Advent 4: Love

Just as expectant parents prepare for the miracle of birth, decorating the nursery and buying supplies for their newborn, so we prepare our hearts to receive this greatest gift of all, the miracle of God’s love.

God does not need a labor and delivery room because God is the one in whom we live, and move and have our being. But when we are wounded by others or weary from struggling against the forces of evil we sometimes forget God is close enough to taste the salt of our tears.

Today we are tired of the bad news that bombards us every day.  We are tired of senseless violence, tired of natural disasters, tired of fearing an invisible virus, and oh so tired of separation from loved ones and interruptions to our normal lives.  

[Light Candle] And yet we light this candle of love again on this short December day because we know God is always here and everywhere.  We rejoice and hope and love, not because all is well in our weary world, but because it is well with our souls.  We are warm even this close to the winter solstice because we are wrapped in God’s eternal love.

And so we pray: O Holy One, even as our days grow shorter the candles of hope, peace, joy and love burn brightly.  Even in the darkness we see the star of Bethlehem leading us to the greatest gift of Love the world has ever received.  We know you will be with us this week even if all the gifts have not arrived, even if the guest list is missing people we love, even if we are in quarantine; because nothing can separate us from your love.  We can’t begin to explain this holy miracle, but we light candles and sing praises anyway because we feel your love in the depths of our souls.  For that gift we give you thanks and praise.  Amen

Advent 3rd Sunday: Joy

As we get closer and closer to Christmas we can feel joy spreading like a wildfire from the candles of hope and peace.  This joy is not the fleeting satisfaction we call happiness.  Joy is not a pious catch phrase, but an eternal flame that cannot be snuffed out by the cares of a weary world.

These candles here will not burn forever, but true joy that lives in our souls endures eternally. It survives flood, famine, pandemic, and unbearable sorrow.  When our bodies are too tired to carry on, the songs of joy still ring in our hearts.  

Today we light this candle of joy because the Christmas story reminds us that Emmanuel means God is with us always and everywhere.  [Light candle]

And so we pray: O come Emmanuel and ransom our weary world held captive by fear. When we are calm in the midst of chaos it is because your eternal joy is in us. We dare to be joyful because the tiny babe of Bethlehem has shown us victory over all the things that frighten us. No matter how many variants the forces of evil change themselves into; we know that you, almighty God, can transform our suffering into joyful praise. You have taught us that no matter how long our mourning in darkness may last, joy will come with the dawning of a fresh new day filled with hope, peace and love. And so today we offer you our songs of praise for the one who is Joy to the World. Amen

OMG!

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer of Lament

O God! We have added Austin to our awful litany of mass shootings. I pray for the victims, the first responders, the survivors, and for whatever demons the shooter or shooters are dealing with. I also pray for our society where this tragedy barely makes a blip on the radar of our consciousness. We are so numb to this senselessness that it has become a ho hum normal occurrence. Please shock us into caring again, to mourning again, and revive our consciences and our desire for peace. Trouble our souls deep in denial. Call us to compassion for victims and passion for doing our part to create your peaceable kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven.

The alarm is ringing again. It is not good to keep hitting the snooze button. It is not OK to pull up the covers and pretend this is just a bad dream. Wake us, give us ears to hear the cries of your children and the clarion call for all people of faith to put prayers and thoughts into action. Hear our prayer and disrupt our false sense of security. Make our fear a motivation for change and not an excuse to avoid the cold, harsh truth. Christ have mercy. Amen

Swimming for My Life

This post is either a little late for memorial day or a little early for Father’s Day or maybe both. As part of my rehab from back surgery last fall I have been spending a lot of time in the YMCA pool. I am not a good swimmer, but I have greatly increased my stamina over the last two months. I am swimming because it is low impact and about the only kind of aerobic exercise I can do because of my back.

