Monday, March 31, 2014

Peace Like a River

Two Sundays ago, we sang the song Peace Like a River.  I started thinking about the phrases in the song - peace like a river, joy like a fountain and love like an ocean.  What do those analogies mean to us?

What does it mean to have "peace like a river"?

  1. A river contains fresh water that sustains life.  Have you lived without peace?  What accumulates in our lives when we do not have peace?  Worry, preoccupation, hatred, selfishness?  What pollution cuts off true life when we are without peace?
  2. Rivers can rise up and overwhelm us with flooding. Peace can rise up and overwhelm us, filling us, changing us.  As I read that, I think it might not be a good analogy - flooding so often does not bring peace. Still, though, peace can flood into us, and it's a good experience.
  3. Rivers carry us from one point to another.  I think peace can do the same thing.  Peace can carry us from dark times to lighter times.  It can carry us from sadness, heartache and worry to resolution.    
  4. Rivers connect us to other places.  I think peace can connect us to other people.  It flows between us - peace is contagious.  
  5. A river can be calmly flowing or rapidly rushing, but either way, it is moving.  Peace can be calming, or peace can move us to action - either way, it motivates us to action.

What am I asking for if I ask for peace like a river?  Do I think I want calm, meandering quietness? I probably do, but that's not what rivers are always like.  Sometimes rivers are anything but quiet - they are often full of life and movement.  Peace isn't stillness or absence of violence.  Peace is the result of connection with God, and that might bring us what we won't imagine, or what we don't expect.

May we have peace like a river.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Do Words Fail Us?

Photo credit: S. Grant Matthews
What is clergy?  What is ordination?  What does it mean to devote one's life to God? How do our words fail us when we try to define it all?

I have an ongoing problem.  I have trouble reconciling two ideas - one is that we are all ministers, called to the work of God and the second is that some of us are called to ordained ministry.  Or maybe the problem is that I can reconcile that, and yet get confused by all of the blurry edges.  A few years ago, when I was leading the Laity Day Worship, I was trying to explain to the young people gathered for the Children's moment what Laity meant.  Who is laity?  Everyone who is not clergy.  What is clergy?  Well, the edges get blurry.

What about the commissioned elder, who is definitely clergy, but is not ordained?  What about the local lay pastor?  Clergy?  Yes.  But what separates him or her from the rest of us?

I've been told that those who are ordained have devoted their lives to God.  I can get behind that definition until I remember that there are many lay people who have devoted their lives to God. Are clergy appointed or assigned to a church?  My deacon friends would disagree with that definition.

I am a certified lay minister.  I am a minister; I am not clergy.  I do not pastor a church and yet I minister in one.  I live in the blur.

I think I'm not the only one who has problems with drawing lines of definition - trying to define that which is blurry.  Perhaps the problem is that our words fail us and trying to box in the call of God leaves us knowing the wrong of it, and yet still needing the exclusivity of definitions.

Oh, well.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Living into Spring

Two weekends ago, my two sons had overlapping spring break time, so we traveled together to Columbus for a spring break trip. As I was packing I had this overwhelming urge to leave winter clothes behind.  I packed bright colors, spring shoes and nothing heavy or wintery.  At the last minute, as a nod to reality, I grabbed a coat.

As it turns out, winter is not done with us yet. It didn't snow in Columbus, but it was COLD. And windy.  Even so, I still wore my spring colors - while winter may not be done with us, I am done with winter.

Driving today, I wondered if there is an analogy in that story to our relationship to God's kingdom. We have an incredible urge to live in God's kingdom - to live in a world transformed by the love of God.  We don't live there, but perhaps we state our desire for the coming kingdom by wearing the clothes of God - by sharing God's light and love - by stating categorically that we are finished with life without God, and leaning into - living into - the kingdom.

Even in the snow, we wear our spring shoes and bright colors.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Realizing where we are

Photo credit:  S. Grant Matthews
In a certain Sunday school (not mine), a woman told a story that she relates to the idea of wilderness.  She was riding her horse through the woods.  She lost control of the horse, and he started running.  When she finally got him stopped, and figured out where she was, she realized she didn't know where she was.  She prayed that God would help her to find her way home.  That is wilderness, she said.

