Pastoral Prayer, September 17


God of grace and righteousness, again this Lord’s Day we pause to remind ourselves of your presence – to thank you for the blessings of life and to ask your continued guidance and comfort when the road of life is bumpy and dark. We lift up those named and unnamed here today for a special portion of your love, and we ask for the wisdom and faith to approach each day of life with a healthy balance of faith and humility.

Help us not to be so enthralled by our own good fortune that we overlook the pain of our sisters and brothers near and far. And likewise when the cares of the world threaten to overshadow our hope, reassure us that we never walk alone. For as the scriptures tell us, even when we don’t know how to pray, your spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words. In the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – grant us a balanced perspective on life that anchors our lives firmly in you as the ground of our being; so that we may offer a safe harbor for the lost who are seeking the way and the truth and the life that we find in Christ Jesus. Remind us again O God of our mission and purpose for living.

As we pray for those without power in Florida remind us of your eternal power that never fails. As we pray for those left homeless by storms or by war and violence, we give you thanks for warm, safe homes, for all the physical comforts we too often take for granted. Give us grateful and generous hearts to receive your blessings, Lord, and also to share from our abundance and good fortune with those with less or without.

As we pray for people without clean water and food, remind us that as much as we need physical comforts, O God, there’s a deeper hunger in our souls that brings us out of our homes to your house each Sabbath. We need to feel the connection of belonging, the fellowship, the corporate worship that nourishes us more than individual devotion and prayer can do.

So we ask your blessing on our worship this day as we pray for ourselves and others, for our nation and world. Bless our acts of praise. Give us ears to hear your special word of comfort or challenge you have for each of us; so that when we return to our homes we do so stronger in our devotion and discipleship to serve you wherever you call us to be in the coming week.

For it is in Christ’s name we pray, for his sake we witness to our faith in words and actions. Send your holy spirit upon us as we celebrate our belonging to you by joining our hearts and voices in the Lord’s Prayer.

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Be Still and Know

This is usually my favorite season of the year. New life breaking forth after a long winter’s nap, some days nice enough to get outside to work and play, and my favorite sports—golf and baseball—on the TV to distract me from all the bad news in the world. The latter isn’t working well this week as the news from Syria, N. Korea, and Washington DC just keeps going from bad to worse. As I pray hard for wisdom and reason to steer our nation and world through very troubled waters I am reminded by ancient Scripture that we are not the first to experience such times as these, and for just a moment my soul is still and knows the tumult of humankind will not have the final word.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob (and Rebekah) is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of (Rebekah and) Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46)

Advent IV, Unextinguishable Love

advent-waiting-img_1492 The decorations are up, the stockings are hung with care, and children are bursting with anticipation. The nativity scene is set in its special place, but the manger is still empty. The nursery is stocked by Babies R Us, but the guest of honor has not yet arrived. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to cuddle the tiny new life in our arms. We are so close we can feel the baby kicking in the womb, and we are filled with a rich mixture of joy and anxiety. As we wait, let’s remember how different Jesus’ arrival was from birth today, and yet how similar. Parenting is a universal gift of love. In a birthing suite or a stable, to hear that first cry melts our hearts with instant love. Birth is worth every second of the long wait. And so today we light the 4th Advent candle, a light no darkness can extinguish, the candle of Love.

Prayer:
O God, our heavenly parent, we are so close we can see the lights of Bethlehem reflecting on icy roads. Forgive us when we get distracted from the destination of our Advent journey. With trees and houses and malls ablaze with Christmas decorations, it’s easy to get lost on our way to the manger. Disturbing news from inhumane places like Aleppo threaten to extinguish our hope for humankind. Winter storms cancel much needed Sabbath worship services. Remind us again O God that even in the shortest, darkest of days the light of the world awaits us in Bethlehem’s modest manger, and that light is constant and unfailing. It is the light of love; a love that makes room for a mother in labor in a strange place; a love that hears angels sing of peace on earth and joy to the world. As the lights from on the Advent wreath grow brighter, help us welcome the gift of love into our hearts; so we can be midwives in a dark and weary world, helping give birth to the miracle of love. In the name of the one who is Love in human form we pray. Amen.

Wait Training: Third Sunday in Advent

advent-waiting-img_1492[This was our Advent Candle lighting for today at Northwest UMC. The opening monologue was written by Rev. Mebane McMahon and performed beautifully by Heather Sherrill. I wrote the candle lighting liturgy and prayer.]

