Friday, July 3, 2020

Jesus is my rock

Psalm 131: 2-3  (Message)

I’ve kept my feet on the ground,

    I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.

Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,

    my soul is a baby content.

Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope.

    Hope now; hope always!


I must admit today that my heart is not quiet.  My soul is not baby content.  Hope is like a butterfly - so close, almost in my hand, fluttering just out of reach.   


Changes are happening too quickly.  The news is uniformly discouraging.  We seem to be back where we started almost four months ago, with new cases surging in much of the nation. I see colleagues on social media advocating for worship as usual - no masks, lots of singing, no distancing requirements - even though the science indicates strongly that these things are dangerous.  


So I turned to a recently purchased book of prayers that I have found helpful on other days, Ash and Starlight: prayers for the chaos and grace of daily life, by Adriana Braithwaite Lehn.   I found a prayer titled “When I need fresh faithfulness while I wait.”  It begins, “Strong and stable God.”  


Stability.  That’s what is missing.  When everything is in flux and turmoil and seems unstable, it is hard to be content.  Contentment is a word that indicates comfort with the situation I am in, and I find it very hard to be comfortable in the current climate.  It is hard to be content when anger permeates social discourse. I mean, who can be content and angry at the same time?   


I am reminded to look to the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...”  Lord knows I cannot change anything that is going on around me.  I cannot change my situation, my place in the world, the course of the virus, other peoples’ behavior and attitude.  I can only change how I respond to all of those things.  It does me no good to be angry at how other people are behaving.  All I can do is what I believe to be the right thing, the more loving thing, and pray for the wellbeing of those with whom I disagree.   That prayer for the wellbeing of other people, is what allows my heart to quiet, to become content with my situation, to hope while I wait for whatever comes next.  


Strong and stable God, you are my rock, in whom I take refuge.  May the words of the psalm become my reality. May I keep my feet upon your holy ground, that I might know peace of heart, contentment in my situation, and hope while I wait. Amen.




Thursday, July 2, 2020

Knee bent and body bowed

Psalm 145:8, 14.  CEB

8    “The Lord is merciful and compassionate,

    very patient, and full of faithful love.

14 

The Lord supports all who fall down,

    straightens up all who are bent low.


Someone asked me yesterday, “How are you holding up?”  I responded, “I’m ok.  Some days are better than others, just like everyone else.”   Today started out as one of those other days.  The news is so disturbing. Covid cases are rising so quickly here in Selma - 50 new cases in the last 4 days!  People I know are catching it.  Some members of the congregation I serve are working in very risky occupations.  I just felt powerless and dejected.  There are too many stories to pay attention to, too many voices to listen to.  All I wanted was to go back to bed.


I did all the things that usually pick me up. My morning prayer.  My gratitude list.  A comfort-food breakfast (Fried Spam, scrambled eggs, and buttered grits - yum).  Dressing in red and black.  Freshly brewed coffee.  None of those things worked - not even the coffee.  *sigh*


Then I  looked at the scripture readings for today and I saw this psalm about God’s goodness and steadfast love, trustworthiness and faithfulness. My eyes rested on verse 14, “The Lord supports all who fall down, straightens up all who are bent low.”  And I realized that, right this minute, I am one of those who are bent low.


God is always patient with me, allowing me to just keep on keeping on until I can’t any more.  When I can no longer hold myself up, God’s love is a cane, a support I can lean on.  God holds me up until I have regained my strength, and then steps back, watching over me as I continue on my way.  Always God speaks to me - often through others.  


A few weeks ago, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber posted a plea on Facebook for pastors to take a few days Sabbath time, and for congregations to support them in this.  Most of us, like me, cancelled our regularly scheduled vacations in the face of the pandemic and the constant changes and challenges facing our congregations.  After she posted I started seeing colleagues taking her recommendation.  One after another signed off for a few days of Sabbath time.  Then Toni Bynum, our Regional Minister, took a few days. Then Rev. Teri Hord Owens, our General Minister and President, took a few days.  Now I think I need to follow their example, and take a few days of Sabbath rest.  


So this is what I shall do.  Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week - July 6-8 - I will take some Sabbath time.  You might think of it as a vacation, or a private retreat.  It will be time spent letting God hold me up while I rest up - time with no email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Zoom, no group chats.   Just me and the cats.  And books.  And naps.


Compassionate and loving God, thank you for always being there, to catch me when I fall, to hold me up when I lack the strength to support myself.  May I be wise enough to listen when you speak, so that I might do your will in all things.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Yes, Lord!


