Archive for July, 2016

2 Kings 19:14-19

July 29, 2016

Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; then Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said:

“O Lord the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God.

Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed.

So now, O Lord our God, save us, I pray you, from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” 2 Kings 19:14-19

The heart of the story of King Hezekiah of Judah runs from 2 Kings 18-20. He was a good and consequential king. He came to rule at a time when 2/3’s of the land of Israel, the northern kingdom, had fallen to the Assyrian armies. A time when idolatry had turned the heads of the people of Israel. When faith in the living God had been traded for faith in idols made by human hands. It was a dark time.

But King Hezekiah was a man of faith. He tore down the sites of idolatrous imagination. He even destroyed the pole and bronze serpent that took the people back to the time of Moses, signs that were no longer signs of the power of God but signs that had become ends unto themselves.

When the scene opened captured in the verses above, the Assyrian army stood ready to attack and destroy Jerusalem. For a time Hezekiah had held them off by paying the tribute they demanded. But feeding idols is a waste of time. They are never satisfied. The Assyrians weren’t satisfied and now warned King Hezekiah that the time was near when they would finish off Jerusalem once and for all.

So what did King Hezekiah do? In 2 Kings 19:1, he went to the temple to pray. And now here in these verses, he again prays to God for protection. Again and again, the voice of the Assyrians mocked God and mocked King Hezekiah’s naïve faith that God would act. God would intervene. God’s will would be done. The idols and enemies would be swallowed up and God’s people would survive and prosper.

Again, as the Assyrian leader sent Hezekiah with mocking reminders of Assyrian power, Assyrian success, Assyrian dominance, Hezekiah turned again to prayer in our verses for today.

Hezekiah relied, not on the help of friends for Egypt proved untrustworthy, but on the help of God, the Lord of Lords. He relied on prayer, not to escape the darkness but that through his prayers, God might open the eyes of the blind, thwart the evil designs of the wicked, and save those destined to carry the story to the generations to come.

It was prayer, trust in God, that turned the tables. The Assyrian leader went home and met an untimely end. The Assyrian army was overcome by the supernatural power of God. In the end, God’s story continued and Hezekiah came to the end of a long and fruitful life.

I’m reminded here again of that great line from Psalm 37:4, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Every time we read that line we should take not that it is not saying that God will give us everything our heart desires, but that God will implant in us godly desires themselves. That God’s will might become our wills. That God’s ways might become our ways. This was Hezekiah’s hope and realized dream. It is our hope as well.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see… As your ears open to us, open our ears. As your eyes open to us, open our eyes. May we remember today that the future is yours and that we shall not be moved. Your will, your ways, seen most clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus, are the hope of the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


1 Kings 18:36-40

July 28, 2016

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there. 1 Kings 18:36-40

Sometimes people will write and ask me how I choose the Bible readings for each day. That varies every week, it all depends on what comes to me on Sunday nights. But this week I’m using the texts assigned to each day from a Taking Faith Home bulletin insert that we make available to people in worship. These are really wonderful tools to help parents experience the Christian faith with their children.

I felt the need to tell you that so you don’t think that I am “cooking the books” with the Bible readings this week. I’m just responding to the texts as I’m seeing them. And I find it remarkable that today’s story, the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal follows what I shared yesterday in response to the murder of Father Jacques Hamel in France. Specifically, what it means to truly hear the scriptures in our world today.

We could come at this story from many angles. We could notice that, although the political world of Israel was in turmoil and disobedience, God hadn’t wiped God’s hands of the people that God loves. He was still there and he was still showing up in and through Elijah.

We could talk about the role of idolatry in our lives. We all have our Baals. We’ll never run out of Baals. We chase our Baals – which always feels like chasing our tails – but they never deliver the goods and they always lead us to places we ought not go.

We could talk about how available God is to us in prayer. The power of prayer. The efficacy of prayer. The way that turning to God in prayer involves surrendering ourselves to God’s will, in the trust that God – unlike the Baals – will not lead us astray.

