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Saturday, April 4

Today’s Readings: Psalm 9; Lamentations 5:1-22; Mark 13:28-37; Romans 11:25-36; Psalm 44

Featured Reading:
Mark 13:28-37

Back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, one of my youth group leaders was very taken with the notion of the End Times. She was particularly fond of the work of Hal Lindsey. Consequently, she used every opportunity to literally put the fear of God in us as she would show us portrayals of what some predicted the End Times would look like. I couldn’t understand why such things fascinated her. Her single-minded focus on the End Times pushed many of the kids in our youth group away from God rather than toward God. As I look back now, I realize that a huge piece of her obsession with such things had to do with her desire to achieve certainty with her faith. She loved the idea of being able to predict exactly how and exactly when things would “come down”. Such an approach stands in stark contrast with what Jesus said in today’s reading from Mark. “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable” (Mark 13:32-33 from The Message). While we may not have the luxury of certainty – Jesus leaves us with something else: an invitation to live each day in a state of readiness. The next time you feel yourself craving certainty about those things you can’t control (tomorrow), remember Jesus’ words and focus on what you can control (today). Til next time…

Friday, April 3

Today’s Readings: Psalm 114; Lamentations 4:11-22; Mark 13:14-27; Romans 11:13-24; Psalm 94

Featured Reading:
Romans 11:13-24

There are certainly many challenging aspects of the recession that we have been living through for the past several months. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects is that it has revealed where we have placed our faith. Lots of folks (including myself) have watched as the value of their 401k’s and pension plans have plummeted over the past year. It was a truly shocking development as they assumed the stock market would provide generously for their futures. Other folks had been in long-established jobs they assumed they would hold until retirement. Needless to say they were horrified to learn that not only was their position eliminated - but the entire company was unexpectedly gone. “At least we’ll always have the stability of the value of our home if things get really bad,” they thought to themselves. If they are anything like me, they’ve watched as the value of their home has plunged by nearly 15% as well. The recession has been painful for so many of us because it reminded us the danger of placing our faith and our sense of security in human things. In today’s passage from Romans, Paul plays with the imagery of a tree in order to discuss our faith. And in doing so, Paul reminds us of what the root of our tree ought to be: God. Today, in the midst of the challenges of your life, I would ask you: “What serves as the root system that anchors and feeds your tree?” Til next time…

Thursday, April 2

Today’s Readings: Psalm 68; Lamentations 4:1-10; Mark 13:1-13; Romans 11:1-12; Psalm 113

Featured Reading:
Mark 13:1-13

As a man, I realize I will never completely understand what goes on for a woman in the process of childbirth. This is especially true when it comes to the idea of conceptualizing how women are able to put up with the amazing amount of pain involved in actually giving birth. A cynical notion of explaining how women deal with the pain would be to say, “It’s the drugs they give you that pull you through.” I think it’s a little more complicated than that. The women I’ve talked with about the process all say roughly the same thing: it’s not the pain one experiences in the process of childbirth that defines the experience – it was the wonderful baby that came at the end of the process that defined the experience. The author of today’s passage from Mark makes a similar point. He makes no effort to deny that there will be pain involved in the process leading up to the culmination of days. In fact, he spells out that pain in some detail. And yet the author refuses to let that pain be the defining experience. Instead, he points out the beautiful thing the lies at the end of the process: salvation. Perhaps you are living through a particularly difficult time in your life right now. You might even be struggling to decide whether the pain you currently feel will be the defining aspect of your life. If that’s the case for you, remember today’s words from the Gospel of Mark. Use those words as a reminder that something better lies before you beyond the pain – if only you can “stay with it”. Til next time…

Wednesday, April 1

Today’s Readings: Psalm 130; Lamentations 3:55-66; John 12:49-59; Romans 10:14-21; Psalm 119:153-176

Featured Reading:
Romans 10:14-21

If you’re anything like me, you have little – if any – problem sharing those pieces of your life that mean a lot to you. When I watched the Houston Rockets destroy the Los Angeles Clippers last Saturday night, for instance, I had no problem talking about how great the game was with friends. When I had a great hamburger at Five Guys Burger & Fries a few weeks ago, I didn’t think twice about sharing the name of the restaurant with friends. And when I discovered that Cook Park was a great place to walk dogs, I was eager to recommend the park to other dog owners in my life. Sharing each of those pieces of my life came naturally. And yet when it came to talking about the single most important aspect of my life – my faith – I would often clam up. And why was that? I suppose it was because I was worried that others might assume I was being pushy. I didn’t want to be viewed as insensitive to others so I often kept my mouth shut. Over time, however, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable sharing pieces of my spiritual journey with others. And a part of the reason that has happened was because of the wisdom contained in today’s passage from Romans. The passage challenged me by raising a few important questions: “But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can then know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them?” (Romans 10:14-15 from The Message). Those words helped me re-frame the opportunities I had to talk with others about my spiritual life. Instead of seeing such sharing as an act of intrusion, I came to see it as an expression of care. So where are you with all of this? Are you willing to share pieces of your spiritual journey with others as an act of care; or do you prefer to keep the source of your comfort, peace, and joy to yourself? Til next time…

