Weekly Devotional: “Love Is As Strong As Death”

Emanuel-AME-ChurchSet me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion  fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.

-Song of Solomon 8:6-7

If you’re like me you continue to struggle with the events of a week ago, last Wednesday evening, June 17, when the blessed nine were killed. While there have been news reports about the event, the hatred, the racism, the violence, as well as questions about the future of our nation’s moral base, I have found it hard to find words to express what I continue to feel about this tragedy.

I am clear that God did not cause this. I am equally clear that the young man who perpetrated this awful violence did so from a blend of nature and nurture. It seems to me that there was something deeply wrong within his psyche and something deeply wrong somewhere in his upbringing and our culture that led him to believe that the killing of African Americans was, in some distorted way, a necessity. None of this makes sense to me. What I am sure about is that God is at work in this violence just as God was at work in the violence when Jesus, our Christ, was executed more than two thousand years ago.

As I have watched all of the reporting on the event and the aftermath, I am clear that “love is strong as death,” that “many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” In the week following this horror I have seen more people praying than ever before. I have witnessed countess gestures of goodwill. I have listened in silent awe to the words of the families of those who were killed offering forgiveness for the young man who destroyed those who were loved most and best. And today, one week after the violence and death of last week, members of Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church gathered in the same room where those who were slain had welcomed the shooter into a time of Bible study and prayer to take up the mantle and continue with their Bible study.

Evil would have not only killed those saints last week; it would have also hoped for race war. Evil would have sought to silence the hopes and dreams of a church. Evil would have desperately tried to distract us from the hope of the realm of God being made manifest on earth as it is in heaven. But evil did not win this week, not the evil of hate, not the evil of prejudice, not the evil of racism, not the evil of violence. And death did not win. Love wins. God wins. Hope wins.

Now let us commit to being part of the changes that must take place in our country and the world for God’s realm to come upon the face of the earth. Amen? Amen!

P.S. If you want to see the groundswell of hope, check out this link.

Weekly Devotional: Embracing Mystery, Living the Questions

MysteryofFaithWithout any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: Jesus was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.

1 Timothy 3:16 (NRSV – Adapted)

Just this week I started reading a book by Robert Farrar Capon entitled, The Mystery of Christ and Why We Don’t Get It. This book intrigues me for several reasons. I like that six of the twelve chapters are taken from his pastoral counseling sessions, through which he shares some important ideas about our faith. For example, while the first chapter deals with a woman who comes to him seeking direction for her adulterous affair, he spends that session helping her to better understand the idea of “salvation through grace.”

Now, mind you, when I talk about salvation I am not speaking about being saved from an “afterlife burning hell.” Nor is Capon. Instead, “salvation” is about being saved from separation from God brought on by our personal actions and choices. Chapters that further discuss the theological and Biblical understandings of the issue follow each of those chapters.

The reason I like this approach so much is that I believe that all of us come to God with our questions about life and faith. And it is clear to me that we use one of two ways of thinking about faith. Some people approach faith as something set in stone (think the Ten Commandments). In other words, there is right and wrong, good and bad, etc. There is no room for questions or wonder, awe and mystery. Of course most of us, even those of us who think of ourselves as open-minded, use some measure of this kind of thinking in our living. The other approach to life and faith is to understand that we are in the midst of a mystery, and we can engage that mystery through questions and doubt, wonder and awe, listening and discovering.

In his book, Capon is trying to get us to think about our day-to-day living and to ask ourselves how our faith fits into our lives and how our ways of thinking of faith as either black and white, or filled with mystery, might help us engage our relationship with God.

The earliest followers of Jesus were clear that they were dealing with a mystery that would be revealed to them through the Holy Spirit, much like the writer of the Letter of James expresses in the scripture cited above.

I wonder what the world would be like if all of us were a bit less certain about our “facts of faith” and more willing to engage the mystery. Might the Holy Spirit speak? Would we be listening if she did?

I wonder.

Holy One, you are the creator of this mystery called life. Help me to not be afraid, but to live into the mystery of it all, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, our Christ. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: “Yes, yes, yes” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you”

The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.                                                                                        –  Job 33:4 (NRSV)

Courtney Pinkerton

Courtney Pinkerton

Following my devotional time this morning I checked in on Facebook and ran across a blog by a friend and colleague. Courtney Pinkerton is a holistic life and leadership coach and this morning reminded me of something that is essential to our health and well-being. During the summer she is offering suggestions for what she calls, “The Summer of Meditation Challenge.” You can sign up at courtneypinkerton.com.

Courtney explains her Surprising Practice #1, writing, “First, this: Meditation is not something you do. It is something you enjoy. To avoid the most common frustration I hear in my meditation class and force your mind to be empty, instead, walk. And try out this delightful, simple, easy practice from Thích Nhất Hạnh, master of mindfulness and all things good. Listen here. We say yes to life. And thank you.”

If you listen to Courtney’s instructions you will hear her tell you that as you walk, take in a breath saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” And then as you breathe out say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” How very simple and yet how important. I believe this practice of paying attention to your breathing is important because as the passage from Job reminds us, The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. By being aware of our breath and including thoughts of affirmation and thanks, we are acknowledging our relationship with God and giving thanks for our life and all the gifts of God.

I believe this kind of practice can change us from the inside out. It reminds us of the very breath that God has given us, and by spending time in paying attention to our breath we are able to be present in this moment. All the heartaches of the past take a backseat to the present moment. All the fears of the future take a backseat to the present moment. We suddenly realize that in the present moment we are with God and God is with us, and that is all that is necessary for our complete peace and profound joy.

I invite you to consider a simple mindfulness meditation whether walking or sitting. It doesn’t have to be long. Start, as Courtney suggested, with five minutes. I think you will be amazed at how it will transform your moment-by-moment, day-to-day living.

Breathe on me breath of God. Fill me with life anew, that I may love the way you love and do what you would do. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Holding fast by holding to prayer

bible-hands1You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your God in heaven.             Matthew 5. 43-45 (NRSV – Adapted)

ISIS has come to Dallas/Ft. Worth. With the recent shootings at the Culwell Center in Garland, provoked by an art exhibit featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, those of us in Texas, and perhaps across the United States, have to face a stark reality. It seems that the violence we thought was limited to the Middle East and other countries far away has now crossed into the U.S.

I watched with great sorrow as the mother of one of the shooters was interviewed. She was grieving the death of her son, trying to make sense of the fact that she didn’t know he had become radicalized in his ideology, and yet she did not blame the police officer who shot her son. In the midst of her tears and heartache, she showed us what love looks like. She loved her son, no doubt, but she was also able to extend that love to the officer who shot her son by acknowledging that he was doing his job.

If you’re like me, you are probably shaken by what seems to be uncontrolled violence occurring in our country and in our world, especially when that violence strikes so close to home. Many, many people will choose to respond to that violence out of their fear and choose to fight violence with violence.

But Jesus, who also lived in a violent time and culture, sought to shift the thinking of his day. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” In other words, if your neighbor did something against you, harmed you, was violent toward you, the common response was to hate that person and pay them back, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus, however, continued his teaching saying, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

I know that it is easy to think that your prayers don’t matter, but I believe that your prayers, especially your prayers for your enemies can transform your life and our world. In fact, Robert Benson writing in his book, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (Tarcher, 2001), reminds us that in the Hebrew tradition, “there is told the story of the thirty-six who are faithful—so faithful, in fact, that God refuses to have the world come to an end as long as they are alive. It is their devotion that holds the world together. No one but God knows who they are; even they themselves do not know.”

What if you are one of the thirty-six? What if we all made it our practice to pray so faithfully that we might change our world? Might our transformed lives mean that we would be able to make our enemies our friends? I know it is a long, hard journey toward friendship, justice and peace, but it is a journey of saving our lives and our world that seems to me is certainly worth our time and our efforts. What if it is your prayers that are holding our world together? What if?

Holy One, today, as hard as it is for me to say, I ask you to bless those who have done harm to me and to our world. I pray you will bring peace to their hearts so that violence may cease. Grant me enough courage to be a person of peace. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: As Supreme Court Considers Marriage Equality, Remember That It’s The Covenant That Truly Counts

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”                                                                                                (Ruth 1. 16 & 17)

scotusrainbowflagThe words spoken in scripture by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, have for years been some of the most popular words read at weddings. The truth is, these words of covenant have been used in weddings of a man and a woman, in weddings of two women and in weddings of two men. Why? Because the words are a simply and yet beautiful covenant of faithful love, the covenant that most couples on their wedding day hope for in their marriage.

This Tuesday, April 28, the Supreme Court of the United States hears arguments regarding marriage equality. As they do, I believe it is important to note that for centuries, likely since the beginning of human relationships, people have pledged their love for each other and their desire to be in relationship with each other whether they were a man and woman, two women or two men. Over time those covenant promises were formalized by the majority culture as wedding vows, but they have always been made outside legal marriages by those denied the right to marriage.

In fact, in counseling couples coming for marriage it is my experience that long before the couple makes it to my office to talk about their coming marriage and wedding they have already promised to love each other for a lifetime, just a Ruth promised to Naomi.

While I am praying mightily for a favorable decision from our Supreme Court to find in favor of marriage equality because it would give lesbian and gay people the legal right to marry across our nation, and with that legal right the human rights and benefits that come with marriage, I know that it is God who actually ordains faithful covenant relationships.

I know that long before the State of Massachusetts approved marriage equality more than 10 years ago, lesbian and gay couples made covenant to live in relationship as loving partners, to create families and blend families and that those covenants have often stood the test of time and the vows of loving covenant “until we are parted by death.”

I know that even if the Supreme Court approves marriage equality as the “law of the land,” pastors will retain their right to determine who they agree to marry, just as they do today. Even so, I know that regardless of the outcome, love will win, and all people will continue to live in loving, committed, covenant relationships. It would, however, be a great bending of the arc of history toward justice if the Supreme Court found in favor of equality and human rights for lesbian and gay people. May it be so.

Holy One, give wisdom to the justices of the Supreme Court as they decide the future for so many people. May your justice for all prevail. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Children, Inequality, You and Me

But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs belongs.”                                                                         Matthew 19:14 (NRSV)

I have just today finished reading a Washington Post article that a friend sent to me. The article by Emily Badger is entitled, “The Terrible Loneliness of growing up poor in Robert Putnam’s America.”

no-inequality-mdThe article tells the story about political scientist Robert Putnam, a recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Award presented by President Obama.

As it turns out, Putnam grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, a working-class neighborhood, and in his years since leaving Port Clinton for college, he has, as we like to say in the South, “a craw stuck in his throat.” Badger explains, “The Harvard political scientist, famous for his book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2001) that warned of the decline of American community, has returned to his alma mater, Swarthmore College, to talk, this time, about inequality. Not between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but between two groups that have also fallen further apart: children born to educated parents who are more likely to read to them as babies, to drive them to dance class, to nudge them into college themselves — and children whose parents live at the edge of economic survival.”

For the last three years Putnam has been seeking to make “the inequality in opportunity for kids to the central issue in the 2016 presidential election. Not how big government should be or what the “fair share” is for the wealthy, but what’s happening to children boxed out of the American dream.” (Badger)

So, what about that? Didn’t Jesus tell us that we should let the children come to him because to such belongs the very realm of heaven? If that is so, shouldn’t one of our top priorities be to make a difference in the inequality between those families who at increasing rates have the ability to give their children opportunities and those who do not? What if those of us who have enough decided to make a difference in the life of one child in a working-poor family or a single-parent household? What would that look like? How might it change our world?

I am convinced that if we really want to be the people of God that Jesus called us to be, we will have to make some dramatic efforts to make a difference in our world today for those children who do not have someone to read to them every night. Several years ago, I saw a program on some of the poorest places in Texas where families scrape by on little to nothing and children have to ride the bus for hours just to get to school. When one little elementary aged girl was asked what she wanted she didn’t say new clothes or toys she simply said, “I would like a little more to eat.”

In some translations the words of Jesus are, “Suffer the children to come unto me.” Maybe it is time we suffered just a little so that the children can be fed and can have what they need.

Holy One, it must break your heart that we live in the wealthiest country in the world and yet some of your children go to bed hungry. Help me, I pray, to do one thing today and everyday to make a difference in the great divide between those who have and those who do not. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: We Need the Power of Resurrection All Year Long

Claim-Your-Resurrection-PowerWhen Peter saw the beloved disciple, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to Peter, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”                                   -John 21:21-22 (NRSV)

 

 

(My friends, this is my 50th blog post. It’s hard to believe! Thank you for your continued love and support. As I always, I welcome your comments!)

Following a wonderful Easter worship service and day, it felt to me as if God’s goodness had surely come upon the face of the earth and that this year things would be different. This time, we would love one another. This time, we would care for our neighbor. This time, we would make peace with our enemies.

And then came Monday, and the news was the same—wars raging in far away places, violence in our own mean streets, vitriol coursing across the airways and internet, and then came the news of the shooting death of Walter Scott, unarmed and running away and shot in the back by a police officer. Scott was killed by someone sworn to “keep the peace.” And now more than one mother weeps, and all of us feel a little less safe, a little less sure.

I keep wondering if Easter actually means anything any more. It seems to me that if we truly believe in God, if we truly believe in the power of the resurrection, then our lives would be different, our world would be different. Of course, that is how evil works in the world. It convinces us that there is nothing we can do; there is nothing that will change the downward cycle of judgment, prejudice, fear and hate.

Perhaps that is really what Easter is about. Maybe the true power of Easter is to keep us faithful, to give us courage to live in the mean-time, the time between the resurrection of Christ and ours. Maybe the real purpose of the resurrection is to remind us that God is not through with our world yet, and if the resurrection of hope, the resurrection of peace, the resurrection of love is going to become a reality, then it is going to depend on us.

And I only know one way for that to happen. As Peter sat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the resurrected Jesus told him not to worry about what people said about the beloved disciple or for that matter anyone. Instead, Jesus repeated the call that began his ministry, he said to Peter, “Follow me.” In the Greek that phrase is an imperative statement as if Jesus is saying, “You, follow me!”

That is, I believe, what will change our world and bring resurrection, the change in each of us as we follow faithfully in the way of Jesus, which means that we will live fully, love wastefully and be all that God created us to be. May it be, so that peace will come upon the face of the earth and all will have what they need.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0aAkOe87mo