreams but I awakened from this one feeling like I had been in it for hours. In the dream I was at the church I previously served. That church has an enormous facility with three floors of classrooms at one section. In the dream I was in charge of leading a memorial service and I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. Somehow there was no easy route on the main floor. I was given the advice that I should go up to the third-floor to cross between two wings to then descend into the sanctuary. I knew that the service should have already started. While anxiously running into dead ends I met up with the custodian. I told him I needed my clergy robe and my notebook. He assured me he could get those for me. I was relieved but still anxious because I was barefoot. Typically my bad dreams have to do with not being able to pull off worship in the right way at the right time. People are waiting and the prelude loops back several times, waiting for me to show up. In the worst worship nightmares I am barefoot, a sign of my vulnerability and humiliation. In this dream my clothing wasn’t suitable for leading worship so I wanted to wear my clerical robe over my clothing. When the custodian did mercifully arrive back by my side he brought some sort of dry cleaning items and not a robe. Useless. The notebook he brought me was not for worship but a cookbook our church had put together some time ago. That was not going to help me with the eulogy! To make matters worse there was an all-male group of musicians in burgundy costumes who were scheduled to rehearse in the sanctuary immediately following the memorial service. So there was a time crunch. Because I wasn’t starting on time we were running late with the service and that was going to be inconvenient for the musicians. Mourners were already gathered for the memorial service, upset that nothing was happening. Yet I was powerless to find my way into the sanctuary in this space that was strangely familiar.

I met by zoom with my spiritual director last week and brought up the dream. She quietly asked me what I thought was the message of the dream. As you might guess, it was not all together apparent! So she helped me examine it.

I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. I have led worship in sanctuaries for 35 years. This is familiar territory for me but I was confused. I had gone back to a church that I served before but I’d forgotten some of the landmarks. It was both strange and familiar. I couldn’t navigate my way into the sanctuary in spite of the guidance of people around me. Because I wasn’t prepared for this situation I wasn’t dressed appropriately for it and, in fact, I didn’t even have shoes to make the journey respectable and more comfortable.

Do you remember what God asked Moses to do when he was called into service? Moses saw the burning bush which was a remarkable spectacle. As he went over to examine it God spoke to him from within the bush. Remove your sandals, Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.

Sometimes God gets our attention when we have forgotten our shoes. Sometimes we are most apt to see God when chaos surrounds us and we lose our way. When we can no longer take refuge in our sanctuary, our safe space, our faith wanes. We find ourselves among a nation of people who are all looking for sanctuary, buzzing around with arguments over masks and political candidates and church programs that have to adapt to survive. But even though we’re sharing space with a lot of people, we’re not really connecting with them. We go into Meijer now and can barely recognize anyone because of our masks. Our goal is to get in and out of the store quickly so that we don’t end up carrying COVID out of the store along with our groceries. So we put our heads down, throw a few items in our cart and run out. We head home feeling more alone than ever. Our grocery trip feels strangely familiar.

Moses has been leading a huge congregation of people at the time of this passage. They’re in the wilderness. They’re complaining. They’re blaming him. They’re picking fights. And Moses is weary. He suggests to God that it might be wise to take good care of these people. “These are your people, God, remember?! Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if other nations who worship other gods saw the Israelites perish in the wilderness because You failed to provide for them?” I find it funny that Moses thinks he can manipulate God by threatening international humiliation if the chosen people languish. Hoping for swift action to keep his people—and himself—sane, he cries out in desperation to God: “Show me Your glory, I pray.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but tensions run high these days. With forfeited agendas, lack of employment, and frazzled parents homeschooling their children,  tempers flare and chaos ensues. Those in leadership positions face unprecedented pressures in making decisions. In today’s climate, there is no way to please all the people all the time. Just ask Governor Whitmer.

In the midst of his leadership crisis (which also happened to be a spiritual crisis) Moses begged God to show him the divine face. Moses somehow knew that being able to see God would give him the strength he needed for another day. Remember how Aaron fashioned an idol for the people in Moses absence last week? We worship most readily that which is in front of us and tangible. Moses wanted just a piece, a tiny piece, of God. He experienced God’s glory on the mountain while his people danced wildly around a golden calf in his absence. When he came down into the valley, he was glowing with God’s presence. They called it the Shekinah glory. The Israelites couldn’t even look at him because his face was so brilliant with holy radiance. “Just give me a bit of that light now please, God, because I’m not sure I can hang on for another moment in this land that has become strangely familiar.”

My dream reflects a COVID reality. I was in familiar territory but I couldn’t find my way. I knew the job I was supposed to do but I couldn’t find the tools to do it. I knew my people were gathered somewhere, waiting to grieve their losses, but I couldn’t get to them. I was dressed inappropriately for a search that had gone on much longer than I could have imagined. I was confused, tense and embarrassed that I wasn’t better prepared. All of this was happening in a place that was strangely familiar: God’s house, Christ’s Church, the place where the Spirit guides those who have lost their way. I woke up before there was any resolution to the challenges my dream posed. I was still stuck in an uncomfortable place with no assurance that I would ever find my way into the sanctuary in time to connect with my people. I was barefoot and missing my eulogy.

This story reminds us that the sacred is all around us. We may not be making it into our churches or offices. We may not be seeing family members from across the country. We probably feel vulnerable in this new world where a virus slams our lives into an indefinite hold pattern. But the colorful trees and bushes are all around us. As many as there are flaming trees filling us with autumn awe, that is how close our God is to us. We remember how it all began for dear Moses, who never wanted the job description God gave him. Almost foreshadowing what was to come, Moses met God in the heat of the desert. A bush was on fire: strangely familiar. But from the bush came a commissioning. “Take off your sandals, Moses, for the ground you are standing on is holy.” The road forked at that moment in his life and Moses partnered up with this strange God. Saying “yes” to the summons didn’t get him out of trouble. It didn’t give him clear directions. It didn’t awaken him from a nightmare with an assurance that everything was fine, after all. It didn’t even allow him, after years of faithful service, to enter the Promised Land along with his people. What his partnership with God gave him was a glimpse of God’s glory, just the backside, mind you! But that was…enough.


Uncle Neil

Neil invited us to visit him in Moline, Illinois. He was excited about a condo he purchased on the Mississippi River. It was near his hometown of Erie and it would allow him to have his own place for extended family visits. Of course, being Neil, it allowed him to serve as host in a town where people were dear to him. He breathed in his childhood history with each breeze off the river. We promised him we would make a road trip to see his new digs.

