Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter

May the mystery and joy of Easter Sunday sustain you for weeks to come.  May the resurrection light awaken hope within you.  May the love of God's emphatic "YES" to life echo within your life.  

As always may the traces of God's grace be with you.

Alleluia blessings~ 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Silence of Saturday


How do you deal with silence?

When you have to strain to hear the still small voice of God.

Last night at the Holy Friday service, the pastor referenced words written by a Jewish prisoners at a Nazi Concentration Camp:

"I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there's no one there.
And I believe in God, 
even when he is silent."


On Saturday there was silence among Jesus' followers.  Grief hung heavy in the air.  Chaos of thoughts raced around their minds.  And they wondered, where is God in all of this?  How could the One we follow, the One who taught, healed, laughed, ate, and shared his life with us, be dead?

Most of us deal with enough grief in our lives, perhaps we'd rather the church not talk about it.  Yet, I think, our faith offers us a profound insight into grief that we thirst for.  The church offers not a solution, but an invitation.  An invitation into community.  We need not suffer alone.  We need not grieve alone.  On this Holy Saturday, I invite you to think about your faith community or the one you will be worshiping with tomorrow.  Pray for the people in the pews beside you and the pastor who will be leading the service and the choirs who will be singing and the brass that will playing.

Even when God is silence, we can trust in God, because of each other.  May that be a trace of God's grace.

Blessings~

Atonement - part 2


Yesterday's post concerned the most popular understanding and answer to the question, "Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?"  The usual answer is one of substitution, sacrifice, and satisfaction.  Jesus serves as a substitute for our sin.  Jesus serves as a sacrifice for our brokenness.  Jesus action on the cross satisfies God's need for justice.  In this theory of atonement, God's justice trumps God's love.

Yet, I think God's love trumps God's need for justice.  The above oversimplification has those two qualities of God in the opposite order.  In substitution, sacrifice and satisfaction, God's justice holds the trump card over love.  I think it is the other way.  God is willing to be in relationship with us, not because of what Jesus did, but because we are incarnate in the image of God (Genesis 2).

Jesus' birth and baptism reflects that truth.  God claims Jesus as beloved, just as God still claims each person baptized today.

Jesus life sought to share God's love, peace, hope, and justice with those in power and those on the fringes of power.

Jesus faced death...as all of us who are incarnate will.  More than that, I think Jesus faced death earlier because of the way he shared God's love, peace, hope, and justice.  People just could not stand it.  So, they hung him on a tree.  The cross is our actions, the cross is directed at us, and we today still put people in places of death by our words, actions, and systems.  You hear people today belittle those who need government assistance.  You hear people today use fear when talking about gun control or people of other races, genders, religious, and sexual orientations.  You hear people today still treat others as less than fully created in the loving image of God.  There may not be physical crosses in our world, but there are plenty of places we still cause each other pain and even death.  The cross looms large in those moments today.  And on Holy Friday we are invited to be honest about that and about our participation in those moments.

So, if the cross is directed at us, does that mean the other theories of atonement are wrong?  Perhaps not.  Maybe you still find the one I described yesterday more meaningful because it is the one you grew up.  To say the cross is an event that happened and is still happening is a different understanding.  But I also think when we see the cross as directed at us, rather than at God, it opens the door wider for the need for resurrection.  In some ways for those who find the substitution/sacrifice theory helpful, once Jesus dies on the cross, Easter is somehow...just not as important.  It is neat.  It is a cool trick God plays.  But, really the gospel could end with Jesus' death and taking the substitution atonement to its logical conclusion, that should be enough. 

BUT that is not where the gospel ends.  The gospel ends with an empty tomb.  But more on that tomorrow!

I pray you will take time today to ponder the mystery of the cross.  And when you look at the cross, what do you see?  How do you make sense of this Holy, roller coaster of a week?  May the traces of God's grace sustain you and give you strength to be open to all the truth of God's presence on this holy day.

Blessings~

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Atonement - take 1



The Death of Jesus

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land[l] until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed;[m] and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”[n] 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Tomorrow is Good Friday.  Of course, we only call Friday "good" living on the other side of Easter. The women who stood at a distance from the cross saw nothing good as they watched Jesus die. They could not hold his hand.  They could not comfort him.  Death makes all those around feel helpless, how much so when you are at a distance?

One of the biggest questions in Christianity is, why did Jesus have to die?  Before directly answering that question let me affirm two things:
1).  There are countless theories that seek to answer this question...not just one!!  No matter what other pastors or other theologians want to say, there is more than one response to that question.  And always has been throughout Christian history.
2).  Because these are theories, they have all the human blessing and brokenness within them.  No one answer can fully answer this question.  This is good.  If you ever think you have God all figured out, I think you should go immediately to hang out with people who you disagree with...
               do NOT pass go
                      and do NOT collect $200.
I would rather have a faith that is bigger than my human imagination and mind than one small enough for me to comprehend fully.

