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Saturday, December 12

Today’s Readings: Amos 9:8-15; Luke 1:57-66; Isaiah 12:2-6

I learned an important lesson about control in one of my first leadership positions several years ago. The non-profit organization for which I was working decided to create small social groups to help individuals within the community connect with one another. One of my co-workers was designated to put the small groups together.

The individual who was assigned the task did not like children. So as he assembled the small groups, he decided to put all the members of the community with small children into the same group. The move was intended to punish the parents of the small children for insisting on bringing the children along. When I first heard of his plans, I thought it was awfully selfish for this individual to inflict his dislike of children onto the people of the community. I wasn’t sure how to confront him about this, however.

While I was mulling over the situation, the first small group (the one that consisted of the parents with small children) met. The next day I heard back from several individuals within the small group. “I don’t know who organized the small groups,” one of the parents said, “but I want to thank whoever it was. It was so thoughtful for them to put all the families with small children together so we could build a sense of community!”

I had spent so many hours worry about how I was going to “fix” the situation. I never once considered letting go of my control issues and trusting that things could work out.

In today’s reading from Amos, we hear words intended to remind the Israelites that they weren’t in control of the process of fixing things: someone else was. “In that day,” the prophet pointed out, “[God] will restore David’s fallen tent. [God] will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be…” (Amos 9:11 from The New International Version).

I wonder if there might be at least one area of your life that seems to be completely out of control: an area that you’ve long been wondering how you are going to make everything all right. If so, I would encourage you to entertain the humbling notion that perhaps you might not be able to fix everything yourself. Once you do that, you’ll create room for God to help repair those broken places, restore your ruins, and re-build things as they used to be. Til next time…

Friday, December 11

Today’s Readings: Amos 8:4-12; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15; Isaiah 12:2-6

One of the people that taught me a great deal about giving was a woman named Gretchen who belonged to one of the churches where I served as a student pastor during my seminary days.

Gretchen was a woman in her 50s who had a wonderfully loving and open spirit. She had been born with Downs Syndrome, and had had remarkable parents who encouraged her to develop her talents to the fullest. Consequently, Gretchen had spent years writing poetry and painting.

There was only one thing that Gretchen loved more than writing poetry and painting. That thing was sharing her poetry and paintings with others. Whenever she had the opportunity to share with others, Gretchen got the biggest smile on her face. Not once did she ever worry about whether or not her poetry or her art was good enough. She simply knew that she was sharing the things that mattered most. That brought her a great deal of joy.

While I wish I could say that it was easy for me to give of myself with that same sense of joy, often I get very self-conscious when it comes to my own giving. I sometimes worry about if what I am giving to God and to others is good enough. Consequently, I often cheat myself out of the opportunity to give from a place of joy.

Thankfully, I have individuals like Gretchen in my life – and passages like today’s from 2 Corinthians – to get me back on track. In today’s passage from 2 Corinthians, for instance, Paul wrote: “God loves it when the giver delights in the giving” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7 from The Message). So how would you characterize the place from which you give? Do you give from a place of inhabitation, obligation, or duty; or do you give from someplace else – a place of delight like Gretchen? Til next time…

Thursday, December 10

Today’s Readings: Amos 6:1-8; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; Isaiah 12:2-6

I was talking with a retired clergy friend of mine a few weeks ago when he asked me what it was like to do ministry these days.

“What do you mean,” I asked – not sure of what he was getting at.

“Well, we are living in some of the most challenging economic times our country has faced since the Great Depression. Don’t you feel overwhelmed by the challenge of maintaining a church in the face of this?!”

His question stopped me dead in my tracks because I had truthfully not slowed down and thought about great the challenges we are facing these days was.

“And why not?” my colleague asked.

“Because I haven’t experienced a sense of overwhelming negativity within the churches I have served. In fact, I’ve been impressed by the can-do spirit I’ve seen alive and well in these churches in spite of these hardships.”

Those words might have sounded a bit corny to my friend, but they make perfect sense when held up in light of today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. In that passage Paul noted: “Fierce troubles came down on the people of those churches, pushing them to the very limit. The trial exposed their true colors: They were incredibly happy, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected,” Paul observed. “An outpouring of pure and generous gifts” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3 from The Message).

Those words reminded me of a powerful truth that periods of hardship can reveal when experienced communally: that truth is “we are all in it together”. That truth can produce an amazing strength within a community and help members of the community reach down deep and tap into an abundance of blessings it never realized it had before. It can inspire folks to find creative new ways to contribute to the life of the community. Most importantly, it allows members of the community to re-examine their lives and see what things are essential and must be held on to - and what things are extraneous and can be let go of. In other words, hard times can help us develop clarity about our identity and purpose in the world.

