Prayer for Putting Prayers into Action

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26)

O God, we lift up in prayer all those named and unnamed who are in need of your healing touch. For our broken world and for everyone broken in body or spirit we ask for your abundant grace.
We also pray for your holy spirit to breathe life into our prayers. May the concerns of our hearts grow legs and feet that will take us to someone who is lonely and in need of a friend. Remake our priorities, Lord, so we have time to call or send a card to someone who is sick. Open our eyes and hearts to do an act of kindness for a stranger, to thank a law enforcement officer for his or her service, to send a care package to someone in the military, to visit someone in a nursing home.

Help us Lord to discover again that reaching out to help someone else is the best way to get our minds off of our own problems. May we lose our own worries and woes as we give and receive a hug or really listen to a friend. May we lose our deadlines and to do lists in the pure unbounded joy of children at play.

You, O gracious God, know where the needs are. Help us to be open to your guidance to lead us where we need to be so that we can be Christ to that person next to us, across the street or across the dinner table. The needs of the world are so great, Lord; remind us that your love is greater than any need. Use us as your servants. Inspire us through word and sacrament to lose our selves in the power of your magnificent love as Jesus the Christ did for us. Amen

Stumbling Block or Cornerstone? Sermon on I Peter 2:1-10


I saw a great T-shirt for baby boomers like me on Facebook this week. It says, “Built in the ‘40’s; some parts still in working order.” In our crazy throw-away world where planned obsolescence is part of every marketing plan, this text from I Peter about a cornerstone in a rock solid foundation has a lot of appeal. We live in a whirlwind information age where knowledge and beliefs seem to shift under our feet like desert sands.

When my children were young our go-to vacation place every year was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And every year we built sand castles on that beach. Ours never quite looked like this one, but you’ll notice this one was built in a shelter where it was protected from the elements; so I don’t think it counts as a real sand castle. This one was at a national sand sculpture contest Diana and I visited at Virginia Beach a few years ago, and it was obviously built to last several days while this impressive contest went on.

The average life expectancy of our sandcastles was always less than 12 hours because that’s how often the high tide rolls in and washes away the most elaborate and the simplest of sand creations. The score is always high tide several hundred, sand castles zero.

I don’t know if Jesus built sand castles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but he knew about foundations. He told a parable once about those who failed to heed his words were like people who built their house on sand, and those who built on solid rock were like those who took the Gospel seriously.

I Peter picks up on that foundation theme. It says Jesus, the rock rejected by the good religious leaders of his day was made by God into the very cornerstone, the most important piece of the foundation of God’s kingdom; and no high tide, tsunami, tornado or earthquake is going to every knock that foundation down.

That’s the good news Christ offers us in our dizzy, foundation-shaking world. Two pieces of background about these three letters attributed to Peter in our New Testament. I say “attributed” because many scholars agree that the style of language and historical references in these letters indicate that they were written after the Apostle Peter’s death, probably by one of his followers. While we would consider it unethical to claim someone else’s authorship of our work, it was a common practice in biblical times to attach the name of a famous person to a document in order to give it more authority. I share that for information, and to let you know I will refer to this text as something Peter wrote because it is easier to say that than “the author of I Peter.” And if “the author of the Epistles of Peter” comes up on Jeopardy you will be in the know.

The other important background Peter gives us at the outset is that this letter is addressed to several churches in Asia Minor or what is modern day Turkey. The people in those churches were Gentile Christians living in a pagan land where they had no pre-existing faith foundation to build on. Chapter 2 of this letter, which we read this morning, begins with a plea to these newborn Christians to “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” It goes on to promise them pure, spiritual milk so they can “grow into salvation.” Peter meets them where they are on their faith journey and offers advice on how to mature in their faith in a setting that is hostile to the ways of Christ.

Peter knew how important a strong foundation was for whatever challenges any of us face. All humans have to deal with pain and suffering personally and as a community. We need a strong foundation when those problems happen, but you can’t build a strong foundation in the middle of a hurricane. Our faith roots need to be deep before adversity strikes, and that firm foundation begins with a solid, trustworthy cornerstone.

