Friday, March 28, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 28

Lenten discipline of the day:
tell someone what you are grateful for.

Expressing gratitude is something most of us were taught to do as children ("Write your grandmother a thank you note!!  Say please and thank you!!"), but we so easily forget to do as adults.  When we are in a hurry, when we are distracted, when we are centered on ourselves and our worries, it is easy to overlook the people closest to us and the many ways they make our lives rich and full.  Yet we know how powerful a simple "thank you" can be because gratitude is something we crave for ourselves.  Receiving gratitude is how we know that we matter, and that we've made a difference.

I have a former boss who gave me a job in advertising when I was inexperienced young woman right out of school.  He trusted me with increasing responsibility and encouraged me even when I messed up badly. He was both a mentor and a friend, and as I look back on my life, I have realized I'd probably be a very different person if I had not met him.  A couple years ago, I had lunch with him and told him how much I appreciated the difference he made for me, and how formative he was in my life.  I realized that he had even played a role in my decision to enter ministry!  It was a conversation that mattered to both us.  

When Fred Rogers was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997, he brought a Hollywood audience to tears by asking them to think about and remember the people who had "loved them into being."  Can you think of someone like that in your life?  When was the last time you simply said, "Thank you," to someone who has made all the difference to you?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 27

Lenten discipline of the day:
adopt a prayer routine.

I discovered a long time ago that I am lousy at spontaneous prayer.  If I am to have a rich and meaningful prayer life, I have to plan for it and make time for it, just as I make time for other things I do routinely to keep myself healthy and well -- like showering, eating, exercising, etc.  So I begin each day with prayer, guided by Daily Prayer PC(USA) which provides brief services based on the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, including psalms for the day, readings from the daily lectionary, and prayers of thanksgiving and intercession.  And I do it all using my iPhone -- yes, there's even an app for prayer!  

Paul exhorts for us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), which is a worthy goal, but the first step, I think, is to just make time each day to devote to prayer, in whatever way feels authentic to you.  For me, I need the liturgical structure of the Daily Prayer, although I may pray at other times of the day in many other ways.  Some folks in my congregation appreciate a devotional book like Upper Room, Guideposts or These Days.  The key is to find a structure that works for you and stick with it.  

Another on-line resource for something similar to Daily Prayer comes from our Episcopalian brothers and sisters:

I apologize for lack of posting yesterday.  I have the flu and am just now beginning to come out of the fog of fever and nausea.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 25

Lenten discipline of the day:
allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask for help.

Whenever I talk to someone who spends a lot of time volunteering or has just come back from a mission trip or some other endeavor where they've helped people in need, they always say the exact same thing.  "I get more out of it than the people I helped."  Which is to say that helping other people gives most of us a very deep and good feeling.  Just watch a small child who is entrusted with their first small tasks around the house.  Children love to "help" their parents.  Human beings seem to have a deep-seated need to be needed.  We want to be useful and connected to other people!

Which is why I am always flummoxed by people who will not allow other people to help them. I am frustrated by those who will not admit that they need help.  Especially in the church.  Many of us have drunk the self-sufficiency cultural kool aid so deeply that we are wholly unwilling to allow any one to lend us a hand.  And if, God forbid, we have no option but to rely on someone else, we feel ashamed.  As if we're not good enough or tough enough.  I used to think this was a predominantly male trait, but I've seen it often enough in women to know that it affects everyone.  None of us want to be vulnerable.  We don't want to ask for anything from anyone.  We don't want to take the risk of appearing weak or needy.

I invite you to practice allowing yourself to be a blessing to someone else by allowing them to bless you by giving you a part of themselves.  Ask a co-worker for advice on a problem.  Ask your child (no matter their age) for assistance or for a hug.  Instead of driving yourself somewhere, ask for a ride. Let someone open the door for you.  If someone asks, "Can I help?" say, "Yes."  

Over the past few years, I've become a great fan of Brene Brown, a researcher who writes about issues such an the importance of vulnerability and how it leads to more whole-hearted and healthy living.  I think vulnerability is a key issue for the church because it's what we see so clearly in scripture -- a God who commits to the world, gives humanity free will, offers laws and guidance, begs people to treat each other well, gets angry when they don't, and continues to draw near to us to invite us into relationship with God restore our broken relationships with one another.  And God even took on the vulnerability of human flesh to draw near to us in the person Jesus Christ.

