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Sunday, September 7

Today’s Readings: Psalm 149; Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14

There are some ideas within Christianity that can be very dangerous if they aren’t carefully defined. Take a notion like unconditional love. Some people can equate unconditional love with the notion that a person of faith is suppose to accept any and all behaviors. If you interpret it as such, the notion could cause a person in an abusive relationship to stay until they are physically or psychologially beaten to death. I certainly don’t think that’s what the notion of unconditional love is all about. Same thing goes with the notion of forgiveness. Some people might think that the call to forgiveness would mean that if you lived with an addict who stole money from you to get drugs that – once the addict owned up to their behavior and apologized – you should totally forget the theft. Such an approach would better fit the definition of enabling rather than forgiveness. So as you can see, one should be careful how they toss around concepts in relation to one’s faith. Today’s reading from Romans exposes an important misconception many people have regarding how one should feel about oneself. Some have come to conclude over the years that since we human beings are capable of horrendous things (i.e. sin) that we should not love ourselves. “To do so,” some would argue, “would be sinful!” I don’t think that’s always the case. For in speaking of the law, Paul summed up our faith by saying, “The law code… finally adds up to this: love other people as well as you do yourself” (Emphasis added - Romans 13:9 from The Message). Paul wasn’t going off on a tangent here. He was using the same words that Jesus used in Matthew 22:38. So how does this notion of self-love tie into Jesus and Paul’s message – how can self-love be a good thing? My understanding of how this concept comes from the years I spent working as a community educator/outreach worker in the HIV/AIDS field. In the time I spent working in the field, I learned that you can give people all the information in the world regarding which behaviors are healthy and which behaviors are not; but until the individual thinks of her/himself as a loveable and worthwhile human being, they will never change their unsafe behaviors. It was only when they came to see themselves as valuable beings, that they could begin to take care of themselves (and others). This is the wisdom that Jesus & Paul were getting at. So where are you on this attitudinal continuum? Do you see yourself as a loved and cherished child of God who is ready to go out and help others see themselves that same way; or do you see yourself as a worthless and inept creature – unworthy of love and incapable of extending love? If you are struggling with self-esteem issues try stepping outside yourself and getting a glimpse of the way others – including God – see you. Once you get such a glimpse of yourself you might be surprised how this new way of seeing yourself impacts the quality of your relationship with others as well. Til next time…

Saturday, September 6

Today’s Readings: Psalm 145; Exodus 16:23-26; Luke 15:1-10; Romans 14:5-9; Psalm 23

As a post-modern person whose faith defies easy categorization, I've found it a challenge to find folks who view Scripture in a way similar to me. I’ve found that many folks in our society take one of two approaches toward Scripture. Either they see Scripture as a historical expression of a primitive people’s faith; or they see it as the literal, inerrant Word of God. I don’t fully connect with folks who see Scripture only as a historical expression of a primitive people’s faith because folks in this camp assume Scripture is largely irrelevant to our lives today. I don’t fully connect with folks who see Scripture as the literal, inerrant Word of God because they assume our lives today are irrelevant to Scripture. I’m one of those people that believe one can best experience the fullness of Scripture when both pieces (the sacred stories from our lives today and the sacred stories of our spiritual ancestors as recorded in Scripture) come together and inform each other. Fortunately, one of today’s readings helped me see I’m not alone in this approach for the psalmist gives voice to a similar position when he cried out: “Generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4 from The Message). What that Scripture tells me is that both sets of stories (the stories of our faith ancestors as record in Scripture and the faith stories that you and I are living) are critically important. Our goal as people of faith living in the 21st Century, then, is to bring those stories together in a way that respects the sacredness of both. Today’, I would encourage you to explore your own perspective on this. In what relationship do you hold your own faith story with the faith stories of your spiritual ancestors? Does one set of sacred stories drown out the other? I would pray that the Spirit lead each of us in our attempts to find a balance that reflects not just our will, but God’s. As we arrive at our own understanding of this balance, we can take heart in knowing that our willingness to explore this essential aspect of our faith will help our faith vital and ensure that it can be passed from one generation (ours) to the next (our children’s). Til next time…

Friday, September 5

Today’s Readings: Psalm 63; Exodus 16:10-22; Luke 14:25-35; Romans 14:1-4; Psalm 111