We made that trip this past September. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to stay with Neil at his condo. Wanting to honor our promise to him, we headed to Moline to visit Neil at his final resting place. He died suddenly of a stroke nearly four years ago. We were deeply saddened. Our history with him went way back and we weren’t ready to let him go. Garrett looked for the names of relatives listed in his obituary. I remembered that he had lots of sisters and that some of his family was at the service at First Unitarian Church of Chicago. Garrett made contact with a nephew he found on Facebook. The nephew connected us with his mother who lives in Erie and we introduced ourselves. I suspect it’s not very often that a stranger stalks you on Facebook, suggesting you meet them at the graveside of their departed loved one. But that’s what we did and two sisters and one brother-in-law gave us their address. We plugged it into our GPS on a hot Thursday morning and turned on the AC for a five hour drive.

Garrett’s and my first date was to one of Neil’s parties. He was the librarian at the Chicago Theological Seminary and Meadville/Lombard Theological School. He was an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister but spent his career immersed in books. Garrett met him his first year in seminary and I started my theological education a year later. Garrett got up the courage at the end of one of our Old Testament classes to ask me if I wanted to go with him to Neil’s party. I had settled nicely into the North Side of Chicago but I was game. I was intrigued with this guy who wore red-framed sunglasses and a yellow canvas hat, standing out from other seminarians. The average age of incoming students was 55 and we were three decades younger than that. So it made sense to connect with this displaced Dutchman for a few reasons!

Neil loved to have people over even though he didn’t cook. He was a Harvard grad who was modest but loquacious. It wasn’t about the food or the decorations for Neil. He loved good conversation. He laughed easily. His space was your space and you could bring in any kind of refreshment and he wouldn’t feel insulted. When he had us for dinner he gave us several possible entrees from which to choose: Swedish Meatballs, Lasagna, Stuffed Peppers, or Chicken Cordon Bleu. Once we placed our orders Neil started working them through his microwave. His freezer was always loaded with Stouffer’s frozen dinners and we enjoyed great conversation over Neil’s Melt-a-Meals which he always put onto real plates before serving them. That first date party went longer than I expected. By 1AM we were down to about five people. By 2:30 there were four of us left: this guy who had asked me on a date, Neil, and another new seminarian who left a job as a Red Lobster security guard to pursue ministry. Conversation never waned and we finally ended up at a Golden Nugget Café near my North Side apartment at 5AM. I was dropped off at my place around 6AM, after a hearty meal of pancakes and eggs. “Did you like him,” my roommate asked me later that morning? “Yes,” I said, “but let me get some sleep first!” I also have the distinct memory of walking into a White Castle on the South Side of Chicago at 2AM with Garrett and Neil because sliders sounded good at the time. Neil wore his sunglasses into the elite joint and we got the feeling that we should order and get out quickly.

Neil came to our wedding. He wasn’t afraid to dress with flair and you can see that with his tie. I wonder how many weddings and ordinations he went to over the course of forty years at the two seminaries. Unlike many faculty members, he fraternized with students and became a beloved part of our theological education. When I was expecting our first child we took a trip to Dixon, Illinois with Neil. I don’t remember why we went there but Garrett told me it was to dig into Ronald Reagan’s roots. I remember we stayed at some sort of campground that had rustic cottages. There were two bedrooms, a living room and a sink. We had very little money and it fit within our budget. I remember two things about that trip (and it wasn’t related to any museums we might have seen). We sat around our cabin table getting splinters and playing scrabble. Neil had the first turn of the game. With his crooked grin, he triumphantly laid down all seven of his tiles, spelling out the word TOILETS. He received 50 bonus points for using up all his tiles in one turn plus a tripling of the value of his tiles. We laughed about that for years. The other thing I remember is making my way across a dark campground in the middle of the night, a pregnant mother-to-be who needed to use the toilet in the camp bathroom. The days of using that sort of accommodation in our marriage were short-lived.

After three years of serving a suburban Chicago parish, Garrett and I moved to Grand Rapids with our 15-month old daughter, Lisa. Neil came to visit numerous times. He was an easy guest and interacted readily with our children. I remember Lisa eating a fruit roll-up with a very unnatural turquoise coloration. She was clutching it in her warm hand, eating it while playing. It probably had some hair sticking to it. Neil asked her what it was and she offered it to him. Before I could stop him, he leaned over to her extended hand and took a bite. Ughh! “That’s good!” he exclaimed. Lisa toddled away, happy to have shared. He visited another time with a seminary friend from downstate Illinois. Karen was funny! She threw herself a spinster party when she turned 35. She and Neil agreed that they would marry at age 65 if they hadn’t found anyone else by then. The weekend they came to stay with us our boys had other little boys staying in tents in our backyard. They ran in and out of the house all night, disrupting our conversation and filling our living room with gangly, flying insects. I was horrified as a host but the two of them sat there happily while chaos swirled around them. For two individuals who didn’t have any kids that was extraordinary.

But Neil was one of seven kids. He grew up in farm country. Erie is about twenty minutes from Moline, where Neil bought his condo. Moline is right across the river from Davenport, Iowa. As you drive southwest from Chicago, where he spent his career, the land stretches out in lush fields and stately old barns. Neil traveled “home” often to be with his extended family. He was beloved Uncle Neil to nearly 20 nieces and nephews who, no doubt, offered him molten fruit roll-ups and other delicacies. He left his quiet bachelor pad in Hyde Park to enter effortlessly into the energy of his family in the small town of Erie and the big metropolis of Moline. No wonder he could handle our kids so well. His last visit to us was over Memorial Day weekend in 2016. He stayed with us for four days. So we hit some museums. We ate good meals at our home and in the city. We played games with our grown children. He and I sat on our front porch one morning reading our respective books. When we said goodbye to him we were certain that our next visit would be to his condo on the Mississippi River.

