OMG!

Oh My God, I am bone-tired weary. I am already physically and emotionally exhausted from personal challenges and the chaos in the world is more than I can even bear to hear about. 8000 plus new COVID cases in Ohio today, 240 COVID deaths Statewide just this week alone — all so unnecessary and down right stupid. Throw in a tsunami of gun violence and deaths, probably in part caused by the stresses of the pandemic that refuses to end. Are we stronger and smarter than this ever-changing corona virus? According to the overflowing ICU numbers and the number of foolish, misinformed people still refusing to get vaccinate it would seem the virus is definitely winning.

On a more cosmic scale I hear that the hole in ozone layer over the South Pole is now larger than the entire continent of Antarctica. Floods, fires, and hurricanes of epic proportions still cannot convince most of us to admit our addiction to fossil fuel that, like most addictions, is killing us in bigger numbers every year. Yes, I know you showed Elijah that you were not in the earthquake, wind, or fire* but in the still small voice. You tell us to be still and know you are God, but Lord, it is so hard to be still in the midst of chaos. Yes, I know Jesus slept through the storm in the boat, but I am like the disciples who were afraid and chastised Jesus for napping while they were in mortal danger.

There is no off switch on my worrisome brain. Yes, I can sometimes shut off all my devices and not listen to the 24/7 news, but it is so much harder to still my mind and soul. Speak to me, Lord of the universe. Reassure me you are walking through this difficult time with me, carrying me or (dragging me if necessary) when my legs are too weary to keep going. Speak to the storm and calm the turbulent sea within my heart. I believe O God, help my unbelief. Amen

PS: I’m grateful to report that as it often does when I “take it to the Lord in prayer” I feel much better. I can’t explain how that works. I just know it does.

*Bible references: I Kings 19:12, Psalms 46:10, Matthew 8:24, Mark 9:24

9/11 Memories and Dreams

I am listening to 9/11 memorial services, reading of all the names of those who died that day, except of course the terrorists. Who mourns for those enemies Jesus tells us to love?  What families did they leave behind?  What legacy of anger and malice drove them, and how contagious was/is that vengeance in our response.  No turning the other cheek here, just promises as recently as last week from President Biden to “hunt you down.”  What if we could sit down and break bread instead of breaking heads?  Is that a pipe dream, a hopelessly naive fantasy?  If it is what hope is there for a world that will ever at peace?  And I’m not talking about peace through mutual assured destruction but true peace through unity, through the ties that bind us all together as passengers on spaceship earth. 

Has there ever been a time in human history free from conflict and war?  Ever since Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden and the following fratricide between their sons the human family has been hell bent on creating more deadly and efficient ways to assert power over one another.  What if all that “creative” energy to invent smart bombs, split atoms and destroy one another could be channeled into learning ways to save our planet and all the creatures God has entrusted us with?  Even on this day when we relive the horror of 9/11 I still dare to hope for a time when God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”  (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17)

Because like the cockeyed optimist nurse Nellie Forbush sings in the great musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein,  “South Pacific,” “I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and I can’t get it out of my heart – not this heart.”

No Short Cuts

I walked our church’s new labyrinth this morning after church. I think it is the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen and am so grateful to those who worked to build it. I know it’s true of all labyrinths, but I was struck again today by how close one gets to the cross in the center on numerous occasions only to turn away and double back in the other direction. Isn’t that true of our faith journey? We feel especially close to God one minute, and the very next life hits us with a body blow we didn’t see coming; and all of a sudden God seems so distant that we feel lost and confused. That’s when spiritual discipline is needed to stay the course and trust that road less travelled will eventually lead us back to the cross.

There are no short cuts in our faith journey, only perseverance and trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us home. If you notice in the picture the entry path very quickly takes you within a few feet of the cross before it takes a sharp left turn that leads to the far side of the labyrinth. It would be so easy to step right over that blue line and in two steps be right at the foot of the cross. No one else was there to see if I cheated when I took my walk, but I knew that those who promise a short easy way to salvation are false prophets. To take a short cut would have robbed me of precious time for communion with God and defeated the whole purpose of being there.

Dog Food: Mark 7:24-37

“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:26-27)

That interchange has to be one of the most unChrist like things attributed to Jesus in any of the Gospels. The only similar verse which is even worse is in the Sermon on the Mount and lacks the context of Mark’s narrative. There Jesus just states “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6)

In Mark’s narrative the dialogue is with a Gentile. And it would seem the distinction Jesus is making is that the Jews are God’s children and others are not. In all honesty I have not researched what biblical scholars have to say about how to interpret this text. One possibility that comes to my mind is that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day and didn’t want to be bothered by this woman’s request. If Jesus is fully human he certainly must have had times where just needed a break.

In fact Mark tells us in verse 24: “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Any pastor can identify with the need to go off the grid once in awhile to recharge. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my ministry from one of my mentors was to always take a day off each week and get out of town so people won’t bother you. That was way before cell phones or even pagers made it harder to get away, and it is even more difficult and tempting to check for texts and emails 24/7 today.

