Prayer for a 70th Birthday

O God. All of my friends are turning 70 this year. And my turn is coming very soon. Just two years ago we celebrated 50 years since high school graduation with a big reunion, but this milestone has spread through us first wave of boomers like a thief in the night, picking us off one at a time on a steady march from January to October and the toll keeps climbing.

Our 50’s and 60’s came and went with “Over the Hill” jokes and some solemnity, but being 70 seems much more serious. Denying our aging gets harder every year, but 70 has the extra power of biblical authority. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). OK, maybe the Psalmist was just having a bad day when those words were written, but they still are hard to shake for those of born in 1946 or sooner, no matter what the actuarial tables say about our increasing life expectancy.

For me there’s an added omen. My mother died of brain cancer when she was 70. It was only 3 months between her diagnosis and her death. She didn’t have much time to make a bucket list, but then Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson didn’t popularize that term until 14 years later. Even though that 2007 movie highlighted the most serious of topics in a comic fashion, it’s not such a laughing matter as my peers and I hit the big 7 0.

Yes, I know, we have birthdays every year, but those ending in zero always seem bigger. Reflecting on being 70 reminds me of the Christian practice of giving up something for Lent, a good spiritual discipline. But Lent only lasts 40 days, Lord. The things we give up at 70 are often forever. At 60 I could finish first in my age group in a 5K race. Yes, I know there weren’t many in that age group running, but now I read the morning paper on line because my aging body rebels at walking 500 feet to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper. I would love to play softball or football with my grandkids, to ski some moguls again, or to chase down those difficult tennis shots the way I used to. Lord, I’d even like to be able to mow my grass without pain or to stay up all night reading a great book. Alas, the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh gets weaker every day!

What’s that Lord? Yes I know it is much too easy to get turned in on my aches and pains. Even when I vow not to do it my conversations with my peers seem to inevitably turn to recent medical tests and how much time we lose going to the doctor. We often lament, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Forgive my little pity parties, Lord. Remind me I have a choice about where I focus my attention. Lead me not into the temptation to bemoan what I’ve lost to the aging process and deliver me from the evil of criticizing the “younger” generation. When I find myself saying those things my parents said that I swore I wouldn’t ever say, gently nudge me to live in the now, free from regrets about the past I cannot change and liberated from the fear of what lies ahead.

Help me live in gratitude for the things I can do that would have been impossible a generation or two ago – travel opportunities, world-wide information available 24/7 anywhere I am (unless I forget my smart phone), medical advances that enhance and extend the quality of life for those of us who are privileged to have access to them, mind-boggling discoveries about the infinite mysteries and marvels of the universe we live in, and the freedom in a comfortable retirement to reflect on it all.

Lord, it breaks my heart to know how many of your children lack the basic necessities of life that I take for granted. Even as I give thanks for all I have, remind me that even in my advanced years that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Remind me that the word “retirement” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment. If we stop growing in our faith at any age we cannot maintain the status quo but regress.

Let me not, O Lord, rage against the realities of age, but instead to faithfully embrace the present as the gift it is. Knowing that negativity and fear immobilize, let this birthday teach this old dog to treasure every day because they are finite. Adjust my trifocals to focus on the joys of life so I can make the most of what is instead of regretting what was or is no more. Blessed with 70 years of life experience, let my prayer be “For all that has been, thanks; and for all that is yet to come, Yes!”

“No Way!” or God’s Way? 2 Kings 5:1-14

I was leading a group for Sr. citizens a few years ago and asked the group to share with us some information about them to get better acquainted. One question I asked was, “How do you spend your time now in retirement?” One gentleman said, “I spend my days going to dr. appointments and funerals.” It was funny then, but as I’ve gotten older I sometimes find it harder to find humor in that reality.

With my back problems and other joys of aging, I’ve got more Doctors in my contacts list than any other category, and like many of you, I’ve spent extra hours in waiting rooms well beyond the time my appointment was supposed to be,. Having an iPhone and other devices to distract me helps, but I don’t think any kind of toy would have been much consolation for a friend of mine. He waited several weeks to get an appointed with a specialist because this doctor was supposed to be the best around. On the day of the appointment, my friend waited 2 hours past the appointed hour and finally asked a nurse how much longer it would be. The nurse went back to check for him and returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper in his hand and said the doctor was too far behind schedule and would not be able to see my friend that day, but he wrote a prescription and said he should take it for a month and then come back.

