Thursday, December 24, 2009


Christus natus est! In a few hours there will be much rejoicing and singing and ringing and gathering. In less than an hour across the pond the annual Lessons and Carols from Kings College Cambridge will begin as it always does with a solo voice singing the opening lines of "Once in Royal David's City." Candles and pageantry and finery will abound. While we luxuriate in that, underneath it all let us remember the simplicity of the truth of the incarnation of the Word into our midst.

We weren't expecting you.
Clueless. Doubting.
Downright rude.
It's a wonder that you stayed.
Thank God you did.
Thank God you came.
Thanks be to God we have never been the same.

(on the tag of my Nativity pin from Deidre, a jewelery maker in Minneapolis).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More Than Changing Clothes

I gave away my favorite coat- the warmest one, the one that has traveled to Russia in winter, the one that refuses to wear out. Every year when there is a call for coats for the homeless, I have looked at the coat and passed it by. I rarely wear it, but the sentimentality of it has made me hold onto it like a prize that I just can’t part with. So I give away other things and this year I was piling up other coats and hats and things that are easier to part with. What if Christ was going to wear that coat? Which would you part with?
A couple weeks ago there was a drive to stock the food bank. And many people supported it. It is wonderful that people do in fact buy food to give, but I noticed that the food we keep is the good stuff and the food we share is the store brand. Stores ran specials just for that purpose. But rather than buy the amount of the store brand that equals the good stuff, do we just feel good that we filled the list and have more money left because we were thrifty? “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” If the answer was Christ, what would we serve and how would we prepare?
In all of the preparations of this holiday season we treat ourselves with special foods and outfits and things. Do we ever wake up one day and decide to treat the homeless? Do we find ourselves holding onto the better things in the belief that “they won’t take care of them?” Are we just looking for an excuse to not live into a deeper understanding of what John says in answer to the people who ask, “What then shall we do?”

We are called to do more than just change clothes when we hear, "If you have two coats, give one away." What if we looked at the math of this- giving away one of two is giving away half. Not giving away one of my many, giving deeply. John even addresses those who have to eke out a living under adverse even hostile conditions- tax collectors, soldiers. Live within what is honest and has integrity. Live without striving to constantly have more. Live into the reality that God’s breaking into our midst is life changing to the core.
Radical talk to suggest that we can repent, can turn away from the world’s reality and live in the “enough” of God. That we can believe in God more than ourselves. Radical talk it would be to speak of stewardship two weeks before Christmas. Proof of that when I asked my Friday Bible study group how people would react if I preached on stewardship this close to Christmas. What if we bought all the presents for everyone and then gave away half? What if instead of buying all the presents we took half the money and used it for what our brothers and sisters without enough really need?
I already had a good sized pile of things to share, but I came back to that coat. Because as easy as it is to decide to give away what might otherwise be chaff to me might be a good start if I had never given anyone anything, to stay in that place is like changing my coat and not what is inside. It suggests that I am still hedging my bets about God’s reality and providing. Christ is coming to put everything in its proper place- in the waiting of now, the proper place for the warmest most durable coat, with all the pockets and the hood that kept me warm at the Arctic Circle is on the person who would shiver in the cold without it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shaking Reality, Not Just Waiting

What comes to mind when you hear the word "waiting?" When I ask this question, lots of people make a wrinkled up face or roll their eyes which I think proves my suspicion. We think of waiting as being a negative experience, of being stuck in time, or living in suspended animation with doubt, questions or uncertainty as our companions. Yet, our lives a made up of lots of waiting events- starting with our waiting to be born- the only waiting we can't remember. We wait for all kinds of things- the mail, test results, for our ride to come. At the grocery store we like to hear that there is a new line open with "No Waiting." Entire industries exist to minimize the experience of our "wait time." Perhaps one of least favorite waiting experience happens when we make a phone call and are placed "on hold." Just thinking about that can make us groan. After awhile a voice is heard, but it is not a live person, but a recording that sounds something like this-"Please continue to hold. Your call is IMPORTANT to us. Someone will be with you shortly." And then we wait some more. Eventually, this waiting with no belief becomes our reality. If I stay on that phone long enough, when a real live person actually answers, I am usually caught off guard- I got used to waiting.

Before we hear John in the wilderness announcing it is time to prepare the way, the people of Israel have been waiting. Theirs is a history of waiting- generations being born and dying waiting for the promise of Messiah. Unending waiting had become their reality. Then one day, Zechariah enters the temple, there to offer the sacrifice and prayers on behalf of the people. In the holy space where one ought to expect the divine presence. But in this reality of waiting, and faithfully going through all of the motions, appears the angel with news that God has heard his prayer. This reality is shaken. And Zechariah answers as one who has been living "on hold" and has been caught off guard. He is stunned and he questions. Unable to speak words of belief, he is struck mute and spends all of Elizabeth's pregnancy in silence. What happened in that new time of waiting?
I suggest that he had time to ponder God's words, to pray and to listen. And in this time Zechariah makes the shift from waiting in doubt to the certainty of anticipation. So much so that by the time he can again speak, the words come spilling forth, unable to be contained- the words of hope and anticipation we sang in our hymn this day- "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel who has come to the people and set them free. Who has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David." Through the prophets of old we heard a promise and now that promise is coming true! What our ancestor Abraham was promised in the covenant is happening! God showing mercy, bringing light into the darkness, to those in the shadows, guiding feet into the way of peace-prayer and prophecy are becoming new reality! And he proclaims that John will now be the one who initiates these preparations for the Lord, and brings word of forgiveness of sins and repentance .
Zechariah has made the shift from waiting to anticipating. But those who hear his song, are still waiting. They walk away scratching their heads and wondering what it all means and when. And another thirty plus years will pass before we stand in the story as we do today to hear John proclaim it is time to prepare the way for the Lord.
In our world view we see waiting as passive, negative. But in the Gospel, waiting is active. Preparing the way, filling valleys, making mountains and hills lower, smoothing out rough ways. Not just sitting still, but removing obstacles. It is a different kind of waiting. Perhaps instead of saying we are in a season of waiting, we should proclaim we are anticipating. The difference being that anticipation is rooted in hope, is invested and lives in certainty. The reason for our certainty is that we can hear of God's ongoing activity in our history, of the fulfillment of prophecy and can live not as people "on hold" but as a people certain that God HAS answered. We are in the middle of God's salvation history. Or as one writer suggests perhaps more accurately we are in the middle of the drama of God's stirring up. This stirring unfolding kingdom and salvation. PLAYING NOW.
And we have a role in this drama- we are on the stage carrying out God's drama. We can see in our lives the forgiveness we have received, the times when our ways have been made straight, when we have seen that light in the darkness.
Then we can think of others around us- those who are in need of this message- we don't have to look far. Down the street, in our newspaper, or on TV, we don't have to struggle to see those in need. We who anticipate also are called to participate. When we wonder how there will be peace in our world, when those in darkness can find that ray of light, when those who face obstacles can overcome them, perhaps we should hear the word of the poet June Jordan, writing about South African apartheid- "We are the ones we have been waiting for." We are the ones who continue the work of meeting people in their wildernesses as messengers.
I once heard a sermon by one of the professors at seminary who talked about this notion of God's work in the world. He said something like this-" When you are on the way to do the thing you think you are supposed to do, are called to do, someone will cross your path and in that moment real ministry will happen." People will enter our midst and how we respond prepares God's way- even one more step. I want to share a story with you about how I saw this at work recently. I accompanied our confirmation students, their parents, and members of the Community Outreach Ministry to serve dinner at the Crispus Attucks Center on a Saturday night here in the city. We were there primarily to bring and serve food to those in need.
There were more people than usual- over 150 people in the line. We served the food, but also tried to say "hello" to those coming through. Some said "hi" back, others ignored us, some wanted to tell us what they wanted to eat. One man came through the line looking especially downhearted. One of group became aware of this and caught his eye, and said, " Hi! How are you tonite?" His face crinkled into a smile and he said, "Great!" How could this person who in all likelihood had no permanent home, for whom this meal may be the only one today, be great? When we asked why he was great, here is what he said, " Because you asked me how I am, and I thought no one cared."
We went to serve food but God had more in mind. A moment of proclaiming God's love and care. And in that moment, valleys were made less deep, mountains less tall, and rough ways a little less challenging. We celebrate Christ's birth into our midst- a new reality of salvation happening here. We both recall this birth and look forward to the future fulfillment. May we do so not as people who are just waiting but as people stirred up and bursting with anticipation to share.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tonite a group of TLC'ers gathered for a meal and a time of Advent Fellowship. At the end we lit candles and went forth into the neighborhood singing carols. Some places were seemingly oblivious. Others ignored us. But at one house a person came out onto the porch and listened with a smile, thanking us for "Making my night." And while we were singing a man walked by with his dog- he had followed the sound of the voices to share in giving praise to God. Voice singing in the night-carrying forth the message-may we sing until the whole world hears.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Building an Ethical Economy

Does Theology Have a Role In Shaping a New Economy?

Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is hosting a webcast of Trinity Institute’s 2010 Conference in conjunction with St. James Episcopal Church to ponder this question. Leading theologians and economists will discuss the relationship between economics and Christian belief and action, with reflection by participants as well.

