Weekly Devotional: “I Am Because WE Are”

iamDay by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day-by-day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.                                                                                                  –Acts 2:46-47

This semester, I have the opportunity to teach a class on Christian Worship at Brite Divinity School. In our first class this week, we had a discussion in which one student pointed out that we often think about our faith as a deeply individual experience, but that scripture teaches us that faith is also about community.

That statement articulated one of the challenges of our Christian faith. The truth is, our faith is deeply individual, but is also communal. Still, many churches often focus only on the individual journey. Consequently, many of us have come to believe that the highest form of our faith is the expression of our full individual self. As a result, we become hyper-individualists.

However, it is in community, in shared understanding, shared experience, shared purpose that the collective spirit of our faith becomes possible. It is in that shared experience, in genuine, supportive and accountable presence to each other and before God that the work of justice and peace for God’s realm on earth actually becomes possible.

The South African philosophy “Ubuntu,” translated as humanness and expressed in the phrase “I am because we are,” can be seen as the organizing principle of community. Surely this was the experience of the early church, when Christianity was more of a movement than an organized institution. In the early Christian community, the idea of “Ubuntu” can be seen in its fullness. The story tells us that the early followers of Jesus met together regularly, they worshipped together and they shared meals together and did so with “glad and generous hearts.” The result was a community of individuals who became a people of faith, entering into deep relationship with God and each other, and faithfully following in the way of Jesus.

In this season of Epiphany, perhaps we would find deep and profound joy in the midst of this kind of community: the joy of communal experience emerging out of the cold darkness into the warmth of God’s perfect light. Then, perhaps, in the presence of each other, the Light that is Jesus Christ can change the way we see one another and the world.

Holy One, remind me that I am not in this alone. Remind me that I do not have to “go it alone.” Remind me, today and every day, that you are with me and that other faithful followers of Jesus are ready to journey alongside me. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: Two Practices That Might Do Our Souls a World of Good

journaling“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”      —  Acts 1:8

At our New Church Epiphany Book Study on Thursday evening, we had a chance to discuss some of the things we might learn from primal spirituality. In his book, What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions, J. Philip Wogaman suggests that Christians would benefit by considering the very earliest expressions of human spirituality practiced by the original inhabitants of Africa, Australia and the Americas. The primal religions were not transmitted by written texts, like the major religions that followed them. Instead, they were maintained through the memorization and oral sharing of stories, rituals and songs.

So consider this: when was the last time you memorized something, so that you could tell it or recite it to others? Oh, I know that we can easily tell stories about our lives and experiences, drawing from our vast supply of memories. But when was the last time you actually sat down and tried to memorize a poem, a liturgy, a prayer, a song? As I reflected further, I realized another practice that, because of the instant access to knowledge afforded us by the Internet, we don’t much anymore. We don’t write down our thoughts. The practice of writing letters, keeping a diary, writing prayers is all but lost to us. It might do our souls good to practice both: memorization and writing.

Rev. John Baillie (26 March 1886, Gairloch–29 September 1960, Edinburgh) was a Scottish theologian and Church of Scotland minister. I recently ran across one of Baillie’s prayers, part of a collection of his written prayers entitled, A Diary of Private Prayer. It moved me so much that I have decided to commit it to memory. It is first and foremost a prayer of thanksgiving. It also speaks of the power of God to inhabit our lives and our world. Specifically, and most moving to me is the line, “For the invasion of my soul by Your Holy Spirit.” In this prayer Baillie echoes what the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. There, too, we hear that the coming of God into our lives brings power. Of course, the power spoken of is not worldly power, but spiritual power, the power of light shining in the darkness.

So, I offer Baillie’s prayer to you and invite you to pray it, perhaps memorize it, or perhaps write a prayer of your own. As Wogaman points out, Christians might do well to learn from our spiritual ancestors. I pray for you and me that the power that our primal ancestors, the Apostle Paul and Rev. John Baillie experiences and spoke of and wrote about will invade your soul this day and every day.

“For the power You have given me to lay hold of things unseen:

For the strong sense I have that this is not my home:

For my restless heart which nothing finite can satisfy:

 I give You thanks, O God. For the invasion of my soul by Your Holy Spirit:

 For all human love and goodness that speaks to me of You:

For the fullness of your glory outpoured in Jesus Christ:

I give you thanks, O God.”

