Faith Expeditions: Help!, Exodus 17:8-13

We began this sermon series four weeks ago with Pastor Chris showing off how he could still wear his Boy Scout uniform. It would take a faith expedition and a 30 lb. diet for me to get into my old uniform, if it still existed; but the scout motto to “Be Prepared” still fits perfectly.

To go on any expedition requires preparation and that preparation should include a support team. Those who know my wife Diana know that she is the energizer bunny in our house. And she doesn’t worry about anything because she knows I’ve got that covered for both of us. Case in point: about 15 years ago Diana and I drove over to Xenia to watch two of her nephews and a niece go sky diving. The 3 of them went up and as Pastor Chris reminded us two weeks ago, what goes up must come down. And they did. We got to watch the two boys land safely right on target, and they were so excited about the experience. We didn’t see where our niece Sarah landed and were a bit concerned. But a few minutes later she and her partner came walking up the road and she too was all smiles.

But here’s where things got very interesting. One of the instructors said to those of us who had stayed on terra firma, “We still have time for one more trip if anyone wants to go.” I’m thinking no way Jose, but Diana’s sister-in-law who had some sky diving experience looked at Diana and said, “You wanna go?”

Diana was so inspired by the joy she saw on her nephews’ and niece’s faces that she jumped at the chance. They got prepared with instructions and strapped on their parachutes and off they went into the wild blue yonder.
And there she is soaring like an eagle. Notice 2 things about this picture, that guy who was Diana’s tandem partner, that’s not me. I was still safely on the ground. And you can’t tell from the picture but Diana’s buddy had his AARP card. He was a veteran of many jumps and he literally had her back; so she entrusted him with her life.

And here’s the “after” picture just so you know they landed safe and sound.

Moses at Rephidim was not jumping out of an airplane, but he too was in a life and death situation yet again on the long faith expedition known to us as the Exodus. Earlier in chapter 17, which is part of the “complaining” chapters in Exodus, the Israelites were ready to stone Moses for dragging them out into the God-forsaken wilderness. They again, like spoiled kids, want to go back to Egypt – this time because they have no water to drink. You may remember that this is where God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water pours out and quenches the peoples’ thirst.

And then immediately Moses is confronted with another crisis—“Amalek came and fought with Israel.” Amalek was a descendant of Esau, and his people represent the bitter hatred between that branch of Abraham’s family and the Israelites. This battle is a reminder to us that there were already people living in the land the Israelites were claiming as theirs. The Amalekites saw the Israelites as illegal aliens in their land. And as we know there is still conflict over whose land has been promised to whom by which God. But that’s another sermon.

Today I want to focus on Moses’ unusual battle plan. He takes the same staff that he used to part the Red Sea, and the one he just used to get water out of the rock at Massah and Meribah. That staff is the visible symbol of God’s power and presence with the Israelites, and Moses says he’ll go up a hill and hold that staff aloft while Joshua goes into battle with Amalek.

Sure enough it works! As long as Moses holds up the staff Joshua’s men are winning the battle—but then Moses has a problem – his arms grow weary. Moses is human after all and like all of us he gets tired, but whenever he has to put his arms down to rest the tide of battle turns and Amalek’s army prevails.

What to do? Moses’ people are dying before his eyes, but he just can’t hold up the staff any longer. It’s just too heavy! Now we might expect Moses to cry out, “Houston, we have a problem!” But notice he doesn’t even have to do that. Moses isn’t up on that hilltop alone. His brother Aaron and another man named Hur go up there with him. And when they see the trouble Moses is having he doesn’t have to ask for their help. They don’t even have to call a committee meeting to decide what to do. They simply act, and the solution is simple.

They put a rock under Moses so he can sit down, and then Aaron and Hur get on either side of Moses and support his arms—not just for little while, but till the sun goes down. And because of their support and teamwork Joshua’s army wins the battle. Faith expeditions require a network of support. Taking a leap of faith is like trusting the person who packed your parachute and the pilot and your tandem partner—others who have experience, as well as those on the ground who pray.

One of my most memorable experiences in scouting was on a canoe trip on the Whitewater Canal in Indiana. I’m not sure where the name came from because there wasn’t any white water, but there was one narrow lock on the canal where the water was moving much faster. It was just around a bend in the river so we came upon it unexpectedly. Suddenly we saw a cable across the canal with a sign that warned us to stop and portage, i.e. get out and carry our canoes on the bank and put back in on the other side of the fast water.
Some of us were able to do that but because of inadequate warning some of our scouts got sucked into the faster current and made the mistake of grabbing on to the cable strung across the canal. You can imagine what happened; they stopped and their canoes went on without them.

The water wasn’t that deep so they were able to climb out and go retrieve their paddles and canoe downstream. The rest of the trip was uneventful for our group. However, because we had a large troop the canoe livery had to divide us into two groups. So when my group finished they hauled us and our canoes back to the starting point so the second group could have their turn.