Yes, that would be grounds for malpractice, and it didn’t really happen. I made that story up because it is very much like what happened to Naaman in our scripture lesson for today. Naaman, was a great man – a commander, a victorious leader. But Naaman’s story also reminds us that even the great and powerful are vulnerable and mortal. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Prince, –all of us are dust and to dust we will return. Naaman fell victim to one of the worst diseases in human history – he contracted leprosy, which not only ate away the body but was so contagious and dreadful that anyone with it was isolated and excluded from society and any contact with other people. The great poet Robert Frost was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is, and his answer was the word “exclusive.” We are social beings who need each other, even if we get on each others’ nerves at times; so the worst thing you can do to a human being is to exclude him or her.

So Naaman is desperate to find a cure for his dreaded illness, and the advice he gets on where to find that cure is fascinating. A young slave girl who has been captured in Israel tells Naaman he needs to go see a prophet in Samaria. A young slave girl from a foreign country– you cannot get any lower on the socio-economic pecking order in those days than that; and to send him to Samaria of all places (Think Urban Meyer being told the doctors he needs are in Ann Arbor). Naaman says, “No Way! A prophet? Some faith healer?

That couldn’t be the answer to Naaman’s problem! He knows he needs to go to someone with real power – not to some intern or resident but to the best surgeon available. Naaman also knows the best things in life are never free; so he takes a bucket load of cash to get the best medical treatment money can buy. Money has its privileges. It may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy most everything else. Wealth is the universal language the power people of the world speak. So Naaman bypasses God’s prophet and goes straight to what he thinks is the top – he has his king send a letter of referral to the King of Israel.

But notice how the king of Israel reacts when Naaman comes calling – he’s threatened. The king knows he has no power to heal Naaman. His worldly power is illusory, like the wizard of Oz – hiding behind the magic curtain pulling levers. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And notice also how the king immediately assumes the worst about Naaman. Rather than take Naaman’s plea for healing at face value, the threatened, insecure king immediately assumes that Naaman’s real motive is to expose the King’s lack of power and make him look bad.

Why do we so often project our own fears and suspicions on others instead of just asking what’s really going on? When dealing with conflict or potential conflict, it’s like the old story about everyone trying to ignore the elephant in the room. The way to deal with conflict constructively is to communicate – not behind someone’s back, but face to face. There are always at least two sides to every story, and we will not really know the other side until we get it from the source. The king’s reaction in this story illustrates that when we expect the worst from others – that’s exactly what we get.

Now the prophet Elisha enters the drama. He hears of the king’s distress and his response to Naaman is very interesting. Elisha says, “Come to me…” that makes sense, but notice why he tells Naaman to come. It’s not just to get the healing he wants, there’s much more at stake here. Elisha says, “Come to me, so you can learn there is a prophet in Israel.” Prophets are not fortune tellers, remember, but are spokespersons for God. So if there is a prophet in Israel, the important message here is that there is a God in Israel who is for real and can heal whatever ails you, no matter how important and rich or poor you are.

Do we believe that today? Do we believe there’s a God in our broken nation and world who can cure what ails us? Naaman does, sort of, at least enough to go to see Elisha. But then the story takes another interesting turn. Naaman’s visit to Elisha is like the story I began with. Elisha sends a message to Naaman, probably through another lowly servant that says, “Go take 7 baths and call me in the morning.” The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out and see Naaman in person. You can imagine the reaction of this great commander who’s used to people bowing a scraping before him. He expects better treatment than that. He expects a big showy miracle with red white and boom fireworks, and all he gets is a prescription to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River.

And then Naaman gets very parochial. Again he says, “No Way!” He complains about the water quality in the Jordan and says, “We have many better rivers back home in Damascus.” Does our parochialism ever get in the way of what God wants us to do? Our way, my team, my religion, my country is way better than yours! We like what we’re used to; so we refuse to venture out of our comfort zones because, well, it’s uncomfortable out there!