All of that and much much more lies in this story.  But here is where I will not go and I think no one ought to go: I’m not going to use this story to plug modern day Christianity, even my own tribe, ELCA Lutherans, into the role of “Elijah” and cast every other person outside of my tribe as a prophet of Baal.

And I’m not going to honor the idea of the religious genocide, the so-called religious cleansing, that concludes the story with Elijah murdering 450 prophets of Baal. I doubt the historicity of the whole story in that I seriously doubt that, had I been there with a video camera, I would have captured anything close to what the writer of 1 Kings imagined in telling the story in the first place.

The barbaric ending to this story teaches us about the dangers of idolatry. It does not suggest how we ought to treat people of different faiths. God has nothing to do with those who kill the innocent in God’s name – they are not following God, they are following an idol of their own self-centered delusions.

Which brings me back to the big idea behind Taking Faith Home. God’s primary delivery system for nurturing spirituality and a God-centered worldview are called parents. The rest of us are here to help parents. I pray that we are all mindful of how we talk about the world, and how we teach about the world, in these troubled days.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, in good times and bad times, we turn to you. We offer prayers of gratitude, we ask for help, for direction, for comfort, and for strength. We ask for wisdom and discernment, for courage and conviction. And we pray that you might lead us not into temptation, that you might deliver us from evil. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Samuel 1:9-18

July 27, 2016

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”

But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 1 Samuel 1:9-18

The Rev. Jacques Hamel was 86 years old. He was accompanied by three nuns and two church members, saying Mass, when their worship was interrupted. Two heartless, murderous young men forced Father Hamel to his knees in front of the altar, profaning both the altar and their own faith with memorized Arabic phrases, then ended his life, spilling his blood in that space built to remember the spilled blood of another godly and innocent man.

As story after story appears of the wicked cowardice of deranged killers spreading death in the name of a perverted interpretation of their Islamic faith, we wonder how can this happen. The next story comes out and the next and again and again we find ourselves shocked, repulsed, horrified, and enraged.

Abducting hundreds of girls from a school. Driving a truck through a crowded festival. Another exploding car or exploding vest. Knives and bombs and guns and throwing people from buildings. At some point this will either be stopped or it will become a new medieval normal. Which will it be?

The Bible records many periods when God was all but forgotten and people handed themselves over to evil thoughts and actions. It also records times when the people of Israel, the people of God, did horrible things in God’s name. We have learned to listen closely to such texts, to temper their harshness, to consider the self-serving ways that survivors write history. Angry and reactive though we might feel, Christians will not resort to reading stories of the full-scale slaughter of villages as if that is the godly path to restoring peace and order. And if any do, or feel so inclined, voices of reason and compassion who have heard the words of Jesus will rebuke such ideas.

I hope, I pray, and I trust, that there are Moslem imams the world over exhorting their people to see the difference between the violent tribalism recorded in the Koran and its timeless calls to honoring God, self-restraint, peace, hospitality, brotherhood, and compassion.

The story of Hannah and her experience before another aged priest, Eli, is also written out of a time of despair. Not only Hannah’s personal despair but a time when people were turning their back on God. But God was still at work. The child promised to Hannah would be a blessing and a turning point in the story. The star of the story isn’t Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, or Eli, the aged priest. The star of the story is a woman who prayed to be a mother with the guts to say to that priest, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Maybe the message we need to hear today is that we have had enough of men with narrow views of faith, enough of husbands and sons killing others for their short-sighted cause of the day. Maybe it is time to see and to listen to the voices of mothers, strong and loving women, who seek not to end lives but to bear them into the world and nurture them in love. Mothers like this, and this, and this. If not now, when?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we thank you for the long, fruitful, and faithful ministry of Father Jacques Hamel. We pray for those who grieve his death, for his sisters who stood by his side to the end, and for all of us who see in his death our own vulnerability and need. Thank you for the persistent faith of Hannah and we pray that her courage might be made incarnate in the mothers of the world who seek to save their sons from themselves and their own twisted ideas. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 138

July 26, 2016

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.