These theories are called "atonement".  Atonement is a word we like to toss around to show that the piece of paper from our seminaries means something.  Atonement is basically God becoming "at - one" with us.  There is a problem, a gap, a distance...that the women at the cross surely understood... between us as humans and God.  What exactly that gap is...is for another post, another time.

The most popular theory of at-one-ment is that Jesus had to suffer because humans are such miserable sinners that we could not save ourselves.  There is no way we could build a bridge between us and God.  The gulf was too wide for humans to respond to.  So, God came in the flesh (incarnate) in Jesus to suffer on the cross to bridge that gap.  Essentially, God's sense of justice was so offended by our mistakes and brokenness, someone had to suffer in order to satisfy God.  The cross is directed at God as an offering.

Just because something gets repeated, does not make it so.  Just because a theory gets popularized by hymns, does not make it so.  Just because people get angry when you question the logic of this theory, does not mean we all need to fall in line.  Because I wonder, how in the world if God wants justice from us, could humans hanging Jesus on a cross count for us and NOT against us?  How could one devastating decision to hang Jesus on a cross actually appease an angry God?  Killing God's Son somehow makes everything better?

I know people argue that God's justice is different than our justice.  But, I confess, I don't get it.  The God I worship is the Prodigal Father who races out to embrace the son who wandered away AND goes out to calm the brooding older brother.  The God I worship is the Mother Hen who longs to gather all of us under her wing.  

And what is more...there are other theories of at-one-ment...and those I will post on tomorrow.

Blessings and may the traces of God's grace found in the bread and wine of Maundy Thursday service continue to linger as we gather to worship on Holy Friday.

Blessings.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Communion - Part Two


At communion, we taste God's grace not only through the broken bread, but also through the cup of forgiveness poured out.  If Jesus had only offered his friends...who would desert him, deny him, and betray him...the broken bread, it would make sense.  After all, these people are suppose to be his friends, but perhaps feel more like modern day frienemies!

But Jesus doesn't only talk about brokenness as the darkness and shadows of the night fell upon the Last Supper table.  Jesus also offered hope.  In some ways giving these disciples a cup of forgiveness is wonderfully mysterious.  Jesus offers forgiveness and hope hours before most of the disciples (perhaps save Judas) really knew they would thirst for that hope and forgiveness.

So it is with us.  How often do we really think we need hope and forgiveness?  We'd rather get caught up in believing we've got everything under control and taken care of.  Thanks anyway, Jesus, but I really think this new ipad will quench my thirst.  Thanks anyway, Jesus, but I want to stay mad at my co-worker; family member; that person who caught me off in traffic and if I drink the same cup the disciples drank from then I might just have to forgive them.

The cup is counter-cultural.  The cup challenges our ways with God's ways.  The cup is, for me, what make communion a sacrament.  To affirm God is in our brokenness would be enough to make it a sacred moment.  But the fact that a cup is poured out with what we need most, even before we know we need it, is where God's grace intersects our lives.

The cup is also what makes us a community.  I often prefer that we take the bread when the Spirit moves us as individuals, recognizing our own brokenness.  But I love drinking the cup together, remembering that we are the body of Christ together.  We need each other.  I can't solve my brokenness on my own.  My bias and clouded way of seeing means that I can't get myself out of the problem on my own.  But others can help me see clearer.  Others can help me notice the errors in my thinking and inconsistencies in my actions.  Others can also create brokenness...let's be honest here.  Life in a church, community of faith, is not all chocolate rivers.  But, community is part of communion and that makes it a sacrament.

I pray you will taste not only the broken bread on Maundy Thursday this week, but also the cup that is poured out for all.  It is an overflowing cup with the promise of Easter.  It is in tasting the fruit of the vine that gives me the strength to face the cross.  If there was only broken bread, Holy Week would be way too somber.  But the cup offers us a glimpse of Easter.  The cup affirms God's presence.  The cup is a trace of God's grace.  I pray you taste that when you gather around the table tomorrow.

Blessings!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Communion - Part One



The Institution of the Lord’s Supper

14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it[a] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.[b] 21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. 22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” 23 Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.

There are many words to describe what happens when Christian communities gather around the table:
Communion - which emphasizes community;
Eucharist - which means thanksgiving in Greek or giving praise;
Remembrance Meal - which is both about recalling the event recorded above, but also about "Re-membering" - or reconnecting to each other as the living Body of Christ.
Lord's Supper- which emphasizes the One who is the host everything we break bread;
Or Last Supper - which reminds us that this was the last meal Jesus shared with his friends.

No matter what we call the time we gather around the table where Christ is the One who invites us and welcomes us, what remains the same is that it is a sacrament.  A sacrament is a visible and tangible sign of God's grace.  The bread and cup can be seen, touched, tasted on the tips on our tongues, smelled, and becomes part of who we are. Just as as Jesus was God incarnate, in the flesh; so we eat the bread and it becomes part of us. God's grace, which often can feel ineffable, for a moment becomes something we can actually wrap our hands around.  God's grace becomes embodied in our very person.  Yet, it is fleeting.  No sooner do we touch the bread and small cup of juice than are we invited to, "Take and eat, remembering Christ."  Even when God's grace is held in our hands, we realize that we cannot hold onto that grace forever.  Eventually, the service will end and the Pastor will want to turn off the lights and ask us politely to leave.  There are traces of God's grace in our lives, and communion is one of them.

