A Tough Thought… or Two

By word of warning, this week’s lectionary contains complex theology. Here’s my attempt at distillation…31257464416_ORIG

This week I find myself strangely drawn to Abraham. It’s not his parenting skills I admire for sure. Last week we read how he exhiled one son into the desert because his wife told him to. This week we read how he was prepared to sacrifice his only remaining son, the son for whom he’d waited his entire life. What strikes me about Abraham is his faith. On the one hand his faith seems so simple and uncomplicated, but on the other, Abraham’s faith is deeper and more true than I can really understand. He spent his life responding to God’s call in one way or another.

I’m not a fan of the concept of God setting things up just to test a person’s faith. I just don’t believe God does this to anyone, let alone to people who are clearly faithful. So there has to be another point to this story about Abraham and Isaac. What would make a person willing to sacrifice that which he or she holds most dear?

For Abraham it was trust in God. Whether it was trust that God would provide an alternative sacrifice or trust that God would make sacrificing Isaac worth it, can’t be clearly determined. There is more here than blind trust, though. God and Abraham had a long relationship in which God often asked that Abraham do unusual things while God took care of the impossible. Considering this, it is highly likely that Abraham desired to please God more than he desired anything else. He was not perfect to be sure, but he did seem to strive for righteousness to a degree that modern thinking has a hard time understanding. He would do anything to be “right with God.” For many of us in Mainline Christian traditions, we don’t spend much time thinking about righteousness or just what, exactly, God might be asking of us. The idea of pursuing righteousness or living holy lives does not much trouble the hearts and minds for many Christians. What if we let ourselves be concerned with such things?

Like my response to Abraham this week, I find myself surprised when I read the passage from Romans and nod again and again in agreement. Of course, my understanding of sin may be a bit different than the Apostle Paul’s. Yet, the point he makes about where and how we put ourselves out in the world, how we use our bodies, or allow ourselves to be used, rings true all these centuries later. Should we not endeavor to follow God more deliberately knowing that we are set aside for holy purposes in Christ? I think of all the suffering in the world, all the struggles for power and position, all the hoarding of resources and wonder what would happen in the world if we all took the idea of being enslaved to righteousness with the reward of sanctification a little more seriously.

This concept that we are set aside for a holy purpose resonates with something deep within me. Would I be willing to sacrifice that which I hold most dear if God asked it of me? I want the answer to be, “Yes, of course.” However, I honestly don’t know what I would do. I’m pretty good at telling God that I am willing to serve wherever God may call. Underneath my prayerful words, though, are all the qualifiers and preferences I have about my willingness to serve. I admire Abraham for his trusting pursuit of righteousness. Likewise the Apostle Paul. Realistically, though, I have a ways to go before there is clear evidence of sanctification in my life. Perhaps it’s time to pursue righteousness, a life lived in covenant with God, self, and neighbor, with far more intention and enthusiasm.

We are sanctified. It is time to pursue righteousness.scan0005

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:1-14 with Psalm 13 or
Jeremiah 28:5-9 with Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Responding to Yet Another Shooting

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the anger, the blame, the fear, and the complete lack of change. Yes, I am talking about “gun violence”, but I could make this statement about other things as well. It’s easy to be outraged when a person open-fires in a school, a mall, a theater, or anywhere else. And it’s easy to blame politicians for not enacting gun-control, blame the shooter for not seeking proper mental health care, blame whomever didn’t report odd behaviors of the shooter to proper authorities before the shooting. The more anger and blame, the more fear takes root and we become more cautious around strangers, more afraid of “others,” and worry for the future of this country. These are not necessarily inexplicable reactions, but when we are governed only by our emotions nothing changes except our own anxiety seems to dramatically increase.

Processed with VSCOcam with x4 presetLiving in fear and anger is not how we are called to live as Christian people. This week we read the creation story in Genesis and are reminded that all human beings are made in the image of God. We are enlivened by the breath of God. This is not something we are to bury within us or ignore in others. We are to seek out the holy in ourselves and in others and we are to breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit. This will not change the world exactly, but it beats living in fear and anger. Breathing deeply slows our thoughts and our heart rates, giving us time to let emotions settle and a way of peace to emerge.

