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Sunday, November 23

Today’s Readings: Psalm 100; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46; Ephesians 1:15-23

Fifteen months ago, I introduced a new practice into the life of the church I serve. Let me give you a little background on the situation to set up this new practice. You see early in my ministry I realized that I wanted to broaden our communal definition of stewardship. I wanted to expand our definition to include more than simply giving money. Consequently, I started putting slips of paper in the back pocket of the chairs in the sanctuary marked “My Gift of Service”. This allowed our members to record the number of hours they had given to God in service during the previous week and turn it in right along with their financial offerings. My hope was that this practice would help individuals realize that the service we give to God is every bit as important as the money we give. After we had been doing this for awhile, I then decided fifteen months ago to add a second category to that slip of paper. In addition to asking individuals to record their gift of service, I asked individuals to also fill out a section marked “My Gift of Devotion”. Here individuals were asked to record the number of hours they had given to God through activities like prayer, meditation and devotion. Some folks wondered why I added this second part to the stewardship sheets. My reason for doing this was as follows. I had been involved in progressive faith communities that consistently emphasized the importance of service. That was a good thing. Sadly, however, many of those same churches ignored the importance of having an active spiritual life to support that service. Consequently, lots and lots of people burned out in their efforts to meet every need. That’s completely understandable since we human beings only have so much energy to go around. If left to our own devices, eventually ALL of us would burn out. So how can we avoid this agonizing burn out? We can avoid it by connecting to an unlimited power source much greater than ourselves who can better sustain us. The author of today’s passage from Ephesians points us toward such a source when he wrote: “I ask – ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength! All this energy issues from Christ” (Ephesians 1:19-20 from The Message). Perhaps in all of your attempts to support your social causes you too have been feeling a little burned out of late. If that’s the case, slow down and remember to devote time to your spiritual life. When you do, you’ll be surprised how much more energy you have as you go back and live a life of service to which God has called us. Til next time…

Saturday, November 22

Today’s Readings: Psalm 80; Amos 9:1-15; Luke 19:28-40; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Psalm 139

I have to begin by confessing a mistake. Yesterday (Friday, November 21), I accidentally used today’s (Saturday, November 22’s) readings. Therefore, in order to get back on track, I will use yesterday’s readings for today.

One of my favorite theological concepts of the 20th Century was laid out in a book written by Dietrich Bonheoffer called The Cost of Discipleship. In that seminal work, he wrote that there are two ways to think about the grace of God: (1) we can think of grace as “cheap”; or (2) we can think of grace as “costly”. If we think of grace as cheap, we are suggesting that – since grace was a free gift from God – we aren’t called to do much in response. As a result, our faith comes to mean very little to us. If we think of grace as costly, however, we are suggesting that – while God’s grace was a free gift from God – it was such an awesome gift that we should lead transformed lives of humility and service as an expression of our profound gratitude. As we’ve moved into this post-Christian age when our faith is no longer viewed as the foundation piece of our lives but simply as one of many, many aspects of our busy lives; many of us have unconsciously moved toward embracing a theology of cheap grace. This shift from “costly grace” to “cheap grace” truly breaks my heart. Of course all of this talk of “cheap grace” and “costly grace” is a relatively new activity. The concept itself, however, is far from new. For in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul made it clear that he rejected this notion of “cheap grace”. He wrote: “But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste” (1 Corinthians 15:10 from The Message). So how would you describe your approach toward grace? Have you taken an approach based on an understanding of “cheap grace” that invites you to simply offer whatever leftovers you have laying around to God; or have you taken an approach based on an understanding of “costly grace” that invites you to respond to the depths of God’s unfathomable love through acts of deep service and devotion? Til next time…

Friday, November 21

Today’s Readings: Psalm 87; Isaiah 19:19-25; Luke 19:41-48; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Psalm 48