My father was a child of the Great Depression. As such, he instilled in each of his children a deep value for – how shall I say this politely – being careful with our money. The notion he embedded in us is that we ought to save as much as we could for a rainy day. Consequently, I have a hard time with the notion of spending money (unless it’s for Houston sports memorabilia, but that’s a topic for another day). Needless to say, I can soooooooo relate to the Israelites in today’s passage from Exodus for in that passage the Israelites find themselves hungry and wandering in the desert. God heard their cries and decided to provide food in the form of quail and water in the form of dew to meet their daily needs. The only condition was that they not hoard the provisions for the next day; instead, they were asked to trust that the provisions they needed for tomorrow would appear at that time. They had a hard time with the notion of trusting that God would provide so they did want many - including myself - are prone to do: they hoarded food. Their strategy failed miserably, and they were eventually placed in a situation where they had to trust God. Of course the Israelites and myself aren’t the only ones to wrestle with the notion of trusting God to provide for tomorrow. Even many of our local churches struggle with this notion of trusting in God’s provision as they try to stock away reserves for tomorrow in the form of endowments or huge reserve accounts rather than invest in today. What is it about us that makes trusting in God’s provision so difficult despite God’s proven track record of being there for us in the past? Why are we so prone to hoarding? I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me it’s the lingering remnants of fear based on the notion of scarcity. I invite you today to live into a place of trust by focusing on the abundance of God’s blessings in your life rather than fear-based assumptions of scarcity. See what happens when you make this important shift in perspective. Til next time…

Thursday, September 4

Today’s Readings: Psalm 36; Exodus 15:22-16:10; Luke 14:12-24; Romans 13:11-14; Psalm 95

Some folks think the biggest challenge to living a life of faith is facing hostility or opposition from others who see things differently than you. I would strongly disagree. In fact, there are days when I think it would be good to face more hostility or opposition for when you encounter hostility or opposition at least it shows that people care about something. No, the biggest challenge I believe we face these days is a challenge that’s so sneaky it flies completely under most people’s radar. That challenge? Complete apathy when it comes to a person’s spiritual life. So where does this apathy come from. Multiple places. For some the apathy grows out of busy lives that leave little time for people to devote to their spiritual growth. For others, it’s a manifestation of their theology (i.e. God loves me no matter what, so what’s the point in pushing myself to find time to devote to my spiritual development?). There are dozens of other explanations as well. So what got me to thinking about the challenges apathy poses? Today’s Gospel reading from Luke. In that passage we hear the story of a dinner party thrown by an unnamed man. The host sent out invitations widely – only to get inundated with excuses for why his guests couldn’t attend. So the man responded in the most appropriate way possible - by casting his net wider. The most encouraging aspect of Jesus’ story for me is the host’s burning desire to fill his table. The most heartbreaking aspect of the story? His guests’ absolute apathy. So let’s pretend that this morning you received an invitation inviting you to God’s bounteous feast. How would you respond? Would you beg off the invitation – coming up with one of a dozen excuses about why you don’t have time for God? Or would you slow down and recognize God’s burning desire to be with you and find time to be with God? The interesting thing about this morning’s exercise is that it’s not completely hypothetical. You can get a good idea of how you would respond based upon your willingness to find time for God this – and every - day. Til next time…

Wednesday, September 3

Today’s Readings: Psalm 50; Exodus 15:1-21; Luke 14:1-11; Romans 13:8-10; Psalm 77

