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Saturday, February 28

Today’s Readings: Psalm 122; Nehemiah 2:1-20; Luke 4:1-8; Titus 3:1-15; Psalm 48

Featured Reading: Nehemiah 2:1-20. There is a process that many progressive people of faith go through. That process looks something like this. Early in our faith journeys we acquire information about our faith. The process of acquiring information is usually pretty black and white for many of us. We take in that information and sit with it for awhile. Eventually, however, something happens, and we begin to question the information that was first presented to us. This leads to a process called deconstruction where we leave behind those things we were first taught that no longer have value for us. Sadly, something happens at this point to some folks. In the process of letting go of those things that no longer hold value for them, they become bitter and jaded and remain stuck in that place of deconstruction. Rather than focus on what they do believe, they spend much of their time focusing on what they no longer believe. Ideally, there’s another process that should follow deconstruction. That process? Reconstruction! That is the place where a person begins to rebuild one’s theology based on one’s learnings/experiences. Today’s reading from Nehemiah gives us a healthy model of what this deconstruction/reconstruction process looks like - literally. At the start of the passage, we are introduced to Nehemiah – an individual living in a world that had been deconstructed for him through the destruction of Jerusalem and its walls. Instead of choosing to remain in that place, however, Nehemiah took a huge risk and asked King Artaxerxes if he could travel back to Jerusalem and participate in a process of reconstruction. The king agreed, and Nehemiah was able to return to Jerusalem and assist in its reconstruction. As a result of his willingness to help rebuild, thousands of other lives were blessed. During this Lenten season, I know that it would be so easy to stay in a place of deconstruction – focusing on those aspects of the journey toward the cross that no longer hold the same meaning for you as they did when you first encountered them years ago. If that’s where you are (stuck in a place of deconstruction), I would encourage you to follow Nehemiah’s example and do something radical: focus on reconstructing the foundational elements of your faith. Your committment to reconstruct your faith will provide you blessings beyond measure this Lenten season! Til next time…

Friday, February 27

Today’s Readings: Psalm 6; Nehemiah 1:1-11; Luke 9:57-62; Titus 2:1-15; Psalm 39

Featured Reading: Luke 9:57-62. Since the earliest days of our country, certain Christian communities enjoyed a great deal of power and privilege. This was especially true in the colonies of the Northeast where the Pilgrims and Puritans settled. The religious establishment of the day quickly became THE establishment of the day. While those events might have transpired over 350 years ago, we are still living with the effects of it today. Many contemporary American Christians continue to live with the idea that their faith ought to enjoyed special status in society. These folks complained loudly, for instance, when prayer was removed from public school; when the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ was replaced by ‘Happy Holidays’ by retail clerks in December; and when the name ‘Winter Break’ took the place of ‘Christmas Break’ in our public schools. I’ve always struggled to understand why some Christians viewed those shifts as tragic. I guess that’s partly because I don’t think it’s a good thing when Christianity enjoys a great deal of power and privilege – for that power and privilege often distorts our understanding of the Gospel. If you have any question about that, just look into the disturbing notion of “The Prosperity Gospel” that sprung up in the 20th Century! Yikes!!! I strongly believe that the message of Jesus is most powerful when it is proclaimed not from the center of power, but rather from the margins. Jesus made a similar point in response to an individual’s statement that he wanted to follow Jesus wherever Jesus went. “Are you ready to rough it?” Jesus asked. “We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.” That simple awareness-raising challenge is one that resonates across the centuries and confronts us today. During this season of Lent, I would as: “Are you ready to rough it?” Are you ready to stay in the kind of inns to which Jesus would lead us, or are you expecting luxurious and privileged stays in a place like the Four Seasons? Til next time…