We didn’t call it self-care back then, but that’s what it is. Jesus is usually pretty good at going off by himself to pray when he needs to, or at least he tries. Mark is the most intriguing of the Gospels in that regard with all the references to the Messianic secret. The verses for September 5th’s lesson are bookended by two such references with the second coming in verse 36: “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”

Jesus’ desire for some solitude is denied him twice in this short passage. The conclusion to verse 24’s statement that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there says, “Yet he could not escape notice.” So maybe he was just frustrated. He figured that getting out of the country would offer a respite from the clamoring masses, but even in Tyre he couldn’t catch a break.

Throughout all the preceding chapters of Mark crowds are continually flooding Jesus with their needs to be healed. And in chapter 6 the feeding of the multitude story begins with Jesus expressing concern for his disciple’s self-care. They were so busy they didn’t have time to eat! I don’t know about you, but if I’m too busy to eat I get hangry pretty quick. So Jesus suggests they go off “to a quiet place” for some R & R. But the crowds got there first, and Jesus “had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

That sounds more like the Jesus we want when we call him for help. So how do we reconcile that compassionate Jesus with the one one who calls Gentiles dogs in chapter 7? Other than my speculation above I am not sure, but I am intrigued with how quickly Jesus changes his tune when the woman responds to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I think it’s an interesting coincidence that this narrative pivots on this comment about dogs when national dog day was this week. I enjoyed seeing everyone’s pictures of their fur babies on Facebook, but more than that I see a connection between this story from Mark with reading I’ve been doing recently about mysticism and the cosmic Christ.

In verses 29 and 30 we find Jesus’ response to the woman’s argument that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. “Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” What is there about the woman’s comment that made Jesus completely reverse himself? Could it be Jesus recognized the truth in her statement that all of creation is intrinsically connected as part of God’s creation?

Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion for Aug. 27 contains this quote from the Celtic theologian Pelagius: “Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. . . . Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” (The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, ed. Robert Van de Weyer, p. 71)

Rohr comments: “Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all the life forms that surround us. ‘So when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree,’ he wrote, ‘we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.’”

And Rohr concludes that devotion with these words from Thomas Berry, a modern mystic: “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe.” (Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower: 1999), 3.)

Maybe Jesus recognized that cosmic spirit in the Syrophoenician woman’s compassion for the canine part of creation and that universal nature of her faith inspired him to extend his own cosmic healing power to her daughter.

Power Washing and Baptism

What do mustard seeds, rainbows, lost sheep, an expensive pearl, yeast, and wine have in common? They and many other common everyday things are used in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to describe the kin-dom of God, and still today every once in awhile God sneaks a little theology lesson into the most ordinary moments to remind us that the line we draw between “sacred” and “secular” is an imaginary line. Those ah hah moments are all around us, and I would “see” many more of them if I wasn’t distracted with other things.

I had one of those serendipities yesterday while doing a most mundane chore. The picture here is of the deck at the back of our house. This deck has to be cleaned at least annually, but because of my back trouble it didn’t get done last year. Hence it was dirtier than usual this year, which is illustrated in the picture. The section of the deck on the right here has been cleaned, while the part on the left is what the condition was before cleaning.

This is no job for ordinary cleaning. Mold and grime congregate on this deck because it is shaded most of the day and doesn’t get the sun’s solar cleaning rays. So this task calls for a power washer and the patience to clean one small section of each board at a time. The deck is not very large, about 12′ x 20′ or 240 square feet, which doesn’t sound too daunting. But remember I’m cleaning with a stream of water that covers an inch or so at a time. I’m sorry I did the math that way because when multiplying 240 square feet times 144 square inches per square foot I get a total area of 34,560 square inches.

God speaks to us in mysterious ways if we’re listening, and I’m glad I decided to just do it yesterday because as I started the power washing process the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear one of my favorite lines from the musical “Godspell.” Near the beginning of that wonderful play Jesus comes to the Jordan River to meet John the Baptist. When John inquires of Jesus why he is there Jesus says, “I came to get washed up.”

That image helped me see my deck-cleaning job through a theological metaphor for baptism. But this is not the sanitized, watered-down version of baptism we practice today which usually leaves no signs of dramatic change from a few drops of water sprinkled on the head of one who often is so young as to have no idea what’s going on.

True baptism or baptism by the Holy Spirit is a life-changing transformation, and for most of us it requires more of a power washer blast than a sprinkle. My deck looks radically different when it’s clean, and yet the power washer can’t hold a candle to the power of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate the Damascus Road conversion kind of change God can bring into a life, but most of us don’t want to be knocked off our comfortable horses and be made blind for three days that may come with that in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 9:1-19)

Procrastination is one form our resistance to change can take. I can find a million excuses for not cleaning my deck. It takes a couple of hours and is pretty boring most of the time, especially if my self-talk stays focused on how boring it is. I’m grateful God got through to me yesterday so I could not only clean the deck but could ponder again the mystery of God who is everywhere, even in scuzzy, moldy deck boards and power washers.