Now the lock where some of our group got to remember their baptism wasn’t far from the beginning of the trip. It was easily within walking distance; so instead of warning our fellow scouts about that tricky spot as good scouts should some of us decided it would be fun to run ahead and see if anyone else got dumped in. And of course when they did, including our scoutmaster, we jumped out from where we were hiding and started laughing. But it didn’t take long before we realized the situation wasn’t funny anymore. Our scoutmaster was trapped beneath the canoe and wasn’t coming up. The scout with him was young and inexperienced and didn’t know what to do.

I was with some other boys on top of the lock about 10 feet above the water. I wish I could tell you this is where I sprang into action and saved the day, but I’m ashamed to admit I was flat out paralyzed with fear. My only contribution was to yell like an idiot for somebody to do something.

Fortunately for us all two of the scouts up there with me saw what needed to be done and literally jumped into action. They didn’t stop to worry about how deep the water was or what danger there was to themselves, they simply jumped from 10 feet up and were able to pull our sputtering scoutmaster to safety. Like Aaron and Hur, they saw a problem and acted to save the day.
None of us can get through life’s challenges alone. There are no self-made people.

My sister found this old photo recently that reminded me of my own ancestors who survived the great depression, two world wars, alcoholic husbands and all the challenges of parenthood. This is a 4 generation picture – I’m the cute kid in my grandmother’s arms. We’ve all got those folks who literally gave us life and kept us alive thru infancy; we’ve all got teachers and mentors; we’ve all got people who suffered in silence as we learned to drive or who ran behind us those first few times we rode a bike without training wheels.

It’s probably my age but I had one of those ah hah moments recently when talking to my youngest uncle Gary. He’s only 4 years older than I so was just ahead of me in school. He told me there were only 40 kids in his high school class. I was shocked because my class had a whopping 120, a 300% increase in just 4 years! And then I realized again that I am one of the original baby boomers – born in 1946. And that triggered one of those trips down memory lane when I realized why I was lucky enough to have brand new school buildings to attend throughout my public school career. Those old guys, and they were all men, who we made fun of – the school superintendent and the school board had the foresight to see the wave of us boomers coming in time to build a new elementary school and eight years later a new high school just as my class arrived on the scene; and they had the ability to pass school levies to make those things happen.
Who helped pave the way for your life? Who are the Aarons and Hurs who came along side you and supported you? It’s good to remember and be grateful even if we can’t thank those people. Keeps us humble too.

Think about Moses earlier in the biblical story. From day one of his call to serve God Moses knew he needed help and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. Well, he sort of asked. At the burning bush where God tells Moses he’s been chosen to go tell Pharaoh “Let my people go” Moses doesn’t exactly jump at the chance. He does what many of us do – he tries to weasel out of this scary faith expedition by making excuses. He says, “Not me Lord, I’m not a good public speaker. I’m not the one to go and convince Pharaoh to do this!” And God says, “OK, here comes your brother Aaron. He has the gift of gab. I’ll get him to be your helper.”

None of us have everything we need to tackle all the challenges life throws at us. But there are helpers around if we seek and trust God to provide them. We’ve been using different kinds of outdoor adventures to think about faith expeditions this month, but some of the most challenging expeditions in life have nothing to do with tents or canoes or parachutes. The inner journeys where we encounter painful memories, doubts, and fears are the toughest expeditions we ever have to take; but we all need to embark on those inner journeys over and over again to continue to grow in our faith.

We have a ministry here at Northwest that is specifically designed to match helpers up with those who need someone to just come alongside them, to listen to them, to pray for them. For the record these Stephen Ministers are not named for me, but for Stephen, one of the first deacons chosen by the early church to minister to the needs of the growing faith community. Stephen Ministers don’t do windows or home chores; their mission is to provide spiritual support for those going through difficult times on a faith expedition. And in the process, as is often the case, these Stephen Ministers discover that when we journey with someone else we also go deeper and stronger in our own faith. It’s a two-way street.

All it takes is a simple willingness to go the extra mile to help someone in need, even when it’s inconvenient–to take time to listen, really listen with our full attention to kids, seniors, colleagues and friends who are on an inner faith expedition. They may not know that’s what it is and there’s no need to label it as such. When we are on one of those journeys we just know we need someone there with us. We need someone to put a rock under us and hold us steady while we face whatever demons or challenges that lurk in the inner depths of our souls.

One of my favorite stories about a biblical helper is in the book of Ruth. Do you remember that story? Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is on a journey back to her home in Bethlehem after suffering terrible personal loses. Naomi and her family had been refugees in Moab because of a famine in Judah, and while there Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died. Both of Naomi’s sons had married Moabite women before their deaths, one named Ruth. So Ruth is not an Israelite, she is from Moab, one of those neighboring countries with no use for Israelites, and she’s dealing with her own grief.

When Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law come to a fork in the road where a critical life decision must be made, Naomi encourages both of them to go home to their people where they will be accepted and can find husbands there to provide for them. The other daughter-in-law returns to Moab, but Ruth’s response to Naomi is the famous line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Ruth saw Naomi needed a companion to walk with her through this tough time and she gave up the best path for herself to walk alongside Naomi.

And of course, the Scriptures tell us the rest of the story. In Bethlehem Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz, and they become the great grandparents of King David. That’s important for Christians because when the Gospel of Matthew lists all those begats leading up to the birth of Jesus Ruth, the Moabitess is one of only five women listed in Jesus’ genealogy. She is the great, great, great …. Grandmother of Jesus 28 generations back.

When we see a need in others and respond to it, we never know what God has instore for us. So when you feel the need to journey into the deep spiritual mysteries – don’t be a worrier like me, say “Yes Lord,” and trust God to provide the support you need from people like Aaron or Hur or Ruth who will hold you steady till the sun goes down. Amen

Preached September 2, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

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John McCain

My wife and I just spent a couple of hours watching the funeral of John McCain. We weren’t planning to watch the funeral; too many other things to do. We turned the TV on to watch a little U.S. Open tennis while we ate lunch but never changed channel from the funeral. What a wonderful tribute to great man and lesson for our nation to learn about cooperation, compromise and collaboration. It was one of the best funerals I’ve ever seen, including the marvelous recessional to Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way.” If you missed it find it on You Tube and watch. It’s well worth it.

What moved me most personally was the way Senator McCain lived with his pain and injuries all those years- serving his country when he had every right to be bitter and angry about his fate in life. I hope whenever I am tempted to surrender to my minor aches and pains the image of a smiling John McCain struggling to wave to crowds when he couldn’t raise his arms above his head will remind me that a little pain and suffering is no excuse to give up, no justification for surrender or self-pity, but the very source of courage, strength and faith to live each day with renewed determination to make a difference.

I didn’t agree with John McCain on many political issues; I didn’t vote for him for President; but I am so glad he and his family planned such a wonderful funeral service to help all of us appreciate what a great man he was. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace Senator McCain.

Solving Big Problems

tigers-boulder-plaque Pious platitudes and self-help advice on how to cope with life’s challenges are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to think lemonade when life dumps a load of lemons in your lap, but when the obstacles blocking our chosen or desired path in life are a million times bigger than a lemon it’s a lot tougher to know what to do.

I never know when inspiration or a life lesson will appear, but I got one recently when I least expected it. I was watching the Phoenix Open golf tournament on TV and learned about an unusual golf moment that occurred at that event 6 years ago. I’m a big golf fan; so I’m not sure how I missed this for that long, but here’s the story.

There is a plaque in the ground near a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up with a large boulder blocking his next shot toward the par 5 green. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking an unplayable lie and a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well. Two earlier interpretations of the rules of golf were relevant to Tiger’s predicament, and he wisely appealed to a tournament official for a ruling. The first ruling states:

“23-1/2: Large Stone Removable Only with Much Effort
Q. A player’s ball lies in the rough directly behind a loose stone the size of a watermelon. The stone can be removed only with much effort. Is it a loose impediment which may be removed?
A. Yes. Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play (Rule 6-7).”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But there was one large problem. Remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #2”
“23-1/3: Assistance in Removing Large Loose Impediment
Q. May spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., assist a player in removing a large loose impediment?
A. Yes.”

Now many serious golfers may have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends and fans to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help. With a bit of effort they were able to roll the stone away, and Tiger then had a clear shot to advance his ball toward the green.

If you’re thinking “So what? This is just a silly game rich people play for ridiculous amounts of money!” I get that. I also know Tiger is a controversial figure; so please bear with me and suspend whatever feelings you have for him as a person or a golfer. The life lessons I got from this story would be true no matter who was involved. One of the reasons I have persevered for decades as a not very good golfer is that the game has taught me more times than I care to remember how important it is to take responsibility for my mistakes, try to keep my composure when I hit multiple balls into the same lake, learn from the past, let it go and move forward and deal with the current circumstances I can’t change.

This particular story reminded me that we all encounter obstacles, large and small in our lives. Some of them look as insurmountable as a 2000 lb. boulder, and when that happens we have choices. We can give up, take whatever penalty is involved, and proceed. Or, we can stop and assess the situation and explore whatever alternative solutions there might be that are at first not apparent. One of the many things I love about my wife is that she is a problem solver. I, on the other hand, am more of the “this will never work, I give up” school.

One of the reasons I give up too quickly when life drops a boulder in my path is that I tend to only rely on my own resources and knowledge to look for solutions to a problem. That is very ironic since I spent 18 years promoting and teaching collaboration earlier in my life. (I’m sure there are psychological issues at play here, but as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “I’ll worry about those tomorrow!”) I do know that to ask for help carries with it a feeling of weakness or inadequacy for me. There’s a little voice in my male ego that says I should be able to figure this out on my own, and far too often it seems easier to just give up than to admit I need help.