Thursday, February 26

Today’s Readings: Psalm 38; Ezra 10:1-17; Luke 18:9-14; Titus 1:1-16; Psalm 32

Featured Reading: Ezra 10:1-17. Several years ago, one of my friends who is in AA introduced me to a phrase I had never heard before: “dry alcoholic”. I had no clue what it meant. When I asked him what it meant, he said: “It’s when an alcoholic quits drinking alcohol but hasn’t changed his or her thoughts.” Before my friend shared his understanding of what the phrase meant, I had been extremely na├»ve. I defined an alcoholic as someone who regularly drank too much. Now, I understand that being an alcoholic also has to do with the ways one thinks. I struggle with this morning’s passage from Ezra because, on one level, it sounds as if Ezra is advocating a solution to the Israelites’ problem that sounds like one a dry alcoholic would propose. Ezra is saying the equivalent of “Just quit drinking.” In this case, he’s saying “Put aside your foreign wives and children – then your problems will be solved.” But is that really enough to get at the heart of the problem? My answer to that question is no. The real issue seems to be their lack of devotion to God – not just whom they marry. So often we take that approach to the way we live our own lives. We think things like: “If I just cut so and so out of my life, my life will improve,” or “If I quit doing such and such, then I’ll automatically be healthier.” While those superficial changes can lead to benefits in the short term, the long term payoff is dependent on us doing the deeper internal work associated with such change. Today, I would invite you to explore your life. Is there an area of your life that you’ve tried to change superficially (i.e. by just adding or subtracting something or someone)? If so, sit with that change and go deeper. See if you can find the underlying thoughts and feelings that need to be addressed as well in order to make that change more meaningful. Til next time…

Wednesday, February 25

Today’s Readings: Psalm 51:1-17; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Featured Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. If you were to ask me “What product captures the essence of contemporary American values?”, I would have an answer for you right away. Diet pills. “Diet pills?!” you’d likely respond. “Why diet pills?” Well, they represent an attempt by American manufacturers to convince the American public that you can take a challenging goal like losing weight and make it virtually painless. That’s the essence of our contemporary American values – we want to acquire things of deep value without investing any energy; hence, the advent of diet pills. People who are serious about pursuing that goal know, however, that lasting weight loss entails so much more than simply taking a pill. Lasting weight loss entails things making the conscience decision to eat right and seek out regular forms of exercise. Both of those things are contingent upon developing discipline – the real key to weight loss. No pill can give you that. I wish I could say that our desire to acquire valuable things with minimal effort was restricted to things like weight loss, but it isn’t. Many of us fight the same tendency when it comes to our spiritual lives. We want the maximum spiritual returns (i.e. peace & joy) for minimal input. Many of us spend more time either watching television or exercising than we would ever dream of putting into our spiritual lives through things like prayer/meditation, daily devotional time, service, etc. Paul picked up on this when he wrote to the Corinthians in today’s passage and said: “Please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us… now is the right time to listen… don’t put it off!” In other words, start giving your spiritual life the attention it deserves. Right now!!! Today – this Ash Wednesday – we have the perfect opportunity to follow Paul’s advice and start devoting adequate time and energy to our spiritual lives. Whether you express your desire to do this through an act of sacrifice (i.e. giving something up for the 40 days of Lent) or through an act of addition (i.e. adding a spiritual discipline into your routine), what matters is that you do something. Whether one is trying to lose weight or grow spiritually there’s no way getting around one simple truth: it takes discipline. May you find that during these days of Lent. Til next time…

Tuesday, February 24

Today’s Readings: Psalm 91; Ezra 9:1-15; Matthew 4:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Psalm 51

Featured Reading: Matthew 4:1-11. I found that one of the most intriguing occurrences in the last presidential election cycle also happened to be one of the most overlooked. And what was that occurrence? It was the revelation of former candidate John Edwards’ affair. I found that revelation fascinating on many levels; one of which was the level of honesty Sen. Edwards had in explaining why the affair happened afterwards. Instead of blaming it on others, he said: “I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,401581,00.html). I was reminded of that situation today as I read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. So how are those events linked? Well, for me the events are linked because they remind us that the temptations we face are rarely if ever generic. The most serious temptations we wrestle with grow out of the specific circumstances of our lives. Take Jesus’ situation, for example. The first temptation – the offer of bread – was a temptation that grew out of Jesus’ hunger following his fast. The second temptation – the invitation to force the angels to protect Jesus? It was probably generated by Jesus’ sense of impending doom as he anticipated a showdown with the authorities. The third temptation – the opportunity to acquire power? It very well might have been born out of Jesus’ sincere desire to bring forth the kingdom of God. A similar dynamic was probably at worked with Sen. Edwards. His need for affirmation – combined with the constant adulation he encountered on the campaign trail - made him more vulnerable than he might otherwise have been. So if all of this is true – that the greatest temptations we face aren’t generic, but specific to our situation – what are the most serious temptations you are facing? By taking some time today and identifying the most serious challenges we face on a regular basis, we might be able to get a jump on those temptations before they emerge and threaten to take over our lives. Til next time…

