Prayer for January 2021

Oh God of unconditional love and grace, we your children are hurting and afraid.  We are still living through a never-ending pandemic.  We thought 2021 would be better than 2020, but these first two weeks have just been more of the same with the threat of civil war thrown in for good measure.  

We are so divided, God, and we know you are calling us to be Christ followers, to be peacemakers among our families and neighbors.  But we don’t have a clue what that might look like.  None of us have ever lived through anything like this.  How can we possibly know how to be your witnesses, your disciples?  

Reassure us again, Holy One, that we can trust your call.  The Scriptures tell us story after story of the unlikely people you have called to do great things.  Moses and Esther, David, a bunch of uneducated fishermen, and Saul the Christian persecutor.   May we draw strength and confidence for the living of these days from the saints who have gone before us, Mother Theresa and Dr. King and thousands of unknown servants who bravely respond to your call, not knowing what that means, with no guarantee of success of safety.  

This day we especially pray for a peaceful transfer of power on Wednesday and for a binding up of our nation’s wounds.

We give thanks that we are not alone in this scary time.  Even though we cannot yet be physically in one place where we can be in fellowship and share hugs with one another, we are still connected through the wonders of technology.  We are never alone and together we can be faithful and brave through any crisis.  And so we dare to pray in the name of one who said “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age,”  the one who became flesh and walked among us to show us how to live and how to love.  And so now we pray as one the prayer he taught us to pray.   

-Pastoral Prayer, Northwest UMC, January 17, 2021

First Come, First Served

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” John 5:2-9

This poor invalid had been trying to get in that pool for 38 years. In today’s time frame that would mean he has been there since 1983! And no one has bothered to help him. Instead they push and shove to get in the healing water themselves. People with headaches, hangnails or allergies are still quite mobile and can get in first.

I was reminded of that story when I heard on the news recently an account of COVID vaccine distribution in a southern Florida County. In that county they announced a date for when those 65 and over could get the vaccine, first come, first served! And of course that resulted in chaos and confusion as those who were able-bodied camped outside the night before so they could be first in line. And as in John’s narrative about the pool by the sheep gate those who were sick or feeble and needed the vaccine more were left out in the cold because there was a limited number of vaccines available.

But along comes Jesus and upsets the apple cart as he usually does. Jesus doesn’t join the frenzy, jostling the crowd so he can carry the man into the pool. Jesus simply ignores the protocol altogether and heals the man himself.

The idea of first come, first served looks on first glance to be very fair. But when we look deeper into how it actually works in reality we realize how unfair it is to those most in need. Where does that show up in our society? Wealth and privilege buy the best school, healthcare, hotel accommodations and modes of transportation.

Some would argue that’s fair because we privileged ones have worked hard to earn enough to have all those benefits, Really? I have never been “wealthy” by worldly standards, but as a white male there were and still are more doors open to me and fewer arbitrary roadblocks or glass ceilings than women and people of color face.

My takeaway is that I want to pause and reflect on how a lucky break or good news for me may be just the opposite for the underprivileged. Recognizing the injustice is only step one, the hard part is figuring out how i can make the situation more just.

Those actions can be as personal as offering my place in line at grocery checkout to a frazzled father with two unhappy kids or to a woman with mobility issues. Or they run all the way to contacting government officials and helping them see the need for policy changes to level the playing field for the underprivileged. What is not an option for Christians is to ignore injustice hoping it will go away. It won’t. It just grows and embeds itself in the culture and becomes systemic.

Christmas Morning

The first thing I saw this Christmas morning in our beautiful snow-covered back yard was a large flock of black birds on, around and below one of our bird feeders. I can’t name most of the birds that visit our feeders but these birds were larger and more aggressive toward each other than the smaller, more colorful varieties we normally see. The size and darkness of the blackbirds was amplified by their contrast with the pure white snow. My first thought was to recall an old nursery rhyme that says, “Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie,” but that soon passed since it didn’t sound at all appetizing.