Communion is grounded in Maundy Thursday (Maundy meaning "commandment" and references how Christ tells the disciples of a new commandment - to love one another!).  And so on this Holy Week, we gather around a table, remember Christ did the same thing.  We gather with broken bread, remember Christ did the same thing.  Broken bread holds three significant truths:
First - it reminds us that God's grace is everywhere, even in the broken parts of our lives.
Second - it reminds us that Christ's life was broken by the betrayal, denial, and desertion of so-called friends, known as the disciples.
Third - it reminds us that, if the Church is the living Body of Christ, that we won't always get it perfect.  As the body of Christ, we will say things to each other that cause brokenness.  That happened with the community of Jesus' followers, they caused brokenness right after eating this meal with Jesus.

Within my life of faith, I long for communion as much as possible.  I know some who don't like to celebrate communion too frequently because it might make it less special.  I do hear that.  But I also know that I can hear my wife and kids say they love me every day, it does not make it less special, it is a wonderful affirmation and reminder.  So, it is with God's grace.  But that is one perspective.

This week Christians from around the world will gather around the table.  For one fleeting night, the table has many extensions in it, stretching all around God's creation.  There is wonderful diversity.  We break bread not only with people we see in Church, but with the People of God from every race and country.  I give thanks that this week youth from our church will bake the communion bread with youth from the Lutheran church in town.  The bread we break with our Lutheran brothers and sisters will be made ecumenically by our youth proclaiming the Good News in their very action.  That is a beautiful image.  It is one that embodies Jesus' prayer, "That they may all be one."  For one night we are interwoven together.  But it, too, is fleeting, just like the taste of God's grace in the bread and cup.  But it is also enough, a glimpse of the promise of God in our lives.  I pray you will find a community of Christ to break bread with this Thursday.  It sustains us and gives us the strength to face the cross on Friday.

May the traces of God's grace be felt every day this week!  Blessing!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday- Preparation





7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus[b] sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” 9 They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” 10 “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” 13 So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

The plot of Holy Week is one that thickens with tension each day.  Jesus has rode in to the cheers and hymns of the Palm Sunday parade.  People cast off their cloaks.  Casting off cloaks was symbolic that they opened their lives to the One who comes humbly on a donkey, just as Solomon rode to his coronation when he took over the throne from King David.  We open our lives this week to the One who still comes humbly riding on a donkey to seek a live changing relationship with us.  Do we sing out when Jesus comes?  Do we shout, "Blessed is the One who comes in the name of God?"  Or do we miss the parade amid the blur of life?  Do you wonder this Holy Week how you are going to get every thing done and do you feel like you are living at a frenzied pace?

Noticing, paying attention, and seeing is all part of Luke's narrative. It is a thread that connects chapter and verse.  And Jesus sends the disciples in to prepare what will become the Last Supper telling them they need to look for, notice, a man carrying a jar of water.  I admit, it all has that Mission Impossible theme to it (insert theme music here!).  It is almost as though Jesus is saying to Peter and John, "Your mission, if you choose to accept it is to find a man carrying water."

For awhile I imagined there must have been a heavenly light that shone on this man, maybe some angelic harp music, showing the way.  After all, I thought, how many people must be carrying water when Peter and John entered the city?  It must have been hundreds! So in order to find this one man, he needed to stand out in the crowd of people and Peter and John needed divine intervention.

Then, I realized that carrying water was seen as woman's work, see the picture above, in Jesus' day.  Hence the Gospel of John's story about the woman at the well.  So, it really was not all that impossible to find a man carrying water.  In fact, he probably stood out like a sore thumb, if you knew what you were looking for!

Do we know what we are looking for this Holy Week?  Are we looking for the comfort of tradition and getting what we expect year after year?  Are we looking for something new and different leading up to Easter this year?  Are we just looking for warmer, spring weather?

I invite you today to ponder prayerfully, what are you looking for this Holy Week?  Spend some time naming for yourself and in the presence of God the things you are searching for.  Then, like the disciples, keep your eyes open.  I pray the traces of God's grace will be part of this day and every day this Holy Week.

Blessings!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Psalm 118, Take Three



Psalm 118

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.
29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  It is the most sacred time of the Christian year.  This week is the culmination of preparing our hearts for this roller-coaster of a week.  Within this week all of human life/experience is condensed thicker than a can of soup.  Within this week we have joy, people singing and shouting as Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Within this week we have anger as Jesus turned over tables.  Within this week we have a sacred meal shared with friends.  We have prayer in a garden.  We have betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  We have denial of friendship with Jesus by Peter.  We have friends deserting Jesus.  We have death.  We have silence on Saturday.  We have life, true life, that is filled with the warmth of hope and peace that we don't have to fear death any longer on Easter morning.

Whew...it is a huge week.