Monday, February 23

Today’s Readings: Psalm 2; Ezra 7:27-28 & 8:21-36; Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Corinthians 4:7-18; Psalm 99

Today's Featured Passage: Ezra 7:27-28 & 8:21-36. The pace of my life is often lived at break-neck speed, so I rarely the luxury of preparing well in advance. The upside of this approach is that over the years, I’ve learned that I cannot get stressed about the future. I have to live in the moment and be fully present where I’m at. The downside is that I often cheat myself out of the opportunities to fully prepare myself for upcoming events. This is especially true when it comes to taking trips. Often, I give an upcoming trip zero thought until the night before. I mean that. I usually have no clue what airline I’m flying or when my flight leaves or arrives until this time. This drives the people I’m traveling with - or traveling to see - nuts since they always want to know those tidbits of information in advance. What are they thinking?! J I often don’t even bring out my suitcase until an hour or so before I leave. Needless to say, my approach toward traveling is much different than most. That is especially true of the travelers referred to in this morning’s passage from Ezra. In that passage, we heard about Ezra’s impending return to Jerusalem and his preparations for that trip. We hear about things like his fasting, his praying, and his packing. Ezra took such care with his preparations because he knew how important the journey back to Jerusalem was and what would happen once he got there. Today, we sit two days out from the beginning of Lent – another important journey that will take us to a transformative place: Easter. This means we have at least two more days to get ready for this journey. How are you using this time? Are you following Ezra’s example and carefully thinking through how you will get ready for this Lenten journey; or are you taking my approach and waiting until the very last moment to jump on board the Easter Express? Til next time…

Sunday, February 22

Today's Featured Reading: Mark 9:2-9

Today's sermon/reflection:

As someone who didn’t meet his spouse until the age of 34, I had several years to develop a fool-proof system for meeting the right person. “How,” you might ask, “could the system be considered fool-proof if it took you 34 years to meet the right person?” That would be the topic for another sermon – but I digress.

Anyway, my fool-proof system had four-stages to it, and it went something like this.

Stage One: introduce my prospective spouse to a little piece of history I like to call “Craig: The Early Years”. I’d pull out Volume One of my photo albums and flip to the cutest picture of a child in the history of humankind and watch their reaction.

[Show my picture as a three-year old].

Roughly 90% of the prospective candidates made it through Stage One as they “oohed” and “ahhed” at the picture of that adorable three-year old. On to Stage Two.

Stage Two was a bit more challenging. It involved a publication known as the 1981-82 Antler. Most folks know it simply as my high school yearbook from my freshman year. First, I’d flip through the pages and show them my big hair on p 48. Then I would show them the debate trophies I won with my partner Nancy on p 88. Finally, I show them the picture of our mighty – yet winless - freshman football team on p 73.

If their eyes glazed over at any point in the presentation, they were out. That left about 34 % of the eligible candidates. On to Stage Three.

Stage Three was the music portion of the process where I revealed my favorite music group of all time. When I retreated to the cabinets and pulled out the records of my favorite group, there was two ways they could be eliminated. First, if they laughed when they saw vinyl – the relationship was over there and then. Second, if they didn’t recognize the group – The Pointer Sisters – I figured we would just be delaying the inevitable. Hasta Levista baby! By this time, the pool of candidates was shrinking quickly. We were down to about 5%. On to the fourth – and final – stage.

When I entered Stage Four, I would walk to my bookshelves, remove four publications – and lay them down on a table: a 1966 Houston Astros Media Guide, a 1966 Houston Oilers Media Guide, a 1971 Houston Rockets Media Guide, and a 1976 Houston Aeros Media Guide. I would watch and listen very closely to the candidate’s response. If I saw them shrug their shoulders and say something like, “These are kind of old,” or “They sure had funny haircuts back in the 60’s”, I would stand up, politely escort them to the door, and wish them a good life.

That happened in every case – except one. And most of you know that successful candidate – Mike – by now.

