Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Today is the start of Lent, forty days (not including Sundays) that are set apart and seen as an intentional/prayerful/awaken to God time.  I crave Lent, which may sound like an odd statement.  Some view Lent as a microcosm of where religion veered off-course.  Lent is about sacrifice in a world that constantly preaches, "You deserve it YOUR way, right now."  Lent is about quiet in a world that rewards the loudest voices and most re-tweets.  Lent is about intentionality in a world that is prefers snap judgments and spontaneous decisions...after all why else put all that stuff near the cash register.  Lent is a slow, savory pace in a microwave world.  Lent is about as counter-cultural as it gets...because Lent is about Jesus.  

Jesus who preached loving enemies and peace.  Jesus who lived reaching out to people on the fringe rather than exploiting them.  Jesus who faced death on a cross not as something to be avoided but as a reality for walking on this earth.  Yet, in order to immerse ourselves in Lent, we need to be willing to take apart, explore, and expose some of the theology that usually is caught up in these season.  Lent is about calmly plotting the resurrection of life...not only Jesus' life...but all life and the world God so loves.  In order to frame that, the shadow of the cross might need to be re-imagined.  For me, the cross is not God sacrificing God's only son.  That has never made much sense to me.  How in the world could we "earn" God's love back by killing God's son?  How could Good Friday be considered a "win" on our part?  How limiting is it to think that the only rationale for Jesus' death on a cross is that it was the "only way" God could start loving us again?  I just shake my head.

Instead, for me, the cross shines a light on the myth of redemptive violence.  For me, the cross is God explicitly saying to us that God knows the suffering of this world intimately.  One of the most painful seasons is grief, death of someone we love.  God enters into that space, just as God was willing, through Moses, to enter into the suffering of the overworked, scarcity of God's people in Egypt.  God is always willing to be among the vulnerable, lost, lonely, left out, and pushed to the fringes.  

So, if what we are building toward is not about substitution atonement or even Jesus dying for my sins.  If what we are building toward is a proclamation of God's willingness to suffer and self-giving even in the face of death....that changes everything.  That makes Lent different...even as some of the practices might seem the same.

Lent calls me to shine a light on my suffering...trusting that truth that pain that is not processed is passed along.

Lent calls me to be vulnerable...prayerful...honest in my relationship with God.

Lent calls me to accept that grace and love are unconditional...even before Good Friday happened.

Yet...practices like up a favorite food...prayer every candles...spending time serving for justice...and on and on can still be meaningful especially if Lent is re-framed.  

I invite you this Lent to re-frame your faith.  To take out, touch up the painting of faith we have been handed adding your creative touches to the mystery of God's love...or pick out a new way to look at what it means to be in a life-giving, life-changing relationship with God.

I encourage you today to listen to where you sense God nudging you.  It might not be necessarily giving something up...maybe it is something joy-filled you've always wanted to try.  

In the end, Lent is a season of being intentional and prayerful.  At the cross roads of those two words, what is being awoken within you to connect with God in meaningful ways?  Go that way...and I believe there is more than a trace of God's grace to be found.

Blessings ~   

Friday, February 5, 2016


 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.  Mark 6:38-44

This Sunday our church will celebrate communion.  We enter into the mystery of communion once a month...usually on the first Sunday.  While Catholics and Episcopal's celebrate Eucharist every week, other Protestants like my beloved United Church of Christ celebrate less frequently.  On one level this is because when Protestants broke with the Catholic church there was an eschewing of many traditions and practices.  Some of this was swinging to the other extreme.  I have heard some Protestants say that they want to celebrate communion less frequently to keep it more "special".  But the most special people to me...I want to see as MUCH as I possibly can.  I know folks who refuse to use their good China only on "special" occasions, because they say everyday is special.

Jesus breaks bread for five thousand plus people.  It is a foreshadowing of the Last Supper.  It is an echo of God feeding the people in the wilderness with manna for forty years.  Bread is vital to life.  Bread is a reminder of life.  Bread is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.  

My invitation this week is simple.

