Jump Start Prayer

O God, it’s freezing cold outside and my energy level is way below average as well. I know I can’t do a thing about the weather, and I know that prayer about accepting things I can’t change; but this still sucks. I know how to jump start my car when it won’t start, but I’m not as good at firing up my own engine when the battery is low. Yes, I always have to google the battery to remember if the red post is positive or negative, but my own negativity is so much easier to identify.

I’ve run all the virus scans on my computer to avoid starting on my to-do list. With a click of my mouse I’ve quarantined 29 potential threats. I had to reboot my computer. That was easy. I wish it was that simple to debug and reboot my own operating system.

Oh, it’s “Be still and know you are God!” I knew that, but I keep forgetting that the hurrier I go the farther I get from you. My jumper cables won’t reach to the ground of my being when I’m looking for energy in all the wrong places.

They say with computers it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” How true that is for our weary souls, too. We get bombarded by bad news 24/7. It was so much easier to cope with the suffering in the world when it only came in the daily newspaper or the nightly news. Living in the information age is great when I need to know something, but I’m also deluged with drama and disasters from around the globe. Bad news sells; so life feels like a train wreck that I can’t stop watching.

Help me unplug from the cares of the world now and then, God, so I can reconnect to the only true source of peace in which I live and move and have my true being. Help me refocus my attention on things that cannot be stolen from me, eternal things that rust and moth cannot consume and neither can human hate and stupidity. Help me to faithfully be in the world but not consumed by it, to take mini Sabbath breaks where I can be forgiven for my failures and choose again this day, this hour, this moment whom I will serve.

Thanks for listening and Amen.

21 Day Attitude Adjustment

For those who don’t know what this contraption is, it’s a post hole digger. And it doesn’t work. I put it in the ground and waited for it to dig a hole, and the darn thing just sat there. It didn’t dig a lick.

Now it happens I was working on this project on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon; so maybe my digger was just trying to keep the Sabbath. But I’ve used it on other days of the week with similar results. Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, an occupational hazard for preachers. But I hasten to add that yesterday, a rainy football Saturday, was my day of rest in my recliner in front of the TV. I believe, especially in our crazy busy world, it’s more important to get some regular rest than to be legalistic about which day or days we do so. Jesus thought so too. When criticized for healing on the Sabbath he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV)

But I digress. To be honest, I’m not very adept at manual labor — but even I know tools don’t work by themselves. Maybe someday, but not yet. My project in this case is putting a fence around our garden to deter or at least discourage rabbits, deer, and other critters from nibbling our produce. Fortunately I only need post holes for the gate, but digging even 2 post holes is hard work. So it didn’t take long before I was tempted to go negative about how hard it was and how I’d much rather be watching more football or playing golf on such a glorious day. And then a little voice in my head that sounded strangely like my wife’s was whispering in my ear, “Attitude is a choice. I can either feel put upon for working so hard— or I can enjoy being out in God’s beautiful creation, breathing fresh air, and getting some wonderful (and much needed) exercise!”

To be honest I don’t always or even often listen to that cheerful voice, but I’m trying to practice more gratitude and nourish a more positive attitude. Yes, I know there’s so much in our world today that is way too easy to be negative about, but I do have a choice. I can either focus on the negative or the positive. It’s really as simple, and as hard, as following the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Would I rather hang out with some David Downer or someone with a positive approach to life’s challenges? Pretty easy choice isn’t it? So if that’s who I’d rather be with then that’s who I need to be, even when I’m all by myself. Not only does my throwing a pity party for myself do me no good, it’s a bummer for those around me.

I continue to marvel at and be inspired by people who exude faith and positive vibes when life deals them so much unfair pain and suffering: people who are confined to wheel chairs who refuse to stop living and express gratitude for friends and family and good memories of lives well lived; parents who give nothing but unconditional love to children who break their hearts with rebellion and rejection; or someone like President Jimmy Carter who takes brain cancer and the limitations of being 95 in stride and keeps working to make the world a better place for his sisters and brothers. It’ a choice!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my wife Diana at this point. The reason I said the voice in my head sounds like her is because she is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. I don’t always appreciate it when she urges me to be more positive, but I know she’s right because she practices what she preaches; and I am blessed to have a front row seat to see how it works for her and the way she influences others.

On this day choosing a more positive attitude worked for me, and like any other discipline each time I practice that behavior it becomes easier to do it next time and eventually will become a habit that I don’t have to talk myself into. Easy? No, or I’d have mastered it long ago. You may have heard as I have many times that it takes 21 days of practicing a new behavior for it to become a habit, but I just learned recently from a Physical Therapist why that’s so. She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.

It’s a choice; and just like my post hole digger, it’s up to me to make it work.

Who Gets the Last Word? A sermon on Revelation 22:12-21

Who gets the last word? Well, one answer to that question is that since this is the final sermon in this series on Revelation – I do! Not really.