I’m also embarrassed to admit my other first reactions were less than Christ-like. I thought, “Oh, no. I didn’t brave the cold to feed blackbirds!” I was tempted to go to the door and chase them away so the smaller, “prettier” birds could get to the food. And then I stopped. I realized these birds are all creatures of our God, equally deserving of eating “our” food, which of course is not ours at all, but a gift from God that we are able to share.

And then an even more uncomfortable thought emerged in my mind as I asked myself if my aversion to these particular black birds was another example of my latent racist attitudes that I must constantly be on the lookout for. Pretty heavy stuff to look at before I had finished my first cup of coffee, but we can’t choose the times when God knocks on the door of our souls with uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.

But God wasn’t done with me yet. When I perused the morning news on my iPad I found an article about Pope Francis’ Christmas message where he challenged the wealthier nations of the world to share the COVID vaccines with other parts of God’s family that are most vulnerable. Again my first reaction was uncomfortable. I thought, “That’s fine Pope, but not until I get my vaccine!”

How often do we offer to God or others the leftovers from our tables, after we have taken care of our needs first? But the ultimate gift of Christmas is not ours to hoard! The startling message delivered to the shepherds is one we still need to hear today. “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

The Christ child is a gift “for all the people.” And we who celebrate that gift cannot hoard it but are called to “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Please take time today to listen to what the angels are whispering in your ear.

A blessed Christmas to all.

Advent Word of the Day: Adore

Whom or what do you adore?  Be careful; that’s a tricky question.  Some dictionaries say that the primary meaning of the word “adore” is “to worship.”  And we know that to worship anyone or anything besides God is idolatry.  Roman emperors and other egotistical heads of state throughout history have demanded that their people worship them.  And when they don’t get the adoration they thing they deserve they take great offense as Herod does in the story of the Magi in Matthew 2.  Herod tells the Magi that he wants to know where this new king can be found so he can go and “worship” him. But Herod really wants to do is go and kill Jesus because he feels threatened.  Contrast that with what the Magi do when they find Jesus:  “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:11). 

The question that story raises for us today is “To which King do we give our allegiance? Herod or Jesus?”  And secondly, “What does it mean to ‘adore’ Jesus?”  I believe that Jesus doesn’t want worshippers; He wants disciples who will be his servants in the world.  And that brings us to the other definition of “adore” which is the more common usage today.  According to Merriam-Webster that other definition is “to regard with loving admiration and devotion.”  Our relationship with Jesus should be more like that definition of love and devotion.  That devotion requires obedience and striving to live by Christ’s example. 

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year let’s learn two lessons from the adoring Magi.  Let’s honor Jesus by keeping our focus on him, but after Christmas we must stop following the example of the Magi.  Here’s how Matthew describes the Magi’s brief encounter with Jesus: “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”  (Matthew 2:11-12).

In other words when the going got tough the Magi’s fear of Herod was stronger than their devotion to Jesus.  Yes, we know that Mary and Joseph also flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus, but we also know that when it was safe they came back home and there Jesus fulfilled his mission.  That mission of grace and love is still a work in progress, and we are the ones called to turn our adoration at Christmas into the work of spreading God’s love here and now.  Come, adore, and then go out to serve!

Alive

There is a tradition in United Methodist circles that when we gather for our Annual Conference we begin by singing these words from a Charles Wesley Hymn: “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?”  In this pandemic year how we long to see each other’s faces in person and not mediated through zoom, google or Facetime.  I suggest that when we are finally able to have in-person worship again we should sing that hymn.

The sadness and trials of 2020 began for me weeks before we ever heard of COVID-19.  A dear friend and colleague died in the first week of January in a freak accident where he fell and hit his head on concrete causing a fatal brain bleed.  The preacher at the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Bill Casto’s life was another of our mutual friends, Bishop Joe Sprague.  The thing that stuck with me most about the Bishop’s sermon was this line: “Where is our brother Bill now?  He is where he’s always been—in the heart of God.” 

As God’s beloved children that’s where all of us are alive, in the heart of God.   God’s gift of eternal life doesn’t start when we die.  Eternal means forever – before our souls took on human form and after this life on earth is over, whenever that may be.