We traveled to Neil’s church in Hyde Park for his memorial service on November 12, 2016. The sanctuary was packed. Various people spoke and we learned that Neil was family not just to us but to countless others. One former seminarian said that Neil kept up with him after he left the Chicago area for ministry. So this former student invited Neil to join him and a few others on a camping trip. Neil said, “Sure.” When Neil met up with the guy and transferred his gear into the guy’s car, he hung a bright, summer suit on the hook in the back seat. His friend laughed and told him he didn’t think they would need a suit at any part of the camping trip. Neil told him that he thought there might be an evening when they would leave their tents or cabins or whatever and go into town, whatever town they would be near, and then it would be nice to have something dressy. The suit traveled with them to their campsite. I don’t know if he found the occasion to wear it but I suspect he did. The point is, Neil didn’t camp. He wasn’t one to go on hikes or put on spandex or sweat pants. He readily agreed to go on this trip because he loved being with people. He had countless good friends whose kids, like ours, knew him as Uncle Neil and offered him prized treats from sticky fingers. And he communed with them.

Neil’s family hosted us well when we stopped by to visit him in the Erie Cemetery. We stood at his gravesite with two sisters and his brother-in-law, sharing memories. We could see where his gift for good conversation came from. The heat index that evening was nearly 100 degrees and the sun shone hot. But we lingered there, feeling like we were honoring our commitment to come see him in his new digs. His brother-in-law told us exactly where his condo was in Moline. After a river boat ride up and down the Mississippi River in Moline we looked for it and found it. We saw the third-floor balcony where he would have brought out a steaming hot plate of Swedish Meatballs, fresh from the microwave. We would have squeezed together on the balcony, overlooking the river of his childhood and talked well into the night.

Happy Birthday, Neily. We miss you.


Holy Revelry

In spite of a menacing virus we have enjoyed some parties in the past months. Many of them have certainly looked different from the pre-COVID parties but they have honored the high points in folks’ lives nonetheless. We did a drive-by parade to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduating high school seniors. On Mother’s Day my family gathered on our front porch, balancing plates of hot food on our knees in 42 degree weather! There have been scaled down weddings held in outdoor sanctuaries. We confirmed twelve young people into the church family in our parking lot in June, giving them individually packaged cupcakes instead of a cake reception with the praise of a whole congregation. We have found ways to mark the high points of each other’s lives even with limitations put in place.

But there have been other sorts of parties as well. In Alabama some young adults threw COVID parties, inviting someone who was infected with the virus. Everyone who attended knew that the first person to contract the coronavirus after the party won a cash prize. Over the summer there were pool parties at private homes where people crowded together, eating and drinking happily, only to later be part of an outbreak of the disease. College coeds, despite warnings, went south over Spring Break. They proclaimed to the TV camera that their mental health was as important as their physical well-being. That sounds good until some of them found themselves hospitalized and, in some cases, on a ventilator because of their careless partying. Some who were interviewed stated between gasps for breath that they hadn’t taken the virus as seriously as they should have.

So why do we throw parties? We enjoy being with others. We like to know we belong. We’re looking for joy. Sometimes we walk away from a party getting out of it what we desired. Other times, the only parting gift is a hangover.

In Exodus 32 we witness a party. A gold sculpture of a calf is centrally placed and people dance around it wildly. Their leader, Moses, ascended Mt. Sinai earlier and the people despair of him ever returning. He is their connection to God. Without him, they feel fearful and lost. They cry out to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and he decides to melt down their jewelry and form an idol that they could both see and touch. The Golden Calf Shindig was an effort at bringing God down into our world. Aaron tries to strip away the mystery of the faith and make God into what the people wanted. In Moses’ absence the Israelites become a self-worshiping community.

False worship is a feast we give ourselves. A couple of years ago our confirmation class went to Temple Emmanuel for their Friday evening Shabbat Worship service. Much of the service was led by a 12-year old young man as a crucial requirement for his bar mitzvah. After a year of study with the Rabbi that culminated his leadership of the worship, the family threw a huge coming-of-age party for their son. Some non-Jewish friends ask their parents to throw a bar mitzvah for them. They want the same kind of joy that was shared amongst the loved ones of their Jewish friend. In some cases, parents granted their wish, throwing lavish parties. But these were devoid of any spiritual significance. No prayerful study went into the celebration, as it did for their Jewish friend. With false worship a gathering closes in on itself. We give ourselves our own nice, alternative world where everything centers around us and God is not on the guest list.

In our worship services God is the host and we are the guests. The scriptures we hear, the prayers we say, the words to the hymns we love point us to God. Participants in our services use their gifts not to hear our applause. They hope that others will meet Jesus through their offering. I remember a little girl dancing around the Advent candles one Christmas Eve because she knew the moment was special. Her family was going to light the Christ candle and she offered her own liturgical dance! That was beautiful, unscripted worship of God! One child in our congregation gave me a picture she had colored in Sunday School. It showed Jesus on the cross, smiling. I asked her why this stick figure of our Savior had such a broad grin. “Because He’s dying to save us from our sin,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. She couldn’t believe that the pastor didn’t know that! Her image of smiling, crucified Jesus was an act of worship! We can tell when someone is “performing” for human accolades and that feels very different from someone who loses him or herself in sacrificial giving in Jesus’ name. God must be central to our worship in order for us to find joy.

We get some background information about who is at the Golden Calf Shindig in The Book of Numbers. In chapter 11 we read about the Israelites crying out to God for meat in the harsh setting of the wilderness. Verse 4 states: “The rabble among them had a strong craving: and the Israelites also wept again and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat.’” As the Jews fled from their masters in Egypt, making their way across the parted Red Sea, there were non-Jews who joined them. These were folks who were caught up in the power of God and whose own lives may have been very difficult. So they grabbed onto the Jewish nation, expecting freedom in a new country and an ease to their difficult lives. But they found themselves eking out a living in the desert. With the miraculous parting of the waters nearly forgotten and the trials of nomadic living a daily challenge, the emptiness of these spiritual interlopers became evident. Not unlike the outsiders who have hijacked peaceful protests this summer and turned cities into war zones, these “rabble rousers”, as they’re called in Numbers 11, aren’t anchored in the Jewish faith. Understandably the Jews’ boundaries are not well in place because of the hardship of their daily lives so they are easily led astray by this small but vocal minority.

“Make us gods who will go before us, Aaron”, cry out the folks who have never bowed down to a higher authority. Their idolatry of self leads the Jews to abandon their faith in the God who has just liberated them. Instead they throw a party and worship an inanimate object that has been crafted out of their family jewels.

