Archive for 2018

Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Paul tells us to "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience."(Colossians 3:12). Sounds like good advice for the new year. But how do we do that? I think there are three simple rules for bringing our lives into alignment with what Paul is talking about: 
1st Rule) Always be compassionate.
2nd Rule) Awareness beats ignorance (or always try to understand as much as you can).
3rd Rule) The ends never justify the means (Don't forsake your principles or good behavior to get your own way).

That's it. Just three rules and you can live 2019 with the peace of Christ in your heart. Let me show how each of these rules is demonstrated at this holiday time.

First, Always (yes Always) be compassionate. Christ came into our world as a living, breathing, demonstration of God's compassion. He lives where we live, sharing our joys and our sorrows. As Christ's brothers and sisters, we should always seek to understand the experiences and difficulties of others and live compassionately.

Second, Awareness beats ignorance. It's a lazy and dangerous thing to depend upon others to know things that you should know. You have a right to know what our politicians are doing in our name around the world. Are we bringing the peace that the angels sang of, or are we letting someone with the morals of King Herod set our foreign policy? In matters of religion, you should never be content to let your pastor know more about spiritual things than you do. The bible is an open book. Read it. When Jesus was 12, he went to the temple and questioned the elders. I don't think this means that he came into this world with all the answers crammed into his head. God gave his son an inquiring and intuitive mind. He gave one to you too. Have you lost it?

The third rule you've probably heard many times before. The ends never justify the means. But have you ever thought about it? At Christmastime we tell our kid that they can be honest about their ends, or the gifts that they want (tell Santa your ends/wants). But we caution them that the only way to get what they want is to "be good." Being good is the means to getting your ends. What we don't tell our kids is that "being good" is a pretty good "means" or process for life. There are certain means or processes that simply work. If I want to make rice, the process involves measuring the rice, measuring the water, and measuring the cooking time. If I get rushed or lazy, if I let some other end dictate what I'm doing, the rice burns, ends up sticky or soupy. If I let the end of wanting the rice served in half the time ruin my cooking behavior, my end will justify a set of bad means. And bad means always lead to trouble.

When will we learn this? Taken together, the three rules are a process or means for having a good new year. The process begins with compassion. It continues on with seeking to understand. It comes to maturity with examining the behaviors and means that we take in living every day. There are no short-cuts to character. Good character is built, one faithful process and well ordered day at a time. The recipe for next year involves discipleship. Learning how to do things right. Seeking to know what lies behind everything. And always, being compassionate.

God with us is God being compassionate
Christmastide 1
Luke 1:46-55
God has filled the hungry with good things

Karl Barth, the most prominent theologian of the most violent century of recorded human history (let us hope that our current century doesn’t take that honor from the twentieth century), was concerned about the church becoming too churchy. Most congregations in the 1950s & 60s were attempting to isolate their worship services from what was happening in the world around them. Then as today, violence was being fostered by our government officials. There was hatred, racism, and unnecessary poverty on the rise in our community. But the wisdom from most denominational leaders was, and is today, “Mind your own business and you’ll grow as a church.” In contrast, Barth says, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need… the Bible and the Newspaper” [in our worship].

But you don’t care what Karl Barth says. Do you care what Mary, the young girl chosen to give birth to the son of God in our world says? She could have turned inward and focused on her personal feelings about the miracle of Christ's birth. She could have forgotten the violence and class warfare of her nation. Mary did not expect to give birth to Jesus in a vacuum. She has this clear insight; Immanuel, God with us, breathes the same fetid air that we do. 

So, she sings a song of warning and a prayer to God. She sings a song that shows her hope that God will not restrain his son or keep the activities of this special child isolated within a pristine bubble of religion. She sings:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

(Luke 1:52-53)

The world that Jesus came into had a religious problem set in a social context which should sound familiar. Israel's religious leaders, along with those who were wealthy, work together to form the local level of government. So, while the Romans owned the region and the family of Herod sat on the throne, it was the local priest, the wealthy landowner, and the Sanhedrin (seventy rich men) in Jerusalem, that had the greatest influence on how the widow in your village was treated, or who could be considered outcast and why. Even though they were not kings, the nation's religious leaders had great power. They could remind the people of God’s love for justice and the poor. They could read in public the words of Isaiah and the other prophets, where the foundation for a compassionate society is laid out. But instead, most religious leaders then spoke about lesser things; kosher laws, and the formulas surrounding a good temple sacrifice. Those entrusted with God’s word, divided their time between brown-nosing the secular rulers and blaming the poor for their poverty.

Jesus came at Christmastime to a world where religion no longer served the people. Mary sang her hope of a different order. What about today? We live in a time of social upheaval and political polarization of equal magnitude to that of the first century. We hear of wars around the planet fueled by causes that we haven’t taken the time to understand. We have conceded to social media the moral high ground that the ancient Sanhedrin in Jerusalem once occupied, and they have filled our cellphones with Russian trolls and spammy bots. We now find it reasonable for political leaders to lie all the time, and yet be very religious. In our news feeds and newspapers, we turn past the stories of children dying of thirst at our border, in order to read our horoscopes. Then after a week of this, we come to worship expecting to enjoy an hour of further isolation from reality and God's plan for a compassionate world. 

We need to really hear what Mary sang:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; 

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 

and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, 

and sent the rich away empty.


In Bible times, widows had to glean to find grain to eat
Advent 4
Philippians 4:4-7
Isaiah 9:2
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

So, the Apostle Paul is in prison and he writes to people who care about him and know that he's getting a bum rap. I hear him saying, "Rejoice with me. Not because I think I'm getting out soon. I may die in here. The food here is consistently awful. It's damp and there are rats. But, Rejoice. Why? Jesus is near. And Jesus is coming again soon. And because right now in my prison cell he is near to me. I can rejoice even here." This is the deep message of Advent. One that so often gets lost in the tinsel and jingle of our holiday preparations. Jesus hasn't magically made things better. In fact, Paul was much worse off for having come to know Jesus. But, Jesus being near is our joy, our light in the darkness, our hope even in prison. 

This is the deep message of life. It is not our circumstances that make us joyful. It is our connection to what is life-giving, eternal, and true. When we find Jesus -- that is, really find Jesus, then our hope becomes real, even in a prison cell. We hear this in the prophets of old, a voice cries out of the dry, desolate, isolated, wilderness saying, "Comfort, comfort my people, God is near." That passage in Isaiah chapter 40, speaks of a road being built, a highway for our travel with God. It doesn't say that this smooth road already exists for us in our lives. We are still broken, desolate, separated from the things we think we need to have. We are still refugees in this world. But, God is near. 

And again, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned... [and they] rejoice." (Isaiah 9:2, 3). Paul has to acknowledge the reality of his prison cell. Isaiah has to admit that God's people are in darkness. We have to say that this is for many of us, the most depressing time of the year -- at least I find it the most inconvenient and disruptive time for my attempts to live within my means. Our spiritual lives are under brutal attack in these weeks before Christmas. But... Rejoice, Jesus is near. God is building a highway for us to travel with together with him.

Got that? Then you are ready to hear what Paul says next in Philippians 4. He says that we should become gentle people -- the Greek word here means to be persistently kind and compassionate. The kind of goodness that doesn't rub off no matter how badly people treat you. Why should we be this way? Paul says because, "the Lord is near." One translation puts it "at hand." So hold out your arm. Look how close that hand is to you. Jesus is at your hand. Rejoice. Be unstoppably gentle. 

Joyful words written from Jail
Advent 3
Remember those in Prison
Malachi 3:1-4
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap.

The Jesus we think of as we prepare for Christmas is always meek and mild. But the Jesus that the prophets predict is a bit more apocalyptic.  Malachi asks the question. "Who can survive his coming?" How do we reconcile the Jesus of "O little town of Bethlehem" and the claim that God's incarnation will be like "A refiner's fire"? As we do our advent candles are we counting down the weeks until we get beaten, bleached, into put hot water like laundry? Jesus will come this Christmas like a man doing laundry the old fashion way. Back in bible times, the "fuller" that we hear Jesus referred to, took the new wool cloth from the loom and boiled it with alkali and ash until all the vermin were dead. Then he beat the cloth on the rocks by the river until it was fluffy and full (why he's called a fuller) and then let it bake dry in the hot sun. That's how you take the matted hair of the sheep that grows all year in the dust and dung of the wilderness and make it fit for a king to wear. Jesus comes to prepare us for the kingdom of God. Jesus did not come into our world to give us a cute Christmas story. He came to save sinners, of which I am a good example. And he came to transform the world. Not an easy task when the world we have settled for loves the glitz and glitter of the commercial Christmas. Our world is corrupt, ignores the cries of the poor, and makes compromises with the truth. Jesus isn't going to be meek and mild this Advent.

How is Jesus like a refiner's fire or the fuller's wash-tub? In my own life Jesus appears as the refiner's fire when my problems and misdeeds have become too great for me to ignore. It is like what they say at AA, "I've come to believe that it will take a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity." That's when Malachi's Jesus becomes good news.

This got me thinking of the words of Scott Peck, "It is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually."

Jesus comes as the refiner's fire and the fuller's washing machine to get us to face our problems head on. Advent is a time of sober reflection. We say yes to the coming of our higher power.

Will we see the Refiner's fire this Advent?
Advent 2
Luke 21:25-36

If you have been coming to church for a few years you may have noticed something. As we roll into Advent, and we count down the weeks until Christmas Eve and the first coming of Christ, there are always a few scriptures thrown into Advent that deal with the second coming of Christ. It's as if the first coming and second coming of Christ are tied together. I like what I heard someone say recently, that the second coming of Christ is us. When we show love to our neighbor, who may not know much about Jesus, what that neighbor sees in us is Jesus, making a second appearance. The second coming of Christ is literally, us.

In Luke 21:25-36 Jesus tells his people that times are going to be bad when he comes a second time. Sea levels will be rising, fires raging, and families all over the world will be running away from wars and persecution. Well, sounds like today. Do you suppose that Jesus will come a second time into this world as you and I? That depends upon whether you and I will choose to be Christ-like. You see, there are two options; you can be worried and afraid, or you can be watchful and Christ-like. As the saying goes, you can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution.

Jesus knows that his disciples are worried. They see the great temple that Jesus predicts will be destroyed. They are caught up in all the bad news. So, what does Jesus do. He tells a parable about a fig tree. He says, “Look at the way the trees of this world keep on doing good and making figs, and apples, and acorns. So, you should be. Watch for me and don’t get caught up in the bad news. For now, you are the second coming of Christ.” 

World fell apart in 70 AD, temple destroyed... Jesus seen in his people, though
Advent 1
John 18:33-37
Jesus says about his kingdom, "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth."

Let me warn you that this blog is political. But because the politics is two thousand years old, I guess its safe to think about as you prepare for Christ the King Sunday. In John 18:33-37, Pilate wants to know if Jesus is after the nation's crown. Pilate has seen hundreds of revolutionaries, or as they are called, "Zealots." These people want to put another king on the throne. One who isn't a member of the murderous family of Herod, or a puppet of Rome. "Give us our nation back," these Zealots are crying. In a literal sense, they are nationalists. Many of the Zealots of Jesus' day had in mind a particular ethnic and religious demographic when they thought of their country. They hated what was happening to their country since the Sadducees took over the priesthood, and the Herodians the throne, and the Romans everything else. So, if you want to picture the Zealots of Jesus' day, think of them like the men carrying Tiki torches in Charlottesville, or the man who came into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. They are hateful thugs. So are all nationalists -- the history of the twentieth century is blood-drenched with examples.

            Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you king of the Jews?" He isn't asking Jesus if he is the ruler of the Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem, because Pilate knows that he, himself, wears that crown. He isn't asking Jesus if he is the king of Jewish people who are living near the Sea of Galilee, because Herod Antipas is ruler there. Pilate is asking if Jesus is a nationalist. He says, "Are you one of those 'messiah-type' kings that the Zealots are rallying around?" Pilate knows that these nationalists are dividing the country. He can't govern with these people running amok.

            Listen now to Jesus' answer:

            "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting [doing violent things]... For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth..."

            Real kingdoms require three things: 1) A legitimate process for selecting the ruler, 2) a commitment to Truth, and 3) the authority to bring about Justice.  Zealot nationalists will never have a real king. Not because they choose the wrong people -- many of them backed Jesus and one was even allowed to be a disciple -- but because they choose violence over legitimate political process (voting), choose slogans and conspiracy theories over reasoned discussion, and are not willing to back Justice for all.

            Jesus' Kingdom of God is real. 1) God has chosen a process that involves our participation. For now, we have to choose Jesus to be the king of our lives. Where Jesus is loved, he is king. 2) Transparency and truthfulness are core values in the Christian gospel. 3) The justice of God's kingdom involves embracing even those who believe differently, are of a different ethnicity or national origin, or choose their life-partners differently than we do. 

        Pilate is confused by this. He asks, "What is truth?" because he can see no difference between Jesus and the Zealot, nationalist, bandit, Barabbas that he has in a holding cell awaiting execution. Still today, we struggle to tell people that our king Jesus is different from what they see in the news. Jesus weeps, as we do, for the lies and violence that still walks our world. 