On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.

For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. Psalm 138

Again and again, throughout the Bible, we are reminded of the upside down nature of the kingdom of God. “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.” Why is that?

Why does God regard the lowly and yet perceives from far away the haughty?

Could it be as simple as this: The lowly, the humble, realize that they are not God, and realize that they need God while the haughty, the proud, are just fine doing their own thing with nary a thought about what God wants?

And then what do we do: We read about the lowly and the haughty, or the sheep and the goats, or the weeds and the wheat, and we immediately judge in our own hearts which team we play on. We usually put ourselves on top. We get it better than anyone else. We categorize and demonize and then go to the mirror to see who is the fairest one of all.

The deeper truth is that we all have a little bit of both in us. Our hope lies in which wolf we feed, in how open we are to the guidance of the Spirit.

I was writing last Sunday’s sermon when it occurred to me that my prayer life is a really great barometer on the degree to which I am doing my own thing in life or relying on God for guidance, direction, and strength. On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. Do you see the same in your life? Do you realize that is how God has wired us?

Down through the ages, the Christian church has been criticized for having an edifice complex. For being all about the building. At its best, caring about the spaces in which we worship is tied to “I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness…” At its worst, it is simple earthly “our church building is better than yours.” It is a fine line and a spiritually dangerous game.

But I appreciate church buildings. I live in Houston. I like air conditioning. But what I really appreciate is that buildings don’t move. The Bible says that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, wherever we go, God is there. But buildings stay in one place. What I appreciate about that is knowing that, whenever God seems far away, it is clear that God is not the one who has moved. So it is that the haughty God perceives from far away.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we constantly face the temptation to be gods unto ourselves, to do our own thing, to consider only what is in it for us. Yet you have shaped us to rely on you, to turn to you, to surrender to you, to trust in you, to lean not unto our own understanding. Fill us with the grace to be real, to be honest, to be humble, to be who and what you created us to be, that we might do our part in our little corners of the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

July 25, 2016

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14

I once had a friend who was really into throwing darts. One night they invited me to “league night” at a pub here in Houston. I was amazed. The place was packed. I hadn’t seen anything like that since the smoky crowds at the night leagues at the bowling alley in my hometown. There were a lot of people who were really good at throwing darts.

Kelley and I look at our boys in wonder. Both of them grew up with wide ranging interests and they always ended up being pretty good at what they did. They both just had a knack for picking things up quickly and developing a passion for them.

I’m sitting out the Pokemon Go craze. This isn’t hard for me to do. But millions of people jumped right in, creating yet another sub-culture of people who get really good at doing something that cause others to just shake their heads.

People have the capacity to get good at doing lots of things. And, in this world, they get rewarded for that. So it only makes sense that we would bring the same mentality into our practice of Christianity.

Some people get really good at it. It seems to come easy for them. Sunday mornings come and they are in worship. Every week. They volunteer for things. They give time and money. They continue to learn. Their lives have integrity. These salt of the earth people amaze me. I don’t know where the church would be without them.

But the trouble is…and this is hard to say but I’m going to say it anyway….like anything else, getting good at something, in and of itself, doesn’t say all that could be said. I can well imagine someone who is very good at all things “church” and yet, deep down inside, has never let the Holy Spirit budge them an inch. The faith is not challenging to them because they have learned how to “manage” it to fit their own best interests.

There’s some of me in that. There’s some of all of us in that. And there was certainly some of that in the prayers of the self-righteous person who didn’t impress Jesus. Notice how he “stood by himself” in his prayers. He was praying, but he wasn’t connected.

