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 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Three voices

Micah 7:18 (NRSV)

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity

    and passing over the transgression

    of the remnant of your possession?

He does not retain his anger forever,

    because he delights in showing clemency.

My choices this morning were between “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” (Rev. 2:10) and this passage from Micah.  Frankly, I’m kind of tired of thinking about what we are about to suffer, or in the middle of suffering, or any kind of suffering.  Just for a moment, it feels really good to remember that God does not hold on to anger forever, and delights in faithful love.  

If we were having a sort of Biblical Marco Polo game, I think maybe that if someone were to say “Micah” everyone would respond “6:8.”  We know that one.  We like that one. We sing songs about that one.  That one comes in the middle of an accusation God makes against Israel, that she has deserted him - again.  And started doing things that were evil in God’s sight - again.  Micah is filled with a description of all the things that Israel is doing wrong, what kind of punishment will be meted out to her, and then, at the very end,  Micah lifts up his voice to speak to God, and about God  . . . Praising God and explaining God.

Prophets hold a strange place, standing between God and God’s people.  Speaking to the people on God’s behalf, and speaking to God on the peoples’ behalf.   They stand as mediator between an understandably unhappy God, and a suffering people.  When we read the prophets aloud, we really should read with three different voices - the voice of God through the prophet, the voice of the people through the prophet, and the voice of the prophet, assuring the people that God loves them, and is happy to “pardon iniquity and pass over transgression . . .  because he delights in showing clemency.

It is good for my soul to know that God forgives. That God will get over understandable anger at our misdeeds.  That God prefers forgiveness over taking revenge.  This is not the God of my upbringing, but it is the God of my understanding today.  And today, on this particular morning, I needed to be reminded of that . . That no matter how far we might stray, God will welcome us back when we are ready, as he welcomed Israel back time after time.   

Because God loves us, no matter what.  

Merciful and loving God, we are so grateful for your steadfast love, for the knowledge that no matter what you still love us, even if we have wandered off.  It doesn’t matter whether we deliberately rejected you or just stopped paying attention.  You will always welcome us back to your loving arms, because you delight in loving.  And for this, we give thanks.  Amen

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Dream, Dream, Dream

Acts 2:17 Common English Bible (CEB)

17  In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.

Ok, it’s not the last days.  At least, I don’t think it’s the last days.  But there is definitely some dreaming and visioning and prophesying going on right now!  When I look around on Facebook and Messenger, in groups and on pages dedicated to clergy and church stuff, I see all of these things happening at the same time.  

Dreaming:  All of us are kind of looking back nostalgically to the Before Times - like the end of February, when we hadn’t yet started paying much attention to the coronavirus.  Every time a conversation comes up about re-opening our buildings for in-person worship, someone is sure to say “But it won’t be the same without singing or communion or saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison or sitting with our friends.”  And we all agree that it will not be the same.  In the back of many minds is the dream that worship can some day get back to “normal” - the way it was every single Sunday in the Before Times.  We talk about a “new normal” but honestly, we have no idea what that will look like.

Visioning: All of these amazingly creative people have taken the opportunity to make worship available in new and different ways!  There are live worship services on Zoom and Facebook Live and YouTube Live.  There are services that are totally pre-recorded and available only on YouTube.  There are parking lot services, with the audio coming into everyone’s car via their FM radio.  When one thing doesn’t work or stops working, they scratch their collective heads and say, “Well, how about we try this other thing?”  They are constantly changing and growing and envisioning new ways to spread the Good News to the maximum number of people in the most effective ways possible.

Prophesying:  The church has left the building, and it will never be the same again.  Some have decided they are much more effective outside. Almost everyone who has gone to online worship says they will continue that practice even after we are back in our buildings.  We looking forward to a new kind of worship,  a new way of doing and being church that respects the past and embraces the future.  

AND we are seeing Church becoming more involved in the things outside our doors - more and more church folks are getting awakened to realities of poverty and racism that maybe they never saw before.  The prophets of the church are calling us to look into our own hearts and make the changes we need to make in ourselves so that we can transform the world into God’s kingdom on earth.  

God of all the prophets, may we open our hearts to all the changes that lie ahead - changes in how we do things, and changes in how we see things.  May we listen to our prophets, and make your world a better place.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Claiming a cure

Psalm 6:1-4 

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,

    or discipline me in your wrath.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;

    O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.

 My soul also is struck with terror,

    while you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, save my life;

    deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.

This Psalm is titled “Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness” and it is one of the readings suggested for today.  It seems appropriate when the numbers of Covid19 cases and hospitalizations are increasing in so many places, including here in Selma.  I know of at least 2 new cases yesterday, because I got a call telling me that 2 more of our Young Adults had tested positive and are now under quarantine for two weeks.   That’s three (3) cases in our congregation that I know of, with several others waiting for their test results.  

Three cases in our congregation that I know of - all three are between 25 and 30.  They are all intimately involved with the worship life of the congregation, part of our Quarantine Qrew who have been providing online worship for us for the last three months.  Right now the entire Quarantine Qrew is under quarantine while they wait - either for test results or symptoms.  And the rest of us are praying with everything we have. 

