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Saturday, May 9

Today’s Readings: Psalm 63; Isaiah 40:9-11; Matthew 7:28-8:4; 1 John 2:18-23; Psalm 66

One thing I’ve learned over the years is this simple, yet profound truth: in order to get better, you need to want to get better. Now some folks might hear this and interpret it only in one realm – that is, within the realm of a person’s physical health. Within that context, they’d say, “Of course a sick person would want to have their physical health restored. Who wouldn’t want to get better?!” It’s when we move beyond the realm of physical afflictions into emotional and spiritual ailments that things get a little trickier in terms of wanting healing. And why is that? Well, I suppose it’s because it’s much harder to realize an attitude is unhealthy than it is for us to realize our body is unhealthy. Let me give you a couple examples. Let’s say a person was raised in an abusive household. As a result of the abuse, the person learns a lesson that pulls them through the difficult circumstance: they learn never to be vulnerable to another human being. While that attitude may have gotten them through the period of abuse, that same attitude can make for a difficult life if held on to for the rest of one’s life. Or let’s say a person enters their very first relationship with an open heart and spirit, and the person’s partner cheats on him or her. What happens? The person says, “I’ll never trust again” – and goes through life refusing to trust another. As a result, they go from one unfulfilling relationship to another over the course of their lifetime. In each of these examples, it’s extremely difficult for the person to seeking healing in their life because they identify these damaging attitudes as positive things that have served the individual well. In other words, they have a difficult time offering up the simple sentiment that the leper offered up in today’s passage from Matthew: “If you want to, you can make me well.” Today, I would encourage you to take some time and see if you have an area of your emotional or spiritual life that you think might be able to stand a little work: an area that you’ve been content to simply hold on to past attitudes or ways of being no matter how counterproductive they might be. Once you find that area, you too can lift up that simple yet profound expression of faith: “If you want to…” Til next time…

Friday, May 8

Today’s Readings: Psalm 61; Jeremiah 14:14-18; Matthew 7:22-27; 1 John 2:12-17; Psalm 140

I was someone who got a very late start in life dating. I didn’t seriously begin dating until I was 23. That gave me lots of years to listen to others talk about their dating experiences, and learn how to do it correctly. I knew, for instance, it was good to get to know the other person and find things to do that fit their interests rather than simply do things I liked. I also heard there was a timeline for how you let out information about yourself so that you didn’t get too serious too soon. In those early days of dating I remember thinking, “There sure are a lot of rules to follow!” I spent the better part of the next decade trying to successfully employ those rules in order to meet the right person and settle down. My whole approach to dating was turned upside down when I was 33, and I finally met the right person. Suddenly, everything clicked and it seemed as if I instinctively knew what to do. I didn’t worry, for instance, I didn’t have to count the number of dates before I felt comfortable sharing my hopes and dreams (i.e. wait until date # 7 to talk about that stuff); I could simply talk about them when the moment seemed right. I didn’t have to worry what I should do to commemorate our first month’s anniversary – I inherently knew what to do. I found that when I arrived in a healthy relationship my feelings and my behaviors fell into line. The rest took care of itself. Jesus addresses a similar dynamic in today’s reading when he talks about our relationship with him. Jesus tells us that he’s not impressed with those who want to sweet talk him with words like “Master, Master”. He’s looking for something more out of our relationship. He’s looking for those who are willing to let their feeling toward him align with their actions so that they produce one of the most important ingredients of a healthy spiritual life: obedience to God’s will. So where are you at in your relationship with the God revealed in Jesus? Are you looking for a relationship predicated on simply telling God what you think God wants to hear and making attempts to wine and dine God through showy displays of reverence; or are you willing to get real, be yourself, and allow your relationship to unfold with integrity? Til next time…

Thursday, May 7

Today’s Readings: Psalm 40; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 7:13-21; 1 John 2:7-11; Psalm 131

It’s easy to look at some scriptural passages on the surface and think to oneself, “I’ve really gotten the message of that text down pat.” Case in point – today’s reading from 1 John. The author of the passage wrote: “Anyone who claims to live in God’s light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark. It’s the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God’s light and doesn’t block the light from other” (1 John 2:9-10 from The Message). I’d read the passage and think to myself, “I’m in good shape in terms of loving and not hating. I don’t hate groups of people such as those whose sexual orientation is different than mine or illegal immigrants, etc.” As long as I left the passage at the abstract level, I was in good shape. It’s when I got down to the concrete circumstances of my life that I sometimes got myself in trouble. I’d hear about the actions of an individual on the news like Fred Phelps – the anti-gay pastor from Kansas that makes a point of picketing servicemen and women’s funerals because he feels the country is too pro-gay – and allow the light in my life to get blocked. Or I’d look at a former co-worker who – in her quest to get promoted – stomped all over those of us who worked around her and let darkness overtake me in the way I felt about her. Or I’d look at look at the friend who mischaracterized an exchange between us to friends in order to isolate me in our social circles and have feelings that were far from love in my heart. As long as I kept the admonition to love and not hate in the abstract, I found it was awfully easy to follow that challenge. It’s when I took that admonition and put it into the concrete circumstances of my everyday life that I sometimes got in trouble. So where are you in terms of living into the admonition? Do you prefer to embrace the passage theoretically, or are you willing to put it into practice in your day-to-day life? Til next time…

