Preacher’s Saturday Prayer

O God why must you work in such mysterious ways?   Couldn’t you just give me a message straight without so much work?  Your spirit came through again today as always, but couldn’t you have done that two or three days ago!  Why do I have to worry and wrestle with your Word like Jacob to find a 10 minute sermon?  Yes, the process is good for me, but I’m already limping from way too many years of sweating Saturday sermon preparation.  I do believe, Lord, honest I do.  I’ve literally experienced this miraculous process hundreds of times, but I’m old and tired and it’s harder work than it used to be.  Is that because I am afraid that I don’t have many more times to get this right?  Preaching is an awesome and awful privilege.  How can I dare to get up and presume to speak for you?  Yes, I know John Wesley said, “Preach faith till you have it.”  That’s why I’m still at it.  And this time, really “Let the words of my mouth be truly acceptable in your sight,” for I couldn’t do this if you were not my rock and redeemer.  Amen

Ukraine: Reaping the Whirlwind and Beyond

“Those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7.

The prophet Hosea wrote those wise words over 2700 years ago predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria. The wind they had sown in that case was putting their trust in foreign alliances instead of God.

Fast forward to 2022 CE to a confrontation between Vladimir Putin and the western world.  The civilized world is appalled at the brutal and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians by the Russian dictator. There are many legitimate arguments being made comparing this invasion to Hitler’s takeover of Eastern Europe 80 years ago.

President Biden and the NATO allies are very reluctant to confront Putin militarily or in any way that Putin might construe as an affront to his fragile ego. The comparison of this “inaction” to British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s failed appeasement of Hitler in the run up to World War II is somewhat persuasive, but there is one huge difference. Hitler didn’t have nukes. Putin does, lots of them, and he seems unhinged enough to use them.

In other words, we sowed the atomic wind on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 80 years ago and launched a suicidal arms race with the ever so apt strategy named MAD (mutually assured destruction). Now we are reaping the whirlwind of birthing the nuclear arms race. Our ability to stop Putin’s massacre of Ukrainians is hamstrung by the fear of the very nuclear arms race we invented.

I have no solution to this conundrum. Even though I try to be a pacifist, if there was a way to blow Putin to kingdom come without escalating this whole mess I’d be all for it. No one wants to ignite WW III because we know there will be no WW IV. In my darker days, and there are more and more lately, I am beginning to believe that between humanity’s obsession with violence and our greed that fuels climate change the human race is doomed.

But here’s the thing, that is not as hopeless or as fatalistic as it sounds. Because the God of the entire universe is so much more, well, cosmic than anything our puny little planet amounts to that the loss of this 3rd rock from the sun would barely be a blip on the cosmic screen. That is a harsh pill to swallow for those of us who think we are created in God’s image, a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5)! Ever since Galileo and Copernicus dared to question the anthropocentric belief that the earth was the center of the universe our knowledge of the infinite nature of space has made us more and more humble, or should have.

I hope and pray I am wrong about the future of humankind. At my age it doesn’t really matter much to me personally, but it makes me sick to think of that bleak future I’m leaving to my kids and grandkids. Is there still hope for humans to learn to live in peace with one another? Could the threat of climate change provide motivation for humans to finally band together to fight a common foe instead of each other? Based on our past track record I don’t see it happening. If the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki didn’t cure our warring madness, what will?

[Note: This post originally ended right here, but about 5 minutes after I posted it I heard that still small voice saying, “That’s not the end of the story.” So I unposted it and added the following.]

Here’s the good news—the whirlwind doesn’t get the last word. The name “Hosea” means “salvation.” And even though Hosea proclaims Yahweh’s anger at Israel he also shares God’s compassionate nature for the Souther Kingdom, Judah.

“But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; (1:7a). But listen to the rest of that sentence: “I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”(7b). God’s salvation does not come by instruments of death and destruction. Those ways are anathema to the One who dreams of a day when swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and the ways of war are learned no more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The biblical narrative has rightly been called the salvation history of humankind. How many times do the chosen people break their covenant with God? How many times is Jerusalem leveled like one of the horrendous images we have from Ukraine? Pick a number, any number, say x. And whatever number we pick the answer to the next question, how many times does God redeem her people, is x + 1.

