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.

Weekly Devotional: Loving the Other

loveeachotherBut wanting to justify himself, the expert in the law asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”    —  Matthew 10. 29

Last fall, at North Texas Journey #12, I received the gift of a devotional book entitled, Bread for the Journey. The book is a collection of the writings of Roman Catholic priest, theologian, spiritualist and professor, Henri J. M. Nouwen. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the brief paragraphs each day. Nouwen’s words often touch deep places in my heart and cause me to actively reflect on my journey of faith.

This past week, one of the devotionals pointed out how often, in our quest for joy, we want to be different from others. We seek out compliments, compete for positions and awards, and hope for recognition that will make us stand out as smarter or more beautiful than others. We do all of this in an effort to find sustainable joy.

However, Nouwen points out that such joy is temporary. In fact, he says that our true joy may well be found in discovering how alike we are. When we truly engage each other, friend or foe, we can come to understand that we are all fragile and mortal. We share with each other the movements of joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, loves and hates. In short, we have the chance to discover the joy of belonging to the human race. Nouwen points out that profound, sustainable joy can be found in, “being with others as friend, companion and fellow traveler, that this is the joy of Jesus, who is Emmanuel: God-with-us.”

We can’t help but notice that the current state of our union is one of great division. In fact we, as a country, are almost equally divided on issues of politics, politicians and policies. Consequently, we try to distinguish ourselves by our positions as over and against those with whom we disagree. And yet, we are all in this journey of life together, and while standing for justice and working for peace are important and essential actions, it is equally important to remember that those who see the world differently than we do, are also children of God, made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus would say that they are, in fact, our neighbors.

Isn’t it ironic that our path to sustainable joy is likely found in our ability to see the presence of God, our God of many names, in those who are “other?” Of course, there is nothing easy about that, but the rewards may well be the peace we seek.

Holy One, in my distress about the divisions among us, remind me that we are all your children and help me to live in that truth. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: Welcoming the Stranger May Be Our Only Hope

jump-for-love“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”    – Matthew 25.35

I had the opportunity this week to travel to St. Louis where I attended the Board of Trustees Meeting at Eden Theological Seminary. I always enjoy the trip because I get to see good friends with whom I have served on the Board, as well as faculty and staff I have known for some time. It is a comfortable place to be and belong. On my trip home, I stopped to grab a quick dinner before boarding my airplane, and I had a chance to meet and visit with a man from Chicago. Then, on the plane the person who sat next to me spoke to me, and we had the most wonderful conversation on the trip home.

As I began to reflect on my trip I realized just how many people I encountered. I must have encountered or passed several hundred people, some friends, others strangers. And all of them were gracious, kind, helpful and generous of spirit. Everyone, from the valet at the airport, to the people who served my food, to the young woman who was cleaning the bathroom at the airport and even the people I passed on the sidewalk were pleasant, smiled at me, and if I needed it, were also helpful.

Now I know there are people in our world who, because of their brokenness, can be mean, hateful, judgmental and can even do harm or violence to others. I know that our recent election has pitted us against each other and caused us to be skeptical and even fearful of those who differ from us. I know that trust of others, especially those we do not know, should be met with a measure of caution. I know that the news tells us repeated throughout the day about violence in our communities and in our world.

But I want to witness to you that the majority of people we encounter everyday as we go about our business of caring for our families, doing our work, moving about throughout the day and returning to our homes are good people, even if they are strangers to us, even if they don’t share our context, our religious beliefs or our politics. In fact, if we take the time to notice the good people around us, if we take the time to get to know the strangers among us we may well discover what the scriptures tell us, that there are blessings in welcoming the stranger. In fact, Jesus made the welcome of the stranger a central piece of his parable about the blessings of the “kingdom of God.”

Moreover, I am convinced that if we can learn to see the good people around us that we encounter everyday, the people we pass on the streets, in our office buildings, and in our travels, we will discover the goodness of others and help to mend the breech that exists between us. Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, and as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  To welcome the stranger may, in fact, be our only hope.

O tender God, teach me to see the goodness in others as I go about my day. Help me to see your presence in the strangers I meet.  Amen.

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.