Our current existential crises calls for a power washer baptismal experience. We need to bring out the heavy artillery because those who dare to follow Jesus’ vision of a new way of living are automatically in conflict with the powers and principalities of the world. We cannot just call on Mr. Clean who claims to “get rid of grease and grime in just a minute.” Jesus’ followers are in this for the long haul and need daily and maybe hourly reminders of who we are, whose we are, and who we are becoming. Legend has it that Martin Luther reminded himself of his baptism every time he bathed.

What are you doing today that might be a vehicle for God’s transforming power? Put your theological Ray Bans on and tune your self-talk to the Holy Spirit network, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Stop, Hear, Do!

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, Lectionary text for 8/29/21)

There are 29 references to “widows” and 16 to “orphans” in the NRSV of the Bible. They are mentioned so consistently throughout Scripture of course because without a male protector they are the most vulnerable people in patriarchal biblical society; and that means they need the most help. I get that, but sometimes I just need a rest from the Social Gospel.

This is one of those weeks. Call it compassion fatigue, burn out, or just too pooped to participate. This week’s 24/7 news cycle has gone over the top with natural and human catastrophes. I’m sorry, Lord, but I’ve just had to turn the news off. One more report of a hurricane on top of an earthquake, wind and wild fire, one more gut-wrenching video of Afghan refugees climbing on to a moving aircraft to flee their homeland, one more story about school-age kids and teachers being caught in the political theater of the absurd about masks and vaccines for COVID may just be the final straw that pushes me over the edge.

It’s the blame game that is wearing on me the most right now. In the midst of all this chaos instead of joining forces to solve any one of these crises our state and federal leaders are redoubling their tug of culture war to find some political advantage in the worst situations. They seem oblivious to the reality that we are entering COVID 4.0 because the whole pandemic was politicized from Day 1.

Maybe the first step for people of faith or political leaders should be “First, Do No Harm” from the Hippocratic Oath. Not only are we failing miserably in taking care of widows and orphans, self-serving decisions have produced more poor, more widows and orphans left behind by the 623,000 plus Americans who have died from COVID so far. One headline today said, “Couple from LaMarque, Texas Who Didn’t Trust the Vaccine Have Died Leaving Four Orphans Behind.”

With all the resources the United States has, leading the world in the number of COVID deaths is beyond inexcusable. Scoring political points has trumped the use of time-tested public health tools like masks and vaccines to protect the most vulnerable.

Sure some of the finger pointing and political posturing goes with the territory because we are all caught in the matrix of a never-ending campaign cycle. I remember thinking last November after the election that I would get a breather from requests for campaign donations bombarding my inbox! How naive I was! And the requests just keep growing, coming from all over the country, not just from my own state. Perpetual campaigning leaves no time for actual governing! It is madness, not to mention an obscene waste of time and money. And the constant struggle for power and influence by the wealthy class is threatening to erode the very foundations of our democracy. How absurd is it that we may still be litigating the election results of 2020 when it’s time to cast votes in 2022.

Back in 2005, a time that seems so quaintly simple compared to the 2020’s, my wife and I participated in an intensive personal development program offered by Klemmer and Associates in California. There were many great life lessons we learned experientially in those workshops, but there is one gem that stands out for me, especially in a time like the one we are in now.

The focus of that program was learning how to set SMART goals for oneself and learning skills to overcome the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of achieving them. The blame game is one major hurdle most of us have to overcome to change a habit and get unstuck. To lose weight, to risk pursuing a new career, to be vulnerable enough to take a significant relationship to a new level of intimacy, whatever the goal may be one commonality is that blaming others for why we cannot achieve a dream or a goal is totally counterproductive.

The most helpful advice I learned from Klemmer is that instead of blaming others or circumstances for whatever we want it is much more productive to ask three simple questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? What next?” How different might the current catastrophe in Afghanistan look if we asked those pragmatic questions instead of just trying to pin the blame on somebody else. There is more than enough blame to go around for 20 years of killing and mayhem in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t even count the equally bad track record the Russians and the British had there before us.

Just like COVID war produces widows and orphans. For what? Victory? How does one keep score in the game of war? The long bloody trail of human history should have taught us long ago that there are no winners in war. Each war begets the next ad infinitum. What might it mean for Americans to ponder what it means that World War II was the last war where we can count any kind of victory? Could it be that war has finally outlived its usefulness 2500 years after Isaiah and Micah both dreamed of the day when we would “beat our swords in to plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Isn’t that the word that James wants Christians to be doers of? Talk is cheap. We pay lip service to pious platitudes about loving our neighbors and even our enemies, but who among us is really brave enough to walk that walk?

What have we got to lose? The way we have been trying to use “power over” others, especially in a toxic version of masculinity, simply isn’t working. Gun violence, raping the very planet we depend on for life itself, bitter partisanship instead of collaboration to solve problems that threaten the existence of the human race itself are all symptoms of humanity’s terminal illness.

Is it to late to be doers of the word instead of just hearers? Maybe a better question is are we even listening to the Word any longer? Do we have ears to hear? Are the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of greed, consumerism, zealous nationalism, and rugged individualism so loud they drown out the “still small voice of God?” (I Kings 19:12).