Amen.                            (John Baillie, 1947)

Weekly Devotional: Living and Loving This New Year

4246901-loveLet love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.                                            -Romans 12. 9

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with my hairdresser. Okay, I know that everyone has interesting conversations with their hairdressers, but this was truly an enlightening conversation.

So, it turns out that my hairdressers’ brother is getting married and last weekend they had the “meet the families” gathering. The brother’s fiancée comes from a family that identifies as Christian. They also happen to be politically and religiously conservative. So, when the topic came up about where her brother and his fiancée met the answer was, “on the sales aisle at WalMart.” In addition to all that, the fiancée has an uncle who is gay and, according to my hairdresser, he and his husband stayed in the kitchen for most of the evening because it was clearly uncomfortable for them to be present.

When the fiancées’ parents left, my hairdresser joked with her brother about his soon to be in-laws and the fact that he had said that he and his soon to be wife had met at WalMart when she knew perfectly well that they had actually met at a bar. His response was, “Well, they’re just so Christian.” To which my hairdresser said, “Okay, let me explain something to you, they are not as Christian as they are religious.”

Wow! I was so impressed by that. I was impressed that she has a clear understanding of what it means to be religious and how that differs from being faithfully Christian. That got me to thinking. What does it mean when we say we are Christian? The Apostle Paul had an answer for that. In his letter to the church at Rome he spelled out the characteristics of what it means to be a Christian. He wrote, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” In fact, I invite you to read the full passage, Romans 12. 1-21, that is sometimes titled, “The Characteristics of a Christian.” It doesn’t say anything about what we are to believe but rather how we are to live.

My hairdresser is not a perfect person any more than any of us are. She is not powerful or wealthy, is not someone who commands an audience with her wit and knowledge. What she is, however, is a person of insight and integrity. She knows that our faith is not born of some false religiosity that hides who we are and focuses only on what we say we believe. Instead she knows that our faith, our Christian faith, is about something more. It is about our essence as children of God, as people who seek to follow in the way of Jesus. It is about loving genuinely, turning from what is evil and holding on to what is good, even when we don’t get it all exactly right.

As for me, I hope beyond hope that I can claim the name Christian, not for what I say I believe, but for how I live and love. May it be so for you as well.

Holy One, show me the way that you would have me live and love. Amen. 

 

Weekly Devotional: God’s Gift This New Year – You!

alwaysbeginagainLook! I’m doing a new thing; now it springs forth; don’t you recognize it?  –Isaiah 43.19

Here we are, once again, at the beginning of a New Year, and today as everyday, God is doing a new thing. The challenge for each of us is to recognize the new thing God is doing in and through us, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.

On January 1, many of us will make new, or perhaps old, commitments that we call resolutions to “begin again.” We commit to try yet again to be better people through what we eat, drink, what we do, say and how we live. The interesting thing is that we do this every year. And many behavioral therapist and scientist will tell us that unless we can sustain a behavior for at least six weeks, it will not become a habit.

So, perhaps we should take a page from Benedict of Nursia. Okay, I know this is an old teaching, actually coming to us from the sixth century, but I think it is well worth spending some time considering. You see, Benedict was living in a difficult time when pagan tribes had overrun the world and the church was torn by conflict and religious authorities were corrupt. Sound familiar? So, Benedict left the city and retreated to a place of solitude where he became recognized as a holy man. After a while, Benedict began to establish monasteries in which the monks were asked to follow a rhythmic daily pattern of work, study, community and prayer. This pattern became known as the Rule of Benedict, which eventually revitalized the Western monastic movement.

“Benedict knew we were creatures of habit and his Rule recognizes our need to develop and maintain a basic rhythm for life. He was also aware that we are communal creatures, and that we must seek out companions who will support us in our long-term efforts. The Rule is grounded in the realization that the ways we relate to life, our daily actions, thoughts, and feelings reshape our universe. The Rule of Benedict has impacted faithful people for more than 1400 years.” (McQuiston, 1996, p. 3 & 4)

This Rule teaches us that if we are intentional and careful in how we spend the hours of each irreplaceable day, if we commit to live balanced lives filled with gratitude, we will create our best possible life. And the Good News in all of this is that the tradition of the Benedictines is to know that we will ultimately fail at the task before us and so they say, and encourage us to understand, that “always we begin again . . ..” Consequently there is no judgment or guilt in practicing the Rule, there is simply the practice.

