February 4, 2023
Amidst Jesus’ best-known sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, he said to his listeners, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). This is frequently presented as God, the divine genie in a bottle, with some irony. If you do these things, including striving for the kin(g)dom of God and God’s righteousness, then all the previous items mentioned will be given to you—food, drink, and clothing. It sounds pretty wonderful, and all I need to do is strive first for the kin(g)dom of God and God’s righteousness? Actually, that is not technically true, though many would think so. Throughout this section, Jesus was talking to the community. He was using a specific type of “you,” the plural “you.” In Greek, there is “you,” the singular, and “you,” the plural, or what we’d call the “y’all” or “you all.” And if everyone in the community is seeking the Kin(g)dom of God and God’s righteousness, which includes generosity, compassion, and kindness, then needs would be met. So any community that strives for the reign of God and God’s justice (rightness) will be made up of those who are willing to share for the sake of the neighbor. Maybe it is a little magic, like rubbing a bottle, because it requires people to set aside their fears and greed and to bless others by actually relinquishing what they have. Of course, the other person may have something you need. Tomorrow, we are going to focus a little further into Matthew’s Gospel and some similar words, “Ask… seek… knock…”
We have freewill that can be lived from a mindset of responsibility to the world around us or from a mindset of self-preservation. O God, it is easy to think of this in theory but a bit more challenging to embody. Continue to empower your beloved community, the church, to live with a spirit of self-giving love. Amen.
February 3, 2023
On this day in 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote for all male citizens, regardless of race. It reads:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
It was a dramatic statement of progress, yet we all know our history and know how little the impact was in many parts of this country. Progress, as right and just as it might be, is rarely welcomed with open arms by those who feel threatened by what feels like a loss of power. I am astounded by the various attempts by certain groups to obstruct access for people of color. Whether it was poll taxes, literacy tests, limited access to registration, or outright threats of violence (or real acts of violence) on the day of elections, the notion of progress was mostly in words.
This is nothing new for the human race, and sadly, it continues to manifest itself in so many ways even today. Progress, even when it is clearly right and just, makes many people feel uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable when it appears to threaten what we have known and enjoyed, yet so often what I have known and enjoyed was to someone else’s detriment.
I am reminded of Isaiah 10:1-2…
Doom to those who pronounce wicked decrees,
and keep writing harmful laws
to deprive the needy of their rights
and to rob the poor among my people of justice;
to make widows their loot;
to steal from orphans!
Those are some strong words, but Isaiah was a prophet for a reason. Prophets intentionally tried to shock the system into awareness, unafraid of the short-term fallout. We need to look at those places where progress is being met with anxiety-infused pushback. The church should be a voice of calm in those moments, and, if necessary, do some helpful handholding into the good and just thing God is seeking to do.
O God of Justice and Righteousness, humanity has made some significant steps forward since we discovered fire, but that progress has often been hindered by our own insecurities and misguided understanding of what is good for all of humanity. Let us listen for you as we look to the life of Jesus, for somewhere in the mix, we believe there is a peace that will allow us to take another step forward. Amen.
February 2, 2023
I have some glow sticks on my desk. They are leftover from Christmas Eve. A child was recently visiting the church office with her parents when she noticed the glow sticks. She asked about them, and I figured she wanted one of them. I was glad to share, but in fact, she was more concerned about me. “Do you keep the glow sticks close by because you are afraid of the dark?” she asked. Her concern was appreciated, and it got me to thinking about what we keep close out of concern for what might go wrong or an unforeseen complication. It made me wonder what I keep within reach that is helpful or meaningful in a time of crisis. Are the things that connect me to God as close as I think they are? Are there symbols that I can see? Are there a couple of scriptures I have tucked away in my head that I can easily draw upon? Is there a mantra or a centering prayer I memorized years earlier that comes quickly to my lips? In Deuteronomy 6, we find the Shema. It is central to the morning and evening prayers in the Jewish faith. The Shema speaks of teaching and reciting central ideas within the faith while also using symbols as reminders and sources of reinforcement. At the end of the day, I believe the intention is to deeply instill certain important ideas that will be needed at some point in one’s life journey. We cannot wait until the crisis is upon us. God is always available and full of grace, but if we have not done the work and put the tools in place, it will be even more challenging. I still have some glow sticks on my desk, but more importantly, I have access to a source of light that won’t burn out in 24 hours.