Perhaps you have been facing a period of hardship in your life. Maybe its relational, maybe it’s financial, or maybe it’s spiritual. Whatever the case, I would invite you to find some time today and reflect on what insights this hardship has produced for you. Those insights may not entirely make up for the pain of the losses you might have experienced– but those insights can help you connect with a spirit of abundance that you might have lost touch with: a spirit that will help sustain you through the remaining challenges that may lie ahead. Til next time…

Wednesday, December 9

Today’s Readings: Isaiah 35:3-7; Luke 7:18-30; Psalm 126

During my seven and a half year ministry at my previous parish, I made a practice of visiting an amazing woman named Dolores every 3 weeks or so. Dolores was a wonderful woman who had a rich personal history. She was an African-American woman in her 80’s who was the third generation of college educated women in her family. Her grandmother had been among the first group of African-American women admitted into college in the part of the country where they lived. Dolores herself had had a wonderful career as an educator and had found time to raise two talented children.

Once Dolores entered the nursing home where she lived, however, the way Dolores was perceived by others changed greatly. Those who had called her a friend suddenly dropped out of Dolores’ life simply because they were uncomfortable visiting her in the nursing home. Over time, her sense of social isolation grew; as a result she began to question her worth.

Of course Dolores wasn’t alone in wondering this. Many folks in our society come to a similar place where they wonder if they have anything left to give. They feel as if their life has become barren.

Thankfully, the sacred readings of our tradition provide us with wonderful words of encouragement like those from today’s passage from Isaiah to keep us going at times we may feel like this. “Energize the limp hand,” the passage begins, “strengthen the rubbery knees. Tell fearful souls, ‘Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here…Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams will flow in the desert” (Isaiah 35:3 & 6 from The Message).

If you are in a place where you are battling feelings of low self-esteem and wondering if your best days are behind you, grab hold of these words and hold on tight. These words can remind you there is so much more for you to give. The springs of water are waiting to break forth from what might feel like the wilderness of your life. Til next time…

Tuesday, December 8

Today’s Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 19:18-25; 2 Peter 1:2-15

Back in 1995, I started working in the local health department doing HIV prevention. I worked in an innovative peer education program that was designed to do three things: (1) identify community opinion leaders; (2) give those community opinion leaders information about how to eliminate and/or reduce incidents of risky behavior; and (3) send those community opinion leaders out into their community to engage in conversations with their peers.

I served as an educator in the program for two years. During this time, I learned an important lesson about human beings. Increased knowledge – at least the way it is traditionally defined – does not always lead to changed behavior.

Because of that experience, I have taken a different approach about how I view education. I’m less worried about the degrees a person possesses or the number of books that a person has read, and more concerned about how a person leads his or her life. That’s how I gauge how learned a person is.

The author of today’s passage from 2 Peter plays around with this notion when he talks about the qualities to which a person of faith should aspire. After talking about a laundry list of qualities to which a person of faith should aspire, the author concluded: “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8 from the New International Version). The notion here is that if you possess those qualities – qualities such as goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness, and love – they will make your faith two things: effective and productive.

So where are you at with all this? Do you prefer to think about faith simply in the abstract; or are you comfortable with the notion that your faith should take concrete form as well? Til next time…

Monday, December 7

Today’s Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Romans 8:22-25; Psalm 126

[After a few months exploring another denomination’s daily reading schedule, I have decided to return to the daily lectionary reading plan offered by the United Church of Christ.]

A few months into my first pastorate, I met with a trusted colleague of mine to process how things were going. While things were going well for the most part, there were a couple of things that were causing me some pain and frustration – so I spent a good deal of time exploring those areas.

At several points in the conversation I asked my mentor what I could do to make the pain go away. My mentor said, “Craig, you need to realize that not all pain is bad. Some pain is necessary if you are ever going to let go of the old and embrace the new.”

I didn’t appreciate my mentor’s words at the time; later, however, I realized my mentor was right. I had failed to appreciate that the pain involved was actually a positive thing – because it meant that we (the congregation and myself) were finally letting go of unhealthy ways of being. And any time we let go of something familiar - even if that something is incredibly destructive - it’s always uncomfortable.

I was reminded of that conversation by today’s reading from Romans; in that passage, Paul wrote: “The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs” (Romans 8:22-23 from The Message).

Perhaps there is an area in your life where you are experiencing pain. Before you try to simply eliminate the pain, ask yourself a crucial question: “Is the pain I am feeling a natural part of the process of letting go of unhealthy ways of being and embracing a healthy new way of being; or is it simply an unhealthy, destructive pain?” If you find that the pain is the kind associated with birthing a new life-giving way of being, perhaps it will make living through the pain a little easier. Til next time…