Pilate is skeptical and pragmatic, so are our neighbors
Christ the King
Pentecost 29
Psalm 16
I say to the LORD, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you." (Psalm 16:1)

Fall is a good time to reflect on two things, where we make our current life and where we plan to be for eternity. Psalm 16 begins by speaking of a choice: "I say to the Lord, 'you are my [God],'" and "Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows." It's fall and I have a choice. I can prepare my yard for winter; raking leaves, tilling the dead garden into the soil, repairing windows and gutters, folding away the hammock which went the whole lazy summer unused. Each change of the seasons brings tasks that can ground our humility. We root ourselves in simple thankfulness. It wearisome to rake and rake, and to hear the wind wail at night, knowing it is replenishing the yard with leaves from the neighbor's trees. But, my soul is grateful to be living in this time and place. I say to the one who designed my neighbor's maple trees to be so prodigious, "you are my God." 

What would it be like to make the other choice, that is to choose another god? It would be to consider this God-created world as our enemy. It would be to complain about the mundane challenges God has designed into our human experience. It would be to resent our illnesses and disabilities, yet paradoxically, to complain that God didn't give us enough time on earth. It would be for the pot to complain to the potter, "why have you made me this way?" When our neighbor, borrows our rake and returns it weeks later rusty and with broken tines, do we curse this one who like ourselves is made in God's image? When we call him a fool, are we not choosing for another god?

What if we decide to make as much money as we can so that we can hire a yard service to douse our manicured lawn with chemicals in the spring and summer, and then vacuum our leaves in the fall? Or worse yet, what if we go south as soon as the autumn comes? Are we not at all concerned about what our God might have in mind for us in this place? Now, I'm meddling. But you know, I am hesitant to install a dishwasher for fear that it will take away the time I spend each evening at the sink in meditation. 

What does Psalm 16 mean when it says, " hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage." Perhaps it means a different thing for each person. Not everyone is blessed with fall leaves. Some live with daily pain. Others are stuck with a hostile work environment. Yet when we become grateful enough to see God in the boundary lines of our lives, then we see the choice, and know what it means to call the one who designed this day and season, our Lord and God. This is Psalm 16's answer to the question, "Where do we chose to live our current life?"

Then Palm 16 moves to the next question by saying, “Therefore my heart is glad... because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead.” Simply put, God loves us too much to let the end of our days on earth be the end of our lives. He promises us something beyond the autumn of our days and the winter sleep of death. The Gospel in both the Old and New Testaments is one continuous story of God expressing His eternal love for frail, struggling, individual human beings.

Are we thankful for the boundary limit to our property, responsibilities, and lifespan?
Pentecost 26
Psalm 127
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

I have reached that fortunate stage of life when I can decide where to put my energies and what projects to promote to the top of my to-do list. And this week I came across a little book by Kathleen Norris that speaks about the spiritual blessings of menial tasks, whether they be patching a pothole or folding the laundry. For the last sixteen years, I've wanted a dishwasher, to free me of my menial chore of washing dishes, a task that I do each evening while looking out the window, watching the dog play among the leaves, and the squirrels jump limb to limb on the boundary of the property that I've been putts-ing along with since we bought this old house, in much need of menial repair. While I wash dishes, I think about life and remember a particular line from the Psalms, "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor, labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1).


  I realize as I write this that most people do not have the luxury of scripting their own days, rejecting work thrust upon them, or deciding which things to prioritize. Norris argues that without the hours doing drudgery our minds are too busy to be humble or grounded. Chores allow us to be receptive to the spiritual nature of all things. We labor in vain, not because we lack competence, or because the projects we choose aren't important, but because we avoid the empty space of boredom. Remember, God is in the wilderness. Unless the Lord builds the house, even those freed by the greatest labor-saving devices, get swallowed up in vanity. 


I have the first half of Psalm 127 memorized. It dogs me in those periods of my life when I have such great plans that I bulldozer things to the edge of hubris. The second verse could have been written yesterday, instead of 3,000 years ago. It says, "In vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives to those he loves, sleep." Have you been having difficulty sleeping? 


   Last night I called my brother to remind him to put a couple of things on his to-do list regarding our aging mother who lives beside him. The phone call didn't go according to my plan. I could tell across the many states and the thin fiber-optic miracle that enables our connection, that he wasn't well. He admitted to not sleeping, a symptom of both his Parkinson’s and pre-existing condition of driven-ness. That morning a simple task, one I could have completed in minutes, took him four hours. When we hung up, I remembered how my brother had helped me by providing work at his law office while I was transitioning between parish ministry and full-time writing. Few things are as menial as driving to the next county to do a title search. Yet I found God in the details of how each house had gone from one owner to the next. Unless the Lord blesses a people, they can't grow old on their land, or realize that their name goes on even after everything they possess is sold away. My brother's generosity was deeper than he realized.


  We all think it is important to do important things. Most of us can remember some big thing in our lives that took all of our attention and made us anxious for night after night. It might have involved a class at school, project at work, a new relationship, or the search for the right medical treatment for a loved one. Live long enough, and you'll be able to compile a list of failures and anxious times that ended badly. Did you find God in the wilderness that follows each of those ventures? 


  There is a subtle point to be made, if you are ready. Successfully building our houses, protecting our cities, and completing our projects, is not a matter of getting God on our side. It's a matter of being receptive to the great architect whose plans are not ours. Our God sent his only son to live in a land without Wi-Fi, and to teach life-skills without PowerPoint. Moses did not manage by objectives, he tended sheep on the back-side of nowhere, never lifting his eyes above the grey-toned landscape, until the burning bush introduced him to other plans. 

We can push through, or rest for the winter
Pentecost 25
Good political leaders express empathy, even for those who disagree with them

What has been on mind, though not in the media reports, has been how the shooting in my city this week was an attack on education, lifelong learning, and the development of emotional intelligence. The Tree of Life synagogue is adjacent to the educational center of Pittsburgh, a district that is home to universities, colleges, teaching hospitals, research facilities, art centers, and a number of innovative schools for children. The architecture of the region reflects a respect for classical wisdom. In these halls, dialogue is civil. People are valued for their ideas. A common theme to all of our recent mass murderers has been their hatred for academics. As they might have said in ancient Greece, "The barbarians are on the acropolis now."

The people were gathered for a child's naming ceremony at the Tree of Life. The Torah lessons for the season spoke of Abraham and Sarah's immigration into a new land, and on the responsibility thrust upon them by the children born to them in their old age. In this segment of our shared tradition, Christians, Moslems, and Jews are reminded of our collective responsibility to teach, listen, and learn. For the sake of the child, and our own salvation, we vow together to engage in lifelong learning, religious reflection, and the development of our emotional intelligence. God does not expect all of us to be smart. He does expect us to be compassionate. To feel another's pain requires a certain cultivation of the mind. Good parents teach their children to view things from another person's perspective. Good teachers show how each day's subject matter relates to our shared human experience and helps us to solve problems together. Good religious leaders encourage dialogue and the cultivation of emotional intelligence.

No, I do not believe that today's political divisions are caused by evil journalists twisting the words of our leaders. I think we are divided because we are not encouraged to think, investigate, and discover diverse opinions. From the time of Socrates until today, those who questioned authority have been targeted. From the time of Jesus until today, congregations have taken it upon themselves to care for the world. We send forth missionary healthcare workers and educators. We care for refugees. We welcome immigrants. We stand against those who would deny others the chance to worship in peace, raise their children in safety, and find healing for their wounds.

Further, pursuing wisdom leads us to be generous. We see our nation as having room enough to accept newcomers. We don't look for easy scapegoats to blame for our economic problems, as the Germans did before World War II. We have enough emotional intelligence to trust that even total strangers will contribute to the common good, provided they given time to learn our values and provided access to public libraries, our free press, and the other educational benefits that we enjoy, but don't use as often as we should.

Mark 12:28-34
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Pittsburghers are prone to think that Jesus borrowed the words, "Love your neighbor as yourself," from Mr. Rogers. There is evidence, though, that Jesus actually heard this grouping of God's two greatest commandments from the respected rabbis of his time. It should also be noted that "Love your neighbor" can be found in every one of the world's great religions. The Buddha taught compassion, and Mohammed affirmed that his revelation rested upon the Jewish prophets and God's call to Abraham to follow the one God with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength.

  I have been wrestling this week with how loving the Lord with all my mind helps me to respond appropriately to tragedy, and the divisions that spawn hatred and violence in our society. There certainly seems to be a link between stupidity and the "isms" that afflict us; antisemitism, racism, sexism, etc. But God does not call us to be smart, he calls us to be compassionate. I am beginning to see, that my heart and soul cannot love God or my neighbor without my commitment to three things that help my mind: lifelong learning, a daily time of reflection or meditation, and the constant cultivation of my emotional intelligence so that I see the world with empathy. In the end, we will not be judged for our intellectual prowess, but for the way the strength of our lives followed the best of our understandings. 

Mr Rogers always spoke for acceptance of diversity
Pentecost 24
All Saints Sunday
Mark 10:46-52
Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside

We know his name. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. His story is short and specific. Jesus is going up to Jerusalem. The next chapter is Palm Sunday (I don't know why the lectionary puts this story in the fall). Just before the story of Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, Jesus has had to rebuke his disciples because they are getting ahead of things and assigning seats around the banquet table and trying to get Jesus to tell them who is going to be top dog in the Kingdom of God. James and John have asked for thrones beside Jesus in the coming glory. They don't realize that God will put two thieves beside the Lord when he goes to the cross. Then the little story of blind Bartimaeus and his desire to be healed interrupts. Jesus stops there. Ancient Jericho, with its winter palace and date laden palm trees is to his back. Jerusalem with its beautiful temple lies a hard, full-day's climb ahead. And we get to meet Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.

  Jesus does what he always does. He stops. He could have just waved, heal Bartimaeus and the other beggars at a distance, and not wasted time in the cool morning that would be better spent tackling the mountain ahead (18 miles and a 3,325 foot rise). But Jesus calls Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus to himself.  He asks the man what he wants. Bartimaeus says that he wants to see again. On a recent trip to the ophthalmologist I found myself worrying. What would I do if I lost my eyesight? Bartimaeus tells Jesus that he once was able to see, but now he can't. The darkness has stolen Bartimaeus' independence, his livelihood, his appreciation of life's beauty. Jesus wanted to do more than just pity the man. He wanted to meet the man.

  Important people often suffer from a disease. The important ends that they are engaged in, steals the meaningfulness of the moments along the way. They write a check to a charity. They don't stop to meet the blind man. They fund political candidates on the right or on the left, or even run for office themselves. And they don't learn how to fold their own laundry, or the price of a gallon of milk, or the dilemma a single mom faces when she leaves her sick kid in daycare so that she can keep the job that she has to take a bus to get to. Jesus would have stopped to learn her name, felt the forehead of the kid, brought some form of healing or peace into that moment, even though it interrupted his journey.

  When we think ourselves important we suffer from the same disease. We say, "I've got these goals to accomplish," or "no one else can fill my shoes." I think one of the reasons Jesus died on the cross was so that he could give his job of being the one who stops and listens and brings healing to the Bartimaeus's of this world to us. We all have a hill in front of us. We all have something we think is important to do. That makes us important people. People with a disease. 

At least Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, knew that he was blind.

What if our thought creates our world?
Pentecost 23

"I Believe" a full-length Lenten play, suitable for church use by Bill Kemp

Play opens with darkness, a single light, and a weeping woman. This is the small village of Bethany, adjacent to the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus has just been betrayed and arrested. Two of his disciples now creep towards this house, seeking refuge and bringing the bad news to Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The next thirteen scenes gradually move the viewer from darkness to light, from fear to inspiration.

There are about 70 minutes of spoken dialogue in the play. A dozen musical pieces are suggested to bridge the scenes and provide time for set changes. An offering and short intermission is provided 2/3rds of the way through the play. This play has been performed in various settings with great results. The included staging notes show how it can be done in a church sanctuary, without a curtain, or on a traditional stage. It has a cast of 24 to 30 (some actors can play two parts).

     Get a sample at:


"Judas Returns to the Upper Room" a 10 Minute Lenten Drama by Bill Kemp

This is a chancel drama requiring two actors based upon the full-length play, "I Believe." It is appropriate for Lent, particularly those worship occasions that involve communion, baptism, or the joining of new members. When used as a Holy Thursday message, the play should follow the congregation's participation in the Lord's Supper. It also can be creatively staged as a dinner theater.

    Download a free copy of the script at:


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Play takes place in and near Jerusalem during Holy Week
Mark 10:43-44
[James and John] said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

We all know people like Jesus’ disciples James and John. We find them at our workplace, when everyone is trying to be a team, someone goes and brown-noses with the boss, saying, “I’ve got some ideas for increasing productivity. You should put me in charge.” Or, in whatever social club or volunteer group you belong to, no matter what the bylaws say, there’s always someone who is campaigning to be lead dog. In the local church, there are always two or three people who want to be in charge, and about every 18 months, they get into a battle with each other over some trivial issue. When pastors get together for their holy conferences, there are always several who are actively campaigning to be made bishop. So, Jesus wasn't surprised when James and John come to him and ask to be given the thrones next to his in the Kingdom of God. 

We expect Jesus’ business has to be organized the same way as we do our things here on earth. Our organizations are structured to be pyramids, you have one person at the top (call them king, or president, or Jesus), then you have the two below them (call them princes, Ivanka and Jared, or James and John). The pyramid then spreads out and so how high an ambitious person goes depends upon how willing they are to shove the rest of us down a few levels. So, when the other disciples complain about James and John, we know just how they feel.

