Thursday, September 12, 2019

Perspectives: Bottles


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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Theological Absolutes


The more committed we are to certain theological absolutes, the more likely we are to discount the work of the Spirit when it doesn't confirm to our presumptions. (Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans).

Theological absolutes.  What are your theological absolutes? Are they the words you recite when you say the Apostles' Creed? Are there more? Are there less? Are they different than those words?

How tightly do you hold to those absolutes? Do they become synonymous with God? 

Do we think if we were to doubt our absolutes, that we would be doubting God? Doubting God's existence? Doubting God's word? Do our absolutes become an idol?

And do we hold so tightly to them that even the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and others becomes invisible to us? Can we become so stubborn in what we hold that we blind ourselves to God?

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Near? Or not?


Am I a God nearby, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? say the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 23:23-24)

We believe God is close by, don't we? In our hearts? In our rooms? In our churches? In our cities? In our offices? At our tables?  I think that we say we believe that, but I'm not always sure that we act as if we believe it.

When was the last time you were in a church committee meeting and felt that those who were in the room with you (and yourself) were speaking and acting as if God was sitting in the room with you? That God was a part of your conversation? How would your deliberation and decisions change if you acted on what you believe?

When was the last time you filtered your prayers to not include those actions for which you are ashamed? Keeping a secret? Do we not believe that God knows what we have done? How we feel?  Who are we trying to fool?  God? Maybe ourselves?

Do we act as if God is walking with us? Do we treat people with love and kindness? Or do we ignore them, or hurt them? 

Is God a God who is near? Or far away?

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Monday, September 09, 2019

Ruth


In Sunday school a few weeks ago, the teacher read the book of Ruth to us.  It was interesting to hear the whole book read in one sitting.  We didn't (as a consequence of reading the entire book) have much time left to discuss the book; it did bring to mind questions about theme.

A few things I noticed:
  1. The book begins with a family fleeing to another country - one in which they are probably not welcome - to escape a famine.  They are refugees.  I wonder how much they were welcomed in their new home.  And when Ruth and Naomi come back to Naomi's home, Ruth is a foreigner.  How is she welcomed?  I believe this book was written after the Exile, when the prophets were telling the returning Israelites that they should abandon their non-Hebrew spouses and find new wives from the chosen people.  This story is counter to that idea - on purpose, I believe.  What does it say to us, today? How do we treat the refugee and foreigner? How does God tell us to treat them? How would we react to being in Ruth's place? Naomi's place? Boaz's place?
  2. I wonder if this is also a story of loyalty? Ruth's loyalty to her mother-in-law is very obvious.  Also, though, there is Boaz's loyalty.  He is faithful to his beliefs by trying to follow the law and care for the relatives of his relatives.  He does more than that - he cares for the widows.  He allows Ruth to glean - more even than he has to.  He protects her. He will find a way for both of the women to find permanent care - either through the actions of another relative or his own.
  3. It was interesting to me that I had not noticed that Boaz's goal is to make sure Naomi has an heir.  If you read the book, you will see it repeated several times.  He will do that by marrying her daughter-in-law and having children who will be heirs to her deceased son, and thus to her.
  4. One of the discussion questions regarding arranged marriage.  Is this an arranged marriage? I'm not sure, and I keep wondering about that.  I suppose in some ways it is. Naomi instructs Ruth how to proceed so that Boaz will marry her. To me, though, it's not the main theme.  It's just part of the culture of the time.
It's an interesting book.  I think multiple readings would result in continued revelation.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Teach us to Pray, Part 4

All of this, and then there is this kicker at the end of the passage that we might miss if we don’t pay attention.  The last verse, verse 13, says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Have you seen the commercials for Carvana?  Carvana is a website you can visit where you search for a used car.  You can browse through 17,650 cars until you find the one you want, and then you buy it, and they deliver it to your door.  Or, if you prefer, you can pick it up – and this is the part that always floors me – you pick it up at a car vending machine.  We drove to Alabama last weekend where our younger son is in grad school, and as we drove through Nashville, I saw a carvana vending machine.  It’s a clear tower full of cars – I guess you go visit it, enter a number, and your car pops out.

Sometimes I think we consider prayer to be a carvana experience. We pray, God thinks about it, and if we are lucky, God says yes, and our wish comes true.  Like a bubblegum machine. 

Please don’t be insulted by that comparison – I know that’s not the case with everyone, and it’s not the case with anyone all the time, but I do think it is sometimes how we, in the back of our minds, think about prayer.