Let’s take a look at that first verse again. “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” That would be a pretty good list of things to give up for Lent, don’t you think? And it’s not too late. Feel free to pick any or all off that list and start now. We’ve got 4 weeks left, and self-help experts say it only takes 21 days to change a habit. I like to think of fasting from something during Lent as a way to do Spiritual spring cleaning. One problem with that practice is we often give up things for lent that we should give up forever, but we’re lucky if we make it to Easter. I shouldn’t say this if you don’t know it already but there’s another problem. The 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays, and some people take that to mean that when it comes to giving up something Sundays don’t count; so we really only have to make it 6 days before we get a cheat day! Really? If it takes 21 days to establish a new habit that plan is doomed to failure.

The more serious issue here is that to make any really lasting changes to rid ourselves of sin like malice, insincerity, envy and slander will only work if have a firm foundation to start with. Faith and values can’t be invented on the fly; they have to already be part of our repertoire or we will come up empty-handed when temptation or tragedy strikes.

“Letters to a Young Muslim” by Omar Saif Ghobash is a very good book that can promote interfaith understanding. One thing that struck me in particular was a section in that book that dealt with what happens to young Muslims who move away from the strictest and most fundamental expressions of Islam. Many are not able to handle their newfound freedom and responsibility for their own actions because they have been controlled by unquestioned external authority for so long and are not prepared to think for themselves. In other words they don’t have a firm foundation of values and beliefs they have tested and claimed for themselves. So when the siren songs of worldly sins and pleasures confront them, many lack the life skills to help them cope. They either rebel against all authority, often with disastrous results; or at the other extreme become vulnerable to some other form of authoritarian leadership that offers a false foundation.

That situation is not unique for Muslims. Moral development for all of us requires room for doubt and dialogue to build foundations that have time to set and hold in a safe and open environment. That’s why Peter says newborns in faith need spiritual milk to grow strong foundations. They aren’t ready yet for solid food.

I was blessed this week to attend the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. The leader for that two-day event was The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The key thing she taught us was to pay special attention to the verbs in a biblical text. She said that too often we are distracted by nouns that we have to look up or try to explain or figure out how to pronounce. I Peter 1:1 is a good example. It says, “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” and the first thing I had to do was go scrambling to a biblical map to try and figure out where in the world those places were. It’s interesting information to know, but has little real value or relevance to our daily lives today.

But when we approach a text verbs first we usually find words that we all know immediately what they mean. When I did that with our text for today here’s what I discovered. The verbs that belong to the group Peter describes as mortals or others, i.e. non-believers, include “rejected, stumble, fall, disobey, have not received (mercy), and are not (God’s people).” By contrast the verbs attributed to believers include “long for, grow, tasted, come, chosen (as God’s own people), built, to be (a royal priesthood), proclaim, and have received (mercy).”

Not too hard to figure out which group we’d like to be in is it? We can stumble, fall, and not be God’s people by rejecting Christ, or we can believe and be chosen to be God’s own people, a royal priesthood. But here’s the other thing about those verbs. It’s pretty easy to see how a stone can make me stumble and fall, but how can a stone long for, grow, taste, come, offer, proclaim or be chosen as God’s own people?

Notice what Peter says about Christ in verses 4 and 5: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Ever since “The Sound of Music” we’ve known that “the hills are alive,” but now we find out stones can be too.

The Holy Spirit can make stones come to life like Elijah’s valley of dry bones or like God blew breath into Adam and Eve or into frightened disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Living stones are not static– but moving, adapting, rearranging themselves into new patterns as situations around us change. Having a solid foundation allows us to dare to believe and trust in the true rock of our faith when everything else around us seems to be collapsing, be it a personal tragedy or a larger cultural one. When our faith foundation is solid we have the strength to rid ourselves of envy, guile and malice that can undermine the best of us because they are common practice in the workplace, on Wall Street and Main Street. When we are firmly anchored in Christ and his ways we can stand fast against the strongest of head winds to be the church even when no one is looking.

Those who believe receive God’s mercy, but it comes with a responsibility to be living stones in Christ and to proclaim and live the Gospel of truth, justice and love. If we fail to do so the house of God collapses like the walls of Jericho. Christ’s living stones don’t listen to the false prophets of prosperity and power. Those who put their faith in those will stumble and fall. Christ is a huge stumbling block for those who follow that path. To non-believers Jesus’ way of mercy and love looks weak, wimpy and dead, and the winner-take-all ways of the world seem victorious. Worldly power and success are very strong temptations, but Peter reminds us that those stones build a road that leads to destruction.