Is the Kingdom of God a pyramid? When Jesus begins his ministry by saying, "Blessed are the meek," it doesn't seem so (Matthew 5:1-12). When he ends his ministry on a cross, our ambition to get higher is thoroughly mocked. Here, Jesus says to his disciples, "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43-44).

This might be the first time it occurs to James and John that they weren't chosen to be disciples because of their leadership abilities. In my Bethany's Peoplehistorical fiction novels, I picture James being the older brother and taking over the family business from his father, Zebedee. But James is too ambitious to stick with the barely profitable fishing boat. He sees in Jesus a way to be a part of something bigger. When Jesus leads a crowd into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, James is excited by the opportunity to be seated next to the soon to be king or Messiah. This provides the context for this passage where he and John ask for adjacent thrones. But, Jesus is quick to talk about suffering and in the days ahead he shows how great leadership involves great sacrifice. I picture James falling, as ambitious people often do, when this new reality sets in. In my book, he becomes a glutton. Sins of the flesh often befall the ambitious. Only after Easter, does James accept the non-pyramidal nature of God's Kingdom. Those who want to be greater, or more spiritual, must go lower and become humble, just as Jesus did. In the end, James followed Jesus and became one of the first Christians to be martyred (Acts 12:2). 

What causes a person to follow Jesus, may change & mature later
Pentecost 22
Psalm 90
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

I am lucky to live in Pennsylvania, home to some of the finest fall color displays in the world. This week the weather has been unseasonably warm and the changing of the leaves has been put on hold, but it will come -- I hope. In all of life, hope is not related to your reasoned examination of the facts, but your gut-level perception of your place. Does your relationship with your coworkers and superiors inspire you to be a hopeful employee? Does your place within the loving (we hope) circle of your family and friends allow your heart to feel at home? More importantly, does your faith place you securely in God's hand, so that you have hope in all seasons? I love my Pennsylvania home, but my real residence is in God. Psalm 90 begins:

 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.

Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.


The psalm goes on to be a good news, bad news affair. The good news is that God is in this human redemption business for the long haul. All of human existence is but a moment to him. The nations; their political leaders and parties, their vast cities and congested highways, their noble football teams and kneeling players, all this is but dust on the scale to God (Isaiah 40:12-15). Like Martin Luther King, God knows where the arc of moral history is going. It is not a long arc to him. God knows that it bends toward justice. But it will take forever in human terms. And yes, the bad news is that God knows that your life, and mine, on this planet will be over in a blink. We won't live to see what we hope for become a reality.


They say that what separates us from the animals is our awareness of our mortality. Some days I may be more human than others. I used to say that I was one yard shy of being six feet under. I may be closer to half that now. Psalm 90 reminds us that praying and struggling with our own mortality can give us wisdom. We dare not shy away from it. Palm 90 invites you to take both a higher perspective on life and a longer view on history. We find hope, not in listening only to the good news, but also in planting our feet firmly in the reality of God's providence.

Change your perspective
Pentecost 21
Fall Season
The Rock, the River, and the Tree, are great symbols of transition

"On the Pulse of Morning" was written for the first inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. It cautioned the new leader to think first about the long view of history. Neither his moral failings nor those of our current president diminish the fact that we only borrow for a moment our positions of power. This is a good poem to reflect upon as we transition our (UMC) church into whatever future lies beyond February 2019.

On the Pulse of Morning  by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed, 

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.


But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, 

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no hiding place down here.


You, created only a little lower than

The angels, have crouched too long in 

The bruising darkness

Have lain too long

Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words


Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me, 

But do not hide your face.


Across the wall of the world,

A River sings a beautiful song. It says, 

Come, rest here by my side.


Each of you, a bordered country,

Delicate and strangely made proud,

Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit

Have left collars of waste upon

My shore, currents of debris upon my breast. 

Yet today I call you to my riverside,

If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs 

The Creator gave to me when I and the

Tree and the rock were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your

Brow and when you yet knew you still 

Knew nothing.

The River sang and sings on.


There is a true yearning to respond to

The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew

The African, the Native American, the Sioux, 

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek 

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,

The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher. 

They hear. They all hear

The speaking of the Tree.


They hear the first and last of every Tree

Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside the River.


Each of you, descendant of some passed 

On traveler, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you, 

Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then 

Forced on bloody feet,

Left me to the employment of

Other seekers -- desperate for gain, 

Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot, 

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,

Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare

Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am that Tree planted by the River,

Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree

I am yours -- your passages have been paid. 

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need 

For this bright morning dawning for you. 

History, despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.


Lift up your eyes upon 

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again 

To the dream.


Women, children, men,

Take it into the palms of your hands, 

Mold it into the shape of your most 

Private need. 

Sculpt it into

The image of your most public self. 

Lift up your hearts

Each new hour holds new chances 

For a new beginning.

Do not be wedded forever

To fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.


The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space to place new steps of change. 

Here, on the pulse of this fine day

You may have the courage

To look up and out and upon me, the

Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.


Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out 

And into your sister's eyes, and into

Your brother's face, your country

And say simply

Very simply

With hope--

Good morning.

Mark 10:2-16
[People asked Jesus] "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

Many people are troubled by the passage where Jesus speaks about marriage and divorce. It is important to note, however that Jesus’s words are directly followed by verses that demonstrate Jesus’s concern for the needs of children (Mark10:2-16). I would argue that Jesus is not laying down a law prohibiting divorce, but rather expressing, as he does in all of his teachings, the demands that living a compassionate life places on each of us. Whether we marry or not, we are likely to have someone dependent upon us. They may an elderly parent, a terminally ill neighbor, or the soldiers beside us in a combat unit. At the birth of children and when people enter into the covenant of marriage, we talk about dependency. We say the words, “In sickness and in health.” We promise to neither neglect nor abuse those in our care.

In Jesus’s day, the direction of this dependency was indelibly etched into the culture. Women were always dependent upon men. Wives depended upon their husbands in both financial and legal matters. Children, often in the danger of becoming orphans, could depend upon the whole village to raise them. Today, men and women have equal rights, and when two people marry, one may be earning more than the other, but this situation is unlikely to span their entire marriage. Today people often raise children with little help from their neighbors and at great distances from their extended family. It is what it is. God does not expect us to reject our culture. He expects us to live compassionately within it.

Jesus addresses a common fault in his world. Otherwise good, religious, men in his day often neglected their dependents and cast their wives into prostitution or worse, by divorcing them. Jesus states that these men are guilty for whatever ill befalls their family once they divorce them. Today, the most difficult decision a couple has to face when they end their marriage is, “how shall we care for those (whether they be children, elderly parents, mutual friends, etc.) who depended upon our relationship, either for material or emotional support?” The great sin isn’t divorce, it is blindly following our anger at the expense of others. Divorce either works or doesn’t work, depending upon how well a couple continues to care for their mutual obligations.

In both Jesus’s day and today marriage requires more than two people of appropriate age and acceptable genders filling out the necessary paperwork. Those who shout about marriage only being between a man and a woman should be aware that they are focusing upon a minimum standard (opposite genders) when the real issue for both Jesus’s day and our own modern era, has been the unwillingness of religious people to be any more compassionate towards their life-partners and children than their pagan neighbors.

Jesus never speaks about homosexuality, a fact that few conservative pastors are willing to mention to their congregations. The places in the Bible where it is spoken about, are always in a larger context that is more concerned lawlessness, sexual abuse, and marital infidelity. The Bible recognizes that it takes more than just two people of opposite genders to have a successful marriage. When we abuse others sexually, we sin. Consent is a minimum standard. Age and power dynamics often frame whether a sexual act is appropriate. Christians would do more good in society if they stopped arguing about homosexuality and instead, worked to support healthy relationships. Family values should lead us to advocating policies that make it easier for everyone to care for their dependents, such as universal healthcare and real changes to the tax code.

if its not about sex, why do some people limit marriage to mixed gender?
Pentecost 20
Psalm 19
Matthew 5:17-48
the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul, and making wise the simple

Martin Luther King famously wrote that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He wrote it in the context of how we, by our mortality, are limited from seeing the full fate of human history. We live a few decades on this planet and then step into the unknown. For someone as intimately involved in lifting oppression as he was, it was important to have faith that our human story was headed towards justice. It reminds me of the mathematical shape known as a parabola. Where we begin the journey seems terribly far from the ideal line. But almost imperceptibly, it bends towards what is good, and faithful, and true. Martin Luther King, and all who truly work for justice, knew that our current experience may give little evidence of how God’s grace governs the whole line. That doesn’t mean that we are on the wrong path, or that evil will win in the end.

With this in mind, there’s one more thing to be said about Psalm 19 (see The only way that the law of the LORD can be perfect, reviving the soul, and making wise the simple, is if that law is dynamic and constantly developing. There is a heresy afoot in the church today that closes the door on God’s ongoing revelation, that is, denies that God is speaking through modern figures such as Martin Luther King, while dismissing the moaning of the God’s creation as it speaks about climate change. Some of the these heretics have diminished the diversity of God’s word down to some dusty fundamentals and a few ancient rules. But in Matthew 5, Jesus had a different understanding about God’s previous revelations. He says, “You have heard it said…. (here he would name a Mosaic rule concerning murder, adultery, lying, etc.), but I say to you… (then he would state a new standard that required us to be more loving and just). If you want to be perfect, you depart from the old rules and start paying attention to where God is headed.  Follow Jesus long enough and you find yourself bending towards the pursuit of justice.

The beauty of Psalm 19 is that it reminds us of the big picture. We struggle with our little piece of life’s puzzle, but God sees the whole picture and it is in it for the long run. The sweetness of God’s word, does not lie in the inerrancy of the KJV, but in taste of that eternal victory that is given to us whenever we read scripture.

There is optimism in everything King said, because he believed in the moral arc bending to Justice
Pentecost 19
Proverbs 31:10-32
“A capable wife, who can find?”

You either love-it or find it embarrassing; the passage in Proverbs 31 that begins, “A capable wife, who can find?” It reminds me of the movie, The Stepford Wives, that came out soon after I was married. Like all good satire, the film had too much underlying truth to be taken purely as fiction. In the 1960-70s patriarchal culture of the American suburb, a model home included a matching model wife, preferably ordered out of the Sears catalogue. A capable wife who can find? Indeed. Today, however, we see the ugly corollary, when men view women as objects they do terrible things to them at work. #MeToo is not just about women being sexually harassed by a few bad apples, it’s about putting a stake in the still beating vampire heart of men seeking Stepford-ish dominance both at work and at home.

So to understand Proverbs 31, I think we first have to go to the final verses which read, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands…” Before Stepford wives, the way many would have heard this verse is that women and men should have separate but equal roles in society. That approach fails to address the underlying sin of objectification. Once tell ourselves that it is okay to treat women as objects, beauty and charm become the most highly rated qualities (along with submissiveness) of the man’s catalogue purchase. For the last forty-five years, women have had the legal right to be equally compensated and full partners with men in the workplace. But our actual progress in this country has been hit or miss. We have been slow to accept that beauty and charm are not the qualities any real person wants to be judged on. “Fear of the Lord,” is the Bible’s short hand for the internal wisdom that can make any person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, valuable to society.

The thing I find most difficult about Proverbs 31:10-31 is its emphasis upon what the woman in question does. We are not human doings. We are human beings. It’s not our accomplishments that need praised, it’s our growth as compassionate people. The whole of Proverbs, as well as, much of the Bible’s wisdom literature, makes this point clear. How do we come to fear the Lord? We each permit ourselves to go on a spiritual quest for wisdom.

With this in mind, we can go back to Proverbs 31:11a, “The heart of her husband trusts her…”  If we have learned anything in the last forty-five years it is that relationships matter. The reason this woman can accomplish so much is because she is in a supportive community and a set of loving relationships that values her as a person, allows her to grow in spiritual wisdom, and encourages her to find meaningful work in alignment with her God given gifts. So give her the fruit of her hands, but kick the Stepford wife notion to the curb.

Relationships matter
Pentecost 18
Psalm 19
Romans 10:16-20
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Back in the old days of typewriters and carbon paper, the most dreaded words heard by secretaries was, “I want that in triplicate.” Whatever the form or memo, it had to be important if it needed three copies. The process involved carefully aligning three sheets of 24 lb bond paper and two finicky carbon backed tissue in your Remington and striking each letter as hard as you could and spelling the every word perfectly, because corrections were impossible. Psalm 19 says that the creator God, speaks to us in triplicate.

First, He speaks to us through the world he has made. Everything about this world shouts intention and an intelligence beyond our imagination. Science and art join hands as our friends in seeking to understand what God is writing to us in the universe.

Second, God speaks to us through His revealed word. Psalm 19 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.” This passage is talking about something much broader than “the law,” as the Ten Commandments or even the books of Moses. Any inspired speech or written word that we receive as holy and revealed to us for our edification comes from the second page in God’s typewriter. Just as no one can say that God hasn’t spoken to them in creation, so very few people on earth haven’t heard or read some inspired text. The Apostle Paul writes how God’s voice has gone out to the ends of the world, allowing the holy one to be found by even those who were not seeking for God (Romans 10:16-20).

God’s third form of revelation is fainter and more easily missed, as carbon copies are prone to be. God speaks within our soul’s and through our relationships, if we will only listen. Psalm 19:12-14 prays for purity within our heart, which only comes by listening to our souls. It speaks of allowing the meditations of our heart to become acceptable to God. It also requests that our pride be checked and our relationships with others be free from insolence and transgression.

