Father’s Day Pastoral Prayer

Heavenly Father, we your prodigal children humbly come to you in prayer seeking forgiveness and guidance for all the need in our world. We lift up our joys and concerns written on these prayer cards as well as those we hold close to our hearts. We praise you for giving us a high standard of what fatherhood can be – a generous heart that allows children freedom to learn without sheltering us from the consequences of bad decisions. And you know we have made many. But we also know that the welcome mat is always out and your door is never locked to any who repent and return to you. We are here because we have felt your grace and radical hospitality and strive to offer the same to any and all who need love and compassion.

We pray for all fathers today here and in heaven with you. We give thanks where the bonds of love are strong in families, even as we pray for those where relationships are broken or strained. We know life is not always kind or fair. Help us celebrate the memories of good times between dads and kids, but also help us to let go of pain, forgive generously, knowing that we only have today – we cannot change the past. But with your help we can write a future worthy of Jesus who was so close he called you Abba which means “Daddy.”

In your family O God we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our race, gender, orientation or nationality. Help us all strive to emulate your unconditional love for everyone as if they are our own children, our own fathers and mothers.

And on this Father’s Day we pray for these members of our mission team who are leaving fathers and children behind to go and be the hands and feet of Christ to our sisters and brothers in Clendenin, West Virginia. We send this team as ambassadors from the Northwest branch of your family. We ask your blessing on them as they travel and work with those recovering from the terrible flood of 2016. They will offer their labor and their love, and we pray that hearts on both sides of the partnership will blossom with new relationships and a closer bond of love with Jesus Christ, the one who calls you Daddy, and the one who taught us to pray.

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Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

Because life has been busier than usual for me the last few weeks I have not posted anything here. I know, you conservative friends have been relieved, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the myriad of news events in our broken world. I’ve been busy in part because my dear wife had rotator cuff surgery four weeks ago and has been unable to use her right/dominant hand and arm. I’m glad to be her “right hand man,” and I have a whole new appreciation for all she does and for the loving ministry of caregivers everywhere. She’s still got a few more weeks in her sling, but we are grateful that she’s recovering very well.

The other reason I’ve not written was something I couldn’t identify until recently. You know the feeling you get when you’ve got something wrong but you’re not sure what, and how it helps to get it diagnosed and have a name for it? Well I heard someone on NPR last week who gave a name to what I’ve been feeling about the current political malaise in our country and world. She called it “outrage burnout.” There is such a string of astonishing unjust and stupid actions taken by the President, his Attorney General, his cadre of crazy lawyers, ICE, etc. that before you can respond to one outrage there’s two or three more. I’m convinced it’s a very clever political strategy to simply wear down the opposition before the midterm elections. So with that caveat, here’s a post I started a week or so ago while waiting for my wife at a Doctor’s appointment. You will notice it is a bit dated but I believe it is still relevant enough to be worth your time.

When I was ordained a United Methodist pastor 49 years ago this month one of the traditional questions the bishop asked me and my fellow ordinands was “Are you going on to perfection?” We dutifully, if suppressing a chuckle, gave the acceptable answer which is “yes.” If asked that now in this penultimate stage of my life I’d have to say “Probably not!” The point of that question is that like any milestone event in life, e.g. graduation, marriage, bat mitzvah, ordination is just that, a milestone on a long journey and not a destination. It is also there as a not-so-subtle reminder that all of us, clergy alike and maybe especially clergy are FHB’s – fallible human beings standing in the need of God’s grace.

Since that day in 1969 I have learned many things about my own fallibility and the dark side of human nature that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that “perfection” is not achievable in this life—not even close.
In fact, one of the biggest issues I’m dealing with in my 72nd year of life is dismay that humankind seems to be moving further from perfection at an alarming rate. For most of my adult life I have been comforted and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Lately however I find myself questioning which way that arc is bending. My biggest regret about my ministry is that both my church and the world seem even more divided and imperfect now than they did 50 years ago.