I know how foolish that attitude is, and the Tiger Woods rock story helped me see that again. First of all Tiger realized the big rock was not “imbedded” in the sand. Too often I see a big problem and assume it is unsolvable when it really isn’t. Secondly, if Tiger and his caddy had tried to move that rock on their own it would have been hopeless. Even if his playing partner and his caddy joined in they would have been wasting their time and risking injury. But by drawing on his knowledge of the rules and the resources of others at hand the problem was solved. None of those people who helped move the rock could play golf as well as Tiger. Even in his declining years he still scores better than most of us amateurs can ever dream of. But the combined strength of the crowd provided something that only they could offer at that moment. Sure Tiger could afford to hire a back hoe to come in and move the rock, but that would have broken the rule by delaying play. He knew the rules and he knew to ask for help first from the rules official and then from the gallery.

So, even if you have no interest in golf or Tiger, we can all remember the next time an illness, a family crisis, a problem at work, or in the community, or even routine problems like car trouble, or frustrations with technology that won’t work—don’t surrender to the problem too quickly. Problems are often not as “imbedded” as they appear. Assess the problem, inventory the resources at hand to address the problem, know what’s possible, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you want to see a video of Tiger’s friends in action go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4lVCF8c5zk.

“No Way!” or God’s Way? 2 Kings 5:1-14

I was leading a group for Sr. citizens a few years ago and asked the group to share with us some information about them to get better acquainted. One question I asked was, “How do you spend your time now in retirement?” One gentleman said, “I spend my days going to dr. appointments and funerals.” It was funny then, but as I’ve gotten older I sometimes find it harder to find humor in that reality.

With my back problems and other joys of aging, I’ve got more Doctors in my contacts list than any other category, and like many of you, I’ve spent extra hours in waiting rooms well beyond the time my appointment was supposed to be,. Having an iPhone and other devices to distract me helps, but I don’t think any kind of toy would have been much consolation for a friend of mine. He waited several weeks to get an appointed with a specialist because this doctor was supposed to be the best around. On the day of the appointment, my friend waited 2 hours past the appointed hour and finally asked a nurse how much longer it would be. The nurse went back to check for him and returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper in his hand and said the doctor was too far behind schedule and would not be able to see my friend that day, but he wrote a prescription and said he should take it for a month and then come back.

Yes, that would be grounds for malpractice, and it didn’t really happen. I made that story up because it is very much like what happened to Naaman in our scripture lesson for today. Naaman, was a great man – a commander, a victorious leader. But Naaman’s story also reminds us that even the great and powerful are vulnerable and mortal. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Prince, –all of us are dust and to dust we will return. Naaman fell victim to one of the worst diseases in human history – he contracted leprosy, which not only ate away the body but was so contagious and dreadful that anyone with it was isolated and excluded from society and any contact with other people. The great poet Robert Frost was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is, and his answer was the word “exclusive.” We are social beings who need each other, even if we get on each others’ nerves at times; so the worst thing you can do to a human being is to exclude him or her.

So Naaman is desperate to find a cure for his dreaded illness, and the advice he gets on where to find that cure is fascinating. A young slave girl who has been captured in Israel tells Naaman he needs to go see a prophet in Samaria. A young slave girl from a foreign country– you cannot get any lower on the socio-economic pecking order in those days than that; and to send him to Samaria of all places (Think Urban Meyer being told the doctors he needs are in Ann Arbor). Naaman says, “No Way! A prophet? Some faith healer?

That couldn’t be the answer to Naaman’s problem! He knows he needs to go to someone with real power – not to some intern or resident but to the best surgeon available. Naaman also knows the best things in life are never free; so he takes a bucket load of cash to get the best medical treatment money can buy. Money has its privileges. It may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy most everything else. Wealth is the universal language the power people of the world speak. So Naaman bypasses God’s prophet and goes straight to what he thinks is the top – he has his king send a letter of referral to the King of Israel.

But notice how the king of Israel reacts when Naaman comes calling – he’s threatened. The king knows he has no power to heal Naaman. His worldly power is illusory, like the wizard of Oz – hiding behind the magic curtain pulling levers. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And notice also how the king immediately assumes the worst about Naaman. Rather than take Naaman’s plea for healing at face value, the threatened, insecure king immediately assumes that Naaman’s real motive is to expose the King’s lack of power and make him look bad.

Why do we so often project our own fears and suspicions on others instead of just asking what’s really going on? When dealing with conflict or potential conflict, it’s like the old story about everyone trying to ignore the elephant in the room. The way to deal with conflict constructively is to communicate – not behind someone’s back, but face to face. There are always at least two sides to every story, and we will not really know the other side until we get it from the source. The king’s reaction in this story illustrates that when we expect the worst from others – that’s exactly what we get.