So knowing all that, why would anyone reject Christ and turn him into a stumbling block instead of a cornerstone? Part of the answer is that the people who rejected Jesus by killing him didn’t want him challenging the foundations their faith was built on. They wanted the certainty they thought a concrete set of laws would provide, giving them a handbook for life that had only two chapters–one on what was allowed and a second on what was forbidden—with no room for messy ambiguity. But Christ’s reign is built on a foundation of living stones which means we have to take responsibility for figuring out together what it means to follow God’s laws.

When Jesus was asked to pick the greatest commandment he didn’t pick a specific law. He said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31) Those are living laws, foundational principles to live by, but we have to use our own God-given abilities to figure out how to operationalize those principles in real life situations. Neither the Bible nor any set of laws can cover every situation we may be confronted with. If that were the case we’d just need an app for that. Ask Siri, “Ok, in this situation what do I do?” and he or she would tell us. But in the real world God has entrusted us with the free will to choose wisely how we treat ourselves and each other. Our faith journey is a process, constantly unfolding as we learn and grow like living stones in the body of Christ.

But following Christ is not an easy journey. We also can become stumbling blocks for others if our behavior sets a bad example of what God’s living stones should be and do. Our failure to live the grace and mercy we proclaim becomes a huge stumbling block for others who are searching for a solid faith foundation.

A couple of dangerous stumbling blocks even show up in this text from I Peter. Verse 9 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Lots of good people have stumbled over that verse by interpreting it to mean, “Look at us! We’re special! God likes us better than you!” How many people do you think are going to want to join any church with that kind of holier-than-thou attitude? The best way to remove that stumbling block is to take an honest hard look at our history as a church and a nation. Too much oppression and conquest of other people has been done in the name of our God to give us an A+ rating on the living stone scale. So if we aren’t special what does it mean to say we are God’s chosen people? It means we are chosen, not for special privilege, but to be God’s servants.

The phrase “a chosen race” is an especially dangerous stone to trip over for Americans. Racism is an insidious disease that is so clever it sometimes fools even those who have been infected with it to think we are immune. Any use of Scripture to justify exclusion of any group of people from God’s grace and mercy is contrary to Christ’s message of love for all. God chooses to redeem only one race, and that is the human race. I know people who when they are asked to indicate their race on a medical form or job application kick the race stone aside and write the word “human” in that blank.

The fact that this epistle bears Peter’s name is a little ironic. Peter is a translation of the Aramaic word Cephas which means “rock.” At one point in the Gospel accounts Jesus changes his disciple Simon’s name to Cephas or Peter, and says to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” If you know the embarrassing role Peter is going to play when we get to Holy Week, you know his faith proved to be very shaky when Jesus needed him most. So too, we’ve all had moments or years when we have denied Christ by our words or actions. And that’s OK because just as he did for Peter in their post-Easter encounter, Christ calls forth strength from us that we didn’t know we had. He strikes the rock within us just as Moses struck the rock in our Exodus story last week, and through us the Holy Spirit pours streams of mercy, grace and forgiveness that enable us to live as faithful aliens in a world full of stumbling blocks.

For that to happen we have to make a choice –cornerstone or stumbling block? We are living in turbulent times that require a firm faith foundation. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum we can all see that changes are coming for our nation. And if the government is getting out of the human services business, guess who is in the on-deck circle? The church. In addition to all the good ministries we are doing now, more is going to be needed from us to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers. We’re going to need a firm faith foundation. Lent is the perfect time to examine our foundations, get down in the crawl space where the spiders and other creepy things live and see if our foundations are built on sand or rock. We can’t call the basement doctor to shore up our faith foundation; we need to get a piece of the rock,” the living stone rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight” to be the very cornerstone of our faith.

Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.

A Wise Heart


While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen

Roll Call

HolyLentThe Sunday before Ash Wednesday is one of my favorites of the church year. It’s called Transfiguration Sunday because it marks a critical turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospel lesson that day is the story of Jesus taking 3 of his closest disciples with him up a mountain where they have a vision of Jesus transfigured before them talking to Moses and Elijah. It’s such a beautiful mountain top moment that Peter suggests they should build 3 booths there to commemorate the occasion.

Just then God breaks into the silence and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” This moment is so central to the Christian story that all three Synoptic Gospels tell it almost verbatim. (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) In other words the church knew this was important stuff and we too need to listen to what Jesus says.