I will spare all of us the litany of evil and depressing events that bombard us daily like a biblical plague of locusts. It is hard to decide which of the seven deadly sins is most prevalent on any given day. But for the sake of argument let’s just tackle the first two the Ten Commandments. The top two of the Decalogue can be summarized: 1) Have no other gods but Yahweh, and 2) Worship no idols. I am thinking of those two just now because of the “to kneel or not to kneel” debate going on between NFL football players, NFL owners, and President Trump.
The NFL recently, in my opinion, violated the first amendment rights of their predominantly black players by threatening to fine anyone for not standing during the national anthem. President Trump raised the ante by harkening back to the good old “America love it or leave it” days of the 1960’s anti-war protests to question if anyone defying the NFL rule even belongs in this country! Do you suppose he will also deport all the Amish, Mennonite and Jehovah Witnesses who also refuse to bow down to any empire’s graven image? Those groups have been exercising their right to freedom of expression for decades, but then again they’re white so that must make a difference.

The Supreme Court ruled in the middle of World War II no less that Americans have the right not to stand for the national anthem. Why does it matter? Because God and God’s values of justice and equality for all of humankind trump, pun intended, any human law or allegiance. That’s what the “under” means in “One nation under God.” And by the way all national laws of any nation are human laws. For a more detailed discussion of what Professor Robert Jewett calls “zealous nationalism” vs. “prophetic realism” see my post on “Biblical Politics,” Nov. 5, 2012.
The flag controversy began as a protest against police using excessive and too often fatal force, against black people, especially those who are unarmed. That’s a legitimate justice issue and needs to be addressed in any and all peaceful means; and kneeling players succeeded in bringing attention to that cause. But President Trump and the NFL have misconstrued their protest by trying to make it about patriotism and respect for the military. Intentionally or not that is a diversionary tactic to avoid the important issue of racial justice, the central moral issue of all of American history.

When a flag or any symbol becomes more important than the divine issues of truth and justice it has become an idol. Whenever loyalty to country or party supersedes loyalty to truth we are worshipping a false god. When I was a Boy Scout many decades ago there was a badge called “God and Country.” I don’t know if there is such an award in scouting now, but I hope not. That title equates God and Country as if the two are synonymous. They are not. Every nation, tribe, race, organization or group of FHB’s is by definition imperfect–in other words needs to always be “going on to perfection.” We the people of the USA have not and will never “arrive,” and therefore always are in need of positive and constructive criticism. That is what the first amendment so wisely is intended to protect and why it’s number one.

As for the NFL, let’s just say I’ll have more free time this fall on Sundays and Monday nights as I exercise my freedom to boycott their ill-advised rule.

P.S. As I was writing this my wife asked me a very good question about freedom of expression. This was during Rosanne Barr’s fifteen minutes of fame where her show was cancelled by ABC because she tweeted some racist comments about Valerie Jarett who was a member of the Obama administration. The difference is that Rosanne’s comments were degrading and libelous, defaming the very being of an African American woman. The NFL protest call attention to a social justice issue in order for it to be addressed. Rosanne slandered another human being in the cruelest of racial stereotypes that have no redeeming or critical value (and was a repeat offender of such behavior). Yes, she later apologized, but hateful speech is like the proverbial toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube once it is expelled. On the other side of the political aisle a few days later Samantha Bee was guilty of using very crude speech about Ivanka Trump, and she was just as wrong and perhaps more so because her comments were not a late night tweet but a scripted pre-taped commentary on her TV show. So far as I know Bee has gotten off with much less punishment than Rosanne, and that is yet another example of how justice and human decency are being eroded by the partisan vitriol polluting the environment we all live in today.

Bottom line is that freedom of e xpre4ssion has never been an absolute right. The over –used example is that no one is allowed to induce panic in a crowded theater by yelling “fire” when there is none. Freedom must be tempered by the higher values of truth and respect for the greater good of others and the community.

The flag debate is not new but an on-going dialogue that will always be going on to perfection, even when it moves one step forward and two back. Never has the need for the balance between individual freedom and communal responsibility been more needed than it is today. The secret is in the first commandment. If we truly put the higher power of being itself that we call God first and foremost in our loyalties and obedience then other issues fall into place and greed, materialism, nationalism, sexism, and racism will not rule our thoughts and actions. Of course humankind has been trying to live up to that high ideal for 4000 years or so. We’re not close to arriving, and that is discouraging; but by the grace of God we continue on the way, even when the goal seems hopeless. For to continue seeking God’s way when all seems hopeless is the very meaning of faith.

PEACE-FULL

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi.

