Sunday, May 24, 2020

Musical Prayers

Psalm 96:1-2
1 O sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.

We dearly love singing in church.  We love our choirs, and singing as a congregation.  We love belting out our favorite hymns, clapping along with the praise music, being brought to tears by lyrics.  We can get lost in the music and the feelings as we lift our voices and sometimes our hands up to God.

But it looks like we won’t be able to do that for a while.  Oh, we get to sing along with the Quarantine Qrew during our online worship on Sunday mornings.  But singing alone at home even with the very best singers leading us - and there is no doubt in my mind that ours are indeed the very best - isn’t quite the same as singing in community.  But it looks like it will be quite a while before we can be comfortable doing that.  

I didn’t grow up with hymns or congregational singing.  When I started attending a Disciples congregation in my 40s I didn’t know any of them - except for the ones I learned at Blue Grass Festivals on Sunday mornings.  I dearly loved the Gospel music and quickly learned some of the most popular, which I would belt out at the top of my voice in my car or the shower.  It was the closest I came to prayer for some years. Over the years in college and seminary I began to become familiar with the hymns in the Chalice Hymnal, but still didn’t know the old favorites.  It wasn’t until I started taking a communion service into a women’s retirement community that I had the opportunity  to learn some of the old favorites.  Now those are the ones that stick in my head as prayers when I am most in need of comfort and solace.

Our hymns are one of the ways we pray. Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation, is reputed to have said “Singing is praying twice.”  Whether or not he said these words, they are absolutely true.  Prayer is something that we can do in public with everyone else, as when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together.  It is also something we do in the privacy of our own homes, or our cars, or wandering around outside.  Sometimes those private prayers take the form of song.

Lately I have been waking up with a hymn in my head, a prayer, in fact, that resonates with my heart and soul, and I have been singing throughout these last several days.

I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord.
No tender voice like thine can peace afford.
I need thee, O I need thee.
Every hour I need thee.
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Trust me

Matthew 8:24-26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.

We’ve all heard someone say, “I slept like a baby,” or “I slept like a rock.”  There are those who brag about being able to sleep through anything, and others who wake up if an ant sneezes in the other room.  (OK, I don’t know whether or not ants sneeze, but I think you know what I mean.)  Some of us can’t sleep in strange places, others can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, even standing up.  

In this story the disciples are terrified in the storm and don’t understand how he can sleep through it. “Wake up!  Save us! We’re all going to die!”   And Jesus just sort of shakes his head, probably heaves a big sigh, says “Really, guys?  You woke me for this?”,  waves his hand, and the sky and sea are as calm as calm could be.  He may or may not have gone back to sleep for the rest of the trip across to the other side, but I do know he needed the rest.  He had been healing the sick and choosing disciples.  He was going to be casting out demons when he got where they were going.  All of these things take energy, and naps are good. 

Sometimes it does feel like he is sleeping when we most need him. Something happens that we think is a big deal, we cry out for help, and - nothing.  And we’re here saying, “Lord, how can you sleep through this?  Don’t you know I need you right this moment?” Jesus says, “Oh you of little faith.  Why are you afraid?  It’s almost like you don’t trust me to take care of you.”    

I am sure the disciples did all the things people are familiar with boats know how to do when a storm comes up, but when they had done all of those things, they turned to Jesus for help.  When they didn’t know what else to do, when the storm got too big for them to handle themselves, they called upon Jesus.  They didn’t know him yet as well as they would by the end of their journey together.  So they were fearful and worried. Perhaps the thought occurred to them that maybe he couldn’t help.  They didn’t quite trust that he would wake when the time was right for him to step in, and so they woke him with their cries.

We do that, sometimes.  We do everything in our power to solve our issues, whatever they might be, and when we have done all those things we leave the result to Jesus.  Maybe we think he’s asleep, or not paying attention. Maybe we think he doesn’t know what the result “should” be.  So we worry and are fearful, and take back our resolve to leave the solution to him.  “Oh, you of little faith. You have done your part, now leave the rest to me.  You don’t get to determine the outcome. Don’t you know I will make sure you have what you need, when the time is right?  I will not let the storm carry you away, if you just trust me.” 

Lord of solutions, grant us to trust that you will wake and do whatever is needful to help us through a situation when we cry out to you for help.   Amen.  

Friday, May 22, 2020

Responding to Grace

Ephesians 2:8-9 NRSV
 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

I heard a priest being interviewed on the radio about the precautions they are taking to reopen the churches in his particular diocese. This was not significantly different from the precautions everyone else is planning - massive disinfection of the church building, masks, no singing,  no hugs or handshakes, people/household groups seated 6 feet apart from each other, only a certain number of people allowed in, etc.   But they will celebrate communion because, he said, “the sacraments are how we receive God’s grace.”  