If you have never see the TED talks by Brene Brown, I invite you to take some time today (or whenever you can) to watch her first TED talk from 2010.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 24

Lenten discipline of the day:
sing a prayer.

Santus from "REQUIEM" by Gabriel Faure

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Saboth
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua
Hosanna in excelsis
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord
God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent 3A Sermon -- March 23, 2014

Is God With Us, Or Not?

For audio recording, please click this link:

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

When my kids were younger, they played a computer game called The Oregon Trail.  Oregon Trail is supposed to teach children about19th century pioneer life. The player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley via a Conestoga wagon in 1848. Over the course of the game, members of the traveling party can fall ill and die from a variety of causes, all of which flash up on the computer screen -- measles! snakebite! cholera!  Playing the Oregon Trail is a grand adventure, a way for kids to virtually experience a dangerous journey through the wilderness without the inconvenience of actually leaving their 21st century perch in front of the computer.  I found the Oregon Trail sort of creepy, as I recall how casually the kids would loudly announce the sudden deaths occurring in cybersace.  “Hey mom, guess what?  My whole family just died from typhoid.  Again.”
Most of us do have never been through a remotely “Oregon Trail” kind of experience in real life. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes.  Rebel uprisings, government takeovers and crackdowns.  We’ve had a rough winter that we’ve certainly enjoyed complaining about, but life-shattering natural and manmade disasters are about as real to us as what we see on a screen.  We probably understand as much about the reality of such experiences as my children knew about what it was like to be 19th century pioneer on the Oregon Trail.  We can read about disasters and wars, and thanks to computer technology we can even virtually experience them.   But, most often we are left to interpret true disasters from a safe distance.  And the more distant we are from an event, the more likely we are to get the story wrong.
I think today’s story from Exodus is a text we very often get wrong.  All of us have heard at least one sermon about those murmuring Israelites who miserably fail in the business of faith.  From a distance, it seems that what we have on our hands today is a group of ungrateful people. After all, look at what God has done so far in this story.  The Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt, led through the Red Sea, and have so far been kept alive with sufficient water, manna and even quail.  God has done all of that for the people, through the person of Moses. 

In our text today, the group has arrived at their new camp in Rephidim and things don’t look so good in this new place to which they have been led by Moses.  There is not a drop of water to be found and pretty soon, the people begin to get thirsty and they panic.  And like most panicky people tend to do, they Israelites begin to flail and yell for help like someone drowning or surrounded by fire:  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  Despite all that a faithful God has already shown them, they are convinced that they are about to die.

“Who do these people think they are?” says Moses.  “Who do these people think they are, testing and quarreling with God?” We may ask the same question.  Who do these people think they are?  Who are these people with such small, puny faith?  Haven’t they learned anything since Egypt?

This text begins to open up a little, if we narrow our focus, and really look around at where we are in this text.  In fact, let’s take at look at the wilderness existence from the point of view of a single Israelite.  Imagine if you can…all of your life, you have been a prisoner.  From your small and limited vantage point as a slave in Egypt, you’ve heard whispered rumors and vague promises about freedom.  Freedom is a concept so foreign to you that the possibility that you could be anything other than a servant to Pharaoh has never crossed your mind. Suddenly, you are kicked out of Egypt, the only home you’ve ever known, and find yourself out in the middle of a desert running for your life. You’re chased by Pharaoh and his army, and escape by the skin of your teeth.  Then comes the walking and walking for weeks on end. The trek through the wilderness is a daily struggle for survival.  Nothing prepared you for this.  Life in Egypt was difficult, to be sure, but it was a life that was small and predictable.  In Egypt, you had a place to lay your head at night.  In Egypt, there was familiar food to eat, and even an occasional break from the unrelenting heat.  But here you are, catapulted out of your small, limited life into a vast and frightening wilderness. At this point in the journey, just six months out of Egypt, you can only dimly remember the initial elation that came with the first breath of freedom.  You don’t trust your leaders who seem to be leading you in circles.  You thought you were leaving Egypt for a better life.  But every day, you are becoming convinced that this journey was a terrible idea.  Given the grim reality of daily life on the road with Moses, you have begun to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt.

It is not at all surprising that at least some of the Israelites begin to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just staying put in Egypt.  It is always tempting to critique the troubles of the present by improving the memory of what was in the past.  When life has become unmanageable in its current state, we all have a tendency to wax nostalgic for some better time that never actually existed.  But the Exodus story tells us that once you have left Egypt and entered into God’s reality, life will never be the same and there is no going back to who you once were.  The future lies ahead out there, somewhere, formless and mysterious as a dream.  And only the God of mystery knows how to get you there.  And the only option is to keep moving forward.