As we prepare our hearts during this pandemic Advent being alive is more precious with death or the threat of it all around us. And being alive is more than simply breathing and existing.  Being alive for people of faith is more about quality than quantity.  It means finding passion and purpose in how we use this day and the life and talent God has given us.

Just as we all live eternally in the heart of God the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas means God came alive as one of us at Bethlehem, but that was not the beginning of Christs’ existence.   As the Gospel of John tells us “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into beingin him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness (even of 2020) did not overcome it.” (John 1:2-5)

What makes you feel alive?  How can you live more days embracing that feeling?  You are God’s beloved child – how do you plan to live up to that birthright?

My prayer for all of us to have a rebirth of joy and purpose is captured for me in these words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”  Amen

Calm

Our church is centering daily devotions during Advent on a word for each day. Here is what I wrote about the word for today.

We are sailing in very rough waters this Advent that is like none other any of us have experienced.  Not often in 2020 have I felt “calm.”  Worried, angry, depressed, all of the above!  But I haven’t achieved a state of true calmness very often this year.  ‘And that’s why Advent in 2020 is so necessary and so relevant. Mary wasn’t calm when the angel told her she would be pregnant with God’s son.  And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t calm when Joseph told her they were going to bed down in a stable, or when she went into labor there among the livestock.

As soon as I was asked to write this devotion on the word “Calm” I thought about this story from Mark 4: “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. “ 

That calming of the sea reminded me of another experience Diana and I had two years ago when we were blessed to be able to visit Australia and New Zealand.  The picture here was taken on a sail boat in the bay of Akoroa, New Zealand.  The water that day there was perfectly smooth and peaceful, but the calmest part of that excursion was when the captain sailed near the cave in the picture.  As we sat there perfectly still he played some recorded organ music.  Echoing off the walls of that cave, the music was as awe inspiring as any pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.

That was one of the calmest experiences of my life.  But here’s the thing.  We don’t have to go clear to New Zealand to be calm.  All we have to do is have enough faith to ask Jesus to calm whatever stormy sea we’re in right now—and believe the God of Advent will provide.  

Advent: He’s Coming!

It’s Advent, that means He’s coming soon!

Will he come down the chimney?

No, that’s Santa.

Will he come with flying reindeer?

No, that’s Santa too.

Will he bring me toys?

No, that’s Santa, but He’ll bring much better gifts that our broken world needs so much right now: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love!

His name is Emanuel, which means “God With Us,” no matter what. And no virus or pandemic, no disaster, not even our sin will ever keep Him from holding us and loving us.

He’s Coming, and Advent is the time to prepare our hearts to celebrate His holy presence with us, even on the darkest days of the year.

Righteous Indignation

“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:1-2)

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)

Most preachers would be ecstatic to know that a sermon they preached 30 years ago was still remembered. Most of us would feel great if anyone remembered what we said from the pulpit 30 minutes ago. The preacher I have in mind was no ordinary preacher. The Rev James Forbes was senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City from 1989 until he retired in 2009. He also served at Union Theological Seminary where he was named the first Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching. His installment at Riverside made him the first African American senior minister of one of the largest multicultural and interdenominational congregations in the United States.

Forbes was the featured preacher at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio’s Schooler Institute on Preaching in the early 1990’s shortly after I began teaching at MTSO as an Adjunct Professor of Homiletics, and I must say he remains one of the most powerful and engaging preachers I have ever heard. It was Forbe’s sermon at that Schooler Institute that I still remember 30 years later.

The sermon was based on the Exodus story, and Forbes was masterful at weaving contemporary situations throughout and illuminate them  with the biblical narrative. One of the most memorable points Forbes made came to my mind today as I began another day today struggling with my anger at what is being done to our democracy by an unstable, vengeful and pitiful American president.

Forbes used the two texts quoted above from Exodus to make the following point. He reminded us that after Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of anger for abusing one of the Hebrew slaves he fled to the land of Midian to avoid any repercussions from Pharoah. While in Midian Moses stood up for the daughters of the priest of Midian, Ruel, when they came to water their father’s flocks and other shepherds tried to drive them away. That act of kindness and justice ingratiated Moses into a friendship with Ruel and eventually to Moses’ marriage to one of Ruel’s daughters, Zipporah.