I need to hear that. We all need to hear that. Because hearing that is precisely what drives us to the honest, humble, personal, and direct plea for mercy of the prayers of the tax collector. He too stood by himself but he was different. He stood “far off.” And that is precisely where Jesus found him.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, break our hearts of stone. Open our wax-filled ears. Heal our blindness. Help us drop our merit badges and signs of success and call us on the temptation to measure ourselves over against others. Bring us, just as we are, into your presence and heal our broken souls. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 31:19-24

July 22, 2016

O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone! In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.

Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege. I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.

Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. Psalm 31:19-24

Lorne Ahrens, Philando Castile, Brad Garafola, Matthew Gerald, Montrell Jackson, Michael Johnson, Michael Krol, Gavin Long, Michael Smith, Alton Sterling, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa.

These are the names. These men, their families, their friends, their communities – these are the ones that I have encouraged us to pray for each day this week.

These are the names of those who have suffered, or caused, a sense we share that we are a city under siege. In this list are police officers who were doing their duty with professionalism and courage, men denied their day in court by their own actions or the actions of others, and men who projected their hate and vitriol through the guns and bullets that took the lives of the innocent.

Among these names we can see the latest ones to bear family names in long lines reaching back to the various places from which their forebears came, all with a dream to make a new life in the United States. Among these names we can see the latest ones to bear the name of a long forgotten slave holder who stamped their forebears with his sign of ownership after they endured the death of their dreams in being forced to a land they knew nothing about.

All of these are the names of our brothers. All of these are the names of God’s children, God’s creation, God’s beloved.

“Love the Lord, all you his saints” the Psalmist encourages us. Later Jesus would flesh out the full meaning of that phrase when he tied it to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Everyone is born in love. No one is born in hate. We have to be taught to hate. No one is born with a sense of their own identity. That sense is shaped by the family and the culture into which they are born. To LEARN the love of God and love of neighbor, and then to LIVE the love of God and love of neighbor, is God’s will for us and it is the hope of the world.

One way we learn such love is to pray. To pray for our loved ones. To pray for our enemies. To pray for our communities and those given responsibility to lead, to serve, and to protect. To pray for the broken, the grieving, the now-powerful, and the now-powerless. To pray thy will be done, thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, may the names of these our brothers be added to those that would teach us that your ways are the ways to life at its best and life everlasting. We claim the promises of our faith for them, for their families, and for our communities. Give us strength, give us courage, give us compassion, and give us hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 31:9-18

July 21, 2016

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol. Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt. Psalm 31:9-18

Last night I spoke at a memorial service for the brother of a friend who has become part of the Faith Lutheran community. It was a different kind of memorial service and, as I prepared for my part, I found myself choosing a Bible reading that I have never used before. And as I spoke, I said some things that I have never said before at such a service.

There are two things that I have always heard people say about funerals. People appreciate when funerals are very personal. And people can sense a difference if the pastor really knows, or seems to know, the person around which everyone has gathered.

I can appreciate those thoughts and I don’t disparage them. However, regardless of how personal we attempt to make memorial services, the reality is that death is the great equalizer. Death shows no preference for gender, class, race, religion, region, or any of the other humanly created illusions of difference. As a Christian I can only believe that when anyone dies, anywhere, I have lost a brother or a sister and I trust that God has prepared a place for us to meet again. A place without tears in eyes or tears in the fabric of God’s beautiful creation.

As for “knowing the person”, I get that. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching aspects of my job. I can’t win at that one. Sometimes it is hard to contain my own grief, either because of my relationship with the person who died or my love for those left behind. And when I don’t know anyone in the room, let’s say the funeral home just called looking for someone to help a family because “they think their loved one used to be Lutheran or something at some time”, I feel a different sort of pain. It hurts to know that a funeral is just a moment in time – that real grief is a community endeavor and I know that the conversation that needs to happen might not happen as this might be my only time to be with that particular family before everyone goes their separate ways.