There are several versions of this parable, but here’s one I like because of its brevity: “Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

That story reminds me of a very helpful mantra for meditation I learned when I took an excellent on-line course called “Peace Ambassador Training” sponsored by the Shift Network. The simple three-part meditation is this: “Let me be peaceful; let me be kind; let me accept others as they are.” At first the part of that which gave me the most trouble was the third – accepting others as they are. To apply that to people I just flat out know are wrong is a total struggle for me. (This was especially true since I took the course in early 2016, just as the nasty Presidential election campaigns were turning up their volume.) Come to think of it the 2018 primary campaign is pretty ugly too!

I finally realized two things: that to accept others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, and that to accept others without judgment requires that I first need to work on accepting myself. So I modified the third phrase to read “let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s better semantics, but even harder to do.
That led me to examine the first phrase. As Julie Andrews put it in “The Sound of Music,” “Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.” “Let me be peaceful” seems to be very self-explanatory. It means to act in a peaceful manner, right? But then the meditation goes on to say “let me be kind,” and that seems a bit redundant to me. If I’m acting peacefully wouldn’t I automatically be kind or vice versa? That confused me for several months until I had an insight earlier this year that reminded me of the Zen parable above. To be peaceful means to be full of peace, and if I’m full of anything else, be it judgment, anger, anxiety, fear, lust or any of the other seven deadly sins there’s no room for peace. (See my February 2016 post “Giving up ALGAE for Lent” for a fuller discussion of this.)

The other thing I realized recently is that the key word in “let me be peaceful” is that little word ”be.” To be full of peace is a matter of “being” before it can be translated into “doing.” The doing is really part two of the mantra, “let me be kind.” Even though the verb is the same in both parts I believe kindness is more about actions and peacefulness is more about one’s state of being. That’s why Gandhi said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

It is only when we are full of peace in the very depths of our being that we can act kindly toward others and accept them regardless of their words or behavior. I also believe this is what Jesus was getting at in the farewell discourse to his disciples when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27-29) How can Jesus expect his dear friends and closest confidants to not be troubled and afraid when he’s telling them he’s about to be brutally and very publicly executed? They are so afraid they all go into hiding, unable to bear the sight of their Lord and Savior suffering and dying on the cross.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are full of examples of both positive and negative examples of those who are full of peace and those who aren’t. Peter can walk on water when he’s full of peace, but when he realizes what he’s doing and let’s fear fill his heart he sinks like a rock. (Matthew 14:28-30) On the other hand, three brave men are able to defy the power of King Nebuchadnezzar when he orders them to bow down to his gods. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3)

The same is true of post-canonical Christian Church history. Mother Theresa couldn’t have lived and worked in the wretched slums of Calcutta without being full of God’s peace. Joan of Arc could not have faithfully obeyed God even to burning at the stake if she was full of fear. One of the charges of heresy brought against Joan is one all Christians should desire for their epitaph: “It was said, “‘She does not submit herself to the judgment of the Church Militant, or to that of living men, but to God alone.”

That kind of peace does not come from human will alone. It comes only when we are humble enough to empty ourselves of pride and arrogance and allow God to fill us with peace. To that end I’ve found it very useful to employ a shortened version of this mantra whenever I remember to pause in a tough situation and ask God to fill me with peace.

These chaotic times we are living through today again cry out for women and men who are so full of God’s peace that we are able not only to act kindly but faithfully and courageously to defend truth and justice against any and all powers that threaten to fill us with fear. Pardon my irreverence, but I fully expect one of the first questions God will ask me on my judgment day is, “Steve, what are you full of?”

A Doubting Faith: The Children, Mark 10:13-16

Little Johnny was asked to pray at a large family dinner. When he protested that he didn’t know how to pray his father said, “Just pray for your family, friends and neighbors, the poor, etc.” So Johnny prayed: “Dear Lord, thank you for our visitors and their children who finished off all my cookies and ice cream. Bless them so they won’t come again. And this coming Christmas, please send clothes to all those poor ladies on my Daddy’s phone who don’t have any clothes. Amen. Johnny was never asked to pray again, but don’t you just love the honesty of children?

That may not be what Jesus was thinking when he said “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” You’ll notice in our text for today Jesus doesn’t ask the kids to speak! But when we think about the qualities children possess that we can learn from isn’t their refreshing honesty one of those? Kids tell it like it is. Today I want to focus on what being like children can teach us about having an honest faith that admits we all have doubts about life’s mysteries – and it’s OK.

