Good Friday Prayer

The adult choir at Northwest UMC is presenting a beautiful Tenebrae service for Good Friday. You are invited to join us this Friday evening, 7 pm. It’s called “The Shadow of the Cross” by Lloyd Larson. Here’s the prayer I’ve written to open the service:

It’s Friday Lord, and we’re here to remember – to remember a night long ago when you gathered with your friends to celebrate how you saved your people from slavery in Egypt. We remember that Passover because of all you shared in that Upper Room and invited us all to your table forever.

We remember that Passover meal because of what happened later in Gethsemane and the next day on a hill so ugly it was called the Place of the Skull. Words alone cannot convey the depth or the power of the mystery we come to relive this night. And so we turn to music, the language of the soul. Use the talents of these musicians to stir our imagination so we not only remember the pain and agony you suffered for us, but we actually feel the sting of the whip, the agony of betrayal, the bitterness of injustice, and the darkness of death and despair.

Help us tonight O God to actually be present in the shadow of the cross. Help us to stand with Jesus’ mother as she watched her beloved son bleed and die. Help us to be present weeping in the shadows with Judas and Peter; with Pilate and Herod hiding in their palaces. And let us stand bravely with the centurion and the thief who recognize who you really are.

Yes, we are in the shadow of the cross tonight, but we know that for there to be a shadow there has to be some light somewhere, even if we can’t see it. As the darkness closes in stand with us Lord. Help us feel the assurance of your grace that wipes away all our betrayal and denial with mercy and forgiveness.

As we feel the darkness descend till there are no shadows, there even in the mystery of death let us feel your love. We ask these things in the name of Jesus who was not in the shadow but on the cross. Amen

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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!”

“Itchy Ears and the 99-yard Dash,” II Timothy 4:1-8

Today as we conclude this sermon series on being called I want to examine how Paul’s sense of calling was expressed even in his death. The problem is we don’t know how Paul died or when. Tradition has it he was beheaded in Rome as part of Nero’s persecution of Christians sometime around 63 AD/CE. But the New Testament, our main source of information about Paul’s life, is totally silent when it comes to the matter of Paul’s death.
Most of the book of Acts is a pretty detailed account of Paul’s ministry from his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus to his missionary journeys all over Asia Minor and southern Europe, and finally to his arrival at last in Rome where he was a prisoner under house arrest awaiting trial. But after all the details of geography, arrests, shipwrecks and starting many new churches listen to how the book of Acts ends: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31)

In other words as he faced Roman imprisonment and possible execution, Paul spends his time doing exactly what he did for all the years of his life after his call to follow Christ—he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ “with all boldness and without hindrance.”

Paul is one of the best examples of what I like to call the “Hokey Pokey” Gospel. You remember that fun little song which says in part “You put your whole self in, you take your whole self out, you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!” To be called means to put your whole self into whatever God is calling you to do. That doesn’t mean those who do full time Christian work are called any more than teachers, homemakers, bus drivers, garbage collectors or bee keepers. Any job can be a vocation if it is done fully as part of a life lived according to God’s will and values.

But just as the Hokey Pokey says, to fully respond to one’s call you have to “turn yourself around” or more accurately you have to let God turn you around. We often think the word “repentance” means to apologize, to say we’re sorry, and that’s partly correct – but it also means to turn around and go in a different direction. Paul did that when he was converted from being a hit man against the Christians to Christ’s boldest and most dedicated messenger. He had to give up his old life and do a complete 180. Most of us can’t do that on our own. To beat an addiction, to change careers, to turn our backs on the tempting idols of our materialistic world takes the help and support of others and the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us are more like Woody Allen than Paul when it comes to death and dying. Woody Allen says, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The best description I’ve ever found of what I’d call a good death is in a poem called “Thanatopsis” written 300 years ago by William Cullen Bryant. The word thanatopsis is derived from two Greek words and means “a consideration of death.” The poem is much more than the title word says; it is really a consideration of death and life because those are two sides of the same coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem ends with these words:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

So however or whenever St. Paul died I have the feeling he “approached his grave with an unfaltering trust like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.” But the question is how in the world do we achieve that kind of peace, a peace that enables us to be obedient to the end, to truly walk the walk of faith all the way to the finish line?