How do we establish fail-safe boundaries as Christians when our self-absorbed culture has made gods of themselves? How can we find joy at drunken parties where the desire is to get wasted and not connected? Martin Luther describes this challenge in the words to his hymn, A Mighty Fortress: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” When is our revelry holy because God is the object of our praise? When does the party go south because we’ve decided it’s all about us? We live off our own strength, worshiping our own versions of Golden Calves, until our lives fall apart. Then, maybe through a Moses figure who pleads on our behalf, we see God. We are reminded that God never left us. We reorder the broken pieces to our world and find joy!

Karl Barth is the theologian who suggested that our faith requires us to hold the newspaper (or our smart phone now?)in one hand and the Bible in the other. Daily life collides with our faith and our faith helps us sort out the pieces. Barth writes, “We are God’s debtors. We owe him not something, whether it be little or much, but quite simply…we owe him ourselves, since we are his creatures, sustained and nourished by his goodness. We, his children, called by his word, admitted to the service of his glorification—we, brothers and sisters of the man Jesus Christ—come short of what we owe to God.” Karl Barth, Prayer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p.74.

In several conversations with clergy friends we’ve wondered what church will be like when the threat of COVID is over? It felt pretty comfortable to worship in pajamas on Sunday mornings, drinking coffee and watching the service on our TV. Never before have I “led” worship like that in my 35 years of ministry! The longer we stay apart, the more “normal” this new life of being distanced becomes. But what are we missing? Our congregation has responded with great innovation to the challenges of leading worship during a pandemic. But maybe we’ve discovered that the very nature of being Church is bodily presence: sharing from the same loaf for communion, holding hands for a closing prayer in a small group meeting, hugging someone after worship who’s had a bad week, setting out a table of homemade treats for coffee hour after worship. How are we still the Church now, in our fractured state? How do we hold onto our sense of community now and how do we pick up the pieces when, by God’s grace, we can meet safely again?

As usual our congregation is doing a stewardship campaign this fall. We invite our membership to make their financial commitments toward the next year’s budget. This is certainly a strange year to ask folks to fund our ministry given that many haven’t been and won’t be in the building for quite some time. Our Stewardship Committee has followed a four year theme of growth: planting, growing, harvesting and, this year, letting the fields lie fallow. A good farmer knows that the nutrients in soil need to be replenished by leaving the field fallow for a year. We could not have known, when we chose these four stages in growing crops, that our lives would lie fallow in some significant ways this year. As our personal lives narrowed to our homes, our church life became remote as well. We have had to dig deep to find the spiritual resources needed to survive feelings of fear, loss, and loneliness. We have had to learn new tricks—like zoom meetings ad nauseum—in order for our businesses and schools to survive. We have discovered how much personal contact with others matters to us. Though much of what we value has been set aside, we have found joy.

The Israelites set aside a Jubilee year every 50 years when land was restored to families, debts were cancelled and the community lived off of the crops from the previous year. I don’t know if the past eight months have offered you some element of rest? But I am sure you have drawn from a spiritual well to find joy in a time of hardship. When toilet paper cannot be found and hand sanitizer prices soar due to high demand, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. In the midst of these disorienting changes your faith keeps you anchored. Your relationship to your home congregation, though lived out differently for now, is still vital. Teaching your children to love Jesus could not be more important as ugly politics set poor examples for how we do business and classrooms are associated with risk more than learning. As our congregation makes plans for our ministry in 2021 we don’t know what it will look like. But we do know Who guides our way. I hang onto the words of the song we belted out from small chairs in Vacation Bible School years ago when our young voices gave rise to holy revelry: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay!”


The Water Bowl

I heard a man tell a story about the gift given to him by a dying cat. In his neighborhood there was a stray cat that everyone saw on a regular basis. The cat was missing one eye. On that same side of her head her ear was mangled. She had a stump for a tail and one foot that was deformed. Her skin was covered with sores which were visible through patchy fur. She scrounged in the garbage for her meals. Clearly her life had been a struggle.

She always approached people and rubbed against their ankles, hoping for friendship. Repeatedly she was pushed aside because no one wanted the fleas she was carrying. No one trusted the sores that plagued her. She remained forgiving of their cruelty. The human community gave her the name, “Ugly”.

One evening the man heard a fight between a dog and cat. He went outside to see two dogs attacking Ugly. They ran away when he yelled at them but the cat had already sustained significant injuries. He gently picked her up and carried her up to his apartment. He tried to clean out her wounds but she was badly hurt. As he held her, she purred. She only lived several minutes in his care but she looked into his eyes and purred. In the last moments of her life she finally found someone who
was kind to her. He held her for awhile after she died, deeply moved that she had trusted him. He saw past her scarred body and realized she had great beauty. The brief moments he spent with a cat named Ugly changed him.

When the quarantine began many of the animal shelters in our country emptied out! Facing the reality that they would be shut in their homes for a lengthy period of time, folks quickly headed to animal shelters to find a loving companion. Children were excited to finally get the dog they had always wanted. People living alone knew that they would need a friend during a predictably lonesome time. So animals traded cages for warm beds. They had lots of time to bond with their new friends. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “My Rescue Dog Rescued Me”? Shelter animals and strays seem to have a lasting gratitude toward those who adopt them. They remember the time that they had no home, when they were hungry and thirsty with no one to provide for them. So when they are welcomed into a family that provides good ear rubs and a water bowl that is always filled, they show us their contentment.

In Galatians 5 we read, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” We encounter these attributes in our pets. We had a Blessing of the Animals service in our parking lot this past Sunday. Twelve furry friends joined in worship with their human families. Folks shared some stories about how their pets teach them to love! One man in our congregation shared how the family dog would always welcome the teenaged son home from school. His high school years were hard so he arrived home subdued. The dog would come right up to him, place her paws on the young man’s chest and look into his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to leave the unkind words of classmates behind and settle into his dog’s unconditional love.

Our dog learned early on that we don’t want him barking loudly. When he is particularly anxious around the dinner table for some scrap of food he doesn’t bark but makes conversational sounds. He reminds us that he’s there. When a UPS driver runs up to our door and leaves a package, there is no self-control! He barks to let us know that there is an intruder. But he has learned to exercise self-control, as difficult as that is for him, because he wants to please us. Animals that are reunited with their owners after a lengthy separation are forgiving of that time apart. They are kind toward their owner even if their needs are not perfectly met. They are endlessly forgiving of our foibles and how we sometimes forget to keep the water bowl full. In these animals who share our lives, we experience the fruit of the Spirit that reminds us of how we are to love one another.