Lots of folks think that when a local church passes an Open & Affirming Statement that welcomes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered (LGBT) persons, that the only ones who benefit are LGBT people. I can understand why some folks think that since some Open & Affirming Statements only name LGBT people in their statement of welcome. Over the years, however, I’ve found that its not just LGBT people who benefit from Open & Affirming Statements – it’s EVERYONE in the congregation who benefits. And how is that? Well, once a community publicly welcomes one of the few groups that has been explicitly singled out for rejection by many denominations, it creates an energy that says, “If we can go against public opinion and extend welcome to those whom society would tell us are the ‘least of these’, then maybe the community would accept me for who I am – not who they want me to be!” As a spiritual leader associated with an Open & Affirming community, I’ve experienced this happening tons of times. People have shared pieces of themselves that they would have never thought of sharing with pastors of non-welcoming communities because they knew they were in a safe spiritual community. So what’s all of this have to do with today’s readings? Well, in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus culminated his teaching with these words: “But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” (Luke 14:11 from The Message). I’ve seen this happen on a number of occasions. I’ve seen people who have come to terms with their history of abuse open up and become amazing sources of love and support for others. I’ve seen people with mental health issues accept themselves and become advocates for others facing similar challenges. I’ve seen people wrestling with issues of poverty claim their inherent worth and generously share the riches of their spiritual gifts with others. In each and every one of these instances, I saw transformative things happen when people began to love themselves for who they were. All of this was made possible by a community who took seriously Jesus’ Great Command to love one another. So where are you at with all of this? Are you still trying to put on a good public face so that you can be perceived by others as worthy of God’s love, or have you embraced the fullness of your true self? If you haven’t yet accepted the fullness of yourself, take a moment and jot down Jesus’ words in a place where you will regularly encounter them – and then use those words to help move you to a place of self-acceptance. You’ll be surprised at the amazing things that start happening in your life once you do that; as Jesus said, you'll become more than yourself. Til next time…

Tuesday, September 2

Today’s Readings: Psalm 18:1-24; Exodus 14:21-31; Luke 13:31-35; Romans 13:1-7; Psalm 18:25-50

Growing up, I remember being really confused about one aspect of church life – I remember being confused about why families of ministers often had such difficult times. I couldn’t understand why Preacher’s Kids (PKs), in particular, had such a rough go of things. And then I became a minister and learned why that was. You see the nature of a minister’s life is that things spontaneously come up all the time. You might be sitting down to dinner, for instance, when the phone rings and it’s a parishioner in crisis. By the time you hang up the phone an hour later, your food is cold and the rest of the family has long since finished their dinners. Or you might have planned the vacation of a lifetime and – just as you’re walking out the front door - you get a phone call learning of someone’s death and suddenly your once-in-a-lifetime vacation is replaced by the funeral. While these occurrences are unavoidable in the day-to-day life of a minister, you can see the challenges that arise in the life of a minister’s family! What makes things even more challenging is that not all of the interruptions are as unavoidable as the two examples I just gave you – for the examples I gave you are no-brainers: they are emergencies that need immediate attention. Sometime, you have folks come to you with things they THINK are emergencies and expect you to drop everything for them at a moment’s notice. The challenge for a minister, then, is this: “How do I sort through the requests and respond in a timely fashion when the situation requires it, and when do I put some things on the backburner in order to live a healthy, well-rounded life?” Thankfully, I haven’t been left to my own devices to answer that question; I have a great teacher to help me figure out how to deal with the constant demands that life throws my way. That teacher? Jesus. I could give you dozens and dozens of examples of how Jesus was able to sort through demands and prioritize things, but a good example of this is found in today’s reading from Luke. In that passage Jesus was focused on the truly important matters at hand (i.e. “clearing out the demons and healing the sick”) when a potential interruption presented itself from left field. How did Jesus handle the situation? Did he immediately drop everything and frantically respond to the “emergency” in front of his face? No. Jesus had such a clear sense of priority that he intuitively knew what needed his attention first, and he stayed where he was most needed. His example encourages me to do the same thing: have a clear sense of what’s most important, and then live my life according to that sense of priority. Today would be a great time for you to stop and examine your own life. Do you run around in a constant state of chaos – trying to meet each and every request made of you, or is your life governed by a sense of priority that helps you sort through the demands and deal with them in a purposeful way? The increased sense of clarity you would gain from such an exercise might not only make your life more manageable – it might make your life more meaningful as well. Til next time…