So what are you to make of the madness that I’ve shared with you this morning? Just this. In the first 34 years of my life; I had one goal. That goal was to be known. And while my four-stage screening process for a partner might sound a little odd – it worked. By the time I finished that lengthy process, I found someone who knew me!

Of course, I’m not the only one who had a burning desire to be known. There was someone else who has had that same goal for much longer than I? That someone? God.

Let me tell you how I know that.

In working with a variety of materials in preparation for this morning’s service, I stumbled upon a powerful resource that helped me think about today’s passage in a new way. The resource was part of a Sunday school curriculum prepared for middle school youth in the Episcopalian Church.

The curriculum started out by noting that while most people think of today simply as Transfiguration Sunday, there is another way we should think of this Sunday. We should think of it as Epiphany 6. What they mean by Epiphany 6 is that today is the sixth – and final Sunday – in a season known as Epiphany.

Now few of our local churches think of Epiphany as a season. Most of us think of it simply as the first Sunday in January when we remember the wise men’s experience of following the star to baby Jesus. That narrow understanding of Epiphany causes us to miss the real purpose of Epiphany.

So what is that purpose?

Well, the authors of the curriculum said, the real purpose of the eight Sundays in Epiphany is to help us spend our time between Christmas and the beginning of Lent getting to know the God revealed in Jesus better.

In order to help you understand their point about the purpose of Epiphany, I’ve prepared a little visual to help you out. You’ll find that visual tucked inside the back cover of your bulletin. Go ahead and take that insert out.

[Give them a moment to take the sheet out.]

On that sheet of paper, you’ll notice that there are boxes numbered one through eight - and that each of the boxes has a picture inside it to represent the Scripture from Sunday in Epiphany. Let’s quickly walk through those boxes and see what we have learned about the God of Jesus that was revealed through those stories.

Box #1 represents the story of the star that led the wise men to Jesus. Box #2 is a picture of the dove that descended from the heavens during Jesus’ baptism. Box #3 is a symbol of a fetus in the womb that reminds us of the psalmist’s words about the depths of God’s knowledge of us. Box #4 is a representation of the fishing gear that reminds us of Jesus’ call to the disciples. Box #5? It’s a picture of a demon that can remind us of Jesus’ expulsion of the demon in our first healing story of the season. Box #6 is a symbol of a sick woman in bed. It reminds us of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. Box #7 is a representation of a man with skin rashes. That picture can remind us of Jesus’ healing of the leper. And Box #8? That, of course, is used to tie in today’s story of the Transfiguration.

As we take this visual tour of the season of Epiphany, let me ask you this: “What have we learned about the God revealed in Jesus?”

[Wait for responses.]

As you can see, the entire season of Epiphany was initially designed much like my little screening process for a prospective partner– to ensure that those involved would get to know the essence of the One to whom we can give our heart.

As most of you know, this Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent: a season that also was designed with a specific goal in mind. That goal is to help us prepare for the events that will culminate in our celebration of Easter on April 12.

So how do we do that? How do we adequately prepare ourselves for that transformational event?

Well, we all do it a little differently. In honoring the many different ways we prepare ourselves, I want you to flip over the sheet of paper I’ve given you with the eight pictures. On the back of that paper, you’ll find – nothing but a blank space. That blank space represents an empty box. As we sit three days out from Lent, I want you to take the next minute or two and think to yourself – “What picture would I draw in that box to represent what I will do to prepare myself for Easter?”

For some of you, the picture you might draw would be something you will take out of your life in order to symbolize the sacrificial love of Jesus. For others, the picture would be something that you add to your daily routine that will symbolize the growth you hope to experience in the coming days. Don’t worry! I’m not going to ask you to draw that picture right now; you can take the sheet home and do it later. I do want you to spending a few moment thinking about what will symbolize your experience of Lent this year. As you do that, I want to provide a little background music for you.

[Play “Open My Eyes”]

Friends, as we leave behind the season of Epiphany – a season when we have learned more about the nature and the character of Jesus – and move toward the season of Lent – a season where we will contemplate the radical places this Jesus will take us – my prayer is this: that we would draw strength for our journey through the relationships we have formed – with God and with one another - that will sustain us through Lent and beyond.

Amen.