This is scary stuff.  I do not believe there is one of us who wouldn’t prefer a predictable outcome to the wildness of freedom.  Egypt starts to look pretty good when you can’t sleep at night and the anxiety of not knowing what’s next begins to creep in.  When provisions run low, when deep thirst sets in, when your belly begins to ache from hunger, it’s easy to forget that God is not only with us, but out ahead of us.  
You see, that question at the end of the text:  “Is God with us or not?” really is the punch line of Exodus.  And the rest of the Hebrew scripture seems to flow out of that question.  And it is a question that flows out to us, who are the inheritors of the journey begun in Egypt.  “Is God with us, or not?” is a question resonating when we find ourselves in desolate places, gasping for breath. In times of deserts and drought.  When life feels unlivable.  When prayer dries up.  When hope for something better seems stupid and love is just too much work. It is the question that hangs over us wherever and whenever there is the kind of suffering that brings us to our knees, or the kind of suffering that we carry around like a continuing dull ache.  The question, “Is God with us or not?” has been so much a part of human history for so long that to ask it seems almost rhetorical. 

And the question of God’s presence with us is never more finely drawn than in the season of Lent, when we begin another wilderness journey, this time to Jerusalem.  The question that rings over the Israelites in the desert is the same question that haunts us as we stumble along a shifting landscape with Jesus toward the cross.  From a distance, such an event seems a terribly tragic ending to the story of Jesus.  In Lent, everything is falling apart, and taking this long road to the cross seems a very bad idea.  We wonder if there isn’t an express train to whisk us past all that is still to come…the journey, the Passion, the betrayals, the denials, and the crucifixion…right to Easter and resurrection.

Some of us are being sustained by God in dry places but do not recognize it. We have been unable to trust our full weight and the weight of our burden to God. We are like that man who fell over the edge of the cliff and managed to grab with both hands a root sticking out of the side of the cliff. Dangling there, he looked up and shouted, "Help! Is there anybody up there? Help!"
A strong voice came from a cloud above the cliff, "Yes, I am here, my son. Trust me and let go of the root."
There was a moment of silence, and then the man shouted, "Is there anybody else up there?"

This is part of what Paul has in mind, I think, in today’s passage from Romans.  Our journeys through the dry deserts of life are not, as it may have appeared to an individual Israelite, circular misadventures leading to nowhere.  Paul understands the pain of life; there’s nothing distant or disinterested about Paul’s language in Romans.  Paul understands that there are plenty of alternatives to the Lenten progression.  One alternative is not to go on the journey at all, to keep holding on to the roots of the past and remain back in Egypt where life is awful, but also controllable.  Egypt is where our expectations are so low that we’ll never be disappointed.  That’s the way fear operates in our lives, when we would rather remain locked in our familiar ways of doing things, even when such habits of mind keep us dangling from a cliff, or even hurt us deeply.   Instead of opening up our lives to God’s better intention for us, we are fearful to take the journey at all. 

But Paul says not only should we not allow ourselves to become stuck in fear, but to boast in our sufferings, because the bad stuff teaches us “endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Before the manna and the quail and the water, there is the love of God which we don’t need to seek, but is continually poured into our hearts.  Love that is as light as air and strong as iron.  Like living water that never runs dry, God’s love is like an overflowing fountain in the desert.  God’s love is the voice that whispers in the night, “Don’t be afraid.  Seriously. You can do this.”

God’s love gives us the hope that grace will come – slowly but certainly.  We may not experience grace as water gushing from a rock.  It always seems like grace creeps in slowly at first, like a stubborn and dawdling Spring thaw.  Dean Leuking has a lovely metaphor drawn from the realm of a glacier rather than from the realm of the desert that describes the grace of God.  He writes:

A tiny rivulet of flowing water between tons of ice and snow is called a winterbourne.  It is hardly discernable, but it is there.  And as it continues to flow, the icy mass that threatens to choke it, gradually gives way.  The tons of debris does not choke the winterbourne.  That tiny stream finally melts away the icy mass over it.