It begins with the People of God greeting Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.  The hymn they sing to him is Psalm 118.  We are most familiar with verse 26; and yet what is all around that verse is also important.

These verses talking about rejoicing and being saved.  Save us.  Of course, to sing that you have to first admit you need saving.  See the previous post on Psalm 118.  While I don't always like language of years gone by, I do find the word "beseech" to be important within the church.  It is not a familiar word.  To "beseech" is to plead with someone.  It is a realization that you can't do it alone, you need help.  Palm Sunday is not just a joyful parade, it is a prayer!  A prayer that we can't do this alone.  We falter and fall in this life.  And we need a presence that can sustain us.

When we sense that presence, it awakens thanksgiving.  It awakens joy.  Part of what make joy so joyful is that we can direct our joy to One whose presence does make a difference and makes us difference.  That is what this week is all about.

And yet, I think we sense the "beseech" and pleading most when we encounter the broken bread, cup of forgiveness, and cross.  In posts this week I will offer some thoughts about Maundy Thursday and Holy Friday.  I pray these reflections might help your Holy Week be grounded in the One who comes to us in the name of God, with God's grace and love.

May your Holy Week be filled with traces of God's grace!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Psalm 118, Take Two






Psalm 118
10 All nations surrounded me;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
11 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
12 They surrounded me like bees;
    they blazed like a fire of thorns;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
13 I was pushed hard so that I was falling,
    but the Lord helped me.
14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

The psalmist begins by trying to be self-sufficient and reliant.  Surrounded and fearful, the psalmist lashes out and wants to solve the problem by cutting at those around.

Three separate times, the psalmist tries to respond with violence and by verse 13, the psalmist admits that he is falling... and it is then that he senses the Lord's presence.

I find that to be true in my life.  I try to control everything and yet I feel the sand slipping through my clenched fist.  I try to pre-plan and pre-package everything and yet things don't work out like I think they should.  I recently heard that worry is about our fears for tomorrow, fears that we will fall on our face.  The speaker said we should not worry about that, because chances are good that we will fall on our face, especially if we are trying something new.  Maybe that does not sound like good news, but for me that holds an important truth.  No matter how much we try to control the media and spin of any event, at some point there will be a miscue or misstep.  And if we get so wrapped up in our plans or frustrated at how this could happen, we might miss the trace of God's grace even in falling.  The psalmist tells us there is grace in falling.

During Holy Week, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, "If it is possible, let this cup pass.  But Your will, not mine."  Often we think of God's will as some pre-ordained or powerful force.  I actually am coming to sense that God's will is often a weak force.  Something that will take us in unexpected directions and in ways of justice, peace, and love; which is often very counter-cultural today.  God's will doesn't force us, God's will invites us into the party with hope that we might respond.  That doesn't mean we won't fall or falter, but it does mean we might sense God's presence there.

It is after falling that the psalmist senses he is entering into God's gates and into God's presence.  The falling was not a death...perhaps a death to the psalmist way of thinking and his sense of wanting to be in compete control.  But it did not feel like death, to the psalmist rather it felt like life.  That is the way of the cross too.  The way of the cross shows us our brokenness.  Not so that we can feel like worms and less than human, but so that through the cross we might own that we are not as perfect as we like to present to this world.  There are bias and brokenness within each of us.  By admitting that to ourselves and to God, we open a space for God to move and breathe.

I invite you to be part of the Palm Sunday parade this year in your faith community.  To sit at the table on Maundy Thursday.  And to face the cross on Holy Friday.  In doing that we might feel ourselves letting go of our need for constant control and trusting in the traces of God's grace that can be found there.

Blessings!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Singing a Psalm


Psalm 118

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the Lord say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”
5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
    the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
6 With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
    What can mortals do to me?
7 The Lord is on my side to help me;
    I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to put confidence in mortals.
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to put confidence in princes.

Over the next couple of posts, I will dwell with Psalm 118.  These words help to set the stage for Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday on March 24.  What I love about the psalms is, like Isaiah, the writers do not mince words.  They are honest, heartfelt, raw, and offer us an opportunity to reflect on our own emotions within this life.

Psalm 118 begins with offering thanksgiving.  So, when was the last time you said "Thank-you" to someone?  When was the last time you said, "Thank you" to God?  Anne Lamont claims that "Thanks" (along with "Help" and "Wow") is one of the most essential prayers.  Thanksgiving for this day...even if it is dreary and rainy.  Thanksgiving for my family....even if they spill on the carpet.  Thanksgiving is at the heart and soul of our faith.  Thanksgiving for a relationship with God.  That relationship is characterized by the sacrament of communion, or what is sometimes called, "Eucharist," which means - you guessed it - "thanksgiving."  At the heart of our faith we celebrate our connection to God with a meal of giving thanks.  