One of the things that I am most grateful for in my life is that God’s grace is poured out freely, undeserved, and unasked for.   I know that I do not deserve God’s forgiveness and mercy, but these are poured out upon me anyway.  Even on the days when I doubt, God showers me with grace and blessings.  As I was told during my early years in recovery, “God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.”  I cannot lose God’s love. I can reject it, and God will still love me.  I need not do any good works, perform any particular act, or pray any specific prayer in order to receive God’s grace.  I simply need to believe.  

One of the gifts of grace is that it causes me to want to please God.  While it is true that we do not receive grace because we have done any particular good works, it is also true that our acceptance of that grace causes us to desire to help others.  Our love of God and our gratitude for God’s love makes us want to share that love with others - even with people we do not like.  This is the very point James was making when he said “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26). 

It is the case that God’s grace, being freely and undeservedly given, also falls upon those who do not respond, who do not accept God’s love into their hearts.  Just as rain falls equally upon every place, so grace falls upon every person.  Whether they respond to that grace is a matter of choice - they might or might not choose to return God’s love.  For what good is it to say, “I believe,” when our actions show that our belief, our love for God, and therefore the neighbor, is limited.  As Jesus said in Matthew 7:21 ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

Loving God, we give you thanks for the gift of your grace.  Help us to respond to your love with our own, pouring it out upon others in the same way that your love showers us.  Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Breaking the chains

Galatians 5:13-15    NRSV
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

I have discovered through writing this daily meditation that there are a lot of lines in scripture I haven’t paid a lot of attention to, even in passages that get preached with some regularity.  Look at this one, for example.  We are totally used to hearing about being slaves to one another, and importance of the law that tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  But I don’t recall ever focusing on the part about biting and devouring one another.  

If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  Wow.  That’s a pretty stark warning and a vivid description of the very opposite of loving one another.   It’s also a fairly good description of the examples we see every day in our society.  TV shows like Big Brother and Survivor come to mind, where the very premise of the game is win at any cost - cheat, lie, steal, do to each other before they can do it to you.  When focused on winning at any cost, and getting mine even though that leaves you with nothing, I am not only not loving the neighbor, I am not loving myself.  When greed and the fear of not having “enough” rule my life there is little room for compassion and caring.  We saw lots of that at the beginning of the shelter in place orders, when people went into stores and bought all the toilet paper, and all the hand sanitizer, and all the disinfectant wipes, and all the meat, way more than they would ever need, leaving nothing for the next person.  It seems to me that this kind of behavior can be described as biting and devouring the neighbor. It is certainly not loving in any way.   

“ . . .do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”   Let the needs of the other person become more important than your own self indulgent desires.  I want to keep all that toilet paper for myself, but the loving thing would be to leave some on the shelf for the next person and share what I have with someone who does not have any.  The loving thing is to buy just as much meat as I need for a week or two, and leave the rest for the next person.   And if I happen to have extra, share that with someone who has less.  

“ . . .you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.”  We were called to break our chains and become free from sin, free from causing harm to others, free from anger, feaf and greed.  Freedom allows us to see others - all others - as God’s beloved children, our own siblings, whom we can love just as we love ourselves.  

Gracious God, touch our hearts that we may answer your call to freedom, loving and serving each other in Christian love. Amen

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Song for the Sabbath Day.

Psalm 92:1-4  NRSV

1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
    to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
    and your faithfulness by night,
3 to the music of the lute and the harp,
    to the melody of the lyre.
4 For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
    at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

My Bible has titles for each of the psalms.  This one is called “A Song for the Sabbath Day.”     Singing and Sabbath have been much on our minds of late, as we try to figure out what worship will look like when we do start meeting in the sanctuary again.  Because one of the things that looks pretty certain, at least for a while - there will be no singing.  Possibly a soloist or a very small group, but no choir and no congregational singing.  There are just too many examples already of congregations who tried that, using all the best practices to keep themselves safe by social distancing and using masks and disinfecting, but started a new round of infection from Covid19 among those who attended, regardless of their efforts.  

I heard an Episcopalian priest interviewed yesterday who said she didn’t know what worship would feel like if she could not pray by singing.  She went on to say she wasn’t even sure she would be a Christian if she couldn’t sing.  I understand that, sort of.  We do sing our faith.  We sing our praise, we sing our grief, we sing our gratitude, we sing our beliefs.  If we cannot sing together. . . what will that be like?  

One of the things I am enjoying about our online worship is the opportunity to sing as lustily as I like, because I am at home and no one can hear me.  If I miss a note or sing off key or even get the words wrong because I am singing with my eyes closed, it doesn’t matter.  Our singing is led by a quartet with amazing voices,  so I am not really singing alone.  Singing my faith with others is empowering, and it will seem strange if we cannot.   

However - I didn’t learn all those hymns I love so much now until I was in my forties and attending a Disciples congregation.   The congregations I grew up in did not sing during regular Sunday worship.  There was rarely any music at all - only on very special occasions.  I loved those special occasions, but they were few and far between.  That did not mean worship was not worshipful, or that we just sat back and observed.  Worship took effort.  There was a great deal of participation in the worship service through responsive readings, which meant you really had to pay attention to what was going on at any given moment.   

