Categories
Uncategorized

Between Campsites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Uncategorized

Lenten Lethargy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Uncategorized

The Price of Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what obscures God’s glory for you?

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

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

Categories
Uncategorized

The Sacred Conversation

I ran into Peg at Meijer several years ago. We started to talk and she exclaimed to me how an in-depth Bible Study she had taken at the church had saved her. Peg lost both her adult children to separate tragic accidents that happened about ten years apart. A deep chasm of grief separated her from her world for years and understandably so. As we stood by the leeks and lettuces, she said that reading the scriptures and praying with the same small group for a year was the catalyst—finally—to her healing. The dark cloud of sorrow began to lift and glimmers of joy began to peek through. My first thought when I learned she had died was to rejoice that she was reunited with her beloved children. As we walk through the Lenten season, I celebrate the rescue she found in scripture and prayer.

I’m struck that we don’t read anything deeply any more. We are internet addicts. On-line publishers accommodate us by offering short articles that can be perused quickly and give just enough information to satisfy our curiosity. One of my assignments in January was to find a research article about a subject that interested me, read it, then present it to my classmates. The articles had to come from some academic database that requires membership. A good research article will tell you how they collected their data so that you know the results weren’t skewed—and they’re honest about how they did choose a particular angle. I read paragraphs several times over to understand them. Reading in depth about meaningful subjects is not something I am accustomed to! Who wants to go deep on a particular subject? I think of how the disciples wanted to stay put in Capernaum and settle for a local ministry in a small fishing village. But Jesus moved on! He asked His disciples—and that includes us—to go deep. Who can and who does?

Paul spent three weeks in Thessalonica, teaching in the local synagogue. At some point the Jews rejected Paul’s message and atempted to drive him out. Paul and his colleagues had to escape under the cover of darkness and, sadly, Paul was never able to return there again. So he wrote two letters to this young congregation to guide them as new Christians. This letter is the much-needed Constitution and By-Laws of the Early Church that was still in formation.

A few of Paul’s commands from the fifth chapter of this first letter are these. Recognize those leaders who work hard among you. Honor and appreciate them. Care for the poor. Never repay evil for evil. Rather, strive ALWAYS for what is good. Rejoice in God’s presence. This verb indicates not just a feeling of joy but an active commitment toward living a joyful life. Because Paul was convinced that God was always at work on behalf of the believers, he urged the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoicing and giving thanks became forms of worship for Paul. Holy Spirit utterances are not to be blindly accepted because someone claims to have the Spirit. The proper course is to “test” them for their authenticity. Leaders in the Church were not to be chosen based on wealth and status, which was the usual requisite for other organizations in the Greco/Roman world. Congregation members and leaders were to share responsibility for mutual care and encouragement. All worked together for good on behalf of a hurting world. Paul forbids that we seek retaliation against our enemies. He says that we are to seek to do good. When we look at these exhortations, we remember how some of the disciples of Jesus, as He instructed them on what it meant to live the Gospel, exclaimed to each other, “This is a hard teaching.” And that was the last Jesus saw of them!

A final command reminds us of how difficult it can be to follow Jesus: “Pray without ceasing.” As we’ve wrestled with the horror of the Ukrainian siege, our congregation members have remembered that we are to pray without ceasing. In 300AD, the Desert Fathers and Mothers headed out into forsaken wilderness areas to pray continually. Some called themselves “Akoimitai” which means “non-sleepers.” The newly converted believers in Thessalonica needed guidance and Paul reminded them that praying without ceasing is an attitude and orientation toward life. Equally important is rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances. People looking in on such a community would either write it off as deluded…OR…they would be attracted to its beauty.

So how do we pray without ceasing? What defines this sacred conversation? Where do we turn during this Lenten season for guidance and inspiration? If I were to give you a course syllabus, I would direct you to the psalms. Those are prayers written about 3000 years ago that still echo our experiences today. There are even “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalms. You know how it sounds: “How long, O Lord…” or “Why do my enemies surround me…” or “Where have You gone from my presence…” All emotions are allowed as modeled by the psalmists.