In Exodus 17 the Israelites, who are newly liberated from the Egyptians, they find themselves in the austere setting of the wilderness. They have left a settled life of slavery for a nomadic life of freedom. We read that the Israelites journeyed by stages. One step at a time, their whole camp literally pulled up stakes and moved on to the next spot. Similarly our lives travel forward in stages. I suspect we will look back on 2020 and say that this was not a great phase of our life‘s journey. Some stages are easier than others and we learn not to take that for granted. Some have great gifts that we are only able to recognize later. With the upheaval of hurricanes recently we have seen how animals stick with their human companions at difficult times. They are resilient when we move them to different places, knowing that belonging to the pack is all that matters.
In this challenging time for the Israelites they asked a question that laid bare their sense of abandonment: Is the Lord among us or not? Even in their slave quarters in Egypt, they had a cherished sense of routine. They raised their families, had food to eat and knew what to expect each day. But in the wilderness, with no reliable supply of water or food, they wonder if God can possibly be with them. So Moses takes their plaint up with God. He begs God to do something about their needs, arguing that neglect of the chosen people would be a bad reflection on God. Moses also gives a reminder that these are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who were assured that they would be part of this sacred covenant. What if all of them were miraculously transported across the Red Sea only to die in the wilderness?

God listens to Moses who is at his wits end. God points to a large rock and instructs this exhausted leader to tap the boulder with his walking stick. Having seen the waters of the Red Sea part, Moses approaches the solid object with optimism. No sooner does he tap it and water gushes out. The Israelites would have an endless supply of fresh water. With their needs met, their question is answered: God is among them.

I think of the complete reliance our pets have upon us. It’s endearing when they make it clear that they need us. My dog sometimes paws at us when we stop petting him, as if to say, “Don’t stop! I love this!” My daughter, Maria, fell in love with a tiny bunny that fit into her hand at the Truffant Flea Market eight years ago. When Ingrid is very happy with an ear rub, she makes a noise that Maria calls “chittering.” She receives the rubs and bumps her nose against Maria’s hand if she stops. Our animal friends count on us to love them, feed them, and keep the water bowl filled.

I think back to the cat named Ugly. After a life of rejection and suffering she spent her last moments in the arms of someone who finally wasn’t afraid to touch her. She showed her gratitude toward this stranger by purring in spite of her grave injuries. He might seem like the savior but, in fact, he was deeply moved by the generosity of this wounded cat’s spirit. In her dying moments she accepted his love, forgiving the ugliness those who looked past her needs and rejected her. Our pets are such a gift to us with their wagging tails, their loud purring and their sweet requests for affection. Today we offer our blessing to them knowing how greatly they have blessed us. In these relationships that bridge human and animal worlds, we are reminded that God created us to be interdependent. Our faith calls us to acknowledge our complete reliance on God who more than tends to our needs. So each time that we fill the water bowl for our furry friend or spiky hedgehog or hopping rabbit, we remember that God made water come out of a rock! We are in good hands. God is among us, whatever the stage of our journeys!

Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!

Entitlement or Grace?

In the Old Testament book of Jonah we meet the most reluctant prophet ever. He is asked by God launch his ministry by preaching a compelling sermon to his enemies so that they might convert. It’s as if he were asked to do a revival in Baghdad a couple of years after 9-11. Imagine being asked to lead a mission trip to a Taliban training camp, making their lives easier, preaching in hopes that they might repent of their sin. I doubt that many of us would sign up for either destination. Is it possible that we don’t wish for some people to be redeemed? Could it be that we don’t want to share the gifts of our Christian faith with others whom we deem grossly undeserving?

I have various pieces of artwork that feature this familiar tale. They all depict a human form inside the belly of a great fish. We think it’s cute because we know he gets out of that dark, slimy prison. But it’s not a charming children’s story. Jonah, in my estimation, is the least admirable prophet because he drags his heels every step of his missionary journey. His heart is simply not in it. The fact that God would use someone like Jonah is good news to me.  There’s hope!

Jonah and Pinnochio | Christian Funny Pictures - A time to laugh

The story begins with God tapping unsuspecting Jonah with a mission: go to the great city of Nineveh and preach repentence to them. Jonah gives God a thumbs up then jumps on board a ship that goes the opposite direction! This is one gutsy guy! He thinks he can deceive God. He disobeys and thinks he’s going to get away with it. Why is he so against this assignment? It has to do with the destination. The Jews hated the Ninevites.

A little history. The Assyrians were the world superpower in the 8th century BC. Nineveh was the capital city of their empire. They waged war on the Northern Kingdom of the Israelites for three long years, ultimately taking the city. The prophet Nahum gives voice to the hatred toward these violent captors who were ruthless toward the Jews. In his writing Nahum daydreams about these enemies being slaughtered and addresses them directly: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses…’I am against you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?…Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?’”

Bedtime stories for little Jewish children of Jonah’s generation had to do with bringing their ancient enemies down and Nineveh was on the frontlines of their hatred. So Jonah must have felt like he picked the short straw when directed to bring his enemies into the fold of God’s love. Instead, his nationalistic fervor leads him to sail in the other direction, assuming God’s GPS had limitations. But God’s sonar knew right where this reluctant prophet floated. Jonah was ultimately cast overboard by his crew members when they learned he was messing with God. They didn’t want to do it and even tried to save him as he thrashed in the water. But before they could get to him, a great fish surfaced from the deep and swallowed him whole. Imagine the conversation over dinner in the mess hall after witnessing that! After that biblically significant time of three days, the fish obeys the call of God by vomiting Jonah up onto the shore. Even the fish is more obedient to God than the slimy prophet! Realizing that it was hopeless to escape God’s notice, Jonah finally obeys. But remember, obedience doesn’t always equate with genuine repentance!

In the earlier chapter we read that Jonah walks a full day into the city before uttering the first word of his carefully crafted sermon: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That goes down as the shortest fire-and-brimstone sermon on record! He didn’t give an “unless clause”: “…unless you repent of your sin!” Did he delight in preaching it more as a proclamation of truth than an invitation to change?

In spite of his lackluster sermon delivered from a cold heart, the whole city repents, including the King and even the animals! They put on the traditional outfit of penance—sackcloth—and fasted, hoping to win the favor of Jonah’s God. Verse 10 is a triumphant announcement which would have been the perfect ending point of the story: God sees their changed hearts and decides not to smite them. The Ninevites cry out, “Three cheers for Jonah’s God” and thank the reluctant prophet for his successful revival. Yay! Win-win, right?