Forbe’s interpreted Moses’ time in Midian as a time of spiritual growth for Moses because “he wasn’t ready” for what God had in store for him. And it’s there in the land of Midian while simply doing his day job tending Ruel’s sheep that Moses encounters a burning bush. After all the wild fires we’ve seen recently all over the world there’s nothing very remarkable about a single burning bush. But notice two special things about this bush. It is near Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, and the text calls it “the mountain of God,” foreshadowing Moses receiving the 10 Commandments from God on that same mountain.

But the other extraordinary thing about this bush is that “it was burning, and yet it was not consumed.” That familiar Sunday School story is usually interpreted rather literally as the place that Moses receives his call from God to go liberate God’s people from slavery.

But Forbes found a more profound symbolism in that story and applied it as a metaphor for Moses’ (and our) readiness to stand up to injustice.

When Moses killed the Egyptian his anger overcame him, but, said Forbes, to be ready for God’s service Moses and all of us need to be like that burning bush – angry about injustices inflicted on the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers– angry but not consumed by our anger.  Instead spiritually mature Christians learn to channel our righteous indignation into positive actions for justice.

I do not presume to claim such spiritual maturity for myself.  Far too often I let my anger at minor frustrations or societal injustices consume me instead of approaching each of them as an opportunity to face a  problem and look for creative and productive solutions to the situation.  

Gracious God, there is so much hate and division in our world, so much deceit and injustice it is so tempting to lash out at those we disagree with or at unfair restrictions imposed upon our lives by an invisible but deadly virus.  We do not want to stop being agents of justice who strive to right wrongs, but bless us with your spirit that enables us to angry without being consumed by our emotions.  Help us “speak the truth in love” to friend and foe alike that we can be peacemakers so needed in our world today.  Amen

DREAMS AND VISIONS

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

When this text from Joel showed up in the daily devotional I’m using (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggemann) the words that jumped out for me were “your old men shall dream dreams.”  I have been fairly successful at living in denial about my age, but somehow having my 74th birthday in October while recuperating from back surgery has made that reality come home to roost. So in this youth-oriented culture it felt good to see “old men’ (and I understand that generic term to include women also) included in this list of recipients of God’s Spirit.  

Brueggemann offers this commentary on Joel:  “The contemporaries of Joel are mostly prisoners of the present tense who cannot imagine life other than the way it is now.”  He goes on to describe how Joel offers an escape from that imprisonment. “Joel’s poem tells otherwise! He anticipates a coming time when all sorts of people break out of such weary imprisonment. There will be prophecy, dreams, and visions, acts of imagination opening to otherwise…The news is that God’s intent has not succumbed to our precious status quo.”

That sacred use of imagination to help create a new reality free from the injustices of our present one is exciting and inspiring, but like the ice bucket challenge of a few year ago I was shocked back into my cynical self as I read on into the 3rd chapter of Joel.  That whole chapter is a gruesome account of Yahweh’s revenge upon the enemies of Israel culminating with this exact opposite of the vision of Micah and Isaiah (cf my blog post from October 12 of this year, “Pacifism Put to the Test) when Joel, speaking for Yahweh says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weak say, “‘I am a warrior.’”  (Joel 3:10)

I knew those words reversing the vision of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 were in Joel, but I had not remembered that they came immediately after the hopeful words in chapter 2.  My heart sank as I realized that immediately after Joel’s promise that everyone would dream dreams and see visions come a whole chapter where Joel is a prisoner of the present, to use Brueggemann’s phrase.  Joel is trapped in what President Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex many centuries later. The whole cycle of revenge escalating into more brutal mayhem has been a recurring nightmare throughout the history of humankind. 

We justify our self-destructive reliance on our primal instincts by citing “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” from the Hebrew Scriptures, but what most of us don’t realize is that those words in Leviticus 24:19–21 and Exodus 21:24 were meant to set a limit on revenge so the punishment fit the crime rather than seeking to do the most damage possible on ones foes.  