Perhaps sports are the best example of how loyalty and pride can cross the line into embarrassing territory. Last week’s Ryder cup golf match between the US and Europe showed both tremendous enthusiasm and patriotism, but it also showed the danger of being overly zealous. Some fans were ejected from the course because their cheers and jeers became inappropriate. I confess I even found myself yelling things at my TV screen that were quite unchristian! When my son played high school basketball my family didn’t like to sit with me because I sometimes embarrassed them when I got upset about a bad call by the refs.

I can be a perfect reminder that the word “fan” is short for fanatic! Team spirit and patriotism are good things but when taken to the extremes of fanaticism that burns couches after a big win or nationalism that leads to dangerous conflicts between countries, not so much. UK’s decision to leave the European Union a few months ago concerns me because at least part of the reason for that vote was a spirit of nationalism that seems to say “We can do this better on our own that with our neighbors.” Fear of terrorism and the refugee crisis are of course also realities that can fan the flames of overzealous nationalism. My fear in looking at the history of centuries of conflicts and wars in Europe where so many countries live in such close proximity to each other is that nationalism has led to many of those wars, including two in the last century that involved the whole world. No human creation is without problems, but the European Union seems from this outsider’s perspective to be a better way to promote peace and cooperation among neighbors than nationalism.

Naaman almost falls victim to nationalistic pride that tries to blind him to the help he needs. He complains about the rivers in Israel, but this story is not about water quality or if our river is more beautiful than yours. It’s about faithful obedience to what God asks us to do. Naaman is too proud to accept this simple solution to his leprosy and is about to stomp off and go home to pout in Damascus. And again, a lowly servant intervenes who is smarter than the great and powerful leader.

Do you ever get advice from someone else that is so obvious and simple you hate to take it because you feel stupid for not seeing what is so obvious yourself. That happens frequently to me but I remember a particular incident a couple of years ago at the church I was serving. We had a leak in the furnace room up above the men’s restroom and water was dripping down thru the ceiling. I do not have a plumbing gene anywhere in my DNA; so my solution was to put buckets under the leak until someone could come and fix the problem upstairs. Fortunately one of our church secretaries had a better idea, which was to put some buckets upstairs too and catch the water before in ran thru the floor and ruined the bathroom ceiling. [HIT EASY BUTTON]. Why didn’t I think of that?.

That’s what happens to Naaman. He is too proud to do what Elisha tells him to do, but his servants say, “With all due respect, sir, what have you got to lose? Why not give this a try, and if it doesn’t work, you are no worse off than you were before.” And it’s Free!

So Naaman reluctantly does what he has been told to do – he washes, not once but 7 times. And that’s important. If we expect instant gratification or simple solutions to complex problems, it’s not gonna happen. Sometimes the solution is simply doing what we believe God is telling us to do, even if it seems foolish or unlikely to work. Washing even multiple times in a river does not sound like a logical cure for something as dire as leprosy, but we will never know unless we try.

Life threw me some extra curve balls one day a few months ago. And the worst part is I think I asked for it. After dealing with the epidemic of orange barrels and detours in our neighborhood I decided to wax philosophical and wrote a little piece on my Facebook page and in my blog about how detours and obstacles are good metaphors for the roadblocks we run into in life. And when we do, we can either give up on getting to our goals, or we can get creative and find another way to achieve what God wants us to do. It sounded great on paper and I got a lot of “likes” on my Facebook page.

But then it was like God said to me, “OK preacher, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see how well you really cope with some roadblocks!” Within one 24 hr. stretch I got three major pieces of bad news. I learned some good friends are moving out of state. I got an email from a very dear friend that he was in the hospital and told he has had some mini-strokes. And then I went to the mailbox to find a not-so-friendly letter from the IRS informing me that they think I owe them $10000 in back taxes, penalties and fines. I didn’t really need that many obstacles to deal with all at once, and my mood was lower than a snake’s belly for quite some time. Being turned in on oneself is one definition of sin, by the way. It’s one of my favorites when I see others doing it, but when I look in the mirror and see it in myself, not so much.

