Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Place Called "Home"

Click here to read Isaiah 24

The other evening Stephen Colbert did a commentary on Global Warming.  I encourage you to watch it.  Not only for the comic...albeit sarcastic commentary....on how politicians are responding to the threat of the extreme heat in Australia, the fate of polar ice caps, and the increasing Carbon Dioxide.  But because I think Colbert offers a good challenge.

I am not scientist.  I know facts can be twisted in different directions until they are barely recognized as "fact" anymore.  I know people with all sorts of intentions...good and bad...have a tendency to do this. You can over state facts to try to motivate people to change, because unless there is urgency change is a slooooooooow process.  I also know you can under sell a fact, banking on the fact that change is a sloooooooow process.

I know that I am not going to start riding my bike to work...right least.  I also know that there are things I can do.  I know there might be people reading this who don't think global warming is all that big of a problem.  Like so many issues today, we tend to take a side and fight like our life depends on us winning.  Problems by their very nature are multifaceted and complex.  If there was an easy solution or clear facts, it wouldn't be much of a problem.

What I do know is that I take Genesis 1 seriously.  If God declared all creation (not just humans) good, very good, then my actions toward creation should heed God's still speaking voice.  I also know the truth of what Paul said to the church in Rome about the whole creation groaning.  I don't know if he had Isaiah in mind when he wrote that, I don't know if a cloud of smog was hanging over Israel like it current is in Salt Lake City.  I do know that the wisdom of Scripture in this case transcends time and causes me to stop in my tracks.

I hope you will take the time to click on some of the links I have posted to this blog, spend some time thinking prayerfully about the theology of care for creation and our current state, and may the traces of God's grace guide us as we face the realities of the place we call "home."

Grace and peace.

Say What??

Click here to read Isaiah 23

You might be wondering, what in the world does the above picture and Isaiah 23 have to do with each other?  It all starts with the first verse, "Wail, you ships of Tarshish."  Tarshish was the place Jonah fled to instead of going to Nineveh.  God had told Jonah to bring God's word to the people of Nineveh, which was just to the north of where Jonah lived.  But Jonah loathed...I mean loathed....the people of Nineveh.  And so, Jonah hopped on the first ship head west...not exactly the opposite direction...but certainly not the right direction either.  The ship Jonah found himself on was heading to Tarshish.

Usually, when I think about Jonah, I think about fleeing from where God is calling me, going in a different direction.  But there is also something about humans that loves, to use the cliche, "think the grass is greener on the other side."  Tarshish is the other side.  It is that job in the paper that would be so much better than the one you have now.  It is the other car you see the moment you have signed the paperwork and drive off the lot.  It is the all the "should'ves"  and "could'ves" that are part of our daily conversations.

Of course, the rest of the passage in Isaiah is not very uplifting.  It ends with some saucy language about prostitution.  I invite you to keep Isaiah's words in tension with the ministry of Jesus, who reached out to the lost, lonely, grieving and the prostitutes in his day.

Part of Isaiah's honesty is the age old human tendency to speak ill or woes to those around us.  We do this because we feel threatened.  A person in the Sunday morning Bible study commented that often Israel felt like a bone caught between two dogs.  Israel has always been threatened from those in all directions who want to take it over to gain an geographical edge against others.  When you are in the midst of fear or uncertainty or living in constant tension, our words are not always happy.

I invite you today to think about a situation or a relationship where your words did not "turn the other check"
Did your words sound like Isaiah 23?  I know at times mine have.  And while I might not have said, "Wail, you ships of _____ (fill in blank of a person's name),"  I do recognize the sentiment.

May the traces of God's grace sustain us and open us honestly to our words for better and worse.

Blessings and peace

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finding our Inner-Santa

Click here to read Isaiah 22

Up on the rooftop, we did pause,
Hoping that God would hear our cause.
But what happens when things don't work out,
Do we find ourselves wanting to shout?

So, in the last post, I encouraged you to find sometime today to get to the watchtower, to change your perspective, or as Isaiah 22 puts it, "go to the rooftop".  I think sometimes religion can become too formulaic.  If I say, "Go to the watchtower," the expectation might be that certainly God is going to meet you there, maybe even be waiting for you.  I think one reason why we give up on prayer, and some have given up on church, so quickly is because we have some lofty ideals (pun intended) about what the church, God, and religion should (or maybe ought?) to do for us.  And by the way, we are a bit busy, so if there is a drive-thru window in the watchtower/rooftop that would be great!

Twenty-two chapters into Isaiah and he is still droning on and on about the destruction of this and that.  Look, we get it.  We live in the age of twitter and condensed news.  Can't Isaiah just move on?  Much more of this and we will think maybe Isaiah should be tested for signs of depression.  But maybe the point is that as people today we move on too quickly.  Have we forgotten the pain of Sandy Hook?  Have we forgotten those in countries like Haiti or Japan ravaged by tsunamis?

I don't think the point is to put on a sackcloth and take off our sandals, like Isaiah did a few chapters earlier. But I also don't think we should always "try to look on the bright side" or think we need to sing like orphan Annie, "The sun will come out to tomorrow."  Life is messier than that.  Part what it means when we go to the watchtower or rooftop is we take our life with us.

When I talk about the watchtower/rooftop, I think often the first image that comes to my mind is Jesus' transfiguration.  In that scene, Jesus glows a dazzling white in front of Peter, James, and John (the first three disciples he called to follow him).  And because those images are intermingled in my mind, I start to think that if I find time today or tomorrow to get to the watchtower or rooftop, I should have a mountain top experience.  It is part of the psychology around a consumer society.  I made the time, I need to be rewarded.

I think life and faith are more complicated than that.  Sometimes I sit in the sanctuary alone and feel God's presence.  Other times, I just feel cold.  Some religious folks would say that the blame is fully on me in those God-is-distant moments, that I am doing something wrong.  And I think there can be a measure of truth in that.  Maybe in that moment I have a divided heart or I am just going through the motions.  But I also don't think faith is that black and white.  I have had experiences of prayer where I was fully open and honest and still did not sense God the way I had in other moments.

For me, I could just throw in the towel or wonder, "Why bother?"  But Isaiah's words invite me to re-consider.  In 22, he speaks honestly that just because we get to the rooftop does not mean everything will turn out peachy.  But, maybe, we can keep trying to carve the space in our lives for those moments of getting to the watchtower and rooftop, I trust the glimpse of God's grace will be heard honestly and authentically in my life.  And those moments, perhaps fleeting, will be enough.

Blessings and peace!

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Different Point of View

Click here to read Isaiah 21

In this passage Isaiah gives us the image of him taking a post in a watchtower where he can see who is coming.  Watchtowers are about changing our perspective, getting above the things that block our view, being able to scan the horizon and see further.  Most of us don't have many watchtower moments in our lives.  Most of the time in the midst of life's journey, I don't see the proverbial forest for the trees.  The trees tower above my head, they clutter my ability to see, and if I am not careful I can run smack dab into one
I am reminded of a prayer by Thomas Merton,  "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end." That prayer summarizes the way I feel on certain days in my life.  The image of finding the space in my life to get a clear view is not easy.  Most of the time, my busyness can cause life around me to be blurry.  And even if I have a few fleeting moments to get to the top of the watchtower, by thte time I have raced up the stairs to the top, start to feel my breathing and pulse return to normal, only to feel like I have to race back down the stairs to get on with life. Many today talk about our addiction to hurry.  Others say we walk up in the morning already feeling like we are behind.  The idea is not that we can shift our perspective by visiting the watchtower once.  We need more time to truly scan our surroundings and take time to soak in the scene from the watchtower.