(Talking on a cell phone) I understand I just had the test yesterday. I know you said, “Make an appointment with your family doctor next week. She’ll have the results by then.” I heard you say that, but do you have any idea how hard it is for me to wait until NEXT week. You told me that my blood work came back with some elevated levels. What exactly does that mean?

As I said, “I have this pain in my side, but last night I could barely sleep. (gesturing) the pain moved to my back!! What could that mean? (A little hysterically) It’s spreading!? This infection, inflammation, this blockage, this rupture or CANCER. It’s spreading. I know it is.

Christmas is 2 weeks away. I have two small children. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR PAIN. How long do I have to wait? (Apologetically) I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. (sighing) I guess I’ll just have to wait. (hangs up call)

(Pacing and thinking out loud) Stay positive Heather. It might NOT be a life-threatening disease. Wait, she says. WAIT. (Takes a deep breath, Silence. Reflection.) I’m not good at this. Is there anybody who will wait with me? And pray for me? And help me when I can’t help myself?….And….And (softening and calming down. Breathing deeply) huh. I wonder if there is someone I can help in the meantime. Is there anybody else I know who is having to wait like this?

(Praying) O God, how long? How long do I have to wait for a diagnosis, for treatment and recovery? How long do I have to wait for healing and what exactly will that look like? How long? How long O Lord? (exits)

Candle Liturgy:
We are on our way to Bethlehem and the Advent journey gives us time to prepare our hearts and make room for the gifts of compassion, patience and joy that God wants us to have. But time moves so slowly when we’re waiting—waiting for a text or phone call—for news that our kids are OK; for a doctor to give us good news or bad news. Either way, it’s better to know than to be left hanging in the unknown where our imaginations can drive us crazy. As people of faith we know where we are and whose we are. Scripture and carols and prayer are the signposts on our journey that give us hope and peace. And today we light the third candle, the candle of Joy. The light is growing and Joy shines from our hearts to those who need good news.

Prayer:
O Holy God, waiting is exhausting and every year we seem to need the good news of Christmas more than ever. Help us wait with patience for the promised Joy of the season, but remind us that our waiting is not passive. Forgive us when we get so concerned about ourselves that we fail to see the needs of those around us. When we are anxious give us again the assurance that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Remind us once more that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” so we can share your joyful good news for the world. Renew our hearts, O God, with your eternal love and help us be the joy we long for in the way we live and in how we relate to those who wait with us. In the name of the coming Christ we pray. Amen.

Advent II, Candle of Peace

Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

[Traveler enters with suitcase] Oh no! Look at those lines at security! Why is it every time I’m running late at the airport the security lines are out the door?? TSA must have been designed to prove Murphy was an optimist!!
Do you suppose these security people can move any slower? I’ll never make it to my gate on time.

Just look at all those people! All those families with kids! They’ll take forever to get through the line. And that couple over there with the deer in the headlights look. They don’t have a clue how to manage this system. You have to take off your jacket, your belt, your shoes, and get everything out of your pockets. Even a quarter may set off the metal detector! Put away my cell phone, no, can’t do that yet my boarding pass is on my phone. And if you’ve got an artificial joint you get a free pat down.

Stupid terrorists. We didn’t have to do all this stuff before 9/11. It wouldn’t be so bad to wait if it made me feel safe and secure, but it doesn’t. We’re vulnerable anywhere. Look at what happened just this week at Ohio State!

[Sits on suit case]

OK Steve, calm down. Breathe. I know it’s not all about me. All those other passengers—they’re all trying to get somewhere just like I am. They aren’t here just to aggravate me. And the TSA folks are doing their very difficult job the best they can. I’m sure they aren’t getting paid enough to put up with grumpy travelers like me. And I’ll even bet a little respect and being nice to them gets me through faster than complaining!

It helps if I don’t just see the crowd but see other people like me. Look at that poor mother traveling with two little kids. She’s probably trying to get home for Christmas or maybe to see a sick relative or bury a loved one. And those soldiers are likely being deployed to somewhere dangerous far away from their families for the holidays.

