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Sunday, August 24

Today’s Readings: Psalm 124; Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8

Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that the event in Christian history I most wrestle with is the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 AD. I certainly do appreciate the way Constantine’s conversion provided a larger stage to get the word out about the power of our faith. In fact this is the very reason why the Eastern Orthodox Church reveres Constantine as a saint. I do see a dark side to the conversion of the Emperor, however. As I discussed in earlier blogs, once the state officially merged with Christianity it helped set in motion a chain of events that established a sense of orthodoxy within our faith tradition that was used to decide who was in and who was out. This process of deciding who was in and who was out led to some of the most un-Christ like behavior in the history of our faith. Constantine played a huge role in putting this dynamic into motion. My biggest concern about Constantine’s conversion is that it helped minimize (if not eradicate) the difference between church and state. Following Constantine’s conversion Christianity entered the realm of popular culture; it has been struggling ever since to understand itself over and against popular culture. I so appreciate Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans where he warned against such a dynamic. In Romans 12:2 Paul wrote: “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God” (The Message). All of this leaves me to wonder where you are at with all of this. Have you become so “well adjusted to your culture” that you fit in seamlessly in all situations, or has your experience of the God revealed through Christ put you at odds with the values and customs of the culture around you? Regardless of how you answer that question, the single most important thing we can take away from Paul’s words today is an understanding of the difference between our faith and our culture. Once we truly begin to understand that, we can grow in our ability to prioritize our faith over our culture. Til next time…

Saturday, August 23

Today’s Readings: Psalm 146; Exodus 12:14-27; Luke 11:37-52; Romans 11:13-21; Psalm 136

As some of you might know, I spent the first six years of my life following my graduation from college teaching English and Social Studies in a juvenile detention center. Lots of my friends and family members at the time wondered how I liked teaching in a correctional facility. My loved ones assumed I would hate the job since they thought a person like me – an overachiever raised in the perfect “Leave It to Beaver” household – would have nothing in common with the kids I taught. Despite our very different backgrounds and life experiences, I found that I did in fact have a lot in common with the kids I taught. One of the things was that we had a common fear. We both thought that we had proven ourselves unlovable – though in very different ways. They feared that their criminal offenses had made them unlovable; I feared that as a gay man I too was unlovable. Thankfully, I had my relationship with God to pull me through the dark times when that fear threatened to overwhelm me. I had the rhythm of the psalmist’s words from today’s first Psalm constantly resonating in the back of my mind – “[God’s] love never quits… [God’s] love never quits… [God’s] love never quits… [God’s] love never quits” (Psalm 136 from The Message). Those words got me through some of my hardest days. Sadly, so many kids today don’t get that refrain drummed into their heads, and they pay the price – they give up on themselves. Often they give up on themselves because their own local churches – the same churches that baptized and confirmed them – failed to live up to the most important promise they made to the child on the day of his/her baptism: to love him or her NO MATTER WHAT. My take-home assignment today is to find one child in your life – it might be your own child or it might be the child of a friend or family member – and teach the child the most important four words the child will ever hear: “God’s love never quits”. Follow the psalmist’s example and say those words over and over. The beauty of the exercise is that as you teach the child these four life-changing words, you’ll simultaneously be reminding another child of God of the transformative power of those words. That child of God? YOU! Til next time…

Friday, August 22

Today’s Readings: Psalm 105; Exodus 10:21-11:8; Luke 11:27-36; Romans 11:7-12

Much of my childhood was spent living my life just like all the other kids my age. I spent a lot of time playing sports (football, baseball & tennis), making music (on the saxophone and piano), and hanging out with my friends. There was at least one way in which I spent my time that set me apart from the other kids. I was comfortable hanging out with folks who were a lot older than I was. My time with older folks gave me an interesting insight into the aging process. You see lots of kids I hung around with at the time assumed that everyone automatically got crankier and more cantankerous as they aged. Through my friendships with older folks, however, I learned this wasn’t true. What I did learn about the aging process is that is often serves as a magnifier of personality traits: folks who were kind and generous when they were young often became even more kind and generous as they got older while folks who were bitter and angry when they were young often became even more bitter and angry as they aged. Jesus certainly understood the importance of one’s perspective on life. In today’s reading from Luke he noted, “If you live wide-eyed in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don’t get musty and murky” (Luke 11:34-35 from The Message). My question for you to consider today is this: how do you live your life? Do you live your life “wide-eyed in wonder and belief” as you enjoy a life brimming with love and light, or do you live your life “squinty-eyed in greed and distrust”? As you wrestle with that question, it’s important to realize that your answer to the question won’t just influence your quality of life today – it will shape your experience of your days to come as well. Til next time…

