Pastoral Prayer October 22

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living

IMG_1150
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time and ironically the reasons for my reflections are also the obstacles and excuses for not getting my thoughts and feelings written down. I am at that awkward age when most topics of conversation veer automatically to aches and pains. My list is not unique: arthritis, back pain, glaucoma, neuropathy—nothing noteworthy. Just this week I found a medicated pain patch that helped my nagging back, and I was feeling optimistic about tackling some yard work and playing some golf; and then in one innocent move I twisted my knee and the simplest of tasks became a new challenge.

So, as the final installment in this Eastertide series on the enemies of living resurrected lives I give you “discouragement.” God knows there are far more major issues to be concerned about in the world than a few minor aches and pains. Yes, I know they (whoever “they” are) say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” St. Paul expresses that positive spin on suffering in Romans 5: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. “ (Vs. 3-4).

Maybe in Disney movies, but not always in real life. Sometimes suffering just beats us down. The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with such bad news around the clock that I hear many people saying they can’t bear to watch the news, especially before retiring for the night. I won’t add to the bad news by reciting the litany of CNN headlines, but you know them, from Nebraska to Nepal the very foundations of the earth and of our faith seem to be on shaky ground.

It’s almost impossible to turn off the news in the information age. Even when I want to watch a recorded sporting event I almost always get an alert or see a post on Facebook telling me the outcome before I want to know it. And even if we could unplug ourselves, the only way to escape tales of suffering would be to disengage from all personal relationships. Friends dealing with unexpected cancer diagnoses, families dealing with substance and physical abuse, mental health issues, and at the same time caring for a loved one wasting away with stage-4 cancer.

One definition of sin that I learned in seminary was “to be turned in on oneself,” and though it didn’t make the church’s top 7 list it is one of the deadliest sins. It is sneaky deadly because focusing on my own problems depletes me of energy needed to care about the personal needs of others and the larger systemic problems of the world. Most people would agree, at least in theory, that compassion is one of the unique and greatest of human virtues. The word “compassion” comes from the Greek words meaning “to suffer with,” and it is almost impossible to be concerned about the problems of others when I am wallowing in a pity party about my own pain.

There has been much wisdom written about human suffering. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that “Life is suffering.” (The second by the way is that our suffering is caused by attachment to the temporary things of this world, but that’s a topic for another day.) Translated into the language of the human potential movement, those two truths are summed up in the catch phrase that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Simply put, pain is part of the human condition – physical, emotional, spiritual – they all go with the territory. None of us can control things that happen to us in life. Bad things do happen to good people. What we have a choice about is how we respond to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” of life, as Shakespeare describes them in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

Here’s how St. Paul describes his own struggle with being turned in on his own problems. “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10).

We don’t know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, and we don’t need to know. We all have personal problems, challenges, aggravations, misfortunes that we have no solution for. When it comes to physical ailments we are tempted to think that modern medicine should be able to fix any problem our bodies throw at us with just the right pill or procedure. The undeniable truth that becomes clearer as our mortal bodies age, however, is that we are all “dust and to dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).

And that brings us full circle in the Lent to Pentecost cycle. Those words from Genesis are traditionally used as ashes are imposed on Christians on Ash Wednesday –not to be morbid, but to give us a wakeup call. When Paul says “Take this thorn from me,” or Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from me,” God’s reply is, “Sorry, this is the hand you’ve been dealt, deal with it.” Prayers are always answered, but sometimes the answer is not the one we are hoping for.

The best cure for being turned in on oneself is to be more aware of the needs and lives of our fellow human beings. And that won’t happen if we cut ourselves off completely from the bad news in the world. We need a healthy balance of reality and inspiration from others who truly live resurrection lives. Those people can encourage us so we can be encouragers for others, witnesses to the power of faith that overcomes every thorn, every tragedy and every temptation to give in to the suffering that the world throws at us.

To that end I offer two stories of inspiration that humble and encourage me to trust and believe in the Gospel of resurrection:
download
The first was a simple post on Facebook from the Blue Street Journal. “Against all odds, both of these women survived gunshot wounds to the brain. One of them at the hands of the Taliban and one of them at the hands of a mentally ill mass-shooter. Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords inspire and give me hope.”

The second is a great story from Robert Fulghum about a critical life lesson we don’t learn in kindergarten. During his early twenties Fulghum used to work for a countryside resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jewish guy. A survivor of Auschwitz, Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner, he was mad because of eating the same food day-in-day-out and for having to pay for it. Worked up, he was really cross.

Sigmund, however, listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Robert Fulghum had a realization and he further wrote in his story, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”