Prayer for Wisdom and Courage

[As we sang “God of Grace and God of Glory” at an alum gathering at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio last week I was impressed with how prayerful those lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick are; and those lyrics inspired my pastoral prayer for today.]

God of Grace and Glory, please listen to your people praying.  Pour your power upon us as we pray for the healing of brokenness and suffering everywhere – in our own hearts and minds and in relationships interpersonal and international in scale.  You have planted the seeds of love in every human heart, but those seeds are threatened by draught, wild fire, earthquake and the ravages of unbelievable storms.

Please let our time of worship nourish the one true seed of your loving presence in us and in those we hold up in prayer.  We feel surrounded by the forces of evil and long to be free from fears that shake the foundations of our faith.  Send your Holy Spirit here to the church on the hill to free our hearts to praise you and serve you.  Giving you the glory, let us not hide the Good News of your Salvation under a bushel, but let this congregation on the banks of the Scioto be a beacon of hope to a broken and discouraged world.

Lord listen to your people praying.  Empower us to set an example as peacemakers to a world too long enslaved to war and violence as our only response to conflict and threat.  Let us be leaders in finding ways to beat our guns into plowshares and our nuclear weapons into technologies to feed the starving masses and to power our planet with clean renewable energy.  Instead of rattling our sabers let us put on the whole armor of God – righteousness, truth, peace, faith, and salvation to win the struggles within us and around us with selfishness, greed, injustice, and all that divides the very oneness of creation.

Strengthen us please, O God within each of us, to not lose hope when illness or despair sap our human energy.  Remind us again that we can flip a switch with a simple word of prayer to connect to the one true source of hope that never fails us.

Lord, listen to your people praying and grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.  We humbly ask these things in the name of the one who is the way and truth and life as we unite in one voice to pray the prayer he gave us……

 

 

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Introvert Musings II

Introverts
Like a good introvert I thought of some things I should have said in yesterday’s blog a few minutes after I posted it. Researchers say it takes a typical introvert about 12 seconds to think of a response to a comment. Extroverts can only stand about 3 seconds of silence before they speak again; so you can easily see why introverts don’t say much. We introverts need time to process things before we speak while extroverts do their best thinking out loud. Neither is right or wrong; it just helps communication and relationships to understand the differences.

So, I was on my lawn tractor mowing after I wrote the piece on curiosity. I do some of my best thinking in the solitude of mowing. What I realized was that, at least for me, it’s not lack of curiosity that keeps me from asking questions, it’s just that I don‘t think fast enough on my feet or seat to figure out what to ask in a timely manner. For example, I mentioned asking doctors enough good questions about treatment options, side effects, prevention of health issues, etc. I have excellent docs who take time to answer my questions when I ask them; so this isn’t about them, although I know there are some docs who are less willing or able to take much time with each patient. And even the best of them are overworked and usually behind schedule; so there isn’t much time for introvert introspection while in the exam room.

Especially in serious situations, when questions are even more important, the stress can make it even harder to think. I’ve had a couple of situations where I got unexpected bad news from doctors, and there just isn’t much time to recover, process and respond. For what it’s worth, I have found it very helpful to do several things: 1) I take a written list of questions and topics with me into doctor’s appointments; 2) if it’s a serious issue I try to take my extrovert wife with me to help ask good questions; and 3) if she can’t go with me I have her brainstorm questions with me before I go.

I don’t know what the current stats are, but a few years ago I learned that introverts were only 25% of the American population. So it can sometimes feel lonely in our culture that favors assertive go getters in most areas of life. Mutual understanding of personality traits in a non-judgmental way goes a long way to improving relationships and communication. Introverts need to understand that extroverts aren’t insensitive and aggressive; and by the same token extroverts need to not take offense when introverts need to tune out and take time to recharge our batteries with some solitude. It’s not a lack of curiosity or caring, it’s just a different way of being. And when understood, those differences can benefit any group or relationship by both kinds of personalities contributing insights and perspectives that others won’t.