1.  Get out the good china.
2.  Get some good bread...bake it or buy it.
3.  Gather some friends...
4.  Let the traces of God's grace flow through and around you.

As I type this, I have a loaf of banana bread my daughter helped me make in the oven.  I love banana this evening we will know and taste the goodness of God's grace.  Or my other favorite bread recipe can be found at the Luther Seminary here to see and make and bring me a piece!  

I pray no matter if the bread is Wonder or banana or some other special recipe, we will feast, taste and see that God is good.

Happy communion and blessings ~ 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.  Mark 6:17-29

This story speaks of political power moves and the people who are treated like pawns that get caught in the middle.  Herod is not exactly remembered as the best leader ever.  He did expand and improve the temple, but financed that capital campaign on the backs of the Hebrew people and their pocketbooks.  He was constantly afraid of someone taking his power that he actually had two of his own sons put to death.  John the baptizer challenged him and we know what happens when you try to speak truth to power?  Sometimes you find yourself in a cell staring out of iron bars. But Herod also knew he had to play his cards right.  John the baptizer was a popular prophet.  He had attracted many people out to the Jordan, the symbol of national pride and reminder of how their ancestors had passed through the Jordan into the Promised Land.  

Then in comes Herodias, his daughter, whose dancing sends these powerful men into a tizzy.  They are so enamored that they promise her whatever she wanted.  After asking her mom, they demand John's head.  Now Herod is in-between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, John's death could cause the zealots of the day to rise up.  On the other, he promised in front of a lot of powerful people.  What to do?  What to do?  Herod rolls the dice and has John put to death.

It is a gruesome story that sounds more like something from one of the Godfather movies rather than the Bible.  Of course, this is a reminder that the myth of redemptive violence has always been part of the culture.  In many ways, Good Friday, is Jesus attempt to stare this myth of violence in the face and say, "No more".  No more do we need to stand for the one with the loudest voice controlling our lives.  No more do we need to believe in divisiveness.  No more do we need to let our young daughters buy into a photo-shopped understanding of beauty.  No more does manhood need to mean flexing your muscles.  And yet, even as we refuse to stand silent, we know that the realm of God is not fully established in our world.  

The next verse says that Jesus is deeply grieved.  I believe it.  John was his friend.  John was the one who cradled him in his arms that day Jesus was baptized in the Jordan.  According to Luke, John was Jesus cousin.  Their messages were similar.  Jesus' heart was heavy.  Grief is a reality in our world.  And the other reality is that we don't know how to grief.  We think that three days off for your parents' death...that is fine.  We think six months after everything should be back to "normal" or at least the one who is grieving should "put on a happy face".  A year later, we expect the whole grief moment to be a distant memory. 

But for those who dwell in the season of grief there is pain...often times confounded and complicated by the truth that very few want to dwell with them in that season of grief.  There is an attempt to reconstruct identity, which is tough work no matter what age we are.  There is an attempt to live with the unanswerable question, "Why".  There is so much that needs expression and it seems like only tears fall from the person's eyes.

I don't know if grief necessarily needs information, but it does help to have a community.  Jesus tries to go away to a deserted place with his friends.  His insides feel barren, so he goes to a place where there is barrenness.  We need space set apart and space together.  We need to cry and laugh and simply be.  We need a grace that can be found in countless different ways...but we also need to be intentionally spontaneous.  Intentionally spontaneous plots and plans but leaves room to pay attention to what is in front of you.  Grief is hard work.  

If you know someone who is grieving...chances are good you do...I encourage you to listen.  Listen, even if you are uncomfortable and don't have answers.  There is no solution...because grief is not a puzzle to be is part of the mystery of life.  I pray that if you are in the season of grief, you will sense more than a trace of God's love...and if you are in another season you will reach out and be a trace of God's love to someone who is struggling and living with loss/death/grief.