Topics include:
• Theology & Economics: Two Different Worlds?
• Is Capitalism a Belief System?
• What Is Wealth?
• What Do We Owe the Future?
Speakers include Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Kathryn Tanner, Sir Partha Dasgupta, and Bernard Ntahoturi. More information at:

When: January 28-29, 2010
Where: 31 S. Duke Street, Parish House
Time: 9 am to 5 pm each day
Registration Cost: $30 inclusive for both days (includes snacks, beverages and lunch each day). Seminarian discount $15
To register call the church office at 397-2734 or by email to
DEADLINE January 15, 2010

For more information visit:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Remote Controls and Kings

For today's children's sermon I brought a very lovely plastic tiara and claimed myself to be "queen" on this Christ the King Sunday. I dubbed the child who had brought the sermon box my loyal subject and directed that she open the royal box for me. Inside was a remote control. How perfect! The remote control is a perfect example of how we want to be in charge of everything. We can watch a show "on demand" and make the TV show us "picture within a picture" because we should not have to choose. But at our house what ends up happening is that we each want to be the king or queen of the remote. One person wants to watch "Gossip Girl," but someone else wants to watch sport or a movie. We talked about things we watch and one little boy mentioned watching baseball with his Dad. I shared how my husband loves baseball, but during the World Series the cable went out and then even the remote was not enough.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day when we say that instead of any one of us being king or queen, that God is the King of our lives. When we live with God as our King the picture changes. It stops being about how much we need to control. We learn to see everyone in the picture and to see that all of us are equal and loved and should be cared for. We let God's words tell us what is important. And Christ is a much better king.
Today more than other times the adults were as into the children's sermon as the kids were. I think that the remote control was such a statement of our desire to be King. We can all ask ourselves what the picture of really living in a "Christ the King" world means.

Monday, November 9, 2009

How Hard is it to Love Ourselves?

Love your neighbor as yourself. Much of the emphasis has been placed on the first three words, but what about the last two? Is it even possible to love others as we love ourselves, when our own self-assessment leaves us feeling fractured or inadequate? What kind of love would be shared?
At the EDGE, we watched a very short video clip from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. You can watch it here.
Then I asked everyone to think of something about themselves that they consider to be a flaw- something they do not like. Interestingly enough, still being those wonderful teachers, they went deeper than I expected- physical concerns were not on the list, even with the cue from the video. Instead, they listed- procrastination; overcontrolling; can't handle being "out of the loop"; conceited; lack self-confidence; stuttering; impatient. When asked if they ever felt like they exhibited one of the "flaws" they had not mentioned, every hand went up to say "Yes."
We talked about how we are each made unique, wonderfully and fearfully made. God loves us flaws and all- good days and bad. So we can see our shortcomings but not be dominated by them. Even when we feel pressure from parents or others, when we feel inadequate.
We eventually talked about how when we are working with others, perhaps we should consider that the center of the world is more than just where we are. If we know we have these flaws, and on any given day they are a part of us, is not the same thing true for others? Does this then allow us to see others with grace, as we are shown grace? Next week we will be talking about loving others- the end of our time this week will be the bridge to talking more deeply about how hard it is to love others as God loves them.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Soles 4 kids- share a little, help a lot

Can you imagine what it would be like to be a school child who not only faces the challenges of homework and making friends, but faces the added stress of no permanent home at the end of the day? In the School District of Lancaster, located in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, approximately hundreds of homeless children struggle to attend school each year, with burgeoning needs significant enough to warrant a district-wide Homeless Office which acts as a clearinghouse for concerns such as clothing, health care and meals.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (TLC), located in the heart of the city, borders some of the area of greatest need. TLC became aware of children who could not attend classes regularly because they lacked shoes. Others were wearing ill-fitting shoes simply to be able to attend. As a part of its mission to be a Tender Loving Congregation, TLC Community Outreach Committee members devised a new venture, Soles 4 Kids, to gather enough sneakers for each child in need to have a pair. Inspired by members, Bob and Dorothy Cooper, on Sneaker Sunday, during worship services, children of the congregation went from pew to pew gathering the sneakers and funds and presenting them at the altar for blessing by Pastor Sadie Pounder. TLC collected 184 pairs of shoes and $2000.00 towards the purchase of additional sneakers or other items of need.
Both Bob Cooper and Ken Marzinko, Homeless Student Project facilitator noted “we expected a sizeable number of shoes, but the members’ generosity was overwhelming!” Enough has been provided to ensure shoes for all in need as well as funds for those who outgrow their uniforms or need other supplies. “It was amazing to see the joy in the faces of those who have, and of those who have received! What a wonderful witness!” The event is now envisioned as an annual component of the community outreach theme-“ Share a Little, Help a Lot,” which encompasses a variety of ways that TLC lives out the ELCA motto-“God’s work, our hands.”

How Hard is it to Love God?

Last week the Senior High EDGE series "Crosswalking Relationships" began and we talked about Jesus' response to the question of what is the greatest commandment- to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. We blow through so much stuff in confirmation, but once we are beyond those classes, it is good to come back, and slow down and talk about what it really looks like on the ground to live in the midst of God's word. So we unpacked what this relationship could look like- heart, soul, mind and strength.
When we thought of strength- someone mentioned the idea of morals and actions and the strength it takes to live in a way that is not always shared by others. One person shared the ending of a romantic relationship because of behavior he could not condone, and the courage it takes to stand in the face of things it might be easier to ignore.
When we thought of mind- we talked about how often we do or do not read or study God's words for us and whether we see the Bible as a rule book, or whether we realize that the same words can bring new meanings at different stages in our lives.
We did some diving into the soul-People were open to talking about how they connect with God in prayer- there were beautiful moments of people sharing how prayer anchors the day, gives them strength to know they do not go it alone. Prayer helps to overcome anxiety so someone can sleep. How trying to have a pattern has become a part of someone's daily life. Then we got to the heart.
We contemplated what happens to us when we think we are in love with someone-how much of us is invested in the other person. We feel differently. We think about the person- ALOT! We look for them. We want to do things for them. When I asked if this also meant that we buy things for the other person- this got a lot of laughter-
"Come on, Vic- we don't have a lot of money!" But this led to one guy sharing that he thinks the most important thing to give is the gift of time- the gift of yourself. Whereupon all of the other guys agreed that stuff just doesn't say the same thing as being there. The girls agreed.
But we all know we only have so much time. We can get so busy with tests and sports, and friends and Facebook and family stuff and it can be hard to say "No" to all of these things. As we consider what it means to love God, it is about the relationships we feed- real and virtual. Rob Bell has suggested that maybe the question is not what we say "No" to, but what we say "Yes" to-is God a part of Yes? Is God the first YES?
Lucky for us, when we can't live as committed to the relationship, God is still saying "Yes." Knowing that allows us to continue to come to God, knowing that our prayers are heard and the love is still alive. The next topic even before we get to Loving Others, is "How Hard is it to Love Ourselves?"
I give thanks for this wonderful group- and I pray that in the midst of all of this week's tests and projects and sports and stuff, that they remember they never walk alone.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Train up a Child

Lutheran Chick #1
"Train up a child in the way (s)he should go: and when (s)he is old, (s)he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6
"Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." Ephesians 6:4

Somehow these two passages do and and do not go together. I have yet to master how to guide a teenager without some amount of angry eye-rolling, hands on hips, stomping off. Training here is "dedication, initiation and discipline." Sounds about right, though a little more complicated on the ground. Yet, today as I sit here, it is as the mother of a daughter who tonight we will walk across the football field. As her parents we will join her for a senior night dinner and someone will take the fleeting snapshot of the three of us, her in her band uniform. Later when they call our names we will take that stroll across the grass for the last home game of the year and of her high school career. Probably good emotional practice for others walks that take her one more step beyond our house,commencements and possibly marriage. But let's not get too far ahead.

Last night, we electronically shipped off the college application complete with the essay she groused about writing. I did not helicopter. It needs to be her on that page, not me. Secretly I was fretting- what will it look like? How much revision might it need? How would that process go? Yet after all of the agonizing about what to share, she wrote a true picture of herself- someone who has struggled to come into her own, shy, unsure, and though not said, known to me- a person with three disabilities.

She wrote about life changing experiences that have changed her for the better and made her who she is- a person who has matured into a young adult ready to take on the world. (her words)
She wrote about how her love of music which found its home in Lutheran Summer Music- an environment where life became easier because her talent has been nurtured-that this has made her more confident and willing to take risks. (her words)
She talked about becoming comfortable with being a person who is still shy and not a social butterfly, but not a wallflower. And about how as the first high school intern in the social work department of a very large retirement community, she has had experiences that have confirmed her interest in social work- work that she loves.

When she started middle school- the great melting pot, she wondered how she would sort it all out and my advice was- "remember who you are." Remember who you have been trained to be- our empathetic, creative daughter has indeed lived this out so far. But now we can see that she is that much farther on the way- a way of living that has been nurtured and shaped by far more than just her parents. In the end, the shaping has been not so much about being polite or caring, but much more about helping her to see some of God's gifts and open them up- to find those things that make you stand a little taller and that bring you joy in the sharing.

Her journey on the way continues, but for today- this bittersweet day- where she is headed off to a Rotary meeting after early dismissal to be honored as an officer of the Interact Club, then off to her internship, then home to get ready for the big night-today I can see that the road thus far has been, like her birth into our lives, a gift. And a chance for each of us as children of God to train each other.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Psalm 126- God’s Restoration Business

Eighteen years ago, an event was on the horizon. Something longed for with eagerness; the source of tears of joy and expectancy as- Michael and I learned we were expecting our first child-an answer to prayer; the long awaited moment for our parents- the first grandchild. As months passed you can probably imagine the energy invested preparing for "the Big Event." I just couldn't wait for "it" to happen, for the promise to be fulfilled. When the first contractions started, like every other first- timer, I reminded myself NOT to go the hospital at the first twinge, but to visualize the culmination of events. The waiting was almost unbearable.
Hours later we actually arrived at the hospital. The twinges weren't so slight anymore. In the midst of the pain the promise seemed more elusive than ever. It wasn't fun, it was burdensome. Talk of neatly arranged outfits and color coordinated nursery was replaced by thoughts that I would never survive the excruciating pain, and the sincere belief I was about to throw up. The reality of this time was more struggle than I bargained for. It was neither glamorous nor instantaneous. I tried looking back on the joy. I tried to see forward to the fulfillment. It was harder and harder to remember that the question was not "IF" I would have a baby, but "WHEN" - stuck in the weariness of "How long?" I guess that's why it is called "labor." We came to see that the announcement and the delivery are part of something more. Raising children brings joy and labor, weeping and rejoicing, energy and weariness in something much bigger and longer- Catherine's birth was not only an event but part of a pilgrimage- a journey that would change me forever and continues to do so.