Imagination is one of those qualities kids have that we sometimes lose as we grow up. Imagination is powerful – nothing can ever be created until someone imagines what it might look like. Heather Sherrill on our tech team is the theater director for Darby High School, and she shared with me recently some great stats on the value of the arts in education where creative imagination is nourished. Here are just a few of those benefits.
Students involved in music, theater and art are:
• Less likely to drop out of school
• 3 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree

• Have better listening and speaking skills
• Are more likely to engage in classroom discussion and public volunteerism
• And are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior

The bad news is that only 28% of public schools in high poverty areas offer theater instruction, and I would add, even in our best schools there is so much emphasis put on testing kids in math and science that important classes in the arts and physical education are cut or eliminated. Math and science are important of course in our high tech global economy, but there needs to be a balance in teaching skills and values that make for informed and competent citizens critical to a democracy. No calculus formula will provide those skills that only a solid education in the humanities offers.

Not all creative ideas that kids have, or adults for that matter, are necessarily good ideas. When my kids were 1 and 4 we moved into a parsonage that actually had two bathrooms – one up and one down. The kids were fascinated by how that plumbing worked; so Joy decided one day to flush her brother’s pacifier down the upstairs toilet and then ran downstairs to see if the binky would miraculously appear in the downstairs commode.

And that spark of imagination doesn’t die at puberty. We attended a performance of Peter Pan last weekend by Worthingway Middle School in Worthington. Our great nephew was in the cast. Do you remember that moment in the story where Tinkerbelle the fairy drinks the poison to keep Peter Pan from drinking it? And the spotlight that represents Tinkerbelle flickers out. But then Peter remembers that fairies live whenever kids believe in them and he asks all the kids in the audience to clap to show they believe. Guess what; even us old kids on Medicare were clapping until Tinkerbelle’s light flickered back to life.

Kids are also full of curiosity – that’s how they learn, and as Pastor Chris reminded us last week a childlike faith does not mean one that has no doubt. Children are full of questions. As we run some pictures of our Northwest Children’s ministries I want to share some insights and comments about childlike qualities from our Children’s ministry team.

When learning about the Creation Story a 5 year old asked “Okay, I get all this, so how did God really create the entire world? Did it just happen like a flash?” And I thought the hard questions from my kids were where babies come from!

During a discussion about being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ and feeding others in need an 8 year old asked, “When will there no longer be hungry people in this world?” Thank God for kids who can still imagine such a world and share their hope with us.

In all kinds of activities we see older kids helping the younger kids. It’s great to see such mentoring happening in our children’s ministry.

During our own version of the Winter Olympics some of the kids were so curious- they had to touch all the supplies beforehand and try it out first. A 5 and 8 year old didn’t want to play hockey or ski at first. Apparently they were not familiar with the sports and decided to complain about it. So the teachers provided coaching and encouragement and a nurturing environment for the kids to trust their team mates and themselves. The children tried and struggled, but they all got to the finish line and scored for their team. Building team work is key for a successful and fun experience- even if we lose the game- there is much appreciation for the game and for one another.

Kids like to be useful; to be significant and make a difference. The NW kids are learning from Bible stories and from the examples of this mission-minded church to be servants and good neighbors by doing things like decorating cards and tying fleece blankets for OSU Star House. The children are creative and love to share their quality artwork with others. Many are artists and they know it too. They have generous hearts and giving spirits. Always willing to share with their neighbors.

The Children’s Garden is such a great learning experience – lessons about patience and teamwork, stewardship for God’s creation, compassion for hungry people, and gratitude for harvest. While Preparing the Children’s Garden one 6 year old commented-“come on already, we need to get these seeds in the ground, time is running, people are hungry. We need more sun.” This was the weekend when we got snow in early April. Can you hear their eagerness!!!

Another example of that was one day while getting ready for Brown Bag Lunches a 9 year old commented, “Wow, we can do this; we need more friends to help. If we could all do our part, more people can eat.” One of the best things about the Brown Bag ministry is that our new friends from the neighborhood are helping and are also getting involved in other church activities,. They feel welcome here at Northwest, and our children are a big part of that hospitality.

Kids live in the moment—they see a problem and they want to address it right now, no appointing a committee to study hunger – just find ways to feed people now. I was much older than these kids when I was working as a youth pastor while in seminary, and one thing I remember from that experience was my Sr. Pastor telling me more than once, “Steve, don’t lose your idealism!” Children have natural idealism and hope – life hasn’t drained it out of them yet, and we all need all the hope we can get. Hope is the antidote for the negative kind of doubt that sometimes keeps us from moving forward, from daring to dream and try.