But this verse says that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” We sometimes say that God always answers prayers, but that sometimes the answer is no.  I think God always answers prayers, and the answer is always yes.  God always provides the Holy Spirit to us.  The answer is always relationship. The answer is always presence. The answer is always love and guidance. I know that God was with Joan as she drove across four states.  I know that God was with her daughter and with the church as we all prayed.  I could see that God was present with Theo as she lived up until the day she died, and even after that.  The answer is always God.

And that is what prayer is about.  It is an invitation to come into the presence of the God who has created you – who created the universe – and to bring God everything.  To offer all of your love, your concerns, your worry, your guilt, yourself.  And God, who loves us beyond our imagination, will always answer “Yes. I am here with you.”

Lord, teach us to pray, because we need you.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Teach us to Pray, Part 3

Whether the disciples and we open our eyes enough to see ourselves in Jesus’ prayer, Jesus isn’t going to stop until all of us have a glimpse of who God is. 

In the passage we read today, after Jesus shares a prayer with the disciples, he tells them a parable. It is the story of two neighbors.  I’m going to retell it, and it make it easy to follow (I hope), I’m going to add names.  Completely made up names.  Sam – the seeker – comes to visit his friend, Fred, in the middle of the night.  Sam has been caught unprepared for visitors, and this is a serious matter in a society that values hospitality above everything.  Sam has no bread for his visitors, so he knocks on Fred’s door.  “Fred!  Fred!  I need bread!”  Fred is asleep in his house.  In Jesus’ time, asleep in the house meant that everyone was sleep on pallets around a fire – everyone all together, probably not only with the children, but also with their animals.  For Fred to get up meant that he would disturb his whole household.  So, Fred, understandably, tells Sam to go away.  That wasn’t good enough for Sam, though.  He keeps knocking, and asking, until finally Fred gets up and gives him bread – probably just to make him go away.

Please don’t hear that as a picture Jesus is painting of God, because that isn’t what he meant.  This is a parable. A parable is a form of teaching that means to lay beside.  It’s a story that is placed next to reality so that we can understand reality better.  It can be a story that says, “God is like this…” or “The kingdom of God is like…” but that’s not what this is.  This is a parable of contrast.  We see it better in what Jesus says next when he tells the disciples that parents know how to be parents – you wouldn’t give your children a snake or a scorpion if they asked for a fish or an egg.  In other words – if you, who are not God, know how to be a parent, then how much more does God know how to be the Father?  If Fred, the friend, knows how to respond to Sam, then how much more will God respond to you?

That is who God is. God is loving, compassionate, kind, and responsive. 

Lord, teach us to pray, because you are waiting for us.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Teach us to Pray, Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts based on a sermon I preached.

Several years ago, I was a volunteer on a Walk to Emmaus.  I was explaining to three or four women that we would have an opportunity in the schedule to gather together and pray with each other.  One woman was very concerned about this – not about praying, but about being asked to pray out loud in front of people – even just the few of us.  She had gone to the hospital to visit a member of her family who was ill.  The family was gathered in the waiting room.  Someone in the group asked her to pray, so she did.  At the end of the prayer, someone told her, “Well, that wasn’t a very good prayer.”  She was judging the words that had been used, and the way they had been said.

In this scripture, we are given the gift of a particular prayer – words that have become precious to all of us, that transport us to a place of holiness.  Even so, I don’t think Jesus was answering his disciples’ question with words they should pray, I think he was teaching them TO pray.

Before I worked at The Foundation, I worked in medical research – which is a whole different story in and of itself.  But anyway, an experience I had at that job always comes to mind when I think about prayer.  It had been a difficult year.  Two people who worked in our department were at a constant state of conflict, and there were times I would be pulled into the battle.  This went on for months.  I remember sitting in my lab, thinking about it, and I remember praying, “God, I don’t know how to solve this, but I trust that you do.  Please help.” What I remember is that this was the first time I had prayed about the situation.  Months and months of conflict, and I hadn’t thought to bring it to God.  It may not be true for you, but it is true for me – there are times when I forget to pray. 

Lord, teach us to pray, because sometimes we forget.

Maybe, when the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples,” they were asking for words, but I imagine Jesus knew that they, too, would forget to pray, and so he answered their question with more than the words to use.  In this scripture, I believe he was answering their question by teaching them about themselves and by revealing to them the nature of God.  And I think that once we understand those two things, then the words we pray aren’t important at all.  Once we understand those two things, we are at a sacred point of prayer.

Who are we? Why do we need to pray?  Jesus answers these questions in the prayer he teaches his disciples.  We are a people in need.  We are a people desperate for God, even if we don’t recognize it or remember it.  Look at the prayer again – it is a series of bold demands: give us, forgive us, lead us.  Douglas John Hall says that we are dependent – “give us,” guilty – “forgive us,” and lost and vulnerable “lead us, deliver us.”  We are a people who are in need of God, and Jesus is telling us that in our weakness – in our vulnerability – we come the closest to God.

