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Sunday, December 6

Today’s Readings: Luke 3:1-6

In my article for the church’s monthly newsletter FOCUS, I talked about the various ways we prepare for the arrival of Christmas. I talked about our tendency to focus the bulk of our energy on things that are not necessarily spiritual. For example, we can spend the bulk of our time decorating our homes for parties, baking goods for social gatherings, and shopping for presents – all the while neglecting our spiritual lives. My invitation was for individuals to devote more time and energy getting spiritually ready for the arrival of the Christ-child. I even made a few suggestions for how they might do that.

Most of my suggestions involved activities individuals could “do” in order to get ready. In reflecting on the article, however, I realized I made an important mistake: I forgot to encourage folks to create times of silence in their lives that can be used for times of prayer and meditation. This is some of the most important work we can do in terms of preparing our hearts for the arrival of that Christ-child.

During our worship experience this morning, we are blessed to have a professional artist from within our community use a piece of her artwork to invite us into this quiet, contemplative place. I’m anxious to see how folks respond to this heartfelt invitation from the artist.

Today, I would encourage you to think about doing the same thing in your spiritual life – increase your times of silence in the days leading up to Christmas. May this time of silence slow you down and create room in your life for that still small voice that is encouraging you on your Advent journey toward that humble manger in Bethlehem. Til next time…

Saturday, December 5

Today’s Readings: Psalms 90; Amos 5:18-27; Matthew 22:15-22; Jude 17-25

Some folks probably wonder why it is that I feel so compelled to speak as truthfully as possible at most times and name the so-called “elephants in the room”. If they were to ask me that question to my face, I would say, “It’s because there is a long established tradition of such an approach in our faith that encourages me to do so.”

If you look back to the times of the prophets, for instance, they made a point of speaking God’s truth as it had been revealed to them. Today’s passage from Amos is a great example of this. In this passage the prophet points out a painful reality about how their spiritual lives have degenerated to the point where even their rituals and traditions are empty.

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religious projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making” (Amos 5:21-22 from The Message). Ouch!

So what might those words say to us in the context of our daily lives these days? Well, it just so happens that we are in the midst of a season in the church called Advent: a season designed to prepare our hearts for Christmas. This is a season that is full of traditions and rituals – both in our private lives and in the church. These traditions take many forms in our private lives: when to put up the Christmas tree, who gets to put the star on the top of the tree, when to send out the cards, where to eat Christmas dinner, etc.

Today’s passage from Amos challenges us to look at how we are engaged in those seasonal rituals and ask ourselves, “Am I participating in these traditions and rituals in such a way that they are life-giving and drawing me closer to God; or am I simply going through the motions and doing what’s expected of me – trying to simply survive the holidays?

If you find that you are simply going through the motions, it might be time to let go of those empty rituals and traditions. Til next time…

Friday, December 4

Today’s Readings: Psalm 102; Amos 5:1-17; Matthew 22:1-14; Jude 1-16

Some passages of Scripture are warm and fuzzy; others clearly are not. Today’s passage from Jude would be a great example of a passage that is NOT warm and fuzzy.

In reading the author’s words, I can certainly understand what emotions and experiences lie behind them: feelings of betrayal, for instance, bubble just below the surface of the author’s harsh words. Those issues are not what have been at the core of my spiritual life so I decided to re-read the passage a couple of times and see what else was raised for me. When I did that, an issue that I have grappled with for years shot to the surface. Here’s that issue.

Lots of folks will read the passage and focus in on a few verses (verses such as verse 7 that is paraphrased in The Message as reading “This is exactly the same program of these latest infiltrators: dirty sex, rule and rulers thrown out, glory dragged in the mud”) and define the offenders of which Jude is speaking rather narrowly. I’ve heard this passage to denounce LGBT folks, promiscuous folks, those who have terminated a pregnancy, and such. I have never heard folks quote parts of the passage that occur later that address different offenses. “The Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of [God’s] holy ones… to convict all of the ungodly,” the author begins. “These [people] are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” (Jude 14-16 from The New International Version).