I was struck by the idea that she didn't realize she was lost until she realized she was lost.  It's circular reasoning. Even so, it is profound.  If spiritual wilderness can be equated with separation from God, then we may not know we are lost until we slow down and realize we don't know where we are.   It takes a certain amount of self-awareness.

We can't ask God to find us in the wilderness until we realize we are there.  We don't miss God until we realize we've moved away from God.  We can't take any steps to return to God until we admit we need to do so.

I think that might be one of the purposes of spiritual disciplines.  They hep us to recognize that we don't know where we are.  And to ask for God's help.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Standing in my Shoes

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.  He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me." (Mark 14:35-36)

As you study the different Gospels you come to realize that each of the Gospel writers had different purposes in what they wrote, in what they focused on.  John would not have included the above passage from Mark, because for John, Jesus was always in control.  I'm glad Mark includes these moments in the garden.

There is a passage in the Bible that states that we are baptized with Jesus, and resurrected with Jesus (huge paraphrase).  I want that to be true, but I want the opposite to be true, as well.  As selfish as I am, I not only want Jesus to have come to earth for us to follow him, but for him be baptized with us.  I want Jesus to have experienced what it means to be human.

Have you ever tried to help someone but feel lost in your response because you really don't know what they have experienced?

There are many times when I ask for a cup to pass by me - and times when I allow a cup to pass by me.  I'm more grateful than I can say not only that Jesus picked up the cup, but also that he knows what it means to pray for the cup to pass by.

He has stood where I stand and that strengthens my belief that someday, I might be able to stand where he stands, by the grace of God.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who is Called?

Photo Credit:  S. Grant Matthews
Location:  Methodist Theological School in Ohio
The following devotional was my submission to the Annual Conference Lenten Devotional.

Scripture: Mark 2:13-17
Mark 2:13-14:  Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
Can you imagine it?  Jesus is walking near Levi, the tax collector and calls him into discipleship.  In Jesus’ time, tax collectors were seen as corrupt symbols of Roman occupation.  As we walk with Jesus in our imagination, we can hear the whispers of not only the Pharisees and scribes, but also of Jesus’ disciples.  Why would Jesus call this man into service?  Why would he call a tax collector?  Perhaps one of those in Jesus’ inner circle said, “I don’t want to follow Jesus if it means I have to work with that man – that tax collector.”

Who does God call into discipleship?  Surely God invites you and me, but who else?  Does God call the person who has lied to us?  Does God invite the one who votes for the “wrong” candidate?  Does God invite the homeless person, the teenager we will never understand, and the neighbor who loves jazz music and plays it all night long?  God certainly calls the alto who sings with us in the choir, but does God want the person who has never been to church to become a disciple?  Does God even call the one who has ridiculed us and our habit of speaking about Christ?

Who does God call into discipleship?  I believe we can safely answer that God calls everyone.  If that is the case, how will they be called?  Who will invite them?  Who is the next person we will invite to follow Christ?  It can’t just be the person who is exactly like us; it has to also be the person we would never invite on our own.  God chooses; not us.

Go out today and find the person who God loves so much that God would call him or her into discipleship.  Go out today and offer God’s invitation.

Prayer:  Creator God, help me to fish for people, and help me to cast your net in the direction of your choice, not mine.  Amen.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Too Close to See

At last week's Lenten Luncheon, the speaker told us about racing up I-79 to Western Pennsylvania to be with his mother before she died.  As he was driving, he was dreading making it to his destination.

Once he was finally there - and he made it in time to keep watch by his mother's bedside - a friend called him and told him that she was praying for him and his family.  She said she was certain he would encounter to Spirit of God that day.  He said, "She knew more about what was going on in that room, from 120 miles away, than I did."  He doubted her words, but through the night, realized she was right.

Sometimes it takes a Christian friend to help us to see God, especially when we are too close to see him.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Son of David, Part 4

The final of the scripture triplet in this Sunday school lesson is in Matthew, chapter 1.  The first chapter of the book of Matthew explains in great detail the connections between Jesus and David - “a record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” (1:1). Matthew is very careful to make sure we (and the Jewish readers of the book at the time following Jesus) don't miss the point.  Jesus is descended form David.

