Weekly Devotional: Disarming Our Faith

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.         – Colossians 3. 12-14

For the last two Tuesday nights, a small group of our New Church community has been meeting to be a part of an online book study led by theologian and writer, Brian McLaren. In his latest book that we have been discussing, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian, McLaren shares a story of speaking to a seminary gathering at which he says, “You have to find a way to disarm your faith as a potential instrument of hate and convert it into an instrument of love. You have to convert Christianity from a warrior religion to a reconciling religion.” Of course, the great difficulty in meeting this challenge is where to begin.

How do you and I transform our Christian faith into a reconciling religion? McLaren tells us that we have to take a hard look at how, for centuries, the Christian religion has operated with violence as its core message of how and why Jesus died. We have to acknowledge that for centuries adherents to the Christian faith have participated in genocide all in the name of defending the faith from infidels. Okay, so much for the lesson on the history of the Christian faith.

What I want to know, and I’m assuming you do, as well, is just how I can be a part of this transformation. And as simple as this may sound, it seems to me that we have to start right where we are. We have to commit to non-violence not just in how we act, but how we think, and what we say. We have to commit that our faith will be a faith grounded in the love of God, revealed in the love of Jesus Christ, the Human One, and sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit at work within us. That this will be the penultimate motivation for how we treat others, our family, our friends, our colleagues, acquaintances, strangers and our enemies. We have to make a commitment that we will not participate in violence: personal, communal, state-sponsored, global, period. We have to commit to caring, as best we can, for the earth.

Now, having said that, I know and you know, that try as we might we will have some successes and some failures. The keys, however, are to acknowledge our failures, ask forgiveness, learn from them, get up, dust off and try again. The keys are to keep seeking the presence of God, loving as Jesus loved and loves, and seeking the presence of the Holy Spirit through prayer, worship, conversation, study, service, generosity and trusting that God is with us, we are not alone. The keys are found in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, that we are called to compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness, from all of which we will learn how to love. Write those words down. Pin those words on your wall. Carry those words with you in your wallet.

McLaren’s book is a clarion call, a prophet’s voice in the midst of this current wilderness, warning us that we must change or die. I commend his book to you, and I pray that you will join me in this journey.

Holy One, I can’t, I’m yours, show me the way. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Blessed Assurance

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.       –Hebrews 11. 1

Following the death of my dad, Papa Hut, our family has been having many conversations about life and death. As it turns out, 10-year-olds have a lot of questions about death and say things that we all think, but often do not ask. Children have the unique ability to express feelings and ask questions without some of the self-imposed restrictions that adults have.

We’ve talked about how Papa Hut lived a long, good life and was tired and so it was time for him to die. We explained that he is so happy now to be with Mama Jo, and we imagine them holding hands again. Then comes the question, “How do you know?” Then she said so tenderly, “I have a curious mind and so this is hard for me.”

I suppose there are a couple of things I want to say here, and I know I am writing to myself as well as to you. First, for so long the church taught that faith was something set in stone. In other words, faith was about what we believe and in order to have faith you had to believe certain things that did not change and were not to be questioned. But I would tell you that, as I think about it, it is good to have a “curious mind” and to consider and contemplate, discern and dream. I believe that in that process we the Holy Spirit guides us and shows us new ways of thinking about who God is, how God loves, what life and death are about and how we are to live. You see, so much of the time we race through life without thinking about any of these things until someone we love dies. Then we have a choice we can contemplate this mystery and seek God’s presence and Spirit or we can go back to racing through life. A 10-year-old’s curious mind caused me to have to think about and speak about life and death and new life and try to explain it to her and to myself. It is a spiritual exercise I commend to you.

The second thing I would offer is one that we discussed in our book study with Brian McLaren on Tuesday evening. He asked, “Is there a difference between faith and belief?” In response, I suggested that perhaps belief was an intellectual exercise and faith was an experience of the heart. In other words, faith is actually more about trust than belief. The more I have thought about this, I think that perhaps we need both, but our tendency as people who live in a world where belief is about what can be proven scientifically or historically, tend to forget about the truth that comes from listening to our hearts.

Centuries ago, the writer of the Book of Hebrews explains that faith is about assurance, or perhaps we could say trust. That is how I finally came to my answer for our 10-year-old with the curious mind. I told her, “We trust that God loves Papa Hut and Mama Jo so much that they are now together in their new life. I think that will do for now, until my curious mind discovers another answer.

Holy One, give me courage of mind and heart to seek You and so discover that I can trust you with my very life. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: The “Real News” That Sets You Free

Then Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”                                                 — John 8. 31 & 32

Much has been said over the last several months about the term “fake news.” It seems that a day doesn’t go by before one side or the other of our political leadership or news media fails to make a claim that the other side resorts to the use of “fake news.”

I never thought I would be someone who longed for the “good old days,” but it seems to me that there was a time in our culture when there was a constant search for truth. By that, I mean that a lot of time was spent researching, learning, discovering and getting the “facts.” There seemed to be a consistent commitment among politicians and reporters to get to the truth of a matter.