I’m not telling that story to get pity or sympathy (although I’ll take whatever I can get). I tell it because churches and other organizations, companies, nations, and families can all get turned in on themselves too. And the solution to dealing constructively with our challenges in life, health, finances, relationships, grief, whatever threatens to break our spirits and isolate us from others like Naaman was, is as simple as not throwing up our hands and saying No Way! But asking for God’s guidance.

When we turn to God for help, do you ever fall into the trap I do? I catch myself turning my prayers into giving God a honey do list. Dear God, please do this and this, and take of these people, and this mess we’ve made of things here and there. How much time to we spend telling God things God already knows? So instead of telling God our problems, prayer needs to also be a time of listening carefully for what God has to say to us.
Often God’s messages come from other wounded and broken servants, simple, common folks like the slave girl and servants who ministered to Naaman and helped lead him to a cure for his affliction. God’s time is not our time; so the answers to our prayers don’t usually come with 4G speed. But as Isaiah puts it, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up with wings like Eagles.”

That kind of waiting requires great patience and humility. It requires a faith and humility that can say, “Not my will but your will be done.” It’s a humility that instead of jumping to unfounded conclusions and saying “No Way!” teaches us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation so we can benefit from the experience of those who are different.

That redemptive love of God reminds us that Naaman’s story is really a baptism story. Baptism is an act of celebrating the fact that God has created us each in God’s own image. That image gets tarnished from time to time and needs to be renewed, but the power of love and mercy is in us all from birth, waiting to be nurtured and fed. That means the answer to our prayer may be already within us waiting to be revealed. Like King of Israel, the Wizard of Oz story didn’t have the power to give Dorothy and her friends what they were seeking, BUT he didn’t need to. Because they already had courage and wisdom and hearts that got them to Oz in the first place, and Dorothy already had on her feet what she needed to get back home. Those gifts were already there within them – they just needed to trust and believe, and when they did–THAT WAS EASY.

PRAYER – O God our creator and re-creator, like Naaman, we all need multiple cleansings. We don’t drive a car thru a car wash once and expect it to stay clean forever. Our spirits need regular cleansing and renewal also so we can be rid of whatever needs to go from our lives as individuals and as a church. We need regular reminders where real power lies so we are not fooled by false power. We ask that you provide us with modern day prophets who are the ones to show us the way to the power to heal and make us whole. Let us be those obedient and humble servants who minister to one another as disciples of the servant king from Nazareth who was baptized in the same River Jordan just as Naaman was. We ask these things in his name and for his sake. Amen.

The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Is It Well with your Soul?

“It is Well with My Soul” has long been a favorite hymn of mine, but it has taken on a new twist for me in this year of apocalyptic election scenarios. Twice in recent months I have been in worship services where that great old hymn has been part of the liturgy. All of the lyrics to that hymn are powerful statements of faith, but the verse that has caught my ear in this election year is the last verse which says:
“And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”

In particular I’m referring to the phrase, “The trump will resound, and the Lord will come down.” Sorry, but I can’t hear the word “trump” without being reminded of the Republican Presidential candidate. And the eschatological imagery in that line reminds me that many on both extremes of the political spectrum are feeling like the world may come to end if the “other” candidate is elected. I don’t really expect the end of the world on November 9, but regardless of your feelings about Trump or Clinton, most of us would agree the outcome of this election will have serious consequences for the future of our nation and the world. As an antidote to our anxieties about that, Horatio Spafford’s great hymn repeats the refrain, “It is well with my soul.”

If you don’t know the story behind this hymn, it was written in 1873 by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, after he had experienced multiple tragic events, including the death of a son in the great Chicago fire, financial ruin, and a storm at sea in which four of his daughters died. (More details at Knowing the history of Stafford’s Job-like tragedies, any one of which could undo most of us, we know lyrics like these are not merely pious platitudes.
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul”

At different times in my life words of faith like this speak more to me than others. This is one of those times, in part because of my grave concern over the deeply divided world we live in typified by the Presidential election rhetoric and the hate inspired violence from Syria to San Bernardino and far too many points in between. And on a more personal level I’m dealing with some chronic pain that makes it hard for me to function, including finding time and energy to write.