You’ve probably heard that “Men should always have the last words in an argument with their wife.” Those words are “Yes, Dear.”

And here are some really last words uttered on a death bed:
Actor W.C Fields, when asked why he was reading the Bible said, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A pastor was visiting an elderly man in the hospital when the man suddenly gasped for air and couldn’t breathe; so he grabbed a pen and paper to write his last words. He handed it to the pastor and died. The pastor took the note, put it into his pocket and ran to get the nurse. A week later at the man’s funeral the pastor is reading from the Bible and remembers the note in his pocket; so he opens it up and reads it to the congregation, it said: “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

Those bad jokes were inspired by a couple of verses in the text for today from the final chapter of Revelation. As soon as I began studying this chapter there were two verses that grabbed my attention, not because they inspired me but because they were very challenging.

Here they are, verses 18 and 19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” John seems to be saying he gets the last word.

Interestingly, at least to me, is the fact that these two verses are omitted when this chapter appears in year C of the Lectionary. When the lectionary omits verses from the middle of a text I always wonder why and have to go look to see what was left out. In this case my guess is that like me, the authors of the lectionary would rather not deal with these difficult verses. But I left them in because these verses point to a central issue that has divided Christians over the years and is especially relevant in our time. These verses have to do with how we choose to interpret Scripture.

Some Christians take this warning to mean we are not to change any part of the Bible because it is the infallible, literal word of God dictated to a human author. Another approach which I subscribe to is that the Bible is a collection of books written over several centuries by different authors in particular times and places who did their best to describe their own experience of the mystery of God.
So, let’s review the history of this particular book. Revelation was written in the late first century during a time of terrible persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. The author, John, did not think he was writing the last chapter of the New Testament, and that’s a critical point. The New Testament as we know it did not exist until 200 or 300 years later when the church reached a consensus that the 27 books now in the New Testament should be included in our Bible.

Why is that important? Because it means that these two verses that say no one should change a word of this “book” are talking about the prophesy in the book of Revelation, not about the entire Bible. John wrote those words as the final word of his prophesy, not as the final words of the Bible.

Does that mean that we have carte blanche to rewrite other books of the Bible? Of course not. My point is simply that God did not stop speaking to us in the first century. The Bible is our primary source of inspiration, but that doesn’t mean it is the only one. Do we really want to limit God’s revelation to biblical authors who believed the earth was flat?

I think not. John Wesley, our Methodist founder recognized in his famous quadrilateral that in addition to the Scriptures we need to draw upon other gifts like Reason, Experience, and Tradition. Even though John closes this prophesy with a period, God’s word to us always ends with a comma because God is forever speaking to those who have ears to hear.

All of that is important because it helps us understand the other mystery in Revelation that is emphasized in this closing chapter. Our text for today begins and ends with the words, “I am coming soon.” Really? That’s like saying the Browns are going to win the Super Bowl “soon.” How do we reconcile “soon” with the fact that it’s been 2000 years since John wrote those words? Some people write off Christianity because the second coming hasn’t happened yet. Others use these words to try and scare people into believing. Neither of those works.

You can’t scare people into faith. Think about a time when you’ve really messed up and made a huge mistake. Do you want judgment or compassion? The fear-based approach says, “I made a mistake, my dad will kill me!” The Gospel of Christ says, “I made a mistake, I need to call my dad.” My understanding is that “I am coming soon” means it is very urgent to be living as if we are in God’s Kingdom now and every day because Christ is trying to break into our lives all the time if we invite him in.

Much of Revelation relies on the fear-based approach to evangelism, but notice what happens here in the last chapter. Right before those dire warnings about not changing the text are these two verses:
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Warning has turned to invitation. Jesus says, “Come to the wedding, come to my party. Everyone who hears, come; everyone who is thirsty, come; ANYONE who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Eternal life is a gift, and gifts come with no strings attached. They are freely given, and that’s good news.

But when, Lord? When are you coming to quench our thirst for justice and righteousness? This verse reminds me of Isaiah saying, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” But Isaiah doesn’t say how long we have to wait. We’re tired, Lord. We’re tired of strife and bitterness and divisions. We’re tired of cancer ravaging healthy bodies. We’re tired of making our children go through active shooter drills in pre-school. We’re tired of endless wars and political squabbles that prevent any real work on all the problems facing our nation and world.

How long do we have to wait? What do you mean when you say, “I am coming soon?” Let us know so we can put that date on our calendar and be ready; so we know how long we have to hang on.

Our theme for this sermon series is “Victory in Sight.” But we’re like squirrely kids who can’t wait for Christmas. We don’t want to see victory off in the distance, we want to celebrate and sing the Alma Mater with the band now. We want to hoist the championship trophy and hang the victory banner in the rafters now!