Every year, during Passover, our Jewish brothers and sisters recite the Exodus story so that every generation will remember not only how easy it is for us to lose sight of God when we are in the wilderness, but also so we can be confident that God will never abandon us.  Even on a good day, we are easily distracted people.  We allow fear and cynicism to rule us. Our emotions are fractured, our loyalties are divided, our commitment is fleeting, and, like the Israelites, we want what we want when we want it. If we allow it, the season of Lent takes us to places where we may practice our spiritual survival skills, skills that can become weak in our more well-fed and watered seasons.  Skills that can build up our endurance in order that we may see the small cracks in our lives which reveal the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Skills we need in order to detect and uncover that tiny trickle of living water when our spiritual thirst overwhelms us.  

God is always leading us into better future than we could ever come up with ourselves.  And God will water us with grace all along the way, pouring love into our hearts so that we may never be thirsty.  What God requires, what God wants for us most lovingly is nothing more and nothing less than all our attention.  God wants our attention so much, that in the fullness of time, God once and for all time answered the question of, “Is God with us, or not?” with the resounding yes! that is Jesus Christ.  Emmanuel. God with us and for us, to the end of time.  

Wilderness journeys give us time and space – precious time in which we are able to turn our full attention to God. How much richer would we be if we considered not just these 40 days of Lent, but our whole lives as time in the Lenten desert?  What if we awoke every morning, determined to look for the movement of the Holy?  What would our lives be like if we were attentive to God in the same manner that God is completely and forever fascinated with us and all of God’s creation?  This is not just the territory of the monks and the mystics, my brothers and sisters.  I truly believe that God is in all, just waiting for us to notice God’s amazing work among us.  

If we take the time to give all our attention to this God who is leading us with loving care, we will see how Holy Spirit is at work in every moment of our lives.  If we trust the One who loved us so much that he was willing to take on our flesh and abide with us, we will discover not just trickling streams, but gushing fountains of living water that never run dry. We will be led by the One who fed us in the wilderness to a table that is overflowing with good things for all who hunger for righteousness.   Thanks be to God. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 22

Lenten discipline of the day:
take an hour to just be…happy!

You have turning my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy (Psalm 30:11)

Sometimes I wonder if we need a Lent entirely devoted not to penance and confession, but  to rejoicing and praise. It seems to me that the church is pretty good at recognizing sin and sadness, but not so hot at seeing the joy of God's spirit among us.  Maybe we could use some practice rejoicing in the Lord.  I'll say it again -- rejoice!  

So here's a soundtrack for you to take an hour or so over the next few hours and rejoice!  The song "Happy" by Pharrell Williams has been out for awhile now.  It's incredibly catchy, but what I love is that the singer has made a "24 hour" video of the song.  So pick your hour to practice happiness.

Since the church is having a bowling party this afternoon, I know when my hour will be!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 21

Lenten discipline of the day:
forgive someone.

When Rev. Fred Rogers died in 2003, Rev. Fred Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist Church showed up in Pittsburgh to stage a protest at Rogers' memorial service.  Why?  In an interview with the Post-Gazette, this is what Phelps had to say about Mr. Rogers:

          "Mr. Rogers gave aid and comfort to homosexuals," Phelps said, his Mississippi accent dripping with insincerity. "He was a man who preached tolerance of all sorts of people in ways that directly contradicted the Bible. His syrupy teachings led millions astray. He was a wuss and he was an enabler of wusses." 

Rev. Phelps died yesterday, March 20, which just happens to be Mr. Rogers' birthday.  Many commentators were quick to point out the irony that one of America's most gentle and loving icons and one of America's most belligerent, polarizing figures will be forever linked in such a way.  

Phelps not only protested at the funeral of Mr. Rogers, but also at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, linking their deaths to God's judgment of America for being tolerant not only of gay people, but also Jews, Catholics and others not fitting Rev. Phelps' definition of "Christian."  Tolerance, according to Phelps, is not a biblical principle.

To imagine Fred Phelps at God's heavenly banquet seated next to Fred Rogers is a hard thing to do, but it is a vision of God's grace that gives hope to all of us who sin and fall short of God's intention for us.  

It is not for me to forgive Fred Phelps for the pain he caused countless people during his lifetime.  His offense was not against me, but against the families and friends of every person who suffered his cruel and hateful tirades.  But his death leads all of us to wonder -- who is outside God's circle of grace and forgiveness?  Can grace teach us something about forgiving what seems unforgivable in our own lives?  

Forgiveness is tricky business, I realize.  Sometimes there are harms committed against us that are so deep, we cannot imagine ever being in relationship with the person who has harmed us ever again.  And in some circumstances, keeping a safe distance is the proper, healthy option.