After delivering a baby one breathes a sigh of relief, placing the labor pain into distant recesses of the mind, replacing it with that harvest of joy. Until the next moment of labor, or when another fellow laborer has a story to share that reconnects that part of us. It's perhaps a universal human quality that in recalling historical journeys, we minimize the reality of the process. The farther away we move from events in time, the more likely we are to focus only on the bright line events, setting aside all of the tension or the wrestling that accompanied its emergence. This is part of the same sentiment of the people of Israel, who've been brought back from the exile in Babylon.

Though the opening of the psalm is a rejoicing for past action of God, this is not a song of "mission accomplished." There has been laughter and joy, but one can believe that the wonderment of "pinch me I must be dreaming" was the announcement of what is not yet a done deal. To read otherwise would belie the reality of what we hear from Ezra and Nehemiah. The Israelites have been brought by God's activity out of exile to be restored, but they don't immediately experience the expected or hoped for. "Restoration" turns out to be a work in progress. The "pardon our mess under construction" sign is still there. Fields are in ruin, buildings toppled, and not a thing is growing in the parched, scarred and seemingly barren land. Work on the city and the relationship is incomplete. How can we sing this song of celebratory joy in the midst of the bleakness of the situation on the ground?

After praising God's great things, the song shifts to "Restore our fortunes, Lord." "Do it again"- Not words of triumph, but of a hopeful community in distress-seeking God's continued action to end the crying and bring forth the joy. The Israelites call to God to restore again- not simply the physical place of Jerusalem, but to restore Zion. Zion represented that longed for place- that city on the hill-the perfect place where their God dwelled with them. "Zion" symbolizes not just a place but a sense of cosmic perfection- that "all is right with the world." Longing for Zion had sustained them in exile, like the photograph of a lover kept close by. Longing for Zion allows the people to forget a lot of the in-between moments.

The rebuilding of Zion has begun for which one can rejoice! But ultimately, rebuilding Zion is about more than replacing a few stones and plowing a few fields. Restoration is assured, but it's hardly an overnight project, but a process with a completion date far into the future-an ongoing pilgrimage in hope.

I suggest we contemplate being on that pilgrimage, individually and collectively. With a much longer timeline than we would prefer or can even perhaps grasp, living between moments of God acting and the completion of the fullness of it all, somewhere after the hope of beginning, laboring toward a point seemingly beyond our horizon. "Bring back the golden days" we may say as perhaps we too long for this and search the spectrum of time for THE MOMENT when it all seemed perfect- in our lives, our church, or our world. Where is our Zion? While I'm not suggesting we wallow in negativity, I suggest that when we entirely collapse our history into only bright and happy moments, we create disillusionment over our memory of "what was" and impatience that can erode faith in the present and for the future.

Even within Lutheran history, as we approach Reformation Sunday, perhaps it's easy to forget that the nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg was not in itself an all-encompassing and completed life-altering event. The genesis of the Lutheran Church was not an overnight creation. We wax eloquently and exuberantly about the Reformation, but overlook the chaos and even violence that occurred as changes took shape.

In truth, over many hundreds of years there was and is an ongoing ripple of living into reform in the church. Not so violent these days, but also not finished- more pilgrimage than destination. Perhaps the Presbyterian Church rightly proclaims "the church reformed, always reforming." Somewhere every day, someone is crying out to God in response to something. Maybe sometimes it is us crying out.

So how can this Psalm sustain our modern day journey? In practice, Psalm 126 was gathered up in a collection of psalms called the "Songs of Ascent"-songs for the faithful to inspire them during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as they ascended to THE sacred place where God dwelled and had been experienced. Pilgrims to Jerusalem in particular, then and now, find a fundamentally life-altering experience, occurring in the midst of a city that's not at all a testament to "all is right with the world." Considered sacred by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it's a city none have been able to claim to "complete" their vision, yet people experience profound reconnecting with God in the midst of such unresolved circumstances.

As we contemplate our own ongoing pilgrimages as people restored by God, living in the "under construction" and in-between time, we experience journeys that take us away from our daily lives, into new places with new perspectives, with chance for renewal and discerning the deeper sense of the sacred in everyday life. Moments where we find ourselves, somewhere past leaving the bon voyage and the edge of town wishes, in the middle of the long time of travel. Uncertainty and challenge await, perseverance is tested. The journey seems an endless time of laboring, weariness and trying to hold on to the vision. We encounter others who challenge our world. We discover what binds us together. We're changed not only by the destination, but the process. Perhaps we begin to not simply wish for that golden moment, but instead see that the good was and is present in the midst of what seems like weariness and labor, mixed with our hope.

Our living is a time of constant restoration, but God's faithfulness allows us to living in hope that the question is not IF but WHEN. This hope sustains our labor and rebuilding -within our world and its cries for justice, peace and sharing the harvest. This hope sustains our own inner seeking of deeper relationship with God- places where we seek restoration for our hurts, injustices, ailments, fears and struggles. And in hope, while we seek, we plant seeds, even when we too experience, literally or figuratively, what it means to plant seeds watered only by own tears, wondering if God can bring any good from it.

We plant seeds in hope because God is in the restoration business, from the time of ancient stories of Sarah and Abraham, Joseph and his family, the Exodus people to the greatest restoration story- of the God of the resurrection. The story of the ancient pilgrims is ours as our hope springs from a God who speaks abundance out of that nothingness. We experience the modern day gushing springs of the Negev, where though it is an arid desert that floods only occasionally, when it does, the rains bring life and seem to defy nature. Reaping with joy and surprise comes to pass. Though the waters will dry up again until the next time, there will BE the next not-so-predictable time. We know it will happen even though we don't know when. We can wait expectantly.

By putting history in its proper perspective, we can more fully appreciate the joy of those springs, and can begin to imagine the holy not just in one perfectly special sacred space, or moment, but in the many small sacred moments of life, little restorations interspersed on the pilgrimage alongside those dry spells. We can see our pilgrimage, like others is not just about the destination, but a journey that starts long before and continues long after any single event seems reached. Events, anecdotes, conversations, people and places on the way become new sources of insight, wisdom and ongoing transformation. Our eyes can no longer see the world in the same way, instead connected to a deeper truth and yearning. And in that space, fellow pilgrims, may we join in singing of the hoped for, not as a question of "if" but as a proclamation of eager expectation that the Lord who has done great things has forever altered not just us, but our future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Prayer Before Dying

This week, I was back at the Big City Hospital in Amish Country, working a mere four hours which I still do once a month as a chaplain associate. Sometimes those tiny bits of time involve far more than when one is there for 10 hours, or maybe that is just my experience. I was called by an ER nurse to come to a room where there was a "potentially bad outcome," which means that in all likelihood someone is going to die. While headed there I was called and informed that the patient's wife was now in the waiting area. Separated from her beloved for what I am sure seems like eternity just beyond those doors. He was a pastor for 38 years who could never bring himself to really retire because " when God has called you with gifts, you don't get to give them back," she shared wistfully. In these words echoed words of another dying pastor's wife who once told me the hardest thing to learn was that " I/we would never be first on his mind." Her calling,which we often overlook, was to be the loving wife who moved every three years or so with him. Who loved him and his ministry and who discovered she had gifts she did not even know she had. Most recently the gift of nursing after his earlier stroke. We talked about hard gifts. He had recovered beautifully. Just out of rehab last week, the day before was his first day back at the congregation. And just last night she had asked him if the long rehab journey was worth it. And he had told her that it was, but that if today was his last day that was OK too because whenever God called him home, he was ready.
The next morning, he woke up and came out to her, trying to talk, and collapsed. And here we were- smacked in the face with potentiality which is now reality. Nothing more to do, his life fading away. The living will now more than pieces of paper with print. And if he could still have spoken, perhaps it would have been something like this prayer by a pastor cognizant of his own impending mortality-

A Prayer Before Dying by Carlyle Marney:

If entering now the zenith of my brief arc around and within creation I should enter God’s grand hall tomorrow, called to my account for myself, I should offer this confession and defense if indeed I could do more than call down. But if able to give vocal response at all, I should say this, “Thou knowest, dear Lord of our lives, that for fifty of Thy/my years in ignorance, zest, zeal and sin I lived as if creation and I had no limit. I lived and wanted as if I had forever, without regard for time or wit or strength or need or limit or endurance and as if sleep were a heedless luxury and digestion an automatic process. But Thou, O Lord of real love did snatch my bit and ride me into Thy back pasture and didst rub my nose in my vulnerability and didst split my lungs into acquiescence and didst freeze my colon in grief loss and didst press me into that long depression at the anger I directed against myself. And Thou didst read over my shoulder my diary of that long journey when I did melt before Thee as a mere preacher. Thou didst hear.
Hear now my pitiable defense. In all my sixty years I killed no creature of Thine I did not need for food except for a few rattlesnakes, a turtle or two, two quail I left overlong in my coat and three geese poisoned on bad grain before I shot them in Nebraska, plus one wood duck in Korea. In all my years I consciously battered no child though my own claimed much need to forgive me. And consciously misused no person. Thou knowest my aim to treat no human being as thing, never to hate overlong, to pass no child without catching his or her eye and my innermost wish to love as Thou doest love by seeing no shade of color or class.
And Thou didst long ago hear my cry to let me go from Paducah. Thou knowest my covenant with Elizabeth in our youth and Thou knowest it has been kept better than my covenant with Thee and wilst Thou forgive? Indeed Thou hast.
Hear now my intention with grace as if it were fact. I do and have intended to be responsible in creation by covenant and where I have defaulted do Thou forgive. Forgive Thou my vicarious responsibility for all the defection from Thy purpose of all Thy responsible creatures and accept this my admission of utter dependency on Thy mercy.
Naked I came into the world, how I am dressed at the conclusion makes no difference. A pair of jeans or a Glasgow robe, it makes no difference. Meantime, well I mow, I cut wood for winter, I clean drainage ditches, I preach what is happening and look to see what God will do in the earth. I watch out always for babies and little rabbits in front of my mower and old folks nearby and black snakes worth preserving, and little puppies on the road, and the young-old who stutter and laugh and can’t hear too. The cry of us all, “Come Lord Jesus, come."