But we have to remember that our time is not God’s time. What was only 6 days of creation in God’s time took billions of years in our time. It may help to be reminded that the original Greek language of the New Testament has two words for time, chronos and Kairos. Chronos is clock time, time that we can measure and count. Chronos is the timer you set to tell you when the cake is ready to come out of the oven. It’s the tardy bell at school or the time clock you punch at work; it’s what keeps trains and planes sort of running on schedule; and tells us how many candles to put on our birthday cake.

It’s baseball playoff season so for sports fans maybe this illustration helps – most sports are played on chronos time -there’s a big clock on the scoreboard that tells everyone exactly how much time is left in the game. But baseball is played on Kairos time, or as Yogi Berra put it, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That’s good news for a team that’s losing. There’s no game clock and they can keep the game alive as long it takes to win as they don’t make the last out.

But Kairos is God’s time. Galatians 4 says, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Kairos means when the time is right; it means when God, who knows so much better than we do, says it’s time it is; and we run grave risks if when we think we know better than God what time it is.

So let’s think one last time about the theme for this series: “Victory in Sight.” What does God’s victory look like when it comes to pass? Diana and I recently took two of our grandkids to see the new “Lion King” movie, and I was struck by how dark and violent it was, I guess because it’s more realistic than the original animated version. It got me thinking about how many of the stories we tell our kids and ourselves picture victory of good over evil in a violent way? Simba kills Scar; super heroes rely on violence to win, Hansel and Gretel push the witch into an oven, a lumberjack rescues Little Red Riding Hood by killing the big bad wolf – all those stories define victory in terms of a violent outcome.

Is that the victory people of God have in sight? Earlier chapters of Revelation describe the ultimate battle at Armageddon where God conquers evil once and for all. Too often that vision of victory has been used by Christians as an excuse for not doing justice and mercy here and now in Chronos time. If God is going to take care of things at Armageddon then we don’t have to be bothered. It’s not our problem; so we can relax and enjoy our lives.

But that’s not what victory in sight means. God’s peaceable kingdom is better described by those verses of invitation in Revelation. The invitation is to all, not just to some predetermined few. It is an invitation to a time like the vision in Isaiah where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

We live in a time of great fear. Some of us fear gun violence and some want guns because they are afraid of bad guys. Some of us fear immigrants taking over our rights and others fear what it means to refuse help to those who need refuge. Some of us fear unbearable pain but also fear opioid addiction. We have different fears, all legitimate, but we dare to believe this – faith and trust are the only cure for fear in whatever shape it comes.

Diana and I recently did a major renewal of landscaping around our pond and gardens by moving many tons of rock from where the delivery truck dumped it to where we wanted it. Thanks to a generous neighbor who loaned us his tractor with a front-loader the job was doable; and I got the easy job driving the tractor. In many places Diana stood bravely in front of the tractor right at the edge of the pond so she could direct me on where to drop the stone. One small slip of my foot on the brake and she would have been remembering her baptism in the chilly waters of our pond – and I would have been in the dog house for a very long time.

But she stood there dozens of times, as I marveled at how she trusted me more than I trusted myself. But here’s the other thing I noticed – her trust in me made me more careful because I wanted to be worthy of her trust.

It’s the same with God. When we trust God we become more trustworthy in our human relationships. When we trust that victory ultimately belongs to God and that we have no control over when or how then we no longer need to live in fear or guilt. Our God says, “Come, drink, live!” The invitation to live in the Kingdom of God is always there waiting for our reply. There’s no expiration date.

A God we fear won’t inspire faith – but a God of love will. No words, pictures, or stories can capture the infinite reality of God, but Revelation is one vision that helps us see some of the facets of God’s nature. We are all at different points in our life journeys, and none of us can rewrite our personal history. But we can start a new chapter today with the assurance that victory over our fear, our guilt, over hate; even over death itself is guaranteed because God is all in all, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning all was chaos until God spoke the first word into the chaos. There was also terrible chaos in John’s time when Christians were fed to the lions as entertainment for the Romans. And we certainly have plenty of chaos today. But through it all we know who holds the future, and God’s victory is always in sight.

So, who gets the last word? All week long I thought I knew how this sermon would end, namely that God who spoke the first word gets the last word, in the fullness of time. But I realized yesterday that’s not true.

God’s last word in Revelation is an invitation to come, drink of the river of life and live in God’s new heaven and earth. But an invitation requires a response, an RSVP. So the last word is really up to us, and Revelation even tells us what our response should be—right there in verse 20, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
Amen

Prayer for Eagle’s Wings

It’s me again, God. As you already know I’m feeling very, very hopeless and helpless about the state of our country and world, and that makes it very hard to be motivated to do anything. Knowing that elected officials are stuck in their partisan foxholes and not about to venture into the demilitarized zone to work in a bipartisan, collaborative manor makes it feel useless to even write to them to express concern. There’s so much to be upset and concerned about; is this empathy fatigue? Are my minor physical limitations a valid excuse for not doing anything?