That doesn’t seem to be the case today. Instead, from where I sit, it feels like so many of our politicians and news media are solely committed to advancing their point of view. Last night on the news, I heard Dan Rather say that in order to shift our culture away from an attitude of self-seeking and self-preservation, there are going to have to be some courageous people who are willing to seek and speak the truth even if it costs them.

This Sunday, July 2, many churches will be celebrating July 4 and the freedom that came with the Declaration of Independence. In our worship service, we will hear the words of Jesus who said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10.39)

Interesting, isn’t it, that our very freedom is centered on the idea that finding truth sometimes means sacrificing who you are for whom you might become? Truth finding is, it seems to me, about caring about something greater than yourself.

I am not sure any of this makes any sense right now with our political climate the way it is, but I do know one thing that is real: On Wednesday, we had a worship service, honoring the life and resurrection of my dad, Papa Hut. This Saturday, I will preach a memorial service, honoring the life and resurrection of my godfather, Bill.

What I know about those two men is that they were educators who loved their families and loved their jobs. They cared deeply about other people, especially the children in their schools. They weren’t concerned with getting ahead, making a ton of money, preserving their positions, or their points of view. They were simply good men who sought to live fully and love graciously, who were generous with their resources and their time, who laughed at themselves and with others. And I’ll wager truth for them was just that—living fully, loving graciously, sacrificing what they had, so that others might have what they needed, giving of their lives generously, so that others might thrive.

In short, they were not perfect, just good, dying to self, discovering the truth, experiencing freedom. That was their truth. What’s yours?

Holy One, thank you for those who have gone before me who have shown me what a life of truth is all about. Help me to faithfully follow in their footsteps, just as they followed in Jesus’ footsteps. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: The Life-Giving Legacy of Papa Hut

Papa Hut, 07.29.22 – 06.21.17

Stretch out your hand to the poor, so that your blessing may be complete.                   –   Sirach 7:32

I read with interest this week that President Trump indicated that he wanted to have only rich people in his cabinet. Now, before you think I’m attacking the president let me state that I believe that the president is at liberty to choose his cabinet. I am also clear that wealthy people are often very smart in many ways, that they have gifts of special skills and leadership that make them good candidates for business, industry and, in some cases, politics. So, President Trump’s preference for cabinet members who are wealthy probably makes great sense to him. I am also clear that, like myself, if you have a safe place to live and food to eat, in fact more than enough food to eat, and clean water to drink, then by world standards you are a very wealthy person. I am not here to criticize the president, but what I want to do is give you a different perspective.

The writer of the letter of James said, “Listen, dear sisters and brothers, didn’t God choose those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom promised to those who love God?” (James 2.5) You see, if you spend some time reading the Bible you will discover that many of the writers of the various books, poems, sayings and letters believed that God has a special preference and affection for the poor and bestows on them gifts that many of us cannot discern. And, of course, being wise is different than being smart. In fact, it is often the case that in the Bible the poor are gifted with insights and blessings, as it is in the verse from James that reminds us that the poor are heirs of God’s realm.

I learned this truth about those who are poor from my Biblical studies and devotional times, but I also learned it from my dad, Papa Hut. He was always helping people in need by offering money or other resources to them. I know that my mom and my sisters and I often worried that people were taking advantage of him, and perhaps some did. But Papa didn’t worry about that at all. He knew that some people just didn’t have the advantages he had been given, and so he was always ready to give away his money. Of course, his children and grandchildren were also on the receiving end of his generosity, so we really shouldn’t have been too concerned. Ultimately, we watched him love people by giving of what he had in order to help those who were most in need. I guess you could say that Papa Hut was a lot like God in that way. It seemed he also had a preference and affection for the poor.

Papa Hut died on Wednesday morning of this week just as the sun was rising in Bryan, Texas. We waited with his body at Hospice Brazos Valley Inpatient for the funeral home to arrive. As I held his hand and looked at him, I realized how his body was so peaceful, with even a very slight smile on his face. I should have known his death would be like that because all his life he had stretched out his hand to the poor, and now, by God’s grace, Papa Hut’s blessing is complete. May it be so for us all.

Holy One, remind me once again, through the words of the faithful ancients and through the example of others like Papa Hut, that we are blessed when we reach out our hands to the poor. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Blessed To Be A Blessing

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Abba, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’   – Matthew 25. 34-40

I subscribe to a health blog written by a physician who specializes in research intended to help people live healthy long lives. I was intrigued by the blog post I read this week. In it, he wrote the following:

“One fascinating study at the University of Exeter reviewed over twenty years’ worth of research comparing two groups of people – those who regularly did charity work, and those who didn’t…

“The studies tracked the participants’ physical and mental health, as well as their risk of early death. Amazingly, the volunteers had a significantly lower risk of mortality than the non-volunteers. So with that in mind, I wanted to reach out to you and suggest you give it a try.”

I’m not sure it took a university study for us to know this truth about our living. In fact, for centuries people of faith have known that blessings abound when we bless others. In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, and those who “inherit the kingdom” are those who have cared for others.

The physician whose blog I follow continued his encouragement of caring for others by stating, “Whether it’s calling up an old friend, volunteering at the local food bank, or even something as simple as just helping someone cross the street, taking a moment to help others is truly a win-win.