I was in Westerville on one of the few nice days we’ve had so far this month and had some time before my next appointment. I was near Sharon Woods Metro Park and decided to take a short hike. While there I remembered a scary moment at that park many years ago when my son Matt was maybe 4 or 5. We were riding bikes as a family and he was on his big wheel – remember those? Cool low to the ground kind of a drag racer tricycle. We came to a rather long steep hill on the bike trail and before we could yell for Matt to stop he was flying down that hill heading for a curve at the bottom where there was a wooden bridge across a small creek. If you know big wheels you know they had no brakes! We were sure he was going to crash into the bridge and die, but thank goodness he was a good driver or got lucky and zoomed thru the bridge and coasted to a stop on the other side.

I asked Matt, who now has his own 4 year old if he remembered that incident. He said no, only from hearing us talk about it. But then he went on to say something interesting. He said, “Watching Brady, his son, do things like that is a lot scarier than it was when he was the one doing them.” I forgot to remind Matt about the time he went sledding off the garage roof. Kids are risk takers. They haven’t learned about all the dangers of life yet. That gives parents gray hair, but it is also an important dynamic of faith. Courage comes from trusting your own ability and the basic goodness of life so we can do what’s right instead of just what’s safe.


Speaking of risk takers, I came across this picture this week of Havana Chapman-Edwards, a first grader in Alexandria, Virginia who was the lone student at her school to join in the National School Walkout Day on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

Havana’s mom signed her daughter out of school because Havana said she wanted to participate. Her mom says she was crushed to see Havana sitting by herself, but then she became inspired by her daughter for standing up for what she believes in.

Havana told a news reporter that she was inspired by the Parkland High School students who have been pushing politicians to protect kids from school shootings.

For 13 seconds, Havana and her mom sat in silence to honor the 13 people who lost their lives at Columbine. Havana says that she wore her orange astronaut suit because she wants to show the world black girls are strong leaders.
Comedian Bill Murray in an interview with NBC news said this about student protests: “The thing that’s so powerful about students is that, when you haven’t had your idealism broken yet, you’re able to speak from a place that has no confusion [doubt?], where there is a clear set of values. Idealism is a voice that’s inside you, it’s your conscience. That can really deteriorate along the way… and it can become almost dysfunctional, but it’s there. Everyone has it.” I agree and would add that it’s the voice of idealism that children can help us all hear again.

Kids see the world with fresh eyes, unclouded by filters of status or rank. I saw a post recently from a childhood friend about his experience in the Vietnam War, and it reminded me of the great friendship we shared as children and youth. Blaine was one of my best friends. He was raised by his grandmother who I now realize was dirt poor. Their home was in a part of town that I’m ashamed to admit I would probably be uncomfortable to visit today. My family was lower middle class, but compared to the conditions my buddy lived in we were very wealthy. But I didn’t have those filters and lenses to see the world through then. Blaine was just my friend.

My point is that kids don’t come out of the womb with any kind of prejudices – those are acquired. When I was in high school we didn’t talk about racism or classism, even though they were very real in our little town. But we learned important life lessons in more subtle ways. We had an excellent choral music program that produced a popular musical every year. As you all know I can’t sing a lick now and I couldn’t then either, but I got to do the next best thing – I was on the crew that helped produce the shows. The one that I remember most is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” It’s set during WWII and centers around two love stories, one between an American nurse and a wealthy French property owner and the other between an America soldier and a Polynesian woman.

The romance and music are great but more important is the underlying story about prejudice and racism that threaten to keep these lovers apart. There is one memorable song called “Carefully Taught” that says “you have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You have to be carefully taught.” Those important life lessons about human relationships could not be discussed openly in my school in the early ‘60’s, but by the magic of storytelling and imagination we could vicariously experience their power through those characters.

Finally there’s another really important reason Jesus welcomes and blesses the children that isn’t so obvious to us. We think of children much differently than people did in biblical times. Today we respect and encourage children, and because of that it is easy for us to romanticize this passage. We see cute pictures and all these positive attributes of childhood trust and enthusiasm, but the people of Jesus’ day saw children pretty much in the very opposite way. Children then were powerless, totally dependent liabilities. One commentator describes them as “non-persons.” They were on the very bottom rung of the cultural pecking order of the day.