Give me a few minutes and I’ll probably think of something else….

“A Broken Jar,” Sermon on Mark 14:3-11

We’ve been talking about all kinds of brokenness during this Lenten season. Most of the brokenness has been about things that we cannot control – stuff that just happens to us or is going on out there in that scary world. When I started working on this sermon for some strange reason one of the broken things that first came to my mind was my aging body. I did hear a great line recently about aging. It said, “Don’t worry about getting older; you will still do stupid stuff, just more slowly.”

One thing I’m learning about aging is that it does no good to complain. I am much better off, and so is everyone else, if I embrace my brokenness and celebrate what still works instead of moaning what doesn’t.
And we all know something about broken relationships. I recently read a novel called “The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout, and near end of the book one of the title characters, Jim Burgess is depressed about a whole series of life events including separation from his wife, estrangement from his kids, and loss of his job. He’s hit bottom and says to his brother, Bob: “I don’t even have any family.”

Bob says, “Yes you do. You have a wife who hates you. You have kids who are furious with you, a brother and sister who make you insane, and a nephew who used to be a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

A prison ministry volunteer from our church told me about an inmate at the correctional facility where he does his ministry. This man has a tattoo over his eyebrow that says “Broken.” Maybe we all need one of those! We are all broken in one way or another because we are fallible human beings who live in a world created by other fallible human beings. That’s just the way it is, and no amount of regret, anger, complaining or wishing it weren’t so will change that. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”

Today we have heard Mark’s Gospel describe the story of a broken jar, a jar of very expensive ointment. 300 denarii were equal to a whole year’s wages for a worker– think a very large bottle of Chanel #5. This costly ointment was used by an unnamed woman to anoint the head of Jesus shortly before his final trip into Jerusalem. Unlike most brokenness in our lives which we try to avoid at all costs – this one is a voluntary act of a costly sacrifice. There is no crying over spilled ointment here because this jar was not dropped accidentally – the brokenness here was intentional and chosen for a very clear purpose.

We don’t know who this woman is. Like most of the women in Mark’s gospel who are followers of Jesus, her name is unknown. But as the text points out, her actions are remembered for posterity because she, unlike the men who hang out with Jesus all the time, recognizes who Jesus is and does the one thing she can do to honor his Messiahship. She anoints Jesus’ head – an act normally reserved for kings, and as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished.” She is immediately criticized for wasting such a valuable asset that could have been used in more practical ways, like being sold at the silent auction to feed the poor. A few drops of the ointment would have been plenty to anoint Jesus, but she chooses to be extravagant like our God who pours out grace and mercy on all people. So she gives Jesus everything’s she got.

Then comes what is for me the most curious part of this story. Jesus says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Compassionate Jesus who normally is a chief advocate for the poor seems to be saying, “Forget the poor – you can take care of them anytime you want. This is about me for once.” The context is important here. Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem while the Disciples are still in denial about his impending demise. So Jesus tells them yet again, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Like most of life, this situation is not an Either/Or but a Both/And. We know from the consistency of Jesus teaching and actions throughout his entire ministry that he is not saying we should not feed the poor. That’s a given. It’s depressing but true that we have the poor with us always – that’s part of our broken world that favors the haves over have nots. To suggest we can choose between honoring Jesus and caring for the least of our brothers and sisters is a false dichotomy. In fact, we can’t really do one without the other. Without the love of God to empower us in the face of all the brokenness around us, we burn out like a candle in the wind.

Have you ever felt powerless in the face of someone’s brokenness to know what to do or say? How often do we hesitate or fail to go the funeral home or visit someone recently divorced or suffering from some other brokenness because we feel awkward and don’t know what to do or say. How often do we fail to give to a charitable cause or ministry or volunteer to help because the problems of society and the world seem too overwhelming. It doesn’t mean we don’t care – in fact it feels like we care too much but feel inadequate to do anything that really matters. Because as unfair as it seems, some brokenness just cannot be fixed.