This was important to the Jews of the time, who were waiting in expectation – remember, they knew the promises that had been made, so they were anticipating salvation from the line of David.  Matthew takes special care to show them this connection.
Read Matthew 1:18-21:   Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
Years ago I was a student in Chuck Echol's Bethel Teachers’ class.  One of the things I learned, that I had never seen before, was the “big picture” of the bible.  The student book author reminds us that to see God’s divine plan for the world, we have to zoom out – years, generations, time and space.  Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan, begun perhaps outside the garden, when sin first arrived on the scene.  I think that might be one of the reasons why the genealogy is important for us – it helps us to see the big picture – God at work in the world.

So what does all of this mean to us?  We are gentiles, grafted into the tree of the family.  The lineage of Jesus is not just a biological one, but is also a spiritual one, and we have been adopted. Think about family stories – do you know the stories of your family?  Do they link you back to people who came before? Do you tell them to your children to continue that link?  "Every time the church gathers and tells the stories – of Abraham, of Moses, of Elijah, of David and Bathsheba – we are telling family stories.  These are our great grandparents in the faith.  We need to know the stories well enough to tell them to our children and their children so that the stories become their stories as well as ours.

"We have the same mission as did the family of Abraham and the descendants of David – to be a blessing and a sign of God’s grace and love to the people of the world."

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Son of David, Part 3

The second scripture in this triplet of passages relating to the idea of Jesus as the Son of David is in Isaiah 9.

In Christian tradition, these verses are commonly regarded as a description of the messianic King.  In its original context, however, it celebrated the coronation of King Hezekiah.  The author is very pro-kingship, and saw the descendant of the Davidic line to be eternally chosen by God (from the New Interpreter's Study Bible).  I just mention this because we always need to remember that what we see as purely prophecy of the coming of Christ in the Old Testament has context that we can’t overlook.

Early in the chapter we have verse 2:  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined.

I can imagine those who read this passage later – those in exile – would have felt as if they were living in darkness.  It’s easy to say “Keep the faith,” but much harder to actually cling to promises that seem to be unattainable or under threat.

But then there are these words of promise for those who have eyes to see and faith to pay attention:
Isaiah 9:6-7:  For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 
Have you experienced a time when you doubted God’s presence and promises?  Look at the names listed in that passage.  Which ones speak to you of who God is to you?  Which ones describe best your experience of God?

We need to remember that even in our darkest time, even when God seems absent, God is not gone.  It's hard to hold on to, but that is the promise.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Son of David, Part 2

This lesson for Sunday school uses three scripture to illustrate the idea that Jesus is the descendant of David and to emphasize why that was important to the Jews.

Psalm 89 is a prayer to God to uphold and protect David’s kingship.  Some of it might have been written during the period of kingship in Israel, but it reached its present form during the Babylonian exile.  So picture that for a moment – the people are in exile, feeling separated from God, lost and abandoned.  The author of this Psalm is praying that God remember his promises to David.

The Psalm starts out with praises to God – verse one says, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; and with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.”  The word for steadfast love is hesed and it can also be translated as covenant loyalty.  So right at the beginning, the psalmist is reminding God “you are loyal, remember?”  These first verses recall God’s promises to David.

As we move through the Psalm, we hear the Psalmist declaring God’s long term faithfulness, even when God’s people are unfaithful.  I can imagine, as the people were in exile, feeling punished by God for their unfaithfulness, that they were trying to remind God  that God is faithful, even when they are not.

As we enter verse 19, the Psalmist is reflecting words of God, as heard in a vision to “your faithful one.”  Verses 34 says, "I (God) will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips."  Then we get to verses 35-37:
Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.  His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun.  It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.
In these verses, the Psalmist recounts God’s promise to David, and the metaphor is an agrarian one:   David’s seed (his line, in our translation) will last forever.  This word is zera, and it is found in other places that will enhance our understanding of this verse:

  1. In Genesis 1:29:  I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds (zera) and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds (zera) within it.
  2. In a later chapter of Genesis, the same word to describe plants that can reproduce is used to describe human reproduction and offspring:  Chapter 12:7:  The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I give this land to your decedents (zera),’ so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him.  It is through Abraham’s family that all the world would be blessed (blessed to be a blessing – blessing through service).

The promise that is recounted in Psalm 89 is not just that David’s family will live on, but that that promise of blessing will live on.  “God was up to something more grand than exalting one family over all other families.”  Perhaps the Psalmist is asking God to remember this expectation he has given to them.