Psalm 118 is also about proclaiming love.  Love is an overused word today.  And so why not add God to the list of items people talk about loving like our cars, kites, that cloud formation, ice cream, our family, and so on.  Yet, God's love, the psalmist proclaims, is steadfast.  Steadfast has an always and eternal quality.  Steadfast has a constant and continual quality.  God's love was there from the very beginning.  Before we knew God, God knew us and loved us.  That truth led C.S. Lewis to call God's love, "the intolerable compliment."  I don't always understand Lewis, but that makes a lot of sense to me.  I cannot earn God's love.  I did not deserve God's love.  Yet, there God's love is constant and eternal.  God's love does not waver when I get angry, God's love does not cease no matter where I wander.  In a world of constant comparisons and wondering if I measure up, God's love is an emphatic 'Yes!' 

And because I know that I do and say things are don't full reflect God's love for me and others, that creates conflict.  Moments when I want to hide from the intolerable compliment of God's love because that love keeps reaching out for me even when I want to run away.  Moments when I would prefer to sulk in my pity party for one, and God (like the Prodigal Father - Luke 15:11-32) keeps leaving the party to come out and find me.  That constant and always quality of God's love, I think, is why Lewis calls it intolerable compliment.  What do you make of that phrase?

I invite you to re-read this Psalm over the next couple of days.  Where are you giving thanks?  Where do you sense God's love?  And may the traces of God's grace be with all of us as we inch closer to Holy Week this year.

Blessings and peace!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Endings






Today is Sunday, the day of worship.  As Christians we worship on Sunday, the day we claim Jesus rose from the dead.  Every Sunday becomes a mini-Easter.  When you think of worship, what images come into your mind?

Prayers?
Singing?
A long sermon?

Worship, at its heart is centering us on what is worthy.  "Worship" is the combination of "worth" and "ship".  Giving worth to something or someone is vital.  Paul Tillich often said that there was no atheist, that all of us have something of "ultimate concern" or something of worth at the center of our lives.  For some it is our job, for others it is a certain sport/event, for others it is relationships.

Worship reminds us that the center of our lives is God who comes to us in the form of Jesus.  God takes on human flesh.  Such an action reminds us that God understands and experiences all the joy and pain that comes with this life.  Jesus joyfully ate and drank.  Jesus cared deeply for people and healed people.  Jesus faced desertion and betrayal.  Jesus even suffered death.  Worship proclaims that death is never the last word.  There is life and light that comes in our relationship with God at the center.

It is the prayer of those who plan worship that the prayers, singing and sermon somehow, through the mystery of God, connect us to God.

Remember one of Isaiah's vision and calling was in the temple.  Isaiah responded to God by saying "here I am, send me."  Isaiah encountered God in a life changing way.  It is appropriate to end Isaiah with worship, which is where is calling first began.  Worship is where we begin, where we can say, "Here I am, with all my joy, hopes, uncertainties and concerns."  And worship sends us out to live each day with that truth.

May these encounters with Isaiah help us to remember God's presence in our life.  May our worship moments connect us to traces of God's grace every Sunday.

Blessings!

Nearing the end of the Road




We are nearing the end of our journey through Isaiah.  After weeks of listening to Isaiah, after hearing Isaiah's visions of accountability, responsibility, and hope; after several posts trying to shine a light on our whole life (blessedness and brokenness), the one word I would use to describe Isaiah is "bittersweet."  

There are bittersweet moments in our life.  Moments where joy and pain intermingle and are tangled in unimaginable ways.  Most of the time I think we act as though joy and pain are so separated in our lives that we can only feel one of those emotions.  But the truth in my life is that I feel the two simultaneously all the time.  A friend tells me he is moving out of the area for a new job...bittersweet.  I notice my kids are getting older....bittersweet.  I realize I am going older...bittersweet.  Something at church goes well while another event goes astray...bittersweet.

Some suggest that one of the realities of our world is that we try to shield or shelter ourselves from feeling these highs and lows.  That is part of why there are so many addictions in our lives: to food, to all kinds of drugs, shopping, and even the frenzy pace of life.  Rob Bell says, "We slide down the surface of life" today.

Isaiah will not allow us to slide down the surface.  He asks us to notice both the joy and pain equally within our lives.  Isaiah has been honest, brutally honest, with us for 65 chapters.  After being on this journey, what is your response to Isaiah?  What insights do you have about Isaiah?  What questions linger?

When dwelling and reading the Word, our insights and questions are important.  But even more important is sharing those insights and questions with others...and listening to what questions and insights the other brings.  One down side to posting on a blog about Scripture is it does not always afford us a chance to talk face to face.  While it is convenient and can fit it into our schedule as we are able, we lose the ability to talk with others.  That is bittersweet too.

I find Isaiah helpful in thinking about my life, the ups and downs, twists and turns.  While I think Isaiah could stand to be a bit more hopeful...so could I.

I pray you have found traces of God's grace in this Word.  I pray you will think about your insights and questions.  I think those can help you and the community of Christ as we prepare for the mystery of Easter morning.

Blessings and peace 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Walking




A wise spiritual proverb goes, "It is solved by walking."  There is something cathartic about walking.  Sending that mixture of stress and anger that is coursing through my body down to my toes and out onto the sidewalk.  The sidewalk doesn't seem to mind too much.  