Not so fast. This is where our reading begins. Jonah’s anger burns when God acts with mercy. He offers the oddest prayer to God. In essence he yells at God saying he knew God would do this. He knew God was a softie and always willing to forgive a remorseful sinner so that’s why he—Jonah—fled in the first place. He didn’t want these enemies-of-the-state to be forgiven and he knew God would extend grace. So he invites God to kill him off right then, right there. If he had to head home with the news that he was responsible for the salvation of Nineveh, he would be utterly rejected by his own people.

I imagine God asking quietly: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah has a clear understanding of God’s goodness…but wants God’s wrath for these heathens. Even after three days facing his mortality in the belly of a great fish, Jonah’s hatred for his enemies hasn’t abated. In fact, if we review the history of Jonah’s people, the Israelites, our ancestors in the faith, we see that they sin repeatedly, unabashedly and seldom repent of their sin. Yet Jonah thinks that they are entitled to God’s grace whereas his enemies are not. The Ninevites display a remarkable showing of penance and they weren’t even raised to believe in this God! Their confession of sin disgusts Jonah. He simply isn’t having it. “Let ‘em burn”, he rages in his heart.

Princes Lady Diana Free Printable Masks. - Oh My Fiesta! in english

Just over 23 years ago on September 10 I was in the hospital, spending the day with laboring to give birth to my fourth child. For several hours, when the labor was easier, Garrett and I had the TV on. Pretty much every channel was covering the death and recent funeral of Princess Diana. She had been laid to rest four days earlier but the world wasn’t ready to let her go. She was royalty, a sainted hero of her people and the world, who could do no wrong. She was entitled to a mass funeral procession and a memorial service with Elton John singing his now-beloved requiem. We remember her two young boys trailing behind her casket, carrying the sadness of the world on their small shoulders. It was hardly the right TV programming to distract me from my own increasing pain!

Catholic, Charity, Mother, Nun, Teresa

Every now and then there would be a news report about another death, one that happened five days after Princess Diana’s: Mother Theresa. She died in Calcutta where she had poured out her life caring for the desperately poor alongside her Sisters of Mercy. Her death was almost completely eclipsed by the global mourning over Diana. Her funeral mass was a week after the princesses’ lavish memorial. The tiny saint’s body was laid out on a slab of ice to prevent decay. While some world leaders took time out of their busy schedules to pay tribute to Mother Theresa, her funeral followed the ancient order of a mass for the dead in which prayers were made for her soul. God was urged to have mercy upon her and to receive her into eternal keeping. Her funeral, rather that worshiping her, reminded viewers of the universal need for God’s grace. The juxtaposition of these two women in death laid bare our human notion that only certain people are deserving of God’s grace. Too often we assume that we not only have access to that list but have a say-so in shaping it! The sermon I heard as I labored toward welcoming my fourth child into our family was that of entitlement versus grace. Welcome to our conflicted world, baby girl!

Before we turn the page on Jonah and write him off as misguided, we would do well to see how his life mirrors our own. Jonah was all too ready to throw his enemies under the bus. He prays for God’s justice to be meted out toward them. In his small-mindedness, this can only mean annihilation. He cried out to God for rescue from the belly of the great fish. In spite of his disobedience, God dramatically rescued him. Jonah reasoned that he was entitled to God’s good grace. Too often we follow suit. We demand justice when what is needed is God’s mercy. Our myopic prayer is, “Be loving to me—but not to them!” We want to keep our God and the best of God’s gifts for ourselves. We’re often like spoiled children, assuming we are deserving of our parents’ Visa Gold Card to buy the life of our dreams. We are entitled to the best whereas those poor schmucks over there have it coming!

It’s interesting to note that the whole city of Nineveh repents of their sin when a foreign prophet comes in and mumbles a really pathetic sermon. Clearly it wasn’t his words or oratory skills that converted them. So what did? Their hearts were unguarded such that they were able to encounter God—one they had never met before—in spite of the messenger! The “heathens” met and worshiped God whereas Jonah, who had grown up with this God and been rescued a couple of times, sat in a heap of his own pity. He was pouting and unimpressed. If Jonah were our child, sulking because there was no petting zoo at his birthday party, we would want to shake some gratitude out of him! We would probably raise our voices to teach this selfish child a lesson. But I imagine God dealing quietly with Jonah. God asks the prophet a reflective question: Is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s answer shows he is still inwardly focused: “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Gently building the case away from entitlement, God continues the effort to move the reluctant prophet’s view away from his own self-interest: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

And that’s where the story ends. Not at the triumphant conclusion of one of the greatest movements in national penance we’ve ever read about. It ends with a quiet confrontation of one of God’s chosen servants about the sin of entitlement and the universal need for grace. Who are our Ninevites? Do we want them to be saved? Or have we already turned our back on them and walked away?

I remember the wristbands we wore about twenty years ago: WWJD. What would Jesus do? Do we believe that Jesus has enough love to go around? Or is it a limited commodity that we need to hoard? Entitlement or grace? Jonah’s struggle still confronts us.


Crazy Forgiveness

We spent this past summer, as a congregation, in an extended family reunion. Our scripture passages traveled through Genesis, reminding us of the stories of our ancestors in the faith. They were not necessarily the tales that make us beam with pride! However, as with our own family trees, sometimes we find in the raked up pile of dead leaves something of great beauty. The passage from Genesis 50 is one such high point for the family of Abraham and Sarah.

In the Joseph narrative the father plays an ongoing critical role. He has served as the buffer between competitive brothers who have grown into men. Backing up several decades, Joseph faced peril when his father was more than 60 miles away from him and his older brothers were tending the sheep. In this story we jump in where Jacob has died, leaving the scheming older brothers without any protection from the old man. They have reunited with the younger brother they sold into slavery years earlier. They are shocked that Joe is not only alive but now elevated to a position of great authority, second in national command. He is charged with oversight of a national relief program through which folks traveling to Egypt because of a widespread famine would be given food. This is what led to the migration of Joe’s brothers to the country where he had landed in chains years earlier. In their unlikely encounter, foreigners throwing themselves at the mercy of a ruler, Joseph ultimately reveals himself to the brothers. The tables have turned. Joe’s elderly father learns that his son is alive! He is carted endless miles in the company of his guilt-ridden sons for a tender reunion.