Wednesday, May 6

Today’s Readings: Psalm 65; Ezekiel 34:11-16; Matthew 7:1-12; 1 John 2:1-6; Psalm 95

The topic of Christology is a difficult matter for many folks to discuss. That’s because Christology, in its broadest sense, is the study of Jesus’ nature. It takes us to the whole “Was Jesus human, was Jesus divine, or was Jesus both?” conversation. As we participate in this emotionally-charged conversation, it’s often easy to get so caught up in winning the debate that one can lose sight of the valuable insights you can gain from considering positions other than your own. Folks arguing exclusively in favor of Jesus’ humanity, for instance, can get so caught up defending their position that they can lose sight of the value of believing that God gained an enhanced sense of solidarity with human beings through the person of Jesus. Folks arguing exclusively in favor of Jesus’ divinity, on the other hand, can get so caught up defending their perspective that they too can also lose sight of something of great value. And what is that thing they stand to lose? Well, of one focuses exclusively on Jesus’ divinity, the life Jesus lived on earth would be seen as little more than a precursor to Easter. As a result, one might totally underestimate the value of Jesus’ life on earth. In today’s passage from 1 John, the author cautions against doing that. “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God,” the author concludes, “ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived” (1 John 2:6 from The Message). Regardless of where you come down in the Christology debate – high (emphasizing Jesus' divinity), low (emphasizing Jesus' humanity), or the middle (emphasizing the dual nature of Jesus) – there should be at least two things on which we could all agree. First, the life Jesus led here on earth was important; and second, we are called to follow the example Jesus set forth for us in our daily lives. Perhaps is we did that, the emotionally-charged conversations around Christology would take on a different – more Christ-like - tone. Til next time…

Tuesday, May 5

Today’s Readings: Psalm 43; Daniel 12:1-13; John 10:31-38; 1 John 1:5-10; Psalm 13

You don’t have to know me for very long to realize I am a huge sports fan. I’ve followed the sports teams from Houston for 31 years now, and during those years I’ve seen a lot of great players pass before my eyes – players like Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan, Moses Malone, Warren Moon, Jose Cruz, and Hakeem Olajuwon. All of these players are people whose names would be recognized by most sports fans at the drop of a hat. One of the players that has most grown on me over the past couple of years is a player that virtually no one who isn’t a Houston sports fan has heard of. The man’s name is Chuck Hayes. Chuck is a 6’6” forward in his 3rd year in the NBA. Chuck went undrafted after he finished his collegiate career at the University of Kentucky. The reason Chuck went undrafted is because he is a terrible offensive player. He has an annoying habit of missing uncontested layups. Opposing teams can leave him totally uncovered just inside the key because they know such a distance is outside his shooting range. So if Chuck is such a horrible offensive player, why do I like Chuck? I like Chuck for two reasons. First, I like him because he is honest about his offensive shortcomings and would be the first to admit them. Second, I like Chuck because he is also one of the best defensive players in the league. His quick hands can shut down passing lanes; his quick feet help him draw charges from opposing players; and his huge heart makes him a monster on the boards as he regularly rips away rebounds from players that are at least 6 inches taller than he is. In other words, Chuck sets a great example for me in that he encourages me to be honest in my assessment of myself – know what I can do (and do it to the best of my ability), and know when I need help. It’s that same sort of self-awareness that the author of today’s passage from 1 John is pointing us toward. In addressing our tendency to think too much of ourselves, the author wrote: “If we claim we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins – make a clean breast of them – he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself” (1 John 1:8 from The Message). In other words, the author encourages us to be like Chuck – know what we can do well, and know where we need some help. If that sort of self-awareness can take an undrafted, undersized forward out of Kentucky and make him a valuable contributor to an NBA playoff team; imagine what that self-awareness might do for you. Til next time…

Monday, May 4

Today’s Readings: Psalm 54; Daniel 6:16-28; John 10:22-30; 1 John 1:1-4; Psalm 93

When I first read today’s passage from Daniel, I was a little uneasy by King Darius’ proclamation that read: “I decree that Daniel’s God shall be worshipped and feared in all parts of my kingdom” (Daniel 6:26 from The Message). That part made me uneasy because of the language King Darius used. Instead of simply calling God “God”, he made a point of calling God “Daniel’s God”. That language seemed awfully provincial. As I thought about it, however, I remembered a story from my own faith journey that made me a little more comfortable with the language. Having grown up in a small town, I was taught a faith that was primarily black and white – one that didn’t equip me with the ability to wrestle with some of the gray areas I faced in life. As a result, by the time I was a sophomore in college, I started to think I had outgrown Christianity. It wasn’t until I took a political science class from a brilliant professor who casually mentioned her Christian faith in class one day that I started to reassess everything. I thought to myself, “If Professor Kelleher can be brilliant AND a Christian, then maybe I should re-think this whole, ‘I’ve outgrown Christianity’ thing?” In other words, I wanted to get to know Professor Kelleher’s God. Of course, once I started to pursue a more mature faith that moved beyond black and white and actually addressed the shades of gray that are all around us, God moved from simply being Professor Kelleher’s God back to being God. In the years since, I’ve realized that many of us who fall into the camp some label “progressive” (those of you who know me, know I HATE labels) often serve as role models to those who have completely given up on the Christian faith. We become agents that allow/encourage others to give the God of Jesus a second chance. What a wonderful way to be used. Today, I would encourage you to remember this and ask for God’s abiding spirit to be with you as you continue to be a beacon of light for those seekers in your life. Til next time…