That should not come as news to us – most of us learned that lesson at a very early age from that great philosopher, Mother Goose:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

But we never learn from Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss what to do when we are in one of those hopelessly broken places. Fortunately we don’t need to learn that because we all come hardwired to respond to the pain of others.
A little boy came home from visiting his elderly neighbor who had recently buried his wife of many years. The lad’s mother was curious what the two of them had done, and so she asked, “Did you play catch with Mr. Benson?” No, said Bradley. Did you help him in his garden? No. Did you watch TV or play checkers? Brad shook his head. “Well, what did you do?” she finally asked in frustration. “Oh, we didn’t do anything. I just sat on the porch and helped him cry.”

We innately know how to care but often our compassion gene gets overridden by our own brokenness, and we need to remember again that childlike, natural way to just be there with and for someone.
The woman with the jar is in one of those situations in Bethany where there’s little she can do for Jesus. His fate is sealed. Jesus’ unconditional love and faithfulness to God will not be compromised even in the face of death on a cross.

The woman at Bethany can’t fix that problem. She is apparently a woman of some means or she would not have a jar of very expensive ointment. But no amount of earthly wealth can stop the wheels of hate and oppression that are about to consume Jesus’ earthly life. But that does not mean there is nothing she can do. She takes what she has available and acts on her recognition of who Jesus is. She honors him while he is living instead of waiting until the funeral.

I listened to a very helpful webinar recently about empathy and compassion that this story illustrates for me. Thupten Jinpa, a colleague of the Dali Lama was talking about the emotional part of our reaction to the brokenness of others. We identify with the pain and suffering of someone else, and we call that empathy. But as Jinpa pointed out, while empathy is necessary and important, we can’t get stuck there or we suffer from empathy burnout. We can feel all the empathy in the world for the kids at Avondale School without adequate heat, or the thousands of Syrian refugees, or the flood victims in Louisiana & Mississippi, or people living in Flint. We can have great empathy and all of us here do, but that empathy needs an outlet. Our emotions have to translate into an action step or they can weigh us down like we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and in our hearts.
That is especially true in the 24/7 news cycle world we live in. We know about more brokenness in the world than any generation before us has ever known, and it wears us down. We can’t fix all the brokenness, and we have to pray for guidance to know where and how we can respond – with cookies for Kairos, or money for UMCOR, or just crying with someone who needs a friend. Some problems require action to right an injustice or build a handicap ramp or fix meals for the hungry folks at Manna café. Others just need our presence – either physically or spiritually to be with the broken hearted.

My dear mother-in-law is one of the most caring Christian people I know. She’s 98 years old and has been confined to a wheel chair for several years, but her awareness of what’s going on in the world is far better than younger people. We were talking about some big global problem one day or probably more than one, and she asked me, “What can someone like me do?” She is one of the most generous people I know when it comes to charitable giving, and she’s one amazing prayer warrior. She has empathy in spades, but she also puts that empathy into acts of compassion through her giving and prayer.

Compassion is the action step inspired by empathy, and we need both. The woman at Bethany had empathy for Jesus’ plight, but there wasn’t anything she could do to change the situation; so she did the only act of compassion she could think of. She moved from empathy to compassion.
By comparison Jesus’ band of disciples react by criticizing her or in the extreme case where empathy was absent Mark tells us, “ Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.“

What’s the difference? Judas, in arrogant pride thought he knew better than Jesus what needed to be done. Many believe he was bitter and disappointed that Jesus was not the military liberator he expected the Messiah to be. In all fairness to Judas, we don’t know what brokenness he was dealing with that was crying out for compassion, but we do know the woman with the jar came in humility to honor the servant king.