So last night I talked about how much more important it is, not that I know the man who we have gathered to remember, but that God knows him. Not only do I believe God knows him, I believe God knows him far better than any of you knows him, better even that he knew himself. And that God loves him, not for HOW he was, but for WHO he was. Another broken, sinful, beautiful, complex, work of human art wrought by the loving creative hands of the Author of the Universe.

So no, I didn’t know the people we are praying for this week. The police officers and the men whose lives were taken far too cruelly and far too soon. I don’t know their families, their children, and their friends. But God does and they are my brothers and sisters.

The great equalizer has reminded us all again that life on this planet does not last forever. So how will we use this time, so often marked by a sense that “my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.”?

Could we do any better than speaking the truth in love? In seeking first to understand rather than be understood? In asking for the grace to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, in forgiving others and in that in finding ourselves forgiven? Is there a better, more hopeful, way to live than that?

Rest in peace, my sisters and brothers. And the rest of us? Could we do better than loving God and loving our neighbor?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, today we pray for wisdom and discernment, for truth and integrity, for hope and for hopefulness. We pray that the lost not be forgotten and that our hearts not turn to stone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 31:1-8

July 20, 2016

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.

Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.

I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities, and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place. Psalm 31:1-8

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave his acceptance speech at his party’s state convention upon being nominated to run for the United States Senate. In that speech he said these words:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

As we pray this week for the victims and families of the law enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as well as the victims and families of those killed by law enforcement officers, I thought of those words. Then the driving force behind the spirit of division within our country revolved around race. Aren’t we in much the same place today?

At some point, the book of Psalms was gathered together, each psalm numbered and placed in the order they now appear in our Bibles. This wasn’t a matter of coherence and careful topical arrangement. As a book of poetry it isn’t arranged by poetic genre. But many psalms are set together, they flow together, as they offer words to accompany the chances and changes of our lives.

Both Psalms 30 and 31 are written as pleas for help and mercy in times of trouble. Psalm 30 expresses the hopefulness of deliverance. Psalm 31 expresses the pain of yearning for deliverance. We all sense that yearning in our country today.

Many voices, commenting on the role that race plays in community relationships between people and police, say that we have moved far beyond where we used to be. That we are far beyond the time of racial division, or at least we ought to be. They say that race has little or nothing to do with these events. They express disappointment that, having elected our first black President, we seem to be moving backwards into old divisions.

Other voices say that such divisions have continued to exist, but largely out of sight and out of mind of the wider society. Racial divisions are not being exploited, stoked, or fanned today, they are being exposed. Coming to the light is painful for those who have so long walked in darkness.

In such an atmosphere, President Lincoln reached for the words of the Bible, from Mark 3: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In another moment, a man of peace who spoke of the vastness of God’s mercy in the Kingdom of God, was crucified by the government as a subversive troublemaker. He too reached into the Bible, to today’s verses from Psalm 31, for words, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

Mutual commitment to the love and mercy of God will be our path toward healing. Out-shouting and out-shooting each other will never get us to where God wants us to be.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. We are driven by thoughts and ideas which have long possessed us, consciously and unconsciously. Then things happen and people suffer and we are shocked out of our complacency and feel set adrift. Continue to bring hope to those grieving the loss of loved ones. Continue to bring us to that point where we yield our wills and our spirits to your will and your Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 30:6-12

July 19, 2016

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”

By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Psalm 30:6-12

The first line in this portion of Psalm 30 is quite revealing. It captures two potentially dangerous aspects of how we tend to think about God, and respond to God, in our lives. First, we (like pretty much all people down through the ages) tend to equate personal prosperity with God’s gracious favor. The danger here is that we run the risk of reducing our gratitude to God for all times to only crediting God with the good times. If we add our own hard work and intelligence to the formula then we end up with the prosperity gospel and we’ve shaken the dust of Jesus off of our feet and gone our own way.

And second, we fail to see the potential idolatry of our prosperity.

The Psalmist understands how we think and resists our efforts to go there. The reality is that hard times come, prosperity isn’t our salvation, and the bigger we are (in our own minds), the harder we fall (when things no longer go our way.) The Psalmist describes such moments in several ways, here he says that God “hid your face.”