God speaks in triplicate. The question is, do we listen?

The order of God is written into every silken orb
Pentecost 17
James 2:1-5
 1 Timothy 6:6-10
Do you believe that the poor actually have been chosen by God to be rich in faith?

If you want to know how far your congregation has come from the fellowship that first followed Jesus, then take a serious look at the book of James. Last week, I looked at how churches today often chase unicorns and silly superstitions, rather than engaging in pure religion, which according to James 1:27, involves caring for widows and orphans. The second chapter of James goes a step further in helping us to see how what we do with our everyday Christianity today is a long ways from Jesus. James was either a brother or cousin of Jesus, which depends upon your translation. He knew first hand the simplicity of what Jesus actions and practical teachings. What we have lost in our modern sophistication is the love Jesus had for the poor.

James asks a rhetorical question, one that is supposed to be quickly answered, “Yes” or “Of course I do.” How quickly and freely do you say yes to the following? 

“Do you believe that the poor actually have been chosen by God to be rich in faith?” and, “Don’t you realize that the poor have a special place in God’s Kingdom?”James 2:5

Jesus says yes in the following teachings:

Blessed are you who are poor,

    for yours is the kingdom of God. 


woe to you who are rich,

    for you have already received your comfort

    (Luke 6:20 & 24) 

James, himself, makes sure that we don’t pass over this statement of faith by contrasting God’s treatment of the poor with the way the rich treat them (us). The rich blaspheme the name of Jesus (James 2:6). Obviously, the real saints of his congregation are people of limited means. From his humble birth in Nazareth to his current position as the Bishop of Jerusalem, James has not seen the rich do anything of worth to advance the Kingdom.

When I read James, I find myself reconsidering the radical statement that some Liberation Theologians make, that being poor is a prerequisite for understanding Jesus. Throughout the Bible we hear an oft repeated warning, friendship with wealth never ends well. Those who have been born with it, need to flee into the wilderness — do a Saint Francis of Assisi style run — to be purged of its effect. Those who have earned it, must cauterize all thoughts that they are somehow better people because they played life’s game to achieve this sordid end. All of us need to live by the Apostle Paul’s advice to Timothy:

Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.  - I Timothy 6:6-10

Just as Jesus cared for the poor of his day, we must care today
Pentecost 18
James 1:16-27
[Real religion is] to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep neself from being polluted by the world.”

There was a time, I’m old enough to remember, when religious people had 84 reasons to believe the world was going to end in 1984. Then there was a time, not long after that, when many churches, my own included, stockpiled batteries, bottled water, and baby diapers, because they were convinced that Y2K would make such things valuable. There was a time when almost every Christian woman I knew, wore a little angel on their shoulder (for protection or advice, I never found out). Unicorn chasing would be in the Christian Olympics, if we ever decided to have our own, because we think the Greek one has too many pagan symbols. Such malarky gives religion a bad name.

Jesus’s brother James is blunt, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

When I was younger, I was taught by well meaning religious people that the “stain of the world” was drugs, sex, and rock&roll. Now that I am mature enough to recognize such teaching as malarky, I see that the stain of the world is populism, greed, and whatever is considered “truth” on cable news.

James is the most practical of the New Testament books, and may give us the clearest view of Jesus’s day to day teaching. James devotes the second chapter of his little book rebuking Christians for bringing the world’s love of the rich, famous, and powerful, into the church. There was in his day a moral majority that thought being poor was a sin. There is today, a majority in many churches who are content to ignore people of color and their concerns about our society. Churches by their silence, paint themselves with the stain of the world that is racism.

In this first chapter, though, James sets the stage for telling us in no uncertain terms that real religion consists of caring for widows and orphans (verse 27). He tells us first:

  • The rich should look forward to losing everything and being humiliated (James 1:10)
  • That we should be suspicious of the things everyone believes, ie we should be “quick to listen” (1:19) In today’s world of information, this means that we should take care to listen to the best sources of news and slow to accept what isn’t in writing and footnoted by valid research.
  • That we should be slow to anger… for it doesn’t serve God’s purposes (1:19-20). Jesus links anger and fear. There are today, those who seek to make us angry by keeping us fearful.

Religions is all about widows and orphans, James says. They were the most vulnerable members of first century society. Their position correlates today to those among us without adequate health insurance, those whose jobs or military service may be dangerous (leaving behind widows/widowers), those who fail to earn a descent wage, and those who must flee their country in search of refuge. It is the world's stain, to respect those in authority who think themselves Christian while creating virtual orphans at the border through their family separation policy.

See the next installent on James, chapter 2:  Poverty

The moral minority
Pentecost 15
Psalm 84
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere

I have a problem with Psalm 84. It’s one of those poems that doesn’t make sense once you tear it apart. “My temple is a place where even a swallow finds a place to nest,” makes as much sense as, “My love is like a red, red, rose.” Howling, just feet away from the altar in Solomon’s temple, were lines of sacrificial sheep and boxes of doves, ready to be slaughtered. Temple sacrifice, up until 70 AD, was madness, bleating sheep, and nasty priests. Blood flowed on the rock where Abraham once bond Isaac. Did I mention that child abuse is one of the problems that the church is still dealing with?

So what is this psalm really about? It’s not about the church building, even though it mentions courts, doorways, and altars. Like a fine haiku, it speaks about what it doesn’t have words for. It tells us how there was a fellowship among the pilgrims as they walked for days together, over the Negev, to where they could worship. It tells us how the few days they spent crowded together as a congregation, sharing inadequate facilities with people from all over the world, was better than 1,000s of days spent in a nicer, more convenient, location. (By the way, the Hajj has been happening this week for Moslems) Its about a religious experience that the children of our churches often know better than the adults who serve as deacons and trustees. To be with other people of faith is a blessing, pure and simple.

Architecture does not equal religion
Pentecost 21
1 Kings 3:5-14
[God answered Solomon's prayer saying] I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart

God must not like our prayers because he keeps giving us the opposite of what we ask for. We ask for patience and we receive more frustrations. We ask for peace in our household and we receive more conflict. We ask for enough wealth to be secure and we find ourselves jobless and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I get the feeling that God’s intention is to throw us fully into life, like a baby being thrown into the deep end of the pool. We pray, “Lord give us a firm foundation of truth,” by which we mean that He should make us smart enough to always be right. God responds, “Hey it’s time for your swimming lesson. Keep your head up and remember to breathe.”

The story is that young King Solomon felt totally unprepared for his ascent to the throne. So, he prayed and God said, “Now be careful what you ask for, because I’m only going to grant you one wish.” He could have asked to become so smart that he would never have to worry about ever being wrong. He could have asked to be a great deal maker, always winning. He could have asked to become the self-help guru of his time, so that all his kids and wives and neighbors would seek out his advice. He could have asked to be made a powerful leader, with an arsenal of clever weapons, so that he could defeat whoever dared to disagree with him.

Now, its important that you read I Kings 3:5-12 carefully. Young Solomon does not ask to be made smart or always right, the way we would have. Instead he prays for an understanding heart, so that he might discern what is right in the midst of life’s difficult decisions. God grants him wisdom, which is not the same thing as self-confidence, in fact, the two may be opposites.

The story goes on and King Solomon also becomes smart, rich, and a successful political leader. I have come to believe that these things have little to do with his initial gift of spiritual wisdom. For most people, discerning God’s will takes you in the opposite direction from riches, sexual prowess, and winning. It took Jesus to the cross.

Pop psychologists often ask, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” Each time we get into conflict, we face this choice. The way out of the conflict isn’t through doubling down on being right. It is through discerning the humble path that God is calling us to walk. Since I don’t think happiness is the same thing as wisdom, I would rephrase the question, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to live with a heart at peace (Shalom)?”

We live in difficult times. The respectful give and take that once marked our political process is gone. Unity in the United Methodist Church is in jeopardy. It is harder than ever to raise our children with the confidence they need to succeed. Be careful what you pray for. We have been cast into deep waters. Ambiguity is the new normal. We seek God in the few spare moments that we have between crises. Half drowned and treading water, we pray for wisdom in the wet. Give me a discerning heart, O Lord.

And God is pleased. Our prayer is answered.

I'd rather be uncertain & afloat than grounded & no longer afloat
Pentecost 15
Psalm 130
Matthew 16:26
My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.

I have a love-hate relationship with mornings. As a self-employed author, I have great flexibility regarding when and where I work. But the Holy Spirit and my own creative whit have their own plans. I have discovered that early morning hours are golden. But rarer than diamonds are the times when the cat, dog, or my bladder wakes me while it is still night, and instead of cursing these intrusions, I grab coffee and write like one possessed. In Psalm 130 we read, “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.” Something has awoken the psalmist to an hour when all he or she can do is pray. Perhaps they are at the bedside of a sick loved one, or a refugees escaping in the dark, or perhaps they stand with the watchman on the wall, keeping guard over a city at peril. They pray soulfully. They pray deep. The Holy Spirit is very much with them.

  There are three content buckets to this morning prayer: First, a humble plea for forgiveness. It is impossible to live fully without at certain points risking our religion for the sake of our love. In the morning, we sometimes wrestle with what we have been passionate about and seek God’s understanding concerning what drives us. Second, there is the plea for one’s nation, whether that be ancient Israel or today’s America. When will we leave our political bubbles and discover again the pure morning air of God’s steadfast love for all people? Finally, beneath all the words of this psalm, and behind those hours that we spend pacing the hallway and watching for the dawn, is a concern for our own soul. For didn’t Jesus once ask, what good is it for one to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s soul? (Matthew 16:26) Pray on!

Many people find early morning the best time for regular devotions
Pentecost 12
Ephesians 4:1-16
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness...

  It’s helpful to imagine Paul in a prison cell as he writes the book of Ephesians, particularly chapter 4. To be imprisoned is to be divided off from humanity. So, Paul speaks about unity and provides a vision of what brings us together. He says that God considers us all to be one and that when we accept the Christian faith we all have the same baptism, even though some are sprinkled as infants and others dunked under the cold, muddy, waters of the Penobscot River. We are one, in spite of whatever wind of doctrine fills our sails. We are one, no matter what work fills our days, or what economic fortunes have befallen us. We remain united even though deceitful men have imprisoned some of us, have taken property from some, allowed others to be unjustly gunned down. We remain one people in Jesus Christ, even though racism roams our land and those who think themselves white use their political rhetoric to divide us.

  Hear how relevant Pauls words from prison are to today’s American landscape:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

  Careful now, I think Paul is talking about something more basic than going left verses going right. There is something more central, more at the core, than our political positions or our theological doctrines. What informs and unifies all of us, is our worldview and our God-given sense of moral conscience. Paul in his prison cell closes his eyes and sees clearly our creator God forming this planet and calling it good. He sees God peopling every land with human beings made of the same flesh and endowed with the same sacred value. A mother separated from her child, for instance, feels the same pain and deserves the same justice whether she is fighting for custody in family court in Pennsylvania or for the child she has carried in her arms from Guatemala to Arizonian to escape gang violence. Again, I am not talking about conservative verses liberal, both political positions are equally subject to the doctrines of deceitful men. I am talking about the worldview that sees all people united by the love of God in Jesus Christ.

  Paul sees God gifting each human being with a unique calling from God. To become who God wants us to become, we from time to time have to speak the “truth in love” (verse 15) to those who put barriers in the way of our calling. In many places around our globe, even in this modern age, if you are born with darker skin, or a woman, or a member of a despised religious tradition, you may have to speak your truth more shrilly, more insistently, and even put yourself at risk of imprisonment. We all, though, find it hard to say what God has put in your heart to say.

  Paul may be the only person in that jail that got there honestly. Paul knows that he has broken the law. He knows that he has offended the establishment and spoken something at odds with what the majority believes. He is in jail and will in time be martyred for speaking the truth about God’s love. He has obeyed his call, all the way to the jail cell. What about the woman whose calling from God was to carry her child from Guatemala to Arizona? It may seem, to those easily offended, that I have again meddled in political things. Look at the keywords Paul uses in this passage and the rest of Ephesians: humility, gentleness, patience, unity, truth, Spirit, and the high concept of God caring for all of humanity. Is it possible that many Christians have been blown into a false worldview by men who seek to hide the fact that their nature incorporates none of these things? If we continue to stand with such deceived ones, haven’t our cherished conservative doctrines become immoral?

Monarchs are called to migrate great distances over high walls
Pentecost 13
Typical Church

One of the great bug-a-boos of life is our propensity for getting into a rut. As individuals we fall into comfortable habits and become attached to familiar rituals. It may be the routine of eating the same breakfast every day or preferring a particular style of clothing. Our ruts can also have a more sinister side, supporting our prejudices, restricting our generosity, stifling our creativity, derailing our spiritual experience, and instilling within us a reluctance to implement needed changes. Those recovering from dangerous dependencies, such as drug addiction, know how high these walls of routine can be. If we were wise, we would choose our ruts more carefully, for we travel in them a long time.

Congregations, too, fall into ruts. Traditions can become so familiar and comfortable that small changes to the weekly ritual feel like mortal sin. Churches can become parochial, serving the needs of an ever-diminishing segment of the surrounding community. As they move deeper into their ruts, they become hidden, unnoticed edifices within their neighborhoods. Their programs and worship services lack relevance, creativity, and vitality. The emotional side of the congregation’s spiritual experience—that is, its passion—fades. Churches can treat the personal experience of God as an unnecessary interruption to the more important business of the church. The church prays, but lacks any expectation of being acted upon by God. The church praises holy and awesome God but sings ho-hum hymns. Worse yet, a church can travel so far within its own little groove that it can no longer look over its walls to see how much its neighbors long to know God. When congregations cease being excited about bringing the good news of Jesus to others, they cease to be exciting.