I remember when my wife and I were in Hawaii, we climbed Diamond Head Mountain.  Once we reached the top, we spent several hours looking in all directions.  We would have stayed longer, but we needed to walk back.  The amazing thing is that the ocean looked so differen from the beach level when compared to looking down on it from 762 feet above.  We need moments to shift our perspective.  We need to also hold that in tension with the wisdom of Merton's prayer: that no matter what we do, or how much time we spend in the watchtower, we will not always be able to see fully the road in front of us.

I encourage you to find time tomorrow or the next day for a watchtower moment.  It does not need to be somewhere high...especially if the thought of that causes you to break out in a cold sweat.  Maybe your watchtower is a coffee shop, walk around a block, or the stillness of a room in your home.  Give this some thought.  And if you want to find me, I will be in the balcony of our church.  May you notice the traces of God's grace in your watchtower moments this week.

Blessings and peace!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Beautiful feet

Click here to read Isaiah 20
Click here to read Isaiah 52

I know Isaiah 52 is leaping ahead and is completely out of order.  I apologize to those reading this blog who prefer things orderly.  But I wanted to make a connection within Isaiah and his foot fetish.

For most of us, we don't talk about feet, we don't mention our feet, we do our best to avert our eyes at the beach, pool, and when we walk past that nail place in the mall.  And if seeing feet sends a shutter down our spine, you can only imagine what happens when we have to touch another person's foot.  And so we put socks on our feet, shoes, we cover them up and hide our feet.  I think our aversion  to all things foot related leads to a disconnect between our faith.  After all most of our churches today can hardly imagine engaging in a foot washing ceremony as Jesus did at the Last Supper.  So far, twelve years into ministry, and I have only been able to pull off one foot washing ritual on Maundy Thursday.  We don't like feet.

But feet are an important part of Isaiah's ministry.  In his call from God, the seraphim covered their feet.  In Isaiah 20, he removes his sandals is a sign of protest.  And in Isaiah 52, it is the feet of the messenger that proclaim the good news of release.  Feet.  Feet.  Feet.  What's the deal?

Of course, the cultural gap between Isaiah and today is as wide as the Grand Canyon in this case.  In Isaiah's day there were no tennis shoes, dress shoes, boots, slippers, etc.  The only foot ware was sandals.  Which we know, exposes your feet and provides a little protection against the rocky hard ground.  The other wonderful fact about the Bible is that feet can sometimes be a euphemism for other parts of your body, see Ruth 3:7-8

So, now you know why we don't talk about feet.  I also contend we don't talk about feet because it makes us feel vulnerable. I recently read a book by Brene Brown on vulnerability.  She also has a great video on TED about vulnerability.  Brene says instead of hiding our vulnerability, we need to lean into it in order to live wholehearted lives.  I like that image and I think it resonates with what Isaiah is calling the people to do.  We are called to live wholehearted lives, which includes vulnerability.  We are called to see ourselves as people created in the image of God, fully and wholely, which includes our feet.  Maybe there is a trace of God's grace in that for you and me.

Blessings and peace!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Do We See Ourselves?

Click here to read Isaiah 19

So we know Egypt and Israel have a history that is...let's just say is complicated.  I mean there is the whole indentured servitude in the book of Exodus.  Where Moses has to come in and lead the people across the Red Sea and into wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  During which people complained and wanted to go back to know where they were in servitude.  There is more that needs to be said about that some time when dwelling in the book of Exodus.

But Isaiah offers a prophecy against Egypt.  What really gets me about this chapter is verse 2, where brother rises against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and city against city.  I hear those words and make a connection to today in our world.  In our contentious political environment, family member is against family member, neighbor against neighbor, and a red state sits next to a blue state.  We feel that division and divisiveness in ways that seems to eat away at our very soul as a country.

So, what to do?  Let's face it, there is not much positive advice to be found in this chapter of Isaiah.  Basically he says to Egypt, "You are doomed!"  Which I can understand, it is often the way I feel after watching the news.  So, where is the hope?  Hope may not come in books we can buy or missions we create or really anything we do.  When we light the candle of "Hope" on the first Sunday of Advent, it can feel the same way.  One candle against the increasing darkness and dwindling daylight, what is the point?  What sense does that make?  We light the candle, call it "hope," and then wait.  Wait four weeks before we gather at a manger to welcome God incarnate in Jesus. That does take hope, to wait.  It can feel like we are waiting today to see if we can stop letting the differences divide and start seeing who we are connected.  Will it happen or we will end up like say the Egyptians in our passage today.

There is no neat and tidy ending here.  Hope does not come in prepacked ways.  Hope bubbles up in unexpected, even serendipitous ways.  Which if that sounds familiar, it is because it is similar to what I said about discipleship.  Maybe there is a connection between discipleship and hope that starts there and here.

May the traces of God's grace help to keep the spark of hope alive in your life today.

Blessings and peace!

Silent God

Click here to read Isaiah 18

When you belong to a denomination that has spend creative time and energy in trying to communicate the message that "God is still speaking" today in our lives, in our churches, and in our world; verse 4 comes a little bit of a shock.  Whatta mean God is silent?

Sure, I know that in 1 Kings 19:9-13 that when God appeared to Elijah, God did not come in the form of a blazing, hot fire or a wind storm more powerful than the one that swept through Wisconsin last week bringing with it a cold that chills you to the bones.  To Elijah, God whispered...or as some versions say God came out of, "a still small silence".  But at least that is still some way.

Yet, think of it this way, silence is still communicating.  When you give your spouse the cold shoulder or refuse to respond to a hurtful comment or don't reply to a text or email, in someways you are still trying to communicate.  But in a world saturated with words, our silence is barely noticed amid the cacophony.  In a world where there is always something happening: some show to watch, blog to read, website to surf to, we rarely find ourselves in a moment of silence.

And when we do...say in the doctor's office waiting room with that awful muzak being piped in...our minds jump into hyper-drive filling the void with all sorts of random thoughts left over from days and weeks gone by.  In moments of silence our minds become like frantic patchwork quilters trying to piece together the fragments of our lives.  And usually, that silence is fleeting.  Mercifully, the nurse calls us back to the office or the phone rings or we start playing "Angry Birds" on our phone.  But what would happen if we would try to practice silence, get past that awkward stage, and really immerse ourselves in the stillness, peacefulness, and solitude of the sacred?

I do wonder if one of the ways God is still speaking today is just inviting us to be in silence.  Not so God can get a word in edgewise, but just to be.  Isaiah tells us in the midst of banners being rolled out and trumpets blasting, God sat silently.  In the midst of a world where in a little over a week billions of dollars will be spent on ads, our modern day banners, to capture our attention and music will blast from some of the most famous people today, where is God's voice in the midst of Superbowl Sunday?  Of course, being a Wisconsinite, it is easy to think that God does not have a vested interest in this year's Superbowl.

Maybe God's still speaking won't come across as words at all.  Maybe God's still speaking will invite us into a silence, the kind of silence where you actually hear your own breath.  Breath that God breathed into our ancestor's bodies in Genesis 2, giving us life.  And maybe if we can hear that breath for just a few moments, no matter how fleeting, we will sense the truth of Isaiah's words and catch a trace of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!

Monday, January 21, 2013


Click here to read Isaiah 17

Have you ever forgotten something?  No, that is not a rhetorical question.  While I have never pulled away from a gas pump with the nozzle still attached to my car, there are plenty of times and places I have forgotten to do, say, or complete something I promised someone I would do.  So, when Isaiah in verse 10 says, "You have forgotten God...Your rock," those words echo across the centuries and I slouch down in my chair.

Honestly, I may not be from Damascus, but there are moments I forget God.  I get wrapped up in my own agenda and I think that God has to keep up with me.  I am reminded of what the Reformer Martin Luther said, "I am so busy now...that if I did not spend three hours in prayer I would never get through the day."