Isaiah talks about walking in the vineyard (which remember from previous posts was an image for the People of God) and smashing grapes so that the juice stains the feet and robes.  Which reminds me of the "I Love Lucy" picture above.  Of course, Isaiah 63 is not nearly as humorous as the Lucy episode.  You sort of shrink down in chair as you read, weighted down with guilt.  

It is a thin line between shining a light on our brokenness and crossing over to being consumed by our guilt.  That was a thin line that our Protestant ancestor, Martin Luther tried to tight rope walk his whole life.  One story about Luther, when he was a Catholic monk, goes that he spend hours...hours... in the confessional trying to confess every single sin.  Luther was so consumed by it, until finally the words of Romans 5 (Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God) saturated his soul.

Trying to walk the tightrope of talking about brokenness but not being consumed by it continues to be a challenge for the church today.  Most of us would prefer to NOT talk about the mistakes we made this week.  Most of us just want to hear we are love unconditionally.  But if we never bring our brokenness out into the Easter dawn light, the message of love can start to sound as believable as the telemarketers telling us we have been chosen to "win" a totally free vacation to Hawaii.  Yeah right, we think.  God loves me...if only God knew what I said to my kids, my partner, about my co-worker behind her back.  Yeah right.

Only, deep down, God does know.  God knows our brokenness...and blessedness.  Our baptism does not guarantee us a life free of brokenness, our baptism is not a conditional acceptance that if we act the right way we earn God's love.  God's love is unconditionally...calling us back to the image of God in which we are all created.  

When the father welcomes the Prodigal Son home with an embrace the anger sizzles in us because we wonder if God would welcome us home in such a way?  The Prodigal had a long walk home (he was living in a foreign land).  I wonder what he solved by walking?

I invite you sometime this week as the temps warm up to go for a walk.  What sits in your soul unresolved from this long winter?  What tension, brokenness, hurt can you offer to God as you walk?  It is solved by walking.  May that invitation offer you a trace of God's grace this week.

Blessings!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dream a Dream





These two passages speak of a world that would have seen like a dream to the People of God.  For Isaiah to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, it not just about all things coming up rainbows and chocolate rivers. The year of the Lord's favor was the year of Jubilee, when slaves were to be set free; debts were forgiven; and no one farmed for the whole year.  It was year long Sabbath to remember to trust in God in all times. 

Isaiah 61 actually is the passage Jesus preached one of his first sermon on in Luke.  If you click on that link, you will see that the sermon does not end well.  Let me give thanks that to date no congregation has ever tried to hurl me off a cliff in response to a sermon of mine...maybe I am not doing something right?  Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord's favor, which sounds so good.  Until the people realize that quoting from Isaiah means the Lord's favor includes everyone, even the foreigners and people we don't like.  All of the sudden, we might wonder about this.  And does Jesus really expect us not to plant gardens when spring finally comes?  Does Jesus really expect us to forgive other people's debts to us?  I mean that is fine in church when saying the Lord's prayer, but can we really live this way?

Isaiah offers a compelling vision.  But what is our role in all of this?  Do we just wait passively?  Or, perhaps, we are called to live this way right now.  Which is challenging, because people are going to look at us all strange.  People might say things behind our back.  Living the faith means we will at times bump hard against the values of our culture.  

I pray you will listen to the wisdom of these two passages today and in the coming days.  Perhaps as these words dwell within us, they might be heard in some of our words and felt in some of our actions.  If that can happen it would be a trace of God's grace.

Blessings! 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Good morning



"Rise and Shine," parents around the world say to their children.  We know that with the rising of the sun there is a new day, a new chance, new opportunities, and new challenges.  The process of waking up takes time; for some longer than others depending on the time of day.  I like to wake up early and get going.  I like the mornings, when the sun first peaks over the horizon.  This is my kind of vision from Isaiah.

I realize that not everyone likes mornings as much as I do.  But "rise and shine" is less about the time of day and more about your attitude.  Even if it is noon...how do you go about the rest of your waking hours?  In fact, some could say that since the days of creation go from evening to daytime, that those who are night owls are more like God who created at night.

Rise and shine also refers to how the People of God came back from Exile.  They came back with expectation and hope.  Expectation that God would guide them and hope that God would sustain them.  What if we would try that?  What if every day this week, we greeted with expectation of encountering God? What if every day this week, we held on to hope that God would guide us?

That is tough when we hit the speed bump of life, especially considering how fast we live our lives.  We move so fast today that life is a blur.  And so, when something difficult happens, the bump is jarring!  Rise and shine reminds us of how we can see our life.  Even the bumps come, the warmth of God's love can make a difference.  Even when the storm clouds gather, the sun can break through and dance in the raindrops forming rainbows.

Rise and shine, if the people who lived in exile for so long could say that, maybe we could try saying it for a week.

May the traces of God's grace move in your life whenever you rise and shine this week.

Blessings!

Holy Conversations

Click here to reach Isaiah 59

If you read Isaiah 59 closely...it is a conversation.  It starts with God laying out the charges and the people respond.  Notice their response.  They don't try to defend or deflect what God says is happening.  They accept and admit they did wrong.