Even as he proclaims judgment on Israel’s unfaithfulness just three verses later Hosea assures his readers that the alienation and suffering is not the final word.

“Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 1:10)

What does this say to our broken, fearful world today? We know not when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in resurrection that assures us that nothing in all creation, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Amen

Random thoughts from Ash Wednesday, 2022

From my pastor, Chris Rinker:  “Giving up something is not punishment but making a space for God to create something new in us.”  He followed that with a question I will be pondering for awhile:  “What can I do or not do for Lent that will make space for God in my life?”

I read this one from a fellow pastor in a Facebook group responding to a question about what words to use while imposing ashes.  I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, but his words have stuck with me.  He suggested saying  “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  

That got me thinking.  We are dust of the earth but also star dust spewed forth billions of years ago by the Big Bang that is still creating and expanding God’s universe.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder to accept our mortality so we, like Buzz Lightyear, can leap into the future and go to “infinity and beyond.”  We chuckle at a Disney toy making that kind of foolish leap, but on the days we believe** we know that it is exactly what we are called to do—to  trust without fear, even when the foundations of our world are shaken by rockets and bombs; even when we fear what a madman with nuclear weapons could do to life as we know it; even when we fear that human kind is hell bent on destroying Mother Earth with our pursuits of greed and power.  

To trust God in such a time as this is to surrender all that we rely upon to give us security—all of that earthly stuff because to quote Kerry Livgren of the rock band Kansas, “all we are is dust in the wind.”   But that wind is the Holy Spirit/Wind that breathes life into dust, that shapes star dust into us who are, on the days we believe and on those we don’t, truly created in the image of Being itself.  Our current form goes from dust to dust, but our essence, our being is eternal.  When this mortal life is over we trust that we will be forever in the heart of God who is love itself.  Amen

** “On the days we believe” is a phrase I have adopted from Rachel Held Evans’ book “Wholehearted Faith” where she dares to write what I have often been afraid to say out loud. I will be forever grateful to her for her gift of honest vulnerability and helping me claim that I too have good days when I believe and many others when I’m really not sure.

Silence Over Words

“The Godhead deserves our attention, and we approach and honor it through silence more than through words.”  This quote from Meister Eckhart was in my devotions this morning from Christian Mystics, by Matthew Fox.  It is devotion #134 of 365, and it really hit home today.  I posted a piece in my blog yesterday afternoon on “Respectful Disagreement” and a short time later got a notice from WordPress, my blog platform that I have never seen before.  It simply said that my blog stats were taking off.  I looked up the stats and was amazed that there had been 48 views of that piece in just an hour.  And the hits just kept coming all day!  There were 130 views by days end and another 29 this morning, far more in 24 hours than anything I’ve written in 11 years of blogging. 

I’m quite sure that it is not my writing but the urgency of the topic that is attracting the attention.  There are obviously a lot of people feeling the need for respectful disagreement, and God knows we should be.  But all that aside I could not help from feeling pretty proud of myself.  And along comes God speaking thru Meister Eckhart and Matthew Fox to put me in my place yet again. 

Here’s the full quote from Eckhart –

“God is a being beyond being and a nothingness beyond being. The most beautiful thing which a person can say about God would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth. So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God.” 

That smarts for a preacher and writer who has spent the last 53 years talking about God.  It reminds me of hearing somewhere that trying to talk about God is like biting a wall.  Words as inadequate as they are remain the primary tool we use to try and communicate the uncommunicable mysteries of existence.

Of course here I am still trying to capture the uncapturable with my puny words instead of just shutting up and living in mystery.  Silence and surrender are just so uncomfortable that I cannot tolerate them for long.  I know I will write about this again soon, but OK, God, for now I will be still and know what I cannot “know.” 

Respectful Disagreement

Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.

It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:

The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy.
“I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell

Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed
in different religions…

Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.

All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,

Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”

Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.