And just as the Levitical law was an improvement over previous moral codes, so Micah and Isaiah and other prophets in every generation have dreamed ever better dreams and visions, culminating in the life and teachings of Jesus who lived out his vision of God’s peaceable kingdom even when it meant sacrificing life for a greater truth and reality.

But because of human nature every generation must make its own escape from the prison of the present tense.  As God’s children we are so much better than the quagmire of hate in which we are currently living.  God’s spirit is upon us now just as it was in Joel’s time, and that means all of us of every age and every gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and nationality can still dream dreams and see visions of God’s reign where we will beat those swords again into plowshares, put away our nukes and learn war no more.  

As I write this I am reminded of these words from a prophet for our time, John Lennon that still speak to this old dreamer:

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people sharing all the world,

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

All Saints, Birthdays, and Elections

I just completed my 74th trip around the sun and feel like I should have some wisdom to foist on my readers; but I’m coming up dry. I suspect it’s because of my stress level over the election and my recovery from back surgery 5 weeks ago. I’m doing well on the latter, but not so much on the former. The non-stop crisis du jour coming out of Washington, and the ominous record numbers of COVID cases is exhausting. I have tried to cut back on reading and listening to the news, but it’s like the proverbial train wreck that I can’t stop watching.
This much I know for sure — I cannot wait for the incessant requests for campaign contributions to end. Each one tells me that the sky is falling if I don’t give or give again. Enough already!!

This election reminds me a lot of the Nixon-McGovern election in 1972. Then too an embattled and corrupt incumbent was running for re-election against a liberal Democrat. Only that time around the Democrats overreacted to Nixon’s far right agenda and chose a candidate who was way too liberal for the country, and McGovern lost in an embarrassing landslide. Since that was only the second presidential election I could vote in my idealism was badly deflated not only because my candidate lost but because McGovern carried only one state and the District of Columbia. It was the worst whuppin’ any presidential candidate ever suffered, and I was devastated—lower than a snake’s belly. So to help pull me out of my funk a very wise friend/mentor gave me some advice I’ve never forgotten.

That friend, Russ, died early this year as one of 2020’s first of many low blows. And I miss him a lot, but when I remember his advice I feel like he’s still speaking to me from beyond. The particular piece of wisdom I’m remembering just now went something like this: “Elections are like city buses, if you miss one there will be another coming along soon.” In other words we can’t change the past but we can learn from it and move forward.

That advice didn’t sink in immediately. I remember writing a very dooms dayish letter to the editor shortly after that election bemoaning that since not even an election could get us out of the disastrous war in Vietnam all we could do now was to wait for the ultimate judgment of God. I’m glad I was wrong about that prediction. But as apocalyptic as my younger self thought that election was 48 years ago the 2020 version seems so much more critical to the future of our democracy. In part I feel that way because looking back on the 70’s we all know that the Watergate scandal took Nixon down when the election didn’t. And Nixon resigned because there was bipartisan agreement in Congress that he would be impeached if he didn’t. Such a spirit of valuing justice over party loyalty seems totally out of reach in the hyper partisan 2020 world, and that scares me.

I have now voted in 13 presidential elections, and I am much older than my friend Russ was in 1972 when he gave me that advice; but I don’t feel as wise as he was. Perhaps that is because all the foundations and norms we have lived by have been shaken by the 45th president. We are living in a far different reality than 1972 and that concerns me very much. Fortunately in my many trips around the sun I have learned a few things, none more important than this: God’s time is not our time, whether it’s daylight savings or not. We can change our clocks all we want, but the eternal truth is that all earthly kingdoms and super powers come and go, but God’s reign is forever. My tiny spin around the sun, no matter how long it lasts, is but a nano second in God’s time.

So whatever the outcome and whenever this ugly election ends that truth will won’t change. Our salvation history teaches us repeatedly that no matter what earthly calamities human disobedience to God’s will causes, there will always be a faithful remnant to carry on. God will raise up as always unexpected leaders from the most unlikely places here or elsewhere in the universe.

I have used words from Psalm 46 to comfort those who mourn at many funerals, but they also apply to national crises, of which Israel had plenty; and those words still speak to us today:

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”