But God is just as interested in what goes on in our hearts.  Learning to forgive again and again is how we imitate God's grace in our lives.  Loving the agreeable neighbor demands very little of us.  Loving the neighbor or enemy who makes our skin crawl is a spiritual discipline that can free us from living a constricted and rigid life.

When Mr. Rogers said he likes us just as we are, I think he meant it.  He liked our good stuff and our dark stuff.  Rev. Rogers modeled grace and forgiveness throughout his whole life.  So it's not such a stretch, is it, to imagine him greeting the other Fred with open arms?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 20

Lenten discipline of the day:
pay a compliment to someone who hardly ever gets one.

30He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (Mark 4:30-32)

I cannot claim the idea as original, but from February 1 until Valentines Day this year, I posted a heart on my son's bedroom door every morning reminding him not only that I love him, but also all the ways in which he is a talented and wonderful human being.  Because of his autism spectrum disorder, my son doesn't always have an easy time in school and with other kids.  The hearts are still hanging on his door to remind him, even when the world doesn't, that he has lots of gifts and talents, and that he is loved.

Today's lenten discipline is to pay a compliment -- a sincere and genuine compliment -- to someone who hardly ever receives one.  That person could be a struggling co-worker, the guy who bags groceries at the store, the person who mops the floors in your office, or maybe even someone you love and live with.  The world is full of "unnoticed" people who do not believe they are worthy or beautiful.  As people of God, we are called to affirm and lift up the inherent value and worth of all people.

When reading the gospel lesson in today's lectionary, I was struck by the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds on earth according to Jesus.  Yet isn't it amazing how God seems to have this crazy love for small things?  And God has so much confidence that small things can blossom in extraordinary ways. Paying someone a compliment seems like a very small thing, indeed.  But we cannot know how one small word of kindness that recognizes the humanness of another person can make a enormous difference.  

Every time you love just a little
Take one step closer, solving a riddle
It echoes all over the world

Every time you opt in to kindness
Make one connection, used to divide us
It echoes all over the world

Every time you choose one more morning
Goodness or meanness, life has one warning
It echoes all over the world

When a leader gets the hungry fed food
When you just make love inside your bedroom
It echoes all over the world

-- Dar Williams, "Echoes"

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 19

Lenten discipline of the day: read Psalm 139

Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,

even the darkness is not dark to you;

   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;

   I come to the end—I am still with you.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
   and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
   and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
   And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
   I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

   test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.

I want to walk as a child of the Light
I want to follow Jesus
God set the stars to give light to the world
The Star of my life is Jesus.


In Him there is no darkness at all
The night and the day are both alike
The lamb is the Light of the city of God
Shine in my heart Lord Jesus.
I want to see the Brightness of God
I want to look at Jesus
Clear Son of righteousness shine on my path
And show me the way to the Father. 

I'm looking for the coming of Christ
I want to be with Jesus
When we have run, with patience, the race
We shall know the joy of Jesus. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 18

Lenten discipline of the day:  
pray the newspaper.

I had to look up the Karl Barth quote this morning, because I couldn't remember exactly what he said about newspapers.  But what the great theologian said is this:  "Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.  But interpret newspapers from your Bible."  

Today as you read your newspaper, try to find ways to pray over the people and situations the articles describe.  For example, as I read this morning's Post Gazette, I found these issues to lift up to God:

Lord, I pray for the two boys who were fighting at Perrysville High School last week.  May their parents and school officials find ways to help them discover healthy ways to solve disputes.  May God watch over all students and teachers in our schools, and keep them safe.

Lord, I pray for those negotiating their cars through lane restrictions and road closures.  May they be safe as they travel.

Lord, I pray for the families awaiting word about their loved ones on the missing Malaysian airplane.  Give them strength and courage, and comfort them in their anxiety. 

Lord, I pray for the the U.S.officials seeking to craft an appropriate response to the Russian government.  May our path be peaceful and wise, while seeking justice for the citizens of all the countries involved.

Lord, thank you for the blessings you've bestowed on Guy Autore and Elizabeth Pinkerton.  Both will turn 100 years old this week!

Lord, thank you for the promise of Spring -- just two weeks until baseball season begins!

Reading the daily news prayerfully helps us link the world in which we live to the faith we profess.  God through the Holy Spirit is active in the world, present in all things, and God's reality and deep desire for creation can be present to us even in daily news.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 17

Lenten discipline of the day:
reach out to a friend and tell them you love them.