Thursday, August 21

Today’s Readings: Psalm 12; Exodus 3:19-35; Luke 11:14-26; Romans 10:21-11:6; Psalm 1

If you don’t read Scripture carefully, it’s easy to miss some of the subtle – but important – differences that exist. Take a concept that is conveyed in today’s passage from Luke for example. In today’s passage, we are told Jesus said: “This is a war, and there is no neutral ground. If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy; if you’re not helping, you’re making things worse” (Luke 11:23 – The Message). There is a very different take on this concept contained in the Gospel of Mark. In the 9th chapter of Mark we are told that Jesus and his disciples had recently encountered a man who was driving out demons in Jesus name. The disciples told Jesus they asked the man to stop. Jesus reply? “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us if for us” (Mark 39-40 – The Message). Some get drawn into what I feel is a sort of artificial debate about which expression best captures Jesus’ point: is Jesus’ point the one contained in Luke (“If you’re not for me, you’re against me”) or is it the one contained in Mark (“If you’re not against me, you’re for me”). Here’s my position in the debate: they both capture Jesus’ point. You see as I read the passages, I realize that Jesus was speaking to two very different situations. In the passage from Mark Jesus was speaking about a man who was doing good in Jesus’ name. In the passage from Luke, Jesus was speaking in response to a controversy that some had created in order to undermine his credibility. Different situations; different ways of making his point. So what does all of this have to do with our lives today? Well, the exercise I just led you through reminds us that our faith and its expression is often contextual. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of approaching our faith. Sound bites may work for candidates in elections, but they fail miserably when trying to convey the depth and complexity of our faith. Today I hope you’ll join me in giving thanks for a faith that not only recognizes the different circumstances of our lives, but actually speaks to them directly as well. Til next time…

Wednesday, August 20

Today’s Readings: Psalm 65; Exodus 7:25-8:19; Luke 11:1-13; Romans 10:17-20; Psalm 73

Each of Jesus’ teachings presents its own unique challenge for each of us. There are some of his teachings, for instance, that you would find easy to follow and other teachings that would be much more challenging. Just which of those teachings are easy to follow and which are challenging would vary from person to person depending on our personality and life experiences. Take Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11:10 for example – the teaching where Jesus says, “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need” (The Message). Some people have no problem whatsoever asking God (or anyone else for that matter) for what they need. I know: I’ve encountered many of these folks over the years. For me, however, this teaching represents one of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. You see I was raised in a household that stressed two things: (1) be pleasant and polite at all times; and (2) never, never, never, never, never be a burden to others. When you put these two principles together you end up with a person who would never think of asking for what he needs. After all, that would be impolite since your request would put a burden on the other party in some fashion. So how did I learn to try to get my needs met? Well, I learned to put my needs out there very subtly and hope that the other person would pick up on them and accommodate them. This admittedly led to a pretty passive aggressive approach to life (or what Jesus called “a cat and mouse, hide-and-seek game”) that was less than fulfilling for me and those around me. Thankfully, Jesus’ words of encouragement have helped encourage me over the years to leave my passive aggressive approach behind and develop a more honest and direct approach both in my relationship with God and in my relationships with others. Perhaps the notion of being direct is a difficult notion for you as well. If so, try practicing. Start with the little stuff (i.e. “God, I need just 5 minutes of peace and quiet today so that I can better connect with You and with myself”) and then move on to the big stuff (i.e. “God, I need the strength to get through the next 3 days until my test results come back from the doctor). You’ll be amazed at how the move from a passive aggressive to a direct approach shifts your quality of life and depth of faith. Til next time…

Tuesday, August 19

Today’s Readings: Psalm 131; Exodus 7:8-24; Luke 10:38-42; Romans 10:14-16; Psalm 28

The older I get the more I appreciate the scene from the play Our Town where the individual is asked to pick one day from his life so that he can go back in time and re-experience that day. The individual’s guide cautions him not to pick a day that’s too important – for re-experiencing an important day would simply be too painful. Instead, he was told, pick an ordinary day. Even the ordinary day he eventually picked to re-experience proved painful because he was forced to stand on the sidelines and watch the earlier version of himself miss opportunity after opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the moments around him. I think of that scene nearly every time I encounter this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Luke for in today’s passage we encounter another individual who is going along with her day-to-day life in a fog and nearly misses out on a rare opportunity to have an encounter with Jesus. That individual? Martha. When Jesus first arrived, Martha responded by doing what she always did – by playing host. It wasn’t until Jesus finally interrupted her and said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing” that Martha finally stopped and allowed herself to take in the fullness of the moment. Each time I read those words I try to step back and ask myself, “Craig, how are you acting like Martha and missing out on the opportunity to fully live in the moment?” Sadly, I often have many answers to that question. Today I would invite you to ask yourself the same question. How have you become so focused on the tasks before you that you are missing the presence of the Holy right in front of you? If you slow down for a moment, you too might hear those words Jesus spoke to Martha resonating in your ear: “You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing…” May you and I take advantage of the opportunity to follow Mary’s example and focus today on those things that really matter. Til next time…