Although we can not know what the future brings, we do know that no matter what, our worship will be a time of praising and glorifying God, whether or not we can sing.  

O Lord our God, we come before you singing your praises, even if we cannot sing.  Even if we must keep silence, the songs of our hearts will glorify you.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


James 5:7. CEB
Therefore, brothers and sisters, you must be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Consider the farmer who waits patiently for the coming of rain in the fall and spring, looking forward to the precious fruit of the earth.

Captain the Cat is sick.  She’s been at the vet since Sunday afternoon and they are still trying to figure out exactly what is wrong with her.  Her fever is improving but she still doesn’t want to eat.  I call to check on her in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening to see if she is improving at all.  It is so difficult to be patient when my fur baby is miles away being miserable. I want her to come home!  I am doing my best to practice patience, but I will not pray for it

Whenever someone tells me they have prayed for patience I say, “NO!  Do not do that!”  God doesn’t just hand us stuff. God is not our butler.  God allows us to learn how to be  what we wish to be.  So when we pray for patience we are pretty much guaranteed to find ourselves in the longest, slowest line, or waiting forever for that check that is in the mail, or on hold for hours waiting to talk to someone at Unemployment or Social Security or the cable company.  If we pray for patience, we are given the opportunity to practice patience until we get it.    

Right now it is hard to be patient.  We have been sheltering in place for just over two months.  We are tired of our own company and our own four walls and maybe even our own family and loved ones.  We just want to have someone serve us dinner, or get our hair cut, or a pedicure.  (OK, those are the things I want.  You might want different things.)  But we have only been doing this for two months.

When James wrote this letter, the believers were waiting impatiently for the return of the Lord.  They had been told that he would come before all of his apostles had died, and those guys were getting pretty old.  It had been years, and still Jesus had not yet returned.  James counsels them to patience while they waited for the right time to come.  After all, the farmer had to wait patiently for the rain every season.  There was nothing he could do to make it happen sooner. The rain would come when it was the right time for it to come. Like the farmer, they would simply have to keep doing what they were doing, and wait for the right time.

I have to wait for Captain’s fever to come down and her appetite to come up.  We all have to wait until it is the right time to begin to venture out into our new normal.  In the meantime, we must just do the things we are doing every day, and practice patience.

Gracious Lord, we know that all things happen when it is the right time for them to happen.  May we spend our time doing what will please you while we wait for the time to be right.  Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Words from dead white guys.

Psalm 66:16-20 Common English Bible (CEB)
16  Come close and listen,
    all you who honor God;
    I will tell you what God has done for me:
17  My mouth cried out to him
    with praise on my tongue.
18  If I had cherished evil in my heart,
    my Lord would not have listened.
19  But God definitely listened.
    He heard the sound of my prayer.
20  Bless God! He didn’t reject my prayer;
    he didn’t withhold his faithful love from me

Mrs. McClintock, my 4th grade teacher, was renowned for two things.  Her class always marched and spelled out words during the Annual Spring Festival, and her class was required to memorize and recite poetry every month.  We memorized The Owl and the Pussycat and The Village Blacksmith and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and other poems by dead white guys that I have, thankfully, forgotten.  Standing to recite those poems each month was terrifying. I watched with dread as my classmates went to the front to recite in alphabetical order, hoping against hope that some miracle would keep me from having to perform.  That never happened.  I honestly cannot remember anything that terrified me so thoroughly all through school as those monthly poetry recitations in 4th grade.   

For decades afterwards, I could not read poetry.  Which is actually kind of sad, because prior to 4th grade I was writing poetry.  My mother saved several of my early poems.  But from 4th grade on, if I saw anything in a book I was reading that was shaped like a poem I would skip over it.  It wasn’t until my Freshman English class when I was 44 that I was introduced to poetry that didn’t look or sound anything like those dead white guy poems.  I met Maya Angelou and many other modern poets - some of which didn’t even rhyme! - whose work spoke to experiences and feelings I could understand.  

All of this to say - I didn’t, couldn’t, read the Psalms for a very long time.  Periodically I would try to, but until that Freshman English class just the sight of poetry could make me start trembling.  When I finally did read the Psalms I discovered that in many cases the Psalmist and I had a lot in common.   He spoke the words of my heart, and the experience of my life.

Let me tell you what God has done for me!  How much grace God has poured out on me!  How God heard the prayers of my heart, even when I could not form the words.  And God listened!  No person ever really hears what is in my heart, but God does, and listened to me!   I know that if I had asked for anything with evil intent, then God would have ignored my pleas.  God listened, and loved me, and set me free from the chains of addiction and sin that bound me!  Praise God, all you people!  

Gracious God, I give you thanks and praise this day, for your love, and for the healing power of poetry.  Amen.