I was on vacation with my son last week in Florida (which is why there was a brief hiatus in the Lenten devotions).  On our last day there, I found out that my dear friend and colleague, Don Polito, had died suddenly.  

Originally, I had planned for today's Lenten discipline to be, "Call an old friend."  But in honor of Don, I'm going to suggest telling a friend who means a lot to you exactly how much they mean. 

Although I knew Don had serious cardiac issues, it seemed to me that he had been feeling well lately.  He was enjoying his ministry at Liberty Presbyterian Church, and had just recently joined CPM for the presbytery.  A week or so before I left for vacation, I talked with him about getting involved with a pilot project I am working on with some other colleagues.  I thought he'd be great at working with churches in the midst of transition and challenge.  He said he'd think about it, but was pretty well occupied with his work at Liberty, particularly the Saturday night contemporary service with great music and table fellowship.  That was so Don -- he didn't know how to do "part time" ministry. He always said he couldn't write 1/2 of a sermon or plan 1/2 of an Advent series.  He was all-in, wherever he served.  And everyone loved him -- the folks at Southminster, Bethesda, Concord and Liberty. 

And now he's gone.  I just can't wrap my mind around a world without Don.  As a fellow small church pastor, Don was always my go-to guy for sharing joys and challenges.  Don especially understood and embraced the ministry of presence with elderly folks, and he and I shared a love of home visitation with shut in's and people in nursing homes.  He accepted everyone for who they were and loved them deeply.

I wish I had told Don how much he meant to me the last time we talked on the phone.  As it is, I am sure most of what passed between us was wise-cracks and laughter.  Maybe that is enough.  But i sure wish I'd told him what his friendship always meant to me, from the very beginning.  And I'm sure going to miss him at presbytery meetings where we often sat together, a steady stream of "editorial" remarks passing between us.

Don was a glorious child of God and I am so grateful I knew him.

With love and prayers to Don's wife, Cheryl and his son, Samuel.  

I remember having a debate with Don about whether it was proper to consider this Leonard Cohen song "sacred" enough to play in church.  We didn't agree, but we both loved the song.  I am certain that heaven greeted Don with an "hallelujah!" and "well done, good and faithful servant!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 12

Lenten discipline of the day:
declutter for good.

Create in me a clean heart O God,
and put a right and new spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

I am not at all certain how many of us spring clean the way in which my grandmother performed the yearly ritual of clearing out and cleaning out her home.  But the older I get, the I realize that she might have been on to something in her whirling dervish cleaning frenzy every year.  Sometimes, I find that a good clean up of the house feels like a spiritual discipline.  There is something freeing and deeply satisfying about cleaning out the dusty corners and clearing out the clutter.  

I think one of the reasons I do not like to clean is that I almost always discover  junk -- junk that once seemed so important that we had to have it, but now languishes abandoned in a closet or in a cabinet.  It makes me feel ashamed, but determined to be more mindful in how we handle our purchases.

Today's Lenten discipline is to find 5 items -- pieces of clothing in good condition or anything else that is cluttering your home -- and give them to a local thrift store, Goodwill, Vietnam Veterans (they pick up) or another place that can give your unneeded items a good home.  Start small for now.  Perhaps in time, you'll find that decluttering can become a habit.

Contributing to and shopping at thrift stores is not only good for the spirit (and your budget), it is good for the earth by recycling clothing and other items that still have a purpose.  Plus, all the cool kids are doing it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 11

Lenten discipline of the day:  
Look out.

O taste and see that the Lord is good.
(Psalm 34:8)

For years, the blogger Andrew Sullivan has held a weekly contest on his blog, The Daily Dish, in which readers send in pictures of the "view from your window" and other readers guess where the picture was taken.  In order to win the contest, readers must really focus on small details in order to figure out where in the world they are looking.  Here's an archive of the photos featured over the years:

Today, take time to look out your window and try to see the unique beauty that lies within the picture just outside your door.  Look for the small details that you've never noticed before.  A patch of snow. A bit of sunlight shining on the sidewalk.  The neighbor's wind chimes.  The bare branches outlined against the sky. The shapes of the clouds. 