Last night, I started watching the movie “For the Bible Tells Me So”. In case you aren’t familiar with the film, it’s a film about how Christians have wrestled with the topic of homosexuality. The beginning of the film was particularly jarring for me for it contained clips of individuals like Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson taking VERY rigid positions opposed to homosexuality. As I watched those opening moments, I wondered: “Will we ever be able to bring segments of the Christian community (i.e. the left and the right) together when they seem so far from one another?” While the polarization of some issues might cause us to feel as if we are the first people of faith who have wrestled with that devastating sense of separation, today’s passage from Isaiah reminds us we aren’t. Those words remind us that our spiritual ancestors had deep divisions separating them as well. While many of those divisions we face today are ideological – many of the divisions they faced were national. Israel had to feel as if the Egyptians and Assyrians were as far removed from them as I sometimes feel the Religious Right is as far removed from me. And yet today’s passage gives us remarkable hope that people living their lives in opposition to one another can in fact be reconciled. In laying out God’s vision for the coming day, Isaiah points us toward a hopeful future when the author noted: “No longer rivals, they’ll worship together, Egyptians and Assyrians!” (Isaiah 19:23 from The Message). As I read those words of boundless hope and grace, I was reminded of an error that I made in formulating the question I raised at the beginning of today’s entry. I made a mistake by asking, “Will WE even be able to bring segments of the Christian community together that seem so far from one another?” I say the formulation of that question was a mistake because I do not believe WE can do that. Too many of those on the far ends of the spectrum are WAY too invested in fanning the flames of intolerance against the other side for us Christians to ever dream of coming together. Individuals have made millions selling books criticizing “the other side”, broadcasting television shows attacking “the other side”, and basically helping individuals forge identities predicated not on who WE ARE but on how WE differ from THEM. Sadly, many of these folks from both the left and the right would have no clue who they are without contrasting themselves with their opponents. That’s why I saw we human beings will never be able to overcome the divides. So am I suggesting these divisions can never be overcome then? Absolutely not!!! In fact, I fully expect all of them to be eventually overcome. The difference is in who will overcome them. It won’t be US– it can only be God. You see I believe that if God can create a future that will bring Israel, Egypt and Assyrian together; then God could certainly create a time when Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and I can sit down together in a spirit of worship and praise. In fact, I long for that day. Today I ask you, “Are there any places in your life where you think the divisions and alienation between you and another are too great to overcome – maybe a relationship with a family member, a co-worker, or a member of your community? Have things become so bitter that you’ve given up all hope of reconciliation?” If you have, remember the radical vision of hope and inclusion laid out for us in Isaiah as we once again reclaim the conviction put forth in Philippians 4:13: we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Til next time…

Thursday, November 20

Today’s Readings: Psalm 58; Amos 8:1-14; Luke 19:11-27; 2 Peter 3:14-18; Psalm 14

In her recent book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle gives a wonderful diagram that explains some of the tensions that have existed within Christianity. The diagram suggests historically there have been four quadrants in Christian community. The first quadrant (upper left hand corner) is for those who are liturgically minded; the second quadrant (upper right hand corner) is for those who are social-justice minded; the third quadrant (lower left hand corner) is for those who are charismatic minded; the fourth quadrant (lower right hand corner) is for those who are conservative/tradition minded. Each individual led spiritual lives most identified with one of these four quadrants. Denominations also tended to align themselves with one of the quadrants as well. The alignment of denominations looked something like this. Quadrant One, for example, was made up largely of Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans; Quadrant Two was made up of Methodists, United Church of Christ members, and Mennonites; Quadrant Three was made up of Pentecostals & Assemblies of God; and Quadrant four was made up of Baptists and Nazarenes. She says the tension in Christian community came from the fact that the core values differed dramatically between the first two quadrants and the last two. The first two quadrants (liturgical & social justice minded) were based on the value that right action is what matters most. This orientation is called orthopraxis. The third and fourth quadrants (charismatic & conservative/tradition minded) were based on the value that right belief is what matters most. This orientation is called orthodoxy. If you were to use the quadrants to try to chart where some of today’s readings might fit in, it wouldn’t take long to figure out that today’s reading from Amos would be located squarely in Quadrant Two – for as the prophet lists his accusations against the people, he focuses exclusively on their actions (i.e. “those who walk on the week”, “those who give little and take much”, “you who exploit the poor”). No mention is given to condemning those whose beliefs are not considered “right” or “correct”. Phyllis Tickle notes that what is happening these days is that individuals (and denominations, for that matter) are no longer restricting themselves to just one quadrant; their lives are starting to be informed by all four of the quadrants. This means that both individuals and denominations are struggling these days because elements of the faith that they long ignored (i.e. elements associated with other quadrants) are now being brought into their own location and they aren’t sure how to handle this. I see this as a positive development for I believe that right action stems from right belief (and conversely, right belief stems from right action). In other words, like those early prophets I believe that you can learn much about a person’s real beliefs by watching their actions in the world. In closing, today I would ask you this question: if someone were to secretly watch you from afar for a week, what would they learn about your beliefs based upon your actions? Til next time…