If we fast forward just a moment into the New Testament, we see the idea of seed carried on again – when Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  (Luke 1:42).  The seed of the promise is bearing fruit.

In Psalm 89, those in exile are asking God to remember them and to remember his promise to them, even during a time when they feel abandoned and alone.  It is a lesson to us - to remember that God has promised to stay with us.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Son of David, Part 1

Last Sunday I taught Sunday school.  While we don't use it every Sunday, our normal curriculum is the International Bible Series, and that is what I used as a resource last Sunday.

The lesson was about Jesus as a descendant of David.  I thought it might make a few good blog posts, so the next few days will be focused on that topic.

Have you noticed on Facebook the current "habit" of posting older pictures on Thursday - it's called Throw Back Thursday, or TBT.  I wonder why that has become so popular to do (although I do enjoy the pictures).  Why are there so many people who are fascinated by genealogy? What do we learn by learning more about our ancestors?

My grandmother's grandmother (or maybe great-grandmother) was a Cherokee.  If you saw a picture of my grandmother, you would see it, right away.  She had the dark dark hair and high cheekbones of a Native American.

In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which (according to Wikipedia, "required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored (essentially all other, which included numerous American Indians). It defined race by the "one-drop rule", defining as "colored" persons with any African or Native American ancestry. It also expanded the scope of Virginia's ban on interracial marriage (anti-miscegenation law) by criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons."  By definition, anyone with more than 1/16 Native American ancestry could not be considered "white."

Of course, that law was overturned by the court case of Loving vs Virginia, but for me, it made something that was in the past much more personal - if my grandparents had lived in Virginia, it would have been illegal for them to be married.

That's one reason we look back to see where we come from.  It helps us to connect with where we came from and what part of what has created us to be who we are today.

The Israelites remembered who they were.  They knew they were descendants of Abraham and that God had made particular promises to the line of Abraham.


Monday, March 10, 2014

The Unnamed Disciple and a Place Prepared

The Bible Study team I lead at church decided to use 24 Hours that Changed the World (by Adam Hamilton) as a curriculum for the class during Lent.  Because of that, I've started using the companion book Journey to the Cross: Reflecting on the 24 Hours that Changed the World, also by Hamilton, as a devotional resource during Lent.

The first reading is based on Luke 22:7-13.  In this passage, Jesus sends Peter and John into Jerusalem to prepare for the Passover meal.  He tells them,
 "[W]hen you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, 'The teacher asks you, "Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples.?'  
Hamilton calls the owner of the house "the unnamed disciple."

We don't know anything about this man, not even his name.  We know that he had a furnished, upstairs room, large enough for the thirteen people to share a passover meal.  Hamilton speculates that he was a man of means - who else would have a room such as this?  And who was the man carrying the jar of water who went to his house?  A servant?  Who knows?

Jesus knew.  I'm only speculating, but Jesus must have known at least the owner of the house - and I imagine that the disicples didn't know him.  Why not just say, "You know Marv - go to his house and set up the meal."?  I wonder what Jesus and this man talked about, what Jesus taught him. Hamilton says this upper room is probably where the disciples hid after the crucifixion, which means that the owner of the house put himself and what he owned at risk.  He was an unnamed disciple to us, but not to Jesus.

I wonder if it also means that Jesus planned all of this before sending Peter and John to the house, knowing that they not only needed a place for the Seder meal, but that the disciples would also need a place of safety in a couple of days.  Was he preparing a sanctuary for them, even before they needed it?

What does this say to us?

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Fear of God

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.   (Proverbs 9:10)
The devotional in our office meeting this week was based on a passage from Proverbs.  Sally talked about fear - what does it mean to fear God?

I think when we hear the word fear, certain connotations come to mind.  A God we are afraid of is hard to imagine as a loving God, as a God who desires a relationship with us.  A feared God would be a difficult God to approach in prayer, and yet we are called to bring everything to God in prayer.  So what does it mean to fear God?

Sally's definition from the devotion she was reading was that fear of God is awesome reverence.  A God we revere, we will obey.  I don't think that obedience is out of fear, but instead springs forth from humble respect - from a knowledge of who we are and who God is.  In that obedience, we will come closer to God.  We will begin to see the world from a "changed perspective," as Sally put it.  We will begin to see the world as God sees the world.  From that changed perspective, comes wisdom.