This does not mean we do nothing. In fact, it means we follow Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbors and ourselves and, through this, we make disciples. Making disciples is secondary to following Jesus’ commandments, though. The call is to peace. It always has been. The world is a chaotic, stressful place and, likely, always will be. But for those who follow Jesus, it is also a place to live in love and peace. This call is not in spite of how things are, rather it is because of how they are; left to our own devices fear, anger, blame, and anxiety rule the day. Jesus knew the challenges we face, and he knew the need for a constant reminder to seek peace and live in love.

Now as my own anger settles, I ask myself what is the loving and peaceful response to gun violence and every other kind of violence? Nearly anything that decreases fear and increases a sense of hope and safety. In practical terms, we need better mental health care from awareness to treatment. We also need to know more about cultures and religious traditions not our own to decrease our mistrust and misunderstanding. We need media to publicize these kind of events without glamorizing them so that ideas do not take root in other unstable minds. Politicians should stop listening to lobbyists and pay more attention to what their constituents actually need.

This list could go on and on. Maybe some of you are in positions to make big changes. Most of us are not. While my heart breaks every time I hear of another shooting, I refuse to live in anger and fear. I will continue to seek out Christ in other people, even in the perpetrators of violence. I will pray for healing for individuals, for our country, for the whole of creation. I will not give up hope that human beings can do better than we are now.

I’m not an optimist by nature. Yet, I choose to believe that humanity is meant for good. We are capable of taking better care of ourselves, one another, and creation. Just today I said to a patient who is very fearful that Satan has taken over the world, “I have to believe that Love is stronger than evil. Sometimes it seems that evil is winning because the suffering in our lives or in the world feels overwhelming. Then I look around and see all the beauty and wonder that is still in the world and in every person.”


Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

RCL – Year A – Trinity Sunday – First Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Both photos in this post are from unsplash.com

Pastoral Prayer for Pentecost

God whose very breath gives us life, allow your Spirit to blow freely through this place. May we feel your mighty winds clearing away our disbelief, our reluctance, and our ambivalence leaving only the full knowledge that we are yours. We rejoice to be part of your amazing creation. May the winds and flames of Pentecost remind us of … Read More

A Few Words

Every time I read Psalm 68 I remember a Bible study group I led early in my career. Someone shared parts of this Psalm as the opening devotional, commenting particularly on the psalmist’s invitation to ascribe glory and power to God. Another person in attendance immediately asked, “Why? Why should we give God credit for our strength, our success, our own achievements?” As a new and young pastor, I was rather taken aback by the question. I don’t remember where the conversation took us that night, but it’s likely that my answer is very different now.

It is like answering a question in German when the one who asked only speaks English. It’s not as simple as saying that God created all that is and so we must respond with gratitude and glory.

The need to worship God, the ability to ascribe to God glory and power, is born out of experience rather than intellectual decision. I think of that parishioner who asked the question in Bible Study. Clearly, there was something missing from the church experience if, after many years of membership, he was asking why we ascribe to God anything.

30510_387050549163_6316799_nIt’s easy for me to say that I can’t imagine my life without God. The times I have felt hopeless would have gone very differently if I did not believe in a loving God. The times when I have experienced joy would have just been happy little momentswithout God. I would not be who I am if I did not believe that Jesus died on my behalf, that God loves the particularity of me.

I also know that anyone listening to me can point to any place of war, tragedy, violence, poverty, hunger, homelessness, etc. and say that God is absent from the world. The language of faith is particular, as “ingroup” speak. We ought to be living an embodiment of the words we speak. We should, in this way, become the word incarnate. Talk less.

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday of Easter – June 1, 2014
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Whether We Know it or Not

2014-05-12 20.44.33I can’t shake the idea that Paul’s sermon to the Athenians could take place in almost any town in the U.S. today.