Sure, waiting a few minutes is inconvenient, but we’re all in the same boat. I’m old enough I remember a time when it wasn’t like this. We could walk leisurely to the gate and other people could go with you to say goodbye. How long do you suppose we will have to wait till the world is peaceful enough that we can do that again, till we just learn to get along as friends and neighbors? I wonder how long. [Exits]

Lighting the Advent Candle:

As usual, the second Sunday of Advent comes as we enter the final month of our calendar year, but 2016 has been far from ordinary. The long, long campaign season is finally over, but the political and social strife continues unabated. We are promised security and peace from all sides, but we are still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. And so we wait for God’s light to break into the darkness just as it did so long ago in another time torn by strife and oppression. Today we light a second candle, the candle of peace, to witness to the world that the light is still growing in all of us who dare to wait and hope and believe. Together our lights can make a difference, and in due time our waiting will be rewarded with the peace that passes all understanding.

Prayer:
O God, waiting is so hard. We read the words of Scripture from centuries ago that promise peace, and we start celebrating Christmas earlier every year desperately hoping that this is finally the year. We long for true peace but often settle for false security that doesn’t satisfy the yearning in our hearts. We take our shoes off at airports and go through metal detectors; security cameras record our activities all over town, and we install security systems at home. Our military is the mightiest ever known in the world. And yet people carry guns and pepper spray, and we lock down our schools on a regular basis. Even police officers are not safe from senseless acts of violence. Enlighten us O God to the ways of the Prince of Peace. Teach us again that we will not find true peace until our hearts find rest in you. Remind us that your eternal peace does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy.” Remind us again in the small glimmer of these candles that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. We wait and pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, Amen.

Prayer for a 70th Birthday

O God. All of my friends are turning 70 this year. And my turn is coming very soon. Just two years ago we celebrated 50 years since high school graduation with a big reunion, but this milestone has spread through us first wave of boomers like a thief in the night, picking us off one at a time on a steady march from January to October and the toll keeps climbing.

Our 50’s and 60’s came and went with “Over the Hill” jokes and some solemnity, but being 70 seems much more serious. Denying our aging gets harder every year, but 70 has the extra power of biblical authority. “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” (Psalms 90:10). OK, maybe the Psalmist was just having a bad day when those words were written, but they still are hard to shake for those of born in 1946 or sooner, no matter what the actuarial tables say about our increasing life expectancy.

For me there’s an added omen. My mother died of brain cancer when she was 70. It was only 3 months between her diagnosis and her death. She didn’t have much time to make a bucket list, but then Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson didn’t popularize that term until 14 years later. Even though that 2007 movie highlighted the most serious of topics in a comic fashion, it’s not such a laughing matter as my peers and I hit the big 7 0.

Yes, I know, we have birthdays every year, but those ending in zero always seem bigger. Reflecting on being 70 reminds me of the Christian practice of giving up something for Lent, a good spiritual discipline. But Lent only lasts 40 days, Lord. The things we give up at 70 are often forever. At 60 I could finish first in my age group in a 5K race. Yes, I know there weren’t many in that age group running, but now I read the morning paper on line because my aging body rebels at walking 500 feet to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper. I would love to play softball or football with my grandkids, to ski some moguls again, or to chase down those difficult tennis shots the way I used to. Lord, I’d even like to be able to mow my grass without pain or to stay up all night reading a great book. Alas, the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh gets weaker every day!

What’s that Lord? Yes I know it is much too easy to get turned in on my aches and pains. Even when I vow not to do it my conversations with my peers seem to inevitably turn to recent medical tests and how much time we lose going to the doctor. We often lament, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Forgive my little pity parties, Lord. Remind me I have a choice about where I focus my attention. Lead me not into the temptation to bemoan what I’ve lost to the aging process and deliver me from the evil of criticizing the “younger” generation. When I find myself saying those things my parents said that I swore I wouldn’t ever say, gently nudge me to live in the now, free from regrets about the past I cannot change and liberated from the fear of what lies ahead.

Help me live in gratitude for the things I can do that would have been impossible a generation or two ago – travel opportunities, world-wide information available 24/7 anywhere I am (unless I forget my smart phone), medical advances that enhance and extend the quality of life for those of us who are privileged to have access to them, mind-boggling discoveries about the infinite mysteries and marvels of the universe we live in, and the freedom in a comfortable retirement to reflect on it all.