So when the disciples saw people bringing their unruly, disruptive kids with them when Jesus was trying to teach important kingdom stuff the disciples tried to shoo the kids away. But Jesus says, “Wait a minute folks – don’t you dare chase those kids away. Everybody’s welcome in my kingdom – and that means everybody! The poor, the lepers, the sinners, the lame, and these precious little nobodies.” And you know what else, by welcoming the children Jesus also knew that he was making it possible for their mothers to also crash the old boys club and listen to the good news he came to share.

We’re really excited that we’ve had several new babies born into our church family recently. As I hear tales of sleepless nights and exhausted moms and dads I am reminded that to accept the blessed gift of a child means to becomes that child’s servant. Those helpless little bundles of humanity are totally dependent on someone to provide for their every need. Those who change diapers and wipe noses give up all claims to position or privilege – and that’s exactly how humble we must become to enter into God’s kingdom where all are equal.

Jesus and the disciples saw the same children, but Jesus saw them through the inclusive eyes of love; and that’s exactly how he sees you and me – runny noses, doubts and all, and he hangs out the welcome sign and blesses us and everyone who comes. Amen.

Monday morning, Holy Week

I just did the math and estimated that I have gotten out of bed approximately 3700 times on a Monday morning. Wish I hadn’t done that – the math that is, although if I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom I might have pulled up the covers and stayed put. One of the hard things about retirement is the lack of a “normal” routine. The hardest days are often those that are also the best part of retirement—the ones where there’s nothing I “have” to do. Nothing on the calendar at all so the day is completely unstructured, a blank canvas staring back at me wondering what will be on it by the end of the day? Needless to say that’s an especially unusual kind of Monday for a retired pastor who remembers Holy Week as one of the busiest of the year.

I imagine Jesus didn’t want to get up and head back into Jerusalem that last Monday either. He had spent the night with friends in Bethany because of Mary and Martha’s hospitality, but also because it was safer there than in Jerusalem where powerful people wanted him dead. There the city sanitation workers were cleaning up the palm branches and leftover cloaks from the parade route Jesus had followed the day before. The crowds may have been hung over with joy and anticipation from the triumphal entry on Sunday, but Jesus knew what was coming or at least had a pretty good idea.

Imagine the internal debate! “My work here isn’t finished. The disciples aren’t nearly ready to take over! There’s so much more I need to do here. I won’t be able to heal anyone or teach anyone if I’m in jail or dead!”
Doing the right thing when the easy thing is so tempting; when all your friends are telling you to play it safe. To do requires the courage to be—to be true to oneself and to the one who gives us life. To do the peaceful thing in the face of fearful, hateful power requires first being at peace; being full of peace that is deeper than fear and stronger than doubt. That’s the energy that got Jesus out of bed that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and on that Friday that seemed the worst of all Fridays ever.

His soul was full of an eternal peace that calms the storm at sea and the even bigger storms in our hearts that threaten to drive us into hiding when we most need to grab Monday morning by the neck and say “Bring it On!”

O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

Wilderness Times: When Only God Knows! Ezekiel 37:1-14

I just recently figured out the answer to a problem that I know befuddles many of us Ohioans, namely why well-trained meteorologists are so often wrong about our weather forecasts. I’ve decided it’s not climate change, nor is it crazy Ohio where we have three or four seasons in a 48 hour period. It’s because the weather people are all too young! With the exception of Jim Gynal and Ben Gelber all of our local forecasters are young people. Yes, they have Doppler radar and other fancy tools but what they don’t have are old bones and joints that reliably tell us seniors when the weather’s changing.

I bet you’re wondering what weather forecasting has to do with our text for today! The connection is that both are about old bones. The difference is that in Ezekiel’s vision the bones he saw were no longer predicting or doing anything. Ezekiel walks among this valley of dry bones and makes it very clear that these bones are very dry and have been dead a long time.

Here’s the context for this most familiar of Ezekiel’s visions. He is relating this vision to the people of Judah about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel is a priest who along with the ruling classes of Judah is a political prisoner in Babylon. Geographically Babylon was located where modern day Baghdad sits today in Iraq. Then and now it was and is a hot, dry wilderness.