To find that kind of peace one must let go of regrets, and we all have them. Frank Sinatra sang “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.” I wish I only had a few! And don’t think that just because Paul turned his life around on the road to Damascus that he lived 100% regret free from that moment on! In Romans 7 Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Sin dwells in every human being. It comes as part and parcel of our free will; and that’s why repentance and conversion are not one and done events but on-going life-long journeys.

As Pastor Chris pointed out a few weeks ago Paul doesn’t always come across as a humble, repentant sinner. He frequently boasts about himself as a paragon of virtue and challenges people to live up to his example. And given all the hardship Paul lived through he truly is an excellent model to follow, not because he was perfect but because he was human like you and me, warts and all.

To run the risk of sounding too political one could say that Paul persisted. He refused to give up in spite of bitter conflict in the early church about the legitimacy of his evangelism among the gentiles. One of the most beautiful descriptions of the kind of determination it takes to live a faithful life is in the Scripture read for us today from II Timothy. As an aside, you may know that many biblical scholars are convinced that I and II Timothy were not actually written by Paul. The language in those epistles is a bit different from Paul’s other letters and the organization of the church described in these letters is far more advanced than would have been true in the first century.

But the testimony in these verses is so personal that if Paul didn’t say it he certainly could have. They describe his life and ministry to a “T” in beautiful poetic imagery that is especially vivid just now when we are watching the remarkable achievements of Olympic athletes who have trained all their lives for these games. II Timothy offers these words as Paul’s summary of his life’s work, and I don’t know about you but I’d love to be able to have these words as a eulogy for my life:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

When I was a Boy Scout 100 years ago one of the merit badges I needed to become an Eagle Scout was one for Athletics. This 98 lb. weakling had to accomplish a list of athletic tasks to the satisfaction of the supervisor for that merit badge. I don’t remember the other activities on the list but I still vividly remember the task that seemed insurmountable to me. I had to run ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes. And yes I know that Olympic athletes today run twice that fast.

But I didn’t. Running was painful for me. I got cramps and pain in my side after about a half mile and that last lap around the track was sheer agony. But I did it because I had a goal I wanted to achieve and had further motivation from a friendly competition with one of my best friends to see which of us could make Eagle Scout first.

Do you ever quit on something before you reach your goal – weight loss, mastering a musical instrument, learning a new language, mending a relationship? I’ve got a terrible record as a quitter – stopped taking piano lessons, dropped out of band in middle school because staying there got complicated with my family’s priorities. I quit on my first marriage. I have not always fought the good fight and finished the race.
Did you ever hear of anyone getting a medal for running a 99-yard race? No – the race is 100 yards and no one wins by stopping short of the finish line. Jesus needs followers who are willing to give it all they have – whatever those talents may be that are uniquely yours. God can use all of us if we trust God enough to put our whole selves in. What that means will be different at each stage of life. As we age we have different amounts of time and life experience to draw upon, different talents and skills we’ve learned over the years.

For those who are called the real question is not “Is there life after death?” But “Is there life after birth?” Are we living life to the full or just going through the motions? Have we found a purpose and passion for our lives that keeps us going when the finish line seems totally out of reach? The power of focusing on that life purpose is what enables us to keep the faith and finish the race.

What keeps you from doing the things you know you should do? Timothy says it’s our “itchy ears.” Listen to these verses again: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (Vs. 1b-4)

When our ears get itchy we look for teachers and leaders who say what we want to hear, and we turn away from the truth. Like allergies different things make different peoples’ ears itch. For some it is wealth or power. For some the temptation of living an easy life leads us away from God. Paul’s life teaches us that being called is not for sissies. Paul suffered greatly for his faith and has the right to tell us: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry (life) fully.”

“Do the work of an evangelist!” What does that mean for all of you sitting out there? Is an evangelist only a pastor or a TV preacher? Is it someone who goes to the inner city or foreign lands to share the Gospel?

I have a friend who is spending a full month just now in Myanmar as a medical missionary. That’s her calling but it’s not mine and not most of yours. She has special skills as a nurse and great devotion to that type of ministry that enable her to go on such trips every year.

We don’t have to go anywhere special to be an evangelist because an evangelist is anyone who shares the good news of Christ with others. We can all witness to the world by living kind, loving Christ-like lives in whatever our work is or as students or in retirement wherever we are. St. Francis once said that all of us should “preach constantly and when necessary use words.” In other words how we treat others speaks louder than any eloquent preacher. Finding your calling where you can do that may mean turning yourself around. It may require making some tough sacrifices, but the Good news of Christ is that we are all loved and accepted by God and therefore do not need worldly comforts to live a meaningful life.