It’s a funny thing about humility and brokenness. Back on Ash Wednesday we read from Psalm 51 which says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Why would God want us broken-hearted and contrite? Because then God can work with us and mold us like the potter’s clay. But when we are full of ourselves and hiding behind a phony image of ourselves as all-knowing and successful, afraid to let our brokenness and vulnerability show, not even God can get through that wall to reach us with a healing touch.
But when we recognize and admit our own brokenness – when we confess our need for forgiveness, we are broken open to give and receive the compassion and love of God and others. That expensive ointment could do absolutely nothing for Jesus or anyone else sealed up safe and sound in its fancy container. But when the jar was broken open it anointed a Messiah and filled the house with the sweet aroma of loving compassion.
Each of us is a beautiful jar created in the image of God, and inside all of us is the precious ointment of compassion. Don’t hoard that priceless gift. In the name of Christ, break it open and pour God’s love freely on someone’s brokenness. Be extravagant because that precious ointment comes from an eternal source and it will never run out.

Preached March 13, 2016, Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio

Darkness Before Dawn

Pondering the dark days of Holy Week. If you are feeling betrayed or persecuted, abandoned and alone, remember God’s story doesn’t end on Thursday or Friday. No matter how hopeless it looks for Jesus in the garden or on the cross, he trusts the one who has the real power, and so can we. But we have to go through the darkness to get to the light. Sunday only comes after Thursday and Friday and the emptiness of Saturday. Come Sunday morning, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” Isaiah 40:31.

I’VE GOT BAD NEWS AND GOOD NEWS, LUKE 4:14-30

Nationwide Insurance ran a pretty creative series of commercials a few years ago based on the slogan “life comes at you fast.”  In one of my favorites there is a pastoral scene of a father swinging his little boy in an old fashioned swing made of a heavy rope and a board, tied to a sturdy oak branch.  The dad pushes the little boy a couple of times, and then about the third time the boy swings back into the picture, he weighs about 250 pounds and knocks his poor father flat.

The sketchy details provided in the Gospels about the early life of Jesus remind me of that boy growing up very fast.  If we combine all four Gospels, which makes what a friend of mine calls “Gospel stew,” we still only get one brief vignette of Jesus between infancy and adulthood, that being Luke’s account of Jesus in the temple with the elders when he is 12 years old.  The next time we see Jesus in the Gospels is when he’s about 30 years old and being baptized by his cousin in the Jordan River.

There are lots of questions and speculation about where Jesus was during that 18 year gap because the Gospels are theology and not biography.  The only true answer is that we don’t know where Jesus spent those 18 years.  He may have been working in Joseph’s carpenter shop.  More likely he was in some kind of religious community learning the traditions of his faith and preparing for his role as Messiah, God’s anointed one.

When he makes his first public appearance in ministry in his home town of Nazareth in Luke 4, we see immediately how challenging and dangerous being a Messiah can be.

In his first public proclamation Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then asserts his claim that God’s spirit is upon him.   Ok so far, we’re all God’s kids, created in God’s image.  That’s the good news – God’s spirit is upon all of us.  But immediately, Jesus makes a wrong turn and starts explaining what it means to have the spirit of God upon him or upon us.  He says he is “anointed to bring good news to the poor, release captives, restore sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”  Ok, we could maybe go for those last two – if we don’t’ think about it too much – like realizing that we are the blind that need our eyes restored or that the oppressed are going to want their share of the pie if we take our foot off their necks and let them up.  But good news for the poor – what about us Lord?  And release to the captives?  You mean freeing the criminal element?  Those potential terrorists at Guantanamo?   Or folks on death row?  Not so fast, Jesus.

Luke says the people still were cheering Jesus on at this point.  They were “amazed at the gracious words from his mouth.”  They haven’t quite figured out the catch yet.  And then someone says, “Hey, wait a minute, this is Joe’s kid.  We know him.  He’s just a carpenter.  What would he know about anything but nails and saw dust?  How could the spirit of God be upon the likes of him?”

