Weekly Devotional: Stepping Out in Faith

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.                                                     —Genesis 12. 1 & 2

The passage above from Genesis, that tells the story of Abram, who at the time was seventy-five years old, is among my favorites. Notice that even at that age, Abram doesn’t question God about where he is going. Rather, the story tells us that Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Okay, I’ll admit that at times in my journey I have longed to hear God actually speak to me in a human voice as I imagined God spoke to Abram, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead, each time my future has taken a twist or turn I experienced God’s speaking as an insight or intuition. Often, I ultimately had to step out in faith trusting that God would be with me and direct my path.

And the journey shifts again. The New Church – Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ, is on the move. We have lost our lease and are having to consider where our next church home will be. Right now, we don’t know where we will go or how long we will stay. We don’t know when we will worship or what our worship will look like in the new place where God is sending us. That can be disconcerting, but it can also be comforting. I mean, in moments like these, what else can you do but rest in God?

Later in the book of Genesis, there is a mystical encounter between God and Abram. Having faithfully followed where God had led him, Abram is concerned because he still does not have an heir. It is then that God brings Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Then the story says, “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord counted Abram as righteous.” While in seminary, my Hebrew professor taught us that the Hebrew word that is translated as “believe” actually is more accurately translated as “trust.” So the passage above reads, “Abram trusted God, and the Lord counted Abram as righteous.” And that word “righteous,” can be translated as “holy” which also means “set apart for God’s work in the world.”

All of us, sooner or later, will find our circumstances changed, and often we will be required to step out in faith trusting in God’s good will for our lives, all the while not knowing how the story will end. I pray that as you journey into your future, known and unknown, that you will trust in the Lord with all your heart. Then, perhaps you too, as Abram did, will know that God has counted you as righteous, holy, set apart for God’s good work in the world. Now, that’s a blessing I can live with. What about you?

Holy One, my Alpha and Omega, my beginning and my ending. Show me the way you would have me go and give me courage to trust You with my future. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: Casting out Fear

 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.                                                                                  – 1 John 4:18

During this Season of Easter, the days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday, a small group of people from New Church are gathering on Tuesday evenings to discuss Michael Kinnamon’s book, The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear. It has been an important discussion given all that is happening in our world today. The threats from North Korea, the daily concerns raised by events in Washington, D.C., the ever-present awareness that none of that will matter because climate change is wreaking havoc across the globe and, of course, the division in our great country that seems to be bringing democracy to its knees. Yes, there is a lot to be afraid of.

Kinnamon begins his book with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi who said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.” Isn’t it true that fear is the real enemy? And, Kinnamon is quick to point out that all the great benevolent religions call us to understand that fear is the enemy. In fact, our Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures are filled with appeals to place our trust in God and to set aside fear and live.

But then in Chapter 2, Kinnamon offers this insight from Saint Thomas Aquinas who suggested that in a world filled with no shortage of real dangers, fear is natural and necessary. However, Aquinas pointed out fearlessness is generally a vice, because it means we don’t love anything enough to fear losing it. Fear can actually focus our attention and clarify our priorities.

So, it would seem that fear is the enemy if it is a fear that constricts and constrains us, but fear can also be a gift that helps us clarify our priorities. If that is so, then how are we to deal with our present day fears? What will keep us from becoming so fearful that we cannot function? What will help us keep our fears in perspective, so that they can be something that motivates us and enlivens us to act for the common good?

The writer of the First Letter of John tells us that love is the antidote to fear. Love will cast out that fear that paralyzes us. Love of God will help us keep life in perspective. Love of others will help us clarify our priorities. Love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of others, love of God are all things Jesus taught and lived. In a world that is spinning out of control with fear, maybe it’s time you and I find another way. Maybe it’s time we choose the way of Jesus, the One who loved perfectly. I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, I’m not nearly as afraid as I was.