Monday, September 1

Today’s Readings: Psalm 106; Exodus 14:5-22; Luke 13:18-30; Romans 12:14-21

I have to admit that I find the psyche of the American public fascinating: especially when it comes to politics. As some of you know, I spent many years working in that field. If I were to identify the one thing that most intrigues me about politics it would be the double standard Americans have when it comes to their voting behavior. Many will spend much time saying, “I hate all of the negative campaigning where they tear the other candidate down. I wish they would focus on the positive instead!” And yet when it comes time to cast their ballot, what do they do – they vote for the candidate that did the best job of tearing down the other candidate. I’m particularly mindful of this dynamic because last week we had the Democratic National Convention here in Denver, and this week the Republican National Convention will be held in Minnesota. I’m so tired of hearing folks suggest the world will end if Barack Obama/Joe Biden or John McCain/Sarah Palin get elected!! Sadly, we’ve still got another 2 months to hear these dire predictions from both major parties. So why can’t we break this cycle of negativity? Because in politics there is one – and ONLY one - rule that drives people’s thinking: do what works. Because people continue to vote for people that instill fear in people, candidates from both major parties will continue to prey upon those fears in order to get elected. Thankfully, as people of faith we have much bigger principles to draw upon that can guide our lives and break the cycle of negativity. Some of those principles are clearly spelled out by Paul in today’s passage from Romans where he writes: “Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do… Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.” Aren’t those words amazing?! Of course people from all sorts of systems (the political and economic systems in particular) will tell us those are nice clich├ęs, but in this dog-eat-dog world you cannot live by them. I might have fallen for that line myself had I not encountered so many folks who have managed to live each day of their lives by those principles: folks like Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ghandi; Mother Teresa; Bob & Freda (my parents); Mary Lou (who sang in the first choir I directed); Ray (my uncle) – and I could go on and on with that list. Today, I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to ask you to cast your ballot for a new way of experiencing life. I’m asking you to vote to bless others rather than curse others; I’m asking you to vote to turn the other cheek rather than hitting back; I’m asking you to vote to find the beauty in the other person rather than the ugliness; I’m asking you to vote to work with other people rather than against them; I’m asking you to vote to focus on the good rather than the evil. In other words, I’m asking you to vote for the ways of Jesus rather than the ways of this world. For the way you vote in this particular “election” will ultimately shape the world around you. Til next time…

Sunday, August 31

Today’s Readings: Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21

Paul’s words of advice to the Romans today really struck a chord with me. His words in Romans 12:9 (“Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and in flame”) in particular really hit home. Let me tell you why they affected me so. You see I was raised in a household where my folks communicated to us the importance of making a difference in the world. My father served as a volunteer on the local school board for 20 years and held a variety of position within our church while my mother served on the city’s planning commission and was a leader in church groups like the Women’s Temperance Union & United Methodist Women. So by the time I was 12, I was already volunteering to help with a variety of causes. And this was in the days before community service hours were required by school districts! On the surface, this probably sounds like a good thing. There was just one problem. You see no one ever pulled me aside and talked with me in depth about why we were helping others. I was left to fill in the blank for myself, and so I did. I decided that I would help others in order to make the world a better place. Again, sounds good on the surface. As the years rolled by, however, I realized my answer to the question why wasn’t sufficient. I would try and try to help others, but things often wouldn’t work out. And each time things didn’t unfold the way I thought they should, I would get angry and frustrated. Guess what happened to me by the age of 30? Yep. I burned out. My burn out happened because I let the flame of my commitment die. So how do you follow Paul’s words of advice and keep the flame of your convictions burning? After having a decade to reflect on my own period of burn out I’ve come to an answer. My answer is this: find a better answer than I had as to why you are helping others. And the answer you arrive at can’t be based on external factors (i.e. “I’ll change the structure of systems” or “I’ll change the behavior of others” or “I’ll change the perspective of others”). And why shouldn’t you focus on external factors? Because you can’t control them; and if things fail to go your way, anger, bitterness, and frustration will lead you to the one inevitable location: burn out. By focusing on a deeper reason (i.e. “I’m reaching out to help others in response to the grace that God first gave me”) and keeping your focus internal (i.e. “My acts of kindness and service are ways of deepening my faith and growing in my ability to embody the love and grace of Jesus”) I’ve been able to nearly stamp out the phrase “burn out” from my vocabulary. There was another benefit I reaped from my new awareness. My switch in motivation for helping others (from external to internal) has even given me a tool that I can use to hold myself accountable for my motivations. Whenever I find myself losing energy and passion in an endeavor, I stop and ask myself “Why am I doing this?” Nine times out of ten, I find in those instances that I’m not doing the acts in response to my faith – I’m doing them for other, external reasons. Once I realize this I’m able to step back and let go. Where are you at in terms of living out your faith? Are you overwhelmed and on the verge of burn out, or are you in a place of passion and joy? If you are in a place of burn out, take Paul’s words of advice to heart and find ways to “keep yourself fueled and aflame”. Start by examining your motivations. Once you do that and get your motives in line, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your flame is rekindled. Til next time…