When was the last time you heard a religious extremist stand up at a political rally, for instance, and condemn the grumblers, the faultfinders, the arrogant, or the flatters? I’m guessing the answer to that would be never.

So why is that? Why are some of us so tempted to single out particular groups for condemnation and completely ignore other groups?

My experiences tell me that we tend to single out those who belong to groups of which we don’t belong and look the other way when biblical words describe groups of which we are a part. That’s why it’s so common, for instance, to hear some divorced persons quote scripture that, on the surface, would seem to condemn gay and lesbian people and never once quote scripture that, on the surface, would seem to condemn divorce.

So where are you with all of this? Do you have a relatively consistent way of engaging the materials that inform your spiritual life, or do have you adopted a selective process whereby you use the things that fit you and ignore those things that don’t? Til next time…

Thursday, December 3

Today’s Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; Amos 4:6-13; Matthew 21:33-46; 2 Peter 3:11-18

For many, many years I have lived with a coping mechanism that I became very comfortable with and dependent on. That coping mechanism was my perfectionism.

My perfectionism served a variety of purposes in my life. When I was struggling to come to terms with my sexual orientation, for instance, my perfectionism told me that if I was perfect then people would have to love me – even if they would otherwise be homophobic. In other words, my perfectionism pulled me through my coming out process. When I struggled to live in a world that was out of control at times, my perfectionism told me that by seizing control of things around me and doing them “right” I could restore order in the world (or at least my little corner of the world). By this, I thought my perfectionism brought order into a chaotic world. It served me in other ways as well, but I think you are starting to get the gist of what I mean.

One of the reasons I continued to on to my perfectionist tendencies for so long (and the reasons I continue to challenge myself to leave them behind to this very day) is that our society rewards perfectionists. Sure, we perfectionists may be hard to be around at times because we are incredibly controlling. In the bigger picture, however, let’s be honest: perfectionists get things done. Because of this perfectionists often rise through the ranks at shocking rates.

It’s took me many years to confront myself and be honest about the fact that for several years my perfectionism was the rock or fortress in my life – the thing I thought I could depend on. Sure, I would read passages like today’s Psalm, and think they were nice words. But I wouldn’t live by them. I’m just now starting to realize – I mean REALLY realize - what it means to take those words seriously: “I love you God – you make me strong. God is my bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live, my rescuing knight” (Psalm 18:1-2 from The Message).

My question for you to consider today is this: what is your bedrock? Is it God, or is it something else? Til next time…

Wednesday, December 2

Today’s Readings: Psalm 50; Amos 3:12-4:5; Matthew 21:23-32; 2 Peter 3:1-10

I was blessed by the opportunity to have a conversation with two folks yesterday about some of the challenges of living out one’s faith in the context of a faith community/church. One of the greatest challenges, I shared, is dealing with the issue of change.

It took me a while to learn that when it comes to organizational/systemic change, there are at least two different kinds involved (there are actually many more than just two, but for the sake of time I focused on two). The first kind of change is what I would call cosmetic change. This is change that occurs on the surface of an organization. It’s the easiest type of change to live through because the ramifications of it are relatively minimal. The second type of organizational change is what I call cultural change. This is change that touches the core values of an individual and/or an organization; therefore, these changes are incredibly loaded and tend to elicit strong reactions.

The hardest part about living in a faith community/church is that you can’t always predict what sort of change category an action will fall under. Let me give you two examples of what I mean. Let’s say a pastor comes in and changes the song that is sung in response to the offering (traditionally called the Doxology). On the surface this might be read as touching on a deeply held value and therefore be seen as a cultural change. The congregation, however, might not think it that big of a deal and actually like the melody of the new song better than the old. It could therefore end up being a cosmetic change. Now let’s say a new person steps forward to chair the faith community’s/church’s Nominations Committee. This person nominates Steve (a person who arrived in the faith community/church six months ago) to serve as chair of the Membership Committee. The new chair might think this is a cosmetic change since its simply attaching a new name to a leadership position. Others in the church might violently react against Steve’s nomination to the leadership position, however, because his nomination violates a deeply held (but often unspoken) value of the community – that only people who have been in the church over a decade are qualified to lead. You can see why leading a faith community can be so dicey. It’s hard to predict how changes will be seen.