What seems beautiful to you today?  Take a moment and thank God for it.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lenten Discipline -- March 10

Lenten discipline of the day:
be silent for five minutes.
Starting now.
After five minutes, scroll down.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

FIrst Sunday of Lent Year A, March 9, 2014

No Ifs, Ands or Buts.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Every year in the lectionary, the beginning of Lent is separated by just one punctuation point from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordon River. The same Spirit that just moments ago pronounced Jesus as God’s “beloved” proceeds to kick Jesus out into the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back. Before Jesus has even had a chance to dry his hair or catch his breath, we move from the water to wilderness.  And just a few weeks after Jesus had heard the words,  “This is my beloved Son” he is challenged to prove it: If you are the Son of God...” 

This is the familiar story of Jesus in the wilderness, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The order in which the story is presented changes a bit each year, but it’s the essentially the same story.  Jesus is baptized, pronounced God’s beloved Son, and sent out into god-forsaken territory to wander for a while and discover exactly what being God’s beloved Son means.  And, it seems like “awhile” according to God is almost always 40 days.  When God’s preparing someone for important work, the person often to undergoe God’s 40 day plan, something like a holy “time out” during which the person discovers what they are made of.  Noah. Moses.  Elijah.  Jesus.  All of them spend 40 days in a strange and wild place, and came out the other end trusting God’s promises.  Which, of course, is why the early church set the season of Lent for 40 days, so Christians can wander around for a while in the wilderness, fast and pray, in hopes that we might be remember again who we are and whose we are.   It helps to have this story about Jesus in front of us as we begin so we know he’s spent some hungry days in the wilderness too.

Before we are too tempted – ahem – to skip ahead in today’s story to Jesus’ conversation with you-know-who, I want us to take time to think about those 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness all by himself.  I think it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around Jesus’ experience.  I would venture to guess that none of us have ever had the experience of going without food for 40 days. I would also imagine that none of us have existed in complete isolation without some form of human communication for 40 days.  It is hard for us to imagine how those 40 days felt for Jesus.  The first few days were probably not so bad.  Jesus may even have welcomed the calm and quiet.  There was time for him to pray.  Time to for him to clear his head.  Time to reflect on what he had heard when he emerged from the Jordon River.  Perhaps Jesus even dared to dream of what lay ahead. 

But after a week or so in the wilderness, Jesus may have grown weary of nothing but lonely meditation and sick of centering prayer.  Maybe he was tired of sleeping on the cold, hard ground, and tired of living under a relentless sun.  No doubt, he was beginning to feel a gnawing hunger in his belly.  As one week stretched to two weeks, then three weeks, then four, then five -- Jesus no doubt felt a little lost, more fearful, and certainly a growing anxiety about how long the exile would last.  

This week in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote a piece about a reform movement in several states to significantly limit the time that prisoners can be required to spend in solitary confinement.  For decades, people who run the prisons in this country have assumed that the pain of being isolated from other people – social pain – is not the same as enduring physical pain.  Prisons cannot beat prisoners, but they can impose long periods of solitary confinement.  But, in fact, researchers have found that the brain doesn’t really make a distinction between social and physical pain.  The brain processes both in almost identical ways.  If anything, being isolated from other people for a long period of time is more traumatic, more long-lasting and more destabilizing than physical pain. Think about what happened to the babies that were found in orphanages years ago who had been left alone in cribs for hours on end, only receiving the bare minimum of social contact.   Brooks says that what prisons do by putting inmates into narrow cells by themselves for days, weeks or months at a time with only minimal contact is more inhumane than inflicting physical injury.[1] 

How hungry do you have to become to arrive at the point where you’d do just about anything for a piece of bread?   How lonely do you need to be that you’d sell your soul for  someone to talk to?  That’s the place to which the Spirit has led Jesus.  Hungry.  Famished for food, comfort, and simple human contact.  In no kind of shape to deal with temptation, but that is the shape in which temptation finds Jesus.  When he is weak, sick and vulnerable.

So vulnerable that the voice that finally does speak to Jesus probably doesn’t sound very much like evil.  Which is the problem about voices of temptation.  They almost always sound perfectly reasonable.  Perhaps the voice even sounds familiar to Jesus.  Maybe it sounds like his mother’s voice, gentle and kind.  Maybe it sounds like the voice of a childhood friend or a trusted rabbi.  Maybe it even sounds a little like the voice Jesus heard just a few weeks ago at the Jordan River.  When we are at our most vulnerable, it is so easy to hear what we need to hear.