Knowing God better, obeying God more, will result in insight.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Graceful Silence

In the devotional I read today, Henri Nouwen said:
Moments of true compassion will remain engraved on our hearts as long as we live.  Often these are moments without words: moments of deep silence.
I was reminded of the book of Job.  When Job was in despair, his friends came and sat with him in silence.  For a while, they said nothing at all to him.   I imagine that must have been a comfort; to have friends who would sit in silence, not trying to fix anything, not giving advice, not seeking explanations, just being.
Job 2:11, 13 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. ....They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. 
It was when the friends started talking that things went downhill.

Silence can be uncomfortable.  I was trying to imagine this morning what it would be like if a friend came into my office and shared grief.  Would I be able to keep watch, sitting in silence, if that was what was needed?  I hope that I could.

Silence can be a gift, and it can be an act of compassion.  It's not the only way to respond, but it can be one choice of grace.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Prayer: Sharing God's Joys and Concerns

What is prayer?  A couple of weekends ago I was part of an Emmaus team that was previewing talks for an upcoming walk.  The speaker for the Means of Grace talk was spending some time talking about prayer as a means of grace.

He explained that Lord's Prayer can be a model for our own prayer, and then he talked about the ACTS model of prayer.  If you take a look at that model, then you can see one definition of what prayer is about - adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.  It's not a bad start.

I remember once, years ago, Chuck Echols, an associate pastor at the church where I am a member, was teaching our class about prayer.  He said, "I can tell you a way to create a prayer to pray for a group that will make it easy to do."  He said that, but he never did tell us a way to do that.  He was making a different point, and just passed by this tantalizing secret.  To this day, even though I am now comfortable praying in front of a group, I still wonder what his method would have been.

Reaching a point where I don't have to worry about praying in front of a group, with no planning, in some ways wasn't easy.  I worried about it for a long time, and then I decided if God needed me to do it, he would equip me to do it.  Since that time, it's been joy (I think I've shared that story before).

So what is prayer?  I think I would define it as a time to connect with God - to share praise and gratitude, worry and joys.

During the same Emmaus talk, the speaker said, "Prayer is the time when you learn what God's joys and concerns are."  I really like that.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Book Review: Home to Harmony

Each year our church has a Convocation in early September.  This year's Convocation speaker was Philip Gulley.  I enjoyed his teaching and his story telling, and several people in my church recommended both his fiction and non-fiction books.  I picked up Home to Harmony to read (picked up, meaning downloaded the kindle version from Amazon).

Information about the book

Title:  Home to Harmony
Author:  Philip Gulley
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Copyright:  2007
Links:  As I mentioned, I bought the book as a kindle e-book, so my source was Amazon.
Philip Gulley writes for a blog called Grace Talks


Home to Harmony is fiction.  Having said that, I did get the impression that the stories told were inspired by experiences the author has had.  Gulley is a Quaker pastor in Indiana; Sam, the main character in the book is also a Quaker pastor.

The book is the first in a series of books about Sam Gardner, a Quaker pastor who returns to the town in which he grew up to pastor the church there.  Each chapter is another story -- "front porch tale" - about life in his parish, and about the people who live there.

"With wry humor and front-porch storytelling, Gulley writes about the people of Harmony like old friends or neighbors (Fr. Wayne News-Sentinel).


I very much enjoyed this book.  In the characters, I could see parts of myself and those in my church, and in the situations described, I could see common situations.

Gulley is funny and engaging in his writing.  Parts of it made me laugh out loud, and others were poignant enough to draw me quickly into the story and to sympathize with the characters.  It is a quick book to read, and it is one that helps to illuminate the human situation while at the same time helping the reader to hopefully grow spiritually.


I would highly recommend this book.  If you've ever read Jan Karon's books, you will be familiar with the style of storytelling. I liked this one so much that I read Christmas in Harmony during December, and I anticipate reading others in this series.  I will also venture into his non-fiction work.


I didn't write many blog posts inspired by the book - I find it harder to springboard off of fiction, but I have written one, and have also written about Gulley's visit to our church and about his blog. All of those posts can be found at this link.