Blessings ~  

Monday, January 25, 2016


He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.  Mark 6:1-6

David Bowe recently passed away...but I always think of the above song when I hear Mark 6.  Jesus had changed.  He changed when he was cradled in John the Baptizer's arms, was dunked in the Jordan River, came up gasping for air and water running from his face...and a dove descended and he heard, "You are my beloved."  That will change you.  He was in the wilderness...tempted...that will change you.  He was transformed as he started preaching about God's realm being right here and right inside you.  That kind of message can change you.  He was transformed as he healed people  Imagine being able to take away pain...but perhaps Jesus absorbed some of the pain too.  Those kinds of moments can change and challenge you.  He preached...some he offended...some he softened hearts. The responses of people will change you.

There are changes in life.  Sometimes when we change others around us don't like it.   Have you ever wanted to change something and those around you try to tell you it is a bad idea; more because of who they are and less because of who you are or what you want to do?  That has happened to me.  Ch-ch-cha-changes might be part of life, but we don't always like it.

The people in the synagogue wanted Jesus to remain stuck where he was...wanted him to stay who he was.  Unfortunately, this can still happen in churches today.  The phrase, "We've never done it that way before" comes to mind.  Change awakens some fear, upsets the equilibrium we crave.

So, what kinds of changes are you facing right now?
How are other people responding?
How are others speaking truth in love?
How are they speaking truth for the sake of keeping the peace?

Those are tough questions that need more than trace of God's grace.  May you feel and experience God's presence as you prayerfully ponder this.

Grace and peace ~  

Friday, January 22, 2016


We are four chapters into Mark and it is good to pause to catch our breath.  So, far, Mark starts off with an incomplete, grammatically incorrect sentence in 1:1, wanting to tell us that Jesus is Son of God and Messiah.  Jesus is the One who is God in the flesh, incarnate.  Jesus is also the One who offers salvation, which is not so much about canceling out a debt...but about reorienting our lives toward God every day.  Mark races through Jesus' baptism, temptation, and beginning of preaching and healing.  The first few chapters shine a light on the truth that Jesus is not only interested in giving us head knowledge, but speaking to our hearts.  Jesus takes us to the storms of life and challenges us with understandings of family.  Behind all this, beneath the surface, is a gospel written to people in the shadow of the Roman Empire...during a time when Rome was looking to scapegoat and blame Christians for setting a fire to the city of Rome (even though some scholars say that Emperor Nero set it himself).  Jesus tells parable about not hiding your light under a basket and planting seeds around us (even when the ground is frozen or inhospitable).  

What I love about Mark is we are not even halfway through, we have already encountered and had Scripture read our lives in amazing ways.  Mark is already helping us see that there will be storms in life, we will (like the man who lived among the tombs) face chains in life.  Mark is telling us that faith is not some insurance policy for life to be all chocolate rivers and pony rides.  Life is stormy.  Life hurts.  We need folks who listen...folks who help us name the pains that confound us in life.  

What I find so fascinating in Mark is his powerful use of words.  He is able much more concisely than I to tell a compelling story.  So, here is my question:

What three words would you want to describe your life?  
What one story do you sense represents your life?

Those are tough questions.  I am coming up on 400 blog posts...and I still don't know that I have fully answered those two questions.  I pray that we will take a breath and ponder prayerfully the ways we tell our story and the words that matter most to us.

Grace and peace ~  

Sunday, January 17, 2016


21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  Mark 4:21-25

This is one of the passages that make me say, "Huh?"  I get the whole, "don't put your light under a bushel."  First, it is a fire hazard...Smoky the Bear would not be happy with that.  Second, we like the image of us, as individuals, shining a light.  But, remember, early followers of Jesus in Rome when the empire has a target on them.  They were to blame for the fire that destroyed the city, so said Nero the one with the power...and who historians say might have actually set the fire.  When we are afraid, we do tend to hide...we tend to flee or freeze or fight.  So, Jesus is saying that in times when life is not going well...when we encounter the storms of life...we need to continue to let our light shine. That is not easy.  It is easier to go with the flow.  It is easier to laugh at the joke rather than call a friend on it being inappropriate.  It is easier to go with the flow of buying and consuming, even if it is not sustainable for the earth or other humans making low wages.  It is easier to believe there is nothing we can do rather than step out and share our light.