In this passage, Jacob has died. The older brothers are terrified because Joe holds the power to do them in. Without the father keeping the peace, why would Joseph treat them with anything but revenge? An eye for an eye, right? So the brothers contrive a deathbed wish of the father who can no longer refute what they say. Dear old dad, they informed young Joe, had pleaded for him to forgive the sins of his older siblings. They are still conniving in an effort to win mercy from their powerful brother. The assumption is that someone who holds power over others will use it to exact justice. Given what they had done to him years earlier, they legitimately had it coming.

Nineteen years ago we kicked off our new program year in our congregation with celebrative worship and Sunday School classes reconvening. People reconnected with each other over coffee, telling tales of their summer adventures. Two days later our Tuesday morning Bible Study class met for the first time. Before class started we had heard about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Folks assumed it was a terrible accident. We talked about it in class, prayed for the victims then the students headed home 90 minutes later. During that time three more planes crash landed into buildings and fields, confirming that it was an act of terror. I remember my office administrator and me talking in hushed tones, trying to make sense of the senseless. We didn’t know how to respond to such an assault on our national security. I remember we posted a note on the church doors that read: “The Church is closed due to a national emergency.” Then, like everyone else, we fled for home where we surrounded ourselves with our loved ones and stayed glued to the TV.

19 years later we still ask ourselves what justice looks like. To protect ourselves from further aggression, we put new security measures in place that we still live with today. Think of how different it is to check in for a flight now than it was 20 years ago. We went to war and sought to hold accountable those groups that orchestrated the 9-11 attacks. We hunted down leaders in spider holes and fast asleep in heavily armed quarters. An eye for an eye, our Old Testament lesson proclaims. Our understanding of human justice guided us in our retribution. Did that make us feel better? Safer? Certainly it did, to some extent. But we wrestle with a bigger issue as Christians. What does our love of a forgiving God suggest as the correct response to those who targeted us as enemies and killed more than 3000 of our loved ones? The cost of forgiveness is great. It requires repentance that can only come after a long time of actively seeking to understand each other. Forgiveness in the face of such suffering does not come from our human effort. It can only be found when we submit to the One who instructed us to love our enemies.

Years earlier, without the protection of the father, Joe’s brothers turned their jealousy into an act of terror. They sold him as a human slave to a traveling caravan of merchants. They shook the dust off their feet and headed home to a completely new reality. Their father was never the same again, believing his son was killed by a wild animal. The brothers, who made up the lie to cover their unthinkable crime, lived with guilt and shame. Meanwhile, young Joe suffered at the hands of his captors but ultimately was elevated, by God’s grace, to a position of power. Absent his own family, he established a new community in Egypt. Once his family migrated to Egypt at Joseph’s invitation, Jacob became a father figure not just to his own children. At the time of his death the Egyptian servants mourned his passing just as family would do. Joe hung onto his faith, a man who belonged to two communities.

The brothers assume that justice is meted out with reciprocity. When he weeps at their request for mercy, they fear for their lives. Fulfilling the dream Joseph had decades earlier, they bow down to the one they had sold for a handful of change. In an ironic turn of events, they offer to become his slaves. This, they hope, will pay off the debt which may spare them their lives. But young Joe changes up the narrative. He interrupts the generational cycle of victimization with something the older brothers never saw coming: forgiveness. This is the wildcard that can only be described as crazy! Joe sees something good in these siblings who had tried to get rid of him. He sees their changed hearts. As they weep together, a dozen men grieving the loss of their father and a long-ago loss of innocence, Joseph reminds them of who truly has authority. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”

Charles Colson’s prison ministry takes people into prisons to meet with inmates, to worship with them and get to know them. A group of them visited a large penitentiary where an execution was scheduled for the next day. As usual, every person from the ministry team was accounted for upon entering for the prayer meeting. Afterwards the inmates filed out and Colson’s team was shocked to discover that they were one man short! A frenzied search in the facility located the Christian man sitting in a prisoner’s cell, praying with him. It was the cell of the man who was to be executed. The irate group of missionaries upbraided the man for putting their program at risk. “How could you do this to us?” they yelled. The man answered, “My name is Judge Brewer. I am the judge who sentenced this man. I am here because we both need time to forgive one another.”

In commenting on this text from Genesis, Claudio Carvalhaes states, “For us, as for Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness never comes without weeping.” That’s how we know God is at work. When our own efforts at achieving justice meet with failure, God steps in. When we are unable to forgive someone who has wronged us, the One who instructs us to love our enemies enables us to let go. Our world urges us to ask for the maximum punishment but we discover that we still feel weighted down with sadness after the sentencing. Some people die having carried hatred toward their enemies for decades. Their God-given gifts dried up because they invested their energy into human equations for justice.

The story ends with young Joe proclaiming that God brought good out of their evil. The way its phrased could make it seem like God was the author of the original sibling betrayal years before. This is troubling. Why would God cause significant harm so as to teach a lesson in forgiveness a lifetime later? Timothy Cargal offers an answer that makes more sense of the God I know and serve. He writes, “God is neither directly nor indirectly responsible for the plan to sell Joseph into slavery; rather, God actively engages what they have done so that ultimately it has a redemptive rather than destructive result.”

In this playing field of daily human activity, our interaction is often harmful toward one another. Many times that hurt is unintentional and immediately regretted. But sometimes it is intentional and that kind of malice is deeply damaging. In the midst of our power struggles and insecurities, God is at work. Just as Jesus brought healing and even restoration of life, God redeems our messes into moments of forgiveness. When undeserved mercy is offered, tears flow, hearts are healed, and God is praised.


What Manner of Love?

Illusionist David Blaine rose to new heights in his impressive professional life last week. Strapped to 52 helium balloons, he ascended into the sky at the rate of about 500 feet per minute. He ultimately floated more than five miles above the surface of the earth. During this time he communicated with folks watching from below, sharing his awe for the amazing view with his 9-year old daughter, Dessa. He trained for the stunt for two years. He finally detached himself from the balloons and fell toward the Arizona desert before releasing his parachute. He landed upright and jubilant to have conquered yet another seemingly impossible feat. When reunited with his daughter, he hugged her and said, “I did this for you.”

I shook my head when I heard that because it would never cross my mind to show my love for my children in that way. Nor do I think my kids would appreciate me taking on such a daunting experiment for their sake! Of course, Blaine’s profession and very nature is to push his human limits. But I will settle for making a good dinner for my family so that we can sit together and get caught up on life!