Lord, it breaks my heart to know how many of your children lack the basic necessities of life that I take for granted. Even as I give thanks for all I have, remind me that even in my advanced years that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Remind me that the word “retirement” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment. If we stop growing in our faith at any age we cannot maintain the status quo but regress.

Let me not, O Lord, rage against the realities of age, but instead to faithfully embrace the present as the gift it is. Knowing that negativity and fear immobilize, let this birthday teach this old dog to treasure every day because they are finite. Adjust my trifocals to focus on the joys of life so I can make the most of what is instead of regretting what was or is no more. Blessed with 70 years of life experience, let my prayer be “For all that has been, thanks; and for all that is yet to come, Yes!”

Is It Well with your Soul?

“It is Well with My Soul” has long been a favorite hymn of mine, but it has taken on a new twist for me in this year of apocalyptic election scenarios. Twice in recent months I have been in worship services where that great old hymn has been part of the liturgy. All of the lyrics to that hymn are powerful statements of faith, but the verse that has caught my ear in this election year is the last verse which says:
“And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”

In particular I’m referring to the phrase, “The trump will resound, and the Lord will come down.” Sorry, but I can’t hear the word “trump” without being reminded of the Republican Presidential candidate. And the eschatological imagery in that line reminds me that many on both extremes of the political spectrum are feeling like the world may come to end if the “other” candidate is elected. I don’t really expect the end of the world on November 9, but regardless of your feelings about Trump or Clinton, most of us would agree the outcome of this election will have serious consequences for the future of our nation and the world. As an antidote to our anxieties about that, Horatio Spafford’s great hymn repeats the refrain, “It is well with my soul.”

If you don’t know the story behind this hymn, it was written in 1873 by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, after he had experienced multiple tragic events, including the death of a son in the great Chicago fire, financial ruin, and a storm at sea in which four of his daughters died. (More details at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Is_Well_with_My_Soul.) Knowing the history of Stafford’s Job-like tragedies, any one of which could undo most of us, we know lyrics like these are not merely pious platitudes.
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul”

At different times in my life words of faith like this speak more to me than others. This is one of those times, in part because of my grave concern over the deeply divided world we live in typified by the Presidential election rhetoric and the hate inspired violence from Syria to San Bernardino and far too many points in between. And on a more personal level I’m dealing with some chronic pain that makes it hard for me to function, including finding time and energy to write.

I was humbled and shamed about how easy I give into pain or despair over the state of the human condition the other day in physical therapy. A young woman was there who could barely walk, even with her cane. As she slowly made her way from the aquatic therapy pool through the main therapy room I noticed she is bald and wore a colorful bandana on her head. I assume she has lost her hair from chemo therapy. And beneath that colorful bandana she smiled at me, and that smile lit up the room as a powerful witness that though her body is betraying her, it is well with her soul.

This stranger’s smile and Spafford’s 143 year-old words, written out of tragedy and sorrow far greater than mine continue to comfort, challenge and inspire me. They remind me of a very helpful definition of faith I read many years ago by a Canadian theologian, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. At the risk of oversimplifying, my summary of Smith’s thought is that he delineates an important difference between belief and faith. We sometimes use those words synonymously, but they are not. Belief is an intellectual ascent to a proposition or idea, while faith is a deep trust in a power that can give us the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7) no matter what external circumstances threaten to make us fearful and anxious, be they personal, existential or political.

One of my favorite stories that illustrate the difference between belief and faith as trust is this one by an unknown author about Charles Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker:

Blondin’s greatest fame came on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched 11,000 feet (over a quarter of a mile) across the mighty Niagara Falls. People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.
He walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times… each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded. One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!
A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oohed and Aahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across – one dangerous step after another – pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.
Then at one point, he asked for the participation of a volunteer. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!
Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”

The story says no one took Blondin up on that invitation. But when things are truly well with my soul I know it’s safe to get in God’s wheelbarrow, even if I have to muster my courage like the father whose epileptic son had just been healed by Jesus. He said, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Which is to say that faith is a journey, not a destination. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that well. He asked new clergy as United Methodist Bishops still do today at ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” That’s a not too subtle reminder to walk humbly with God and other faith seekers who know that faith and doubt wage an eternal battle in us all. Wesley also advised preachers to “Preach faith until you have it.” I believe that’s why the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible. We’re all still preaching and seeking that trusting faith that no matter what curve balls life throws sings out, “It is well with my soul.”