Matthew Fox describes our plight quite well in his Daily Devotion from August 9: “A prime idea of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is its very straightforward critique of misuses of power. From the very beginning, the Bible undercuts the power of domination and teaches us another kind of power: powerlessness itself. God is able to use unlikely figures who in one way or another are always inept, unprepared, and incapable—powerless in some way. In the Bible, the bottom, the edge, or the outside is the privileged spiritual position. This is why biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive. The so-called “little ones” (Matthew 18:6) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), as Jesus calls them, are the only teachable and “growable” ones according to him. Powerlessness seems to be God’s starting place, as in Twelve-Step programs. Until we admit that “we are powerless,” Real Power will not be recognized, accepted, or even sought.”

I love the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” It seems to me we’ve about exhausted “everything else.” Maybe we’re about ready to be doers of God’s way – collaborating, sharing, caring more about all of humankind and creation than our own bottom line? That’s what James calls “pure religion.” Others call it the peaceable kin-dom that God has put within each of us. That beloved community can only emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis if we can learn to be unstained by the deadly values of the world.

The other very familiar verse from James is 2:26 which says “Faith without works is dead.” Without a major shift in our values, so are we.

Spiritual Surrender: The Only Way Out

Hard to believe I’ve been blogging here for 10 years, and when I look back to my very first post I am a bit shocked to see it was about bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. I also originally did posts based on biblical texts from the Revised Common Lectionary; so today I decided to revisit that practice, and when I looked up the texts for August 22 I find God’s spirit moving again in mysterious ways. Several of these texts speak to the centuries old issues at work in the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East.

The passage from Joshua 24 addresses Israel’s transactional “right” to occupy the land of their ancestors if they remain faithful to their covenant with Yahweh. Verses 15-18 say, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

Verses like that last verse one always trouble me—“…the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.” Would a just God of the whole universe choose sides and violently force the occupants of a piece of God’s creation out of the land they have called home for centuries? Would a just God rationalize such an eviction just because Joshua says God told us we can have this “Promised Land” even though we’ve been living in Egypt for 400 some years? That is not a rhetorical question because the fact that Israel and her neighbors are still killing each other over that piece of real estate makes this an urgent contemporary issue.

Preachers can challenge and deepen their own faith and that of their congregations by wrestling with such challenging issues. Some of us fear that exposing contradictions in the Bible will destroy faith, but that is not true. I love the quote in one of Frederick Beuchner’s books that says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” We don’t usually come to Scripture or worship because our faith is totally secure. All of us, preachers perhaps most of all, come thirsting for authentic encounters with God, and if what preachers are serving fails to meet that need folks will stop at McD’s on the way home for junk food. I cast my lot with the theologians who realize that certainty is the enemy of faith, not doubt. To ignore contradictions within holy texts in hopes that no one will notice is a fool’s bargain. Because real faith at its core always contains some mystery and is therefore a holy riddle inviting us into dialogue with the text and with God.

For example, another of the lectionary texts for August 22 is from I Kings 8 which describes part of Solomon’s dedication of the first temple in Jerusalem many years after Joshua led the conquest of the Promised Land. Beginning at verse 24 we find these words: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive. Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm–when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

“Do according to all that the foreigner calls to you; so that all peoples of the earth may know you name….” What an about face from thanking God for killing off the Amorites! And what a great way to examine the evolution of faith over time as God inspires women and men in all generations with the wisdom of Solomon. God’s concern for the foreigner/alien/sojourner is of course interspersed throughout the Hebrew texts along side more nationalistic sentiments because we know the path to faith is not the wide comfortable one but the narrow mountain road with numerous switchbacks and challenges that require our devotion and honest intellectual curiosity.

One of my biggest regrets about my preaching career is that I have not always been brave enough to wrestle in corporate worship with the challenges of biblical interpretation. It has been poor stewardship on my part to withhold from my parishioners and others the marvelous gifts of historical-criticism and narrative criticism I was given in my seminary education.

When I taught homiletics I encouraged my students to focus on just one text per sermon and refrain whenever possible from trying to preach on two or more selections from the lectionary. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this set of texts interact so well with each other that it is at least worth exploring how they inform or expand each other. For me the epistle text from Ephesians 6 also speaks to me as both a preacher and a citizen of our broken world.

The familiar passage about “putting on the whole armor of God” is an excellent metaphor for those preparing to speak for God in these difficult days of pandemic and domestic and international conflict. But “armor” can be a two-edged sword (to mix metaphors?). Remember how David refused to put armor on when he confronted Goliath because it hampered his ability to use the shepherd’s tools at his disposal? ( 1 Samuel 17). It is rather like Brene Brown’s analogy I heard recently in one of her podcasts where she characterized getting defensive when we feel vulnerable as “armoring up.”