Now, I realize most of us are not going to spend three hours in hour would be a HUGE stretch. So how about three minutes?  If you start with three minutes now and add one minute each day, by the end of February you'd be around thirty minutes.  What if I promise to do that along with you?

I know thirty minutes seems like a long time.  So, maybe it does not need to happen overnight or all in what sitting.  Maybe ten minutes in the car without the radio.  Maybe ten minutes could be with your family around the dinner table sharing your highs and lows.  Maybe five at lunch time.  Maybe five minutes on a walk outside... once it gets out of the single digits, mind you!

Give this some thought.  I want to be careful not to make discipleship out to be something WE do.  If you read the sermon post from earlier today, you'll remember that for me discipleship is being radically open to God's serendipitous ways that defy logical thought.  My suggestion above could turn into an item on our to do list.  Trying to balance praying when we feel led or feel like we need to listen to God.  Again, listening to Luther's quote, I think the busier we are, the more centering ourselves in prayer can be helpful.

I pray that doing this together might help us to notice the traces of God's grace in our lives...even in the midst of a cold winter day.

Blessings and peace!

Who are the Moabites??

Click here to read Isaiah 16

Chapter 16 continues the theme from Isaiah 15, God's concern for the Moabites.  We might wonder why?  One response to that question comes from the Book of Ruth.  If you have never read this book, click on the link in the previous sentence.  Go ahead, I will wait.

Okay, maybe trying to go through Isaiah is enough, so let me give you a quick overview.  There was a woman Naomi.  She was a good Jewish woman who lived in Bethlehem (which means "House of Bread"), only at that time ironically enough, there was NO bread at all...there was a drought and a famine.  So Naomi and her family packed up the family camels and moved to Moab, which is east of the Promised Land, on the other side of the Dead Sea.  Now, the Moabites were not exactly seen as the most upright or righteous people.  In fact, most Jewish people looked down on them.  There is a connection to Samaritans in the time of Jesus here.  The Moabites were seen as people of ill-repute and of loose morals.  I will let your imagination fill in the rest.

One of Naomi's son's marries Ruth, a Moabite woman.  To make a long story short, Ruth's love for Naomi (the word is hesed, or Lovingkindness) causes Ruth to take care of Naomi throughout the whole book.  Ruth is a hero and loved...this Moabite woman.

For God to be concerned about the Moabites becomes this wonderful connection and understanding of who God is.  And Isaiah picks up on that.

Here is my question: who are the Moabites today?  Who are the people who we look down upon and push to the fringes?  I encourage you to spend sometime thinking about this and then re-read Isaiah 16 with our present day Moabites in mind.

May the traces of God's grace surround you today.

Empty Nets (sermon from January 20th)

I know what it is like to fish all day and catch nothing, nada, and zip.  I remember growing up my dad took me one Saturday morning at a river nearby our house.  It was bright sunny day.  My dad had just read in a magazine that fish really like whole kernel corn, so we brought with us a can of uncooked corn.  We spent hours, let me emphasize hours that day, on the bank of the river trying to catch fish.  I was so bored at one point I decided to try the uncooked corn, just to see if perhaps I might gain some kind of intellectual advantage over the fish.  Okay, honestly, I tried it because I was getting hungry.  It made me realize why the fish were swimming past.  At some point, we decided to call it a day. Like Simon in our lesson today, we left the river banks with half a can of corn and no fish. 

Now, remember Simon and Jesus had already met before in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus had come to Simon’s house, cured his mother-in-law of a fever, and they had enjoyed a meal together.  They knew each other.  And so when Jesus asked Simon to use his boat as a floating pulpit for a sermon he was about to give, Simon said sure.  If I had been in Simon’s sandals, I might have sarcastically thought, “Might as well get some good out of this boat today for all the fish I caught.”  We have no idea what Jesus preached that day, because it did not seem to Luke to be all that important. That is a good reminder to me as I stand here preaching before you.  What we do know is what happened after the sermon was over.  Jesus said to Simon, “Why don’t you try to put out in deep water.”  Again, if I was in Simon’s sandals, I might think, “Who is this guy think he is trying to tell me how to do my job? Isn’t he a carpenter after all?”  Maybe I am giving Simon too much credit, but I am willing to guess that he already tried to put his net in deeper water, several times, in several places and caught nothing, nada, zip.  Just empty nets.

Sometimes today I think the church can feel like Simon, like we are trying our best to put our nets down in deeper water and coming up empty.  We look at our budgets and feel like our nets are empty.  We make calls to serve on committees and our nets feel like they are empty.  We know Simon.  I am Simon.  And yet, I need to be honest that sometimes when the Spirit says, put down your net in deeper water, I get a little persnickety and question whether it is worth it?  Whether people at the governing board will go for that new idea?  I wonder whether I have the energy, time, wherewithal, or wisdom to really put down the nets in deeper water one more time.  We know what it is like in our lives to come up with empty nets.  We know what it is like in our family relationships to come up with empty nets.   We have experiences from our work where it feels like our nets are empty.  And there are times we volunteer that fall into that same description. Friends, we know what it is like to catch nothing. 

But Luke tells us that Simon tried.  He lowered the net and soon there were so many fish, his muscles were straining, trying to hoist in the net.  Simon motioned for another boat with his partner’s, James and John, to come over. They helped to haul in the catch and when the fish were poured into the boats, Luke tells the boats started to sink.  It is an overabundance.  I want to be careful not to turn this into some morality lesson for you.  In no way do I want to imply that if you just try harder or just trust more or just pray every night all your dreams will come truth.  I don’t think that is what this story is about at all.  I think this story isn’t about me or you at all.  I think this story is about God, what God does and noticing the abundance of God in our lives. I think it is very difficult to notice the abundance of God today. We live in a time when resources feel so scarce, whether those resources are natural or the resource of leadership.  We live in a time when the economy and jobs feel like empty nets. And to be honest we feel sacred.  When fear become the dominate emotion in our life and when we are exhausted from trying to run around all the time to prevent our nets from being empty, it is difficult to notice God.  So in those moments when we are surprised by joy or feel the tiny hairs on our arms stand on end because of an encounter with grace, we might wonder if it will last or we tell ourselves not to get our hopes up.  Simon saw the fish and do you remember his response? He doesn’t say, “Thanks for the great fishing advice, Jesus.” He does not worry if he is going to be able to sell all of the fish.  He does not try to justify why he did not try dropping his nets there in the first place.  Those are all responses I might be prone to offer.  Instead, he sees his own short comings and brokenness. 

But Jesus saw more than Simon’s brokenness.  In fact, Jesus saw something else.  Jesus invited Simon to follow him, to be a disciple along with his partners in the fishing business, James and John.  I wonder if Jesus might see something different in our church today as well.  The call of Jesus is to follow.  The call of Jesus is not to strategically plan or pass the right motion or even confess the right faith.  The call is to follow, just follow. 

I remember as a child I loved playing follow the leader.  And the most joyful times was when the leader would make us do the craziest things. We would have to wiggle through the metal ladder that led to the slide on try to crawl backwards up the slide on our bellies.  And even when I failed and could not follow the leader, I still laughed joyfully.  I wonder, why is it that I don’t do that in my discipleship, in my attempts to follow Jesus today?  When I did I let go of that kind of joy?  You see, I can make discipleship out to be a list of tasks to do: did I pray today, did I say the right words, and did I love my enemies.  Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are good.  But truth also is that when discipleship becomes a laundry list of things to do, that is the moment discipleship becomes more about me and less about following Jesus.  In those moments, I am the one who is the leader and I am trying to fill my empty net. Following Jesus, I think is about being radically open to God whose presence fills my net sometimes (okay, most of the time) in spite of what I try to do.  To be sure, prayer is important, reading the bible, serving in mission, talking with others, visiting others, caring for others, and loving others are all important. ; Discipleship is more than what I ‘ought’ to do.  And what I hear in the passage today is a definition of discipleship which is:  a radical openness to the serendipitous ways God moves and calls us to do what sometimes defies logical thought. 