“And here’s the thing – it doesn’t even need to be another human you’re helping, it could be animals or even creation that you are helping. It’s truly inspiring when a person goes out of their way to do something selfless… And while doing a good deed is its own reward, the health benefits are pretty terrific too.”

Of course, it takes more than one act of kindness to really experience change in our lives and health. But what might happen if you and I got in the habit of doing a good deed every day? I know of a place where you can get that kind of encouragement weekly. It is called a “house of faith,” a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple where you can be encouraged every week to feed the hungry, care for the poor, visit those in prison, stand for peace for all people, and work for a just world for all. Of course, the benefit is that you, with the help of God, create a better world, and in the process create a better you. In the words of that great theologian, Mr. Spock, “Live long and prosper.”

Holy One, remind me today that the desire of your heart is to offer us blessing upon blessing. Help me to live in ways that honor your desire. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Constant and Lasting Adjacency

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8, 38 & 39

Last Thursday, Stephanie, Sydney and I returned from New York City. Our short trip included many amazing experiences that only New York City can offer. On Wednesday ,we had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial that was, as I’m sure many of you know, deeply moving. We were able to take a brief tour of the Memorial. If you have visited, or even read about the Memorial, you probably know that the names that are carved into the frames around the two pools are not listed in alphabetical order. Instead, they are listed in relation to where they were when they died, the World Trade Center 1, World Trade Center 2, or one of the flights involved in the attack.

More than that, many of the names are listed according to relationship. “As part of the 9/11 Memorial’s official names verification process completed in 2009, victims’ next-of-kin were allowed to make specific requests for names to appear adjacent to their loved one’s name (“adjacency requests”). Some of these requests were for relatives, friends, and colleagues; others were for loved ones to be listed with people they may have barely known or just met, but with whom intense bonds were quickly formed as a result of shared response.”

Our tour guide provided the most moving stories of some of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks. She told us about Ronald Gamboa and David Brandhorst and their son, David. Ronald (33) and David (42), a gay couple who had been together for 13 years, were on their way home to Los Angeles from Boston with their 3-year-old adopted son, David. Their plane, United Airlines Flight 175, was hijacked and crashed into World Trade Center 2. As we ran our fingers over their names, Stephanie and I realized that without the intentionality of the “adjacency requests” it would have been likely that their names would have not been listed together.

The idea of “adjacency” has stayed with me in these hours following our tour. It is, I believe, an important idea to hold in our minds and hearts. You see, all day, everyday, our paths cross into and out of the lives of countless people. Some of our encounters are with strangers, some with friends, some with family. I wonder what life would be like if we could be more intentional about our adjacencies.

Of course, the promise of God is for constant and lasting adjacency, isn’t it? The Apostle Paul thought so. Writing his letter to the church at Rome he reminded them, and us, that no matter what we encounter in this life, nothing can separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus, whom we call the Christ: Everlasting adjacency with God and with each other. I believe that’s something we can live into, and something we can rest in.

You have promised me, O Holy One, that You are ever with us in this life and the next. Remind me today how precious life is and how precious those with whom I find myself adjacent are. Then, help me to live in ways that reflect that preciousness. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: Stepping Out in Faith

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.                                                     —Genesis 12. 1 & 2

The passage above from Genesis, that tells the story of Abram, who at the time was seventy-five years old, is among my favorites. Notice that even at that age, Abram doesn’t question God about where he is going. Rather, the story tells us that Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Okay, I’ll admit that at times in my journey I have longed to hear God actually speak to me in a human voice as I imagined God spoke to Abram, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead, each time my future has taken a twist or turn I experienced God’s speaking as an insight or intuition. Often, I ultimately had to step out in faith trusting that God would be with me and direct my path.

And the journey shifts again. The New Church – Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ, is on the move. We have lost our lease and are having to consider where our next church home will be. Right now, we don’t know where we will go or how long we will stay. We don’t know when we will worship or what our worship will look like in the new place where God is sending us. That can be disconcerting, but it can also be comforting. I mean, in moments like these, what else can you do but rest in God?

Later in the book of Genesis, there is a mystical encounter between God and Abram. Having faithfully followed where God had led him, Abram is concerned because he still does not have an heir. It is then that God brings Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Then the story says, “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord counted Abram as righteous.” While in seminary, my Hebrew professor taught us that the Hebrew word that is translated as “believe” actually is more accurately translated as “trust.” So the passage above reads, “Abram trusted God, and the Lord counted Abram as righteous.” And that word “righteous,” can be translated as “holy” which also means “set apart for God’s work in the world.”

All of us, sooner or later, will find our circumstances changed, and often we will be required to step out in faith trusting in God’s good will for our lives, all the while not knowing how the story will end. I pray that as you journey into your future, known and unknown, that you will trust in the Lord with all your heart. Then, perhaps you too, as Abram did, will know that God has counted you as righteous, holy, set apart for God’s good work in the world. Now, that’s a blessing I can live with. What about you?

Holy One, my Alpha and Omega, my beginning and my ending. Show me the way you would have me go and give me courage to trust You with my future. Amen.