Now the prophet Elisha enters the drama. He hears of the king’s distress and his response to Naaman is very interesting. Elisha says, “Come to me…” that makes sense, but notice why he tells Naaman to come. It’s not just to get the healing he wants, there’s much more at stake here. Elisha says, “Come to me, so you can learn there is a prophet in Israel.” Prophets are not fortune tellers, remember, but are spokespersons for God. So if there is a prophet in Israel, the important message here is that there is a God in Israel who is for real and can heal whatever ails you, no matter how important and rich or poor you are.

Do we believe that today? Do we believe there’s a God in our broken nation and world who can cure what ails us? Naaman does, sort of, at least enough to go to see Elisha. But then the story takes another interesting turn. Naaman’s visit to Elisha is like the story I began with. Elisha sends a message to Naaman, probably through another lowly servant that says, “Go take 7 baths and call me in the morning.” The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out and see Naaman in person. You can imagine the reaction of this great commander who’s used to people bowing a scraping before him. He expects better treatment than that. He expects a big showy miracle with red white and boom fireworks, and all he gets is a prescription to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River.

And then Naaman gets very parochial. Again he says, “No Way!” He complains about the water quality in the Jordan and says, “We have many better rivers back home in Damascus.” Does our parochialism ever get in the way of what God wants us to do? Our way, my team, my religion, my country is way better than yours! We like what we’re used to; so we refuse to venture out of our comfort zones because, well, it’s uncomfortable out there!

Perhaps sports are the best example of how loyalty and pride can cross the line into embarrassing territory. Last week’s Ryder cup golf match between the US and Europe showed both tremendous enthusiasm and patriotism, but it also showed the danger of being overly zealous. Some fans were ejected from the course because their cheers and jeers became inappropriate. I confess I even found myself yelling things at my TV screen that were quite unchristian! When my son played high school basketball my family didn’t like to sit with me because I sometimes embarrassed them when I got upset about a bad call by the refs.

I can be a perfect reminder that the word “fan” is short for fanatic! Team spirit and patriotism are good things but when taken to the extremes of fanaticism that burns couches after a big win or nationalism that leads to dangerous conflicts between countries, not so much. UK’s decision to leave the European Union a few months ago concerns me because at least part of the reason for that vote was a spirit of nationalism that seems to say “We can do this better on our own that with our neighbors.” Fear of terrorism and the refugee crisis are of course also realities that can fan the flames of overzealous nationalism. My fear in looking at the history of centuries of conflicts and wars in Europe where so many countries live in such close proximity to each other is that nationalism has led to many of those wars, including two in the last century that involved the whole world. No human creation is without problems, but the European Union seems from this outsider’s perspective to be a better way to promote peace and cooperation among neighbors than nationalism.

Naaman almost falls victim to nationalistic pride that tries to blind him to the help he needs. He complains about the rivers in Israel, but this story is not about water quality or if our river is more beautiful than yours. It’s about faithful obedience to what God asks us to do. Naaman is too proud to accept this simple solution to his leprosy and is about to stomp off and go home to pout in Damascus. And again, a lowly servant intervenes who is smarter than the great and powerful leader.

Do you ever get advice from someone else that is so obvious and simple you hate to take it because you feel stupid for not seeing what is so obvious yourself. That happens frequently to me but I remember a particular incident a couple of years ago at the church I was serving. We had a leak in the furnace room up above the men’s restroom and water was dripping down thru the ceiling. I do not have a plumbing gene anywhere in my DNA; so my solution was to put buckets under the leak until someone could come and fix the problem upstairs. Fortunately one of our church secretaries had a better idea, which was to put some buckets upstairs too and catch the water before in ran thru the floor and ruined the bathroom ceiling. [HIT EASY BUTTON]. Why didn’t I think of that?.

That’s what happens to Naaman. He is too proud to do what Elisha tells him to do, but his servants say, “With all due respect, sir, what have you got to lose? Why not give this a try, and if it doesn’t work, you are no worse off than you were before.” And it’s Free!

So Naaman reluctantly does what he has been told to do – he washes, not once but 7 times. And that’s important. If we expect instant gratification or simple solutions to complex problems, it’s not gonna happen. Sometimes the solution is simply doing what we believe God is telling us to do, even if it seems foolish or unlikely to work. Washing even multiple times in a river does not sound like a logical cure for something as dire as leprosy, but we will never know unless we try.

Life threw me some extra curve balls one day a few months ago. And the worst part is I think I asked for it. After dealing with the epidemic of orange barrels and detours in our neighborhood I decided to wax philosophical and wrote a little piece on my Facebook page and in my blog about how detours and obstacles are good metaphors for the roadblocks we run into in life. And when we do, we can either give up on getting to our goals, or we can get creative and find another way to achieve what God wants us to do. It sounded great on paper and I got a lot of “likes” on my Facebook page.