I was humbled and shamed about how easy I give into pain or despair over the state of the human condition the other day in physical therapy. A young woman was there who could barely walk, even with her cane. As she slowly made her way from the aquatic therapy pool through the main therapy room I noticed she is bald and wore a colorful bandana on her head. I assume she has lost her hair from chemo therapy. And beneath that colorful bandana she smiled at me, and that smile lit up the room as a powerful witness that though her body is betraying her, it is well with her soul.

This stranger’s smile and Spafford’s 143 year-old words, written out of tragedy and sorrow far greater than mine continue to comfort, challenge and inspire me. They remind me of a very helpful definition of faith I read many years ago by a Canadian theologian, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. At the risk of oversimplifying, my summary of Smith’s thought is that he delineates an important difference between belief and faith. We sometimes use those words synonymously, but they are not. Belief is an intellectual ascent to a proposition or idea, while faith is a deep trust in a power that can give us the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7) no matter what external circumstances threaten to make us fearful and anxious, be they personal, existential or political.

One of my favorite stories that illustrate the difference between belief and faith as trust is this one by an unknown author about Charles Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker:

Blondin’s greatest fame came on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched 11,000 feet (over a quarter of a mile) across the mighty Niagara Falls. People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.
He walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times… each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded. One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!
A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oohed and Aahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across – one dangerous step after another – pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.
Then at one point, he asked for the participation of a volunteer. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!
Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”

The story says no one took Blondin up on that invitation. But when things are truly well with my soul I know it’s safe to get in God’s wheelbarrow, even if I have to muster my courage like the father whose epileptic son had just been healed by Jesus. He said, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Which is to say that faith is a journey, not a destination. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that well. He asked new clergy as United Methodist Bishops still do today at ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” That’s a not too subtle reminder to walk humbly with God and other faith seekers who know that faith and doubt wage an eternal battle in us all. Wesley also advised preachers to “Preach faith until you have it.” I believe that’s why the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible. We’re all still preaching and seeking that trusting faith that no matter what curve balls life throws sings out, “It is well with my soul.”

Intimacy and the Meaningful Life, Genesis 3:1-8

One childhood game that seems to have survived from one generation to the next, even in this age of multiple electronic devices, is hide and seek. All of my grandchildren have enjoyed that game at some point in their childhood, including one who cracked me up by hiding her little brother in the clothes hamper and then proudly announcing to us that she put Ryan in the hamster! The game is fun – but only up to a point. The late great preacher Fred Craddock told a story about a great hiding place he found at his grandparents’ farm. He hid under the front porch of the old farm house and proudly told himself “They’ll never find me here.” Minutes went by, which began to seem like hours. The seeker ran by the front porch several times without ever looking under it, and Craddock says he suddenly found himself saying, “They’ll never find me here!!!”

The solution to that problem is figured out even by young children who start making subtle or not so subtle noises to reveal their presence. As adults however it is often much harder to be “found” when we are hiding from each other and even from ourselves. Why do we do that? To be able to live out the other qualities of a meaningful life we need the confidence that comes from being fully known and affirmed by one or more other people and ultimately by God. That’s intimacy.

Intimacy is a tricky word in our culture. It is laden with overtones of sexuality. We talk about undergarments as “intimate apparel.” Being intimate with another person is often code for having sex. For that reason I struggled with whether should use the Genesis 3 account of the fall for this sermon. We know the story: Adam and Eve disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And suddenly they realize they are naked and make loin cloths for themselves. Next they hear God walking in the garden and they try to hide themselves.