They start asking for proof.  “We heard what you did in Capernaum. Show us your bag of tricks here too, Jesus!” And then Jesus goes over the edge – he pushes them too far, too fast.  He starts spouting examples from the Bible, of all places, about how God has favored the Gentiles over the chosen Jews – in Sidon and Syria – and there goes the neighborhood. They are immediately filled with rage and try to throw him over a cliff.  Oops.  Stepped on the wrong toes there Jesus.  But then, Luke’s punch line – “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”  Almost a throwaway line, but it is Luke’s way of saying, “see, he really is the Messiah and you can’t stop him, no one can.”  This is a preview of things to come when they really do kill him, or thought they did; and he passes through them again and goes on his way – because Jesus’ way is God’s way, not the way of people.

So, we know very early in Jesus’ story that it’s dangerous to claim a special relationship with God.  Prophets get shot and stoned and run out of town all the time.   That’s the bad news.  The spirit of God is upon all of us, and there’s good reason to avoid claiming our own Messiahship.  We feel unworthy, the responsibility is too heavy, and besides, the Greek word for “witness” also means “martyr.”  No cowards need apply.

There was a story in the Ohio news a few years ago about the power of oneness with Christ.  Thomas and Cynthia Murray appealed to Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to spare the life of Gregory McKnight, a convicted murderer on death row.  That’s not so unusual.  Many people believe capital punishment is not a Christian response to violence.  What is remarkable about the Murrays is that Mr. McKnight was convicted of kidnapping and killing their daughter, Emily, 7 years earlier.  Emily was a 20 yr. old philosophy major at Kenyon College at the time of her abduction and murder.  She was planning to become an Episcopal priest and was “passionately opposed to the death penalty.”  Out of love and respect for their daughter and her beliefs, her parents asked for McKnight’s sentence to be commuted to life in prison.  Can you imagine doing that if you were those parents?  I’m not sure I could, even though I’d like to think I would have that courage and faith.  The Murrays showed us the power of Christ to overcome hate and revenge with forgiveness and compassion.

Let’s back up.  This story about Jesus in Nazareth comes right after his baptism.  Remember Jesus was never ordained – no bishop’s hands ever weighed heavy on his head.  In fact, no one had invented bishops yet.  Jesus was baptized – just like you and me.  So that means that the spirit of the Lord is also upon all of us, not just Jesus, and that our mission, should we choose to accept it, is also to proclaim release to the captives, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind!

Clergy sometimes tease each other about having a Messiah complex when we get a little too big for our britches and think we have to save the world in a single bound.    That super pastor attitude might be reflected in this quote from one of my favorite authors, Nikos Kazantzakis.  In his book, Saviors of God, Kazantzakis says, “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar or a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: this is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, and this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.“

There certainly might be an ego problem with that kind attitude (and I’m not crazy about the militaristic metaphor); but it may not be all bad, in fact may be very good, to take our faith and personal mission that seriously.  One way to do that is for all of us to realize that the first two letters of Messiah are “me”.

That may sound crazy, but there’s a lot of biblical evidence for that idea.  In John 14 Jesus says it plain and clear, “I am in God, and God is in me…. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to God.”  John 14: 12 says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.”  Wow! How is that possible?  Because, Jesus goes on …. “You know him (the spirit) because he abides with you and he will be in you.”  (John 14: 17)  And then in John 14: 20 Jesus caps it off by saying, “On that day you will know that I am in God and you in me, and I in you.”

That’s a good thing right – power. We can get Jesus and God to do whatever we want!  Well, not quite – it says “whatever you ask – in my name, this I will do.”  We can all think of some things that we might ask for that just might not qualify as “in Jesus’ name” right?