But then it was like God said to me, “OK preacher, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see how well you really cope with some roadblocks!” Within one 24 hr. stretch I got three major pieces of bad news. I learned some good friends are moving out of state. I got an email from a very dear friend that he was in the hospital and told he has had some mini-strokes. And then I went to the mailbox to find a not-so-friendly letter from the IRS informing me that they think I owe them $10000 in back taxes, penalties and fines. I didn’t really need that many obstacles to deal with all at once, and my mood was lower than a snake’s belly for quite some time. Being turned in on oneself is one definition of sin, by the way. It’s one of my favorites when I see others doing it, but when I look in the mirror and see it in myself, not so much.

I’m not telling that story to get pity or sympathy (although I’ll take whatever I can get). I tell it because churches and other organizations, companies, nations, and families can all get turned in on themselves too. And the solution to dealing constructively with our challenges in life, health, finances, relationships, grief, whatever threatens to break our spirits and isolate us from others like Naaman was, is as simple as not throwing up our hands and saying No Way! But asking for God’s guidance.

When we turn to God for help, do you ever fall into the trap I do? I catch myself turning my prayers into giving God a honey do list. Dear God, please do this and this, and take of these people, and this mess we’ve made of things here and there. How much time to we spend telling God things God already knows? So instead of telling God our problems, prayer needs to also be a time of listening carefully for what God has to say to us.
Often God’s messages come from other wounded and broken servants, simple, common folks like the slave girl and servants who ministered to Naaman and helped lead him to a cure for his affliction. God’s time is not our time; so the answers to our prayers don’t usually come with 4G speed. But as Isaiah puts it, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up with wings like Eagles.”

That kind of waiting requires great patience and humility. It requires a faith and humility that can say, “Not my will but your will be done.” It’s a humility that instead of jumping to unfounded conclusions and saying “No Way!” teaches us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation so we can benefit from the experience of those who are different.

That redemptive love of God reminds us that Naaman’s story is really a baptism story. Baptism is an act of celebrating the fact that God has created us each in God’s own image. That image gets tarnished from time to time and needs to be renewed, but the power of love and mercy is in us all from birth, waiting to be nurtured and fed. That means the answer to our prayer may be already within us waiting to be revealed. Like King of Israel, the Wizard of Oz story didn’t have the power to give Dorothy and her friends what they were seeking, BUT he didn’t need to. Because they already had courage and wisdom and hearts that got them to Oz in the first place, and Dorothy already had on her feet what she needed to get back home. Those gifts were already there within them – they just needed to trust and believe, and when they did–THAT WAS EASY.

PRAYER – O God our creator and re-creator, like Naaman, we all need multiple cleansings. We don’t drive a car thru a car wash once and expect it to stay clean forever. Our spirits need regular cleansing and renewal also so we can be rid of whatever needs to go from our lives as individuals and as a church. We need regular reminders where real power lies so we are not fooled by false power. We ask that you provide us with modern day prophets who are the ones to show us the way to the power to heal and make us whole. Let us be those obedient and humble servants who minister to one another as disciples of the servant king from Nazareth who was baptized in the same River Jordan just as Naaman was. We ask these things in his name and for his sake. Amen.

A Lament for Unity

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” Psalms 20:7-8

I don’t have time to write much today but feel an urgency to respond to the disheartening news coming out of the UK this week. ISIS must be dancing in the streets. Their epidemic of fear has toppled the British Prime Minister and dealt a terrible blow to European unity. I find it very ironic and sad that it was the older population in Britain who voted in favor of leaving the EU. They should be the ones who remember how well Nationalism worked for Europe throughout history and most recently in the 20th Century.

European Nationalism engulfed the entire planet in two horrible world wars and left a trail of death and destruction throughout European history. Why would we want to try it again? Fear does terrible things to the human mind, and there is much to fear in this rapidly changing world we inhabit. But putting our trust in chariots and horses, i.e. strength and force and defensive isolation that turns its back on millions of refugees is not the answer. To resort to abandoning the most hopeful effort at unity and cooperation the world has seen in centuries because of current fear and hardship is short-sighted and tragic.

Those who put their faith in chariots and horses will collapse and fall, but those who put their pride in the peaceful, loving, cooperative ways of the Lord will rise and stand upright. It takes faith and a lot of it to believe that, but the alternative is to try and return to methods that have proven hundreds of times to fail. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe courage and faith into every trembling heart.

Post Script: I went out to mow my grass after writing the above. I do some of my best thinking on the lawn tractor. Today I had one mowing meditation I want to add. It may be because I am neither young nor fearless, although it was a favorite of mine even when I was young and fearful, but a line from a great old hymn came to mind as I reflected more on the rise of nationalism in both Europe and here in the U.S. It was written in 1931 as nationalism was raising its ugly head in Germany. I’ve never served a church where it is a popular hymn because it is too challenging and uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we listen. The whole hymn is profound, but what echoed in my mind today is the third verse:

“O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.” “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” by S. Ralph Harlow

Critics Welcome? Amos 6:1a, 3-7

I was back at Northwest UMC this week for a sermon in a series called “From Tablet to Table.” The table metaphor for community reminded me of sitting at the kids’ table when my large extended family gathered for holiday feasts. Kids sat at card tables in the kitchen or living room while the adults got to fly first class in the dining room. I remember the first time I got invited to move up to the big table. I was scared to death I would screw up and spill my milk or break some rule of dining etiquette that I didn’t even know existed and get sent back down to the minors.