Those “weapons” described in Ephesians are also metaphors and not meant to for us to go out as “Christian soldiers marching as to war…” as one of my my childhood (but no longer) favorite hymns puts it. I invite you to instead focus on the qualities of discipleship described in Ephesians instead of literalizing the military memes. As the author of Ephesians 6 says, “… in the strength of God’s power put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

In these days when lies, mis-information, and “alternative facts” bombard our ears and senses without ceasing I would argue that we need none of these parts of “armor” more urgently than “the belt of truth.” It is no accident that it is the first item listed for it is the truth that will set us free. But we know that truth can also make us feel very vulnerable and uncomfortable. We cannot question Joshua’s conquest of the Amorites, or the imposition of the nation of Israel on the Palestinians after World War II without also seeing in the mirror American genocide of indigenous people who lived on our “promised land” for centuries before Columbus sailed the oceans blue. No matter how much we divert our eyes we must eventually face the fact that our choices and actions as individuals and nation states have long-lasting consequences.

When I was in high school I excelled at history/social studies because I was blessed with a good memory that could regurgitate historical dates on demand. But it was not until I took a world history class in college that I had the first ah ha moment and began to connect the dots between one historical event and others that followed. For me my first revelation that the harsh treatment the allies imposed on the conquered Germans in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was used by Hitler to inflame German nationalism and racism by blaming the dire economic plight of the Great Depression on their European enemies. A huge part of that Nazi response was to unify their base by scapegoating Jews and anyone else who was different from the pure Aryan race. Tragically that strategy resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and thousands of others in dozens of extermination centers. And the next link in the chain of events was an attempt at repentance by the allies who far too long pretended the Holocaust wasn’t happening. That act of penance was to create a new/old homeland for the Jews in Israel, which in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the viscous cycle rages on with 9/11, Desert Storm, killing of Osama Ben Laden, oil wars, Hezbola, the Taliban, etc. etc.

The gut wrenching headlines from Afghanistan right now defy any human resolution of the impact of brutal violence as city after city falls to the Taliban. It like all wars before it yet another gruesome illustration that peace can NEVER come through instruments of death. Violence ALWAYS escalates into more and more violence. The good news is that only when we reach the ultimate limit of our human wisdom can we surrender our fear, pride, ego and arrogance and call upon the cosmic power of the one we call God.

O Eternal Being, we have been told that your “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26). This is one of those moments, O God. We confess our weakness. Intercede for us and bridge our foolish human divisions. Let all of us children of Abraham come together in weakness, trusting you as the only way, truth and life. Let believers, atheist, agnostics and all of your troubled children put down our weapons and raise our hands in unconditional surrender so your will and not ours will emerge from a world of chaos and death. Amen

Note: I would welcome comments and reactions. If you preach on one or more of these texts give me some feedback on how helpful or unhelpful this was. Thanks

A Field of Dreams

Note: I preached this sermon for Father’s Day 2017 and tonight as I watched the fun game being played at the Field of Dreams field in Iowa I thought it would be fun to revisit that sermon and movie with such wonderful meaning in a much simpler time. I hope you enjoy it. The text for the sermon was Deuteronomy 4:6-9.

Back when my body would allow it, I used to play a lot of softball. I love that game in part because there’s no clock or time limit, or as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” I learned that and another important life lesson in a softball game many years ago. Our team was down by 4 runs coming up for our last at bat. Just so you know, our team had never come back from 4 runs down ever in the history of the franchise. I was the 8th batter due up in that final inning; so I was not optimistic that I would get another at bat.


But, a few hits and a couple of errors by the other team and I suddenly realized I might be called on to hit. That was good, but the bad news was that because I didn’t expect our team to make a comeback, I hadn’t been paying as close attention to the score as I should have. Lo and behold, with two outs the batter just before me hit a triple and drove in a run and I was due up to bat. I knew the runner on 3rd base represented either the tying or the winning run, but I wasn’t sure which. Of course I could have asked the umpire or our coach, but I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know the score.


And it made a big difference. If the score were already tied and I made the 3rd out – we would just go to extra innings. But if we were still down a run and I messed up, the game would be over; and my out would result in our losing the game. (Just for the record – I got the game winning hit–one of the few highlights in my non-athletic career.) But the life lesson learned was more important – be sure you know the score, because you never know when you may be called on to step up to the plate with the game on the line.


Our text today from Deuteronomy is about making sure our children know the score in the game of life. In this passage Moses is like a coach giving his team final instructions because they are about to play a big away game when they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. He tells them the most important thing is loving God always with their whole being and warns them that the prosperity they are about to enter after 40 long years of wandering in the desert is not just flowing with milk and honey. There is also the danger that when life is good for them they will forget that it is God who has delivered them and brought them to this good place. When we are going through rough times like a baseball team in a long losing streak we are likely to ask God to deliver us. But during the thrill of victory we may fall into the trap of thinking our success is because of our great skill and forget to give God the credit.


Moses goes on to stress the importance of teaching children about loving God and making sure future generations know the stories of God’s great acts of salvation. How do we do that? As Mebane said last week, it’s all about the fundamentals. First Moses says “Hear O Israel.” As players on God’s team we need to listen to God as our coach. If we are going to know how to play the game of life we need to learn how God wants us to live before we can pass that faith on to others. Moses says we do that with both our words and the example of our lives. He tells us we should recite God’s words to our children and talk about them when we are at home and away, which means everywhere.