Holy One, draw me close to you, remind me that your love is enough. Help me to offer that same love to others so that no one will need to live a life of debilitating fear. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Loving Your Neighbor…Even When They’re Wrong

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.               –       —Romans 12. 2

As someone who likes to read and study, this quote from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome has long been one of my favorites. I hear in this passage that we are to give attention to our intellectual life. However, as I have pondered the events of this week and weeks before, which have caused all of us with different points of view to line up on opposite sides of the political aisle, I have begun to rethink this passage with a broader perspective. A Facebook post from a high school acquaintance brings my new thinking into focus.

My friend posted information about the recent U.S. House of Representatives vote on the Affordable Health Care Act. She bemoaned the fact that, try as she might, she had been unable to understand what had been changed and what had been retained. She, correctly, I think, pointed out that each day there were articles and information shared in the ether, some touting the positives of the changes and some warning of the perils of change. She had even tried to read the bill herself, only to become discouraged. Certainly the same thing can be said about all our news, especially since it seems that we in this country are so equally divided, politically and religiously, about what constitutes good values. She ended her post by asking, “What are we to do?”

As I read back over this portion of Paul’s letter, there are important things that stand out for me as what I believe to be spiritual guidance in these days when we are at such odds. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world.”  Meaning for me that we have to spend some time asking ourselves, “To what will I conform my life?” In seminary, I was challenged to find the core Biblical understanding that would form my ministry, that one thing upon which I would stand. Like the Jewish people, both ancient and modern, I chose and continue to choose, the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6.5) And according to the teachings of the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, I too add the words, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18, Matthew 22.39, Mark 12.31, Luke 10.27) What would our lives and our world look like if we began each day with these words written on our hearts?

Might our minds then be renewed and we be transformed? Might we then be better able to discern what is the will of God for our lives and our world? Of course, none of this is easy. It is so much easier to bow up and get angry with those who disagree with us, to cut people out of our lives because they don’t see the world the way we do. Somehow, I can’t help but think that to do so is not the will of God. So, join me, won’t you? Let us, you and me, commit to doing our level best to meet hatred with love, fear with hope, death with life, and so be transformed, so that together we may discern the will of God, the good, acceptable and perfect will of our God.

Holy One, let your Spirit come upon the face of the earth and fill me with your presence. Open my heart and mind and teach me how to see others as your children. Transform me once again, I pray, in the name of Jesus my Christ. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord’s face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord’s countenance be lifted upon you, and give you peace.                                   Numbers 6:24-26

As many of you know my dad, Papa Hut, was recently hospitalized. Fortunately, he is doing better and we have moved him to a skilled nursing facility where he can be cared for safely. We chose to hospitalize him at a Roman Catholic hospital facility in Bryan, Texas called, St. Joseph’s Hospital. For years, this hospital was run by a group of nuns who still have a residence near the hospital. The day after Papa was hospitalized in the middle of the night, the priest who is head of chaplains at St. Joe’s, as it is commonly called, came by to say hello. Father John was gracious and kind, he thanked Papa for choosing to come to St. Joe’s, and as he departed he reached over and made the sign of the cross on Papa’s forehead and said, “The Lord bless you keep you.” In true form, though I’m sure he was still feeling very badly, Papa looked up at Father John, smiled his signature smile and thanked him for the blessing.

The tradition of our Christian faith, born from the ancient Hebrew faith, is that we bless one another. Prayers of blessings were and still are considered “life-giving.” And why not? To offer words of blessing are to place someone into the care of our God. If we add to that a gesture of touching, as in the case of Father John and the Roman Catholic tradition making the sign of the cross, we add depth of meaning to the blessing as we connect physically with the other person. Our tradition may not be to make the sign of the cross, or to even say a biblical blessing such as, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” but we might put an arm around someone’s shoulder, hold their hand, or embrace them while saying something as simple as “God bless you.”

Genuine, honest, sincere words of blessing, accompanied by an agreed upon touch, can actually cause someone who is hurting, physically or emotionally, to relax. That small act of blessing can slow a rapidly beating heart, give hope to someone who is hopeless, cause someone who is struggling to rest well. Of course, those kinds of blessings only come when we slow down enough to recognize someone is hurting and take the time to think about them and to bless them. Moreover, the act of blessing someone is not just for priests and pastors, but also for all who are children of God. After all, the first letter of Peter tells us; “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

I wonder what our world would be like if we spent our time finding ways to bless each other rather than curse each other. I only know that the blessing of Father John was balm for my sweet Papa Hut’s soul, and for mine as well.

Holy One, teach me to spend my life blessing others in Your Name, so that peace might come upon the face of the earth. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: At Yom Hashoah, a Prayer for Peace and Justice

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.             — Romans 12. 17 & 18

Sunday before last, I had the opportunity to attend a Yom Hashoah service at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. Yom Hashoah translates as Holocaust Day, and it is the day and the worship service at which Jews and others remember those who died in the Holocaust.

I was deeply moved by the service at which every single seat was taken. The music was incredible, all sung in Hebrew. We listened as children of Holocaust survivors told stories of their parents – about how they had survived the violence of the Holocaust and about some of whom had participated in the Resistance. Often during the stories, I felt my head shaking as I learned of the atrocities perpetrated on the Jews and others who were marginalized by the German leadership. I was deeply touched that in his introductory remarks the rabbi made it clear that we cannot let this kind of violence ever take place again, not against Jews, nor anyone else. He invoked a deep sense of peace and justice among all of gathered there.

However, the moment that moved me the most was when, at the end of the worship service, everyone in the chapel stood and in Hebrew recited the Kaddish. The Kaddish is a hymn of praise to God and when mention is made of “saying Kaddish,” this refers to rituals of mourning. Mourners say Kaddish to show that despite the loss, they still praise God. After concluding the Kaddish, everyone remained standing and sang a closing hymn in Hebrew. It was stunningly beautiful. It was so beautiful because here we were a group of people, many of whom are descendants of Holocaust survivors, who are committed to remembering the suffering, and yet choose to hope for a better world and to do so by praising God.

I left the service wondering if I have that same kind of commitment, to praise God in spite of any sorrows or sufferings. Do I and others like me have the ability to live into the instructions of Paul not to pay back evil for evil but to live peaceably with all. I wondered what it would be like if all of us, children of God, could commit to the work of peace and justice, so that the suffering of others, especially those most marginalized by the powers and principalities of our world, might not have to suffer any more.

I pray for that kind of world. I hope for that kind of world. And so I say with my Jewish sisters and brothers:

May Your great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed You, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen

Weekly Devotional: The Struggle for Higher Moral Ground

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2. 5-8 NRSV

Today is Good Friday. As usual, I find myself contemplating all the events surrounding the arrest, trial, execution and death of Jesus. As I think about the political and religious authorities and the people, even some of Jesus’ closest companions, complicit in the violence against Jesus, I can’t help but think of the words of Roman Catholic priest, theologian and professor, Henri J. M. Nouwen, when he wrote:

Authority and obedience can never be divided, with some people having all the authority while others have only to obey. . . It perverts authority as well as obedience. A person with great authority who has nobody to be obedient to is in great spiritual danger. A very obedient person who has no authority over anyone is equally in danger.

Nouwen pointed out that Jesus taught, healed, and lived with great authority, but his whole life was complete obedience to God, as when Jesus, said, “Abba, let it be as you, not I, would have it” (Matthew 26.39). The Apostle Paul also points to Jesus’ full and complete obedience to God quoting the Christological hymn already being sung in his day, that Jesus, “became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

I can’t help but believe that now, as bombs drop and sabers rattle, and people, who have the least authority are being increasingly marginalized by decisions being made by the leadership of our country, that Jesus is weeping. Surely it is time for those of us who follow in Jesus’ way, seeking to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, who strive for peace in our world – peace of mind and heart, but also peace among all people and nations, and who value and love God’s creation, need to call our elected and appointed leaders, those in authority to be obedient to the greater good for all, not just for some and not just for our nation.

It is startling to know that yesterday, Holy Thursday, the day that we remember Jesus telling us to “love one another as I have loved you,” that our nation’s military chose to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb we have in our vast arsenal on the country of Afghanistan. On our holiest of days violence was done in our name.

On that same day, in a private ceremony, a bill making it possible for the states of our nation to pull funding for various health organizations, primarily Planned Parenthood, that serve the poorest of women with their health needs, was signed into law. And what was it Jesus taught us, “you did it to the least of these?”

I could go on, but you watch the news, you know what is happening. Things done under the cover of darkness and behind closed doors in our name surely ought to make us think about the words of Nouwen again, and the questions he raises at the end of his writing on authority and obedience, “Do we live our authority in obedience and do we live our obedience with authority?”

On this Good Friday, remembering the life and death of Jesus Christ reminds us that the powers and principalities of this world are still at work today. Fortunately, today is not the end of the story. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we will celebrate on Sunday morning, April 16, is a reminder that our Creator God, our Redeemer Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit our Guide and Comforter has a different vision for our world. Perhaps more than ever we need to remember Nouwen’s words again (the italics are mine), “A people with great authority who have nobody to be obedient to are in great spiritual danger.” Then it is incumbent upon people of faith and people of good will and people committed for the common good for all people and for creation must call ourselves and our leaders to a higher moral authority.

To do nothing, to say nothing can only mean that our Jesus, who had an affinity for the poor and the marginalized, who is called the Prince of Peace, is crucified once again.

Ah, Holy Jesus, call to us across time and space, challenge us to rise up and seek to live our lives in obedience to God so that the authority that is given us is used with wisdom and compassion. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: What Our Future Depends Upon

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock! Stir up Your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved.    –Psalm 80:1-3 (NRSV)

I have been praying and pouring over a book I read years ago to try and find words for this devotional today.

Since learning of the attack of poison gas on the people of Syria and then, last night, learning of the United States’ attack on an airfield there, I have found it difficult to think of anything else. My heart grieves for the people of Syria, so many of whom have been killed in the violence. I think about all those who have fled their country only to be faced with countries, like our own, closing doors to their plight.

I know that I have a very limited view of this global crisis. I realize that the present administration of the United States is much more informed about everything that is happening. I also recognize that there are no easy answers here. The regime in Syria is at war with its own people. Consequently, innocent people—women, men and children—are being killed by their own government.

Now, our government attacks a target in their country, destroying it. From there, countless countries weigh in on whether or not it was the right or wrong thing to do. Can you see the forces lining up against each other? I fear that it will only be a matter of time before there is another war, and I am concerned that this time it may not be confined to a particular region of the world.

So, what is a person of faith, what is a follower of Jesus, to say and do about all of this? The book I turned to for wisdom is one written by United Methodist theologian and scholar, Walter Wink. The book, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (1998), is a summary of a three-book, intensive study on “powers and principalities” in the New Testament scriptures.

In the book, Wink talks about the “Myth of Redemptive Violence,” saying that “redemptive violence is, in short, nationalism become absolute. This myth speaks for God; it does not listen for God to speak.” Wink then goes on to write, “The Domination System—a system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all—grows out of the fundamental belief that violence must be used to overcome violence.” This is the Myth—that violence can stop violence, which has never worked in the history of humankind.

Okay, that’s a lot to digest. But, it is important for us to understand in the midst of the rising violence around the world and even here at home. So, I ask again, what is a person of faith, what is a follower of Jesus to be and do living in the midst of the Domination System and the Myth of Redemptive Violence?

Well, as simplistic as this is going to sound, it is essential for our future. We are called to pray as the Psalmist did, asking God to hear us, restore us, turn God’s face to us and come and save us. And not just us—meaning you and me—but that God will save our world. Then, if we are really serious about following Jesus, we will commit to lives of non-violence in our words, our actions, and our very thoughts. Thinking “I hate him” is detrimental and violent to your state of mind.

Finally, you and I need to seriously think about how we can impact our communities, our states and our nations by writing letters and emails, making phone calls, going to rallies, marches and, most importantly, meetings and standing for, and speaking for, the rights of those most marginalized by our society and most harmed by the Myth of Redemptive Violence.

I am growing more and more concerned about the state of our nation and the world today. I hope you are, too, and I hope and pray that you will join me in being the living, breathing, loving, giving and even dying to self-presence of Jesus Christ in our world. Our future is depending on it.

O Shepherd of Israel, listen! You who lead us like a flock! Stir up Your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let Your face shine upon us, that we may be saved. Amen.