While swimming I’ve had an unexpected revelation of admiration for my father who died a little over three years ago at the age of 96. Dad was a bomber pilot in World War II. Because our relationship was always rather strained there are lots of questions now that I wish I had asked my dad, among those are questions about his military service. I don’t know if he would have wanted to talk about a very traumatic experience he had in the war or not, and now I will never know.

I know he only made a few actual bombing runs because he got to Europe near the end of the war. I wish I had asked him about those, but because I grew up in the Vietnam war era I have always been a little anti-militaristic. The one biggest event that happened to my dad which I wish I could talk to him about occurred when he was co-pilot on a B-17 that was bringing him and 16 others back to the states after the war.

My sisters and I discovered after Dad died that he had written an article about this event for the newsletter at the retirement community where he lived for the final 28 years of his life. He titled his article “The Big Splash” because the B-17 those men were on developed engine trouble shortly after leaving the Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean and had to “ditch,” which is pilot speak for crash landing in water.

They ditched at midnight in a heavy fog, which caused them to hit the water too fast, breaking the plane in two. My dad was unconscious for a bit but was revived by the pilot and able to escape the sinking plane. Unfortunately most of his crew mates were not so fortunate, and by the time they were rescued only 4 survived the crash and 12 hours in the cold water.

Dad wrote that he thought part of the reason their rescue was delayed might have been because the radio man, in the pressure of the moment, sent the wrong coordinates for their location when the May Day signal went out.

What we do know for sure is that my dad and his buddies spent 12 long hours in the dark in cold water where sharks were known to roam. I did not remember all that while swimming in the comfortable 84-degree water at the Y, but when I did my amazement at what that experience must have been like truly inspired me. I remember telling myself, “OK, Steve, if Dad could do this for 12 hours, you can certainly do it for 30 minutes.” And I have reminded myself of that frequently ever since when I get tired in the pool or inhale at the wrong time. It’s those times I ask Dad and my Abba Father to help me finish my swim.

I don’t know if my dad and those guys had life jackets on or were in life rafts. I doubt if they had time to deploy the latter, and I know from first-hand experience that having a life jacket on while out of control in a strong current is still quite unsettling. (See my post, “When Oceans Rise,” May 9, 2019 for that story).

These recollections have not only helped keep me swimming when I needed motivation, they have also helped me understand and appreciate who my dad was as a result of that experience. I know there was no treatment for PTSD in 1945, and I wish I had been more aware of that and given my dad the credit he deserved for coping as well as he did for his remaining 70 plus years of life. I was much too judgmental of his rigid and legalistic coping skills, and I hope he can forgive me for that.

My dad was not religious growing up, and I know this big splash story was a baptism of sorts (and a baptism of fire) for him which made him a Christian; and that meant being a part of the larger Christian family began for me immediately when I was born 15 months after Dad’s near-death ordeal.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing there was a lot of praying during that long night in 1945; prayers that no sharks would be attracted by the blood in the water; prayers for the men who died from exposure before the rescuers arrived, and lots of bargaining with God and promises to change if they could be spared.

My prayers while swimming in the pool under the watchful eye of a lifeguard are pretty trivial by comparison. Mostly my prayers take the form of remembering biblical stories about Jesus napping in the boat during a storm and then calming the sea (Mark 4:35-40), or Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s short-lived attempt to do the same (Matthew 14: 25-32).

So, when you need a faith booster, be it in actual water or in the metaphorical oceans we call life, draw strength from the biblical or personal stories that inspire you to just keep swimming. That kind of faith is described so well in these words from the praise song “When Oceans Rise” by Jake R. Sanderson:

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown
Where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours
You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed
And You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”

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.

Prayer for a Damascus Road Moment for President Trump

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:1-6)

O mighty God of transformation, I pray today for the healing of our President from the Coronavirus and for all others suffering from this deadly virus with access to far less health care resources available to presidents and government leaders. And I pray this Walter Reed sojourn will be a dramatic healing of Donald Trump’s soul like what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. You, O healing spirit, who transformed the murderous, zealous Saul into the most ardent evangelist of the infant church, hear my prayer.