Here is the thing: the way the Spirit moves in your life, will be different than the way the Spirit moves in your neighbor’s life, which will be different than the way the Spirit moves in the life of the person you sit next to in the pew on Sunday morning.  Discipleship can never be pre-packaged or pre-planned.  And to be honest, that kind of ambiguity is frustrating, especially for us UCCers who like to think our way through life.

Let’s face, we in the UCC, are a pretty heady bunch.  If the UCC had been on that boat that day two thousand years ago, I have to humbly confess, we probably would have formed a committee to see if we should drop our nets in deeper water.  But it does not have to be that way. And so, here is my invitation, this week, listen for God’s presence.  Maybe it will come in prayer, maybe it will come in the middle of Woodmans, and maybe it will even come from your annoying co-worker’s words.  That’s our still speaking God.  Listen for God’s presence and then try to respond to that holy prompting.  I believe that God and Christ are still calling us to be disciples and to drop our nets in deeper waters.  Even if we end up like I did in my childhood not catching one single fish this week, there is still a joy in following the serendipitous Spirit. There is tremendous joy that calls us to share our faith in the most amazing and audacious ways here and now.  The question is, will you listen and respond to Christ’s call in your life this week? And the answer to that question comes from your life. May our discipleship deepen this week through the One who still calls us to follow him. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

After Isaiah 14, I know what is coming.  After Isaiah's gloom and doom sermon on Babylon, I just don't think Moab is going to fair any better.  But then, as is often the case with God, things get turned upside down and inside out.  All of the sudden Moab's destruction is not reason to gloat, but to grieve.  People shave head and put on sack clothes (this was a sign repentance, see Jonah 3, something to consider with Lent coming up...just saying).  The people wept and cried out.  This is what the People of God will do in Babylon, they will sit there and weep (see picture above).  

And God in response says God's own heart cries with them.  Not that this should amaze us too much.  God has often had concern for the stranger and foreigner in our midst, see Deuteronomy 10:18.  It is easy sometimes to forget this, especially in Isaiah where there are often violent scenes.  

It becomes trite or cliche to talk about expecting the unexpected.  After all, if you are anticipating a surprise, on some level it is less of a surprise.  However, because we have the tendency to compartmentalize and categorize our understanding of God, we can be surprised when what we read in a particular book does not conform.  For example, many believe that God in the Old Testament is violent and angry...into lots of smiting.  And that God in the New Testament is more about warm and fuzzy love.  So, when passages about God weeping come up in Isaiah, it is a good challenge for us.  

The understanding of God that Jesus taught in the Gospels was not some radically new idea.  Rather, Jesus emphasized what was already there in the Hebrew scriptures, just not as readily part of our imagination.  

What has surprised you about Isaiah so far?  What chapters have you thought, "I never realized that was in the Bible?"  How can we keep that question in our minds as we continue to study this book of the Bible?

May the traces of God's grace surprise you today and as we gather for worship tomorrow.

Blessings and peace!

Friday, January 18, 2013

What Do You Make of This??

Okay, so I am good for the first verse.  The image of Israel and other nations coming together, it is all so "love your enemies" that Jesus taught us.  But then it turns out not to be so kum ba yah, when the People of God end up oppressing the very people who oppressed them.  This seems to contradict what we read when Jesus tells his disciples (and us today who follow him) to love your enemies.

In some ways Isaiah 14 even feels like gloating.  I was raised in the Midwest where gloating was not just frowned upon, it could get you in trouble.  I remember my brother lost his dessert for a week for gloating after he and his friends won a kickball game against me and my friends.  Talk about sending a powerful message about gloating!  

So, I will be honest, that I don't have some magical formula to make sense of this.  Like many of the previous passages, it is a reality of what we do as humans.  When suddenly the shoe is on the other foot from someone who used to oppress us, we find it hard to live the Golden Rule , to do unto others as we would want them to do to us.  Notice, Jesus did not say AS they DID to us.  Maybe Jesus knew all too well that people tend to be reactive.  If someone is mean to me...I find it tough to be nice.  My ego gets bruised and all subsequent interactions with that person bumps up against that bruise.  It takes time and energy.  And honestly, it takes the wisdom of Jesus to objects to my wisdom. 

The tension is good.  It gets me thinking faithfully about who is right: Isaiah or Jesus?  Maybe it is not an either/or at all.  Maybe we need to keep reading Isaiah to see if we are truly understanding what he is saying, because I think chapter 15 might shift our perspective just a bit.

For now, may we see the traces of God's grace in our lives and may we see that grace in the ways we treat others.

Blessings and peace

Ode to Babylon

Isaiah follows up his song of praise sung in a major key, with a song of despair sung in a minor key.  Isaiah starts off with the image of a bare hill.  Back in Isaiah 2, the hill of God was where all nations would stream toward.  In contrast, the hill of Babylon is bare.  Again, such a prophecy in the time of Isaiah might have elicited an honest response from most, "Humph, That'll be the day!"  Look at all that property Babylon has.  It covers at least six modern days countries.  That is a lot.  And here comes Isaiah, who has been all doom and gloom at the prospects of Israel against the new Goliath known as Babylon, and all of the sudden his tune has changed.  He sings that this huge real estate will become but a bare hill.  

I have to confess that after that first line, the rest is hard to read.  The violence is saddening given how much violence I see on TV, given the recent tragedy in Sandy Hook, given the debate on guns that is going practically no where.  Part of me wants the Bible to be like a good novel that I can get lost in and escape from the world.  I'd prefer faith to be the utopia.  But if we do that too much, faith can turn into Fantasy Land.  

The faith Jesus lived met people in the world.  People who were hurting, felt lost, lonely and left out.  People who were struggling and lived in fear.  The faith Jesus calls us to follow invites us to do the same.  It is interesting, and saddening, that we make faith out to be escapism.  Not that we don't need that escapism, see the above paragraph, but when we do that too much we risk loosing something vital to our faith.

So, I keep coming back to these images, as violent as they are, because life can be violent.  I'd prefer it not be that way.  The promise of the gospel and Jesus' ministry is that our life does not have to be that way.  But that does not mean we click our heels together three times while saying, "There is no place like God's kingdom" and magically people are nice and violence is no more.  What does faith have to say in the face of violence?  We can say, "No."  That on God's hill the sword becomes the plowshare, a tool of farming.  We live peacefully not responding to insults or hurts.  It is not easy.  And it certainly is not the way of the world, but it is God's invitation.

May we respond to Christ who still shows us the way of love that makes a difference and can make our world different this day and for days to come.

Blessings and peace!

Sing Out with Gusto

Click here to read Isaiah 12

Okay, I know what you were expecting, because I was expecting it too.  Every time previously when Isaiah had given us a sign of hope and soaring words of what living in God's presence would mean, the very next chapter would come crashing down to earth with painfully realistic words.  But this time, Isaiah does not do that.  Instead he offers a hymn of praise and celebration.

The first part of the hymn acknowledges that it has not always been smooth sailing and chocolate rivers.  The first verse suggests that God was angry and disappointed.  Often times the ways Christian's picture God is either as a being who is angry at us all the time for all the rotten stuff we do.  Or God as someone who is willing to over look all that bad stuff for the sake of love.  I usually have tended to lean toward the latter understanding.  But I am wondering if there is a messy middle place in-between the two sides.  It is not that I need to have God feel disappointed in my words and actions.  Part of what Isaiah reminds me is that my words and actions have consequences, not only with other humans, but also with God.  To be angry is not in contradiction with love.

Don't get me wrong, I still think God got out of the smiting business several centuries ago.  But I think God, as a "weak force" in our lives can feel disappointment when we miss God's presence in the eyes of another.  Lightening bolts will not come out of God's fingers in response, but a sense that our relationship with God is broken or amiss, which is what Isaiah is singing about.