A Passionate Congregation: Prays with Expectation, finds Scripture to be Relevant, Witnesses with Joy, and is Inspired by their Worship

Which area is weakest in your church?

What are you going to do to lift it up?

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2 Samuel 11
Philippians 2:6-7
In the spring, when Kings go off to war…

I'm old, I admit it. The last time I preached about David and Bathsheba was during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. I remember my trepidation. At the 11 o’clock worship service where there would be families with young children. I had been asked to take on the famous Old Testament story by parishioner that knew I was the lone democrat in a congregation of republican wolves.


The context of David’s scandal is set with the phrase, “In the spring, when Kings go off to war…” The story, as well as today’s application, begins with the understanding that there are certain things that people in power do. People in authority often feel themselves to be above the rules. This, and not David’s lust for Bathsheba, is the heart of the story.


It is very hard to be a godly politician. One has to respect all people and have a heart for justice. David had this mindset as a youth, but the further he shifted away from the shepherd’s worldview, the more he became corrupted by political expediency. 2nd Samuel 11, is the story of a fallen man. Even if he had never had sex with Bathsheba, he would still be a despicable anti-hero. His sin was to sit in his palace and do what everyone else in his position was doing. For a thousand years after this, whenever a king allowed their personal moral weakness to jeopardize the nation, people would say, "Well what about David?" This has a way of justifying sin. The same "what-about-ism" may soon be the ruin of American Democracy.


We know that in the next chapter, David finds forgiveness and grace. It is not cheap or easy. An honest man and an innocent child die. When we tell David’s story, we must linger over the way a shift in perspective can either save or damn us. How we see the world is important. The story adds credence to the claim of Liberation Theology (and the current Pope) that the gospel cannot be understood, without seeing the world as the poor and the powerless see it.


Every person, no matter what their role in life, needs to be aware of the temptation that power offers us. David was led astray, not by his view of a woman bathing, but by his desire to be a king (or a dictator) like other kings. Isn't it time that everyone in authority take on the mindset that was in Christ? "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant..." (Philippians 2:6-7). Now pause. Think about the roles where you are in charge. How have you allowed position to change you? Are you still humble?

Gifted people do stupid things when they cease to be humble
Pentecost 12
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

In the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus does an impressive number of miracles. He feeds five thousand people with five bagels and two fish, he walks on water, and he heals a multitude afflicted with diseases — just by having them line the road and touch the edge of his cloak. But, I am more impressed by what Jesus fails to do in this chapter.

1st, he failed to preach the sermon the home-town people wanted to hear. We all find ourselves in situations where nothing we say will make people happy. In those times its best to do what Jesus did and speak about the truth that we know. Let the chips fall where they will.

2nd, he failed to stop John the Baptist from being beheaded. We need to accept that God will not interfere with man’s capacity to do evil. Jesus could have prevented Herod from committing this injustice. Jesus instead gave us the tools to work for a better society. We need to remember that today as we work for political change.

3rd, Jesus failed to go with his disciples on their mission trip (Mark 6:7-13). Like a good parent, Jesus knows when to take the training wheels off of our faith bike.

4th, when the disciples needed a rest — they had wrestled with demons and were tired -- Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and heal them of their stress and exhaustion. Instead he tried, unsuccessfully, to find them a place to rest. God will never give us a red bull energy drink when we need to take a day off for our own sanity. There are no cheap fixes for the over-committed life. Even Jesus had to look for a place to hide his disciples so that they could recover their inner calm. The sooner we realize this, the more healthy we will be.

Jesus did not seek to rest his disciples so they could work more. He rested them because he loved them.
Pentecost 11
Mark 6:14-29
When Herod heard [about Jesus] he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

Even the worst of people can have an unexpected attack of conscience. Call it the ghost of his dead mother, but King Herod starts to wonder if he’s gone too far, been too immoral, done one deed too foul for the universe to accept. He begins to wonder if there is such a thing as bad karma. In Mark 6:14-29 (see Remembering John the Baptist, last week’s take on the same passage) we read how Herod is haunted by the thought that his beheading of an innocent man, John the Baptist, might have been a mistake. John, or someone with the same miraculous powers as the baptizing prophet, has been seen in public. The rational response would have been for Herod to dismiss it. So someone else can preach, heal, and raise the hopes of the masses. Prophets and Messiahs are like weeds in ancient Palestine, you got to keep pulling them up and chopping them down. But, conscience isn’t always rational or convenient. Even the most hardened despots can find themselves going momentarily soft.

Then again it could have been all for show. Herod had political reasons to want to appear to be sincere and religious from time to time. By telling people that he feared that John the Baptist had been resurrected, and that he was sorry, he threw a sop to his religious right, while not committing himself to any real change. You see, even in the best of us, our conscience is but background noise unless it leads us to real repentance. Religious feelings are wasted on King Herod. Within a year he is given a similar situation, when Jesus appears before him in chains. Herod is as unwilling to listen to Jesus as he was to repent when John the Baptist was in his throne room. He sends Jesus back to Pontus Pilate with a note, “Execute this one.”

Even good people are in the habit of ignoring their conscience. We get busy in life. We get persuaded that we deserve things — that tax cut made possible by stealing from the next generation, that promotion at work which only requires us to forsake our principles, that secure life lived within a gated community surrounded by only our kind of people. Yes, we deserve to have our sins, our greed, our gluttony, our prejudices, free from any sudden attack of conscience. So we all, keep the inner voice of God on a short leash.


Separating mothers from children, but going to church the next Sunday
Pentecost 10
Mark 6:14-29

King Herod had a critic named John. First he put John in jail and then he beheaded him, but that didn’t silence the baptizing prophet for we read his words still. John the Baptist is the patron saint of those who protest against injustice today. John was a journalist before there was newsprint. So on this weekend following the Fourth of July, we remember John’s martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas, as well as the slain journalists in Baltimore. I think the spirit of John the Baptist (or the “Dipping Man” in my Mary Sees All novel) leads us to ask, “When is Government Sinful?”

Government sin has three forms (in descending order):

  First, bad policy — This may not seem like sin at all, but ill-conceived tax cuts and poor environmental regulation shackles the next generation and betrays the Genesis 1:28 commandment that we be good stewards over the earth. Prophets and journalists speak about this sin with the opening phrase, “History will prove…”

  Second, social injustice — Here kings and presidents stoop lower to betray the poor, the refugee, and the innocent. They sin by their silence when people of color lose their children to aggressive policing. They sin by their quiet approval of hate groups. They sin in their closed door dealings with other rulers who oppress their people. Jesus, John the Baptist, the Old Testament prophets; Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and Hosea, lifted their voice against those who sinned against the poor. Religion must speak.

  Third, greed and lust for power — This is the sin that is closest to Satan’s heart. John the Baptist lost his head because he spoke against the corruptions, self-aggrandizement, and moral failures of the Herodian dynasty. Those who reach for greatness, power, strength, and gold-gilded beauty in their own kingly reign, brag about the good deals they make at the expense of others. For them, their ends can justify any means. But God calls each of us in our daily dealings with those in authority to always witness to the importance of fair minded-ness, compromise, and compassion.

We remember John the Baptist by speaking for those who have no voice in our world.

(note this lection is really for July 15th, but those in America should shift to provide and appropriate message for the week)

John was always confronting those in power
Pentecost 11
Mark 5:21-43

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is always busy doing good, but he’s never in a hurry. Obstacles are placed in his way, but he exudes confidence that the kingdom of God will not be delayed. The people he meets, themselves, face incredible challenges. In one week alone; he helps his disciples deal with a storm (crossing Galilee twice in a small boat), confronts a man enslaved to mental illness (a legion of demons), heals a woman with a persistent illness (bleeding), and raises a twelve year old child from the dead. At the end of this hectic time (Mark 4:35-6:3), he goes to church and gets heckled by people because of his humble origins (the illegitimate child of Joseph the carpenter). Everything Jesus does, though, is summed up by what he taught at the week’s beginning; the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, growing among us. Even when it looks small, it is persistent (Mark 4:30-32).

So when we read stories like raising Jairus’s daughter, we shouldn’t say “Look how powerful Jesus is” (Mark 5:21-43). Instead, look at what surrounds these miracles. Jesus teaches how the kingdom of God is among us. Then Jesus sends the disciples (and us) out to do the same things he was doing, always working to forward the good that God has planned for this world (Mark 6:7-13).

Parent's joy - Jesus heals, reunites, brings about new life
Pentecost 8
Mark 4:35-41

There are miracles that only Jesus can do, and there are miracles where Jesus is providing an example for us to follow. In Mark 4, Jesus is out in the boat with the disciples and a storm comes up. Time for a miracle which only he can do. Jesus calms the sea. But wait, the story begins with Jesus asleep in the bow and when the disciples wake him and say, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”,  Jesus rebukes their anxiety by saying, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Note the back and forth of that dialogue. Hear it this way: Us, “Don’t you care?” Jesus, “Why are you anxious?”  Substitute whatever crisis you recently went through for the storm that caused the  anxiety in the disciples. I bet your dialogue with Jesus was the same. Jesus does the miracle of calming the sea, so that the disciples might learn to be non-anxious people in the midst of the storms of life.

I recently went through a family crisis. People were shouting. Anxiety was high. I would gladly have traded places with those disciples in the boat tossed by the storm on Galilee. Anxiety is anxiety, fear is fear. It doesn’t matter if we are in a boat, a hospital room, a family crisis, a fox hole. The miracle is that we can learn to be non-anxious people. We can apply the lessons of Jesus and faith. We can step back and rebuke our fears. Further, when we are in the boat with people who are having their own personal storms and are causing us havoc, we can choose to be the non-anxious presence. Being like Jesus, this is the essence of our faith. Where is your faith?

The problem is not the waves, but the readiness of the crew
Pentecost 7
Mark 4:26-34

Gardening always reconnects me with the grace of God. I have a hard time justifying it during the end of May, when I am busy with so many other things, both in the yard and with church meetings. In spring, time narrows. There a few precious hours to mow, till, plant, and weed, between the rains. And yet now, about a month into it, I find myself pausing and just looking at the vegetable plants. They are vigorous. Each one is a miracle. Jesus uses the pride that farmers have in their crops to talk about the graceful and organic way of the spirit. God scatters the seed of his word to the earth. It is received by the open heart of the soil. Good things spring to life. Everyone anticipates a bountiful harvest.

These images give rural people and gardeners an advantage in understanding the organic process of God’s love. The critical verse is Mark 4:28, “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” Jesus says that the growth of holiness in our lives and in the world is an organic process, like the gradual transition of seed to plant to fruit to the easing of hunger. One could also speak of the process of acorn to oak to wood to house to home.

So the first question to ask may be, is holiness growing in your personal life in an organic and healthy way? You could ask the same question of your church. What about your neighborhood? Is there a healthy process of development; people needing shelter, to houses to homes and schools to young adults who leave the neighborhood to start lives elsewhere, remembering the values, missional mindset, and spirituality that they had been taught?

An organic process is something that occurs over time. Note how a tree branches out. The placement and direction of each branch is determined by the trees innate DNA and the direction the sunshines into that patch of the woods. The health of tree depends on many factors, the most important though involve the water and nutrients the tree has at its roots and the skill set of defense mechanisms the tree has at its disposal. The total process, Jesus tells us, is a miracle.

How do we become spiritual and holy people? Do we want to be saved, healed, or made holy?

Jesus says that this is an organic process. The farmer does a certain amount of work, but he mostly watches his field, and the seed “of itself” produces the plant, which “of itself” produces the wonderful harvest. Like a tree, where we are rooted spiritually matters. We need a healthy church fellowship to grow properly. But our spiritual journey springs up in a mysterious way from within us. Becoming holy is an organic process. We engage in spiritual disciplines, but mostly we observe and try to be a partner with God for the harvest that he alone can bring about.

Note how even the bees are part of the organic process
Pentecost 6
I Samuel 8:4-20

There is a common proverb that goes, “You better be careful what you ask for; because you just might get it.” This is true in politics, parenting, and in our prayers. I’ve come to believe that more people are impoverished by their wishes than by their misfortunes. We think we know what we want — we are all a bit like King Midas who wished to have everything he touched turn to gold, until he touched his daughter. We want wealth. (Play the lottery, anyone?) God wants us to have inner peace, the satisfaction of work done well, and relationships that don’t depend upon extravagant gift giving. We want to teach our kids the value of money, so we give them an allowance. They go out and compare it with what their friends are getting, and think better or worse of us. So in the end, we have taught them to value us only for our money.

Instead of the value of money, we should be teaching them the value of community, shared labor, and the unconditional nature of family love. The things we need to learn, are exactly the things we need to teach to our kids. When we pray, we ask God to give us our daily bread, so that we can break it and share it in love, rather than being led by our temptations to hoard it or be greedy. Be careful what you ask for.

In ancient Israel, the people of God wished for a king. They wanted a king for the same reason we wanted whoever we voted for in the last election. They wanted a king who would make the country prosperous. They wanted a king who would make the nation so strong that it would win any battles it got into. They wanted a king who would make this little nation of immigrants and former slaves into a global leader, like Egypt, Syria, and Babylon (Iraq). They knew that Kings had made those nations great, and that God’s humble prophets didn’t seem to have the same plan for them. What they didn’t know, is that Kings would also ruin each of those nations.