Our nephew Michael spent time in that part of the world a few years ago. He was stationed in Kuwait next door to Iraq when he was in the Air Force. Michael was a mechanic at the time and told us about a day that was about 105 degrees when he was working on a plane and forgot where he was. He reached down and picked up a wrench that was lying in the desert sun and immediately burned his hand.

Living in that heat came to mind when I was thinking about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Remember the Exiles were mostly people of Israel’s upper class, not used to these harsh living conditions. The Interpreter’s Bible describes the Babylonian exile this way: “The Israelites exchanged their hilly homeland and pleasant climate of Jerusalem for the flat and hot Babylonia lowlands…and forced manual labor.”

I’m sure the Babylonia Chamber of Commerce advertised to visitors that their climate was a “dry heat.” I’ve never been in Iraq or Babylon, but I’ve been in Phoenix in mid-summer; and I don’t care how dry the heat is, anything above 100 degrees is just too darn hot.

We’ve been thinking about “Wilderness Time” in this Lenten Sermon Series because whether it’s a voluntary retreat from daily living to draw closer to God or the wilderness is forced upon us by life’s circumstances, solitary time with ourselves and God is good for our souls – but only if we embrace it.

As many of you know our family has been doing some wilderness time this last month. My father died on February 12 and due to family schedule complications we set his memorial service and burial for this past weekend. Little did we know then that on March 1st Diana’s mother would go into a rapid decline and pass away on March 5th. These were not unexpected life events. My dad was 96 and Diana’s mom, Mary, was 100, but getting a double whammy of mortality definitely put us into the wilderness. We celebrated both of their lives last weekend, and Ezekiel’s image of dry bones seemed all too real in those cold, windy cemeteries.

Wilderness time is often hard to embrace. The exiles were none too happy to be carted off to Babylon, not just because they were uprooted from their homes and familiar surroundings, they were also yanked up by their theological roots. The foundations of their faith were supported by four basic pillars: 1) God’s blessings were assured them as God’s chosen people; 2) the land God had given to their ancestors would be protected forever; 3) the throne of David and his descendants would continue forever; and 4) the Temple at Jerusalem was the only suitable place for proper worship of their God.

When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC the Israelites theological scoreboard suddenly read 0-4. Their beloved temple was in ruins, and the foundations of their faith were not only shaken they were pulverized. So what can we learn today from this ancient history? Aren’t we a lot like these Israelites? As it was for them it’s quite natural to want our faith to be comforting “Good News,” that’s even what the word “Gospel” means. So like the Israelites we are tempted by the same prosperity gospel that promises worldly comforts as rewards to God’s chosen people. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries we sometimes forget that God chooses us not to be privileged but to be servants to others. We’d like Easter morning without Good Friday, but let’s not forget that much of the Bible describes a lot of bad news and how people like us respond to being in the wilderness.

Psalm130 was written in one of those wilderness times. It begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” That Psalm is known by the title “De Profundis” which in Latin means “out of the depths.” I woke up one day last summer in one of those wrong-side-of-the-bed moods and thought of De Profundis to describe my mood. I wrote in my journal that day “De Profundis is Latin for “O crap, I have to get up and face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” Am I the only one who has days like that? I saw a cartoon awhile back that describes me all too often. It said “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, and other times I let him sleep.”

When I first started thinking about this dry bones text I pictured it in terms of personal or individual wilderness times that come to all of us. And then when Diana’s mom died that introspective kind of wilderness seemed even more real. But then I reread Ezekiel’s words and I realized what he’s talking about is a lot bigger than personal grief or loss. Verse 11 says, “Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” God says this valley of dusty, dry, lifeless bones is a metaphor for “the whole house of Israel.” A whole people, a whole nation is dead to God and hopeless, completely cut off. They’ve been in exile a long time; the buzzards and other wild life have picked their bones clean.

I’ve been trying to think of some contemporary situation to compare the Exile to. The heart-breaking pictures we see on the news today of the devastation and ruins of Syria are the closest image I can think of to understand how hopeless the exiles must have been feeling.

But as pitiful as this image of dry bones is Ezekiel is not sympathetic to Israel’s plight. This vision from Chapter 37, believe it or not, is from the “good news” section of the book of Ezekiel. He spends the first 32 chapters of this book passing judgment on his own people for their failure to obey God’s will. He warns them that bad things will happen if they continue to break their covenant relationship with God. The Israelites remember clearly God’s part of the bargain made with Moses, to give them a homeland, to make them and their descendants prosperous. But in their comfort and prosperity they have conveniently forgotten their half of the covenant – namely to live obediently, justly and humbly before God. Their leaders have become greedy oppressors who according to Amos “sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” Things have gotten so corrupt and unjust for the common people of Israel that at one point Ezekiel even declares that his people have out sinned Sodom. That is not a record you want to break!