Continue to encourage me in the necessary and important work of faith. Good and Gracious God, you are forever present, always sharing your love, and continually open to us. Yet, as close as you are, I might not recognize you when I need you. I may not know how to tap into the overflowing stream of love if I’ve never tried before. So in this time, teach me and show me and instill in me whatever I might need for those challenging days that are ahead of me. Amen.
February 1, 2023
I yanked the following off TikTok, though I know many others have used the words.
I’m tired of prequalifying people for love.
In a clear and concise way, this is the frustration at the root of why people are leaving close-minded, guilt-using, shame-employing churches. Simply put, words like “unconditional” or “limitless” are no longer relevant when it comes to love. There are multiple conditions and obvious limits being placed on love in many churches, but what folks don’t seem to grasp is the proverbial slippery slope. If God’s love is bound by our choices, shortcomings, mistakes, or even the narrow-minded judgments of others, then why would we feel any sort of confidence in believing God loves us? We might be able to draw the circle of acceptance with us in the middle, but if the line is constantly in flux, I doubt any of us are ever going to feel at peace.
There is currently a large social media campaign attempting to make Jesus look hip and demonstrate that he loves all types of people. On the surface, it appears very affirming and inclusive, but research has been done showing it was produced by the very churches that are seeing their numbers drop because of their judgmental and guilt-ridden theology. I might be proven wrong, but I think it is a less than honest ploy to get folks back in the door where the message is being softened or spun another way. Yet at the end of the day, there will be more people in counseling because of the spiritual trauma brought on by a message that is entirely dependent on fear, guilt, and shame.
O God of the Welcoming Table, continue to push us as we grow in our understanding of words like unconditional and limitless. And as we better understand the implications of such lofty ideals, we pray for growth in our capacity to personify these Jesus-like attributes. Amen.
January 31, 2023
Today is my mother’s birthday, and though there will be people who will remind her throughout the day, she is at a point in her progression where she won’t really remember. Of course, that is sort of my mom. It wasn’t ever really about her. For years, her main response when asked what she wanted for her birthday was “stamps!” I’m guessing she mailed out more than a thousand cards every year, and the cost of stamps (along with the cards) added up quickly. It was a part of her ministry. It always seemed strange, though, to send her stamps (we usually sent something else as well), but I have clear memories of talking to her on her birthday, and she’d say with complete seriousness, “Thanks for the stamps! They are always something I can use.” I guess there is something holy about what happened. We gift people with no expectations attached, yet so often people who have been blessed see it as an opportunity to be a blessing to others. As we read in 1 Peter 4, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”
For all those who seek to bless those around them, I give thanks, O God! Amen.
January 30, 2023
A Prayer For The Week: Why are we incapable of ending the violence? Why is it that our egos are so easily bruised, leaving us feeling wounded and in need of retaliation? Where are the alternatives to violence and the capacity for restraint? We often come to you, O Generous God, with questions that appear to have no answer. We speak our frustration, confusion, and heartache to the heavens, desperately seeking your guiding Spirit to offer something novel, something beyond anything previously imagined. Yet it probably does not require anything too radical in the whole scheme of things, just those of us who are willing to learn the ways of peace, be the models of Christ-like living, and stand in the gap when necessary. Whether it is unconstrained anger, unhealthy systems incapable of self-control, or people with a bad mix of power and insecurity, the world needs those who are willing to represent your peace. And we cannot conclude this prayer without asking for that peace to begin with us. Amen.
January 29, 2023
A friend of mine is a minister, and his daughter asked one time, “What’s the difference between true stories that tell a truth and untrue stories that tell a truth?” I think about The Butter Battle Book, written by Dr. Seuss. It is a crazy, silly book that can have your tongue all tangled up if you are reading it out loud, as I often was. It’s wonderfully goofy as it presents two different groups of people: Those who eat their bread with the butter side up and those who eat their bread with the butter side down. And I’m guessing many people enjoyed the book without ever recognizing how it was a caricature or spoof on the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, specifically the principle of mutually assured destruction. No one will fire first because no one will win. The two sides in the book were the Zooks and Yooks, and they kept on building up their weapons to defend their side of the butter argument. Now some people might shake their heads and say, “You’re reading way too much into that story. That’s not what it’s about.” And if I were to guess, I imagine there were a handful of folks who heard Jesus tell a parable, and as the larger group started discussing the meaning and implications of the parable, this handful of folks shook their heads and said, “You’re reading way too much into that story. Jesus just wanted to share a cute story to entertain us.” If a story communicates a great truth, even if it is not a factually true story, isn’t it still a true story?