The Jesus Prayer developed in the desert in the fourth century as monks looked for a way to make prayer as regular as their breathing. It was short and confessional: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They found ways to connect the praying to their breathing, inhaling for the first two phrases then exhaling for the last two. Breathing this prayer became second nature over time. It can still be a centering prayer for us.

Perhaps you have heard of Brother Lawrence. He was a monk who lived in Paris in the 1600’s. For ten years he tried the monastic methods of prayer which only frustrated him. He was the cook and dishwasher for the brothers and discovered that prayer came most naturally when he talked with God in the kitchen. He grew to know and love the God of pots and pans. The style of prayer attributed to him is “practicing the presence of God.” His prayer was attentiveness in each moment which is evident in something he wrote in one of his letters: “I turn my little omelette in the pan for love of God.”

Today we talk about “vertical habits”, linking words or phrases to worship habits. One such acronym is ACTS: A for adoration, a prayer that sounds like “I love you.” C for confession which sounds like “I’m sorry.” T stands for Thanksgiving which is voiced as “Thank you.” S is for supplication which are prayers of “Help.” I love you. I’m sorry. Thank you. Help. An additional set of prayer habits are Lament or “Why?”; Illumination or “I’m listening.”; Service or “What can I do?”, and; Blessing which sounds like “Bless you.” These are helpful guides when we get stuck in only one type of prayer when we turn to God.

I wonder how you might practice the presence of God in your work and family lives? With what object from your work life might you replace the pots and pans from Brother Lawrence’s devotional life? How do you come to know God not just in Lent but every day and waking hour?

Jane Marczewski gained recognition on the recent season of America’s Got Talent. 31-year-old Jane was fighting cancer when she courageously went on stage. She sang beautifully an original song entitled, “It’s OK” and received the coveted golden buzzer. She had to withdraw from the contest as her health declined and then died in February. In an interview, she spoke of the deep faith she developed while battling terminal cancer. She teaches us about prayer through her words that live on:

“I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me,”

Paul did not write to give thanks for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. He had absolute conviction, gained of pain and suffering, that God is always at work on behalf of the beloved community. That is reason enough to give thanks and rejoice. Jane or Nightbirde, as she called herself, reminded us that our prayers don’t need to be polite. They must be honest.

“I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself. I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.”

The disciples wanted to stay put but Jesus called them out into the deep. In Lent we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in meaningful writings and deepened prayer. We ask ourselves when we read scripture passages, “What is the larger story that surrounds this scene? How can I make better sense of this so that it lands in my life in a fitting manner?” Mark up your Bibles. Earmark your devotional books. Try praying in a new setting or a new position. I have prayed laying prone on the floor and I can assure you that that position elicits a very different emotional response than resting my head on a pillow or talking to God in my car! Sometimes I’ve felt led in prayer to get more specific in my requests. So I have…and then, sometime later, I realize that exactly what I asked for happened. I understand that God is showing off with a sort of “Can you see Me now?” act. Other times I’ve realized in these sacred conversations that I’m limiting God’s power by asking for too little. So I broaden my prayers and invite God to show up in power, to knock my socks off by answering my prayers in a far better fashion than I ever would have thought to request! And it happens! I realize, with great humility, that God knows me and loves me.

Do we genuinely believe that “in all things God works for good for those who love Him?” If so, do we pray with expectancy? Do we hold God to those Biblical promises? Or do we think we have to be polite and can only begin each prayer with “Thank you?”

I’ll let the singing theologian and suffering servant offer us one final lesson through her words about the sacred conversation she kept going with God even when she lay on the bathroom floor, sickened from her cancer treatments:

“Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout. I’m sad too. If an explanation would help, He would write me one—I know it… I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead He let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. For forty years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, He sent them mercy-bread from heaven…I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray. I look for the mercy-bread that He promised to bake fresh for me each morning. The Israelites called it manna, which means ‘what is it?’ That’s the same question I’m asking—again, and again. There’s mercy here somewhere—but what is it? What is it? What is it?”

Categories
Uncategorized

The Deeper Prayer

The 2020 Olympic Games were hosted in Tokyo, Japan. That week, a typhoon threatened the area. Athletes worried about the impact this storm might have on their competition. After all their disciplined training, would it be for nothing? The COVID virus had already robbed the world of much of the usual excitement by restricting visitors. Now the Olympic Village was abuzz about a typhoon, a word seldom spoken in our country.