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Living Praise- Psalm 8

These last few nights I have been watching the PBS series by filmmaker, Ken Burns about the creation of the National Parks system. It documents the movement that created the parks amidst much controversy and resistance, highlighting some key individuals who have had an almost missionary fervor for setting aside these vast unique spaces in our country. The controversy largely part centered around control- who should control of the land, the resources and the valuable artifacts. The resistance has come from those who want to “cash in” on the timber, the waters, the minerals or the ability to charge others to see the sights. Even after lands were “set aside”, it is probably not surprising that people continued to timber the sequoias, to graze cattle that fouled pristine waters, and more recently to urge lawmakers to permit drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuges because it is a more important purpose for human needs.
The fact that these parks exist at all has been the work of some very devoted, driven men and women who repeatedly use words like “glory, majesty, awe, communion, and divine” to speak of natural wonders. One such man, Charles Sheldon, is credited with creating what we know as Denali National Park and Preserve. Ken Burns speaks of Sheldon as a man with “an amazing life as one of those well-connected rich people at the turn of the 20th century who could therefore, in the best sense of noblesse oblige, get things done.” In essence, Sheldon used his capacity for dominion in ultimately beneficial ways. Burns quotes a striking observation of Sheldon who speaks of feeling “the atomic insignificance of oneself” standing there in front of Mount McKinley. Burns adds- “I've always thought of that. That's exactly right… That you stand…at this massive mountain, the most massive mountain in North America, and you feel your atomic insignificance. And yet that makes you larger, that makes you connected to everyone and everything else…It's just that sense of feeling, both how fragile and short our lives are but also what a glorious web of interconnectedness… it suggests we can participate in.” This is the essence of our psalm for this day.
Psalm 8 has a slightly different context. It was created for night time worship, when at the end of a day when one can reflect on all the hours have encompassed, where as darkness has enveloped the world, one could imagine the beauty of the stars glimmering remind the psalmist there is still a light that shines. The psalmist marvels at the night sky, like my younger daughter, Alexandra and I like to do. Go out in the backyard and gaze at the stars and planets, maybe see a comet, or a shooting star. If we go a mile further down the road, beyond the last of the light pollution, the last of man’s efforts to re-create habitat, we can see even more and can join in the vision of a God traced the pattern of the stars with a fingertip. On a clear night, in the quiet of fields, we feel like miniscule specks compared to the cosmos. James Luther Mays, writes that “The comparison between ourselves and all the rest of reality… when noticed, brings with it an overwhelming sense of insignificance and displacement. Now we understand that the universe is not measured to the smallest degree by the reach of our sight, nor the march of time by the length of our lives. Astronomers and their planetariums show us the miniscule proportions of our solar system. Beyond our cosmos, the universe stretches from galaxy to galaxy through unlimited void until space curves back on itself.” Then Mays puts our human life span into perspective, much like our psalmist-“Geologists work out cosmic calendars, informing us that if the measurable course of earth's career were reduced to a year, the history of our civilization would occupy only the last minute of that year.” Awesome and fragile come together.

It is at this moment that the center of the psalm, verse 4, breathlessly blurts out- “What is humanity that God should be mindful, should pay attention and care for us?” Not only to care for us, but to place us in unique privilege- a little below God. But we are not God, and we are still placed within the community of creation, not separate. So how is it that we so often get this equation all wrong?
Somehow we struggle, since the time of the creation in Genesis which Psalm 8 reflects, to the present. We struggle with accepting our place in it all. In the mid 1500’s, furiously contested debate erupted over what was the center of the solar system, the Earth or the Sun? Nicolaus Copernicus, was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, a fancy way of saying that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe. His work, entitled On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was published in 1543 just before his death, and is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution. In spite of brilliant work, in 1616, the Roman Catholic church issued a decree suspending distribution of Copernicus’ work until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the doctrine that the Earth moves and the Sun doesn't must be "false.” We must be the center. We can often fall into the trap of believing that we are the center of the universe even now.
This highlights disparity between God’s vision of humanity and the reality of humanity. We as humans are gifted in a way that the rest of creation is not with unique intellectual capacity-a source of joy and tension. We are the species that creates its own habitat, has mastered tools, has complex emotional and rational capacity. These abilities that we are given create our ability to have dominion. But these powers are intended by God, not exclusively for ourselves, but as representatives of the sovereign Lord for all- as stand-in rulers whose vocation and role are intended to reflect, not ourselves, but our God. And dominion has responsibility.
The National Parks movement exemplifies the tension between thinking that all of creation is here “just for us” and thinking that all of creation looks to us to maintain order and not chaos in community. Psalm 8 echoes the creation story in Chapter 1 of Genesis, where in verses 26-30, after God has spoken and created an ordered and arranged world out of chaos, the pinnacle has been to create and designate humanity to maintain this order. Created in the image of God- created to praise God. And we are designated to demonstrate the same love and care as God. Created not just speak praise, but to live praise.
Though the entire Book of the Psalms in Hebrew means “praises”, Psalm 8 is specifically a praise psalm, which lifts up both aspects of rejoicing but also hints that praise can be a two edged sword. For it asks what kind of reign, what kind of praise do we enact in the midst of God’s work and world? If we praise God’s majesty but do so at the expense of others and of creation, is this really glorification of our God? Patrick Miller, in his book, They Cried to the Lord, suggests, “ One cannot exalt the power and consistent grace of God that lifts up the weak and lowly, the afflicted and the needy, and then put down those same weak and afflicted…Praise that is a lie becomes an act of self-indictment.” When we do this, we have turned dominion into domination.
It is therefore sheer grace that we are spared from ourselves by a God who continually pays attention to and cares for us anyway even now. And it is I suggest not only God’s intention, but God’s gift to us that we are created into community. For it is in community that we can appreciate that praise and thanksgiving come out of relationship with God and our world, as does awareness of one’s shortcomings and fragility. Many of the leaders of the Park movement were moved to tears in speaking of the awareness of the divine in times of need in the midst of this overwhelming creation- where in silence and solitude, they found a healing voice, an answer to prayer, a re-connection to order out of the chaos of their lives. But that was not the end of their experience. What happened next was their unstoppable desire to share this praise and thanksgiving and to urge others to join in this sense of joy and wonder. This created a ripple effect as the sentiments and awareness spread, opening others up to that unique human quality of the ability to appreciate both awesomeness and fragility and praise. And this is ultimately the language of the psalmist- a reminder of the connection of human existence and praise of God through all things.
In our Bible study we have discussed trying to hear the words of the psalm as though they are your prayer, and then to try to hear them as though they are the words of another. It doesn’t take a natural wonder to give us a reason to praise God. When we experience a healing moment, an unexpected but welcome event, and answer to prayer, or order out of the chaos of our own days, we find cause for praise. When someone else is need of the same in their lives, we can give praise by inviting and sharing of the God at work in our world. We can live praise in the ways we care for others and for creation. In all of our communities, we can carry out praise, not just by ourselves, but in proclaiming to others in words and deeds what we just cannot keep to ourselves- How majestic is your name, O Lord!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Evolution of Beauty

Kudos to Dove for their campaign to address the self esteem of girls!
Here is one example:
Campaign for Real Beauty

Monday, September 28, 2009

Is That a Fake ID?

On Sundays we have a Breakfast Fellowship- this is a free breakfast open to anyone- there are many regulars who make the free meal circuit and usually a few new faces. I have enjoyed getting to know them and to hear about what is going on in their lives, and sometimes to connect them with something that will help their current concern, to give out hugs, share laughs and prayers. The lay leaders have been using the VBI "Gospel of Matthew" each week showing a different passage. This week was
Matthew 12: 15-45. With so much to cover, I chose to pretty much wrap it up at verse 30 for my message.
The message time has give and take to it- I stop and ask for questions, or people raise their hands to comment and others just talk anyway. Out of all of that, below is the gist of the message from yesterday with a couple modifications:

We live in a culture where we all have some form of identification that says who we are- drivers license, Social Security card, school ID, passwords. We cannot navigate our culture without them. It is not enough for us to say who we are, we have to prove it. If we prove who we are, our ID says things about us. We protect our identity at all costs so others don’t steal it. From time to time we hear stories about people who create fake ID’s- to go places and do things that they could not otherwise do. All ways we seek to address the question of “WHO ARE YOU?”
Today we hear that Jesus cured many and ordered them not to make it known. Why would this be? Wouldn’t it help to grow Jesus’ following if news of these miracles spread from town to town? Later we hear the Pharisees tell Jesus, “If you could just give US a sign.” Prove your identity. For people who seek him to be healed, they believe in the signs, but they are not sure who exactly they believe in. But they hope- the Gentiles hope. Hope in this person whose name proclaims and enacts “Save us.” Can this Jesus be the one?
For those who are learned, who have studied Scripture and are the self-proclaimed enactors of holiness, they should know who Jesus is, but they seek a sign. The prophet Isaiah’s words are being fulfilled –“he will not wrangle or cry out”- Jesus will not engage in the debate of “prove it!” “Nor will anyone else hear his voice”- no one is getting what he is preaching and teaching- he is placing his identity before them, yet the Pharisees are the ones who are blind, who cannot hear, who cannot speak rightly of Jesus. They are sure he must be working for Satan- he cannot be who he says he is. They accuse Jesus of having a fake ID. Jesus reminds them that it is by the Spirit of God that he cast out demons, and “the kingdom of God has come to you.” He gives examples from the Old Testament that he knows should ring some bells with the temple leaders, but seemingly to no avail- they still want to see a sign.
He tries logic- If people who are sick have sinned and are full of evil, why would a force of evil, get rid of evil- wouldn’t it work the other way around? And what about the fact that these “holy men” also have “faith healers?” They can’t have it both ways. What is it that they are doing? Are they also calling upon the devil? Or are their “so-called” cures not cures at all? But the logic doesn’t work either.
What about all of the people who are sick and in need who the Pharisees have cast aside and ignored- those who the Pharisees have refused to help? A saying in Scripture is that people are “blessed to be a blessing to others.” If faithful and holy people are blessed to be a blessing to those in need, why are the Pharisees blinded to the painfully obvious needs of others, and deaf to their cries? Why when they see those who are aching for any assistance, do they find themselves with nothing to say to these people? People in need of food, and shelter, and in need of basic care- cast to the outer regions of the town and left to fend for themselves. Unable to worship or to be even become clean and whole. Erased from the minds of those in charge. What about those Pharisees who claim to be one thing, but clearly are another? Nothing seems to sway the Pharisees, but we can be left with a question- Just who is operating under a fake ID?
One of you asked if there is a connection between the Pharisees and Pharaoh. Though they are in many ways not connected- in fact this is a very interesting point to consider. The Pharisees are the temple leaders in Jesus’ day- that is who we see in our story today. Pharaoh was the leader in Egypt who kept the people of Israel in slavery. The people of Israel were trapped in their situation until God through Moses acted to free them from their oppression. Likewise the Pharisees, in a lot of the actions and decisions they made that I spoke of just a minute ago, very much enslaved and oppressed others- the poor, the sick, the widowed. And Jesus’s mission is to end this oppression and to clean house. It is as if God’s world, God’s house, has been taken over by the many forces and ways that leave people poor and oppressed. A lot of us here today know what it feels like to be pushed off to the side, left to fight on our own, in some ways trapped and unable to change things- we need healthcare, and jobs, and people to care.
This is how many in Matthew’s gospel feel and Jesus talks about stealing back the house. Sounds kind of odd to think of Jesus as committing assault and robbery. But I think in some ways the better view for our world today is “freeing the hostages.” In the many rules and policies that have caused people to be excluded, to live in poverty and pain, and to remain trapped, they have become hostages to evil- evil that enacts behaviors that do not match God’s vision. In order to restore the house to what it should be, the hostage taker must be subdued and the hostages released. This is what is happening when we hear about Satan and Jesus.
This is Jesus’ identity- the one who saves and frees the hostages. We’re freed!
It might be easy to simply reassure ourselves that we are the hostages, and someone else is the bad guy and that as long as we are not the Pharisees, we can feel pretty good. But not so fast, I think we are being told. Because I think we need to ask ourselves whether we also operate under that fake ID. We hear teaching about what we say- about God and about each other. We are not being freed to just create another hostage situation for others. We are called to choose our behavior- we are called walk the walk and talk the talk of the freed. We're asked are you with me or not? If we put on a good act, but we do not speak as we should- we are using a fake ID. If we talk a good game, but live only for ourselves- you got it- fake ID.
No matter who we are, we all need to remind ourselves that we are freed to live a different way- not just freed to take it out on others and settle scores. We not only need to pay attention to how we act, but what we say- we all know the power and the pain words can have. As we leave today, thankful to be freed, let’s think about how to live in a way that shows that how we live matches our ID.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Getting Personal with God-Psalm 19

Here instead is the final preached version:
In Friday Bible study we’ve been exploring the dynamics of the Psalms, and unpacking the poetic language and metaphor, to see the psalms as a resource for our prayers. Walter Brueggemann, author of Praying the Psalms- Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit., speaks of the world of the Psalms as evoking universal life experiences, often experiences that test our limits, and suggest that we can enter the world of the psalmist, and of all the voices who have since prayed these words in the midst of the same joys, fears and struggles we face in our prayer and relationship with God.
How fitting it that the psalm in our lectionary is Psalm 19. It is not simply a resource for prayer, but is in fact a prayer. A prayer about prayer, and about the relationship between creation, humanity and God. Like in Psalm 1 and 119, the psalmist is rejoicing and praising God’s order and work. But the psalmist also acknowledges the struggle to be faithful, hopes against fear that his imperfect-ness will be redeemed. This psalm moves from the very broad to the intensely personal- it is kind of like taking a zoom feature on a camera and moving from wide angle lens- engaging God in general terms, to a closer view of God as YHWH, or Lord, and finally to the up-close face to face shot of YHWH, a Lord who draws near as “My Rock and Redeemer.” A God who travels from the vast heavens to the place of the psalmist- to one on one intimacy where ultimately nothing can be hidden. In the immediacy of this experience we perceive not only the depth of relationship with God, but see God as Lord who desires just such a relationship with each of us and all of us. While we can be a people who shy away from “too much information,” this psalm proclaims God seeks to know us, to get personal and involved, in the midst of our shortcomings, known and unknown, as our rock and redeemer.
But how can we come to know even in part this God?
For starters, I submit we have to read the whole of Psalm 19 (our lectionary has selected only verses 7-14). To grasp the full picture we need it all, otherwise it’s like watching the TV when they announce they are experiencing “technical difficulties.” To attempt to grasp God’s image with only one half is like the picture without sound or the sound without picture. Verses 7-14 praise God’s law, or instruction. To contemplate only God’s instruction is meaningful, but incomplete. Likewise, if we were to only look at the first verses, we would see God as grand creator of nature but lack the ability to decipher what the voices of nature would lead us to grasp.
To illustrate this point, I want to move through the psalm from the opening verses, those voices of creation. I am reminded of a documentary series from the BBC entitled “Planet Earth.” Over many years and at a cost of 5 million dollars, filmmakers were able to capture exquisite footage of the many facets of our planet- the rainforests, the depths of the ocean, the polar regions, the deserts, and so on, going to the farthest corners of earth, sea and space. The images are breathtaking- far beyond the psalmist’s imagination. My favorite episode, entitled “The Shallow Seas,” depicts the watery regions just off the seven continents in their vibrancy, their diversity and their quirkiness. There are creatures with colors that are too intense and beautiful to fathom, and unusual creatures that have purposes which are clearly intended but whose function remains a mystery. Forces of nature and creatures whose migration and life cycles seem to make no sense on their own, but in the broader picture can be seen to be just as they should be for that much larger scope of the interconnected web of creation. In one example, there are 100,000 cormorants, a species of sea bird which migrates inland to breed, hatch and nurse their young- sea birds in the desert of Bahrain. They need food, but are in vast seemingly barren wasteland, of sand and the shallowest seas. But there are unimaginable events that occur- they are safe from predators, and they arrive at just as seasonal shamal winds begin to blow, whipping up the sands and picking up nutrients in their flow, which are then deposited in the Arabian Gulf to transform it into a feeding ground just for these birds at just that time. Seemingly burdensome and counter intuitive migration is in fact exactly what is needed. To watch the aerial photography demonstrating the winds in relation to the birds is mesmerizing and I’m moved to tears to fathom the God who has created this arrangement.
All of God’s handiwork is too vast to ever take in, but I sense I can join those ceaseless voices of creation bursting forth where the heavens are bursting, telling of God’s glory, day and night- their voice is everywhere. There are images are of joy- of a consummated marriage, strength, indescribable happiness and light in the farthest reaches. Yet, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Nature never taught me that there is a God of glory and infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word “glory” a meaning for me- I still don’t know where else I would have found one.” As glorious as it is, even these photographers cannot capture the answers to “WHY”- as much as I can imagine the voices of creation singing ceaselessly their praise, using only this view, I cannot say that I would grasp that God existed if I did not believe, nor could I hope to fully perceive God. Voices everywhere but not heard- Pictures without sound.
We need to learn in other ways. This is the focus of the second section of this psalm. We again hear repeated praise, but this time, praise for God’s law, the torah- Actually more than just law, God’s life-giving instruction. Today, Jean was showing me a cartoon that I think illustrates what we think of when we hear “instruction.” It’s from Hagar the Horrible. In the first frame there is a knock at the door and one of the characters has answered it and is standing there to hear the man who has knocked say, “I have good news! I am hear with life changing instruction for the people of this house!” In the next frame, we see the character who has answered the door go back inside and tell the others, “There’s a man outside who can tell us how to get rich!” We often think of instruction as this- how to’s for making money, getting ahead, losing weight. But instead our checklist, we hear that this instruction that revives the soul; gives wisdom, that should cause hearts to rejoice, that brings enlightenment, and is righteous and enduring. It’s kind of hard to imagine “Rejoicing about the law” but the focus here is upon what is life-giving and life sustaining- this relationship with God. Just as we desire human relationships, we should desire this relationship with God even more- more than the best physical experience, the sweetest of honey, or the greatest riches.
This is when the psalmist shifts from using the Hebrew word El for God, which could be any god, to YHWH, the Lord of Israel- God as Lord who is in relationship with a chosen people-who is involved and desires relationship. We hear six different words that capture the way God provides and proscribes which will give and sustain life. Just as non-human creation has been ordered and arranged, torah is intended to point the way for humanity. Sometimes difficult to understand, or seemingly burdensome and counterintuitive to us, yet life giving and life sustaining.
We should desire to be in and to work at this relationship- to seek to learn God’s words and to go deeper. Engaging this relationship involves constant attention, study and prayer. In the world of the psalmist and in Jewish custom, one would pray three times a day in three separate prayer services- early in the morning, early afternoon, at sundown, with a fourth prayer service on major holidays, a fifth service on Yom Kippur, and many additional personal prayers and blessings throughout the day, for meals, and when going to bed. And one would regularly engage in study and wrestling with all of the meanings of God’s instruction to pursue a faithful understanding. To fully engage this would seem like unceasing speech. God’s word and God’s name always on one’s lips, in constant murmuring. This would also mean that God is constantly on a person’s mind, for to speak we must engage our brain. Yet in the midst of all of this speaking, one could argue that this is simply a one sided relationship. Just because someone speaks doesn’t engender hearing and listening from the other. Indeed some of the hurts in our lives come from feeling unheard. Without a purpose, all of this would be words without a picture.
The fuller picture comes when we put the two images together in dialogue and relationship, where we engage God as Lord, and creator, and we find God’s responses in our prayers, among community, in creation around us, and in the universal dialogue with the Scriptures. Then like the psalmist pray not only in the hope of being heard, but in the faith that we are heard. This is the core of the deepest level of the psalm, beyond words, to meditations of the heart.
We can rely upon this. God is not just God, but our Lord, and not just our Lord, but Lord with us- Rock and redeemer are not just hope, but reality. The psalmist endeavors to join in the ceaseless prayer and praise of creation and of others though he cannot grasp the whole, but only part of the power and glory of the creator. And the psalmist desires to perfect this relationship with God, but is aware that this perfection is beyond his grasp, just as his complete comprehension of God is beyond grasp. And it is in this moment that the psalmist prays about his prayer, his murmuring and his meditation- that he can go as deep as God, as faithfully as God.
To be faithful involves true prayer. In the Hebrew, the phrase kavanat ha lev, is considered essential. These words imply worship, concentration, and perhaps the hardest, singlemindedness. Prayer without this is said to be like a body without a soul- like that incomplete picture. This notion is behind the question of who can know all of their faults? We can ask ourselves- How often do we approach God in a hurry, or distractedly- in worship, in prayer, in study? For each of us, myself included, there are those times when we fail to truly engage the relationship, or we go through the motions. I know that while I should be deep in prayer and contemplation in worship, sometimes I am thinking about what to make for dinner, or something I forgot to do, or someone does something that distracts me- I think we all experience this.
The faith of the psalmist is that even when we fail to bring our full selves to a life of personal engagement with God, God’s faithfulness is not only to our instruction, but to our redemption- a relationship. The subtitle for the Bible Study, “Praying the Psalms” is- “Running Out of Words.” I initially chose this title thinking that when we cannot find the words for prayer, we can turn to the Psalms as a resource, and can join the psalmist in praying not only with words, but with ceaseless meditations of the heart, deep thoughts we cannot grasp or express. But Psalm 19 pushes deeper- we can join in the hope and faith that when we fail to fully engage, in spite of intentions, God will still find the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts acceptable. – God, our Lord, who is our rock and redeemer, continuing to seek us out, to get personal and to deepen a relationship that transcends just words. And “this is to be desired above all else.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Life Together-Community

