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.

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.