One of the athletes, Carissa Moore, was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on the day of the storm. A native of Hawaii, she grew up near the water! She was the Women’s World Tour Champion for the first time in 2011 when she was 19 years old. She was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. By the time she competed in the 2020 Olympics, she was at the top of her game.

Guthrie asked the surfer how she felt about the storm that brought much more challenging surfing conditions. Moore said with a smile, “Well, we were actually praying for a typhoon heading into the competition. I really wanted some waves to perform. But the conditions were actually quite challenging today. There was a lot of water moving and there wasn’t one defined peak. It was a lot of adapting and moving around and going with the flow. It was hard but happy to figure it out and find a couple[waves].” Carissa won the gold medal in surfing that day!

For this pro surfer, the weather condition that others hoped to avoid was what she prayed for. She anticipated the thrill of water, wave, wind, and wonder as she stayed upright, navigating one of the great forces of nature. She practically lived in the water so that she could thrive in increasingly challenging expressions of ocean life. To ride the crest of a wave or crouch underneath a curl of saltwater was the stuff of her dreams. She embraced the opportunity to navigate several peaks at once as an Olympic gold medal hung in the balance. After all the hours she spent in disciplined practice, she had no desire to simply paddle around in calm waters!


Jesus’ experience in Capernaum was wildly successful, according to His disciples. Peter was impressed and grateful that Jesus was able to bring healing to his ailing mother-in-law. Some of the sickly people in the village lined up, hoping for a piece of Jesus’ spiritual action. The whole town was astonished at the signs of power that Jesus demonstrated. For many of the disciples, newly accepting of the call to follow Jesus, Capernaum was familiar territory. If Jesus kept wowing crowds in their home territory, they would be regarded as local celebrities. They reasoned that it made no sense to move on. If this was the base of operations for Jesus, why not put down some roots and do a mighty ministry right there, in place?

But Jesus was not willing to settle for such a confined mission field. He knew that His time was short and that He had been sent to make disciples of all nations. He was the Son of God sent not just to Capernaum, where the disciples felt at ease. Jesus’ ministry was not just for those who lived along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He wasn’t even limited to offering salvation just to His people, the Jews. Jesus knew He was sent for a greater purpose and had prepared His whole life for this evangelistic crusade. He knew the thrill of what lay ahead: people would meet God through Him. His mission was to introduce God‘s Realm to weary folks whose noses were to the grindstone and whose hope had diminished to barely a flicker. Starting with twelve men and miraculous signs in several small villages, Jesus began to catch some waves as His life‘s ministry commenced.

In the Ancient Near East, healing encompassed two dimensions of daily life. It had to do with bodily relief. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it had to do with restoring individuals to their social setting. To be sick was to be isolated. To be diseased was to be an outcast. We certainly understand that from our COVID experiences. To be weakened was to be limited in daily activities. Loading the dishwasher is an impossible task when sick. Getting your kids dressed for school when sick with COVID is too much. Sitting in front of a computer for a Zoom meeting when we don’t feel well is exhausting! Jesus healed not just the body but the social being. He brought them back into their communities, fully restored in stature. He did this through the power of the Holy Spirit which gave them access to God’s love in mighty ways. These miracles converted the healed individuals and their support circles to belief in Jesus.

In our western world, as we try to keep upright on the treadmill of daily responsibilities, we place such an emphasis on doing. Am I doing enough? I don’t know what to do for this person. What will I do when I grow up or after I retire? Jesus’ ministry was about being. His invitation was to follow Him so as to understand God‘s calling on our life. We are human beings. He invited His followers to understand themselves in relation to a God who created and loved them. Just as He calmed a storm, Jesus was able to bring peace to those who labored for earthly success but who were increasingly emptied from the Spirit of God. He fed their souls.