Jeremiah 18:1-4

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord.


The vessel he was making was spoiled, and he reworked it  . . .  Can I not do with you as the potter has done?  


I said “Yes, Lord! You did that with me!”   Having said that, a fragment of a song came into my head, so I had to go search for it on YouTube.  I found a really cute lip-synced dance version done by Young Adults from Southland Church - an Asian American congregation in Anaheim, CA.   The full chorus says:

  

“I’m trading my sorrows.  I’m trading my shame.  

I’m trading my sickness. I’m trading my pain . . . for the joy of my Lord. 

Yes, Lord.  Yes, Lord.  Yes, yes, Lord!  (3x) 

Amen” 


And again I said “Yes!”  This is my story!  This is what I did!  God took clay - me - and began to mold me into the person he wanted me to be. Then things went wrong, I went the wrong way, and God had to rework me.  It took a while.  I tend to be stubborn (surprise!) and I resisted for a long time.


Working with clay is like that.  Sometimes you have to start over several times, maybe adding some water to make the clay more malleable. But eventually, the clay will take the shape you want it to, and become whatever you had in mind all along.   As God did with me.  


Creator God, thank you for having the patience to continue working with us even when we are not cooperating.  Thank you for the reminders that we are not in charge - you are.  Thank you for giving us the opportunity to say “Yes, Lord!”  Amen.










Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Santa God

1 Kings 18:37-39  CEB

[The prophet Elijah said] 37 Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Lord, are the real God and that you can change their hearts.” 38 Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench!

39 All the people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed.


I’ve always liked this story - the priests of Baal and the prophet Elijah are in a competition to prove whose God is the most powerful.  Elijah wins, of course.  But to me the interesting part is that all the people who had wandered off to worship other gods see this miracle - the sacrificial fire being lit by an act of God even though the wood was thoroughly soaked with water - and suddenly believe the God of Israel is the one true god again.  


Janice Joplin sang, “Prove that you love me, and buy the next round.”  What does it say about people that we are always looking for God to prove something to us?  We present our list of requests to God in our daily prayers, and then start watching to see whether those requests have been fulfilled.  We pray for a certain outcome to a situation and then, if the eventual outcome is not the one we asked for, we say “God did not answer my prayers.”  


Also, what does it say about us that we think the thing we desire is the best outcome? That we somehow know the right answer to any situation?  What if God has something entirely different in mind for us?   


Several years ago I was interviewed by a church in the Midwest.  I met pretty near every person in that congregation. I liked them, they seemed to like me, and it felt like it would be a good fit.  Their interim pastor and the search committee thought it was done and dusted, and that the vote would be a formality. I prayed hard for that call.   And the vote was no.  I did not understand why.   Until, that is, I met the Search Committee of First Christian Church in Selma - a much better fit.  


Sometimes the answer is yes.  Sometimes the answer is no.  Sometimes the answer is wait, because there is something better down the road a piece.  


Loving God, we know that you always desire what is best for us.  We don’t always see what you see.  May we stop asking you to prove yourself to us by giving us what we want, and may we learn to accept whatever answer you give us.  Amen

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Of mountains and shovels

Jeremiah 28:5, 8-9

5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD;


8 “The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.

9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."


This passage selected for today really seems to be fitting in our present situation.  Hananiah was the official prophet of the king’s court, who pretty much said whatever the king wanted to hear.  “Oh, everything is going to be fine. Your reign will be a model for peace and prosperity. You will even bring back the exiles who went to Babylon and the whole nation will be united again.”   Jeremiah, on the other hand, was independent of the court and prophesied just about the opposite of what Hananiah did.  He told the king and the court, “If you don’t start doing the things that please God, everything is going to go wrong for you.”  He displeased the king so much that the king wanted him killed for speaking out. 


So Jeremiah said to Hananiah, I really do hope that peace breaks out.  If it does, we will know that you really do speak for God.  But prophets before us didn’t.  God raised up prophets when the people needed to wake up and do the right things, and assured the leaders that violence, hunger, and disease would follow if they continued the way they were going.


We really want to believe that everything is going to be ok.  We want to believe that the virus is under control, that we aren’t going to get sick, that very soon we can go back to life the way it was in February, before all this virus stuff started.  We want the Hananiahs of our time to be right.  


Unfortunately, the Jeremiahs - the scientists and medical specialists - tell us that probably isn’t going to happen.  They would all be delighted if a miracle happened and the virus suddenly disappeared, but they don’t expect miracles.  They warn us that if we don’t start doing the right things that it will get worse than we can possibly imagine.