Isaiah then crescendos to sing out joyfully.  I encourage you this day and in weeks to come to think about how you can join in Isaiah's song.  How can we be honest in our songs to God about our past mistakes and missteps?  And out of that how does the waters of baptism help remind us that God reconciles us to God's self in such honest and heartfelt moments.

May you notice the traces of God's grace as you make a joyful noise.

Blessings and peace!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Branch??

Dear friends, my sincere apologies for falling behind in posts this week.  Please check back later today for additional posts as I catch up.  Thank you for your understanding!

Click here to read Isaiah 11

This chapter reminds me why I find Isaiah so compelling and why his vision captures my heart.  After several chapters where I find my shoulders slouching and starting to wonder, "Why bother?"  Isaiah reminds me why I bother.  I bother because the God we worship and who moves in our lives takes a stump and causes new growth.  Most of the time when we see a stump, a tree that has been cut off, we see only death and destruction.  To be honest, it is difficult to see a small shoot of green life giving much hope.  After all, that growth coming out of the stump in the picture above would only need a quick snip of the pruning sheers.  Whereas to cut down the tree took time and energy and more than likely a chain saw.  Often times a little growth does not really impress us that much.

Think of it this way: in one day five friends give you bad news about their health or jobs or family life.  Then another friend tells you she is going back to school to be a minister.  At the end of the day, would you feel more hopeful because of the one friend or feeling like everything around you is going to hell in a hand-basket?  Honestly, I would not feel great.  Sure I am happy for my friend, but somehow the scale of life would still feel like it is tilting toward the negative. This reality is exacerbated by the 24 hour news cycle that lives on a steady diet of bad news.  Some of the lead stories trending right now include Lance Armstrong admitting to cheating, who won at the Golden Globes, President Obama's attempts to enact gun control laws, and a coach yelling at his players.  Do I see a stump in that or a small growth?

Please know I am not trying to bum you out here...maybe you are thinking I should have taken a few more days off from posting!  What I am trying to suggest is a parallel, a connection, between our lives today and the people of Israel.  Here is Isaiah in the first ten chapters basically telling everyone destruction is coming and looming.  You can hear the chainsaw in the background.  When along comes Isaiah 11 (like Isaiah 2 and 9), there is this echo of hope, the slightest green shoot of new life springing forth from that stump.

I need Isaiah to remind me this morning that God does not always move with Hark! the herald angels singing.  God moves more subtly and I can miss that sacred stirring.  I need to remember as I go throughout my day today that there are moments when life springs forth and when life lays as quiet as the frozen ground covered with a thin layer of snow outside my window.  Even beneath that snow, I know that there are tulips waiting to spring forth.  While I may not see that small green shoot in my garden today, I may see it in my conversations, interactions, and experiences today.  If I can, then that will be a trace of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Know the Laws

I read Isaiah 10 and I feel a bit like my friend Wiley E Coyote chasing the Road Runner to the edge of a cliff, where the Road Runner pulls up short of going over but Wiley is unable to stop. He is suspended in mid-air for few seconds before plummeting to the ground.  I knew it was coming in every episode, but still to see it made you sympathetic.  And that is the way I feel for the people Isaiah preached to.  I knew this time was coming when things were going to fall apart and thinks would fall apart.  The handwriting was on the wall...or in the first 9 chapters we have looked at.

Isaiah continually says that when we cease to care about the poor there is a break down in our relationship with God.  I have a tendency to make faith complex, question and diligently search for places of tension and contradictions.  And I don't have to search long.  But then there are also moments when the good news of the Gospel comes through with the crystal clarity of listening to a live concert at Carnegie Hall.  Care for the poor.  That was John the Baptizer's first sermon in Luke if you have two coats give one away.  Care for the poor.  So often Jesus reached out to the lowly and least desirable people in his culture.

Now, to be clear, this is about as difficult as the mental gymnastics that often become conversations about faith.  And when I try to reach out and care about the poor I can again feel like Wiley E. Coyote, vulnerable, unsure about what is really helpful or useful or meaningful?  Again, it can get easy to over think things.  I am not sure there is a right answer.  But maybe, it starts with grabbing that extra coat and taking it to someone who is cold this winter.  It may not solve everything, it may not solve anything.  But maybe that isn't the point.  And I am not going to over think it.

May the traces of God's grace lead you to know when to ask for help and when to act.

Blessings and peace!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Roller Coaster Scriptures

Click here to read Isaiah 9

I am just going to be up-front that I don't like roller coasters.  The whooshing and twirling and twisting sets my head spinning and stomach asking honestly, "Why God?  Make it stop!"  This passage starts off with such hope for those who feel like they dwell in darkness and feel like the light has been extinguished.  I even understand the images about battle given that a few chapters earlier how the North tried to over take Jerusalem.  When you get to the passage that comes with the hope of a child who will be called, "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace," and the thrill of hope comes swooshing in with such a force I feel the wind in my hair and my stomach does somersaults of joy.

But then...oh then...comes the upside down loop de loops.  After the stirring and soaring language of hope comes this crushing language of destruction.  While this is very difficult to read, I also know that life can sometimes feel like a roller coaster.  Life is going along fine and dandy...when all the sudden something happens that takes the wind right out of us.  Perhaps it is the death of a family member or friend, the loss of a job, a friend's harsh comments, or add your experiences here.

Sometimes we get the impression that all of scripture should be a warm, cozy blanket on a cold Wisconsin day.  Yet, the Word of God comes to the life of and from the life of faithful from years ago.  And while life has profoundly joyful moments, there is also heartbreak.  Perhaps what is so difficult to reconcile in this passage and others is that often both the joy and pain are attributed to God.  I don't have an easy answer to this tension.  But that is because life is messy.  Is the pain in my life God's actions or a result of my free will?
What do you think?

Perhaps we focus too much on trying to place each particular pain on that continuum and yet the end result is still that pain exists.  Even if I could definitively assign each particular pain along that continuum, I would still have to deal with and face the pain.  And as a person of faith, I am called to also notice and be open to other's pain as well.

I don't want to say that the conversation about the causes of pain is unnecessary, but I know it is deeply personally.  I once had a seminary professor tell me that he was ministering with a family who saw the death of a child as coming from God and when he told them that this simply could not be the case in any way, the couple was even more devastated, like a security blanket had been snatched away.  Years later he said, "I had no right telling that family their theology was wrong.  There was a time for that conversation...just not then."  But the church does need to have the conversation and Isaiah encourages us to do that.

So, what do you think?  Maybe it is difficult to classify ALL suffering from God or from our own human actions.  Maybe it is more situation by situation.  Perhaps as the words of Isaiah 9 roam around our minds and hearts and lives today, we can prayerfully ponder our own thoughts...and be willing to change as the roller coaster of life takes us through the coming eleven months.  And may the traces of God's grace sustain you in that prayerful pondering.

Blessings and peace!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

And You Thought Names Today Were Strange

Click here to read Isaiah 8

So, we now meet Isaiah's second son whose name is not Immanuel, but Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.  And you thought people came up with strange names and spellings today.  His son's name means "quick to plunder and swift to spoil."  The name becomes a prophecy about what will happen to Judah and Jerusalem.  And in case we did not get that from the name, the rest of Isaiah 8 tells you that things are going to get bad, really bad.  Water is going to spill over the banks, hear in that images of Noah's Ark or even Genesis 1, when in the beginning it was God and the watery surging and slurping chaos hanging out together. Until God's Spirit surfed and sang out and creation sprung forth.  So, it make sense in times of brokenness to point out that even in Genesis 1 the watery chaos was never completely controlled.  Of course, we know that all too well as images from Super Storm Sandy continue to be broadcast on the news.