There are many churches. Just as Paul could tell those Athenians that it was easy to see how religious they are, it would be easy to see how religious we are too. Right? There are churches everywhere. While our churches are all clearly labeled and no altars are inscribed ‘to an unknown God,’ some could be. Paul found a single altar ‘to an unknown God’ and used this to tell the people about Jesus. What would he say to us now? How well do we really know this God of ours?

This week’s text from John’s Gospel opens with Jesus saying, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Jesus’ commandments are simple enough in theory – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

The kind of love that Jesus embodied has been distorted by rules and tradition. We like things to feel safe and predictable, familiar and comfortable. It’s good to know the rules. The problem is that the love Jesus offers isn’t something that can be contained like that. It’s meant to be challenging and sometimes discomforting. Loving God and loving our neighbors and ourselves does not leave room for hatred and judgment. It does not endorse violence or war. It does not attribute higher value of one person over another.

It’s easy to claim that God is on our side or preach that God loves this kind of person but not that kind of person. It’s easy to let ourselves think that our thoughts and actions are what God wants. It’s much more difficult to contemplate a God who might want different things, things truly grounded in love.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Jesus broke Jewish laws and traditions all the time to reach human beings and change their lives. I don’t think he’d be thrilled with all the laws and traditions we’ve placed between ourselves and those real human beings who need to experience the transforming power of love.  It is easy to fool ourselves into believing that our God needs traditions because we feel that we need them.

What it comes down to is this: Has God become unknown to you?

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Easter – May 25, 2014
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

For Your Consideration

In recognition of Mental Health Sunday in the United Church of Christ, I am posting the following poem from Barefoot Theology, pg. 164-165. I wrote this poem based on many real conversations I’ve had over my years as a clinical chaplain in a psychiatric hospital. My hope is that one day, mental illness will be seen for … Read More

There’s More to the Story

I used to think that Easter was the easiest Sunday to preach. The story tells itself and there’s so much else going on in the service that a brief sermon highlighting resurrection couldn’t go wrong. However, as the years have gone on and my ministry has changed, I find Easter a particular challenge.

Cape Trip May 2010 103

This year in the Easter worship service there will be no musician, just me and my IPOD. Moreover, I feel the need to communicate the Gospel in a way that people wrestling with various mental health crises and symptoms might actually hear. I can’t spend too much time with the specifics of the Easter story because someone will ask out loud why Jesus doesn’t appear to us the way he did to Mary. Some others might volunteer that they, too, have seen angels. Someone else will ask where the tomb is and if it’s still empty. I’ve come to understand that these tangents are likely on the minds of anyone paying attention to the story. Yet, none of this is helpful, really. The issue at hand is not what happened on that first Easter morning, but on what is happening now.

I want people who come to chapel service to hear a word of hope, to know that the resurrection is for them, and to experience forgiveness and acceptance at a really deep level. Yes, I know this is a lot to put into one sermon. This message of Jesus’ radical love is essential. Too many people tell me that they do not feel “good enough” for God to love them. They tend to believe the basics of the Gospel message except that they somehow exclude themselves. They conclude that Jesus couldn’t possibly love them even though he seems to love everyone else.

Somehow in the midst of the unbelievable story of the empty tomb, I have to make it believable on a personal level. Beyond believable, I have to make it real and livable today. A group of people will gather in a chapel without all the fanfare of a traditional church Easter celebration and they will look to me to say something that eases the suffering in their own lives.

The question that keeps echoing through my thoughts is this:  Who are you that you alone would be excluded from the love God has for the whole of creation?

With the scent of anointing oil and spices lingering in the air, women weeping, and angels in white, I think we forget that the tomb was empty. It wasn’t empty for no reason. It wasn’t empty for Jesus’ sake. It was empty for us, all of us. You know—God so loved the world. It really doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done or not done, what diagnosis you carry, what job you do, how much money is in your bank account, the size of your house, the car you drive, your gender identity, your sexual orientation, your relationship status… none of this matters because God loves us whether we believe it or not.

The appropriate response to “Christ the Lord is risen today!” perhaps ought to be “Thanks be to God!” Now let us go and live our lives in gratitude and as a testimony to the power and grace that conquers death with the promise of new life.

RCL- Year A – Easter – April 20, 2014
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10