This week I have been re-reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in as I ponder the direction of the church post-CWA. In listening, one word I have heard talked about is "unity." Bonhoeffer's first chapter, entitled "Community" opens with the 1st verse of Psalm 133, which exclaims "Behold,how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity!" Bonhoeffer observes that Christians take for granted the priviledge of living among other Christians, while Christ, in whose path we profess to follow, lived in the " midst of enemies." We live, Bonhoeffer asserts, as that people scattered of whom Zechariah speaks, among others who do not believe as we do, as seed of the Kingdom of God. We live as a people scattered who are held together "solely in Jesus Christ" in the already, but not yet time.
Yet, not all of us are blessed to be in fellowship- there are those who know the absence of this fellowship- the lonely, the sick, those who are persecuted around the world. These know most keenly the blessing they live without. They see the companionship of a fellow Christian,the face of Christ and the grace of moments we sometimes take for granted. Bonhoeffer indicts the rest of us for "trodding under foot" the gift we have each day. Sometimes our sense of entitlement blinds us to what is in our midst already.
What we have can be taken from us, this fellowship can be interrupted or disrupted. How do we respond to the notion that there are limitations? Do we chafe against these limitations as being a life that is insufficient to our desires? Can we live in the grace of a moment for its own sake? Can we live in the reality of relationships that are not all we seek? Do we live in the world at the foot of the cross or the world we prefer? Do we search for an ideal world, or Christ's reality?
Can we give thanks for the present without constantly searching for that better future we have so assuredly determined should be ours?
"If we do not give thanks for that daily Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ."
Bonhoeffer claims that "Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate."
It is because of this reality established by the cross that we enter community, not as demanders but as thankful recipients, as people who can go on living through sin and need under the blessing of grace- a divine gift even on the most distressing day. Even in the darkest hour of disillusionment, may we remember "neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed that binds us- forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ who alone is our unity.
In all of the tensions and dissatisfactions, hurt feelings and misplaced perceptions, may we start by remembering not what separates us, but what we share in common in the eyes of Christ. May we each use this view not only to support ourselves in our own hurts, but first use this view to see the other.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Happy 15th Birthday, Lutheran Chick #2- proof that Mourning and Dancing live together

Eight years ago, our world was re-scripted in ways we could not imagine.
Fifteen years ago, my world was changed in ways that still amaze me- our younger daughter burst onto the scene. This year I am so proud that she has joined in founding an Interact Club at school- the hight school version of Rotary International. Next summer she hopes to travel with People to People, an organization whose very existence dates back to post- WWII and Dwight Eisenhower's belief that peace can happen when people take the time to experience one on one relationships with others around the world. So for my peacemaker, this is a re-post from a couple years ago- without diminishing the importance and profound nature of the losses on this day, please remember that others are the new life that remind us that death and evil do not have the last word:

This week people across the nation marked the sixth anniversary of the tragedies which unfolded on September 11, 2001. September 11th holds another importance to me- my younger daughter was born on September 11th and was an elementary school student in 2001 when the world seemed like it was falling apart.

It was, in the tradition of the school, her day to be the line leader and the snack person. And it all started out like any other great day. And it is almost always clear and sunny on her birthday, as it was that day.

She had been dropped off with her cupcakes and dressed in red, her favorite color. Her older sister was also at school and my husband and I were at work. The way it worked out, my secretary was on a family trip ( about a mile from where the plane went down in PA). So I had public radio on and I was vaguely listening as I waited for a client to come for an appointment.

As the appointment began there was a report that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center but the assumption was it was a small plane. Hmm. The client came and we met. When I finished, I called our lawfirm’s main office and people were frantic. Get to a TV, they cried.

So, still wondering, I walked down the street to the coffeehouse and on the TV, the now infamous plane clips that are etched into our collective memory were rolling. I got a coffee and as people were wandering in and sitting down to watch numbly, the first tower collapsed. I watched it as though it was a surreal vision, but it had really happened.

They announced that the last plane was unaccounted for, but was over Pennsylvania. I felt like Chicken Little; the sky was falling. I frantically called my husband, and found out his government office near the school was in lockdown.

The school called and I was on my way to pick up the kids. Driving on a sort of auto -pilot. As it seemed was everyone else. My kids got in the car and it was as I saw the tear-stained face of my young child, I realized that for her this was as much about her day as anything else.

How much do you share with 7 and 9 year olds? They had heard the whispers of a few things. We talked briefly about what I could say, planes had crashed and people were not sure what had happened but that it looked like someone made them crash on purpose.

When we came home, my birthday girl was wondering why anyone would do such a thing. At the time none of us knew who was behind the attacks or why. But it seemed to come from somewhere in the Middle East. I struggled to find a way to explain why any person would embrace death in this way.

I started by saying that people do not always agree about where other people should be able to live, or what religion they can believe, or what people can say and who is in charge. I used the playground as an analogy for who gets to pick the game, or who gets to be on the swings first, or who solves a problem when there is a fight. And I admit that even though grownups tell kids not to act out, and to get along and share, we do not always do what we tell them to do. And so we argue and we fight, even though we shouldn’t. And we try to settle things the way we want and we do not take turns. And we push and shove.

Heads are nodding and I think I have made a connection. Perhaps a little too well. Because then the birthday girl points out that the difference between kids on a playground and adults is that “ when adults fight, the way they settle things is to kill.”

My eyes welled up with tears as I heard the truth of what she so boldly said- yes, sometimes this IS what adults do. And now.. what to say? To my saddened, disappointed bitter child who at age 7 knows us as we can be?

I tell her she is right, and that when people do this, it is wrong, and that it makes God sad. She laments that this is how things are. And suddenly I find a moment of good news. I ask her to think about the fact she is not the only person born on this day. That there are too many to count. And that if she and every other person born on this day says, “ I have had enough!” They can become the peacemakers. They can help to bring the change our world needs. They can work for peace, not just because it is right, but because they know how awful not having peace is. And all around the world, change starts because one person stops saying “there is nothing I can do” and starts saying, “ I can do something.”