Every sports team knows the importance of having home field advantage. You get to sleep in your own bed, eat normal meals, keep your regular routine in familiar surroundings and have the energy and enthusiasm of your fans supporting you during the game. Away games are much tougher. Traveling is tiring, most of us don’t rest as well in a strange place, you miss family and home cooking, schedules are different, and then of course there’s the problem of hostile fans when playing on the road. Championship teams are those that can overcome all those distractions and still play their best games away from home.


The game of faith is no different. It’s much easier to do daily devotions and prayer at home, to live our Christian values without the added temptations of a secular world bombarding us with lies about what it means to be successful. Especially away from the friendly confines of home we need to know the score, and coach Moses says we do that by loving God all the time, when we lie down at night wherever we are and when we rise up to face a new day. To win at the game of life we need to live in the assurance of God’s love when things are good and when we’re down 4 runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. That constant love is what gives us the peace that passes understanding to calmly step up to the plate and be ready for any curve ball life throws us.


How do we keep the love of God foremost in our minds and hearts? Moses says, “Bind God’s word as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” For the Hebrew people these instructions literally meant to wear small leather pouches call phylacteries that contained small scrolls with the 10 commandments and other key scriptures to constantly remind themselves of God’s word. Today that verse can mean any reminder that works for you – keeping a Bible in a visible place (and actually reading it), jewelry with Christian symbols, a fish symbol on your car, a tattoo, or an image that reminds you of God on a computer screen or iPhone, a post it on the bathroom mirror, whatever works for you.


But these symbols are just meant as reminders about how God wants us to live. They are not intended to be a way to flaunt our faith or brag about what good Christians we are. If we don’t walk the walk nothing else matters. The point is to love God, not just to talk a good game. In Matthew 23 Jesus criticizes the Scribes and Pharisees because “they do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Anyone can talk a good game, but results are determined on the field of play.


The key to Moses’ teaching is “to love God with all your heart, soul and might.” Please note that Love is a verb not a noun. Christian love means putting faith into action. How exactly do we show our love for God? Praising God and being grateful for our blessings is one way, but even more important is how we treat others and all of God’s creation. In his parable about separating the sheep and goats Jesus repeatedly says, “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” How we treat others and how we take care of God’s creation shows our love for God or our lack of it because God’s spirit is in every living creature and person, even the most unlovable. Also a good coach doesn’t just tell players how to play the game, he or she shows them, and that is even more true in the game of life. Someone once told me “faith is caught more than it’s taught.” When I was working on this part of the sermon I was reminded of a song from “My Fair Lady” where Eliza expresses her frustration with her boyfriend Freddie this way:
“Words, words, words!I’m so sick of words
Don’t talk of stars, burning aboveIf you’re in love, show me!

Tell me no dreams, filled with desireIf you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night

Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight

Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you thatThis is no time for a chat.”


I can just hear God looking at our world full of so much chaos and hate and disregard for creation and pleading with us, “If you’re in love, show me!”
Of course we do love God, but just as we often disappoint and hurt the people we love the most we sometimes mess up on loving God too. Ever since Adam and Eve rebellion against parental authority and our Heavenly Father’s authority seems to be built into human DNA. In one of the great baseball movies of all time, “A Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella rebels against his father’s passion for baseball by refusing to play catch with his dad and by berating one of his father’s heroes, Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ray said Shoeless Joe was a criminal because he was one of the Chicago White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Ray then moves as far away from home as he can get and has to live with the regret that his father died before he could ever tell him he was sorry. When a wise mentor asks Ray why he did that his response is “I was 17.”


Many of us have been on one or both sides of that rebellion as kids or parents. And it hurts. When young people reject the values and faith practices we’ve tried to instill in them it is very painful, and thus some of the mixed emotions holidays like Father’s Day conjure up in us. My Mom was not much of a philosopher but she liked to express the concern Moses had by saying that “Christianity is only one generation from extinction.” There’s some truth in that saying even though our biblical history teaches us that God always finds a way to raise up a faithful remnant when the majority of people turn away.


Having said that, the fear of losing basic Christian and human values is very real, especially in the state our world is in today. Instead of a field of dreams we have a field of screams in our nation’s capital and a shooting in the Columbus library! And that’s just two of a dozen or more acts of violence that have been in the news this week. Reading the morning newspaper over a cup of coffee used to be one of life’s real pleasures for me, and I still do it because I want to be an informed citizen; but it has become an increasingly depressing task. But rather than throw up our hands and accept defeat, all the terrible news in our world is just more reason we need to be sure we teach and live God’s way of love more diligently.


One danger is that we panic about where the world is headed and try to force Christian values on children or others in unloving ways. Sooner or later that strategy backfires. The text we read this morning about loving God with all our being is bookended by two verses that tell us to FEAR God. I’d like you to get a picture in your head of someone you are afraid of. Got it? Do you love that person? It’s almost impossible to love something or someone if we are fearful. There’s no room for love in our hearts when we are full of fear. Unfortunately many people get turned off on because they are taught about a judgmental God that seems more like Big Brother than a loving parent.It seems pretty significant to me that when he was asked to pick the greatest commandment, Jesus didn’t pick either of the verses in Deuteronomy 6 that teach us to fear God, he picked the one that says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.” I saw a quote from another preacher recently who said her first priority is that “my children’s first knowledge of God will be that God is a God of love.” That’s a great theology.