I didn’t think that the first cases in our congregation would be the young people we have been  depending on to do all the tech and music for Sunday worship.  I was pretty sure we would have some cases because we aren’t going to stay isolated in our homes forever, and it is a very contagious, fast spreading disease with no treatment available yet.  But I really didn’t imagine that it would strike these young, active, healthy people first.   

So last night I decided to do something I almost never do - name it and claim it.  I don’t often pray this way because it feels too much like I’m telling God what to do.  But every now and then I just have to.  So  I pictured them all standing in front of me, so that I might anoint them. And while I was there with them in spirit I prayed, proclaiming in the name of Jesus Christ and through his power that all of these young people and their families are cured, and free from any sign of the virus.   

I will continue to pray in my usual way, asking for healing and wholeness for these and for all who have and will contract the virus.  I would ask all of you to pray with me.  Pray as the Psalmist prayed, asking for God’s grace to fall upon them, so that they might be well.  And take hope in the 9th verse of this psalm:

The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.

Gracious God, in this time of pandemic, remove our fears, we pray.  Let us, like the psalmist, trust your steadfast love, that our souls might know peace and be healed.   Amen

Sunday, June 21, 2020

We are Walking

Jeremiah 20:11-12    NRSV

12 O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.

I spent several hours yesterday morning “at” the virtual Mass Assembly of the Poor People’s Campaign, transmitted live on the internet from all over the country.  Also yesterday morning perhaps a dozen members of First Christian Church participated in the Unity March through downtown Selma.  There are some videos on Facebook of the march and parts of the speeches. I don’t know who all spoke, but the Mayor and the Police Chief were among the speakers.   I am so proud of them, and so frustrated that I couldn’t be there marching with them.  But, according to the CDC, the California Department of Health and the Fresno County Department of Health, people in the at risk group are still supposed to stay at home.  *sigh*. 

Later in the day, when people started posting the photos and videos from the Unity March, some were attacked for taking part.  They were told they were being taken in by a hate group who were of the devil, and that their souls were in jeopardy - that by being part of this they were not following God.   

I am pretty sure that most if not all of the participants were church folk who truly believe they are following God. Just sayin'.

The members of my church family who marched yesterday are all dedicated to the belief that in Christ, all persons are welcome, and that all means ALL.  So if any person or group is rejected or put down or oppressed or unwelcome in any way, it is our responsibility to stand alongside them and work to make sure that they, too, are made welcome - just as welcome as any other human.  It is our job, as disciples of Christ, to insist that Black Lives Matter.  That Black lives and Brown lives and White lives are all equally important in God’s heart, and as long as they are treated differently in courts, in educational opportunity, in upward mobility, and in pretty much every other way we cannot stop marching.  We can not stop speaking.  We cannot stop loving.  We cannot stop carrying the Good News of God’s love to all the world.

Lord, you test the righteous.  All who attack us when we are working to end oppression will do whatever they can to drag us down, or change our minds, or get us to agree with them, but we are committed to your cause.  Stand with us when we go out in your name to free the oppressed and the oppressor from all that separate them from each other and from you.  Amen.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Shiny Armor

Ephesians 6:11-12. NRSV

11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…”

Not against the KKK or BLM.  Not against Right or Left, Christian or Muslim, Democrat or Republican. Rather, “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”  All humans have within them the seeds of dark and light, good and evil, virtue and sin.  All humans have freedom of will as a gift from God, but that this is just our starting point.  Much of that freedom is chipped away by genetic predisposition, upbringing, social status and all of the many influences upon us as we grow.  If all we know, all we learn from our family and our neighborhood and our schools is that we are doomed to live a certain way, then we will have very little actual freedom of will, because we will believe the lies we are told, because the people who are telling them also believe those lies, which they heard from their predecessors, and so on and so on.

Lies that are repeated frequently enough are eventually seen as truth.  If you are a redhead, and you have been told all your life that redheads have hot tempers, chances are really good that you will exhibit a temper.  If you are told your whole life that the best you can hope for is a job as a janitor or a fast food worker, you are not likely to try to do any better.  You might, but chances are pretty much against it.  And that’s evil - the spiritual force of evil, the cosmic powers of this present darkness.   

Our struggle is not against an evil person or organization. Our struggle is against evil itself.  It is against the powers that teach us to believe that we aren’t good enough, or that we are better than anyone else.   It is against the idea that some people are better than other people just because of where then come from.  These ideas do not come from God, but from those who have chosen not to follow in God’s ways, who have chosen not the path of love.

Evil is real, y’all.  It is alive and well and strong, and is an infection every bit as dangerous and deadly as the pandemic.  

God of love and goodness, we would put on your armor to shield ourselves from the evil that is in the world.  We know that we have it within us, and ask you to help us guard ourselves.  Do not let us fall into temptation, we pray, but deliver us from evil.  Amen

Friday, June 19, 2020

The green, green grass of home

Psalm 23:1-3. NRSV

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

    for his name’s sake.