Who do we confine to the kids’ table when it comes to the faith community or other groups we belong to? People who are different? Certainly people who irritate us or just plain make us mad. The unspoken rule at many family gatherings is that there are two topics that are taboo – politics and religion–because those emotionally charged issues can start a family feud. That’s really unfortunate because those two subjects are so central and important to how we order our lives as individuals and as a society that we really need to have meaningful dialogue about them. Amos of course breaks both rules. He stops preaching and goes to meddling as soon as he opens his mouth to warn Israel about their sinful, unjust lifestyle.

I began my sermon by repeating a story I used two weeks ago at another church (see post from July 12, 2015). It was the one about a preacher being a real “pane.” The prophet Amos certainly qualifies as one who delivers painful words that afflict the comfortable. The prophets remind me of teachers and professors I had over the years that were demanding and critical–the ones who kept putting on my report cards in grade school that I “didn’t work up to my potential.” Or the homiletics professor who dared to flunk me on the first sermon I preached in class! They were not candidates for my favorite teacher of the year award. My knee jerk reaction to their criticism was anger and looking at the course catalogue to see if I could drop the course. Fortunately in most cases that was not an option, and with the benefit of many years of life experience I know now that those teachers were the ones from whom I learned the most because they challenged me with the truth.

My wife and I were eating at a super market recently that offers free food on Friday nights to entice shoppers into the store. As we were moving down the buffet line we saw one of the servers refilling a large salad bowl with his bare hands – no gloves, no tongs. Diana made a comment to him that he really shouldn’t be doing that with his hands. He reacted very defensively, as we often do when we know we are in the wrong, and his words as he dramatically dumped the entire bowl of spinach salad into the trash we very telling. He said, “Lady, this is free food. Either accept it graciously or refuse it graciously.” I was angry at his response; so the irony of what he said didn’t strike me until later. He talked about graciousness, but the way he accepted her criticism was anything but gracious.

Do we welcome and encourage dissent at our table and accept honest criticism with grace and gratitude, or are we more like the people who say, “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts?”

Here’s the context for Amos’ criticism of Israel. Amos was the first of the classic Hebrew prophets. He doesn’t get top billing in our Bible because the creators of the canon apparently gave more weight to quantity than quality. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all are much longer; so they are traditionally known as the Major Prophets, and Amos, Hosea, Jonah and others sit at the kids’ table as the Minor Prophets. But chronologically Amos was the first to voice concerns about the direction that his people were going. He lived in the first half of the 8th century BCE during the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II (788-747 BCE). This was the golden age of Israel, the height of territorial expansion and prosperity never again reached. My NRSV introduction to Amos contains a sentence describing the socio-economic situation that I had to read several times because I thought I was reading a current event headline. “Through manipulations of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small farmers and robbed them of their inheritance and liberty.” Amos understood that situation all too well because he was a small farmer and herder from a little village in Judah.

This was the period after Israel had split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north, sometimes referred to as Samaria, and Judah in the south where Jerusalem was. Amos is from Judah, but he feels compelled by God to travel to Israel and warn them about their decadent opulence and immorality, their abuse of the Lord’s table. In one of the most famous lines he tells them God says, “I hate I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies… I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (5: 2).

To paraphrase the text from chapter 6, if Amos were at our table today, he would probably be saying something like this:

“1Alas for those who are at ease in Dublin,
and for those who feel secure on Mad River Mountain,
4 Alas for those who lie on sleep number beds,
and lounge on their recliners,
6 who drink wine from fine crystal,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils from Bath and Body Works,
but are not grieved over the ruin of America!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Those are hard words to hear. How do you suppose Amos was received at the table? Not well. He tells us in chapter 7 about the reaction of Amaziah, chief priest of the royal sanctuary at Bethel. Amaziah says, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Notice that it is not God’s sanctuary, or God’s kingdom, but the king’s. That one sentence tells us all we need to know about what was rotten in Israel. Their priorities were 180 degrees out of whack. Amaziah doesn’t want to hear that so he says to Amos, “Shut up and go home – back down to kids’ table where we don’t have to deal with you.”