This story is a way to explain why human life is full of sin and difficulties, but the reference to nakedness has confused people for centuries about “original sin. I want to suggest this story is really about a loss of intimacy. In order to understand that I invite you to make a mental leap to a deeper understanding of nakedness beyond the literal meaning. On an emotional and spiritual level nakedness is about being vulnerable and defenseless. It’s about being uncovered and unhidden in the eyes of God. Adam and Eve were playing hide and seek with God and of course they were quickly found. When it comes to God that old adage is especially true – “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide from God, but not because they have no clothes. We know that because they have already made their figgy loin cloths before this encounter with God. Their nakedness is of a much more serious variety. They are ashamed and afraid because they are naked and defenseless before God in their disobedience to a direct order. They now know the prime evil, which is not about sex, but is alienation from their creator. They are afraid and ashamed. And so they try to hide from God, which of course is foolish. We live in a cyber society where our location is tracked 24/7 by GPS and countless apps in our phones that are smarter than we are. We leave a trail of where we’ve been and what we value every time we use a credit card. But from day one there has been an even more powerful force in our lives that knows where we are and what we do all the time. It’s not GPS but G-O-D. We cannot hide our mistakes from God. Just ask Ryan Lochte how well trying to cover up a stupid mistake with a lie can turn into an international incident! We all make mistakes because we are all fallible. And yet how much time and valuable energy do we spend trying to hide who we are from God, others and even from ourselves?

My friend Mebane McMahon recommended an excellent book on intimacy to me and I highly pass that recommendation on to you. The book is “The 7 levels of Intimacy” by Matthew Kelly. Relax, I am not going to try to cover all 7 levels of intimacy today and can only begin to scratch the surface. But the fact that Kelly identifies 7 levels and has written a whole book on the topic is an indication of what a complex subject intimacy is.

We like to simplify complex topics, which is one of the reasons that it is tempting to just equate intimacy with sexuality. But being in a relationship, even a sexual one, does not guarantee the safety and security we feel in a truly intimate relationship where we feel loved and affirmed unconditionally. We can all be lonely in a huge crowd or sitting in a church service if we are hiding from God and others.

When I was much younger and even more naïve than I am now I had no idea of the difference between sex and real intimacy. I still believed the fairy tale notion of finding one true love that would meet the need I couldn’t even yet identify as intimacy. When I fell in love in college with the woman who became my first wife there was a popular song, “The Theme from a Summer Place,” that seemed to capture what we were expecting and hoping to find in our relationship. The song lyrics say this about that summer place:

“There are no gloomy skies
When seen through the eyes
Of those who are blessed with love
And the sweet secret of
A summer place

Is that it’s anywhere
When two people share
All their hopes
All their dreams
All their love.”

Isn’t that what we all hope from in our most significant relationships – whether they are sexual or not? Someone with whom we can share ALL of our hopes and dreams and love. And yet how often are we disappointed because most relationships don’t live up to that ideal? Ironically, when I recently googled the movie for which that song was written, I discovered that it is all about broken relationships and extramarital affairs, things that happen when we start looking for love in all the wrong places.

Intimacy, like all the marks of a meaningful life, requires work and a lot of it. That’s because love is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can learn to control how we deal with feelings and impulses, but we can’t determine when they appear, often in unexpected and uncomfortable situations. Intimacy with others and with God requires conscious choices and actions. Like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles have to work hard and dedicate themselves for years to their goals for Olympic gold, intimacy is a quality of life that requires discipline and determination. Too many relationships fall short of gold medal status because we lack the discipline to work on the relationship when it gets difficult and uncomfortable.

The same is true of having an intimate relationship with God. Jesus’ followers are called disciples and that word comes from the same root as the word discipline. All disciples of Christ in 30 A.D. or 2016 must make a choice to follow Jesus each and every day. It’s not a one and done deal. The forces of worldly temptations for material rewards or cheap pleasures all pull us every day toward the wide and easy road that leads to destruction.
I decided to use the Genesis 3 story to talk about intimacy primarily because Kelly points out in “The 7 Levels of Intimacy” that shame is one of the greatest enemies of intimacy that must be overcome. Chapter 3 of Genesis, commonly called “The Fall,” describes what happens when Adam and Eve disobey God and get caught. Unlike a game of hide and seek, the stakes here are existentially higher. Eve and Adam make the classic mistake we often resort to when we screw up; they play the blame game. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Instead of simply confessing their transgressions and asking for forgiveness, they continue to try and hide, and the consequences are severe. Because of their disobedience they are evicted from paradise – where everything they needed was provided in abundance. Instead they are forced to grow their own food and survive by the sweat of their brow. The pain of childbirth is greatly increased for womankind forever and she is made subservient to the rule of her husband. And finally they are made aware of their own mortality. Ouch!

