Hearing and Believing

There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16).  In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper.

Easter
Sunday, March 27, 2016

Being a Cleveland Cavs fan by marriage, I was intrigued to learn that the Republican convention will be held in their basketball court. Somehow the wood floor that hosts hundreds of hours each year of elbows, shoving, and intentional fouling, will be covered over so that neat rows of chairs and a podium may exist in the midst of the arena. If the Republicans have a contested convention, some are promising that there will be more blood sport happening that week than what even the NBA allows. I pray not. Politics, like religion, should not be a competitive enterprise.

Gladiators, not Politicians, should fight in the arena

Outsiders

It is hard to celebrate Palm Sunday, and read Psalm 118, with today’s newspaper in your hand without reflecting upon the term outsider. The stone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone. Is this being said about Jesus, Christopher Columbus, or Donald Trump? You form a mental picture of Jesus leading his noisy throng up to the gates of Jerusalem. The religious and political leadership of the nation is standing on a parapet high above, and crying out for someone to bar the door.

Palm Sunday
Tuesday, March 15, 2016

I saw a photo of Rosa Parks in a display for International Woman’s Day and thought of the qualities that made her a great leader. We know now that she developed gradually into her role, attending workshops and reflecting carefully about the problem of segregation and how to effectively demonstrate in opposition to it, long before she refused to give up her bus seat on December 1st, 1955. Though she was always clear that “she was tired of giving in” — not physically tired — her demeanor and method of protest fostered sympathy and a consideration of our shared humanity, even among her opponents.

Rosa Parks for President

Rivers in the Wilderness

There is a wonderful refrain in Isaiah 43, “I will make [for you], a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”  This is the promise that God gives to us just before we launch into a new adventure. This is the promise that we hear just before something traumatic upsets the fruit basket of our lives. It’s Lent and the disciples are following Jesus towards Jerusalem. Things are about to get interesting. For the last three years, the Jesus movement has been enjoying the quiet hills of  Galilee and steadily growing as people come out for picnics with the greatest story teller that ever lived.

Lent 4
Sunday, March 13, 2016

Bill Easum recently wrote that the pastors who serve churches that have no hope of growth are wasting their time. This sentiment, often repeated by bishops and leaders who should know better, reminds me of Simon Newman, the college president who urged his staff to "drown them bunnies" when they were dealing with a student who may not make it all the way to their four year degree. The assumption of the college president was that his school existed to profitably collect four years of tuition and maintain an excellent rating with their accreditation agency.

How valued are the people in your pews?

Sin & Punishment

Let’s talk about sin. When the wayward youth in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son takes the money and runs, he sins in three ways: first against the mores of his village and second against his parents, that is, the relationship that he was commanded by God when He spoke through Moses saying, “Honor you father and your mother.” Regarding these first two sins, Jesus would be the first to grant a deferment to the youth if the reason for his trip was to fulfill his inner calling or to come and be a disciple of the Lord. But alas, the kid only wanted to get away to chase fast women and drink sloe gin.

Lent 4
Sunday, March 6, 2016

Joe:  OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.”  During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years.

Is this caution flag on your next church?

The Randomness of Tragedy and the Richness of Grace

The events of this past week reminded me of what Thomas Friedman wrote about how people adjusted to the random horror of the civil war in Lebanon. The conflict reached the point where mortar rounds fell indiscriminately on both the rich and the poor neighborhoods of Beirut, on both the Christians and the Muslims, on both the loyalists and the rebel sympathizers. It didn’t matter which side you were on, you died. Jesus was in a similar Middle-eastern city when people asked him to comment the unfortunate victims of Pontus Pilate’s killing spree.

Lent 3
Sunday, February 28, 2016

Yesterday we laid to rest our faithful dog, Bella. She was a small shepherd mix, with a gentle disposition, who loved to travel. She suffered more than she needed to over this winter because she refused to take her medication, and I ran out of ways to sneak the pill into the food that she was losing interest in eating.  As we held the graveside service, I realized that I had crossed a line. Before Bella adopted us, I was uncomfortable offering up to the Lord requests concerning the welfare of pets. “There are no cats in heaven. And no, Lassie doesn’t have a soul,” I would say.

Dog telling me to simply enjoy this day

God is Sufficient

The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. It may be that someone, or an organization, is oppressing you. You may be driven out of your home or separated from those you love. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you the one person that matters most to you.

Lent 2
Sunday, February 21, 2016

In Genesis 2:20, Adam was given the task of naming all of the creatures, and so it is said, science was birthed. In almost any subject, advanced study requires learning the precise names of things. Potters learn a vast number of words to describe the hue, texture, and luster of various glazes. If they say, “its only words,” they will condemn themselves to an incredible amount of wasted time and fruitless experiments before creating anything of beauty. How much more so, the art of living, even an ordinary life, in the midst of a complex society.

Church leaders need to learn how to speak about minorities

Psalms for Lent

Because they don’t provide the evangelical fervor of Paul, or the face to face encounter with Christ of the Gospels, many pastors don’t preach the Psalms. Yet, the Psalter provides the steady middle way of spiritual formation. Few people leave worship thinking that the responsive reading of Psalm 91 was the best part of the hour, but in their heart, the psalm is often the most resonate voice. So, it may be good to not only make reference to the psalms throughout Lent, but also wrestle with how these ancient poems help us to grow as Christ’s disciples and spiritually integrated persons.