So what does all of this have to do with any of today’s readings? Well, as I read some of the words from 2 Peter today, the issue of time – and our expectations about how things are supposed to unfold – is placed in a challenging light. “With God,” the author noted, “one day is as good as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day” (2 Peter 3:8 from The Message). I find the reading challenging because it reminds me that things often won’t occur according to the timelines I would expect. Things I perceive as cosmetic changes (in either an organization or in my own life) seem to end up taking FOREVER while things I perceive of as cultural changes can surprise me and end up happening overnight. The lesson in all this for me is to let go of my expectations and live into a less temporally bound/driven place (at least by my own standards).

So how do you deal with the issue of time? Do you expect things to unfold on your timeline, or are you open to the idea that things may unfold on a radically different timeline – one that is not your own? Til next time…

Tuesday, December 1

Today’s Readings: Psalm 33; Amos 3:1-11; Matthew 21:12-22; 2 Peter 1:12-21

There are lots of folks these days who struggle constructing their Christology. By Christology, I mean articulating one’s understanding of who Jesus was/is. Was he human? Was he divine? Was he both? And if so, to what measure?

Folks who have a high Christology articulate their understanding of Jesus by primarily talking about the ways he represented the Divine; folks who have a low Christology articulate their understanding of Jesus by emphasizing his humanity.

Like many progressive pastors, I would be described as having a low Christology. The way that I got there, however, differed markedly from some of my peers. You see many of my peers arrive at a low Christology because of their head. They look at historical and cultural data of Jesus’ day and use that information to explain why divine attributes were foisted upon Jesus.

My head isn’t what I led with when it came time for me to formulate my Christology. No, it was my heart that led me to this place. Let me tell you why I say that. You see it’s stories like those contained in today’s Gospel reading that help me feel especially connected to Jesus via his humanity. When Jesus encounters the money changers in the Temple who were using religion/spirituality for personal gain – Jesus reacted much like I would: he lost it. And when Jesus encountered the barren fig tree, his decision to curse it is one that I can relate to entirely. To extend this line of thinking a bit further into his life, it was Jesus’ humanity that made his decision to pay the ultimate price in order to follow his call all the more powerful. These are just some of the heart-felt things that draw me to relate to Jesus via his humanity.

In this season when we celebrate the Incarnation, I would ask you to consider what role Jesus’ humanity plays for you. Til next time…

Monday, November 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 122; Amos 2:6-16; Matthew 21:1-11; 2 Peter 1:1-11

In today’s passage from 2 Peter, there is a wonderful listing of qualities to which we are called as people of faith. I particularly love the wording of these qualities as given in the Message. The passage from 2 Peter 1:5-6 reads: “So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love..” (The Message)

As I looked at this list of qualities, I spent some time discerning where my greatest strengths and weaknesses lie. I would say the quality that represents my greatest strength would be my warm friendliness. As an extrovert, I have found that I not only LOVE people – I also draw the most energy by being around them. That makes it incredibly easy for me to exude the quality of warm friendliness.

My greatest weakness? Well for years I would have said that I have little – if any – capacity to embody passionate patience. Over the years, however, I have grown in my ability to be patient and accept life on life’s terms. If I were honest, however, I wouldn’t exactly call my patience “passionate”. It would better be described as emerging.

The quality on the list that I least exude these days would be alert discipline. Most of the discipline I exhibit these days is related to my own interests. This means I have enough discipline to watch what I eat (unless sugar or salt is involved), get regular exercise, and get enough sleep. I have a LONG way to go before I could consider myself alertly disciplined when it comes to my spiritual life. Sadly, that area of my life is much more haphazard than I would care to admit.

Now that I’ve been honest and opened up with you in terms of my self-assessment, I would invite you to do the same. Look at the list of those qualities listed and see where your greatest strengths and weakness lie. That exploration could spark some important work within you in these remaining days of this season of Advent. Til next time…