And how do we respond? Our prayer becomes a negotiation with God. What good does it do if we fail? What profit is there in your cause, O God, if I die?

Again today we pray for the men and women who will leave their houses and apartments, drive to the station house, suit up, meet with their supervisors, and then head out to the street for the purpose of serving and protecting society. Some of those they serve will greet them with respect, feeling the comfort of their presence. Others will cringe inside when they see those cars turn down their street. Many will worry that today will be another day that God hides God’s face.

I once asked the patrol sergeant who I rode with through the night, “How do you handle the idea that something bad might happen to you on duty?” Not surprisingly, his response was both fatalistic and faithful, “I figure, if its my time, then its my time, and there isn’t much that I can do about it. That’s all up to God.”

There is no negotiation in that. There is no relying on “God will show me special favor because I’ve been a good boy.” This is not the prosperity gospel – look at my many blessings and see there how God has rewarded me. No, this is good old fashioned “take up your cross and follow me” discipleship. Doing what you do for the sake of the world with the willingness to suffer whatever might come your way along the way.

There are times when it feels like God has hidden God’s face from our sight…but looking back, isn’t it far more likely that we no longer see God’s face because WE have turned our backs on God? God is still there, always ready to turn our mourning into dancing; taking off our sackclothes and clothing us with joy, so that our souls may praise you and not be silent.”

Let us pray: Today, Lord, is a new day. It is another day. May today be a day when we submit our wills to your will, that we might do our part in the world for the common good of all. Protect those who serve and protect others. Draw near to the grieving, to those in despair, to those struggling with fear, with anger, with regret. May we not, even when times are good, turn our backs on you. May we, in all things and all times, know your presence and the redemptive power of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 30:1-5

July 18, 2016

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.

O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.

O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:1-5

Several police officers and their families were members of the first congregation that I served. One allowed me to ride along with him several times as he worked the night shift in the district that included our church building. I watched him and others handle instances of domestic violence, reports of gun shots from a large party, recover stolen vehicles, and rush to homes to thwart break-ins.

I just got a taste of what police officers like him do, night after night after night, all over our country. They form a tight community because they have to. Everyone needs the support of others. No one else understands the demands of a job like that. No one else understands the pressure their families feel as their loved ones leave every day for a job that always includes the danger that they might not come back home.

I just came home from a long motorcycle trip. Kelley cried the night before I left. She fears for my safety every time I go away on another adventure; she worries that I might not come home. And I honor that by checking in with her, riding as safely as possible, but I too realize that I’m not in control of a deer dashing across the highway or some piece of road junk suddenly appearing in front of me.

So I am mindful today of the added stress being felt by every police officer in our country in the aftermath of the senseless and tragic shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Let’s pray for them today and every day this week.

I am mindful of their families, the families grieving the loss of their loved ones, and the families fearful of what might happen today or any day. Let’s pray for them as well.

And yes, I am also very mindful of people with black and brown skin who have long had very different experiences with police officers than what I have known. People who report being singled out, hassled, and treated with disrespect. Here I am not just praying for them, I am also praying for myself – that I remain open-minded and open-hearted so that I can hear their stories without defensiveness or reactivity.

The Psalmist turns always to God for help and healing. The Psalmist never sugar coats the realities of life. The realities of enemies and foes and sickness and death. Yet he also never leaves us there but always drives us back to the promises of God. That “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, this morning we pray for the families of the police officers whose lives were taken in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We pray for healing for the wounded and healing in the hearts of all of their families. We pray for each and every officer that faithfully shows up to duty with the added burden of fear and stress. We pray for all of those now gathering this week in Cleveland. And we pray for the black men and boys who have been killed by police officers, for their families, and for their communities. Take us all through a time of weeping, restore our joy, let justice roll down like waters, and bless those who would call us together rather than driving us apart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.