The truth is we all make mistakes.  We all say things we shouldn't.  No one is completely innocent and no one is perfect.  The only way to reconcile is to talk openly and honestly with each other.  Isaiah 59 is a holy conversation, which (by the way) so sounds like something Robin would say to Batman.

The church knows all about conversation.  The church has an advance degree in talking.  But the question remains, what are we really saying??  Where does all the talking get us?  I recently enjoyed a blog post by David Lose about productive meetings.  David is right that we need to be more productive.  I would also add to David's post that meetings in church need to be less about talking and more about holy conversations.  When you get in your car after the meeting, it is not only a question of what was accomplished, but also were you heard?  And did you hear what others said?

What if we used Isaiah 59 as wisdom for what our conversations at meetings sounded like?  There are moments when we need to name our brokenness.  There are moments we need to listen for God.  There are moments we need to take action and change behavior.  What if those would be our three topics rather than "Old Business" and "New Business".  Maybe we would be about God's business and find ways to have holy conversations.

May there be traces of God's grace in your meetings this week.

Blessings!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Who are the ones in our midst


Click here to read Isaiah 56

The bags are all packed, the People of God are ready to go.  And somewhere in-between Babylon and arriving back into the Promised Land, Isaiah preached about justice.  In the face of living in exile, in a time when anger can simmer on low for days upon days, justice can sound very different than it does in Isaiah.

Think about the scene.  Here is Babylon, the bad guys who conquered the Promised Land, destroyed the temple, and transplanted the leaders of the People of God back to Babylon.  Now Babylon has gotten a taste of its own medicine, it has been supplanted by Assyria.  What goes around, comes around.  Or revenge is a dish best served with the chilly glare of self-righteousness.

Only Isaiah won't play along.  He proclaims that God believes even foreigners will be welcomed on God's holy mountain, the sacrifices of foreigners will be acceptable, and these people will be accepted as the original People of God.  That is a tough message when you are leaving a foreign land.

But it is also a tough message because Babylon not only took Israelite people out of the Promised Land, but also transplanted people from other conquered countries to live in the Promised Land.  Foreigners were not being left behind, they would be found living when they returned home.  Foreigners would be drinking the milk and honey promised to the People of God.  What's the deal with that?

It is hard to hear...not only for the people in Isaiah's time, but also in our time.  We like to think of justice as aligning with our opinions.  But, I would dare to venture, that the People of God did not expect that sermon from Isaiah.

And unfortunately, it really did not come to pass.  Samaritans were people who had a Jewish parent and a foreign parent.  They were looked down upon.  They were called 'half-breeds.' And there was tension between Samaritans and Jewish people for years.  That is not what Isaiah had in mind, nor was it what Jesus saw when he preached the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Our relations with people who come from a different land, with different customs, and different understandings have often been strained.  In the founding of our country, each wave of immigrant was sneered at.  And yet, Isaiah reminds us that God sees something different.  God sees a child no matter where that person was born or presently lives.

Who are the ones in our midst, we'd be offended to learn that Isaiah is talking about.  Of course we will never know what Isaiah would say to us today.  We can only open our imaginations and hearts to God in this time.  And by listening to these words, open our eyes to see if there are those in our midst who we are called to love.

May the traces of God's grace be in our life helping us stay open to all those who we bump up against in these days.

Blessings!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Well...that was unexpected



Click here to read Isaiah 57

Click here to read Isaiah 58

Here Isaiah goes again...being all confrontational.  Right after admonishing the people that they will need to accept foreigners, now Isaiah starts to criticize the Israelites for their way of worship.  Isaiah says I know back in chapter 40, I spoke of comfort and an easy path home, but you still have to watch out.

I think sometimes we'd prefer faith to be more predictable and pre-packaged.  Why all the criticism and critique?  Why can't we just try our best and leave it at that?  Isaiah won't let the People of God rest.  I don't know how the people acted in Isaiah, but I wonder if today that message would clear out the sanctuary faster than the final "Amen."

Let's be honest, we don't expect our faith to be challenged much in church any more.  There are too many options, the mainline Protestant church has lost too many people, and most pastors feel like they are on thin ice...and can hear the sound of cracking all around them.  Those who do try to challenge the status quo quickly bump hard against barriers.

Let's also be honest, most pastors are not Isaiah either.  I know my own perspective is too colored by my own biases and limitations.  My own best arguments are flawed and contain more holes than Swiss cheese.  Who am I to try to proclaim or challenge, I have my own stuff too.

I am not sure how Isaiah felt or why after fifty-some chapters he is still poking the bear.  I am not sure how Isaiah would be received today.  Maybe people would see him as a curiosity or maybe people would try to have him get professional help for depression or images of grandeur.  I don't know.  I do know that the world is different today.  And I do know that if we are looking for challenges, Jesus picked up on my of these themes in his parables.  After Easter, I will be turning to parables in church.  I think these stories are ones we've often reduced to bite-size morality lessons.  But they are really turn-your-life-upside-down challenges to the status quo.  That is easier to do with a story.