Lent 1
Sunday, February 14, 2016

This morning, there was news about a french chef who committed suicide after losing one of the Micheline Stars that had been awarded to his restaurant. The commentators spoke about the eighteen hour work day that chefs/owners regularly put in and the competitive grind of the business. Whether you become a doctor, a cook, a lawyer, or an importer of fancy candlesticks, someone will say to you, “If you want to succeed in this business, you need to give 110 percent.” You will hear that and interpret it to mean that your career is worth 9, 13, or 18 hours of your life each day.

This life is worth more than a Micheline Star

The Passing of Old Religion

Under the old system of religion, religious leaders were called reverend (as if they were to be revered for their higher degree of holiness), those who prayed or spoke with God were thought to have halos or skin that glowed, and keeping track of all the petty laws and rituals of orthodox belief was a full time job. Moses represents the old religion when he veils his face. Many of us represent old religion when we expect people to treat us as holy people just because we spend an inordinate amount of time in church. Hear the good news; in Jesus Christ we are all equal inheritors of holiness.

Epiphany 5
Transfiguration Sunday
Sunday, February 7, 2016

Please don't tell that story

I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time... but he only stayed with a foreigner

Jesus has a way of telling stories that no one wants to hear. He is like that sister-in-law at the family reunion who gathers the young teens and tells them how their grandfather drank his way into an early grave. In Luke 4:21-30, Jesus is in the pulpit at Capernaum, and he goes reaching for an illustration to help him make his point. He reaches back to the Old Testament and tells about the great prophet, Elijah, once took shelter in the home of Syrian widow. Elijiah was a refugee and the Syrian people, including this defenseless widow with her orphan son, took him in. Now, stand in the pulpit of your church and tell the same story.

Epiphany 4
Sunday, February 3, 2013

Many of the politicians that I’m not voting for have one thing in common, they distrust science. They may be respected physicians, but they’ll balk at the fundamental theories that have enabled science to provide us with genetic testing, and one day, will cure cancer. Or, they may be savvy business pros, but they’ll ignore the environmental red-ink of climate change, or the science that says that this debt cannot be deferred. This primary season has be marked by a constant stream of bogus statistics, created by candidates to support their pet policies. Scientists have a term for this, they call it Confirmation Bias.

Simple answers are the easy and broad path

Vocations

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

I like the word, 'vocation.' It is built upon the Latin for calling and reminds us that what we do in life, whether it is a paid career or a volunteer service around the neighborhood, is done because of what God spoke into being when he made us. We are called and we respond. I also can’t help but notice what Paul says about our vocations in 1 Corinthians 12. He says that they are related to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts are given to everyone of our members. Many use them to build up the church.

Epiphany 3
Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Facebook friend of mine has a really big camera. He took it to Italy and posted a picture that he took of a second story window. Imagine this; on crowded cobblestone street, he has set up his tripod and the camera, which is about the size of a microwave oven. It has bellows and takes pictures on sheets of film that are as big as a paperback book. It has a special feature that allows you to raise the lens to correct for the natural tendency of buildings to go all pointy at the top when you look up. The parallel lines in my friend’s photo of a crumbling Italian building, did not converge.

Taken from street level of a 2nd story  window

Not my time, not my wine

Jesus seems to be disrespecting his mother at the wedding in Cana (John 2:4). She asks him to do a miracle in front of everyone. “Jesus this is your cue,” Mary says. “The wine has run out and our family is responsible.” His response is, “Not my wine, not my time.” Later in John 7, he will tell his disciples that everyone expects him to do miracles on cue, but it really isn’t his time, yet. There is a messianic kingdom coming. We won’t always be scrambling to keep our kids fed.

Epiphany 2
Sunday, January 17, 2016

“In the way we regard our children, our spouses, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers, we choose to see others either as people like ourselves or as objects.They either count like we do or they don't. In the former case we regard them as we regard ourselves, we say our hearts are at peace toward them. In the latter case, since we systematically view them as inferior, we say our hearts are at war.” 

Orthodox priests standing between Ukrainian protesters and Ukrainian police

Fire and Rain

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. Through the flame, you will go. But it will not consume you.

The passage from Isaiah about God promising to be with us through hell and high water is almost as famous as James Taylor’s song: 

I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again.

Epiphany 1
Sunday, January 10, 2016

Passively Entering the New Year

To write well, I avoid the passive voice. Or to put it the wrong way, my writing is becoming less passive. Yet, when Paul greets the church at Ephesus with the rich and sonorous, ‘blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ everything he says for the rest of the page is passive. It has to be this way. God already is fully blessed by His nature and totally the gift-giver in our relationship with Him.

Christmas 2
New Years
Sunday, January 3, 2016

Holiday Pilgrimage

We only have one childhood story about Jesus, that of his amazing the elders in the temple. I’m not really sure what this story tells us about Jesus, or his Home-Alone-ish family, but its context deserves some reflection. A couple times a year, people would pilgrimage to the temple. Diaspora Jews would make these trips less frequently, perhaps, once or twice in a life-time. We have little in today’s world that is equivalent to this. As someone who cares about mental health, family systems, and healthy transitions, I think this is our loss.

Christmas 1
Sunday, December 27, 2015

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