We know you have the power, Lord, to redeem the coldest heart and to forgive the most grievous purveyors of suffering, even on those closest to them. I do not have it in my heart to forgive Mr. Trump’s lies and onslaught on our democratic values. But I know you can. You have showed us in the risen Christ who turned Saul’s life around that unimaginable conversion is possible through a savior who turned the hierarchy of Roman society on it’s head by feeding, healing, touching and forgiving those who were left behind by those who had broken their covenant with you.

Now, O loving God, when this virus has brought Donald Trump as close to humility as he has ever been use this moment of his vulnerability as an opportunity to break through his facade of superiority. Embrace him with compassion that will melt his cold heart. Remove the scales from his eyes, unplug his ears so he can finally see and hear the plight of those who are suffering from his misguided view of the world. Move him with such gratitude for your healing love that he will use his worldly power to extend the privileges he enjoys to the marginalized — to all people of color, to immigrants in cages, to the working poor and those with inadequate food, education, and opportunity to have a decent quality of life.

I know I’m asking a lot, dear Lord, so much that my imagination is stretched to the limit. But I know the story of Saul/Paul whom you turned from vicious Christian killer to one who endured prison, shipwreck and unbelievable persecution to share the life-changing power of your grace because he had experienced it personally in such a drastic way that he would not let anything stop him from taking the Gospel to the very seat of worldly power in Rome.

I humbly implore your healing power to break into my unbelief and into the deluge of terrible news that has bombarded us for this longest year in my lifetime. We need a miracle, God, to heal the dangerous and increasingly violent differences in our culture. I fear we are nearing the point of no return as tensions mount leading up to this election. I have never before been afraid of my neighbors because of their political views. The spiritual healing of Donald Trump could lead to a healing of our nation’s pandemic of hate and violence. I pray with all my being for his healing and conversion and for the transformation of our nation to be worthy of our highest ideals of liberty and freedom for all of your children. In the name and for the sake of our Risen Christ, Amen and Amen.

Prayer for a Broken Nation

O my God, are you as alarmed about the state of our nation as I am? I am in mourning today for civility, decency, and shattered dreams that our broken body politic can be healed. Yes, I know all things are possible with you. I know the stories of how you have delivered your people from Egyptian slavery, Babylonian exile, and German genocide, but our situation seems more desperate. We are not suffering at the hands of an external enemy but from a cancer within that is more insidious.

The high ideals espoused in our nation’s foundation documents lie trampled in the boot prints of greed, fear and falsehood. I’m grieving the death of discourse, reason and collaboration in a time when tribal loyalty has trumped even the desire to build bridges across the gaping chasms that divide us. This is one of those Romans 8 moments when we “don’t even know how to pray,” but you assure us that in such dark days the “Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26).

Come, Lord Jesus! Walk across the waters of despair that threaten to consume us. Feed us as you have always done in wilderness times, be it manna for lost Hebrews, bread to nourish Elijah as he fled from Jezebel’s wrath, fish and loaves for the 5000 hungry for Jesus’ words of truth, or breakfast on the beach for frightened disciples with a resurrected savior. We are so weak from our 24/7 diet of partisan vitriol that it’s hard to even turn off our many devices and throw ourselves on your mercy.

And so my prayer is for comfort for those who are mourning, renewed faith in a time of doubt, peace that passes understanding, and strength to carry on when things seem hopeless. Remind us, God of all creation and Ground of our Being, that nothing can separate us from your love, no fear or failure, no panic or pain, no worldly power, no virus or vandalism, no injustice or inhumanity to others, not even death itself. For we follow a risen savior who is our guiding star no matter how stormy our skies may be. He is the way, truth and life, and in times such as these help us dig deeper to find the bedrock of faith when our foundations are shaken.