Most of us find it very difficult to simply be. We had a taste of that during the quarantine. We were directed to clear our schedules and felt grateful that someone mandated us to stay home and diminish our workload. For a brief time, we had a chance to be with our loved ones, to be with ourselves, to pursue hobbies and interests that sat dormant for longer than we could remember. But we have quickly picked up the mantle of responsibility and are scurrying around with newfound skills to be able to connect even when we are apart from each other. There are gifts that have come from the last two years of separation. I am certain that those who zoom into my Bible Study on Wednesday nights would find it difficult to drive in for a class on a snowy evening. Folks on boards can join in on their meeting even as they sit in their Florida condo because of the technology we’ve mastered. But, the eagerness with which we have jumped back into full schedules shows how unsettling it is for us to be still with others for any length of time. For how long are we willing to be with ourselves, to sit in stillness with our God? Jesus’ ministry invited folks into His peace, which propelled them into the world as His missionaries.

Jesus’ pre-ordained mission was to travel the back roads and small towns of Galilee to launch a movement of spiritual awakening. 175 years ago that wave of faith rolled into Rockford, Michigan, birthing our congregation! Jesus gave people an intimate glimpse of God. His ministry would require self-sacrifice and more sacrifice than His disciples ever could have known when they agreed to follow Him. He would not stay put and adopt a domestic lifestyle in Capernaum. He would go to where people lived, rely on their hospitality, tolerate their cruelty, eat their food and hang out with the local rejects. He would ride the wave of evangelistic outreach as long as He could, knowing there would be a violent culmination to that storm that would ultimately overtake Him. To be obedient to this calling, Jesus first spent time alone in prayer before launching out into the deep with His disciples, leaving Capernaum in the rearview mirror.

Jesus wants us to take risks for His sake. I wonder how willing we are to step out into churning waters, trusting in God’s steadying hand. I wonder what societal or relationship healings are needed in our community? Do we invite Jesus to heal us in body, mind and spirit? Two congregations in our area were recently honored by the denomination for sponsoring Afghan families who have taken refuge in our country. How can we bridge gaps in our communities and world, going out on a limb to showcase God’s sacrificial love?

In rural Galilee, we witness Jesus doing battle with the forces of evil and triumphing over whatever stands in opposition to God’s will. Demons can be anything which becomes our idol, separating us from God and controlling our lives. Anything that prevents us from being the individuals or community that God desires is demonic. Jesus modeled how to tend to the needs of the “untouchables” in our midst, to actively preach our faith? St. Francis is attributed with having said, “Preach at all times. When necessary, use words.” Jesus compassionately healed those who came to Him for relief. In this story, we see that He also placed great importance on preaching. Through His preaching, He introduced the saving power of God.

We’ve been amazed to see how our grandson is learning to talk. In fact, he talks non-stop. We often have to turn to his parents for an interpretation, but he’s adding to his vocabulary and obviously understanding what we are saying. How does this happen? His parents are not professors of the English language. We are humbly reminded that what we say molds, influences, and teaches other. How we preach about Jesus, through words and actions, has the power to transform those around us.

Jesus refused to get to comfy and to sit still. He walked across water and stilled the storm. He marched into the Temple and overturned the tables of the merchants who took advantage of the pious. He stirred up a storm to defend those who came to worship God. Jesus experienced the glory of God and refused to settle for singing Kumbaya around a campfire with a handful of followers. He was on the move and invites us to a deeper conversation.

At one of my lectionary study group sessions we talked about prayer in worship. One of my colleagues joked that we violate the Hippa oath each week as we name people and ailments. I wonder what percentage of our prayers relate to our frail bodies? We see in this passage that people get sick. A mob of Capernaum townsfolks camped outside Peter’s family compound to seek healing from various forms of illness. Their physical healing may have given a temporary respite from their woes. But Jesus hoped, from the beginning of His evangelistic crusade, that His followers would develop a concern for much more than just their own physical well-being. Healing in the ancient world meant being restored to life amidst community.

Who is waiting to be invited, embraced, forgiven? When have we restored someone to a valued state of being after having been sidelined? Even Jesus did not escape suffering and death. He completed the healing work He began on the cross. While I certainly understand our preoccupation with illness when our bodies fail us, I wonder if there is a “bigger” prayer that will powerfully impact us after the COVID virus lifts or the surgical site heals? I wonder what it would sound like for us to pray for the big waves, like Corissa Moore, so that she could be pushed beyond her usual well-trained limits? When a virus is not just ending lives but causing discord between family members and friends, what is our deeper prayer? When our daily circumstances lead to a depression that enshrouds us, what kind of healing do we desire? Physical? Sure. Are we also hoping to be restored into circles of friends and into the arms of family members who have tired of our struggle? Yes! What is the deeper prayer that we dare not speak or completely miss because we stay close to the shore?