Most mornings I select one of the readings assigned for the day, or a passage that appears in one of my daily meditation emails.  Today they were all about being persecuted - the Psalm and Jeremiah and Acts, all of them.  After reading them and finding nothing that resonated, I sat back, lit a rosemary scented candle and put on a recording of flutist Michael Morton’s Meditation CD.  Breathing deeply with my eyes closed, I heard my inner voice speaking the beginning verses of the 23rd Psalm. 

I don’t know what it is about that Psalm. It is maybe the best known of all the 150 psalms in the Bible.  It is written on pretty much anything that one can write on - wall hangings and plates and bookmarks and phone cases and who knows what all else.  It is the most requested scripture reading for funerals.  It has been put to music by a multitude of composers.  One might think that it would have become meaningless by now.

And yet - it is one of the psalms that people turn to when their hearts are troubled.  It reminds us that God cares about us, and cares for us.  Somehow when we read it or hear it spoken - even by our own inner voice - it evokes a feeling of peace.  In my mind’s eye, I can see the lush green pasture and the placid pond it contains.  I am confident that all my needs will be met, that my troubled heart will be restored to calm.  I have faith that as long as I pay attention to the Shepherd I will not go astray.  I am comforted knowing that the flock I belong to is all around me, that I am not alone - ever. 

Loving God, on this day at the end of a long and difficult week I remember that you are my Shepherd, my guide along the way.  Grant that I may pay attention to your direction, so that I might continue on the right path.  Amen.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Answer

Psalm 69:16-17. NRSV

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good, 

according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

Do not hide your face from your servant, 

for I am in distress — make haste to answer me.

There is just way too much going on right now, and I am stressed and distressed.  Hurry up, God,  and tell me what to do next.  Tell me everything is going to be alright.  Tell me all will be well.  Answer me, God!

I tell myself that all will be well.  I quote Julian of Norwich to myself, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  I know that all will be well, no matter what.  But I can’t always feel that all will be well.  

When there is just so much going on and so much noise coming from every direction to contend with, so many issues striving for my attention, I have a hard time feeling that peace of heart I keep praying for everyone else to have.  I remember one day, probably about 20 years ago, that I called a friend and said to her, “Please tell me that this too, shall pass.  I know it’s true, but I am having trouble believing myself when I say it.”  All I really needed was for someone else to confirm what I already knew.  I just needed someone else to say it.

“I am in distress — make haste to answer me.”   

I believe that God’s answers come in many guises.  I have seen answers on billboards, in books, and in natural phenomenon - something as simple as a flower, or a feather on the sidewalk.   I often receive answers through other people - in a card that shows up out of the blue, a text or email from someone I haven’t talked to in a while, or just a comment during a conversation.  God’s answers often come from unexpected places, and always just exactly when I need to have the answer.  That is not necessarily the same as when I want to have the answer.  It’s one of those “in God’s time, not mine” things.  

Today is one of those days when I really want answers right this minute. I want God to tell me what to say and what to do, what decisions to make.   Just write it on the wall, Lord, like you did for Daniel.  OK? 

Loving God, I know you have all the answers.  I know that I will get my answers when I need them, not one minute sooner, and probably from a totally unexpected source.  Help me to know that all will be well, no matter what, because I am in your hands.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Sideshow

Proverbs 4:23-26.   The Message 

Keep vigilant watch over your heart;
that’s where life starts.
Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth;
    avoid careless banter, white lies, and gossip.
Keep your eyes straight ahead;
    ignore all sideshow distractions.
Watch your step,
    and the road will stretch out smooth before you.

Today I just couldn’t find a verse that really spoke to me till now, which is mid-afternoon. Typically I write this in the morning, right after I write my gratitude list and the cards I send to church members.  But today, nothing was working, not even my favorite go-to verses.  

The Cats weren’t helping, either.  Each of the three who will sit on laps has been on my lap at least twice today.  They are all big enough that typing around their bodies just doesn’t work.   Nermal doesn’t lap sit, but she has come in to stare at me a couple of times, which is nearly as distracting.  

There are days like that.  There are days when I just can’t seem to settle down to doing one thing.  There are days when all those “sideshow distractions” get my attention more easily than spiritual practices.  I have tried all the things I usually do to focus my thoughts.  I have even looked to see if there is a prayer specifically for loss of focus in The Book of (un)Common Prayers I recently purchased.  (There is!  Also one for when technology doesn’t cooperate. I already shared that with the techie people at church.) That didn’t even help.

As a last resort, I started checking other translations of this passage from Proverbs to see if different phrasing would help.  And then I saw it: 

Keep your eyes straight ahead;  ignore all sideshow distractions.
Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you.

All the cats and the phone calls and the text messages and the emails are distractions, yes, but they are also important parts of that road ahead of me.  More like directional signs than distractions, actually.  They inform my day, make me look in new directions, fill my heart, and in many ways, make that road smoother.  Yes, they may be distractions, but they are also connections to my friends, my congregation, and to the greater world around me.  Those distractions keep me thinking, keep me engaged, keep me entertained, keep me paying attention.

God of my journey, I thank you for those daily distractions that serve to keep me on the road toward you. May they continue to show me the way.  Amen