So, let us begin, . . .

“The first rules is simply this:

live this life

and do whatever is done,

in the spirit of thanksgiving.

Abandon attempts to achieve security,

they are futile,

give up the search for wealth,

it is demeaning,

quit the search

for salvation,

it is selfish,

and come to comfortable rest

in the certainty that those who

participate in this life

with an attitude of thanksgiving

will receive its full promise.” (McQuiston, 1996, p. 17-18)

Look, God is doing a new thing in you, in me and in our world, do you not recognize it?

Holy One, help me once again to be all that you have created me to be. And when I fall and fail, help me always to begin again. Amen.

McQuitson II, J., Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1996.

Weekly Devotional: This Christmas, Give the Gift of You

peaceThen Jesus began to speak to them in parables.  —Mark 12. 1

As we begin to gather for our Christmas celebrations with family, families of choice, friends and neighbors, one of the things that will inevitably happen is that we will begin to tell stories. We will remember the time when someone got caught in a storm on the way home, or the story about waiting with excitement in the early morning darkness trying to discern what gifts had been left for us under the Christmas tree by Santa Claus. For those of us who have an empty chair at our Christmas table this year, our stories may focus on that loved one who has died and remember with tears and laughter their life and how it touched us. You see, human beings learn by hearing and telling stories. While we generally don’t remember theories, strategies, or theological constructs, what we do remember are stories that make sense of those things. Jesus knew this truth and one of the many reasons Jesus told stories was because he knew that people remember stories.

The same is true for us today. So, I want to challenge you to begin at every opportunity to tell our Christian story. We are living in challenging times and there are countless people who are desperate to know that life is worth living and that hope is real. There are people who have walked away from religion because they only know the story of a judgmental God from whom we have to win our salvation.

But you and I know that there is another story. It is a story of a child born to poor parents, who had to flee their country and become refugees in order to survive. It is the story of a child grown to be a man who taught people that love is more powerful than hate and that peaceful resistance to the powers and principalities of their day would be their salvation. He would die on a cross, rather than use power and violence to win the day. His life and death were committed to sharing the Good News that God is a just and loving God who loves all people.

I know that sharing the story of our faith is not an easy thing. After all, we don’t want to be seen as those who have demanded that we believe a certain way or we’re bound for hell. But consider this, all you have to do is tell someone when you knew that God loved you and then tell them when it is you knew that you loved God. Tell them that as imperfect as you are you will strive to continue to love God in word and deed as best you can. Then tell them why it is that you go to church and read the Bible and pray, even if you do those things erratically. Tell them how you have come to know Jesus Christ as the human one who has shown us what love looks like in human form.

Tell them that when you are confused or afraid and how you feel like all you have are questions about your faith, how you find comfort in an indescribable presence of peace that you have come to know as the Holy Spirit.  And if you don’t know the answers to all the things I have just written, then think about it, ponder it, and wonder about it until you have some ideas that you can share. Maybe you will remember a story someone told you or that you experienced that is what your faith is all about.

You see, more than ever you and I who believe that God is a lovesick God who loves us all, that God particularly loves the poor and the oppressed, the outcast and the marginalize, need to tell our story. We need to tell our story and then live our story in how we care for the world entrusted to our care. I say all this because I believe that you and I are in this with God and that God is counting on us to speak peace and stand for justice and be the love of Jesus Christ in the world right now, when all of that seems in short supply.

So, for me at least, this is what Christmas is about. I hope it is for you as well.

Holy One, may the deep peace of Jesus Christ be with me and within me this Christmas, so that I may have the courage to speak and to act as a true follower of Jesus. Amen.

P.S. If you live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and are looking for a place to worship this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you are invited to join us at The New Church – Chiesa Nuova, 17290 Preston Road, #100, Dallas, Texas 75252.