And what he must have said to them, although we aren’t told, is that it’s time to go back down the mountain and be about the work of the Kingdom of God. The story always reminds me of another mountain top encounter that Elijah had in I Kings 19:9. In that story Elijah has fled to Mt. Horeb for fear of his life. Queen Jezebel has threatened him, and her threats could not be taken lightly. God sustains Elijah on the journey and gives him some needed alone time, but then, just as on the Mt. of Transfiguration, God says, “Yes, you need time to refresh, but you can’t homestead in a state of perpetual retreat.” Actually what I Kings says is that God says to Elijah straight out and to the point, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Not once but twice.

As we begin the season of Lent again this year God is asking us the same question? Lent is a time for reflection and prayer and meditation. It is a time to recharge our spiritual batteries. But that is a means to an end. It is a time for spiritual discipline to ask ourselves again, “What are we doing here?” What is our purpose for being? What is God calling us to do? What does it mean for you and me in 2017 to listen to Jesus? I mean really listen. It may be some tough love we hear, and if we really listen we will be transfigured.

Here’s how one author who wrestled with those hard questions all his life described what that experience was like for him:
“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial 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 found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

What are you doing here? What’s your plan to serve Jesus today?

To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”

Not a Spectator Sport: Matthew 7:24; James 1:22-27

One of my favorite literary characters is Zorba the Greek. Zorba is a daring, brash, risk-taking, fun-loving rascal—all things I admire but am too chicken to try. Zorba is described in the novel bearing his name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel is narrated by a character Zorba calls “Boss” because the boss hires Zorba, ostensibly to manage a mining operation for him. In reality, The boss hires Zorba so he can live vicariously through him for a little while.

Zorba is based on a real life Yorgis Zorba that Kazantzakis met on an actual mining venture and the boss, a writer and spiritual seeker/philosopher, is Kazantzakis himself. Zorba chides the boss for being a book worm and “quill driver” because he merely writes about life instead of living it. My love affair with Zorba and Kazantzakis’ other work began 45 years ago when I discovered them in the syllabus of a course on “Theology and the Modern Novel.” I fell for Zorba, but I identified with the boss. I’m much better at observing and reflecting on life than living it in person with gusto.

That same theme shows up in a much more controversial Kazantzakis work, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Critics of that novel and the movie of the same name mistakenly assume it’s about Jesus being sexually tempted by Mary Magdalene, but they miss the point. Our suppressed attitudes about sex often distract us from more subtle and deeper issues. In The Last Temptation what entices Jesus to abandon his divine mission is not lust, it is the desire to live a “normal,” safe life as a husband and father. Those roles are not wrong, of course, they were just not what Jesus was called to do and be.

On a trip to Boston recently I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. As a child of the ‘60’s it was good to relive a bit of that turbulent period of history. There is the expected pro-Kennedy bias to the museum, of course. There was no mention of the young, martyred president’s human frailties or moral weaknesses. Like all mortals, especially powerful ones, he had has share. But there was also a sense of altruism and service in the Kennedy-Johnson policies so sorely lacking in today’s populist political posturing. JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” may sound like a cliché or hopelessly naïve today, but it is far nobler and more Christian than racist slogans to “make America great again.” And it has endured as one of the most famous lines in an inaugural address because Kennedy lived those words he wrote.

No one short of Jesus or Mother Theresa has totally pure motives, but with all their faults, there’s a quality of public service and commitment to justice exemplified in the Kennedys and others of wealth and privilege all the way back to Washington and Jefferson that seems lacking in today’s political atmosphere. JFK failed his physical for military service for a variety of chronic health issues that would have kept most of us on the sidelines. He didn’t have to and probably should not have gone to war. But he used his privileged status, not to avoid service, but to pull strings and join the navy in spite of his medical problems because he felt it was his duty. He’d lived in Europe as a young man in the ‘30’s and knew first-hand the evils of Nazism while most of America was still in favor of isolationism.

After the war Kennedy felt called into politics, not for what it could do for him, but for what he could do for his country. He was already a twice published author and Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Profiles in Courage”) but chose not to be a safe and comfortable spectator/quill driver and instead became an active participant in causes he believed in passionately.

Kennedy’s achievements in his 1000 day presidency are truly remarkable: avoiding nuclear disaster in Cuba, signing the first nuclear arms control agreements, launching the Peace Corps, taking on organized crime, and advancing civil rights and social justice causes than extended American ideals in very significant ways.
He made mistakes in Southeast Asia and domestically, but one does not have to agree with every action or consequence of his policies or legacy to affirm the altruistic spirit of his life. He overcame great physical pain and ultimately gave his life for the country he loved because he chose to be a “profile in courage” instead of just writing about others who did.