Tuesday, March 31

Today’s Readings: Psalm 25; Lamentations 3:40-54; John 12:41-48; 1 Peter 1:22-2:3; Psalm 86

Featured Reading:
1 Peter 1:22-2:3

There’s no doubt that the problems we face these days are of an unprecedented magnitude. The economic challenges we face, for instance, have grown to such a degree that no single entity (not even a country like the United States) can single-handedly affect an economic recovery. The same is true of the environmental challenges we face. The tragic consequences of global climate change that we have already witnessed are of such a scope that only collaborative efforts of countries around the globe can ever hope to slow some of these life threatening changes. On the surface, it would appear that the challenges we face are so overwhelming that the only reasonable response would be to shrug one’s shoulders and give up. That might be the only reasonable response – but I don’t believe for a second that that would be a faithful response. The author of today’s passage from 1 Peter spelled out what I feel has always been the faithful response to the challenges we face – both individually and collectively. The author wrote: “Now that you’ve cleaned up your lives by following the truth, love one another as if your lives depended upon it” (1 Peter 1:22 from The Message). Think for a moment how the dynamics of our world would shift if we followed that challenge and began to love one another as if our lives depended upon it. CEOs of corporations, for instance, might respond by refusing their exorbitant bonuses in order to shore up the pension programs of their employees. Consumers might do their part by going out of their way to patronize retailers who provide health insurance for their employees. Home owners too might do their part by utilizing curb side recycling programs that exist in their communities to reduce the amount of garbage in landfills. Even real estate developers might chose to help by investing in planned communities that depend primarily upon renewable energy sources to fuel the life of their communities. Each of these changes could begin to slow – if not reverse – some of the horrific problems we are facing. If you are looking for personal motivation to effect some of these changes in your own little corner of the world, hang on to the wisdom of 1 Peter – for we have reached a stage in our development as a species when our lives really do depend on our ability to love one another. Til next time…

Monday, March 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 16; Lamentations 3:19-39; John 12:32-40; 1 Peter 1:13-21; Psalm 33

Featured Reading:
Lamentations 3:19-39

For years, I had heard my friends in recovery programs talk about the notion of bottoming out as a pre-requisite for getting serious about turning one’s life around. I never really understood the concept since it didn’t make sense that someone would have to wait for things to get really bad before they would begin to turn things around. I didn’t understand, for instance, why someone wouldn’t figure out they had a drinking problem when they got drunk, missed work, and were placed on probation. “Why would that person have to get fired before they seriously thought about quitting?” I wondered. I asked that question because I didn’t understand the nature of an addiction. Of course there are lots of us out there that end up waiting a long time to get it who have issues other than addictions as well. I was one of those people. As someone who grew up a white male who was perceived to be heterosexual, I believed that all of the answers to the wrongs of the world lie within the realm of human achievement. If an injustice was perpetuated, an individual merely needed to initiate litigation to get the matter cleared up. And if an action was destroying the well being of the earth, all we needed to do was pass legislation to establish healthy environmental practices. You name it, and we human beings could solve it. Then I came out and moved from the center of power to the margins; and in that process for the first time I realized how foolish I had been to put all of my trust in human beings. I completely failed to account for the fact that – despite human beings tremendous capacity to do good – there were still limitations that would ultimately prevent them from being able to fix all the problems. In other words, I had to bottom out myself by facing the brutal realities of human limitations before I could really begin to understand what it meant to really place my trust in God. And you know what happened? Once I started doing that, I became much less negative about the state of the world and much more filled with optimism. To use the language from today’s reading from Lamentations, for the first time in my life I could begin to keep “a grip on hope” (Lamentations 3:21 from The Message). Perhaps there is an issue in your life that you’ve been trying to “fix” by placing all of your hope in some finite entity. You’re probably beginning to feel overwhelmed and frustrated by such an approach. If that’s the case, I would encourage you to take a good portion of that faith, and re-direct it toward God. If you take such a radical step (hopefully, before you bottom out!), you might be surprised to find the bitterness and frustration that you’ve been carrying in your life transformed into something else: hope! Til next time…

Sunday, March 29

Featured Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

My reflection/sermon for the day:

If scholars were to rank the importance of scriptural passages, this morning’s from Jeremiah would rank right up there near the top.

“And why is that?” you might ask.

Well, it’s because this morning’s passage contains the only mention of the phrase “New Covenant” in the entire Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures.

When you work with such an important piece of Scripture, it’s often challenging to find resources that have anything new to say about the passage – as such passages have often been studied to death.

For much of the week, I discovered just how right I was about that. For I spent a good deal of time reading commentaries that made the same two or three points over, and over, and over: how different today’s material is from much of the gloomy tone that dominates the rest of the book; how unusual Jeremiah’s social location was since he was a prophet born on the outskirts of the Northern Kingdom who spent most of his time speaking to the Southern Kingdom; and the significant differences between the Greek version of the text and the Hebrew text.