Also, in this prayer, Jesus calls God “Father.”  Who can call God “Father?” Jesus invites all of us to.  And if that is the case, if we are invited to be so bold as to call God “Father,” what does that say about us? It tells us that we are God’s children – beloved.  What does that mean for the words we use when we pray? What do you want your children to tell you? Everything.  I think the use of the word Father means that we are invited – perhaps expected – to bring everything to God.  Don’t filter your prayers.  Don’t think there are some prayers that are too small or too selfish.  Don’t convince yourself that you are too sinful or too guilty to pray.  Don’t filter your prayers because you are ashamed or lost or because you don’t know what to pray.  Just pray.  Bring it all to your Father.  As I was preparing today, one of the commentaries I read said, “The word ‘Father’ establishes the relationship that makes the rest of the prayer possible.

Lord, teach us to pray, because we desperately need to.


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Monday, August 12, 2019

Teach us to Pray, Part 1

The following few posts are a manuscript of a sermon I preached a few weeks ago.

A year or two ago, an elderly member of our congregation, named Jean, drove into Kentucky to visit with a friend who was living in Ashland.  She drove on I-64, crossed the bridge into Kentucky, and took the first exit.  So far, so good.  When she reached the point where the ramp met Route 23, she turned left instead of right toward Ashland.  That one error had her headed into southern Kentucky.  She kept driving through Kentucky, into North Carolina, into Tennessee.  By this time, her family was worried beyond worry.  A Silver Alert was issued, police in three or four states were involved.  They were able to track her through her credit card purchases, but too late to take any action to stop her.  In Tennessee, she turned around, started driving east.  She stopped for lunch in Wytheville (and this is days later from when she started).  When the family heard that, they hoped she would continue north on I77 and that they would be able to catch her at a toll booth, but instead of zigging, she zagged.

The whole time this was happening, our church was praying.  The pastor organized a prayer vigil for those who could come to church.  We prayed.

On Sunday morning, the pastor led the congregation in a prayer for Jean.  During the prayer, an email was delivered to a few members of the congregation from Jean's daughter.  "We've found her.  She's OK.  More to follow." I had never seen a prayer answered like that - with such drama and timing.  It was amazing.

Jean's daughter, Anita, had received word from the police in Waynesville, NC, that her mother had been found, sleeping in her car.  Her car was at the top of a snow-covered mountain, and she had been found there by three men who were doing who knows what in that remote mountain location.  The place was so isolated that the ambulance had to back off the mountain in reverse, and the tow truck driver determined it was too dangerous in the snow to bring the car down.

I know God was at work.

A friend of mine, named Theo, had cancer.  She fought several years, though surgery and treatment and pain to try to survive and beat the illness.  The church prayed, and visited her, and truly hoped that God would heal her.  Theo's faith seemed changed by her illness - strengthened - and she seemed closer to God through her battle.  She came to church every Sunday that she could.  She attended Sunday school, and she said that she was encouraged by her Sunday school family, and missed us when she couldn't be there.  She was part of my accountability group, and came to every meeting she could.  I know that our faith was made stronger through her example.  And we prayed.  And, eventually, she died.

So, what do I think about these two stories?  Do I think Jean's safe return to her family was an answer to a prayer?  Yes.  Do I think God was convinced to help Jean by the sheer number of people praying for her?  No.  Do I think more people prayed for Jean than prayed for Theo? No.  Do I think God was with Jean and not with Theo?  No.  I know God traveled the road with Jean, and was always with Theo.  God helped them both, strengthened them, protected them and healed them both. Do I have answers to every question about prayer?  No, I absolutely do not, and I don't believe any of us do.

In the time in which Jesus lived, it was the practice for rabbis to teach their disciples how to pray – the words to use.  In that spirit, Jesus’ disciples came to him one day and asked him to teach them to pray.  I think they had the same questions that we do about prayer.  And we find Jesus’ answer in Luke 11:1-11:
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:Father, hallowed be your name.    Your kingdom come.     Give us each day our daily bread.     And forgive us our sins,        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;  for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This is the word of God, for us, God’s children.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Risking for Freedom

One weekend this month, Steve and I took a trip into Ohio on a self-guided lighthouse tour.  The first lighthouse we visited was the one at Fairport Harbor.  The original lighthouse in this town was built in the early 1800s.  It was later replaced by the present stone structure.


As I read about the history of the lighthouse, I learned it was a final stop on the underground railroad.  This source ( http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=285) says, " Not by accident did the lighthouse act as a beacon of freedom to escaped slaves—the townsfolk actively made it one."  The people who lived in the town so firmly believed in freedom that they "colluded" to keep escaped slaves safe from slave masters who hunted for the slaves.  The town hid them in the tavern and in the lighthouse until escape could be made to Canada.  And the town fought to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law.