Even as the people try to rise up against the chaos, it is for naught.  We heard back in Isaiah 2 about the hope that people would no longer learn to wage war, but that hope remains distant for Isaiah and perhaps for us as well.  Instead, the people (and us today as well) know fear of the other and we stumble and we are held captive by our human ways.  Sometimes Isaiah's brutal honesty can be refreshing and sometimes it can simply cause my shoulders to slouch and for me to wonder, "What is the use?"

Then comes verse 19 about consulting the mediums and spiritualists who whisper and mutter.  Now, one could that that quite literally and we might think of people who log on to psychic to see what their future holds.  Or I remember as a kid how big ouija boards were and often came out at sleepovers.  But I also think how easily I am swayed by the whispers and mutters of culture today.  I see the Lexus commercial and think the way we show love is to buy something big.  I see the Burger King ad and think, "Why yes, I do deserve a break today."  Every where I turn there are whispers that I can feel better if I just find something to buy.

But part of what is so powerful about this passage is at the end, when the people are distraught and devastated it is then that they wonder, "Where is God?"  I know I can feel that way.  When things are great and laughter comes easy, I don't say, "I wonder where is God?"  Usually, those questions come in the midst of darkness and pain and brokenness.  Now, please do not hear me say that the question is a bad one.  Throughout the psalms are are laments, heartfelt cries of pain in the midst of brokenness. The psalms are what  Jesus even turned to on the cross .  So, there is certainly a place for crying out to God.  It is appropriate and honest.  And I do not think God just wants us to face suffering silently.  But I also wonder, about why I question God more in times of trouble?  To put that mathematically: as the amount of brokenness in my life increases, so does my pondering about God's presence.  And as that brokenness diminishes, so does my pondering about God's presence.  Again, I don't want this to come across as a criticism of anyone.  This is an honest assessment of my own faith.

That is why I find Isaiah so compelling.  He shines a light in some places that too often we don't expect polite religion to go.  He challenges me to consider my own actions and responses to God's presence (Immanuel).  And while I am still not sure of the name he gave his second son, what he has to say about my faith makes a whole of sense.

May the traces of God's grace sustain you and surround you this day.

Blessings and peace! 

How does God overcome divisions?

Click here to read Isaiah 7

On the surface this passage feels pretty ho-hum.  Sure, there is verse 14 about a young woman (which is a more preferable translation of the Hebrew) who will bear a child and the child will be named Immanuel (a name that means 'God is with us').  In these weeks after Christmas that is familiar to us and maybe we even heard this passage at the Christmas Eve service. Matthew in his narrative of Jesus birth actually quotes that verse.  What Isaiah is saying is that the birth is a sign.  But what is interesting to me is the way in which Isaiah names this birth as a sign.

In verse 1, we have a very short history lesson.  Israel (remember is the Northern Kingdom of the Promised Land) makes a political alliance with the nation of Aram, together they go into Jerusalem (the holy city) and try to over throw it.  Essentially, it would be like Wisconsin pairing up with Canada and trying to overtake Washington D.C.  The Promised Land was deeply divided in the time of Isaiah, North and South.

Within our own United States history we know that kind of division during the time of the Civil War, which is what is going on here in Isaiah.  For the Northern Kingdom to pair up with a foreign country and march into the city of Jerusalem where the temple was and where King David had ruled a united country is just painful, gut-wrenching and pretty well summarizes what I feel every time I watch the news recently.  How in the world can people continue to say and do things that cause such deep division in our country?  At the same time I know that it is not so much that history repeats itself as we never quite completely solve and resolve the problems of the past.  A professor of mine once told a story about speaking at a conference in the south and talking about the Civil War, only to have a participant come up afterwards to tell him that in the future he should call it "The War of Northern Aggression."  And that was a recent story!

The brokenness shakes us still today and Isaiah tells us the actions of the North shake the king and the people of the south like the wind shakes the trees.  And so God says to the king of the southern kingdom, "Go ahead and ask for a sign."  And the king essentially says, "Oh, I am not falling for that trick!"  In the midst of the fear it is hard to trust others and it is hard to trust God.  So God sends Isaiah and Isaiah's son, Shear-Jashub (a name that means a remnant will return) with a message about this child about to be born to a young woman.

One of the reasons why Christmas is so compelling is because there is such hope and possibility that we see in a tiny child, one who has her whole life before her.  Yet, I also know that having a baby is a LOT of responsibility.  To say God enters our world in the birth of a child is not just sappy sentimentality, but it is an almost radical statement about the 'weak force' of God. That God does not come into our lives like a bull in a china shop, but sometimes in the midst of quiet, subtle, and ways we often miss.  Isaiah promises the birth of a child.  It is up to discussion about whether Isaiah was referring to Jesus, or his own second son who we will meet in a coming chapter.  Yet, what Isaiah is reminding us that God's presence in our life does not always come in ways we can anticipate or in ways we can control.  I am sure the king of the southern kingdom would have preferred the sign of God be to increase his army or help him invent a weapon to protect.  But the 'weak force' God comes in the sign of child.

May we continue to ponder that mystery and truth prayerfully in these days after Christmas.  And may we be open to those subtle signs of the traces of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Worship Isaiah Style

Click here to read Isaiah 6

Each time I read this passage it makes me think of two of my favorite hymns: "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Here I Am, Lord".  Both hymns are based on this passage.  "Holy, Holy, Holy" invites us to join with the seraphim in singing out to God. "Here I am," is based on Isaiah's response to God's presence. Many of the prophetic books begin with the prophet encountering God in the first chapter. Here we are, already in the 6th chapter and the Word of God has already come to Isaiah on other occasions (see chapter 1-3).  Yet, when Isaiah is in the temple it is more than just a word from God.  Rather, what Isaiah experiences is an encounter with God. God present in a way that causes him to wonder about his calling as a prophet.  Hence the comment about being a man of unclean lips.  This causes one of the seraphim to bring over a hot coal to touch his lips.  To which I say, "Ouch!"  Within the Bible there are two natural elements that have cleansing power: water and fire.  Both are woven throughout the Bible at various times and places.  In Isaiah 6, fire becomes the one to cleanse Isaiah and reassure him that it will be okay.  So, Isaiah says, he will go.  And then he is entrusted with what might be the hardest sermon ever to preach.

Go to the people: they do not listen, they are cognitively challenged with hard as rock hearts.  That ought to win them over!  Isaiah wants some sign of hope too.  He pleads to know how long?  And God says until utter chaos (note the connection to Genesis 1) reigns in their land.  Again, not exactly the easiest sermon to preach or hear.

Part of what I love about Isaiah 6, besides it brutal honesty, is that it is the basis for Protestant worship.  We come in, like the seraphim, and we sing a song of praise.  Usually the first hymn in worship is upbeat and joyful.  After singing that hymn to each other in the presence of God, we, like Isaiah, realize that we have missed the mark in our relationship with God.  While I don't often start the opening prayer with "Woe is me," the sentiment is similar.  We don't always get things right and we need a place to name that honestly.  And even in our brokenness, God still calls out to us and sends us.  We hear God's Word through scripture (and hopefully on some Sundays also through the sermon, offering and closing hymn).  Then, we are sent out like Isaiah into this world where we do find people who will not listen to us, who don't understand us, and don't always love us.

Isaiah 6 not only inspires beautiful hymns for worship, it inspires our worship.  It becomes the routine we repeat Sunday after Sunday.  Like Isaiah in the temple, we need moments when we can sing together, confess together, be reassured together and be sent forth knowing that there is a community waiting for us next Sunday to do it all again.  I encourage you to break out your hymnal this week and sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy" or "Here I am, Lord."  I encourage you to re-read this invitation to worship before you come to church on Sunday.  I pray our worship this coming Sunday invites you into the presence of God!