While those insights are interesting, none of them provide the kind of insights that give you something to carry home with you and get you through the week. So I kept looking… and looking… and looking… until finally – just last night – I hit gold.

That gold came in the form of a sermon one of my Presbyterian colleagues by the name of Thomas Tewell gave; it was titled “The Things We Date Not Remember”.

In his sermon, Rev. Tewell told a story that did the unthinkable; he provided a new way of thinking about the passage. And the lens that he provided was through the story of a woman named Betty.

Betty and her husband were fine, upstanding members of their community. In fact, Betty’s husband was so upstanding that he was honored one year by the local Rotary Club for his outstanding service to the community. Betty couldn’t have been prouder of her husband than the night when he received his award.

The very next morning, however, Betty’s feelings for her husband changed. Betty was rummaging through one of the desk drawers at home - looking for an old picture - when she stumbled upon something else: a receipt to a local motel room. Her head started to spin. She realized it would be a good idea to ask her husband about the receipts before she jumped to any conclusions. So she did.

Guess what Betty’s husband said. “Yes,” he said,” I am having an affair with my secretary.” And if that weren’t bad enough, Betty’s husband continued. “The affair has been going on for the past 15 years.”

Sadly, before Betty and her husband could do the difficult work that needed to be done to salvage their marriage, Betty’s husband had a heart attack and died– just two weeks after his revelation to her. Not only was Betty heartbroken at the sudden loss of her husband – she was furious, for she would never have the opportunity to do the important work of healing.

Or would she?

One weekend a few years later, Betty found herself at a workshop where Rev. Tewell had preached a sermon that raised a provocative point: that forgetting is an outgrowth of true forgiveness.

“Oh, yeah,” Betty said. “That hasn’t been the case for me. You see, prior to learning of my husband’s affair I use to whistle all the time. It was my trademark, and people loved it. The day I found out about the affair, however, I quit; and I haven’t whistled since. And I probably never will again.”

“Really?” Rev. Tewell challenged Betty.

And he gave her an assignment. He asked Betty to go back to her room and write a letter to her husband expressing all of the feelings that were lingering inside. Betty failed to show up at the conference for the next two days. She was gone so long that Rev. Tewell had begun to worry that his assignment had scared off Betty. Just when he was about to write her off, Betty showed up – carrying a 35 page letter in hand.

Betty asked Rev. Tewell if he would accompany her to the cemetery where she planned to read the letter to her deceased husband. He agreed to go. Betty’s reading that day was punctuated by sobs, guttural screams, and moments of silence - as she began to let go of old feelings and arrive at a new place: both in her relationship with her departed husband and with herself.

As the conference was closing the next day, the attendees stood to sing the final hymn – Amazing Grace – when Rev. Tewell heard the last thing he expected to hear … Betty whistling along as the congregation sang the beloved hymn.

So what new insights can Betty’s story provide into this morning’s passage from Jeremiah?

Well, for me, Betty’s story can help shift where we put the emphasis. You see most of us read the passage and place the emphasis upon God and the New Covenant GOD has established. And that’s perfectly understandable – since the passage is written with God in the first person, and contains the phrase “I will” no less than a half-dozen times.

But here’s what I missed when I read the passage that way.

It doesn’t just matter the lengths God goes to write the New Covenant on our hearts. What also matters is whether or not the people will open their hearts to that New Covenant – that new way of being - for themselves.

Sure, for instance, God could claim the Israelites as God’s people in verse 33 of today’s reading. But if the Israelites were still brooding about the time their spiritual ancestors were left to wander in the desert, they would miss the power of that claim.

And sure, God could remove the onerous requirements of the law by simply placing the spirit of the law in their hearts as promised in verse 33. But if their attention was still focused backward - on those times they had fallen short and proven themselves less than - they wouldn’t notice that indwelling spirit.

God could even proclaim God’s fervent desire to wipe the slate clean and forgive them. But if the people were unwilling to forgive others (or worse yet, THEMSELVES); all of God’s intentions might fall by the wayside.

In other words, the concept of a New Covenant might sound great in theory; but in order to receive that New Covenant, folks first had to do what Betty did: let go of the old.

Friends, this morning we stand two weeks away from the greatest expression of God’s desire to relate to us in new ways – Easter. And for us to get to that Easter moment, perhaps there are things that we need to let go of as well – angers, hurts, resentments. Against others. Against ourselves.

And while we don’t have time to write 35 page letters as Betty did, we do have time to sit prayerfully lift a few words that express our desire to let go of the old so that we might embrace the new. So let’s do that. And after a few minutes of prayer, I’ll pull us back together with the first verse of Amazing Grace. That verse will serve as an expression of our desire to open ourselves to the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke, and of which Jesus embodies. You can either sing that verse from memory. Or better yet, in honor of Betty, you can whistle along.

Let us be in the attitude of prayer.