Wise old Samuel said, “This is what a King will do to you…” (I Samuel 8:4-20) and then he talked about taxes. He talked about how kings take our children and force them to be soldiers. He talked about how kings are in the business of listening to corporations and wealthy donors, no matter which party they represent. Kings pretend to care about our interests, but what they really want to do is create a class of people who are above the law and free from any accountability.

The real law of politics, parenting, and prayer, is the law of unintended consequences. We must learn as parents to give ourselves to our kids along with our money. We must learn as citizens to watch our elected officials closely and hold them to a higher moral standard. And we must learn as people who pray, to say, “Thy will be done, not ours…”, hoping in all this, to learn what God wants to teach us in the life he has given us.

Midas was a king who got what he asked for, not what he needed
Pentecost 3
Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-6

Our society is getting obsessed by rules. I grew up in 1960s, we broke the rules. Go to Barnes &Noble and just note how many books have the word rules in the title. You’ll find 10 rules for dieting, dating, and getting your dog to behave. One of the best sellers on Amazon this year was  “Robert’s Rules of Order.” Why now?

I’m betting that it has to do with our current political polarization. Whether you are arguing about immigration or the Russia investigation, one or both sides will be running to the rulebook to make their case. The NFL just passed a rule regarding players kneeling during the anthem. Notice that they didn’t pass a rule to prevent hot dogs and beer from the being sold during the anthem, or the announcers speaking over the playing of the anthem, or the coaches using the 10 extra minutes they can get with all the players in the locker room to prep for the game.

All of this has something to do with Jesus. Mark begins his gospel by showing us Jesus breaking the rules. There was a lot of religious rules back then that most people ignored — But if you were a religious teacher, you were expected to keep all the rules, plus make up a few more, just to prove yourself more holy. Jesus didn’t play this game.

For Jesus, religion is not about the rules that we keep, religion is about the compassion that we show. Consider the rule about keeping a Sabbath (rule four of the big ten). Note that in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the commandment states that the sabbath is meant to be applied by the government upon everyone. Migrants are not to be made to care for the fields. Slaves are not to cook your dinner. So, no one should work for you on the sabbath. If you are working in a business where someone has to mind the store on Sunday, if you are a nurse or an EMT, and everyone takes their turn working the sabbath; don’t use your religion to get out of taking your turn.

Jesus goes into a place of worship and notices that there is someone there who needs healed. So he works on the Sabbath. I believe that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus still comes into our places of worship. He still looks around and notes that someone here needs healed. And he heals on the Sabbath.

To repeat:

Religion is not about the rules that we keep, Religion is about the compassion that we show.

Watch out when white dudes in suits limit the free speech of people of color
Pentecost 3
John 3:1-17

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room. None of us gets born alone. Your birth was work for your mother, that’s why we call it labor. You merely allowed yourself to be pushed. All of this doubly applies to our spiritual birth. God labors to bring us to new life. This may be why Jesus speaks about being born again, instead of using an eastern turn of phrase like, coming to enlightenment.

We often forget this mystery when speak about faith. Some people make a memorial out of the moment they came to believe. They remember the evangelists, music, scriptures, teachers, and books that influenced them. In all these little details, it is easy to forget the wind of God incompressible spirit. It blows where it wills without any dependence upon human communicators. We were not saved by being in that particular church on the night so and so spoke. We are saved by God, who in His prevenient grace stacks the dominoes so that they all fall in the right sequence for us and we get pushed into new life.

Consider Nicodemus. This man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the brotherhood of the Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. Ask him about his faith and he will speak for hours about his teachers and the respected elders of his religious order. Jesus silences him with one phrase, “You must be born again.”

This is not a command, but a statement of fact. Nicodemus isn’t being told to adopt a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where the only other person in the room is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible.

Our tendency to speak of rebirth as a once in a lifetime decision, however, obfuscates this simple idea. In every spiritual transformation, God does the birthing. Whenever we need it, God will do it again.

If you could listen to the whole talk, would it make more sense?
Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday
Acts 2
They were all of one accord.

In every parish that I served, I encouraged people to think of Pentecost as one of the three great holidays of the church. There is Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They are of equal importance and should be celebrated with the same degree of serious preparation. Christmas allows us to speak of the Trinity and the uniqueness of Jesus among men. Our systematic theology goes into high gear as we try to speak about God’s mission to save all of humanity. In Easter we rediscover the passion of God and the wretchedness of humanity. Our theology goes low, as we identify with the people who stood by his cross and then carried our Lord to the grave. Easter is a story filled with transition, the greatest example being the resurrection.

    In Pentecost, we realized that both Christmas and Easter occurred, not simply that individuals might be saved, but that a religious community might be formed. We push people towards the end of the second chapter of acts, when we realized that all this fire and wind resulted in the birth of the church as an organization. The spiritual birth of the church, I believe, was when Jesus gathered people on a hillside and told them that they were already blessed by God (Matthew 5:1-9). Three years later, the day of Pentecost takes this awareness that we are a blessed people, and empowers us to organize to share that blessing. On Pentecost, our theology goes wide. 

  •     The Pentecost story begins by putting 120 people into a room built to hold 40. They were all of one accord. This doesn’t mean they were theologically unified. It means that were committed to being one community.
  •     The story goes on to tell of the diversity of people in Jerusalem that day. The church only grows when it honors diversity.
  •      The story heats up when Peter steps out on the porch and confronts the people on the street. In the Pentecost season, we beg the Holy Spirit to send the church out into our neighborhood.

​These are the three points that I will be sharing with the people at Verona and Rosedale. Let us pray that they catch the great significance of Pentecost.

Note the large crowd and presence of women
Pentecost Sunday
John 17

I have been thinking a lot about small groups lately. Jesus begins with a small group — twelve disciples. At the end of the Last Supper, before he leads his disciples out to the garden where he will be betrayed and taken to his passion, Jesus dedicates this small group to God. The way John remembers that prayer (John 17:1-26), it was filled with references to the importance of this small group. Jesus prays that the spiritual truths that has imparted in the course of his work with this little fellowship might be established. He presents these eleven before God (Judas had left), as if they were a trust, that he has been a steward responsible for. When we join a small group for Bible study today, we are entering into a spiritual trust. We pray for each other as Jesus prayed for his disciples and the Holy Spirit used the group to protect and nurture our souls.

I think that even today, Christians who participate in small groups for spiritual study and prayer, enter into a deeper covenant with God, than those who simply come to worship. Why? How about the following:

  • Character is not learned from lectures or sermons. Discipleship formation happens in small groups.
  • Real physical, psychological, and spiritual Healing happens in small groups
  • Small groups are often the incubators for leadership development and transforming change in the community.

Through small groups, Jesus continues to engage the world today. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). How can we negotiate this narrow path without the support of other Christians who know us well and speak about faith in an intimate context.

Jesus is calling these folk to be in a small group with him
Easter 7
John 15:1-8
1 John 5:1-6

Scholars may argue about whether the same man wrote the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, but John 15 and 1 John 5 sound like two peas in a pod. John is trying to simplify the relationship with have with each other and with Jesus into two words. The words Abide and Love. I want to go one step further and simplify the whole church experience into this concept of Abiding Love. Church is where people support each other in abiding in the love of God, and where God’s spirit supports us in abiding in love with those close to us. 

Did you know that the dictionary definition for church doesn’t contain the word love. It goes as follows: “Church is a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” (Apple dictionary)

I don’t like this definition. Not only does it exclude the love that Jesus says will define us, it includes three institutional words: clergy, buildings, and doctrines. The trouble is that this is exactly how most people in the world around us see the church. In fact, it may be the way most church people view the Church. It may also be the reason most people today say they can be religious perfectly fine without the Church, thank you. This past week, less than 18% of Americans went to church. 

Jesus defines his Church by how we love. Did I mention, that the one thing that separates the previous modern epoch from our current postmodern culture is this emphasis on relationships? For the last thousand years, we have been selling church as the place to go to hear a qualified (but often celibate) clergy-person preach, to be in a beautiful building (with an organ), and learn to the right doctrines (orthodox). What if we changed (The Church change?) And began speaking about entering into a discipleship formation process, which we call Church (with a capital ‘C’) and practice there in, love for each other and love for those who are hurting around us?

I think we need to redefine our church life to support the “abiding in love” that John and Jesus are talking about. In Reality Check 101 I offer this alternative definition that captures the spirit of John 15 and 1 John 5:

Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship,

 who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.


Perhaps you can think of a way to add the words Abide and Love to this definition — but I think it implies their importance.

Church isn't defined by building, clergy, or theology
Easter 6
1 John 4:7-21

I always get a chuckle when someone asks me for my home email and I say bill at not-perfect-yet dot com" and they respond “perfect.” They don’t even hear themselves doing it. “Perfect” has entered into our modern vocabulary to replace “okay.”  This is truly ironic. Now putting aside this odd ambiguity, what does the Bible mean when it says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12). We live in a world that is desperate for real love. When we engage, even momentarily, in an authentic, selfless, other-honoring relationship with another person, we allow them to see God in us. This is real perfection.

We live today in a world where our coffee is ground to perfectly identical grains, where our computer perfectly transmits our ill-conceived emails, and where our phones can perfectly tell us the time the sun will rise on this date in the year 2525 (if humankind survives that long). “Perfect” is possible for any product that doesn’t depend upon human input. We mortals regularly mess up coffee making, misspell emails, and often fail to rise in time to see the sun do its thing, perfectly. We also mess up love; the one thing we flawed creatures can do well which machines will never do at all.

Perfection in love is easy to describe. To be perfect, I must in this moment, be the way Jesus was, or would be, facing the same situation. Since Jesus was fully human, this is achievable by every human being. Since he was also from God, he knew perfectly this aspect of God; God is Love. The Holy One can be mysterious about many things, but divine revelation is generous and perfectly clear about how to love. Love is a humanly doable thing.

We seek perfection in so many things that are beyond us. Why don’t we seek to be perfectly loving?

Machines can perfect anything but Love.
Easter 5
1John 3:16-24

John asks a tough question: “how can the love of God abide in us, if we have in our hands the things someone else needs to survive, and we don’t offer what we have to help them” (I John 3:17). The context of John’s question is a call for Christians to help other Christians. This verse follows his command, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v16). Obviously, he is writing to people adjacent to people experiencing persecution. In the first three centuries of the church, the sharp focus of physical persecution (imprisonments and executions) was always surrounded by a broader circle of people losing their jobs and homes because of social prejudice, and these sufferers are surrounded in turn by people like you and I who are doing okay, but not sacrificing to help. Could such a thing happen today?


John’s question goes hand in hand with the way another John, John the Baptist described the kingdom of heaven, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Jesus said many similar things and he intentionally broadened this command to say that we must even share our coats with our enemies (Luke 6:29). Jesus calls us to be compassionate on both Christians and strangers, and never permitted the kind of circle drawing that we see in today’s church. Many congregations have a rule that they won’t directly help someone who not a member, or at least, a Christian. How can we abide with God and hold onto such narrow minded behavior?


The whole book of 1 John rotates around this concept of shaping our behavior so that we live out of our relationship with God. The word “abide” (NRSV/KJV) is translated in various ways by different bibles to speak of the kingdom of God as state of being. We are either lined up with God’s ways or living outside of them. The truth is that we can fall away, both as congregations and individuals without knowing it. We only abide in God, when we love those around us, and are willing to sacrifice on their behalf.


Today, racism and sexism grips both our country and our churches. We watch, without any remorse, our neighbors being economically persecuted. Families of color see their children incarcerated, or worse, for no other reason than being black in the wrong place. We have two coats, and yet we build walls and reduce the access of poor and/or rural families to healthcare. It is easy for us to water down the challenge that Jesus and the two Johns make, that we abide in God by committing ourselves to real acts of compassion.

Songs and scriptures call us to abiding in love, by our love
Easter 4
Luke 24:36-48

Jesus has to do some pretty silly stuff to get people to believe that he’s alive. In John 20, he lets Thomas poke him in the side. In Luke 24:36-48 he eats a bit of fish. Don’t think of a nice salmon broiled with butter. No. The disciples are poor folk in Jerusalem during the height of the tourist season. The city is three days away from the sea. The fish is likely to be boney. Think a pounded piece of perch from Galilee, dried on the dock, packed in salt — the bottom of the barrel. Jesus has a resurrected body. He’s not hungry. He does it so that they will believe.

So believing is really important. We need to believe that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. That believing in Jesus has the power to change our lives. And that Jesus died, intentionally, to save us from our sins. And that Jesus is alive again, and promises to make us alive again when we die.

Yet believing seems to be something that we can’t control. God knows that real spirituality has to be cultivated slowly and diligently in our lives. He doesn’t overwhelm us with obvious “that’s got to be God” moments. He scatters a few spiritual ah-has over the years. Yet, we are commanded to believe.

While the moment of belief seems to be out of our control, we are responsible for putting ourselves in the right place. Most of the disciples hung together, even though it was difficult, after Jesus was crucified. The came back to the upper room, swimming upstream against their doubts. They put themselves in a place, and with a fellowship, where faith was possible.

And Jesus rewarded them.