Pretty gruesome stuff if the story ended there, right? Unfortunately many of us get stuck in our spiritual development with that image of a judgmental God, and when we do we cannot ever achieve true intimacy with God because we are afraid of the consequences if we have to come before God naked and defenseless. Worse yet, the shame and guilt we all carry in some degree also gets in the way big time when it comes to human relationships. If we are using up a lot of psychic and emotional energy playing hide and seek from God, we simply to do not have enough gas left in our tanks to create and maintain an intimate relationship with other people, no matter how much we love them or they love us.

But here’s the Good News – the Judeo-Christian salvation story doesn’t end with Genesis 3. The rest of our Scriptures tell a glorious story of redemption. Like a parent ticked off with disobedient children, God puts Adam and Eve in time-out. He stations Cherubim to guard the gates of paradise so the naughty children can’t sneak back in. But like disappointed parents or partners or true friends, God can’t and doesn’t give up on the wayward ones. Genesis doesn’t say this, but I’ll bet this is the first time it was ever said, “This hurts me more than it does you.” And so the other 1986 chapters of the Bible tell the story of God’s persistent, faithful efforts to redeem and restore an intimate relationship with humankind. Why1986 chapters? Because we are slow learners. We keep trying to play hide and seek to cover our nakedness while God bails us out of one mess after another.

Intimacy is the key that unlocks the gate to paradise and salvation. Intimacy with God is the truth that sets us free to be open and vulnerable and honest with ourselves, with others and with God. This truth is described repeatedly in different ways in the Bible, but it boils down to the same basic ingredients – trust, honesty, confession, and forgiveness and grace.

Ephesians 4 puts it this way: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Intimate relationships are those where we trust each other enough to speak the truth in love. That’s different than brutal honesty that flows when we allow our emotions to rule our tongues. It’s different than “telling it like it is,” without regard for the other person’s feelings or perspective. Balancing honesty with the sensitivity and compassion of love is sorely lacking in many social media postings and much of our political discourse, but it is absolutely necessary for the most important relationships we have with loved ones and with God.

That kind of openness and honesty is not a New Testament creation – even in the Hebrew Scriptures where God is often portrayed as a judge to be feared there are glimpses of grace. The prophet Isaiah in the very first chapter has God speaking to his rebellious children and says, “Come now, let us argue it out, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” In other words, don’t play hide and seek – come to me, no matter what your sins and they can be forgiven. My favorite New Testament verse about the power of confession is in I John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” No sin is bigger or wider than God’s mercy; so what are we hiding from?

I wonder how different Adam and Eve’s story would have turned out if they had known that simple truth about intimacy. We’ll never know – but what we do know is the sacred truth that sets us free to live meaningful lives. That doesn’t’ mean it is simple or easy to live it. The world still is playing one giant game of hide and seek based on deceit, manipulation and false pride. But God will provide us with the faith and courage and discipline to play a different game–to stop hiding and trust God enough to confess each time we fall short of the gold medal. God will pick us up and dust us off to try again, but we have to be brave and honest enough to ask for help.

So my friends, church is not a place to play hide and seek. It’s safe to be real here without fear of judgment. So blow your friends minds – tell them next Sunday you’re going to church to be intimate with a few hundred of your friends!

A Lament for Unity

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” Psalms 20:7-8

I don’t have time to write much today but feel an urgency to respond to the disheartening news coming out of the UK this week. ISIS must be dancing in the streets. Their epidemic of fear has toppled the British Prime Minister and dealt a terrible blow to European unity. I find it very ironic and sad that it was the older population in Britain who voted in favor of leaving the EU. They should be the ones who remember how well Nationalism worked for Europe throughout history and most recently in the 20th Century.