Wednesday, November 19

Today’s Readings: Psalm 37:1-40; Amos 7:1-17; John 12:20-26; 2 Peter 3:8-13

My life during the latter part of my twenties was a real challenge for me. I say that for several reasons. First of all, I was struggling to find the vocation to which I was called. I tried things from teaching to community organizing and nothing seemed to be that perfect fit. Second, I was consumed with trying to live out each and every one of my political/social commitments simultaneously; as a result, I was constantly feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Third, I was disgusted with the narrow-mindedness of the part of the country in which I was living. By the time I turned thirty I knew that things had to change; I just had no clue about how to make that change. I thought if I just worked harder at the same things I had been doing that everything would just magically turn around. Of course they didn’t. I wasn’t until I passed my thirties that I realized if I wanted things to change, I would have to change things – so I began to do that. I took a HUGE risk and applied to a seminary 1,200 miles away from “home”. I stepped away from the social service arena and tried working in a parish. I integrated my political/social commitments into my spirituality and added a profound sense of depth to my ways of being in the world. And what do you know? I gained a whole new life! Having lived through this, I certainly resonated with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading where he said: “… anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let go, reckless in love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal” (John 12:25 from The Message). Perhaps there are areas of your life that you are rigidly clinging to out of habit or routine – pieces that cause you to feel as if your life is being/has been destroyed. Maybe it’s a relationship, a job, or a way of looking at life. If that’s the case, I would urge you to try living into Jesus’ words. If you do that, you just might get a taste of the resurrection experience in the here and now like I did. Til next time…

Tuesday, November 18

Today’s Readings: Psalm 75; Amos 6:1-14; John 12:9-19; 2 Peter 3:1-7; Psalm 118

It’s good to be back after a couple days of much needed vacation. My hope is that absence made the heart grow fonder and you’re back on board with joining me for my day reflections. As I was reading today’s Gospel text I was reminded of one basic reality: for many of us, it’s easier to connect with God during the good times than bad. In today’s Gospel passage, for instance, we see a community totally electrified in anticipation of Jesus’ arrival. And what contributed to that sense of anticipation? Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. In the back of their minds, members of the crowd were probably thinking, “If Jesus can do that for Lazarus, imagine what he could do for me/us?!” It would be easy for us to stand back and call the individuals in the crowd selfish or self-centered for connecting with God in ways that were driven by what they could get out of the relationship. And yet, truth be told, many of us find ourselves in a same place. We get excited and nurture our connection with God when we want something (i.e. a healing or reconciliation) and greet God with cheers and waved palms. But what happens after we move through that place of anticipation and expectation? Are we still equally moved when we don’t stand in a position of want or need? Can we simply receive God on God’s own terms and joyously celebrate that? It would seem that is the goal of our spiritual lives – to rise above a relationship driven primarily by circumstance or need. Today I would invite you to explore the nature of your own relationship with God and see what that relationship is built on. In doing my hope is that you and I will arrive at a deeper and more mature relationship with our Creator – not a relationship where we are cheering one moment and shouting out “Crucify him!” the next. Til next time…