Sunday, May 3

Featured Passage: John 10:11-18

Reflection/sermon for the day...

It’s amazing what difference a single word can make. Case in point: this week’s lectionary readings.

As usual, this week there were four lectionary readings available for us to choose from. One of the four was the familiar 23rd Psalm; another was this week’s reading from the Gospel of John.
And while the image of shepherd is foundational in both passages – there is a huge difference between the ways people respond to the two: all because of the one little word that occurs just before the word shepherd in each passage.

Some of you here this morning probably remember the word that occurs just before shepherd in the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is ___ shepherd. What’s the missing word? That’s right: ‘my’.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, however, a different word comes just before shepherd. We hear Jesus quoted as saying, “I am ___ good shepherd.” What’s the missing word? That’s right: ‘the’.

Now the difference between the word ‘my’ and the word ‘the’ might sound pretty small to you - but there is a huge difference between the effects of those two words.

When you read the 23rd Psalm, you can’t help but feel a sense of intimacy radiating out of the passage because the psalmist establishes a relationship between you and the shepherd. It’s not just any old shepherd, it’s MY shepherd. In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, the word ‘the’ moves the word shepherd from the personal to the abstract.

And that shift shows in the way scholars treat the passage. In working with text, the majority of folks I read left the passage in the abstract. They talked, for instance, about the social standing of the shepherd within society. Or they talked about the duties of a shepherd. Some even explored contemporary images that might be more helpful for us to get at the concepts to which Jesus was alluding. Few of the commentaries, however, were able to engage the material on a personal level. So as I put the commentaries aside, I thought that would be my challenge for my time with you: to move the Gospel passage from the abstract back to the personal.

In taking on that challenge, I stumbled across a little book by a modern-day shepherd by the name of Phillip Keller titled A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.

In his book, Keller suggests that if you want to move from the realm of abstract to the personal when it comes to the talk of the shepherd/sheep stuff, you need to cozy up to the notion that we human beings are an awful lot like sheep. So I did a little digging to see if there might be any qualities that were similar between us and sheep.

Quality one: sheep have strong instinct to follow whatever sheep in front of them. Anyone think that applies? Quality two: sheep are gregarious – and become irritated if separated from a crowd. Quality three: they are social creatures who keep an eye on the Joneses – I mean each other. All of these came from . Keller adds we both tend toward being fearful; we are prone to stubbornness; and we both quickly develop bad habits that can put our well being into jeopardy.

You sold yet?


Once we’ve allowed ourselves to move from the abstract to the personal by acknowledging the similarities between ourselves and sheep, there’s just one piece of work left to do: recognize the work the good shepherd does on our behalf.

Now there are literally hundreds of things the good shepherd does for us. One of the most applicable on this Communion Sunday has to do with how the shepherd deals with impending chills associated with the seasons of hardships – what Keller called winter - for the sheep.
“In tending my sheep,” Keller wrote, “I carried a bottle in my pocket containing a mixture of brandy and water. Whenever a ewe or lamb was chilled from undue exposure to [the elements] I would pour a few spoonfuls down its throat. In a matter of minutes the chilled creature would be on its feet and full of renewed energy... The important thing was for me to be there on time, to find the frozen, chilled sheep before it was too late. I had to be in the storm with them, alert to every one that was in distress. Some of the most vivid memories of my [shepherding] days are wrapped around the awful storms my flock and I went through together” (124 Keller).

Friends, many of us here this morning have had our own recent experiences of those seasonal chills. We felt them as we’ve wrestled with the loss of a loved one, the concerns for a loved one’s health, the fear associated with the swine flu outbreak, the realities of the economic downturn. In other words, we know firsthand the temptation to do what those chilled sheep did: lie down, give in to the chill, and wait for what we think is the inevitable.

Thankfully, we have the presence of the good shepherd in our life: urging us back on our feet – as He provides those elements we need to go on.

As we come to the table this morning and reconnect with the presence of our good shepherd, I want to close with Keller’s words as he describes the power that good shepherd has in our life. “It is the [shepherd’s] presence that guarantees there will be no lack of any sort; that there will be abundant green pastures; that there will be still, clean water; that there will be new paths into fresh fields; that there will be safe summers on the high tablelands; that there will be freedom from fear; that there will be antidotes for flies and disease and parasites; that there will be quietness and contentment” (141 Keller).

May it be so for all of us sheep in God’s flock.