To be loved and cared for unconditionally is the salve that soothes itchy ears. Itchy ears can cause us to believe harmful myths – like our race is better than others, or that men deserve higher pay for doing the same job as women, or that children are to be seen and not heard! Paul fights the good fight until the day he dies to proclaim the truth that “there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Age is one of those myths we need to examine carefully before we let them into our itchy ears. They, whoever they are, say “age is just a number.” That’s true but some of us have much bigger numbers than others!! And those bigger numbers can become excuses for not living life as fully and faithfully as we should. Aches and pains can make us give up certain activities. Exercise is too hard; everything takes more time and energy than it used to. We literally can’t do things we used to take for granted. We have to schedule time for simple things like tying shoes or cutting our own toenails because that requires extra effort. My days of giving grandkids piggy back rides are over, gone with the wind like my hopes of ever breaking 80 or even 90 on the golf course.

So it’s true, we old gray mares and stallions can’t horse around the way we used to, and that’s not all bad. I don’t want to go back and make the mistakes I made as a 20 something or 30 something! I’ve probably told you this before, but not today. There’s an organization called “Sageing International” that teaches people instead of saying how old they are to say “I have 71 years of life experience.” Instead of seeing age as a burden let’s value life experience more as an asset. And for you youngsters who don’t have your AARP cards yet, find some elders you can hang around with. We may not be able to figure out our smart phones, but like the Farmers Insurance commercials say, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

Here are just a few examples of people who refused to let ageism stop them from finishing the race:
• Albert Schweitzer ministered to the sick in Africa until he was 89 – received the Nobel Peace Prize when he was 77.
• Anna Mary Robertson started painting when she was 76 saying “I am too young to sit on the porch and too old to work on the farm.” She worked until she was over 100. We know her better as Grandma Moses.
• Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice served until he was 83
• Golda Meir became the 4th prime minister of Israel at age 72. She said “Old age isn’t a sin; it’s a call to service.”
• Artist Pablo Picasso did some of his best work in his later years and kept painting almost to his death. When asked what his greatest work was, he said, “The next one!”

Paul was not a spring chicken when he achieved his goal of getting to Rome. He didn’t get there the way he would have liked arriving as a Roman prisoner. But he didn’t let that stop him from doing what he was called to do.

So no matter how many candles were on your last birthday cake find God’s purpose for you at this stage of your life. Don’t let anyone with itchy ears convince you life is just a 99-yard dash.

Preached February 11, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

What’s Your Binky?

My colleague Chris Rinker told this story at our church recently, and I felt like it has such an important lesson for all of us that I asked Chris and the family in the story for permission to share it. They agreed; so here’s the story:

A few weeks ago at our church’s Breakfast with Santa event, one of the younger members of our congregation made a monumental, life-changing decision. He gave up his binky to Santa. Now, as most of you know, separating a toddler from his binky is no easy task. At some point, we all must grow up, and give up the things that bind us to the old way of living. But it is never easy. We asked the father of this brave boy about this decision and this is what he told us:

“Grant originally had two binkies. There was a particular one he put in his mouth, and another he always held in his hand. Last Christmas, we got him to give Santa (at the mall) the one he held in his hand. That spring, we tried to get him to give the one he kept in his mouth to the Easter Bunny. No dice. So, the Easter Bunny brought him a special little basket to put it in when we left the house. He took to that (reluctantly), and we seldom had to take it out of the house. During all this were countless frantic scrambling around the house (usually at bedtime) to try and find where he had left it.

Over the summer, we (mostly I) got frustrated with him trying to talk with it in his mouth. I was convinced it was affecting his normal speech. When I caught him trying to talk with it in, I would remove it and throw it across the room (playfully… mostly). He eventually took to the practice and would throw it across the room as well, which made finding it at bedtime even tougher. In June, he fell in love with a toy he saw in a catalog. His mother secretly bought it, and we promised him that Santa would make an early visit if he would leave it on the fireplace hearth. Again… no dice. He wanted to give it to Santa like he did last year. And not just any Santa, but the one at the mall.