I ask these things in the name of the one who was so grounded that he slept as the storm at sea was raging. Give me that courage and faith I pray. Amen

Plagues, Prayer and Peace

O Creator God, mysterious and magnificent, whose name was considered unpronounceable by our Hebrew ancestors, forgive us when our feeble attempts to describe you and name you turn you into pious platitudes. Unlike Moses we dare not put ourselves in your imminent presence. Your power is too much for us to confront directly, but when we hide ourselves from your majesty and keep you at arms length we rob ourselves of that peace that is beyond our comprehension.

It is a delicate balance between revering you and embracing you. Our fallible brains cannot grasp your simultaneous imminence and transcendence, and so we bounce back and forth like ping pong ball from one extreme to the other. And yet in these dark days of 2020 we desperately need both your motherly, tender love and your booming power to transform and heal our broken world.

We’re feeling like Pharaoh, God. Our plagues today are fires, hurricanes, flooding, racism, homophobia, earthquakes, pandemic, and the angry vitriol of deep, seemingly unbridgeable tribal cultural wars. At a time when we need each other and the milk of human compassion more than ever we don’t even know how to talk to one another. Nerves are so frayed that even something as simple as wearing a mask can become a trigger point for insults, shunning and worse.

Where are you in the midst of our human catastrophes, O God? You told Elijah that you were not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. We are deaf to that voice just now O great one. Weeping and wailing, screaming and cursing, hopeless self-pity and sheer exhaustion are ringing in our ears so loudly that we cannot hear you. When we need to feel the embrace of a good shepherd so much we feel like the lost sheep, afraid to even hope that you can or would come looking for us and leave the other 99. Our tiny minds can’t comprehend that you can seek us out and still be present with all the others who also need you. Your transcendent ability to be everywhere in the world and universe boggles are minds.

So for just a moment, a fraction of a second help us to be still just long enough to hear your voice whisper in our ears, “Fear not my children, for I have overcome the world. Come to me when you are weary and burdened. Trust me, and I will restore your soul even in this year of tumult and pain.”

Speak, O God, and give us ears to hear. Amen

A Prayer for Coming Home

Gracious and loving God, this prodigal child is coming home. I’ve been awaymuch too long. I can’t believe the welcome mat is still out after how poorly I’ve treated you. I’ve been lost in the wilderness, depressed, frightened and angry that life isn’t fair.

I’ve taken detours through doubt and lingered too long in places of sin. I lost my way in anger and self-pity, afraid to come home and not even sure I any longer knew the way.

The simple faith of childhood failed me in times of greatest need. I surrendered to to the demons of temptation that led me down the dead end paths of prosperity, power and fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

I knew better. I had been taught your Word from childhood, but rebellion against the bonds of legalism alienated me from my roots and my heritage. When once I felt closely held by your loving arms I grasped now only air when I reached out to you. My prayers for your help grew empty and hollow because I heard no answers, probably because I never stopped the pursuit of happiness long enough to listen for your reply. My vision was clouded by tears of frustration and fear; so I could not even see you in the beauty of creation. And I certainly couldn’t see you in the chaos and injustice in our world. I gave up trying to find you.

I drank deeply of the great American myth of individualism. I succeeded so well at school and work that i never learned the lessons that failure alone can teach. When things became to challenging rather than fail I simply quit. I gave up on relationships and career goals instead of doing the hard work of trying multiple ways to solve a problem. I played it safe rather than risk taking unpopular stands on social justice issues. I took the wide path that leads to destruction.

But now I’m coming home. I humbly throw myself on your mercy, trusting that you will catch me and hold me close, hold me until my fear gives way to peace. I’m coming home, not for a fatted calf, but hoping your Holy Spirit will ignite the fire of faith in me anew and send me out to invite other lost ones longing to come home but are too afraid and ashamed.

In the name of the one who overcame Satan’s temptation in his wilderness time. Amen