Are we willing to paddle out into the water, praying to be swept up in the biggest wave we’ve ever faced? Or will we play it safe and stick close to home? God invites us into this uncomfortably deep level of prayer!

Categories
Uncategorized

Loving Well

Churches have a history. Churches have a lifespan. It’s no small feat that our congregation continues to gather for worship 175 years after initial articles of covenant were signed! Fifteen individuals signed a parchment on February 17, 1847, even before the Civil War, to commit to living together as a Body of Christ in the town originally named Laphamville. Our village was less than one decade old. This town has gone through great transformation while our congregation served from the corner of Fremont and Bridge Streets. Rockford and First Congregational Church have grown up together!

Churches have layers to their history. One congregation in Mt. Carmel, Indiana first met in a house that was also a blacksmith shop. Over the years it changed from being a Baptist Church to a Gospel Kingdom Church and then a Lutheran parish. Presently that site is the location for Thompson and Pettyjohn Mini-storage! What allows a church to serve a community for nearly two centuries?

In an article published in The Church in the Mirror, the author suggests, “The Worship service has become increasingly a time of entertainment. Make your services so exciting no one wants to leave…” Is that what has kept our congregation going for nearly two centuries? Have we entertained through our music and our children’s programs; through adding a screen and streaming our services? Is this considered entertaining? Or is there something deeper that has enabled us to stay the course since 1847?

The Wabash Presbyterian Church was established because of an inconvenient delay in travel. A minister was journeying through the area with a horse as his transportation. He stopped in Wabash for the night and his horse was injured at the stable. This held him up for awhile, not unlike our transmission going out in a remote area. While waiting for the horse to heal enough to continue their journey, the minister got to know some townsfolk who learned of his convictions. In a movement that would be described as providential, the Wabash Presbyterian Church was organized. We live with holy intentionality trusting that God will build a church through the most unlikely encounters!

What sustains a congregation over the course of decades and even centuries? A passage from Matthew 22 gives us an answer: love. The Greek word Jesus used in this passage is agape. This is a self-sacrificial love that is not based on feelings or sentimentality. It is a loyal, beneficent love that is witnessed through a commitment to action. The second part of Jesus’ command is of equal importance and cannot be separated from the first: we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Is love what carries us through the ups and downs of local history and generations of families?

The passage from Matthew is a controversy story. The Jewish leaders gathered to confront Jesus. A “lawyer” from the cadre of Pharisees stepped forward to interrogate Him. Jesus knew the leaders didn’t care about the answer but simply wanted to test Him. In spite of their mal-intent, Jesus’ answer to their question has shaped our Christian faith: love of God and of neighbor defines who we are as Church. Jesus turned the tables on them, as He was prone to do. He posed a question that could only make sense if they embraced Jesus as the Messiah, both human and divine. These Jewish lawmakers could not see Jesus for who He was. People have been clever for ages about rebuking Christ yet none have silenced Him or His followers—in 2000 years! Who looks foolish now? Does intellect prevail or is sacrificial love at the root of a relationship to God?

Our church began as a mission to our community. The preparation of the site began in the winter of 1873 when families would not be needed in the field. This was just eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War. As the nation searched for healing, our forebears built a sanctuary. Imagine clearing land and collecting stones in freezing temperatures and snow-covered fields to lay a foundation! For the first 26 years of our congregation’s existence, we met in the home of the local doctor. Sacrifice was required of him and sacrifice was required of the parishioners when they raised the money for their own building. The First Congregational Church was dedicated on December 29, 1874, free and clear of any debt.  In 1954 an addition was built that added a couple of classrooms, an office and the fellowship hall. In 1995 the congregation raised money to purchase an old home directly south of the sanctuary. For awhile this housed classes and offices before the city allowed us to tear it down to make a swing-through driveway. In 2012, 138 years after the initial structure was christened, we dedicated a half-million dollar Christian Education Wing without a mortgage. Each generation at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, embraced a sense of purpose that stems from gratitude for what God has done and is doing in our midst.