What do we believe in so much that we will work together, risking ourselves to help others to freedom? What will we risk to transform the world? 

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Perspectives: Helping


This is Steve on the beach.  We were walking along the water that evening, and we saw a family with one member taking their picture.  My husband, being the person he is, went up to them, and offered to take the picture so that everyone could be in it.

Where can you offer a helping hand today?

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sharing in the Inheritance


Read these two verses from the first chapter of Colossians:

Verse 3: In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

Verse 9: For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord., fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

Years ago, when Steve and I were first married, Gloria Peak approached us after worship.  She told us that she had been praying for us.  I'm not certain, but I think she was part of a prayer group in the church, and maybe we had been assigned to her as people for whom to pray.  Being told by someone that she is praying for you is a memorable moment.  I thanked her, and asked her to not stop.  

How do you feel when you find out that someone is praying for you, specifically, by name? I imagine we all feel a sense of gratitude.  It is a gift to know that someone is remembering you, and is praying for you.  It is an act of steadfast love, reflecting the grace of God.

Years later, I was attending a meeting at West Virginia Wesleyan College.  It was the month before Grant, our older son, was to start school there.  On a break, I walked across the campus and sat on a wall across the street from his dorm-to-be.  I spent some time in prayer for him, thinking about his future college years, praying for him as he left home to do something new.  When we dropped him off to start school, we left him with a care package.  Among the many items in the box was a note from me, telling him of my prayers for him.  I hoped it was one way to help him understand how loved he was (and is) - by his family and by his God.

Who are you praying for right now? Who in your life needs to be reminded that you love them, that you care enough about them to lift them in prayer? Who needs to be reminded of the love of God, and that they are not alone? 

I invite you to take a seat in a pew, or find a quiet wall, and spend some time in prayer for that person.

And for you, I pray verses 11-12:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. Amen

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Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Prayer from Pslam 25


A Prayer from Paslm 25:1-10
 
Oh, God, my God,
To you I lift myself,
My heart, my life, my breath.
 
Oh, God, my God,
In you I place my trust.
My faithfulness.
My hope.
Stand by me.
Stand by all of us.
We are nothing without you.
 
Show me the way to go.
Make the path one that I can see.
Clear the path so that I can follow you.
Teach me, tell me, help me
To know what to do.
 
Show me your truth.
Fill me with your truth so that
My version of truth is gone.
My beliefs are self centered,
Self serving
Selfish.
Fill me with your truth.
You are who saves me from myself
I wait for you.
 
Remember your mercy, Oh God.
Remember your love,
Remember me.
Remember us.
We forget, but we pray you remember.
Forgive our forgetfulness.
 
Do not remember all of the ways
I have sinned against you.
Do not remember how often
I forget about you.
Do not remember.
Remember only your mercy
Remember only your love.
 
You are good.
You are merciful.
You are righteous.
Only in you will we find our way home.
Only in you will we find the Way.
Only in you.
 
All of your paths are mercy and love.
You are steadfast and faithful,
Beyond anything we deserve.
Beyond anything I deserve.
 
Lift us up, Oh God.
Oh God, my God.
Oh God, our God.
Amen.

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Monday, July 08, 2019

Born into the Faith


In her book Faith Unraveled, Rachel Held Evans wrote about her experience as an evangelical in the later part of the 1900's:
To experience the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we didn't need to be born again; we simply needed to be born.  Our parents, our teacher, and our favorite theologians took it from there, providing us with all the answers before we ever had time to really wrestle with the questions.
I'm not sure this is a symptom that is unique to evangelicalism.  Aren't we all tempted to take the easy way? To assume that what we have been taught is the "way it is?"  It doesn't require struggle or doubt, questioning or thought.  Just assume the way we heard the stories as a child are true.  Simple.  Easy.  No questions.

And yet, we are called to more, don't you think? To think.  To question. To struggle. To find answers that are honest and true to our faith.  To have a close-minded faith means that we are never open to change. Never open to growth.  We remain - not child-like in our faith - because children question everything - but we remain childish in our faith.  

Christianity is a faith of change and growth.  That's what sanctifying grace is all about.  That's what moving on to perfection is about.  It isn't easy. It takes effort. It requires confronting what we believe in the light of the truth of God as experience through the holy spirit.  It doens't mean rejecting scripture. It means really, truly, struggling to understand it.  It means respecting scripture.

And then, instead of being born into the faith, we are re-created into who we were made to become.  Grown up - or growing up - Christians. 

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Thursday, July 04, 2019

Happy Fourth!


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