Blessings and peace!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

When Grapes Go Bad

Click here to read Isaiah 5

Isaiah begins this chapter with a parable of a vineyard owner.  If that sounds familiar, it might be because Jesus told three parables that were set in a vineyard: Matthew 20 is the parable of a vineyard own who hires workers throughout the day but in the end pays all the workers the same amount causing no small amount of grumbling from those who worked all day.  Matthew 21:28 is about two sons who are told to go out and work in the vineyard - one says yes but does not go; the others says no but does go - and the question is, who was faithful?  Matthew 21:33 echoes the parable we have in Isaiah, where a landowner plants the vineyard, builds a tower and then goes away leaving it in the hands of tenants, who eventually try to take over the vineyard and become as Isaiah calls them, bad grapes.

Isaiah tells us he is going to sing a love song and it starts out in a way that would make Michael Buble smile.  The owner of the vineyard does everything possible to make this vineyard bear good fruit.  The owner clears all the stones from the ground.  I remember the first time I tried to plant a garden in New Hampshire, which is named the Granite State for a good reason.  Every time I pushed my shovel into the ground, I felt the resistance and heard the clunk of several rocks.  I tried to dig as many of the rocks out of the ground so that my tomatoes might prosper.  In the end that summer, my yield of rocks far out weighted my yield of tomatoes.  So, to say the owner cleared the rocks should not be over looked as some easy task.  It is arduous work to prepare the soil, especially in a desert.

The owner planted the top of the line seeds, the owner builds a wall (perhaps out of the stones that were pulled from the ground) and also a watch tower for protection.  But then this love song goes from a major key to a minor key; it goes from something sentimental that warms our hearts to a country song of love lost.  Because the grapes are no good at all.

Isaiah then says the vineyard and grapes are like the people of Israel and Judah, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  And because they are bad grapes there are consequences.  I have to be honest that I struggle with images of God be vengeful or angry.  I prefer the sentimental God.  And yet recently I read an author who suggested that perhaps our desire for God to be always loving and kind and not get upset at us makes God out to be like a bit senile, who only sees us through rose colored glasses and is willing to overlook even our most destructive and broken actions and say, "Ah, its okay."  The author says there are times we need to be held accountable, not with violence, but with an anger that says God knows we are better than our broken actions and hurtful words.

That makes sense to me because when I get upset with my kids, the question is not about whether I still love them, I do unceasingly.  But, I also have a hope that they will grow up to know responsibility and accountability.  I want them to know that actions and words have consequences.  And to be honest when I am upset with my kids those are some of the hardest and heart-wrenching times.

I don't know if I understand God's anger any better thinking about it that way.  I am somewhere in the messy middle. On the one hand I want God to instantly forgive my boneheaded mistakes but also I don't want what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," which was grace that came so easily and with so little demands that a person did not need to change at all.  When I say hurtful things or my actions cause brokenness, I want God to help me realize the way I missed the mark (which is really what sin means, "to miss the mark" or "to get off track").  I want God to be invested and engaged in my life and challenge me in a good way to grow into the image of God in which all of us are crafted.

There is a story about a priest in Russia who would go out into the streets late on Saturday night and take into his arms those who were drunk and say, "This is beneath you.  You were created to reflect the fullness of God." In the end, that is my image of the vineyard planting God, One who is willing to say when my actions or words become bad grapes, "This is beneath you.  You were created to reflect my fullness."

May the traces of God's grace be found in your life this day and as we gather tomorrow at the communion table and taste the fruit of the vine.

Blessings and peace!

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Remnant

This is a short chapter in Isaiah but still significant.  Yet, much like the hope of Isaiah 2 balanced out the brokenness of Isaiah 1, Isaiah 4 balances out the pain of Isaiah 3.  We start to see a rhythm that is reminiscent of Charles Dicken's beginning line in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  For Isaiah that was true.  Isaiah lived at a time when the kingdom had been divided in half.  There was a Northern Kingdom called Israel and a Southern Kingdom called Judah.  We know all too well today what can happen living in a place that is suppose to be "United" but is divided.  We hear constantly about 'red states' and 'blue states'.  We see our Congressional leaders caught in a vicious and seemingly endless cycle of partisan politics.  We know what it is like to live in a divided put it quite simply, it hurts.  We want better.  

Eventually, the Northern Kingdom will be conquered and then the Southern Kingdom too will fall.  Hence, it was the worst of times.  But Isaiah also wants to point out the traces of God's grace, the places where God's presence, like a weak force, is still affecting and effecting lives even in the midst of being ruled by a foreign country.  Isaiah in this passage points out how women, who did not enjoy much social status in Isaiah's day, take charge and control.  Women claim their right as equally created in God's image (Genesis 1:27).  

Perhaps that Genesis passage reminds us that even from the beginning there has been a division within humanity.  We are two separate genders, we are different.  Those differences can be a blessing, they can remind us of our limitations and that in God's vastness God claims both females and males as reflecting God's image.  Yet, differences can also make us feel vulnerable or like we need to defend our way and our ideas as better.  

So many religious fights today, and even the fights recorded in the Bible, are often about a difference that people felt they had to defend their way as better.  Isaiah says even in the midst of such brokenness, there is a remnant of hope, or what I call a trace of grace.  The remnant left in Israel and Judah after it fell to Babylon were not the rich and powerful, they were not the righteous or influential.  The remnant were the people who Babylon did not really care about and certainly did not feel threatened by.  They were left behind because they did not pose a threat to Babylon's power.

Yet in God's upside down, inside out world, Isaiah proclaims it is the remnant who show God's presence most gloriously and beautifully.  I encourage you to think about this image of the remnant over the coming weeks, especially as we listen to four sermons from the beginning of Luke's gospel in church.  So often in Luke, Jesus proclaims that God is concerned about the least and lowly and lost.  Or to use the image from Isaiah, the remnant.  God has always been concerned with the remnant, even from the moment God called Moses to lead a rag-tag group of indentured servants out of Egypt.  And Isaiah picks up on that image of wandering in the wilderness when he writes about the "cloud of smoke by day and the fire by night" which is from Exodus 13:21.

Isaiah reminds us that God cares about the remnant, those who fill left out and left behind.  God cares about the rag tag people who feel like they are living in the midst of division and brokenness.  And because God cares we are called to care too.  Called to care for those outside the church who feel broken and forgotten, called to care for each other because we can feel that way too.  So may the traces of God's grace be felt and seen in our midst this day in ways that are beautiful and glorious.

Blessings and peace!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Just when you thought it was safe

Click here to read Isaiah 3

Just when the hope of Isaiah 2 starts to swell within us, Isaiah 3 lands with all the grace of an elephant in our laps.  Isaiah writes about God judging us, taking our food and water, oppression, and brokenness.  You can hear the thud with each passing verse and by the end I echo the immortal words of Charlie Brown, "Good grief!  Why in the world am I reading this again?"

Reading Isaiah 3 gets me thinking about my images of God.  What do you imagine when those three letters sit down or spill forth from our lips on Sunday morning?  What does God look like?  Do you picture the ubiquitous God of the Sistine Chapel with the wind swept white hair and the beard and the flowing robe?  Maybe God in your mind is more like Jesus' description in Matthew 23:37, where the sacred is like a hen gathering her children under her wing.  Maybe God for you transcends human gender.  Maybe the bigger question is not about a picture of God, but how is it that God acts? 

Is God involved in everything in the world from finding parking spots to granting good grades on tests?  Or is God disconnected almost to the point of being disinterested in our lives?  Of course those are the two polar opposite points of view.  Most of us fall more or less somewhere in-between.  I like to think of God's presence being interwoven in my life, but I question God's presence at some points (and I mean besides those moments when I don't get a front row spot at the grocery store).  I wonder why God doesn't intervene in tragedies like the most recent one in Sandy Hook, CT?  Or why God can't seem to sort out Congress, which may be a problem too big even for God!