Christmas Eve: Saturday, December 24 at 6:33pm

Christmas Day: Sunday, December 25 at 10:30am

For more information go to our Facebook page:

Weekly Devotional: On the Way to See Jesus This Christmas, Slow Down and Feel the Love

mangerAfter Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”                 —Matthew 2. 1 & 2

There is a story, written by Henry Van Dyke, entitled, The Story of The Other Wiseman. As the story goes, it seems there was “fourth” Wiseman, if we accept the tradition that there were three Magi. In the story, Artaban was a priest of the Magi who was one of the Medes from Persia. Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a king had been born among the Jews. Like them, Artaban sets out to see the newborn ruler, carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price.” However, he stops along the way to help a dying man and that makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other three wise men.

Because Artaban missed the caravan, and can’t cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of the treasures to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. Artaban then starts his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child, whose parents have fled to Egypt. The story continues, and I invite you to read it as a devotional for this Advent season in preparation for Christmas.

I couldn’t help think of this unusual story while sitting at dinner last night. Stephanie and I were talking softly when I began to notice the music in the restaurant. It wasn’t the usual seasonal fare of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Instead, this restaurant was playing the great Christians hymns of Christmas, “Away in a Manger,” “Love Came Down at Christmas,” “The First Noel,” and others.

As I listened I found myself awash in a deep sense that I was missing Jesus. You see, even though I am a pastor and spend my time preparing for worship each Sunday, I realized that I have been busy and distracted and have been missing Jesus. Oh, I wish I was more like the “other” Wiseman who missed Jesus because he was distracted by helping someone in need, but I’m afraid I can’t make that claim. Instead, I have let the shine and sparkle, the noise and rush of the season completely distract me from preparing my heart for the birth of the child who came to show us what God’s love looks like in human form.

And you? Are you missing Jesus in this Advent season? Have you failed to wait and watch for his coming?  As I write this note to you, I am committed to spending these next few days before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day slowing down, breathing deeply, looking and listening, watching and waiting for the presence of Jesus, the presence of God’s love in the midst of our busy world. Moreover, I am committed to trying to be that presence for others. Won’t you join me?

Holy One, author of all creation, lover of all life, help me in this busy season to seek the presence of Jesus Christ, so that when he comes I will be ready. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: A Profound and Grounded Joy, Shalom

serviceguide_joy

Then Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.                                     –John 14:27

Here we are at the end of the week after we lit the Advent Candle of Peace last Sunday. Peace is an interesting word. I think that most contemporary America people think of the word “peace” as meaning a cessation of war and violence. But according to the ancient Hebrew understanding, the word shalom – translated as peace – is so much more than that.

Certainly, shalom means peace, but it is also used to both greet people and to bid them farewell. However, Hebrew words tend to convey not just intellectual meaning, but also feeling, intent and emotion. Shalom then, is a word that means “peace;” it also means a complete peace. It is a feeling of contentment, completeness, wholeness, wellbeing and harmony and not just for an individual, but also for a community, a country, in fact, the whole of creation.

What is interesting to me is that in the season of Advent, we light the Advent Candle of Peace between the Advent Candles of Hope and Joy. And isn’t that it? Isn’t it true that our “peace” is found somewhere between our hope and our joy. Oh, and mind you, that word “joy.” It means far more than happiness. It means, much like the word shalom, a profound and grounded joy. The person of faith knows that even if life is not good, even if there seems to be no reason to hope, one can still experience joy. Lighting the Advent Candle of Joy reminds us that even when all else falls apart, we can still be people of deep gratitude and thus, unspeakable joy.

In those days when Caesar August decreed that everyone should go to the place of their heritage to be registered, peace and joy were in short supply. Israel was an occupied country. Violence, poverty and oppression were the order of the day. While the known world would eventually call this period the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace) there was little peace among the Jewish people who were oppressed by both the Romans and the religious leaders of their day, and then something changed.

According to the account written by Luke the Physician, there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ ”

Who knew that the birth of a baby could change the world? And yet, that child, grown to be a man, promised his followers a “peace that would pass human understanding.” Jesus knew that every time we choose to love instead of hate, each moment we choose hope instead of heartache, and when we choose to proclaim that life wins out over death, the promises of God are made manifest in us. So, no matter the hurt or the heartache, this God, the God of all creation, this Jesus the one who was born for this, is inviting you and me to be filled with hope, to embrace peace, to live joy. May it be so. Amen.

Holy One, show me Your path of peace and help me to walk in it. Amen.