Leading with Your Head

“Words alone are cheap.  Breathing deeply is required also.  Connecting to the heart, not just the eyes. Meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, art and creativity–accessing the right hemisphere of our brain, not just the verbal hemisphere, is needed. 

Incorporating and honoring our bodies, breathing deeply, not just leading with our heads.  The heart after all resides in the body and disperses its blood and values from that center.  And breath is the same word as “spirit” in many languages (including Biblical ones).”

Yes, words are cheap, but they are all we have to express our thoughts and feelings.  That quote is from Matthew Fox in his “Daily Meditations” for today, (January 29).  The phrase that jumps off the page for me is “not just leading with our heads.”  We know with our heads and hearts that we are holistic beings and certainly not the Cartesian model of rational-logical critters who only exist because we think.  We also feel and act.

I first really understood that in graduate school working on my doctorate in rhetoric.  It wasn’t until then that I learned that the traditional three-part sermons I grew up with were originally not just three sections of a sermon linked together more or less successfully.  The three point idea originated clear back in the 4th century BCE with Aristotle.  In his classic “Rhetoric” Aristotle describes a holistic approach to persuasive discourse that appeals to “logos, pathos, and ethos,” terms best translated into English as “reason, emotion, and ethics.”  Effective persuasion needs all three elements because humans are rational, emotional and ethical beings.  The latter term applies to our behavior that is shaped by our reason and emotion.

Western philosophy and education have majored ever since Descartes in developing and teaching that primarily addresses the mind to the detriment of emotional and ethical development.  In other words as in the quote I began with we “lead with our heads.” 

As I was writing this piece I saw a very timely post on Facebook that seems relevant.  I can’t verify the source from a Facebook called “Compass,” but it certainly fits my life experience as one who led with my head through twelve plus years of higher education.  Here are the key points of the post:

“According to Psychologists, there are four types of Intelligence:

1) Intelligence Quotient (IQ)

2) Emotional Quotient (EQ)

3) Social Quotient (SQ)

4) Adversity Quotient (AQ)

1. Intelligence Quotient (IQ): this is the measure of your level of comprehension. You need IQ to solve math, memorize things, and recall lessons.

2. Emotional Quotient (EQ): this is the measure of your ability to maintain peace with others, keep to time, be responsible, be honest, respect boundaries, be humble, genuine and considerate.

3. Social Quotient (SQ): this is the measure of your ability to build a network of friends and maintain it over a long period of time.

People that have higher EQ and SQ tend to go further in life than those with a high IQ but low EQ and SQ. Most schools capitalize on improving IQ levels while EQ and SQ are played down.

A man of high IQ can end up being employed by a man of high EQ and SQ even though he has an average IQ.

Your EQ represents your Character, while your SQ represents your Charisma. Give in to habits that will improve these three Qs, especially your EQ and SQ.

Now there is a 4th one, a new paradigm:

4. The Adversity Quotient (AQ): The measure of your ability to go through a rough patch in life, and come out of it without losing your mind.”

The phrase “leading with your head” reminded me of something I’ve been concerned about as I have watched way too much football in recent weeks.  Last weekend was an especially exciting one for National Football League fans.  There were four playoff games last weekend that were all as closely matched as mathematically possible.  Three ended with winning field goals as time expired and the fourth game went to overtime.  

First a confession and/or disclaimer:  I know the game of American football has become dangerously violent.  Players are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, and therefore bodies collide with much greater force.  Padding and helmets are certainly much better than the days of leather helmets, but we still know many former players are suffering from traumatic brain injury, dementia, and Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) because of their years playing football.  Knowing all that makes me uncomfortable watching, but it’s something I’ve been doing for nearly 70 years and is a very hard habit to break.  I also think the way football has replaced our former much more civil national pastime (baseball) is another sign of the toxic masculinity that I wrote about plaguing the American psyche that I wrote about last week.

But I digress a bit.  What I noticed watching so many games last weekend was a troubling difference between college and professional football.  The college game has a rule against “targeting” which is aimed to limit hits to the head and neck area and crashing into an opposing player with the crown of the helmet.  That rule is designed to protect both the player on the receiving end of the targeting and the cranium of the deliverer of the blow.  