It shocked us, then, as we were getting ready to leave for the church event, when he declared that he was bringing binky to give to the Santa at church.

Reality set in later that night when it was time for bed. There wasn’t a major meltdown, but Grant was a little sad when he realized the gravity of what he had done. The next morning, as promised, Santa left him the toy he wanted. This was followed by a few teary evenings at bedtime. On one particular occasion, through a veil of tears, he asked to stay a baby forever so he wouldn’t have to give up his binky. The next several nights were better, and now we’re back to normalcy. As for binky? It’s alive and well in our office drawer. The day he finds it will probably be the day he no longer believes in Santa.”

And so I wonder – what is your binky? What are you holding onto that is holding you back from moving on – physically, emotionally, or spiritually? What don’t you want to let go of that is necessary to leave behind? Whether it is guilt, or a memory, a grudge, a mistake, a habit, an idea, or a possession, let us take this time of offering to give it all to God.

Thanatopsis: A consideration of death (and life)

I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Pastoral Prayer for 3rd Sunday in Advent

God of Mercy and Grace, again we pause to make ourselves aware of your presence. We know you are with us everywhere but in the rush and busyness of this season it’s easy to forget that and even to forget what Christmas is all about. Help us to center our hearts and souls just now that through Scripture and the blessed gift of music we will hear again and feel again the night and day of your eternal love. Bless these musicians as they proclaim the Good News, and give us open hearts to listen and believe.

Help us suspend our cynicism and doubt like Joseph did. Send your spirit to assure us that when life seems too much to bear, when we see no way out of impossible circumstances, if we seek your guidance you will show us the way, truth and life revealed so long ago in Christ Jesus. As we often sing, Love came down at Christmas, but that was just the ultimate expression of your presence that was with Sarah and Abraham, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah and Isaiah and all of your children in every generation since creation began.

And the sharing of your love didn’t stop at Bethlehem either – just as your spirit came to Mary and Joseph before the birth so it continued to protect the holy family from Herod’s evil way. The love that came down at Christmas was nurtured by Joseph and Mary; it was shared and proclaimed by Paul and the apostles and Christian martyrs and missionaries across the centuries in every corner of the world.

That Love still inspires kindness and mercy today, even in the midst of violence and unrest in the streets of Columbus or Jerusalem. It inspires sacrificial love as we share our blessings with those less fortunate and in those who will be traveling to Mexico 11 days from now to share the universal message of love that transcends all language and cultural barriers. We ask your blessing on those 12 messengers of Christ’s love that we have named today. Fill each of them to overflowing with the love of Christ and guide them safely on this mission of mercy.
In these final days of Advent, O Lord, we pray for the lonely, the sick, the discouraged and hopeless. We pray for generous hearts that our preparation for this holy birth will truly reflect the awe and mystery that is there every day for those who are humble enough to trust that with you all things are possible. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, as we pray the prayer he taught us to pray.

Pastoral Prayer October 22

O God, we humbly come to you with both joys and concerns. We pray for others that we have mentioned or written on prayer cards or in the secret places in our hearts. But we also stand in the need of prayer. Sometimes we feel like we’re drowning in a sea of trouble and we want to ask “why me?” Our 24/7 access to world news seems to feed us nothing but news of suffering, abuse, conflict, and grief. When the world feels like it is going mad, please reassure us that we are in your hands.

We pray for wisdom and compassion for ourselves and for our nation’s leaders. Give us all hearts open to your guiding spirit. We pray for victims of abuse. Let us share the good news with them that there is still love and goodness in our world. We pray for those in nursing homes and those in homes where grudges are nursed. We pray for those caught in cycles of poverty or violence, for those in such pain that they turn to harmful drugs for relief.

Remind us again of our connections to all of your children. No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, regardless of our financial status, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation – we are welcome in this community of Christ’s church. No matter our differences we are all restless until we find our rest in you, O God. We do not worship or serve an unknown God but one who is the ground of our being, the source of our hope, and the guiding light of our lives.

When we rejoice let us share the credit for our good fortune with all those who make us who we are, and when we are tempted to lose hope in any part of our life, give us again the assurance that you are a personal and loving God that never abandons us. We have a deep peace in our souls because we live and move and have our being in the eternal God, our creator and sustainer.

Hear our prayers O God which we offer in the name of Christ who taught us to pray this prayer ….