One of the images that helps me think about this comes from John Caputo, who describes God as a "weak force".  To be sure, I like images of God that seem to stretch and bend logic, ideas about God that make me stop and be silent for awhile to see if I really understand.  To describe God as a 'weak force' does that to me, it slows me down and jars me a bit - sort of like this passage from Isaiah 3.  To be sure, I don't think the God Isaiah imaged was a weak force at all for him.  For Isaiah, God was directly responsible for events in the world.  But, for me, I want to hold in tension human power and God's power, but the two often collide.  I think human power was seen in Sandy Hook.  I think human power rules the day in Washington.  Yet, even in the midst of brokenness, there is still a glimmer or glimpse...or a 'trace' of God's grace.  

God's grace is a force...a force I feel when I taste the bread and wine at communion.  A force that lingers when I baptize a baby.  But it is not a force that will strong arm me to act a certain way.  It is the force of invitation and the force of words and the force of love...all of which can be and often are ignored and easily dismissed in our world today.  Hence, God is a weak force who spoke through a stuttering Moses to free people, a through a wise judge named Deborah, through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah (who thought he was too young to be a prophet) and ultimately through the birth of a baby who would not congregate an army to over throw Rome but be crucified on the very symbol of Roman rule.  And then come back, be resurrected and appear not to crowds but a bunch of scared disciples who were then told to go tell the Good News.  So, while I appreciate so much about Isaiah, this is one place I respectfully disagree.  God is the one who brings the proud down?  Maybe.  But not with a violent arm, but with a grace that is a weak force that can change the whole world and my whole life.

May the traces of God's grace stir in your life like a weak force today and for days to come!

Blessings and peace!

Click here to read Isaiah 2

If Isaiah 1 shines a light on places where our relationship with God has broken down and invites us into a conversation or an engaged dialogue with God, then Isaiah 2 is the rationale and hope for such a conversation.  The truth is because Isaiah 1 is so in-your-face honest, it might be easy to feel a bit glum after reading it.  The deeper truth is that it is quite easy to get discouraged, especially now.  The holidays are over, Christmas has come and gone, it is a new year and yet it seems like some of the problems we thought would get left behind when we put up the new calendar followed us right into 2013.  For us living in the upper Midwest we know the truth of what it means to live in the midst of the "Bleak Midwinter" and that midwinter lingers...and lingers...and lingers sometimes longer than what we want.  And so, when Isaiah shines a light on the brokenness of our connections with God, I get why sometimes people want to throw their hands up in the air, exasperated and wonder if there is anything we can do?

Isaiah promises that there is something we can do.  Isaiah hints at a theme he will pick up again in chapter 11 about the "Peaceable Kingdom".  A place where violence is no more, where all are equal.  And what I appreciate about Isaiah is that the response of the people to this vision is not, "Golly-gee this is swell".  But people run and hide!  Talk about being honest and knowing humanity well. For all that we talk about an end to violence and wanting peace and equality, the reality is we are all pretty invested and comfortable with the status quo.  And so there is a tension within us.

I remember sitting in a sociology class in college and the professor asked, "How many of you would give up what you have so that the poor would be brought to an equal economic and social standing with you?"  To be clear, I went to a private college and we were all fairly well off in that classroom.  Only a few hands went up in the air.  In the conversation that followed most people were glad to help those in need as long as it did not hinder or infringe too much on their way of life.  This is why Jesus' response to the rich ruler is so difficult for us (Luke 18:18-30).  We want to share, we want to be generous, but we also like to be in control and know that at the end of the day we can take care of ourselves.  There is a tension within us.

Yet, there is hope in Isaiah 2, because he honestly asks us to notice where in our lives are we hiding right now from God's realm in our midst?  Where have I stuck my head in the ground or fled from God's call to live in peace?  Sometimes it is in my relationships with others, sometimes it is how I use the financial resources entrusted to my care, and sometimes it is that I still prefer the hierarchy of the world than the truth that in God's eyes all are equal.  Those truths challenge me.  At the same time, Isaiah 2 with its hopeful tone reminds me things can be different and I want to talk more about that.  Talk to God, talk to you about this tension, about the realities of today and our hopes for tomorrow.

And one finally place of hope I hear in Isaiah 2 is a reminder that it is not all up to me.  Isaiah does not say it is up to humanity to establish this holy mountain, that is up to God.  Our task is to notice the mountain, heed the invitation to go.  And how do we notice the mountain and respond to the God's invitation?  We go back to Isaiah 1 and look at the way we worship and the way our worship extends into every aspect of our lives.

May you notice the traces of God's grace and may those traces infuse and immerse you this day in the One who sees you and every person you brush up against today as "Beloved."

Blessings and peace!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Okay, so maybe Isaiah does not have the most optimistic opening to his book in the Bible. He is a bit on the deary side. He is a bit like some person giving a gloom and doom sermon on the street that causes you to avert your eyes, study the sidewalk and pick up the pace to get past.  Somewhere around verse 6 with talk of sores that won't heal maybe you started wondering, why?  And then the whole city goes up in flames and you wonder about my sanity in wanting to comment about this book.  

I will be honest that the first time I read this Isaiah did not seem like the sort of warm, cozy slipper-like faith I often yearn for to comfort me in these difficult times.  Yet, I think that is the point.  Isaiah says that something is broken in our relationship with God.  We don't like to hear that, but I know there is truth in that sentence.  I cannot pretend that just because I post this blog or say a quick prayer or go to church on Sunday that I have somehow pacified God.  Isaiah takes our worship to task when we go through the motions.  And let's face it, there are moments when we have mumble our way through the call to worship or start thinking of what to have for lunch during the silent prayer or glanced down at our watch to see how long the sermon is or if we are going to make it home by kickoff. 

Worship is not the only place we nurture our relationship with God.  In fact, Isaiah says in verses 16-17 that it is our actions toward the least, lowly, and lost in this world that will truly be a place where we can reconcile with God.  (By the way, in Luke where Jesus is constantly reaching out to the least, lowly and lost in this world, Isaiah is one place where perhaps he got idea.  Perhaps that is why Jesus reads from Isaiah in his first sermon).  At the close of worship, I often encourage people to see 11 am on Sunday not as the end of the worship event but as the beginning of our worship in the world.  Again, that is what Isaiah is inviting us into.  What we say to our co-worker's sarcastic comment about our new shirt or how we treat the clerk when we return that sweater we got from Christmas, what if that is every bit as sacred as what we do on Sunday morning?  What if worship becomes not a place where we dump all those regrets and feel guilty so we can go out and keep repeating the same miscues and missteps, but a place where we are reminded this one hour is how every hour should be?  

That is why, in spite of Isaiah's perhaps too honest and in-our-face assessment of our human situation in the opening verses, I still appreciate this book of the Bible.  I don't want worship to be an escape. Worship can be a safe haven sure but with an awareness of the storms of life.  I want worship to be the place where we as the people of God "settle the matter" (vs. 18).  Actually, I prefer the NRSV where God says, "come, let us argue this out." Maybe we think arguing does not have a place in church, certainly not in worship.  But arguing does not need to be shouting or trying to win points.  Arguing can mean being engaged and invested in our relationship.  That is what God invites us into: an engaged relationship that makes all the difference.  That is what worship can be in the best sense: an engaged way to nurture that relationship.  

So maybe there is more to Isaiah than sores and fire and references to blood, maybe there is something that can help us see the traces of God's grace in our lives that makes worship part of our life every day.

Happy 2013 and God's blessings!

God's Calling - We don't have it all figured out

  A few weeks ago, I offered the analogy of the Slinky as a serendipitous example of the ways calling can go off course and still end up in ...