Yes, targeting is a judgment call that referees spend much time reviewing replays before enforcing.  They take it very seriously because the penalty for targeting is ejection from the game, and that has and will cut down some on the most dangerous hits in an inherently violent game.  I think the NFL needs to do something similar to prevent more life-threatening injuries from “leading with one’s head.”

I offer that football reflection as a metaphor for the rest of us in real life.  When we lead with our heads, divorced from understanding the emotional, social, and I would add spiritual aspects that are co-partners with the head in human beings we are failing to maximize a healthy comprehension of human behavior.  We are not just rational/thinking beings.  The various components of our humanity need to work in partnership with each other or we are not living up to our potential.  And the huge existential problems facing the human race will not be solved if we are not playing with a full deck. 

Rescue

Our church is doing a series of Advent devotions on words that reflect facets of the Advent and Christmas season. I wrote this one on the word “rescue.”

When I signed up for this word I was thinking about our granddaughter Olivia and the cat rescue organization she started last year. She named her rescue operation “Little Boo Rescue of Ohio” in honor of “Boo,” one of the first kittens she rescued who unfortunately was too sick to be saved.

The three cuties pictured here are Cherry, Mango and Honeydew. They along with their siblings, Apple and Bianca were near death when rescued, but thanks to a lot of TLC and excellent medical care all five are healthy again and looking for their forever homes. Olivia has always had a huge heart for our four-legged friends, and we are very proud of the work she and her colleagues are doing, all of which is over and above their full-time jobs.

Their rescue work often requires responding to calls from someone with a feral cat problem.  She and her friends respond by going out in the dark to capture cats so they can be neutered, vaccinated, and nursed back to health.  They are then either adopted or sent to foster homes.  It is a true labor of love.  

Such caring work reminds me of Jesus’ story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go searching for the one lost stray.  We are all that lost one at some time in our lives, and we run and hide from God all too often.  But God never gives up and will be there to cuddle us back to health whenever we admit we need to be rescued.

We’ve all heard the joke about how hard it is to herd cats, and if she could I’m sure Olivia would transform herself into a cat so the lost ones would trust her and be easier to rescue. And that’s exactly what God did for us in the human baby born in Bethlehem so long ago. The incarnation means that God is with us no matter how many times we need to be rescued.

Unbound: Lazarus was, are we?

What do tennis, hiking, golf, biking, jogging, working on a ladder, and skiing all have in common? They are all things I have had to give up in the last 10 years due to the aging process. I was talking to a friend my age who has given up even more things than I, and when I described my emotional state as “feeling empty” and not having anything to fill the space left by all I’ve lost. The words were barely out of my mouth when my friend said, “That’s exactly how I feel!” Like all of my friends, we have often joked in years past about old people always complaining about their aches and pains all the time, but more and more as we navigate our 70’s we find ourselves doing exactly the same thing.

I remember about 12 years ago asking an “older” gentleman what he was doing in retirement. Without missing a beat he said, “Going to doctor appointments and funerals.” I thought that was funny back then, but I’m not laughing anymore. When I told my friend that I was seeing a counselor about my feelings of emptiness and depression his response surprised me. After asking if the therapy was helping he said, “Thanks for sharing that. I always thought you had it all together. But knowing you are feeling the same things that I am makes me feel not so alone.” That wasn’t a “misery loves company” response; that was the blessing of letting down our armor and being vulnerable.

I’m not patting myself on the back, mind you. I have been good friends with this man for over 50 years. We have gotten together for golf and/or lunch monthly for decades until old age took our clubs away. Now like many oldsters we just go to Bob Evans. We’ve developed a trust over the years, but the fact that he still thought I “had it all together” means I’m either a better actor than I thought or I’ve been much less honest with him than I wish I had. I’m hoping this recent conversation will help us stay on a more vulnerable level going forward.