Maybe that is what the second part means.  We need to pay attention to the blessings...not the fear.  When we pay attention to what is going good, it can help us see more good.  When we pay attention to the light, rather than the dark, we start to see even more.  That doesn't really help with the last line.  Verse 25 sounds like something that Adam Smith or free capitalists would say...not Jesus.  Yet, this is also a reminder to me that I don't always understand what Jesus is trying to say.  It is good to remember we don't control or completely have a handle of what Jesus would do...because we don't always get what Jesus did/said.  Of course, Jesus could be sarcastic here.  He could be pointing out an injustice.  Or maybe, and this is the one that really gets me, is that perhaps Jesus is saying when we shine our light in the world, when we pay attention, we are going to see things that make our hearts break.  We are going to see millionaires getting tax breaks.  When we shine a light, we might see the least and the lowly...still being treated as the least and lowly.  Shining a light alone will not making everything better.  But, when we see...when we keep paying attention...when we keep shining a light and not lose heart....maybe God's grace will stir in new ways.

So often we turn faith into a proposition...if we work for justice, poof there should be justice.  But the evil that brought the injustice isn't going to scurry away like a frightened raccoon when the garage light comes on.  To keep on keeping keep shining the light, to keep paying attention, and with a heavy dose of God's grace, we inch closer to God's realm.

So, what ways can you persistently shine a light?  To keep paying keep being open even when we want to look away from the injustice in the world...that might just help let this passage read our life and make a difference in this world.

Blessings ~  

Friday, January 15, 2016


Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.  “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;  but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”   Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  Mark 3:20-34

After Jesus has healed, preached, taught, journeyed around, called disciples...did more in the first two chapters than I have in two years of ministry...then he went home.  Are there four words more loaded than those?  Of course, Tom Wolfe famously said, you can't go home again.  On the other hand, Henri Nouwen once said, "home is the place you go where you have to be accepted." What kinds of images does the word, "Home" bring to your mind?  Positive?  Negative?  Is there pain that has not been processed so you don't pass it along?  Let's go deeper...what kinds of expectations do you have around home?  I think we can agree that no home should hurt physically or emotionally.  But beyond that, is home a place of laughter?  Where everyone has their own space?  And more to the point... what is the deal with Jesus' family?

So, Jesus comes home...laundry and twelve friends in tow like you used to from college.  The house is full.  And the family...who perhaps were out at work...come home to chaos.  Some people were restraining Jesus, saying he was possessed by demons, and the family is just trying to do what they can to help.  For families who struggle with mental illness, the family adjust.  Some talk about walking on egg shells; others talk about the struggle to love the family member or reach out for support; still others know that there is a stigma that is strong in our culture.  We call people, "Crazy" as an acceptable description or even joke.  A few years ago, I sat in a class on those who struggle with mental illness where the instructor thoughtfully said, "The brain is an organ just like your heart or lungs...and if you had a problem with your heart or lung you would think nothing of getting treatment.  But we still shy away from raising awareness about the struggles people of with this organ."  That is really good wisdom.  Too often we believe people can just "think positive" or change if they want to do so.  But we don't see that with other illness.

What hurts the most in this passage is at the end, Jesus seems to denounce his family.  One history note might help.  In the days of Mark, there was a disagreement between Jewish and early followers of The Way (Christians).  It was a family fight, which can often be the most painful.  Jewish folks did not see Jesus as Son of God or Messiah.  Then to complicate things...which tends to happen...because there was a fire in Rome...which some say was the community Mark wrote to.  Christians were blamed from the fire by some in the Jewish community.  Brokenness can beget brokenness.  Yet, sometimes we do need to have distance from our family, especially if we cannot interact in healthy ways.

So, does your experience with your family connect or disconnect with Jesus?  Have you felt freed or restrained by your family?  Have you ever felt like your family was contributing negatively to your mental well-being?

I pray you will find a place of home that is healthy and where you can rest in the full grace of God.

Blessings ~