It is upsetting and frustrating that our lives are constrained in ways we would never have imagined just 4 months ago.  It is possibly even more frustrating to know that these constraints may be with us as long as two years!   


I have been told that “Faith can move the mountain, but you need to take a shovel.”


I am personally hoping the Hananiahs are right - that miracles happen and soon there will be a cure and a vaccine and everything will go back to the way it was.  But while I wait I will use my shovel, and do the things the Jeremiahs suggest, no matter how much I dislike these limits on my life style. 


Compassionate God, we are so tired of restrictions and constraints.  We would love a miracle, but know that we cannot demand one.  May we be granted the stamina to endure our present reality, and may our loving care for one another be made manifest in our willingness to do those things that the medical experts tell us to do. Amen

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Can you hear me now?


Genesis 26:23-25a   (NRSV)

23 From there he went up to Beer-sheba. 24 And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25 So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there.


Where were you when . . . .?  Each generation has that question about events in their lifetime.  Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?  Where were you when JFK was killed?  Where were you when MLK was killed?  Where were you on 9/11?  These are the kinds of dramatic events that we cannot forget, that become part of not just the nation’s story, but our own life stories.  


Where were you when God spoke to you for the first time?  Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say “Where were you the first time you realized God was speaking to you?”  Because I’m pretty sure God was talking to me all the time, back in the day.  Saying things like, “Hey, don’t do that!”  “What are you, crazy?  What on earth makes you think this is a good idea?”  You know, that still small voice coming from the back of my mind and being completely ignored.  That thing which we call a conscience - I think that’s God talking to us.  


But the first time God spoke to me . . . the first time I was aware that it was God speaking to me, I was sitting in a meeting room at St. Lucie County Jail, telling a dozen or so female inmates about 12 Step recovery, and being very careful not to say anything more than “Higher Power” when speaking about God.  In the middle of the meeting I heard a voice in my head saying, “You need to be doing this for me.”  There was no doubt in my mind but that the voice was God, calling me to the ordained ministry.  I thought God was crazy, but I was quite sure it was God.   

I do believe that God speaks with us all the time.  When “something” tells us to turn our car around and help that homeless woman, or make any unusual detour in our daily activities that will benefit another person, I think that “something” is God. When we suddenly come to believe that we need to make a complete change in what we had planned for our lives - like my call to the ministry in my 40s - I am quite certain that God is speaking to us.  


I also believe that we are very good at not hearing that voice, at just brushing it off, thinking we can’t possibly do whatever the voice asked of us.  I think we need to listen more closely when that “something” speaks.


O God, whose voice whispers quietly in our hearts, help us to listen.  Help us open our ears so that your words can point us in the way you want us to go.  Amen.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Walking in the light

Psalm 89:15   (NRSV)

Happy are the people who know the festal shout,

    who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;


I’m pretty sure we all know someone who embodies these words, someone who simply glows with God’s light.   One of those is Sister Norma. 


I met Sister Norma while I was in seminary. I was working for the Interfaith Network for Higher Education Ministries, a not-for-profit providing motivational workshops and speakers for educators.  She was the President of our Board and very involved in our work so I interacted with her a great deal.  This was kind of a problem for me, because I was still very angry over what I had been taught by priests and nuns in my youth, and that anger carried over to all priests and nuns.  It was hard not to let that anger interfere with our work together.   So one day I told her when and where I had been raised, and how I felt.


She did not speak in defense of my teachers.  She did not say “Not all nuns.”  She simply said that she was sorry.  She shared her understanding of God with me, which was a far cry from the angry God I had been introduced to as a child.  From that day forward I felt easier working with her.  We often talked about theology and our mutual love for God and God’s work. Over the next couple of years my feelings about the Church of my upbringing began to change.


Happy are the people . . . who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance.” Sister Norma was one of those people.  The light of God’s countenance shone from her soul out into the world. The warmth of that light caused my heart to begin to thaw, and my anger to start to melt away.  It would be another fifteen years before I felt healed, before I truly felt forgiveness in my heart, but Sister Norma started that process. 


This morning I learned that Sister Norma has left us to walk a closer walk with her Lord.  She has joined that choir of saints whose festal shout fills the heavens by day and by night.  She will be missed.  


Gracious God, thank you for Sister Norma.  Thank you for all your saints who show us the way to your love and shine your light into our world.  May we be like them, sharing your love with everyone we meet.  Amen