By what manner of love are we to care for those around us?

For many parents the past six months have been disappointing. Their graduating seniors have not been able to march to the beat of “Pomp and Circumstance” with their classmates. Open Houses have been cancelled. The freshman dorm experience has been replaced with working on-line to complete the homework professors have assigned. Much anticipated wedding celebrations have been put on hold or greatly changed. First day of school outfits have been the same shorts and t-shirts they wore all summer with school supplies set out near their in-home study area. Parents have been broken-hearted that they couldn’t provide for their children the typical sorts of parties that celebrate their accomplishments. So what manner of love do we owe our children as parents when a pandemic sweeps in?

The Christian mystics say that God’s love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. There are so many rules we teach our children so that they will be happy, healthy, law-abiding citizens. But Paul’s writing reiterates the teaching of Jesus. If you love one another, every other law we’ve mandated will be observed. Human law must bow down to the demands of love, not the other way around. Laws become burdensome. One much-needed regulation multiplies into several others as interpretations of situations challenge the original intent. We witness how our laws are not evenly applied. Is it possible that we could ever subject our human laws to this holy standard of Godly love on earth? Or should we just give up on that now and settle for minimal harm in our own neighborhoods?

“A Most Beautiful Thing” is a documentary that is newly released on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. It tells the story of the first African-American high school crew team from the 1990’s. Many of the young men who got into the boat together came from rival gangs. But, once in their vessel, they strained to the same rhythm and competed for a shared prize. This program gave the young men hope for a different future than the past they had lived. Being on the water gave them a peace they didn’t know before. Several of them reunited and decided to race together again. Arshay Cooper, who continues to transform the lives of Chicago youth through a row team, suggested to his former teammates that they invite several Chicago Police officers to train with them. It was not a popular suggestion at first. But the friends agreed and the cops showed up for the training regimen. They climbed into the boat together to compete at the Chicago sprints rowing event as a public display of unity. When folks can gather safely again, they intend to have a cook-out together with their families.

What manner of love is asked of us as Christians in an increasingly secular world?

In writing to a diverse urban congregation in Rome, Paul impressed upon them the urgency of acting NOW: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…” Do we awaken with a sense of urgency? We do when it comes to finding a vaccine that will effectively eradicate the COVID virus that has so disrupted our lives. But do we have a strong sense of mission about what we can do in the present moment even with restrictions that keep us separated? Paul challenges those early believers in Jesus to awaken from their sleep. It’s been nearly six months since we shut down our society to stay safe from an invisible enemy. Huddled in our homes with the news continually streaming, it was easy for us to step away from a sense of responsibility toward others and into a survival mode. As we say goodbye to the summer-that-wasn’t, we’re called to awaken from our Quarantine Slumber and look for new ways to serve as a congregation. After decades of living as the “Me Generation”, a deadly virus has reminded us that we don’t have the control we thought we did. Our values have been exposed as too often self-centered and destabilizing. “Just do it”, an advertising campaign that has made billions, falls flat as a motto when we must wear a mask simply to survive a grocery outing.

In this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers the good news that we have the real possibility of genuine transformation because of what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ. Though our world seems to have spun out of control, Paul assures us that the very axis on which our lives turn has not changed. God was, is and will always be in control and Christ is particularly near in our time of need. So we reconvene in safe ways as a congregation to reassure our children that faith in Jesus is what will keeps us anchored. The need is greater than ever for our families to relinquish their plans into the loving care of their Creator. Rev. Barbara Lundblad offered these words in a sermon she preached in 2005: “Christianity is not a ‘spiritual’ religion, it is an incarnational religion. It believes that God has a body, that God takes up space, that God will not remain ethereal and vague, distant and detached. In his body, God takes up space, God becomes a fact, an undeniable fact that must be dealt with and encountered, must be either acknowledged and followed, or else ignored and denied.”

And so we acknowledge and follow. In our congregation we make plans to teach our children through zoom Sunday School classes. We registered them for the new year in our parking lot, offering ice cream bars for them and their families. We’ve started back in our sanctuary for worship where they will remain seated with their parents until it’s safe to meet in classrooms again. We affirm that God uses us, uses our bodies, to make an imprint for good in our panicked world.

Paul affirms that love does no harm to a neighbor. Those who read his words in this letter would have remembered Jesus’ teaching about who our neighbor is: the most despised member of another tribe or race, a rival gang, or someone with a different lifestyle. This is who we are to actively love and serve. With the fear and suspicion that dominate our culture we have replaced the Golden Rule with an unwritten plan to keep our distance from others. Don’t do anything to them and, maybe, they won’t do anything to me. Rather than stepping out in risky expressions of caring, we find ourselves safe—and alone. We have felt a profound loneliness in the past months and may have come to finally understand that we are meant to live in community. We need each other. My gifts are meant to be shared with you as I receive what you have to offer to me. Rather than insisting that our personal freedoms supersede those of others, we are learning that we must work together in order to triumph over the sin that divides us.

Paul spells out three pairs of immoral behavior: wild parties, promiscuous hook-ups and conflict within families and faith communities. He puts those on a par with each other. Quarreling and jealousy are as damaging as drinking our lives away, Paul would say. But he reminds us that love can accomplish in us what even the best laws cannot: a transformation of the heart. There is an urgency to use these isolating, fearful times to do some soulful introspection. Am I turning to God with my fears and questions, trusting that I can grow through this time, not merely survive? Am I inviting God to use me so that I can serve as the Body of Christ, leaving my footprints in places that point to His healing love? Or am I holed up and focused on insuring my own safety against an alien world?

Paul uses the imagery of night and day. The time of darkness is coming to a close and a new day is dawning. So put on clothing that will be appropriate for the demands of a new day. What might that look like? It might be rowing gear that puts you into a boat with teammates who look different from you. Yet you strain toward a prize you all can share. It might be teaching your students in zoom classrooms with the same passion you offered in a physical room. It could be putting on a firefighter or police uniform to provide rescue to those who could put your own well-being at risk. It could be wearing a cross necklace so that folks understand that it is your faith that supports you. I hope that for many of you it will be an outfit of love that will be shared with our own church children and youth so that another generation will be taught the manner of Christ-like love that will keep them upright in a continually changing world. So wake up! It’s a new day. The time is now. The call to faithful discipleship is urgent. You needn’t soar to great heights like David Blaine to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. The law is simple: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.