Monday, August 18

Today’s Readings: Psalm 109; Exodus 5:1-6:1; Luke 10:25-37; Romans 10:10-13; Psalm 44

Have you ever been so angry at someone that you just had to sit down and write that person a lengthy email venting the depths of your frustration? Chances are you’ve found yourself in this situation at least once during the course of your lifetime. Most folks find that by the time they finish writing down their thoughts, much of their anger has passed and they no longer feel compelled to send off the angry email. On those rare occasions when writing the email wasn’t enough, chances are you at least slept on your words before you sent the email. Once in a while, however, you probably found yourself so hot under the collar that you gave in to your impulses and sent off the email the second you finished it. If you’re anything like me, chances are you regretted sending the email the second you hit the “send” key. To make matters worse you then had to spend time worrying about how the other party would respond to your email. Today’s first reading from the Psalms sounds to me like someone who composed an angry email in the midst of their frustration and hit the “send” key before they realized it. I say that because the Psalm not only wishes the worst on the offender (“give him a short life and give his job to somebody else”); it has the nerve to go one step further and go after the offender’s children (“turn his children into begging street urchins, evicted from their homes – homeless”). There are two things that strike me about the unpleasant nature of the Psalm. First, the Psalm reminds me that we worship a God who is big enough to embrace not only the warm fuzzy pieces of ourselves, but the small (and downright petty) pieces of ourselves as well. Second, the Psalm points me toward the realization that while God may embrace the small and petty pieces of ourselves, God doesn’t leave us to wallow in the depths of our pettiness. For once we take the risk and get real with God; God has an uncanny ability to take us to new places. How do I know? Psalm 109:30 is great proof – for while the psalmist started off by cursing the ones who upset him, the psalmist ended his composition in a spirit of total praise (“My mouth’s full of great praise for God, I’m singing Hallelujahs surrounded by crowds!”). The next time you find yourself mired in feelings of complete anger or frustration toward someone or some thing, stop and take a moment to express the depths of your feelings to God. As you do so, be prepared to leave behind your pettiness as God’s loving and transformative grace will undoubtedly take you to new places. Til next time…

Sunday, August 17

Today’s Readings: Psalm 133; Genesis 45:1-15; Matthew 15:21-28; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

If you were to ask me, “What one thing has most prepared you for the demands of life as a pastor?” I guarantee my answer would surprise you. Some people would expect me to say, “It was the fine education I received during my time in seminary.” Others might expect me to say, “It was all the years I spent growing up in church that gave me insight into how churches operate.” Still others who know me well might expect me to say, “It was the time I spent in politics that helped prepare me understand how to deal with people.” All of those are good answers, but not the right one – at least not for me. The thing that best equipped me for the life as a pastor was my experience growing up as a gay man. Let me tell you why I say that. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I led a pretty charmed life. As a white, middle-class male I had access to everything I needed 24/7: education, money, and power. In fact, I had such constant access to those things that over time I started to put the bulk of my faith in them. It wasn’t until I reached the age of 25 and came to terms with who I was that many of the doors that had previously been opened to me started to get slammed in my face. Talk about a wake up call! The discrimination and scorn that I faced as a gay man gave me something that I had never experienced before – insight into the experiences of others who had been marginalized: women, differently-abled people, people of color, those with mental illnesses, the poor, you name it. It was the insights and compassion that I gained through my own experience of being marginalized that helped me grow as a person (and eventually as a pastor) more than anything else. Paul points to the fact that all of us will spend some time on the margins during the course of our lives when he wrote: “In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in” (Romans 11:32). My time on the margins showed me the dangers of putting my faith in things produced by human beings: legal systems, financial systems, educational systems – for I promise you that all of these things will let you down at some point. It was my time spent on the “outside” that showed me the One and only place I should place my faith; for those insights I gained on the "outside" I will always be grateful! Maybe there’s a dimension of your own experience that is causing you to feel what it means to live life on the outside. If so, remember Paul’s words to us today and draw strength from the fact that the fullness of God’s doors have been opened for you and you will be whole-heartedly welcomed back whenever you choose. For that place where you are that the world might label as “outside” will ultimately lead you to the most important place of all: God’s "inside"! Til next time…