The imprint of this congregation on our town has been significant. In 1871 the pastor of our church, Rev. William Caldwell, founded the first public library in the village. Later, the Krause family, longtime church members, built a beautiful library that is still central to the life of our community.

I find it interesting to look back to how Christians gathered at the time our parish was newly established. In the 1800’s camp meetings were very popular in the summer when people could travel freely. These gatherings of believers lasted much of the Sabbath day. Folks traveled long distances so that they could be together in a place of worship. They packed their noon meals and looked forward to an extended time of Christian fellowship before beginning another demanding week.

We were blessed to have a living guardian of our history for more than 80 years. Stephen Paull began serving our congregation as the pastor in 1924. His son, Bill, was a teenager when the family moved here. He remained a member the rest of his life, living into his 90’s. He and his wife, Coyla, became the music team for many years. Bill used his gift for music in a number of ways. We have on display for this anniversary year his saw in a useful carrying bag. There is no sawdust clinging to it because he used it as an instrument! We had a fundraiser concert over twenty years ago and Bill contributed a musical piece, using this unlikely instrument. Often he sang at funerals and, many times, the deceased was a decade or two younger than Bill. In 1936, with a flourishing music program, First Park Church donated their choir robes to us as they updated their own. They came with hats which choir members wore proudly—I think! Bill told us that, when his father began his ministry here, there was a heating grate down the center aisle. When women started wearing dress shoes with pointy heels, they needed to replace that. One of the jobs for Bill and his older brother was to come over on Saturday and load some coal into the furnace so that the church would be warm the next morning.

Our bell was added a few years after the completion of the building. The date forged onto the bell is 1878. This would have been the means of summoning villagers to worship. Before churches had bells and folks had clocks, a cow horn was often used to let people know it was time to take off the work dungarees and head to church!

Churches became advocates for good education. Adults and children studied together in Sunday School classes, many times held in homes of church members. Our congregation had strong convictions about caring for the youngest residents in Rockford so the Heritage Tuttle Preschool was established. For the children whose parents were unable to get to the church, a volunteer offered door-to-door service! Giving a strong foundation of learning to children was highly valued. The cost was 50 cents per child per week. The preschool was open for more than 50 years, closing when families were looking for full-time childcare rather than a morning program. One community member sent us this message: “I can remember going to the Heritage-Tuttle preschool there. My brother and I both attended and our mother was the nurse. This would have been in the 1940’s. I have 3 children and all attended there. My mother eventually went on to be Dr. DeMaagd’s nurse for many years. Congratulations on your 175th anniversary!”

Raising funds for worthy causes has been central to the life of the Church since the Apostle Paul collected donations for the Jerusalem poor! First Congregational Church had Christmas bazaars with meals and crafts. The Women’s Fellowship held an annual rummage sale that took several weeks to collect, organize and price before opening the doors to the community. When I began my tenure as pastor we had lots of children’s chairs built of wooden seats on metal frames. Since we were getting new chairs for the Sunday School children, artistic members took the old chairs home and painted them. We sold them at the Rockford Famer’s Market and raised over $1000—and got good coverage from the local newspaper! Looking back to the challenges of the Second World War, our church was cited for being the most generous per capita congregation in the state for helping the war effort. They served soup suppers for neighbors so that they wouldn’t have to use their precious rations. When financial needs arose, the church responded generously and creatively.

So what enables a congregation to minister within a community for 175 years? The story behind the hymn, Abide with Me, helps to answer that. The lyricist, Henry Lyte, was the pastor in Brixham, England. His health declined due to tuberculosis. Shortly before his farewell Sunday, he was reading the story of the two disciples who met up with Jesus on the Emmaus road after his resurrection. Lyte was struck with the burning desire in the hearts of those two men to know Jesus more fully after walking with Him. Knowing his own life was nearing an end, the Spirit gave Pastor Lyte the words to this hymn that we still sing today: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens—Lord, with me abide; when other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me!” He died that same year—1847, the year our church was founded. He lived out the motto that is attributed to him: It is better to wear out than to rust out.” Amen, brother Henry!