In another part of the JFK library is a display I didn’t expect devoted to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. I was surprised by that until in good quill driver fashion I had time to reflect on why the two share that space. The factual/historical explanation is that Hemmingway’s tragic suicide in 1961 occurred during JFK’s presidency and Kennedy helped assure that Hemmingway’s papers and original manuscripts were collected and preserved.
With all the cold war, domestic and political turmoil on Kennedy’s plate, I asked myself, why would he take time to preserve some quill driver’s papers? My guess is because like Kennedy, Hemmingway was not just a writer; he was a larger than life Zorbatic actor in the narratives he wrote about. He was able to write about the horrors of war because he lived them as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI. Like Kennedy he foresaw the coming of WWII because he lived in Europe and described the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to another world war.

Why does all that matter to me? Other than the obvious political connections between then and now, a lot of “normal” life has been going on for me since I last wrote here. Grandchildren graduating, having birthdays, my beloved United Methodist Church going through its quadrennial soul searching and public embarrassment about social justice issues, spring time challenges of yard work and gardening chores, coping with the challenges of aging – mine and my father’s; and all the while wrestling with my own temptation to play it safe, enjoy a “well-deserved” retirement, and avoid the conflicts and confrontations of social activism.

All that is far from a new struggle. Twenty plus years ago I wrote a paper about that tension in graduate school and called it “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” Fear is a great excuse for cowardice. “Normal” life concerns and creature comforts are seductive temptresses to avoid faithful living and prophetic witness. Before retirement I often thought I was compromising my values for a parsonage and a pension. Now that only one of those two remains I feel somewhat less constrained to say what I think and feel.

All of that surfaced for me as I reflected on my Boston trip and the realization that “normal” life has kept me from writing here for the last few weeks. With all the critical issues confronting our world and the church right now, that seems like a shirking of my responsibility as a citizen and disciple. Life is a balancing act of tending to both personal and communal needs, and that is very hard work, at least for me.

Part of our responsibility to the larger community is to be informed and think critically about issues that affect the common good. Far too often we have a very limited perspective and base our beliefs and values on what is best for me and those close to me. It’s much harder to think across class, race and social boundaries to ponder and act on what is the just and right thing to do for all of humankind and beyond that to all of creation. We have a tendency to stay within our different comfort zones because, well, they’re comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we tend to live, work, go to school and socialize with people who look and think like we do. Historically when immigrants have come to this country, and that includes all of us or our forebears unless we are Native Americans, from the first settlements in this “New World” different ethnic groups, different faith groups, different classes settled together in different locations.

The American melting pot has in reality been more of a collection of separate but unequal boroughs, ghettos, subdivisions, colonies, and territories, from our inception. Now we are engaged again in that struggle Lincoln described so well at Gettysburg to see if a nation conceived and dedicated to unity in diversity can long endure. Unity does not mean conformity. We tend to forget that when we choose up sides and turn our differences into debates instead of opportunities to learn from each other. Our win-lose culture is based on economic and political systems where in order for one side to win someone else has to lose, even though that “losing” side might be 49% of the population.

We saw this win-lose struggle again at the recent United Methodist General Conference where stalemate and status quo left no one satisfied. A truce was called by the Council of Bishops to prevent division of the church and a special commission authorized to study the issues of sexuality that have consumed far too much time and energy and prevented other critical kingdom work for more years than Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. I hope that commission will practice what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” in her book, “Being Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Her insights are so important I want to quote several passages from Chapter 2: “Words: The Poetry of Creatures.”

“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”

“Our cultural mode of debating issues by way of competing certainties comes with a drive to resolution. We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative is a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching—not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side, not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
“But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other. And we don’t understand each other.”

“More importantly, you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that, and if there isn’t a crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s much easier to preach to the choir versus listening to people who agree with you. But the choir is already there; the choir doesn’t need us. The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”

Not bad advice for Congress and our political process either! But generous listening takes time and critical thinking skills that cannot be achieved in a 5 minute speech or a 140 character tweet. It requires a willingness to practice what we write/preach, to be in the words of Jesus and James, “doers of the word and not just hearers.” I want to simply close with those words and encourage all of us to read them with new eyes and generous ears and pray for inspiration and guidance to be both wise observers and daring actors on the stage of life.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[a] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:22-27