Father’s Day is a day for appreciation and love for fathers and father-figures, but no one is perfect; so regrets, we’ve all got a few or a lot. But here’s the good news and bad news about the Yogiism that says “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Baseball games have no clock, which means they can literally go on forever or what seems like it about the 18th inning. That’s a problem for baseball’s popularity in our fast-paced 4G world, but when it comes to the game of life extra innings are great. It means more time for reconciliation and love.
That’s what happens to Ray Kinsella when he builds a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa cornfield. He had to put up with ridicule and scorn from family and friends to follow his dream. His baseball field almost led to financial ruin, but he had the support of a loving wife and daughter who could see the dream because they too believed. Ray didn’t understand what it meant when he heard a mysterious voice say, “If you build it he will come,” but he took a leap of faith and built his field of dreams and finally discovers what it all meant in the final scene from the movie.


Ray and his family have just watched Shoeless Joe Jackson and other deceased baseball stars play a game on their field and are getting ready to retire for the night when they notice Shoeless Joe hanging around. When Ray asks him what he wants Joe nods toward a young catcher who is still removing his catching gear and says, “If you build it he will come.” Ray’s jaw drops as he recognizes his father as a young man. His dad, John, introduces himself and thanks Ray and his family for building the field. After Ray introduces his dad to the daughter-in-law and granddaughter he never got to meet the two of them are left alone on the field to talk.


John says that playing there is a dream come true (because he never made it to the big leagues as a player). Then he asks, “Is this heaven?” And Ray says, “No, it’s Iowa.” Then he asks his dad “Is there a heaven?” And John says, “Oh, yes. It’s a place where dreams come true.” Ray ponders that and looks back at his wife and daughter sitting on the porch swing and says, “Then maybe this is heaven.”


John is about to walk away toward the corn beyond left field, but Ray says, “Dad, could we have a catch?” John says, “I’d like that.” And the movie ends with the two of them playing the game of catch Ray had refused to play as a teenager.


“Heaven is the place where dreams come true.” The kingdom of heaven is that place right here and now for those who love the God of love and reconciliation with all their being. That loving God will come to us wherever we are if we build it – if we build our relationship with God that is, and if we are willing as Ray was to “Go the Distance” even when others think we’re crazy.


[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, June 18, 2017]

The Dangerous Pursuit of “Happiness”

The current heated debates in the U.S. about personal freedom vs. the greater good for society when it comes to masks and vaccines has had me pondering for some time about a key phrase in the Declaration of Independence. That document authored by Thomas Jefferson and edited by a committee of five states in these familiar words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I have said numerous times lately I have been blessed during the pandemic by being introduced to the work of Dr. Brene Brown by my spiritual director and a book club I have been in. I am currently re-reading Brown’s 2011 book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” where she shares among other things the results of her research into joy and gratitude and describes what she has learned about the difference between two words we normally equate as synonymous, happiness and joy.

I was particularly pleased that Brown quotes a United Methodist pastor, Anne Robertson, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, to explain the meaning of the Greek words for happiness and joy. Robertson says the Greek word for happiness
is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries,
or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the “culmination of being” and the “good mood of the soul.” Robertson writes, “Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.” (“Joy or Happiness?” St. John’s United Methodist Church, http://www.stjohnsdover.org/99adv3.html)

That understanding of those two words presents challenges to Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” and our American obsession with doing so. I think it is no coincidence that Jefferson owned far more slaves (600) than any of the other 15 of our other U.S. Presidents who were slave owners. According to Statista.com only Washington and Jackson owned even 200 slaves. Given the Greek definition of happiness it’s pretty obvious to me that Jefferson was quite free of many normal “cares and worries” most of us experience. That in no way diminishes all of Jefferson’s amazing accomplishments, but it does help to explain how he had time to create all of the advanced technologies at Monticello along with his diplomatic and political accomplishments.

It also explains his favoring the philosophy of John Locke when he included “the pursuit of happiness“ as one of three unalienable rights. I would argue that our American settling for happiness instead of joy is at the heart of our current manipulation by consumerism, materialism, individualism and elevating personal freedom over community and compassion. And this all contributes to the attitude of those who refuse to be vaccinated against a deadly pandemic because it violates their personal liberty. If the value of joy that comes with compassion and caring for others were more central to our cultural values fewer people would be willing to risk harm to themselves and the most vulnerable in our nation and world for their own personal liberty and “happiness.”

Our mistaken notions of happiness as the absence of pain or suffering is fed by consumerism and the prosperity gospel, and these fail to satisfy because in those models there is never enough of anything in these individual, self-centered pursuits that will ultimately satisfy our deep human hunger for human or divine connection. Our failure to grasp the true meaning of the Gospel of Christ as one of compassion, which means suffering with others has led us down the wide path that leads to destruction; and we are dangerously close to the point of no return on that path.