And that reasonable, lovely voice tells Jesus that it’s perfectly understandable if he’s had enough of this wilderness stuff.  Why not give in right now?  The voice assures Jesus that it’s okay to give in to the pain in his spirit and the emptiness in his belly.  The voice promises Jesus that if Jesus will just forget who is he for one minute – just one minute – all the pain, all the hunger, all the loneliness will be over.   Jesus can summon up all the power at his disposal and become be just the kind of machismo messiah that can smash the Romans and dazzle the crowds.    After all, if he is the Son of God, what’s he doing laying around half-dead in the desert?  If Jesus is the Son of God, doesn’t he deserve better than that?

But Jesus refuses the Bread and Circuses approach.  He won’t take power.  He won’t make the magic bread, he won’t call the angels in for a dramatic rescue.  Even as the voice promises Jesus that he can have it all, Jesus holds only to who he is.  Which is the beloved Son of God. No ifs, ands, or buts.

You don’t have to look very far or work very hard to find the same kinds of voices.  I hear them all the time, don’t you?  I hear those voices in the middle of the night when I am too wide awake to sleep and too tired to pray.  I just lay there, feeling those voices of anxiety crawl under my skin, torturing me with reminders of what I've done and left undone.

Which voice will you trust during Lent? The voice of shame and guilt?  The voice of fear and anxiety?  The voice that tells you there isn’t enough, that you’re not enough?  Or will you listen instead to the voice of love and forgiveness that rings loud and true above all others?  Will you trust the voice that called you “Beloved” at your baptism and still calls you now, even in the wilderness?

It’s the last place we want to be, but every year, when the season of Lent circles around, we arrive back in the wilderness, hungry again, lonely again, so disoriented by every other road we’ve taken over the course of the year that we’re no longer certain who we are following or whose voice we are hearing.  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Is it the Devil?  Or here’s another frightening possibility – maybe the voice we’ve been following all this time is the very sound of our own ego, our own insecurities, and our own fears. 

But Lent gives us the chance to hear the voice calling us what we truly are – beloved, and tune our hearts to the rhythmic melody of grace, given and received, loved and forgiven, again and again.  Lent invites us relearn the tune as if we’ve never heard this song before. 

Being able to separate truth from illusion is one of the great tasks of our lives.  To figure out what is fantasy and what is reality.  To discern what is dead and what is alive.  What is a narcotic and what is food.  What are stones and what is bread.  It is dangerous, hard work.  What Jesus faces in the wilderness is no mere temptation to have that second piece of chocolate or use a swear word.  Out there, Jesus was fighting for his life. And those 40 days free him from everything that would attempt to distract him from his true purpose.  Jesus learned to not only trust the voice that called him Beloved at the river, but also the Spirit that led him to the excruciating pain of the wilderness.

What saved Jesus in the wilderness was not strength or smarts or even the fact that he was Jesus.  All he had was scripture, the Word of God.  All that was left for him after 40 days was what he knew by heart, and the promise given him in his baptism --that he is somebody.  He is God’s beloved, no matter what.  All Jesus has is who he is. 

And so it is for us.  We are God’s beloved ones, no matter what.  All we have is who we are.  That’s all.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  It’s hard to believe on a good day.  In the wilderness, it’s almost impossible.  Which is why we need God’s word and need one another.

We cannot save ourselves.  I will say it again.  We CANNOT save ourselves.  What saved Jesus from the wilderness is the same power that saves us.  The grace of God.  That’s all there is. 

There are so very many ways to get lost.  And most of them include some kind of stumbling over love.  Even Jesus had to wrestle with what it meant to be loved, and he had to do it more than once.  In the wilderness.  On the journey to Jerusalem.  In the garden.  On the cross.  Jesus had to learn what our life feels like with no anesthesia, no buffer, no comfort but God alone.  He had to learn to trust the will of the One who sent him into the world.   Just as we do.   

Let us pray:
Loving Jesus, You show us the way into life. You resisted the temptations of the world to satisfy one’s own desires and instead looked to what God desired for you. You resisted the temptation to test God, to wait for God to act before acting in faithfulness; instead, you remained faithful to God. And you resisted the temptation for greed and power, instead living a life for others, serving the lost and the least, lifting up the poor and the oppressed, and welcoming the marginalized. May we look to you as the example for our lives. May we empty ourselves of the desires of the world and instead seek what our Creator desires for us. May we remember in you we are a new creation, and that your intent for us is love and life.  In Your name we pray. Amen.

[1] David Brooks, “The Archipelago of Pain.”  The New York Times, March 6, 2014.