I rejoice that generations of believers have gathered in our sanctuary on a busy corner of the small town of Rockford. We have sought to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have sacrificed for the good of the larger community and walked through the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives. We have studied the scriptures and found that they continue to speak to us 2000 years after the Emmaus Road experience. When facing our mortality we have found peace knowing that we are in the embrace of Christ’s people who have called this congregation “home.” To have comfort in the fullness of life and peace when facing the end, that is a life of blessing. How beautiful that our church has shared a love for God and neighbor over the course of 175 years!

Categories
Uncategorized

Waging Holy War

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus in Capernaum. Located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, this is the town that Jesus claimed as His homebase. On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 it was one of the places that was most meaningful to me because of its authentic link to Jesus’ life. We meet Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue, His typical venue in the towns He visited. Our group was able to walk around a synagogue that dates back to the second century. It is probable that the one we were able to explore was built on the ruins of the sacred space where Jesus confronted the demoniac as part of His worship leadership. From one side, it is possible to see the Sea of Galilee below. The breeze blew through open windows, giving a tangible feeling to how Jesus must have experienced His time there.

A fifth century church is built atop the ruins of what is believed to have been the home of Peter’s family, including his mother-in-law. His house was just 100 feet south of the synagogue on the main street of the town. With that proximity, we understand how the deep faith of this disciple was fostered in that setting. Jesus visited the mother-in-law and healed her in the passage that follows the synagogue incident. The home was a pilgrimage site for some of the earliest believers, with Christian symbols written on the walls. Coins, pottery, oil lamps dating to the first century were there. So were fishing hooks! The men who responded to Jesus’ message, “Follow Me”, were fishermen from an area known for its fishing industry.

The church constructed atop the ruins has a see-through floor that allowed us to look down into this sacred space where Jesus harnessed the power of the Holy Spirit and brought healing, first to her and then to the crowds that gathered outside of the living quarters. Word spread quickly that a healer was in town and Jesus ministered to them with a generous Spirit. Approximately 1000-1500 people lived in Capernaum in Jesus’ time and that would have been considered a sizeable town. The ruins cover a strip that is a mile long.

We are in the season of Epiphany when God’s presence is revealed to us in special ways. Capernaum was so significant for me because it bridged the 2000-year gap that separates me from Jesus. I was privileged to breathe His air and see His views in the place He claimed as home.

The revelation of God in this passage comes in the person of Jesus. The demon recognizes who He is and the readers are reminded in this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel that evil is real. As if to combat this darkness, the scenes in Mark are bracketed by Sabbath gatherings. They include ritual observance of worship life in the synagogue. Mark also includes stories that tell of Jesus’ willingness to violate Sabbath law. I wonder what routine experience glues the pieces to our lives together? What does it feel like when we miss a Sunday of worship? How do you feel when you leave this sanctuary after worship and a time of connecting with friends?

Jesus was in the synagogue because He knew that was the place where He would find others who worshiped God. Each Sabbath, He found folks who sought to live sanctified lives in trying times. William Willimon writes that “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.” Jesus arrives in Capernaum and carries on the ancient tradition of His people: teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is acknowledged as a teacher “with authority.” We are addicted to information and have it literally at our fingertips in the form of our phones. Who or what teacher would we find to be “authoritative”? I wonder if we are open to hearing truth other than what we’ve come to believe?  Whose authority is larger than our own?

Introducing Jesus as a teacher may seem less impressive when compared to calming a storm or bringing a man back to life. But, for the Jews, discovering a religious leader who captured their hearts and inspired them to seek out God was no small thing. Jesus is compared in this passage to the scribes, whose position in the Jewish hierarchy was elevated. One author describes the difference between Jesus and these esteemed scholars like this: The scribes are those who “trade grammatical niceties with each other while drawing fat salaries…The scribes teach and preserve and prepare; Jesus blazes, explodes, and erupts.”

One pastor was feeling unsure about his preaching impact. So he polled some folks after worship one Sunday, asking them to fill out a brief questionnaire that measured how much of his sermon they could recall. When he collected the results, he was discouraged that so few details were remembered. But a wise elder in his congregation set him straight. She said a sermon isn’t about ideas anymore than the passion to our day comes from head knowledge. The purpose of the sermon is to meet Jesus in place, to be amazed that He hasn’t given up on us yet. The pastor felt better. He realized his people came to be astonished that Jesus lives among us and calls us—over and over again—to be His disciples.