Patient Jesus gets examined by a man who is not a doctor
Easter 3
Psalm 133

Where were you on April 4, 1968? Those of you who were not born yet may be wondering why I ask the question. I was 14 and growing into social, political, and spiritual awareness —the three are woven together — in an all-white suburb of Pittsburgh. Shortly after Dr.Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Hill District erupted in a week-long riot. The clash of police and protestors was the lead story on every news channel across the country. It was my introduction to the racial divide that still plagues our country. In that formative moment, I was prone to accept the views of my all-white friends. I don’t remember what my teachers said, but I suspect they accepted the segregated high school and community they worked in to be part of the natural order. But in a few years, I would begin to notice that the pastor and youth leaders of my church spoke of a different order; a kingdom of God where there was a hard-fought unity among all people, and a respect for diversity.

Scholars are divided about Psalm 133, which says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” They are in agreement that this is a beautiful psalm describing the joys of worship and fellowship. They disagree about whether it was written at the end of David’s life when the country was at peace, or if it was in the turbulent time after the exile, when the nation had been broken into dozens of little ethnic groups by its wars and needed to rebuild its sense of community.

What have I learned in fifty years? There can be no unity without Justice — that is the free and fair access to housing, jobs, and equal protection under the law. There can be no unity without integration — we need to learn to live and worship with people who are different from us. There can be no unity without awareness. We need to take the time to understand why it is that people are taking to the streets in 2018 and shouting Black Lives Matter. There can be no unity until we accept that we still have a problem.

In the early 1970s I read, “The Invisible Man,” by James Baldwin. Today, I would recommend anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates (he coauthored the graphic novel behind the Black Panther movie). As an author, I believe that reading can help build unity. As the adult who looks back on that child in 1968, I wonder how different my life would have been if I had chosen only to listen to the easy voices, the talk of my friends, the talk of my white suburban elders, the talk of the beautiful people, like those who appear on Fox and Friends. Unity isn’t a matter of going with the flow. It’s a struggle for truth and justice.

Peaceful protest April 7, 1968
Easter 2
Martin Luther King Assassination 50th
John 20:1-18

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. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.


I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:


    1    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs, yet refuse to believe:

    ◦    "the world"; "chief priests"; most "Jews" and Pharisees (12:37); even the "brothers of Jesus" (7:5)

    2    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs and begin to believe, but don't fully recognize Jesus' identity:

    ◦    some crowds (6:36); some of the early "disciples" (6:64); some of "the Jews" (8:31; 11:45; 12:11)

    3    Those who come to believe in Jesus, but are evidently afraid to acknowledge their faith publicly:

    ◦    Nicodemus (3:1-10), some of "the Jews" (12:42); the parents of the man born blind (9:18-23)

    4    Those who encounter Jesus and come to believe in him, and are recognized as his disciples:

    ◦    the core group of disciples (1:50), the Samaritans (4:41-42), the man born blind (9:35-38), Thomas (20:24-29)

    5    Those who believe even without seeing signs, on the basis of hearing the words of Jesus and/or other witnesses:

    ◦    the royal official from Capernaum (4:53); Martha (believes before Lazarus is raised, 11:27); later believers, down to today (cf. the Thomas story, 20:19-29; and the first conclusion to the Gospel: 20:30-31)


Stage 1 - Hearing and not believing: Yes, some of these people snuck in today — they may be relatives and teens who couldn’t find a way to avoid attending church. We live in an age where religion gets blamed for everything wrong with the world. The story we want these people to see and believe, has nothing to do with politics or organized religion. It is the simple witness of God with us. Let them be John pondering the mystery of a folded napkin, or Mary, embracing the friend she just saw die. 

Stage 2 - Accepting the story of Jesus as a great man: Many of our best church leaders are here, they can’t accept the identity of Jesus as fully God. On Easter, Mary Magdalene has to let go, Jesus is more than she can grasp. Your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to preach a miracle that goes beyond our ability to reason and pigeon hole.

Stage 3 - The private believer: I was taught that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite company; see where that got me. Jesus makes his death and resurrection a public event. The post-pentecost church can’t be private. Let this Easter take you out of your comfort zone.

Stage 4 - The recognized disciple: This is where we all pretend to be. It means that what we saw at Easter has set us on a life long challenge to live as instruments of God’s power. Discipleship is a wonderful thing, but let’s all take a moment to recognize that God practically had to knock us over the head with a two by four to get us here. We have been slow learners when it comes to spiritual things. Easter can be very successful if you just help those who are stage four to recommit to being ‘all in’ with their discipleship. We can save the next stage for next week with Doubting Thomas.

Stage 5 -  Those who believe without seeing:  These are those who have a ‘child-like’ faith. They simply know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of by our reasonable religion (Hamlet).

Spiritual progress is a developmental thing
Easter Day
Mark 11:1-11
John 12:12-16

The story of Jesus falls into two halves; the part before Palm Sunday and the week after it. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus very rarely says or does anything overtly political. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition other than to teach and heal people. Then suddenly he comes to Holy Week and everything he does is political. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus deals with us on the level playing field of interpersonal relationships and the fair exchange of ideas. He teaches in open fields where people can interrupt him and ask him questions. He forms an intimate circle of disciples where everyday life — how are you today, Peter?—is valued. He heals by touching and his favorite miracle is having a few loaves of bread multiply as they are passed from one hungry person to another.

On Palm Sunday he exits the egalitarian world and enters politics as we know it today. As he transitions into the walled and gated city of our newsfeed world, he does three symbolic acts to ask for our vote: 1) He accepts the nomination of his followers who shout that he is Messiah or King of Jews, 2) He rides a donkey through the Eastern Gate, fulfilling prophesies relating to a new political age, 3) He has people wave palm branches, which are symbolic reminders of an earlier revolution when the Maccabeans kicked the Seleucids out of Jerusalem.

In doing this Jesus challenges our hierarchal world. In a world where Caesar is over Pontius Pilate, who is over the people of Judea, Jesus says, “You would have no authority if God hadn’t given it to you.” In the religious world where the High Priest rules over lesser priests who rule over laity, Jesus announces his own unique relationship as the son of God. His very presence in Jerusalem, the capital, circumvents the established authority.

On Palm Sunday, everyone says, “I’ll vote for him.” But having accepted that nomination Jesus is the same person that he was in Galilee. He still heals. He calls us each as individuals to leave our proud positions of honor and live compassionately. By the end of the week he is broken. “Behold the man,” Pilate says. He is hung on a cross. As he hangs there, I picture people walking by him and saying, “I didn’t vote for him either.” 

What do you say? You might be tempted to say, “I want the old Jesus back,” and “give me the Jesus I voted for.” Jesus can’t do what he came to do, without entering the walled city of our culture, our political institutions, our world. He is the same Jesus as he stands before Pilate as he is when he breaks bread with us in Holy Communion. We must live, as Karl Bart once said, with the Gospel of Jesus in one hand and our daily newspaper in the other.

Newspaper in one hand and gospel in the other
Palm Sunday
Lent 7
Type of Event : 
Conference with workshops
Date of Event: 
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 6:00pm to Thursday, May 3, 2018 - 1:00pm

May 1-3 at the UMC Conference center in Des Moines, Iowa


Who is Invited : 
Any church leader interested in ministry in and through transitions, especially those working as interim ministers.
Event Sponsor : 
John 12:20-33
Psalm 51

I almost didn't do my blog today. As I awoke, my phone's text screen said that Francis, a family member, had passed. She was a woman of faith. As she lay in Hospice, I was working on the death scene of the novel I am doing. I found myself revisiting about Jesus' words, a seed has to die to being a seed in order to be alive as a plant. Good way to think about death. 


In John 12, Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”


Jesus is not rationalizing his upcoming death, nor is he saying, “I can’t wait to die so I can go to heaven.” He is speaking of a process. Seeds have a purpose. They are planted in a variety of soils, because spirituality has to be lived out in context. We have to confront our own self-centeredness and learn to be compassionate in our relationships with other seedy-souls. To be a seed is to be human. Life cannot be rushed. The journey is important. Jesus speaks about his death as, his hour. Timing is important. Transition is sacred.


I noticed something this morning; Psalm 51 is much more powerful when I hear it in church. Praying, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” and hearing the response, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” adds grace to what can be a difficult time of self awareness. Sin is a shell — I am a seed within that shell. Lord, let me live as someone who has found mercy in your miracle of new life.


There are two types of people in this world; those who realize that they are seeds and pray for new life, in whatever form. And, those who say, “Huh?”

We don't see the big picture
Lent 5
Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Back before we had a treatment for rabies, you had to catch the dog that bit you and put a bit of its hair into a potion. The thinking was that having a little hair of what caused you pain could magically cure you, kind of like a day-after flu vaccine. Magical thinking prevails in the advice that a shot of alcohol in the morning will cure a hangover (Carrie Fisher’s alcohol soaked memoir is titled, “Magical Drinking”). Hence we say, “hair of the dog” when we repeat an action in miniature that got us in trouble the night before. In actuality a heavy drinker would be better off drinking water (they are usually dehydrated), and seeing a counselor (any hangover is a sign of a toxic relationship with booze), rather than taking something that delays their reentry to reality.

Moses might well have said, “hair of the dog,” or its yiddish equivalent, when the people of the Exodus were faced with snakes in the dessert. Moses had them cast a snake in bronze wrapped around a pole. People who were bit by poisonous snakes were told to look upon this snake, lifted up, and they would be cured (Numbers 21:4-9). In an unrelated bit of mythology, the Greek/Roman god of healing, Asclepius, had a pole with a snake around it, which today is the symbol for medicine. The truth behind the magical thinking is that the prayers of Moses brought forgiveness and healing to the people. In looking to the snake and pole, the people were meant to focus on their dependance upon God, and repent from the sins that had broken their faith.

Four hundred years later, that bronze snake makes a reappearance in the story of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), where we learn that the people had made an idol out of it and were worshipping it instead of God. Magical thinking is a curse, even when it is done religiously. Like the hair of the dog, it is so close to reality that it misses by a mile. Vaccines work by giving us a little bit of the disease — but, they would kill us if they were not developed scientifically.

So we come to John 3:14-21, where we learn that Jesus’ death on the cross will function for our sins like the bronze snake that Moses lifted in the wilderness. Magical thinking transforms the cross into a good luck token around our neck. Crosses are used to kill vampires, magically. But like Moses’ prayers, Jesus’ compassion and sacrifice is really what saves us. The atonement on the cross can never be put into fully rational language, but it can be taken — and here symbols, songs, and great artwork help — into our hearts and made the focus of our faith. Just don’t make it the hair of the dog.

Snake Doctor -- asclepius
Lent 4
Exodus 20:1-17

A good beginning is needed to carry you to the end. This is true of competitive things, stock car races and swimming. It is true of education, especially in mathematics and science. It is true of marriage and all intimate relationships. It is also true of ethics and our struggle to live as godly people. Ten commandments make a good start. Sincere believers are led from these ten commandments to the great simplification, stated by Jesus as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Because I need things even simpler, I try to follow the mantra, “Always be compassionate.” But, I need to be careful here, the starting point, or good beginning, is to have no gods or idols before the one Holy God.

The small group I was leading got into a side conversation about the sad state of the world. One of the folk summed it up by saying that the last of the Ten Commandments — the one about not coveting — was the hardest, and that our failure to rid our politics, our workplaces, and our personal lives of coveting was ruining everything. To covet means to yearn to possess something that you don’t, or can’t legitimately, own. It is based on the word for greed. We all have something or someone that we covet. Spirituality involves discipling our illegitimate impulses. If we don’t begin by choosing to hold the Holy God above all other idols — oh, the things we think will give our life meaning! — we will gladly exchange a little bit of heavenly mindedness for a chance to acquire what we want today. 

We covet things and steal. We covet other people and commit adultery. We covet freedom and betray our elderly. We covet getting ahead, and work on the Sabbath. We break all of the commandments because of our urge to covet. What breaks coveting? Loving the one true God. It is the foundation of loving the Lord our God, and honoring Him as the only Holy one, that leads us into a compassionate and right life, free of legalism.

Our honoring of God as Holy leads to compassion in all areas
Lent 3
Mark 8:31-38

Jesus once called Peter, Satan — as in, “Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve come to think of Peter as a mother hen. He wants to protect Jesus. Keep him from any harm. I tell the people I love to be careful when they go out into icy weather. I have not yet resorted to hiding my wife’s keys when she plans to drive in the snow. That would be silly. Jesus is telling Peter that he is more than being silly. Peter’s urge to protect Jesus borders on being traitorous. He is, in this moment, Satan. For Jesus’ mission involves going to the cross. He plans on being harmed. Jesus plans on dying. That is why he reacts to Peter’s concern so dramatically.

Jesus goes on to say that each of us will go to the cross, in our own way. We must plan it into our lives. We must not let our urge to protect ourselves cause us to back away from our mission. We must not let the concerns of our loved ones keep us from doing what we are called to do. If a mother hen stands between us and doing God’s will, we call him or her Satan.

I think of Martin Luther King. As the fight for civil rights intensified, he knew it would cost him his life. He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Montgomery, April 3, 1963).  I imagine his wife had a hard time listening to that speach. Jesus says that each of us will go on to the cross in our own way.

What does Jesus mean when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”?

We each pick up our cross by doing that thing for which we made. We each have our mission. We should know our crosses well. They are unique and represent the intersection of our giftedness and the humanity’s pain. Our mind, soul, and strength, are bound to our cross. But sometimes, our cross is dangerous to us. Still, what do we do? We pick up our cross anyway. 