In chapter 6 Ezekiel describes in gory detail the consequences of such unfaithful living: “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. 5 I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars. ….7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord. (Chapter 6)
That phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” is a refrain that recurs in Ezekiel. Verse 14 of our text for today says, “You shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” That doesn’t mean God intervenes to punish us, but God wants the consequences of our bad choices to help us see that there’s only one God, and we’re not it!

I doubt that I need to draw the parallels between Israel and the current state of affairs in our country and other parts of the world where the ways of God have been trampled in the dust by the idolatry of living in a secular and materialistic society. It is all too easy to despair, to lose hope.

When we are searching for an elusive answer to one of life’s tough problems friends may ask us, “What are you going to do?” And a common reply is “God only knows!” meaning we don’t have a clue. In his vision Ezekiel hears God ask him one of those tough questions. As he is walking around in this valley full of dry bones God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

What do we do when we are in one of those situations where only God knows the answer to what we should do? When we suddenly lose a job or a loved one; when our world seems to be collapsing around us? And it seems God isn’t readily available to share whatever it is that only God knows! Or sometimes we’re too stubborn or proud to pray for God’s guidance. We might not like what we hear!

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s place. How would you answer God’s question, “Can these bones live?” Or look at the homeless, hopeless refugee children in Syria, or the suffering caused by gun violence in our own country. Why do we have so much more gun violence than other developed countries? What are we going to do to stop consuming violence in video games and entertainment? How can we help people suffering from mental illness, or those who are bullied? How are we supposed to love the bully and heal whatever wounds he is suffering that cause violent behavior? How do we provide support systems and ways to deal with pain and depression so people don’t get hooked on opioids or other drugs? Can our badly divided nation live again and achieve the high ideals of our democracy? God only knows!

And yet that hopeless cry of despair is actually the beginning of hope for a whole nation of dry bones. When we look at a hopeless situation through our own mortal eyes we see no way dead bones can live again. When I held the urn of my father’s ashes in the cemetery last weekend I knew there was no way those ashes could live again, at least not in the form we knew as my dad. But those ashes can provide nourishment for what grows in God’s good earth.

Likewise out of tragic death at the Parkland High School massacre has emerged a new generation who are taking their civic responsibility to a whole new level. Whether you agree with their methods and goals or not you have to applaud their determination to make a difference. New life can arise out of death. I saw that at both of our family funerals last week where new life was in abundance in the joyful, energetic laughter and play of young great grandchildren. May we have eyes of faith to see signs of life even in the midst of death.

Remember the dry bones story is a vision Ezekiel is having. It is one of four visions in Ezekiel. And it’s the only one of the four that does not begin with a date identifying when Ezekiel had the vision. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the valley of dry bones known as the Holocaust, commented that the reason this vision has no date is that every generation needs to see it and experience it for themselves. Dry bones are a timeless description of the human condition.

And that’s the key – the valley of dry bones is a human condition seen through finite, mortal eyes. But Ezekiel was a priest. He of all people should have known the answer to God’s question, “Mortal can these bones live?” When we began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday many Christians received the mark of ashes on our foreheads with the words from Genesis, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are not some morbid reminder that we are all going to die. We say them to help us remember that in the very beginning of God creates human life by forming us from dust and breathing life into us. Can these bones live? Of course they can live if God chooses to breathe his Holy Spirit on them.

And that’s exactly what happens in the rest of the vision. “Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Hebrew word for breath is ruah which is also the word for spirit, the holy breath of the one with whom all things are possible. When seen through mortal eyes this is a dead, dry bone. But when the Holy Spirit helps us lift our eyes to catch a vision through God’s eyes hopelessness turns to rejoicing and death becomes resurrection. Seeing life and death through God’s eyes helps us confess our sinful nature honestly and brings us to our knees. And it’s from there we can see new beginnings that God alone can see.

And so as people with a vision of Easter in our eyes wilderness times call us to renew our covenant with God–because it is in the wilderness that we remember who we are and whose we are.
Can these bones live again? – You can bet your life on it!