So every year when we get to her birthday, we place flowers in church to honor the peacemakers in the world. And as the events of the past become further into history, the best hope we have of honoring memories is to work, pray and hope for peace. And when you remember September 11th, just as it evokes sadness, remember that there is life and hope and God’s promise.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

School is in Session- Part II

There are many things I am learning during my internship in the city at the Pulpit in the Sky. One of the recent facts I learned is that there are 900 homeless children attending school here in the city school district. I cannot even begin to fathom that there are 900 children, some of whom may be the children I see at the free breakfast in Sundays. What kind of a life must this be? To have nowhere that is permanent? To always be on the move? I recently posted about the need for uniforms for school- there is also a need for shoes. Which leads to another fact.
Not every child can attend school because they do not have shoes that they can wear. They may not have shoes that fit, or shoes that are not flip flops. Another obstacle to attending school. What kind of life is this where children need such basics- laundry detergent, personal care products, school clothes, food to eat and shoes? What does it mean to spend your days walking without?
In this week's lectionary, we find ourselves in the midst of Jesus' teachings on cross living-what it means to live and walk in discipleship of Christ. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

In the extreme this teaching can be about true loss of life. But particularly as we conclude a holiday which honors the laborers, in a nation where we celebrate industry, what does "our life" mean for many of us? We have transformed culturally from a nation where those with the physically demanding jobs, children, and immigrants struggled for decent work conditions, fair wages, reasonable work hours, and limits on how young a worker can be. The labor movement spawned the honor of these people on Labor Day. A day where we honored those whose struggles could have been overlooked by the captains of the industrial revolution. We however, have turned this day into a shopping extravaganza- there are so many circulars for enticements to consume that the paper lies bloated on the front doorstep. And in our own lives at the end of the last summer cookouts and shopping, do we find ourselves lying around a little bloated too? What would it mean to us to consider denying ourselves, to consider losing such a life? What does it mean to walk without, is what we would would be without worth more than what we would gain?

Losing one's life is not about glorifying poverty and want. Instead, "taking up our cross" requires and compels us to see who is in need, and to address the needs of "why." "Taking up our cross" requires and compels us to stand with those whose "life" is not ours and to lift them up. One of the small ways here at TLC we are working to do this is to gather shoes. Shoes for the 900 pairs of feet that need them so that every homeless child has a new pair of shoes for school. Not just because they need shoes, but also because we all get joy and dignity when we are treated like equals, not cast aside.

In two weeks we will present shoes and money for shoes at the altar so that others may gain a little life, dignity and equality. May these shoes bless the lives of those they touch. May this living teach and inspire us to the many other ways we can continue to walk in the path of cross living.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

School is in Session

I have already blogged before about the great evangelism of the VBS kids in the neighborhood. So excited to share the good news they did what we struggle to do- they simply but enthusiastically proclaimed, "Hey come with me- check it out! This is good stuff!" This past week I was given a chance to follow their lead and to continue to be inspired. Of the many people who flow through our office building's doors, I have had a couple of occasions now to see one woman- she called me this past week for prayer and to see how I was and to ask for another favor- though I think really one could say it was a prayer. Her son is about to start school in a district where they wear uniforms. Earlier this summer they had been homeless. Now they have a place here in the city, but with the new job they are still catching up and he needs uniforms. There is a uniform clothing bank but they are out of uniforms and helpfully told the recently homeless mom that she should have called sooner. He cannot go to school without a uniform. All of the other places she hoped could help cannot. He is already repeating a grade.
There are uniforms for sale at the Kmart. They are only seven dollars for the shirt and seven dollars for the pants. But even if he only has two that is $28 plus the bus fare to get there and back and what if they do not have them. And he needs a backpack. I have always loved the start of school and cannot imagine what it is like to be this 8 yr old boy. So I tell her I will check out what I can do. I go to the Kmart and get the last two pairs of pants and the last two shirts in his size. Having asked about colors for the backpack I find out he loves Spiderman. I manage to find a light-up Spiderman backpack.
I call her and tell her to come and to bring N, her son. They come and we meet in the chapel. We talk about school. I give him the uniforms and before I can give him the backpack, he tells me that today is his birthday. I tell him I have something special and give him the light-up Spiderman backpack and his face glows and he clutches it.
We talk about how he will walk to school and how he is worried about doing well. I offer that he can come and see me if he has homework questions or just to talk- any time. We talk about how no matter what he is worried about, Jesus is always with him. I learn he is related to the most recent shooting victim in the city and to a victim of a violent gang-related stabbing last year. We talk about how learning gives us choices beyond the street. We put a prayer card in his backpack and then we pray. I convince him to let go of the backpack long enough to hold my hand and his mother's- we pray for his time at school, giving thanks that no matter where we go or what we face, God is always there. I give thanks that they know that God is here in a caring place where they are loved.I silently am praying he will not be a statistic in the next ten years. I pray the new job lasts. I pray that the family stays together and this little boy feels loved. I pray in my heart that he can be an 8 yr old kid whose only focus is the light up Spiderman backpack- which by the way is REALLY cool. I pray each day.
On Sunday we have the Breakfast Fellowship, free breakfast for as many as 80 people. It is devotedly provided by a core group of dedicated laypeople who show great love and compassion. This past Sunday I was honored to lead the confession and forgiveness and the psalm and to offer the benediction. But before all of that, I experienced wonderful table time with a lot of people, from all walks of life, including 6 elementary school kids here with their uncle and father. Mostly boys, but one little girl who dressed up in a floral dress "Because it was church." One of the oldest boys told me he comes to the breakfast pretty often but he "made" the others come- he told them it was good to be here. They ate, they ran around, one or two decided to go to Sunday school and others took a bag of goodies "home." I give thanks they were here, they were fed and they smiled. I wonder how often they smile.
I also wonder on the other days of the week- how often do we reach out to others and tell them- You really need to be here? We all are needy in some way. In the midst of the kids I wonder who is the teacher and who is the student?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sermon in a Box

Here at the Pulpit in the Sky, the most disconcerting aspect of preaching is "Sermon in a Box" - this is my term of endearment for the Children's Time when each Sunday at each service one of the children brings forth a box which they had been given the prior Sunday. Whatever is in the box will then be revealed and the preacher will in a mystery of faith connect to a theme of the sermon for the day. Last Sunday when I was the preacher, I got a purple crayon at the first service. I bought myself some time by commenting about how purple was my favorite color. Then I asked if this crayon was a part of a box of other crayons. It was. A little more time about whether it was the small box or the really great box with like 100 or so and the "built in sharpener." Right I was on the latter. I talked about no matter how great the purple crayon was, the pictures we made with it could never be as great as the pictures that used lots of different crayons. The purple crayon was a part of something bigger, just like we are not meant to stand alone but be a part of something bigger-God's household. God intends us to be a part of that larger picture. Some other things filled in around that.

Second service I got the box and it contained two stuffed animals- both were dogs. One was a black and tan beanie baby type dog and the other was a chubbier husky type dog. I asked the owner if the dogs had names. They did. I held up the husky and asked it's name- "That one doesn't have a name." THUD. I asked about the other dog- turns out his name is Buster. Then I was told that I squeezed the stomach of the "Dog with No Name" it barks. We experimented with that. Really not finding much to say I finally bumbled onto each of the dogs was special in a different way- the way it looked, whether it had a name, or it made a cool barking sound. Both are in the owner's house. They each have different gifts. Each of us has different things that make us special- our gifts- we are all a part of God's house and it takes all of our gifts to make the house complete. I asked the kids to think about the things that make their friends special this week. WHEW!

These box sermons are a challenge. At each service I gave the box to a new child. There are two rules for the box contents- Nothing living and nothing dead. Deciding to have a little fun and knowing my supervising pastor would be preaching next, I encouraged the kids to live in God's freedom ( part of my sermon ) and that there were no rules. We all chuckled and the service continued.

SO this week in the box, a bottle of electric purple nail polish called "Funky Fingers." Lots of long pauses and a recognition that "Stump the Pastor" may have been achieved. Followed by, I must say, a really great save by the pastor. That was really funny but now I realize there may be a payback in my future.

I think maybe we need to add a new preaching course at LTSG-On the Spot Preaching!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Freed to Truly Serve the Lord

I'd like you to join me in some audience participation. Don't worry- trust me. Many of you will know what to say and when. It seems like an odd place to begin, but I'd like you to imagine we are the end of worship. I am not trying to get out of preaching. So imagine, we've already been gathered and reminded who God is for us; we've heard words of forgiveness, and a dazzling sermon (wink). We're ready to hear the call to "Go in peace. Serve the Lord." And we will respond with "Thanks be to God!" I knew you could do it! One could view this exchange "Go in peace and serve the Lord," as simply a convenient way to end the liturgy and leave church behind 'til next week. Yet this call to "serve the Lord" and be sent forth is the same call the Israelites heard after they had been gathered by Joshua in our Old Testament lesson. I invite you to contemplate with me what exactly it is we are proclaiming when we promise to serve the Lord in these times.

Before our Joshua story opens, the Israelites have been told that they're God's chosen people. God used Moses to liberate them from generations of slavery in Egypt and lead them to a new land. They witnessed God's might in parting the Red Sea so they could escape and it was so exciting! God gave them commands for living and asked them to trade their slavery and other gods for a new relationship with God as Master. They agreed to this relationship. But since then, they've been confused and wandering in the wilderness without a GPS system and God has been slow in fulfilling the big promise. As they journey to their destination not everyone has been happy to see them- they've been attacked on all sides by enemy tribes like the Amorites, and... Why are God's chosen people having to do this? Is this really the way it is supposed to be? They liked being the "chosen," but if this isn't really all that great why exactly do they have to stop worshipping their other gods? And why doesn't God share all of the details? Maybe they just need to take control. It's hard to wait and trust.

Moses gathered his inner circle to plan the next strategy, but they were divided about how to win the next big challenge. Each was convinced he should take charge. He knew what was needed. His view was right. Joshua was in the minority. He advised against rashly taking matters into their own hands. He urged waiting and trusting in God to provide. But I can just imagine it, "We're exhausted from all of this fighting and our patience is gone. There's trouble all around us, Joshua, and you say we should wait, not decide for ourselves?" He wasn't popular. Yet for his faith, God anointed Joshua the new leader, and they won the battle even when it seemed impossible.

Joshua's reward? Gather all the tired, impatient people who've been fighting amongst themselves, and challenging and complaining and continuing to seek out and worship other gods to hear Joshua speak God's words of promise after the bailout. Before the relationship is renewed, Joshua recounts a history of what God has done and who God is in this relationship, even now. This relationship has a history.