Amos went home, but he wasn’t exactly quiet. He wrote down his prophesies so we can still benefit from them 3000 years later if are willing to listen. You can’t silence the word of God by ignoring it. When Jesus was entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the authorities told him to silence his crowd of supporters, and he said, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

Welcoming words of criticism is not easy or natural. When we go to a party or a dinner or church, most of us gravitate toward people we know and enjoy. We don’t usually seek out people who are different from us and certainly not people who irritate us or just plain make us mad. So if we are to have honest dialogue and benefit from criticism and diversity we have to intentionally invite people to the table who can bring those gifts.
I was fortunate to be part of two such intentionally diverse communities in my life. They didn’t help me as much as I wish they had since welcoming criticism graciously is still very hard for me. The first model of what communication scholars call cooperative critical inquiry that I was privileged to be a part of from 1989-2007 is the Interprofessional Commission of Ohio.

The ICO is an organization housed at The Ohio State University whose mission is to promote and teach interprofessional collaboration to students and practitioners in the helping professions. The model for accomplishing that goal is offer graduate level interdisciplinary courses in collaboration, ethics, and community organization that include students and faculty from a wide range of professions: law, medicine, nursing, allied health, education, social work, and theology. It also includes sponsoring continuing education conferences for practicing professionals in all those fields on a range of topics from Aids to Urban Sprawl and Smart Growth.
The content of those courses and conferences is important, but more significant is the fact that they are vehicles for bringing all of those individuals together around tables where they can share ideas and concerns and get to know each other in ways that would not otherwise happen. Misinformation and stereotypes about what other professions do and what they can bring to the table to help solve complex problems that are too much for any given profession to address alone are shared and lines of communication are opened.

Even further back in my past, when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State in the 1960’s, I lived in a rooming house sponsored by the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry. There were two houses actually, one for men and one for women, but they were not ordinary rooming houses. They were intentional living communities of about 20 residents each, and in order to live there you had to make two commitments. The first was to participate in a house meeting every Sunday evening facilitated by two pastors trained in group dynamics and conflict management. The agenda each week was to simply air any grievances and talk about any issues that were affecting life in the house so we could manage them before they became bigger issues.

The second commitment had to do with roommates. We changed roommates every quarter, and the process for doing that was to have each person submit a list of 2 or 3 people that he was having the most trouble relating to for whatever reason; and roommates for the next quarter were chosen from that list. It was an intentional way of effectively addressing problems and expanding our ability to relate to a variety of other people. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was better than the way we usually deal with conflict by ignoring it until it gets too big to deal with.

People who live together and socialize get to know each other as people with common dreams, fears and problems. It’s probably too much to hope that the Trumps and McCains and Boehners and McConnels could all move into the White House and learn to live together, but it is true that part of the partisan problem in Washington is created by the fact that representatives and senators no longer live in the DC area with their families the way they did a generation or two ago. It is so easy to fly back home on weekends that many of them do that now, and the consequence is they do not socialize with each other across the aisle as they once did. Stereotypes and ideologies therefore are all they know about each other, and we see the results of that unfortunate situation which prevents dialogue and compromise to address critical problems.

Sharing dissenting opinions is a way of bringing hidden or taken-for-granted assumptions about life out into the open where they can be examined. We all tend to automatically do things the way we’ve always done them, and we assume that’s just the way it should be. But we change and life changes, and it’s good to bring those assumptions into awareness so they can be evaluated and either kept or changed. Prophets break open old ideas and prejudices that hold us back and limit our ability to learn and grow.

Prophets never win popularity contests. Galileo and Copernicus were thrown out of the church for proposing new and radical ideas about how the universe is put together. But they were right, and the old assumptions were wrong. We often feel like critics are judging us personally and have trouble separating our identity and worth from our behavior and ideas. God does not send Amos to Israel to judge or condemn but to warn the people that the consequences of their current behavior are going to lead to destruction. Those words are not easy to hear, especially for those who are comfortable and benefiting from the way things are.

We are facing major problems in our nation and world today that are not easy or simply solved. Climate change, fixing health care and social security, saving our education system, stopping the insanity of gun violence, dealing with immigration—all of those problems are going to require sacrifice on the part of us who have so the have nots are given a fair and just opportunity to live better lives. We don’t want to hear about sacrifices; so we keep kicking the can down the road and those chickens are going to come home to roost probably sooner than later. That’s what Amos was trying to tell Israel. They didn’t listen. Do we?

Genuine criticism is a gift to be embraced, not rejected, not just tolerated, but welcomed and invited to the table. It is a way to learn and grow and be challenged by different perspectives and experiences. And if it is shunned or ignored by sending the critic back to kids’ table, the consequences can be tragic.

The rest of the Amos story illustrates that point. 30-40 years after Amos tried to warn Israel of the consequences of their unjust lifestyle, in 711 BCE, the armies of King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Israel, conquered them and the Exile of God’s once proud people begins. Judah lasted 136 years longer, but they didn’t listen to the prophets either; and in 586 BCE Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the nation of Israel has never been the same again.

When God’s prophets speak uncomfortable words of truth, it pays to listen.

Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence, http://articles.philly.com/2009-02-22/news/25280966_1_taxi-driver-mumbai-desk-clerk.)

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)