For now, I encourage you to let the words of Isaiah roam around.  How is your relationship with God?  What is your reaction after traveling through 57 chapters?  Do you like this book?  Does it challenge you in a good way or leave you cold?

Those are important questions as we wind down and ones I pray you might sense a trace of God's grace as you prayerfully ponder.

Blessings!

Enough


Click here to read Isaiah 54

Click here to read Isaiah 55

Isaiah 54 promises everlasting peace.  Isaiah 55 promises a feast set by God.  What I find so interesting and challenging is the question in 55, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?  And your labor for that which does not satisfy?"  That is one of those questions that echoes across the centuries right into my own life.  Why do I work so hard for those things that do not bring me peace or closer to God?

After all I can work tremendously hard for other's approval and compliments.  I can put in hour after hour doing work that takes me away from my family.  I can turn to those things that do not satisfy my spiritual thirst for a connection with God.

It is difficult to resist the lure of consuming.  There is always a shiny, new product on display at the store.  There is always something promising to bring peaceful dinners with my family if only I go to a particular restaurant.  This is the promise of peace that comes pre-packaged.  The problem is when we come to depend more on places where we can consume for peace and hope then tending our relationship with the One who is peace and hope.

Just to be clear, I don't think consumerism is always the problem.  In fact, it can become a Trojan horse of sorts, leading us to think we have eschew all areas of buying things.  Maybe move out West, grow our own food, and go off the grid.  I know that is not going to happen in my life.

However, I do think we are not aware of the ways Madison Ave. evokes emotions.  To be sure, the church can do this as well.  There is religious music marketed to evoke certain feelings.  There are things said in worship that are carefully designed to awaken a certain response.  In those moments, we are trying to sell the People of God something.  If the church is about anything, it is about being the People of God together.  Each person uniquely created in the image of God.  Each person also realizing that we make mistakes and mess up.  Each person realizing the value that comes from being in community with others.  We don't need money for that, we just need a space to gather.

So, how do we know when we have enough?  How does the church know when it has enough?  Those are tough questions.  But perhaps if a feast of free milk, honey, and wine seems lacking, it is good to step back.  Perhaps is we start worrying about who paid and who didn't, it is good to step back.  Come to the feast, Isaiah proclaims.  It is an invitation Jesus took seriously.  He loved a good feast.  And often chose to eat with those from the fringe of society, people who could not pay.  Where did he get that invitation?  Isaiah 55 might be one place.

May you come to the feast, taste the milk and honey, and may it be enough...and may there be enough for all God's children.  That would be more than a trace of God's grace.

Suffering


Click here to read Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53 is often read on Holy Friday.  It is read from the lens of Jesus suffering on the cross.  One of the powerful parts of going chapter by chapter through a book of the Bible is to hear what comes before and after a passage.  How can the beautiful feet have just brought good news of peace and freedom to the people in exile, and now all of the sudden we are talking about suffering?  There is a disconnect between these two chapters for me.

It is jarring when our joy and dancing is turned into mourning.  It is unsettling when laughter is suddenly turned to tears.  Perhaps that is why we don't like Holy Week.  The festival joy of the Palm Sunday parade turns to betrayal, desertion, and denial of Jesus' closest friends on Maundy Thursday.  Then, of course, the shadow of the cross on Friday.  We don't deal well with death in our world, especially when there is so much to do to get ready for Easter Sunday: eggs to color and hide, hams to prepare, and family coming.  Do we really need to face the reality of brokenness at that point?

Part of the problem that I notice in my own life is how much I compartmentalize everything.  It is either a joyful time or a sorrowful time.  It is either all good or all bad.  I may talk about the messy middle, but when the messy middle is a whirlwind of emotions and I can't get my barrings straight, I don't like it.

That is what holy week does to us.  It makes our souls and heads spin.  And let's face it, most of life at work and in the world already does that.  Do we really need the church to join in that cacophony?

Isaiah says "YES".  Partly because the response of God will be different than the response of the world.  Partly because the mixture of joy and pain are a part of life.  There can be laughter even at the bedside of someone who is dying.  There can be hope even when you lose your job.  There can be peace even when life is turned upside down.  But it does not always come in the expected ways.

Here the people of God are ready to go back to Jerusalem, and Isaiah talks about suffering.  Perhaps that is because the road back will not be where every mountain is make low and the rough places plain.  Or perhaps it is because the city of Jerusalem is still in rumble.  Perhaps it is to remember that even as people are packing up their belongings and getting ready to return, they remember the suffering they endured in exile and the reality that some of their friends had died in Babylon.  Those are powerful truths for Isaiah and for us.

I think there can be traces of God's grace noticing the messy middle of our lives.  We need to be aware of the ways joy and pain get intertwined and tangled up.  We need to remember that hope and despair can be two sides of the same coin.  If that is the case, then even with the gloom of Holy Friday we can still trust in the One who turns our mourning into dancing.

May the traces of God's grace be felt in moments of joy and suffering and everything in-between.

Blessings!