Continue to guide us deeper into the magnificent and thought-provoking stories of the faith. We desire to know you, O Living Word, and there is probably much for us to learn as we gain greater insight into the context of the faith stories we have been told. Provide us with hearts made available for what might require some imagination. Amen.
January 28, 2023
Have you ever tried to solve someone else’s problem? Often, we get it in our minds that if they’d just follow our clear instructions, life would be wonderful. How many of you with kids have found that approach to be nothing but a failure? In the Bible, we have the Ten Commandments alongside other lists of what might be viewed as rules or guidelines, but much of scripture is narrative. In fact, a number of those commandments are woven into a larger story, and the story gives the commandments context. A lot of people think a set of rules is all other folks need to live a good and holy life, but even within the religious context, rules are rarely absolutes when applied to daily life. It can be complicated, and there are often extenuating circumstances. “Thou shall not kill” is pretty clear, but you move a few chapters after such a clear declaration, and there are what appear to be exceptions to that rule. The Ten Commandments begin with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” It goes on from there, but that opening declaration serves as the foundation for everything that follows. Thus, if you do not hold to the idea of there being one God who seeks to liberate people from slavery and calls those people to live together in community, then what follows are some interesting suggestions for life, but not necessarily more authoritative than anything else. Context, specifically understanding when and to whom a portion of scripture was originally written, is so enlightening. Suddenly those rules are put in the context of the daily lives of people centuries ago who were trying their best to figure out how to honor God with their choices, but doing so with a lot of questions and curiosity about just how one part might apply to something new.
Continue to beckon me deeper into the stories of scripture. Accompany me into that arena where the voices of scripture dance and sometimes tussle with the deeper questions of life. Wherever I am, Gracious God, continue to connect me to your love that is limitless and relentless, a love that seeks to affirm me in every moment. Amen.
January 27, 2023
In Shel Silverstein’s book, “The Giving Tree,” we learn at the very beginning of the story how the tree loved the little boy. What if, upon reading those words, you scoffed at the story and tossed it aside because there is no way a tree could love a boy? “That’s foolishness,” you tell yourself. “Why would I want to read such nonsense?” A literal reading of the story, with a naive understanding of the anthropomorphic literary device, can leave a person missing the point. I might even say that it leaves a person unable to perceive the beauty and depth of the story. Too often, people attempt to read a piece of literature with the wrong eyes and incorrect expectations. A lot of people assume the Bible is to be read literally, every “jot and tittle,” because it is the Bible. But let’s remember that when people were writing, editing, collecting, merging, and combining stories, poetry, prophetic utterances, songs, wisdom sayings, letters, etc., they were not saying to themselves, “Wow! It is such a privilege to be putting together what will become the best-selling book in history.” Instead, they were using creativity and imagination to speak about mystery, emotional experiences, and unexplainable moments of awe. Had they attempted to explain in a very literal way what they had encountered, it would have been dull and devoid of life. When we strip away an assumed literal approach, the Bible comes alive in ways people have often missed.
Provide me a new spirit of expectation, O God, as I approach the amazing and sacred expressions of faithfulness shared by people generations ago. Let me be inspired to experience just a hint of what they experienced. Amen.
January 26, 2023
As many of you know, I am an expert when it comes to exploring the proverbial rabbit holes. Yes, I can go down the old rabbit hole quicker than just about anyone. Recently, I was reading some old church history in search of something specific, but along the way, I ran across a decree issued by Pope Benedict XII in 1334. I have included the opening of that decree below, and even if you don’t make it all the way through it, note that it is just a single sentence.
By this Constitution which is to remain in force for ever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ, provided they were not in need of any purification when they died, or will not be in need of any when they die in the future, or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death-and again the souls of children who have been reborn by the same baptism of Christ or will be when baptism is conferred on them, if they die before attaining the use of free will: all these souls, immediately (mox) after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels.
I don’t intend to mock Pope Benedict XII as he is not around to defend himself, but assuming (big assumption) that this document was necessary in the first place, I’m pretty sure it could have been condensed into about ten or twelve words. More importantly, it appears to be a clarification of a clarification that excludes all religious riffraff. Since I nearly dozed off while reading this pontification on who is in and who is out, I’m pretty sure it means I am out. And remember, this edict was penned in the name of Jesus, the humble teacher who was executed because of his extraordinary love.
Sometimes it feels as if we need to provide a justification for the explanation that was the clarification of the original declaration, yet you, Gracious God, provided Jesus, who said, “This is my command: that you love one another as I loved you.” Why have we complicated it so much? Amen.