As I am writing this I again found today’s (August 7, 2021) daily devotion from Father Richard Rohr to be right on point. He quotes Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu: “The way to free yourself from pain is to feel it, not to run away, as difficult as that may be. Pain and suffering make life beautiful. This might be hard to believe while you’re suffering, but the lessons you can learn from hardships are jewels to cherish. If you’re suffering, it means you have a heart. Suffering is evidence of your capacity to love, and only those who understand suffering can understand life and help others.”

Jesus teaches the same in word and example by urging his followers in all three synoptic Gospels to “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9), and by his own courage to practice what he preached. Brene Brown addresses the same phenomenon from a psychological-emotional perspective in “The Gifts of Imperfection:” “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

All of that wisdom from diverse perspectives is supported by our contemporary headlines. The Delta variant is running rampant threatening to overwhelm exhausted health care systems, a fragile economy, and kill thousands of more vulnerable people. What we are doing simply is not working, and unless we learn very soon to put aside our thirst for political power at all costs and our fear of each other we are headed for another bleak and dark winter of death and/or lonely isolation.

Dear God, give us ears to hear the truth that can set us free from fear and the pursuit of “happiness” that does not satisfy.

Grief and Hope in Darkest Days

“In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Job moving through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known stages of grief and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, resignation, and acceptance. The first seven days of Job’s time on the “dung heap” of pain are spent in silence, the immediate response matching the first stage—denial. Then he reaches the anger stage, verses in the Bible in which Job shouts and curses at God. He says, in effect, “This so-called life I have is not really life, God, it’s death. So why should I be happy?”

That quote is from Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion on August 2 of this year. I want to share the rest below because it speaks powerfully to the chaos of emotions I’ve be feeling for the last few weeks. Pressures of time, more physical health problems, depression about the resurgent Delta variant, and all the other “slings and arrows” of life have damned up my creative writing urges for weeks; so I apologize. In advance if this post gets too long. It has been worth it for me to ride it out, and I hope will be so for you as well.

After reading Fr. Rohr’s words that day I journaled the following dialogue of lament with God. “These words struck a chord with me about my anger and depression about my life and the mess our world is in. I have been stuck in unproductive anger for decades and its time to move along. Some connection there with shame the way Brene Brown discusses it. Help me Yahweh, the burden is literally breaking my back and I don’t know how to let it go. I feel trapped in a vicious cycle of pain, anger and shame that keeps me crippled and /or paralyzed with fear and doubt, layer upon layer piled higher and deeper over the years like a blind mole digging tunnels that go no where, afraid of the light that alone can overcome the darkness of gloom and despair. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, you think it is I who have done the forsaking – but I have lots of good excuses – my parents, my church, my teachers all failed me and put me on the path of darkness and guilt trips that go nowhere but deeper into the muck and mire. I really want to turn around, I think, but I don’t know how. I am so deep in darkness I don’t know which way it is to the light.

“I am the way.! The path is narrow and full of challenges, but I will provide you strength you do not know you have. Trust and obey – choose and move. There’s no other way.”

It’s my move, and I will never be any closer to the truth than I am today.”

“Follow me.”

Fr. Rohr’s meditation continues: “W. H. Auden expressed his grief in much the same way in his poem “Funeral Blues,” which ends with these lines:

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.” [1]

Perhaps some of us have been there—so hurt and betrayed, so devastated by our losses that we echo Job’s cry about the day he was born, “May that day be darkness. May God on high have no thought for it, may no light shine on it. May murk and deep shadow claim it for their own” (Job 3:4–5). It’s beautiful, poetic imagery. He’s saying: “Uncreate the day. Make it not a day of light, but darkness. Let clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.” Where God in Genesis speaks “Let there be light,” Job insists “Let there be darkness.” The day of uncreation, of anti-creation. We probably have to have experienced true depression or betrayal to understand such a feeling.

There’s a part of each of us that feels and speaks that sadness. Not every day, thank goodness. But if we’re willing to feel and participate in the pain of the world, part of us will suffer that kind of despair. If we want to walk with Job, with Jesus, and in solidarity with much of the world, we must allow grace to lead us there as the events of life show themselves. I believe this is exactly what we mean by conformity to Christ.

We must go through the stages of feeling, not only the last death but all the earlier little (and not-so-little) deaths. If we bypass these emotional stages by easy answers, all they do is take a deeper form of disguise and come out in another way. Many people learn the hard way—by getting ulcers, by all kinds of internal diseases, depression, addictions, irritability, and misdirected anger—because they refuse to let their emotions run their course or to find some appropriate place to share them.

I am convinced that people who do not feel deeply finally do not know deeply either. It is only because Job is willing to feel his emotions that he is able to come to grips with the mystery in his head and heart and gut. He understands holistically and therefore his experience of grief becomes both whole and holy.”

[1] W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues,” Another Time (Faber and Faber: 1940), 91. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (Crossroad: 1996), 53–55.

And today (Aug. 6) Fr. Rohr provided these encouraging words of hope: “It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is our common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us with everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

I would add it is a life-long journey, and with God’s help we can embrace all of life and death in all it’s many forms. Thanks be to God.