But there is something even more serious than that.  If we are all one, i.e. “in” God and Jesus and vice versa, what does that mean for God’s expectations of us?   If we are all God’s sons and daughters, as Jesus is – then are we not all Messiahs too?  Messiah means “the anointed one.”  Jesus was baptized by water in the Jordan.  And we as Christian disciples have been baptized too – so far, all the same.  The anointed part is a little trickier, or do we just make it so?  Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  Don’t you suppose that’s true of all of us too?

After a United Methodist pastor baptizes someone with water, he or she says, “the Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. “

Whoa, that sounds a lot like pride or hubris, and we all know that pride goes before a fall; and having God’s spirit upon or within us sounds like really big pride.  That’s what the angry crowd at Nazareth thought when Jesus said it.  What keeps us from claiming our special relationship with God, from believing that we can do even greater things than Jesus did?  Is it true humility or false humility – what a friend of mine calls the “humble bit?”  That’s when we just pretend to be humble because it serves our purposes and gets us out of living up to our potential.    Is it fear of what other people will think or do, or fear of what is being asked of us?  When Jesus claims his Messiahship in his home town, they immediately try to kill him.  That’s not a great recruiting strategy, Jesus.  Is it just easier to stay in the comfort of the status quo and not make any waves?  Freeing captives and such stirs up trouble.  Those who are in positions of comfort now won’t be very happy if they have to share their wealth with the down and outers.  Oh, yes, a little charity at Christmas time is ok, but that’s not the same as changing the socio-economic rules we live by – the ones that have the system rigged in our favor.

But, even though the costs of claiming our Messiahship are obvious – the hidden cost of not doing so is even worse.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee” is a famous quote from St. Augustine.  What does that mean?  It means there is no peace, genuine peace, until we claim our true identity.  To be at war within ourselves, denying our true worth and mission and purpose may keep us “safe,” but it also prevents true peace of mind and spirit from ever being possible.

Have you ever tried to keep a secret that was eating at you and hard to keep?  Or told a lie and then had to work at covering it up and remembering what you had told whom, so as not to blow your cover?  Pretending to be something we aren’t is very hard work,. It takes a lot of emotional energy.

Many years ago I had the privilege of playing the role of Bert Cates in a production of “Inherit the Wind.”  The play was demanding and required rehearsals late every night, and each night my part required that I fall in love on stage with a lovely young woman.  And then, to preserve my marriage, I had to fall back out of love again before I got home to my wife.   When the play was over I was exhausted – not just from the long hours, but emotionally exhausted from pretending to be something that I wasn’t.

And that’s also what happens all the time when we are at war with our very essence; we are tired and on edge, not close to being at peace.  We all want peace in our world, but peace has to start in our own souls and hearts. That means knowing and being true to who we really are.   In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare describes that important truth this way:

“This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The internal conflict, the denial of our true selves as blessed children of God, me-ssiahs, happens at a deep level when we are convinced by a theology that overemphasizes the negative aspects of human nature.  Too often we hear only half the Bible, that we are horrible sinners, unworthy folks who need to “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” (as the old Methodist communion ritual said).   But deep inside we know the truth, that we are created in the very image of God.  You see what an internal civil war that creates.

But Jesus comes to proclaim that truth, the very good news to the poor and the poor in spirit.  And that’s all of us.  When we measure our value and worth by economic standards, we inevitably feel like failures.  No matter how much we have in the bank, it is never enough – it could be gone tomorrow.  One good hospitalization can wipe out the largest nest egg.  And the same fear and negativity is true if we buy into the notion that our basic human nature awful and terrible at our core.

We are all sinners, yes, because we are fallible human beings who live in a world full of sin.  But that is not who we really are.  At the heart of our nature we are God’s children, created in God’s image.  We are one with our Lord and God – as we are told by the creation story in Genesis and by Jesus, our fellow Messiah.  He is the anointed one who proclaims at Nazareth and here today the good news that heals our spiritual blindness, sets us free from captivity to sin and fear, and empowers us to say yes to his call and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.