European Nationalism engulfed the entire planet in two horrible world wars and left a trail of death and destruction throughout European history. Why would we want to try it again? Fear does terrible things to the human mind, and there is much to fear in this rapidly changing world we inhabit. But putting our trust in chariots and horses, i.e. strength and force and defensive isolation that turns its back on millions of refugees is not the answer. To resort to abandoning the most hopeful effort at unity and cooperation the world has seen in centuries because of current fear and hardship is short-sighted and tragic.

Those who put their faith in chariots and horses will collapse and fall, but those who put their pride in the peaceful, loving, cooperative ways of the Lord will rise and stand upright. It takes faith and a lot of it to believe that, but the alternative is to try and return to methods that have proven hundreds of times to fail. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe courage and faith into every trembling heart.

Post Script: I went out to mow my grass after writing the above. I do some of my best thinking on the lawn tractor. Today I had one mowing meditation I want to add. It may be because I am neither young nor fearless, although it was a favorite of mine even when I was young and fearful, but a line from a great old hymn came to mind as I reflected more on the rise of nationalism in both Europe and here in the U.S. It was written in 1931 as nationalism was raising its ugly head in Germany. I’ve never served a church where it is a popular hymn because it is too challenging and uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we listen. The whole hymn is profound, but what echoed in my mind today is the third verse:

“O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.” “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” by S. Ralph Harlow

A Response to the Orlando Massacre

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus

Another mass shooting, another record broken for innocent lives snuffed out, more prayers and tears and hand wringing. This one is worse because it targeted the LGBT community and people of color – an all-purpose hate crime. My heart is broken again, but I haven’t yet heard the expected hateful tweets from Trump and his ilk calling for more violence and stronger defense. Trump recently said his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye;” which says volumes about his lack of Christian faith. I have intentionally avoided Fox News all day, as I do most days, because I’m not sure I can take much more vitriol and fear-mongering.

I fully expect this tragedy to be used for political gain by Trump, and anticipate he will blame the work of ISIS on President Obama’s “weakness;” so I want to counter that bogus argument right now. To blame the rise of terrorism here and abroad on “weakness” and to call for more guns and more military action in response is to forget recent history and to engage in bad theology. The full context of the Scripture above is as follows:

“ While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:47-52

You can twist the interpretation of that text, and many do, to mean that Jesus was saying those who commit violence deserve to suffer in turn. But that is not consistent with the full life and teaching of Jesus that blesses peacemakers, advises turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and praying for those who persecute you.

Human history is so full of violence against creation and humankind that I don’t know where the origin of that cycle of vengeance could ever be identified. We only get four chapters into Genesis before the first murder occurs! And in that story God marks Cain, the murderer, not to punish him but to protect him from retribution. That lesson was lost immediately.

The warfare in the Middle East goes back before recorded history; so it is difficult to assess blame or to solve that Gordian knot. But that is no excuse to twist more recent history to justify a dangerous political ideology. I would argue that the rise of terrorism in recent years is not because of American weakness but because of unjustified invasions of that region by former President Bush. Those of course were in response to 9/11, which was I’m sure justified in the eyes of the terrorists by US imperialism and the decadence of our society. My point is that there are always those who can find an excuse to get revenge on those we label as “enemies.” But military strength does not bring peace. We are the strongest military power in the history of humankind, and we are still not safe and secure. Violence can never bring peace. World War I sowed the seeds of WWII, which created the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. And on it goes.

And Jesus said, “Put away your sword.” Till the cycle of violence is broken, till we confess our own guilt for profiting from fear by selling more guns and security systems, and selling arms to other countries, the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago will continue to beget more violence. The U.S. currently gives $5 Billion dollars a year in military aid to Israel, and ¾ of that money is spent back in the US to buy weapons produced by US manufacturers; and the US Congress, which can’t agree on anything else, wants to increase that amount! What price are we paying as our infrastructure and education system collapses while we profit from bigger and better ways to kill each other?

People who are afraid have a hard time hearing Jesus’ words to be peacemakers; so I don’t expect this reminder to be popular in another moment of tragedy. But what we are doing is obviously not working and to double down on violence and power as the solution is not the answer.