I encourage you to read the verses our lectionary omitted that relate this history which goes something like this:

God gave Abraham children even when he didn't believe it possible and tried to solve it another way. God gave more than a little piece of land, but enough that everyone could have space if they could share. When God's vision was corrupted, God brought deliverance, not as quickly as people wanted, and not in the way they thought, but God gave what was needed for that time. When trouble arose, God offered rescue in ways that are surprising- like using a hornet to drive enemies away. God spoke and the forces of nature obeyed and chaos subsided.

As I read, I was drawn to all of the actions of God for the people, "I gave… I heard you… I rescued… I delivered." But then I was drawn to what lies underneath- what kind of God would continually relate to us in this way? When the people grumbled, God could have become jealous and demanding, or simply tired of humanity, and invoked law and vengeance and wrath. Instead, underlying all of God's doing is a sense of God's being- as loving creator and provider. Angered and anguished, yet desiring a relationship, even now. Even after more challenging and turning away by the people who God had not so long ago freed. This is God's history.

Hearing Joshua, the people seem to get it. They have a bailout conversion and they promise this time to truly serve the Lord! Yet, this passage is not the end of Scripture. We don't hear the "all's well that ends well" music as Joshua rides off into the sunset-"MISSION ACCOMPLISHED." This is because the people have a history too- of quickly forgetting what God has done and how to live. After they promise, Joshua, still speaking for God, tells them they will FAIL to keep their promise. And they do -after lots of big talk, the "faithful" soon move on, building another altar to another god. They fail again and again in what they do, how they treat each other, and in trying to define each other by doing and having. God knows this will happen, but renews the relationship anyway! Joshua becomes one of a long line of prophets, culminating with God creating another relationship that will be everlasting. Instead of "manna for this day," God provides living bread and words of eternal life to a people continually imperfect in being; to a people who continually struggle.

The root of the struggle lies in what we learn from the Hebrew translation- The people don't just promise "to serve." They promise to TRULY serve the Lord. Liberated from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, they're being given the chance to liberate themselves from the bondage of their way of living, and all their competing gods, to TRULY serve one Lord- To let God order not just their actions but their existence. The question of whether they really can is the struggle that continues in us.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO TRULY SERVE THE LORD? How do we hear and live into this in our own time of challenges? Perhaps we hear "serve the Lord" primarily as a call to "Go and DO." But serving the Lord involves something deeper than just visible actions. We are challenged to enter a relationship not just of doing, but of being. More than a short-term "no risk" commitment. A long-term relationship, with all its ups and downs. "Serving" is not an event with a defined beginning and end, but a perpetual state- a state in which we stop fighting with ourselves and each other, stop struggling to serve other gods, and re-orient our lives to the one God. TO TRULY SERVE THE LORD requires inner transformation of our hearts and minds so that "whose we are" shapes our doing.

But we'd rather focus on our doing first. After all, we are a people of "doing." Our culture suggests that what we "do" establishes our identity. Ask a young child what he or she wants to be upon growing up and you will hear what someone wants to do. We like action. We like to be seen "doing." Our nation's history is forged not by our faith, as much as our industry and ingenuity. We honor the "self-made" man or woman. We praise technology, convincing ourselves that it's solely by our own effort that we reap the harvest. So, it's not surprising that one of the latest "how-to books" reviewed on CNN is entitled "Carve Your Own Road." Its author assures readers they can become the master or mistress of their own destinies, choosing their path, even in these times. They can choose and thus control every aspect of their lives to get what they want preferably before someone else does. We like to say that success is within our grasp. We also praise or criticize others based upon what they have "done" or "not done." And it becomes an impossible standard. When serving equals doing, we turn serving into Law. We try comparing ourselves to others- thinking "I do most things right- what about him, or her, or you?" But the truth is, nothing we can DO will bless this relationship. We all are in bondage and cannot break free. We are prisoners.

Today's lesson shows God turning to us over and over again. It also captures who we are- we keeping turning away to what we are sure gives us what we need. God continues to give, but we continue to believe we can do better. We keep searching for the answers we want and we deceive ourselves. We proclaim we will serve the Lord, but these words don't become a pattern of being that is "Written on our hearts." What we write on our hearts is based upon the sufficiency of our doing, and the other gods we worship, gods that cannot give what the Lord gives no matter how many times we ask, yet we challenge each other again and again for them- gods of land, and power and resources. In this way of living we are choosing who, or what, we serve.

To "TRULY serve the Lord" we must confront OUR other gods- we all have them. The things we truly worship- the god of career, investments, food or sports. Whatever it is we give pride of place; whatever it is we seek to give us comfort and peace. We have faith- that more of these gods will free us from the weight of the world. In Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Story, the main character, Scrooge, is confronted about his ways of living by a series of ghosts, one of whom is his former law partner, Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost appears, weighed down by clanking and rattling chains. A frightened Scrooge asks what the chains represent. Marley moans that the links of the chains were forged in his life in his choosing greed, pride and self-interest as his masters. When we serve our other gods, we too hold onto and forge new links of the chains that imprison and enslave us to these masters.

God offers freedom, yet we cringe at making God the new Lord and master of our world. "TRULY serving the Lord" means accepting that God's timetable and God's words order our lives. We're not sure about this freedom. It's said that when people are released from prison, some are unable to make the adjustment to freedom. Prison is unbearable, but it has structure and limitations. Being freed "on the outside" presents a whole new world of decisions and temptations. We get caught up in our plans. We say that this time we'll get it right, but there is a constant temptation. How can we let God lead when culture tells us otherwise? Old ways of living become too comfortable. It's frightening to leave behind old friends and old hangouts. It requires us. Like the Israelites, to walk into unknown territory, to live with a new identity and to face those who will tell us not to bother. This living is countercultural and it's hard. Like the Israelites, we get impatient. We don't want to struggle or wait for God. Perhaps we fear serving the Lord because it challenges our greatest other god, the god of self-sufficiency. We can't trust breaking free to serve the Lord. We are in bondage to that fear.

"TRULY serving the Lord" means we must trust in God's providing and letting God order our existence all of the time, rather than at times seeing God as the God of convenience- the "Turkey Hill" God. Maybe we'd rather only promise to serve the Lord when things are bad, or let God be in charge just long enough for that bailout. But do we really trust or do we keep our backup gods close by, just in case? If the preferred plan is Plan A and the fallback is Plan B- is God our Plan A or our fallback? Or perhaps we find ourselves trying to change the equation in our relationship with God to one of bargaining- "IF you do this God, I will do that." God isn't using this model. Thankfully God doesn't base our relationship on any of our terms.

Instead I'm reminded of my own growing up. I had my fair share of "bailout" conversions-times when I did something wrong and my Dad would sit me down for a "talking to." These talks always opened with "Take it from me- you don't have to do this the hard way." Advice followed about making the right choices. I wish I could say I faithfully followed his lead. I wanted to, but more often than not I wanted to believe that I knew better. Other options seemed so appealing and I was sure he just didn't get it. But it was only a matter of time before "I can't believe I have to bail you out of this jam- AGAIN!" could be heard. Perhaps this has happened to you too. We're saved in the nick of time, and we're incredibly grateful. We won't do THAT again. But then...after awhile, well… you know how it goes. We don't want to face the fact we might need to look at the world in a different way. We're relieved that we've been spared, but we also want to stomp our feet and whine a little, and chafe against the idea someone else knows best. Like sullen teenagers we swear our Parent just doesn't understand. We are in bondage to "I know better."

We all are in bondage.

Yet, in grace, God calls us to serve even though we're in bondage to all of these struggles. We're liberated from ourselves by a God who knows us and our struggles, but renews the relationship anyway, sending us to go in peace and serve the Lord. But we are not freed to just pick up our chains again on the way out the door. Instead we are no longer captive to our way of looking at the world. We're freed to live in the blessing of God's arrangement. To live thankfully in a world where God continues creating, ordering, toiling and arranging for us. Where God continues sustaining and redeeming this relationship even when we cannot. What "better" relationship is there than to let go of our striving, set free to focus on being in a household where God has it all covered?

Prisoners released from jail are often asked how they will spend their first day of freedom. We could ask how we will spend our days of freedom? We are freed to live in a world where no longer have to "look out for # 1." This is the world of our other gods. Freed to see ourselves as part of a much larger arrangement that includes others and their needs, not just our own. Freed to trust in God's providing for all, rather than stockpiling and striving. Freed to see that the phrase "as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" is not an individualistic promise. God is not our individual personal God, but Lord of the whole household. We're freed to adopt the much more expanded view of "household" of the Hebrew Scripture, where one's entire family tree by birth and marriage, hired hands and servants and everyone living on the land were all encompassed in the term "household." We're talking vast numbers of people, all part of God's household. Promising to live in this arrangement is a promise not only of how each of us will live, but how we will work to sustain the promise across the entire group- even when we or others stumble. God's arrangement is radical "big picture" thinking. We are called to embrace this arrangement of TRULY serving the Lord in this relationship where all of the land, and all of the towns and all of the resources are lovingly arranged by God for all in the household. We are called and we are freed to THIS very way of life where God is saying "take it from me- you don't have to do this the hard way." It seems too good to be true.

So can we really live as freed people, where what we do is shaped first by whose we are? We leave here again today with that chance, as a people claimed and liberated in spite of all of the times we have disagreed, grown impatient and challenged God and each other. God continues in ultimate faithfulness, knowing we are imperfect in reciprocating, yet calling us back again to serve in faith and trust in this way of life each day- to "TRULY serve the Lord." This week I encourage you- step out of the bondage of the way the world tells us things are. Remember the sending words "Go in peace, serve the Lord" and in thanksgiving to God, ask each day- how will I spend my freedom today?