What we learn about His teaching is that those in the sanctuary that day were astonished. We know nothing of His content, as we are given in the Beatitudes. He teaches them about God’s will but does it as He powerfully combats the force of evil that threatened their era as it does ours. One commentator writes that “the scene is alive with the crackle of conflict. There is no polite conversation here between Jesus and the possessed man.”

The demon greets Jesus as if he’s an old friend. We see a surprising side to Jesus in this encounter. Mark begins his story of Jesus’ ministry with a reminder that Jesus was engaged in a cosmic battle. I wonder what the demon saw in Jesus? Are we able to see in the man from Nazareth the purpose of God being fulfilled? We who gather weekly for worship acknowledge our own desperation. We may not name our difficulties as “demons” but we understand what it is to be weighed down by guilt, depression, financial hardship, meaningless lives, addiction, victimization, and greed. It is impossible for us to look into our world on any single day and not recognize that there are forces at work against God’s will for us. I think of patients I work with who believe the lies of the demonic: “You’ll never succeed”, “Your only friend can be found in a bottle”, “The abuse committed on you as a child is your fault”. The list could go on and on. They tell me they have done the unpardonable and often lose all vestiges of hope for a new day. So we remember that we stand in a long tradition of believers who look to God for our strength. We watch for opportunities to ease the burdens of others. Whether we recognize it or not, we wage a holy war against all that crushes life out of our world. We are the bearers of hope to the sorrowful who fear that they cannot be forgiven ever!

It is in worship that we are closest to that astonishment that the Capernaum believers felt as Jesus led their worship. When we are confronted with Jesus as the Christ, the man of Nazareth, we are astonished at His authority. When our faith life seems still, Jesus shows up and our plans are gloriously disrupted. We show up at worship each week not just for the strength to go on for another week. We take time to come more intentionally into God’s holy presence knowing that demons will be named and scattered!

A clergy friend talked about deciding to use a devotional guide as a starting point for his executive board’s meetings. They were embarking on a bold building campaign and he hoped the reflective time added to those meetings would guide the church leaders with the difficult decisions ahead. One of the board members stood up suddenly as the pastor shared the reflection and stormed, “I come to church on Sundays to hear a sermon. I’m here tonight to do our business, not to get preached at!” People were startled and he stomped out of the room. The pastor and parishioners looked at each other, shrugged and the study continued. Demons were unleashed. These conversations of the Executive Board were pointing toward needed changes. The irate leader had been very happy to serve when his own agenda prevailed. But, as the status quo was challenged, he blew up. He was harboring a need for power that hadn’t been evident before. The minister said that, ironically, the board member accidentally left his briefcase behind and had to slink back into the meeting later to claim it!

Martin Luther said, “When the word of God is rightly preached, demons are set loose.” We might be surprised when worship kicks something up in us that we didn’t know was there. “Wait, that’s not what I came here to hear!” “How can I use any of this next week?” “Who chooses the music for this service anyway? They never sing my favorite hymns!” It’s dangerous to come to worship each Sunday because to worship is to have your favorite prejudices disrupted through a startling meeting with God! To be a Christian is to hold on for dear life at times because there will be forces—both cultural and spiritual—that work against our faith in Jesus Christ.

In his autobiography, Arthur Miller wrote a story about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. A doctor had come to administer another dose of sleeping medicine that would give her much-needed peace. Gazing upon her, finally asleep in their bed, her husband wrote, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she were to wake and I were able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she were able to believe it! How I wish I still had my religion and she hers.”

There are forces that will diligently work against us hanging onto a saving belief in a God of love. The demons who recognized Jesus and begged Him to depart continue to disrupt our carefully laid plans. Whether we recognize it or not, we are waging a holy war. With the waters of our baptism, the trouble begins!  We are not inoculated against sorrow or pain, confusion or chaos. But we are assured that Christ is with us for the long haul. And that is astonishing news!

Categories
Uncategorized

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?

Categories
Uncategorized

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
temptation.
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”?

Categories
Uncategorized

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!”