I think of the students who are planning to walkout of their classes. I think of young people who are planning to protest against those politicians who are owned by the NRA. Surely their parents are concerned that they are doing something that may jepoardize their safety.  And not just them, I think of all the people who have had to pick up some kind of cross to fight against an injustice. I think of those who go to care for people who are sick, even though it puts them at risk. I think of those who work in dangerous occupations. If it is our mission, then we pick up our cross.

Your cross is where your gifts intersect with the world's pain
Lent 2
Fox News watcher

I think a fish could avoid getting caught if he learned to bite the fisherman instead of the bait. With this week’s shooting we have once again become polarized into two camps; some want to ban machine guns, and some of my friends are going out today to buy a gun because they fear that the second amendment is about to be taken out of the constitution. Both camps are thrashing around in someones boat. Our whole society seems caught in a net of polarized madness. Gun control one of two or three issues that are filleting America. This particular hook is baited by a diabolical organization, the NRA. They have taught their members to only vote for candidates that they have approved. They have collected vast sums of money to buy our democracy away from us. Anyone who boils the complexity of who I should vote for down to a single issue is baiting my hook.
    Where else are bad people trolling the American democracy? Around issues of race, immigration, and economic class. Here the fisherman baits the hook by saying, “America used to be the kind of place where….” Whatever is said next is designed to polarize. It pits the class that had some special privilege in 1955 against the people who need today what the constitution promised us all in 1784. Hook baiters always make us look back. But today, we have a handful of people, a less than 1%, who fishing with meanness and an arrogant disregard for truth. They lure us into fighting with each other, rather than learning the ways that make for peace. Learning not to bite the hook is difficult. Learning to bite the fishermen is harder. It will require us to boycott certain products, engage in peaceful protest, and trade in our favorite news shows for something more meaty. 

Mark 1:9-12

We recently watched the movie, Molly’s Game. Not to spoil it, but Molly’s story runs on two levels; there is her rise and fall in the competitive world of Olympic ski competition. Then there is her rise and fall — fall, as in criminal indictment — as the runner of a high stakes poker game. In both stories, Molly has the rush of victory and the agony of defeat. While going for a medal at the winter Olympics, she has a fall that nearly kills her. She spent many months in the wilderness of a hospital. Jesus is baptized, sees heaven open up. God claims him as his son (scholars debate about how much he knew before this event described in Mark 1:9-12) and then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the agony of the wilderness, fasting for forty days and being harassed by wild animals and demons.

What are we to learn from this? The higher your jump, the more profound your fall? That is what you think you are seeing when you go to a movie like Molly’s Game. But two greater truths emerge: 1) That her inner sense of character, her soul, comes to the front because of her fall. She has the opportunity to “sell out” and shorten her stay in the wilderness, but she chooses instead the moral high ground. 2) We don’t know ourselves until we go into the dark place. We must either walk through the wilderness or live forever in the shallows of life.

What do we learn from Jesus being driven out into the wilderness? 1) That Jesus chose it. He chose fasting. He completed the full forty days that he had signed up for. We too must choose to be spiritual people, and that means suffering. 2) That the fullness of who we are as people only emerges after we go where we are totally empty.

Isolation is also a part of wilderness
Lent 1
2 Kings 2:1-15

A man walks into a bar and says, “Make mine a double.” What he means is take a shot of whatever spirits and put it in a glass, then double it by adding another shot. It’s a very literal thing. Instead of one ounce of booze, you have two. I think we should be more literal when talking about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have one ounce of spirit. Sometimes we have more. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. Our soul is real, as is our God. Religion doesn’t deal with intangibles. In spiritual matters we deal with a substance that matters. In Bible times, every son got one portion of the family estate. But the first born son got a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. Is the Holy Spirit that real to you?

Let that be your starting point in the familiar story of Elijah’s chariot ride to heaven (II Kings 2:1-15. The old prophet’s sidekick, Elisha, gets a double share of the Holy Spirit. The people take a measure of the new kid. Yes, he does have a lot of spirit. So the people accept him as their new spiritual leader. We tend to miss the way this story speaks about the physicality of the Holy Spirit. It picks Elijah up (notice the chariot is made of fire), it falls in the form of a mantle, it splits the water, it manifests itself in a way that is obvious to common folk. Something this real can be doubled.
It can also be halved and halved again. This is what is happening to the Holy Spirit today. We barely notice Lent, even though ancient Christians used this forty day period to substantially increase their faith. We hardly ever pray with the expectation that God’s Spirit will do something tangible because of our prayers. We treat the Bible as if it is irrelevant, something you just read on the weekend if you’re into that kind of thing. We don’t speak with joy about how the Spirit connects us with Jesus the son of God. We wish for our worship to be short, not inspiring.

Take out your ruler this Lent. Measure the length, the depth, the height of the Holy Spirit in your life.

Just as fuel is quantifiable, so is Spiritual Passion
Epiphany 6
Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 1:29-39

Mark is the Tom Clancy of the New Testament. He is an action adventure writer. His gospel moves fast. His favorite word is “immediately.” He hates the passive voice. Jesus is always doing something. As a writer, myself, I recognize the writing problem that Mark gets himself into at the end of his first chapter. Mark wants to keep the story moving, but he also wants to give us details about how Jesus spent his days. The Bible’s other authors would have written a few paragraphs about what Jesus often did, or the nature of his habits. “Often” and “routine” are not in Mark’s adventure packed vocabulary.

Many Bible scholars think that Mark, also known as John-Mark, is Peter’s ghost writer. The impulsive fisherman didn’t have time to put words to paper. Mark didn’t want to waste the reader’s time, or attention span, with talk of what Jesus ate for breakfast or how often he went to the gym. Instead, he gives us a fast paced account of a single day. He implies that this is what its like to follow Jesus. We are left thinking that being a disciple is too high stress, 24/7, type A, a thing for our lives (not that I’m criticizing Mark). Yet, Mark is an antidote to the ho-hum, gentle and mild, church-is-boring, way we have settled into this Christianity thing. 

Lent starts in another week and a half. We do well to remember that the reason Mark rips through the beginning of Jesus’ story is because he wants to take us to the cross. The event that reshapes all of human history doesn’t happen along the quaint Galilean shore, it’s in Jerusalem — bloody and passionate — and there, oddly enough, Mark slows down to bring our work-a-day world to a stop.

So every day with Jesus isn’t like the one described in Mark 1:21-39. But they all contain the same elements:

  • Mark 1:21 - The application of scripture to real life. Jesus taught with authority because he knew that the Bible was relevant to the needs of everyday people like us.
  • Verses 23-27 - A willingness to confront the most difficult spiritual problems of the day, every day, especially on Sunday. 
  • Verse 28 - Going public. Go big or go home. Jesus made news.
  • Verses30-34 - Jesus brought healing everywhere. Who will he be for us today? Our healer.
  • Verse 35 - Prayer, private worship, and checking in with the soul, are the most consistent aspects of daily Christian life.
  • Verses 36-39 - Jesus goes on the road to find new people. We need diversity. We need to go to those who are not like us.
It takes motionless meditation to be as good at action as Jesus was
Epiphany 5
Mark 1:21-28
Matthew 5:21-32

When Jesus went into the local synagog people were amazed because he taught with authority. They were used to hearing long discussions about what constituted work on the sabbath and who was allowed to marry whom. A meeting began with the phrase, “Rabbi so and so says X, and Rabbi such and such says Y…” and continued until all parties were exhausted. Normal people went home, fed the kids, planted the fields, and watched the sunset. Jesus began differently. “You have heard in the past… I tell you, ‘love your neighbor.’”

Before Jesus, there had been much discussion about what constituted murder. Is abortion murder? Is it murder if you go to war in a far off jungle and set huts on fire to kill the one enemy hiding among a hundred peasants? Is it murder if you allow the industry that you work for to put a cancer causing chemical into the water? But Jesus said, “Anyone who remains angry at another person is committing murder” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Before Jesus there was a raging debate about how much people should donate, that is, pay in temple tax or place upon the altar for distribution to the poor. Jesus came and said, “If you have a broken relationship with another person, go and heal that break before going to worship or working at a charity” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Before Jesus, we used to debate about when to lawyer up and/or sue someone (Matthew 5:25). We had complicated laws about adultery and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32). Jesus came and taught with authority. He told us to always be compassionate. The whole of the Gospel from the first chapter of Mark to the day Jesus ascended into heaven can be stated in one word, love. Jesus had authority because he never compromised or made our moral choices more complicated than they needed to be. If an action can't be done with real compassion and respect for everyone involved, it shouldn't be done. Loving others is the one task of Jesus’ followers.

After Jesus, we went back to business as usual. Demons quietly took charge of our civic organizations, politics, and even our churches. No one had the authority to kick them out. The last thing that Jesus said to his followers was, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Then he gave the Holy Spirit to those he left behind so that they might have his authority to go into this hurting world and be compassionate. Anyone who knows Jesus can be “an authority” by simply choosing to love the people around them without compromise.

That is all that I know.  

What is written is not that hard: be compassionate
Epiphany 4
Mark 1:14-20

Jesus calls people to follow him. I am always amazed that the first people he called “left everything.” I put myself in their sandals and say, “I wouldn’t follow Jesus today, because it snowed three inches overnight and I have to shovel us out first.” Peter and James may not have had snow, but they had fish to be taken to market, nets to be mended, elderly parents, households to take care of, etc. Looking closely at the story (Mark 1:14-20), I see that John the Baptist had already prepared these people. When we listen to Jesus, our hearts have already been prepared by the scriptures we have learned, the people who lived as Christians before us, the dark traumas of our own lives when God was our only help and consolation. These things are in our past, Jesus is before us, do we follow him?

When people follow him they join up for the same experience the first disciples had:

  1. They become a part of a small group working together to know Jesus. Think the Hobbit. Think of the tightest team you’ve ever been a part of — I ran cross-country and had a very close relationship with the guys on my high school team the year before I became a Christian. If you follow Jesus, he will call you to be a part of a small group.
  2. Hands on experience of helping people. Jesus didn’t ask people to give money to a mission project. He asked people to follow him and do as he did as he met the needs of people. 
  3. A journey to the cross. Lent is coming. Will you follow Jesus more intentionally this year, even if it put some of what you value now at risk? 
They are ready to follow Jesus
Epiphany 3
John 1:43-51
Psalm 139

John wants to tell us what he found remarkable about Jesus (John 1:43-51). He tells us that Jesus was the invisible word that God used to make the universe, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?” John then tells us how John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?”  Then John gets right down to it. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Andrew brings his brother to meet Jesus. Jesus says to Peter, “I know you.” Phillip bring Nathaniel to Jesus. Jesus immediately makes Nathaniel aware that he really knows him well, even though they have never physically met. Now it’s your turn. You are brought to Jesus. And he says, “I know you.” Then you discover that Jesus is the teacher that you need right now. If you choose to walk with Jesus, you will discover that Jesus knows you better than you know yourself.

There is an anonymous saying, possibly originating in eastern mysticism, which says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” These words speak to how we learn things. The process by which we make those quantum leaps in our lives, involves two things; first, our own inner maturity developing to a certain point, and second, an intervention by someone else who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

None of the first disciples were really looking for Jesus when they found him. True, Nathaniel seems to have been very religious and searching for something. Until he came to this moment though, he didn’t know enough to know that he needed Jesus. When he was ready, though, Jesus came to him. Jesus became his teacher. He became a disciple, someone who is ready to learn.

I feel that this has happened to me at a number of pivotal points in my life. When I met the woman who has been my mate for forty-three years, I was actively dating, but I wasn’t really looking for her. A year later, I was ready to move on. But God (yes, I blame him), allowed things to happen in my life that showed me that I had a lot to learn from this relationship. The same thing happened when I became serious about writing. I had dabbled in a variety of creative outlets, but at the right time, God sent into my life the particular teachers and role models that I needed to become an author.

May your prayers on this passage deepen your sense of vocation. 

Jesus interrupts people who don't know that they are looking for him
Epiphany 2
Genesis 1:1-5

Some people take a long time to get to the point. The Bible takes ten words to get to it. Ten words and we are told that before God spoke the “Word” the earth was a formless nothing. All of creation was face-less. Nothing had any distinction. It was dark. It was meaningless. Total entropy — physics speak for everything being without information, chaotic, and at its lowest energy state. Goo. The pits. 

I’m glad not to have known it. When we have trauma. When we lose a loved one. When our hopes are dashed. When the doctor says “cancer” or “terminal.” We visit the outer most edge of this hell. But God’s spirit has already hovered over this void. The creator came to know the total accumulation of everything that depresses us. It was dark. God said, “Let there be light.”

This is how the Bible begins. It doesn’t begin with an argument against evolution. It begins by telling us that there was once such a deep hopelessness that there could never be anything. God acted. He spoke into being the complexity of creation. I suspect that God used evolution, for Darwin tells us that this process enables there to be diversity. Life is bent on filling every niche. It is bent on being good, because this is what God spoke into existence. 

When we lack purpose in life, here’s the point. In less than ten words the Bible can restore our sense of wonder and hope. I’m glad to have known that.

When bad things happen to us, we poke our minds outside of the created order that God has gifted us with, and for a moment, feel the pre-existent void. We don’t have to stay there. It, however, gives us a new perspective. From this darkness, we can be creative.

beyond creation, only nothing
Epiphany 1