Where is my niche Lord? Pre-retirement I knew who I was and what I was doing each day; but now I’m lost in the ambiguity of despair and need guidance. Shine a light or give me a sign so I can see where I’m supposed to go and do what for the kin-dom. I don’t want to surrender to old age or despair, but I’m so tired, so very tired. I’m waiting, God. You promise that if I wait for you I will not be weary; I will fly on eagle’s wings. Sounds wonderful, but how long do I have to wait? Isaiah doesn’t say how long – he just says “wait.” Does that mean napping or staying busy with distractions of the world while I wait? Does it mean having my phone with me constantly so I don’t miss your call that will tell me what I should be doing? Waiting is tough, especially when I don’t know how long the wait is. Can’t you tell me how long like when companies do when I’m on hold on the phone? Or give me a number that tells me where I am in line? Or can I leave my number so you can call me back when it’s my turn?

You can see how impatient I am. Impatient with all the things my body can no longer do. Impatient with no clarity about what “retirement” means. That word isn’t in the Bible, Lord. Does that mean there is no rest for the weary? Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” didn’t he? Or did Matthew slip that into the Gospel because he was tired and needed R & R from kin-dom work?

I’m waiting, Lord; I’m on hold. You know my strengths and weaknesses; so please let this old, weary servant know what you would have me do in this world that feels like we are going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I’m waiting for my eagles wings!

Deja Vu Storm Prayer

Note: I just came across this prayer I wrote two years ago when another monster storm was wreaking devastation. Harvey becomes Dorian, other details change names and locations; but the human condition is Deja vu in every generation–and so is God’s grace. So I’m just going to repost this as is, and you can fill in the blanks.

O Gracious and loving God we pray today for everyone dealing with the damage from hurricane Harvey. Be with those experiencing life-threatening floods of biblical proportions and with all the responders risking their own lives to save those of others. The news cycle will end soon and move on to some other crisis, but the recovery in Texas and Louisiana will continue for years.

So many natural disasters, Lord–wild fires, draughts causing climate refugees, the devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed hundreds. We want to ask why Lord. We want to understand why there seem to be so many such calamities causing unbelievable suffering.

Our doubts and fears cause inner storms that shake the foundations of our faith at times. With the Psalmist and Christ on the cross we wonder if you have forsaken us.

So here and now Lord in the sacredness of this sanctuary we lay our most ardent prayers for everyone who is suffering. We surrender our fears and doubts because we know you are with us. You have walked among us in human form and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous human misfortune and pain. And in Jesus the living Christ you showed us that evil and suffering will never have the final word.

When the storms of life are threatening to overwhelm us Lord, draw us to the life-saving power of your holy word. Whatever imagery works for us – be it a good shepherd, a mighty fortress, a rock of ages or that still small voice that we hear when we pause long enough to listen. Remind us again, gracious God, that you are our rock and redeemer, you are the one who speaks to the raging storms in nature, or in conflicted relationships, or within our own hearts and says, “peace be still.” Remind us again what ultimate trust and faith looks like in the form of our Lord sleeping in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by us Lord. Empower us to face each day of life, each new challenge not because we know the future but because we know you hold the future now as you always have and always will.
We offer our prayers and our lives to you, O God, in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen

Fiddling Through the Storm

One of my favorite musicals has always been “Fiddler on the Roof.” Its theme of love conquering oppression never seems out of date and is all too relevant today. Some of its insights are so good I am tempted to call it the Gospel according to Tevye. I was in a discussion the other day about praying for President Trump, and all of us present agreed we should and he certainly needs it. His erratic and delusional Messianic references to himself since then only confirm that conclusion.

One of the first things that came to my mind about praying for the President is a line from Fiddler where Tevye says this prayer: “God bless and keep the czar—far away from us.” On a more serious note I think one of the best parts of Fiddler is the opening where the title and its metaphor for life are explained.

“Away above my head I see the strangest sight
A fiddler on the roof who’s up there day and night
He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows
I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes

{Refrain}
What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?
Who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon
Why should he pick so curious a place
To play his little fiddler’s tune

An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground
Yet after every storm, I see he’s still around
Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man
He plays his simple tune as sweetly as he can

{Refrain}

A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight
It might not mean a thing, but then again it might!”

And then Tevye says, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

Our traditions of love, compassion, hospitality and justice are under attack, but they are the solid rock and anchor we can cling to in each and every storm; and if we do we will still be around after the perils of this present age are no more.

“A Fiddler on the roof, a most unusual sight…. It may not mean a thing, but then again it might.”

*music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen