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.

Weekly Devotional: Emerging from the Desert – New Life!

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing . . .. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.               – Isaiah 35. 1 & 2

A few years ago, I purchased a pop-up greenhouse, so that I could keep my plants from freezing during the winter. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The problem is that the greenhouse is conveniently located in the backyard, so it is easy to forget about.

Each day, each week, I would tell myself, “You really need to go water those plants.” Still, I would conveniently forget. After a while, I couldn’t bring myself to go out to the greenhouse because I was afraid all of my plants were dead. I was particularly grieved over a heritage rosebush that I have nursed through many winters and dry summers. Fortunately, I had a friend who would come over and occasionally water for me.

Then, just this week, trusting that we wouldn’t have another freeze, I finally pulled all of my plants out of the greenhouse. As I expected, a few of them were dry and dead, but interestingly, several of the plants were showing signs of life and even springtime growth.

Yesterday, I went out for a second round of watering and discovered that the rosebush, so dear to me, was not only alive, it was thriving! It would seem that even though I had not done my part to sustain life for the rosebush, life was still coursing through its roots, stems and leaves. It was not dead, as I had assumed—it was alive.

As I watched the water bead up on the beautiful new leaves, I couldn’t help but think about promises of God given to the people of Israel. You see, they had been a conquered people, living in a foreign land. We could safely assume that their lives were dry as a dessert. But through the Prophet Isaiah God promises the people of Israel that upon their return, “the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; and rejoice with joy and singing.” Moreover, through this new life the promise continues and “they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.”

And, that same promise is ours as well, even if we haven’t done our part to bring about new life, or even if something beyond our control has caused us to be living dry, desert lives. God will bring us out of the desert of our living and into new life where we can see the glory of the Lord.

We are coming up on the most important Sunday of the year, the Sunday when we will join in the proclamation of Isaiah that God will cause the deserts in our lives to bloom again, and that in that renewed life we will see the glory of God. So, no matter where you are in this journey of life, no matter how dry the landscape of your days, the promise of God that we will proclaim on Easter Sunday and every Sunday, is that our God is a God of hope, a God of love and a God of life, bringing even Jesus Christ from death to life and, so, us as well. It is an amazing promise of hope for you and me, and even a small rosebush. Thanks be to God.

Holy One, open my eyes that I may see your glory even in the dry, desert places of my living. Help me to hear your promise of new life for even me. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Trusting in the Sufficiency of God

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.        Psalm 23.1 NRSV

These opening words of Psalm 23 are perhaps some of the most well known words of Holy Scriptures. I particularly like the way the New Living Translation of the Bible translates this passage, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.”

Now, you and I both know that we live in a culture in which many of us have far more than we need. So, I can’t help but wonder if we ever really take the time to contemplate what these ancient words mean. What does it mean to place your trust in the Shepherd? What does it mean to declare to the God of all creation, “I have all that I need?”

Just yesterday I was getting out of my car, and suddenly I noticed a small red bird. He was not a cardinal, so I think he may have been a rose finch. He was beautiful. But what was striking to me is that he was sitting on the grass feasting on the seeds of what looked like a dandelion. He didn’t startle or fly off, so I stopped for a moment and watched him. I couldn’t help but think about how this tiny bird had everything he needed.

I wonder why we can’t be like that. Is it that we are numb from being surrounded by all that we have? Is it that we fight and scratch to make sure we have enough and more than enough? Is it that we are convinced that we can somehow control our lives and our future? Or, maybe it’s that we are afraid of the world “out there,” and so we fill up our lives with stuff and things and activities and events to buffer ourselves? Or, perhaps it is that we have just become so accustomed to having so much, to being so, “full up” that we don’t have room, we aren’t empty enough to receive the Presence and peace that we so desperately seek?

And I think of all the people who don’t have enough, not enough healthy food or clean water, not enough hope, not enough love. And if that is the case, might my giving up a little of all that I have, all the stuff and food and clean water, all the money and belongings, all the hope and love that I have make the world a better place for someone who doesn’t have what they need?

I don’t know, but what I do know is that when I say the words, “You Lord, are my Shepherd, I have everything I need,” the beat of my heart slows down, and I am awash with peace, I am able to see my life and the world more clearly. My trust of the Shepherd increases, and I know that I can live in ways, so that all may have what they need. And then, well, I’m like that little red bird feasting on the dandelion, filled up with the gifts of God. Then I am able to exclaim, “I have everything I need!” It’s a good place to be. Won’t you join me there?

Holy One, remind me that in You, I have all I need. Then help me to so live that others who do not have enough will have what they need as well. You are my hope and peace and for that I give You thanks and praise. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: This Lent, Give Up Worrying

Jesus continued, And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  -Matt. 6:27-29

This year for the Season of Lent at New Church – Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ, I am preaching a sermon series called, “Give It Up.” Yes, Lent is that 40-day season when it is typical for people to “give up” something. And, often our practice is to “give up” something very practical and tangible. For example, we might “give up” chips, or chocolate, alcohol or shopping. We laugh and joke, or whine and complain about how hard it is to do this for 40 days. We long for Easter Sunday when we can go back to our old habits.

What we tend to forget is that the whole idea for giving up something during Lent was to remember the passion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Somehow, giving up chocolate pales in comparison to Jesus’ sacrifice of loving in the face of hate, forgiving those who were putting him to death, and choosing to trust God with his life even if it meant he would die. We forget that the early Christian church, that instituted the Season of Lent, did so as a means of preparing our hearts and lives for the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.

Historically, the Lenten practices were those of repentance – turning and going the other way, awakening to a new way of living; fasting – abstaining from food, drink or sleep to focus on a period of spiritual growth and a deeper focus on God; and prayer – an intentional listening and conversation intended to usher us into communion with God. These practices often resulted in people beginning to live sacrificially and generously as a reflection of the life of Jesus.

So, could it be that our way of giving up something for Lent is all wrong? As I thought about all this, it occurred to me that we might consider giving up something “intangible” for one week at a time. So, last week I invited our faith community to “give up” five minutes each day just to sit in silence in God’s presence. This week, we will take on my nemesis, “worry.” What if we were able, just for one week to give up worrying? What would that look like? What would that feel like?

Jesus asked us to do as much in his Sermon on the Mount saying, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” By following Jesus’ teaching, might we see the world differently? Might we live differently? So, let’s try it for one week, shall we? Maybe then it won’t seem so difficult and we might even discover our lives transformed, not just for a week, not just for 40-days, but perhaps for a lifetime.

Holy One, in the name of Jesus our Christ, I pray that you will help me for this one week to set aside all that I worry about and instead seek your presence so that I may live fully, love wastefully, and be all that you have created me to be. Amen

Weekly Devotional: Resist by Observing the Sabbath

sabbath-rest-348902821-300x200Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.-       Exodus 20:8

Last year, our church did a book study on Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance. It seems like I had always known that one of the “Ten Commandments” was that we were to keep Sabbath. I also knew that for years Christians kept Sabbath on Sundays and our American culture literally shut down on Sundays as part of that tradition. Gradually, however, the “Blue Laws,” that protected Sundays for Christian worship and as a day of rest, as well as public schools that often did not schedule events on Wednesdays and Sundays so that people could go to church, eventually did away with those protections and Sundays became just like any other day of the week.

What that means for our majority Christian culture is that today most of us do not keep Sabbath. In fact, most of us work on Sundays and every other day of the week. As our New Church book study group began to delve into Brueggemann’s book, I realized just how important keeping Sabbath is. I also began to notice that there are Jews in our neighborhood who keep their Friday evening to Saturday evening Sabbath faithfully, even walking to synagogue.

The important thing for us to remember, at least according to Brueggemann, is that keeping Sabbath is more than setting aside a day for the worship of God and for rest, though it is surely that. Keeping Sabbath is actually an act of resistance against the pervasive 24/7 work demands that consume our days and nights. So, it is an act of resistance to set down your phone, to turn off your television and electronic devices, to step away from your computer. It is an act of resistance to worship God, to take a day off or a half-day for rest; to listen to music, write a letter, read a book.

I feel like I have known this truth all my life, but I have hardly ever practiced it, except perhaps for my childhood years. If you’re like me, we have spent our lives trying to prove that we are somehow “good enough” by working 24/7, by being connected to the world 24/7, by having our brains in overdrive 24/7. The truth is, that busyness keeps us from meaningful relationships with God, with others and even with our own best selves.

I learned this truth again this week. As a Valentine’s Day gift I had given Stephanie a tee-time at a local golf course. So this week, we cleared our schedules, turned off our phones, and went and played 9-holes of golf. I can count on one hand the number of times we have done that in the last 5 years. As it turns out, the weather was beautiful, and though our golf shots weren’t so beautiful, we had a wonderful time. We saw turtles, ducks, geese, a blue heron, and many squirrels. It was quiet, and we had a chance to talk and laugh. It was a half-day Sabbath. I returned to my work refreshed and renewed. What did that old commercial say, “Try it, you’ll like it!” More than that, keeping Sabbath as an act of resistance will renew your soul and remind others just how important keeping Sabbath is for all of us and for our world.

Holy One, remind me how important it is to stop all the “doing,” and instead practice “being.” Help me to keep Sabbath and draw close to You. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Telling TheTruth Matters – A Lot!

hontestyThen Jesus said to the people who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”       –   John 8. 31 & 32

During this season of Epiphany, a small group of our New Church community has been gathering weekly to read and discuss a book by J. Philip Wogaman entitled, What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions. As you might expect we discovered that the faith traditions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other smaller faith traditions have some clear differences from Christianity. Wogaman reminds us throughout the book that it is common to compare the best of our faith with the worst of other faiths and warns against doing that. Even with all our differences, the thing that surprised me the most during our study was just how much our various faith traditions have in common.

For example, in every one of the traditions we have studied, the idea of the Golden Rule is present, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Included in those ideas are the appeals for us to treat others with respect and compassion. And almost all of the traditions have something to say about the importance of “truth” in our personal lives, in the lives of our communities and in the world.

While many people believe that “truth” as it relates to the understanding of faith is relative, there is still a broad appeal across faith traditions for us to “seek the truth,” and to speak truthfully to others. For example, Zoroastrianism, a faith that has its origins in what was Persia, now Iran, emphasizes an uncompromising commitment to truth. Their teachings say, “We are always bound to be truthful! There is never an adequate reason to lie, or even to misrepresent.” Now, there may be some extraordinary circumstances when someone might lie. For example, to save someone from being killed, as many Germans and others did during the rise of the Third Reich by hiding Jews and lying about it, but most daily circumstances do not require that of us. So, the admonition to be truthful is important, and the fact that every major religion and most minor ones instruct us that “truth” needs to be a primary value that we practice, means that it is essential to our living in faithful community.

Now, if we consider the Christian teaching of Jesus, found in the Gospel of John, there is an even more compelling reason to seek the truth and to speak the truth. Jesus teaches us, “the truth will make you free.” And isn’t that what happens when we are truthful with ourselves, with others and with God? Don’t we experience a freedom that allows us to fully be who God created us to be?

I believe many of us would benefit by examining what we say we believe to be true, by being open to what others say they believe to be true, and by seeking the truth in all our life’s circumstances and then committing to speak and live the truth as we best understand it. It is a tall order, but think of the freedom it will bring, not just to you but also to others. In the end, truth matters, it matters a lot.

Holy One, draw near to me, remind me that my ability to seek and to speak the truth is essential for others’ freedom and for my own. Show me your way and help me to walk in it. Amen.