Here’s the good news. In addition to my therapist I am also working with a spiritual adviser, and when I shared this story with him he reminded me that until we empty ourselves of all the busyness and activities that keep our minds off our pain God can’t fill us up with anything else. A light bulb went on for me when he said that because when you hear truth it illumines things around and within you. He helped me realize that instead of resenting the emptiness I am feeling I can choose to embrace it as a gift from God. That doesn’t mean the UPS is going to arrive at my doorstep with God’s gifts anytime soon, and no that’s not because of a supply chain issue. Spiritual growth takes time and a willingness to sit with pain or emptiness awhile.

The Hebrews were in the wilderness for 40 years, not because it takes that long to travel from Egypt to Israel or because Moses refused to ask for directions. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with Satan because deep spiritual growth takes time to mature and ripen. The advice to “be still and know I am God” may sound really simple, but it’s not just a matter of shutting up for a few minutes so God can speak. It means prioritizing time for prayer and silence, and not the kind of prayer where we just tell God what we want or need.

Jacob wrestled with God all night long and was changed forever by that experience. Moses and Elijah both had to go up to Mt. Sinai/Horeb to hear God’s still small voice. I confess I am not good at silence. Even when writing these posts I frequently have a ball game on TV or music on some device. I know I write so much better when I am in a quiet place as I am while I write this, but like Paul I often fail to do the things I want to do and don’t practice what I preach.

The Gospel lesson for All Saints day this year is from John 11, the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. There are many rich veins of truth to mine in that story, but two stand out for me just now. This chapter contains what every kid in Sunday School loves to memorize, namely the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” This is one of several times in the Gospel narratives that we see Jesus vulnerable and allowing his humanity to show through. Like us he grieves over a loss, even though we and he all know he’s going to restore Lazarus to life.

The second verse in that lesson that grabbed my attention this year was the last one where Lazarus emerges from the tomb all bound up like a mummy. He’s alive but not really. His movement and sight and vision are all hampered by his grave clothes???, and Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

What are the things that bind you and me and keep us from living abundantly in the reign of God? Are we so stuck in our old ways that as Martha so indelicately puts it in the King James Version, “He stinketh,”. My wife sells a very good air purifier that kills germs and removes odors, even in cars or houses that have been skunked. But even those machines will not remove the kind of stench that comes from us who are spiritually dead and don’t know it.

My prayer is for God to unbind me from the anger, fear and regret that I feel for all the things I’ve lost in this stage of my life. Unbind me, Holy one. Roll away the stone that keeps me trapped in a pity party for my past. Unbind me and let me embrace what is and what will be if I trust you to lead me.

What’s your prayer for new life?

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

First Things First: Stillness

I was reflecting on the familiar words from Psalm 46 while meditating yesterday: “Be still and know that I am God” (Vs. 10) when it dawned on me that for most of my life I’ve been doing this backward.

Let me explain. For much of my life I was a professional student. Seriously, I finished my final formal education at age 47. Being a student came easy for me. It was comfortable because I knew how to play the education game. I like the pursuit of knowledge and hope I will always be a life-long learner.

But the psalmist put these words in the order they are in for a reason. “Be still” comes before “know that I am God.” In academic speak stillness is a prerequisite for knowing. Knowledge in the academic sense is mostly an intellectual exercise. But knowing God involves far more than our minds; it encompasses our whole being.

In Genesis 4:1 it says, “And the man knew his wife Eve and she conceived.” There “knowing” is a metaphor for total merging of one life with another. So it is with knowing God. To quote a contemporary theological statement called the “Hokey Pokey,” to really know God you have to put your “whole self in.”

And we cannot do that if our minds are racing hither and yon dealing with all the things modern life includes. How many times in the New Testament does Jesus go off to a quiet place by himself to pray, to commune with God? And that’s a problem for me. There are not many quiet places in my world. We live on two acres so there’s physical space for solitude, but even if I sit by our pond I can hear traffic from a freeway a half mile away; and urban sprawl is devouring most of the vacant land all around us.

So being still, really still in mind, body and spirit doesn’t come easily. It requires a conscious effort and discipline to find a place and dedicate time regularly to be still; so God can draw near and make herself known to us. That spiritual discipline requires us to put first things first. Be still, and then we can know God fully by surrendering our being into the mystery of Being Itself.