Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday, the First Day of Lent

Today begins the 40 days of Lent.  Today many will gather in worship in churches to receive the ashes of repentance upon their foreheads and they made a new dedication to spiritual practices that they hope may draw them closer to God.  Many will give up something as a sign of their dedication and others will add something to their lives, perhaps a spiritual practice such as prayer or Bible reading or a act of piety done often.  Either way, Lent offers us a time to reflect upon our lives and our thinking about life as we encounter God in ourselves, our neighbors, and in the world around us.

Our devotional book, Holy Adventure by Bruce G. Epperly, offers devotions for 41 days.  Each devotion has as theme.  This is the first one, for the first day of Lent, as we enter the challenge of what it means to be wholly and totally given to something outside of our normal way of being.  Read each devotion with a perspective that perhaps God is speaking to each of us through the words being shared.  Allow God to speak to you in your thoughts and spirit so that you may become who God would have you to be as we continue through Lent and emerge into the sunshine of Easter Sunday.

Day 1

"God Loves the Whole World, No Exceptions"

How big is your God?  Is God big enough to embrace the complexities of your life?  Is God big enough to embrace the stranger and the enemy?

"For God so loved the world..." John 3:16a

God's love is for all of humankind, but not only for humans but for all creation, for all beings that inhabit the planet.  Does God love dogs and cats?  Does God love other creatures on the planet?  Does God love the enemies of our country?  Does God love the poor, the dirty, the persons possessed by addiction and crime?  Can God reach out to Islamic fundamentalists, American entrepreneurs, Pentecostal preachers, and college professors?  Does this loving God love the entire world in all of its diversity?

Think about these thought-provoking questions and reflect upon what it means to believe in a God who loves the entire world, with no exceptions.  Think about what that means to our own lives as we encounter others who may be persons that we think we have nothing in common with.  Think about what it means to embrace in our minds those for whom we have little regard and some whom we may disdain.

Think about these affirmations and see if  you can embrace one or many as your own:
God loves the world, no exceptions.
God loves me.
God loves me yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
God loves (fill in the name of a family member or friend).
God's love embraces both friend and enemy.

Mother Teresa spoke of seeing God in all of God's disguises.  She believed that "every person is Christ for me...I see God in every human being."  Today's practice involves simply going through your day with the awareness that God is present in every person and encounter.

Namaste is often said by Hindus meaing, "The spirit in me greets the spirit in you."  Look deeply at the persons you encounter today and think what it would mean for your spirit to greet their spirit as you consider the exchange you may have with them on this day.

Loving and creative God, we thank you that you have called us to be lovers and creators like you.  Give us the vision and the energy to love as you love, embracing the lost and lonely, and the vulnerable and antagonistic...Let us go forth on this adventure with your blessing, blessing all of creation in love and care.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Holy Adventure--Introduction, Part Two

So, today is FAT TUESDAY, the day before Ash Wednesday.  In the Middle Ages, this was the day to use up all the fat you had stored in your house because all through Lent you were not going to be able to cook any cakes or biscuits or sweets of any kind.  This custom continued until the early 1900s mainly in adherents to the Roman Catholic faith.  People would give up a certain food for the Lenten period to show their devotion and dedication to the faith.  Fat Tuesday is a day of celebration and frivolity followed by the austere attitudes of piety to be displayed throughout Lent until Easter Sunday.

Many people do not realize that the Sundays in Lent are not a part of Lent.  There are 40 days of Lent but Sundays do not count as part of them so if you give up a food or custom for Lent you can have it on Sundays but not the other days of the week.  That should have chocolate lovers everywhere who routinely give it up for Lent.

Yesterday, I introduced you to the book I have chosen for my Lenten devotions, Holy Adventure by Bruce G. Epperly.  Today I am going to give you the main ideas from the rest of the introduction and then tomorrow will begin the 41 days of adventurous thinking proposed in the book.  Today, the author gives six affirmations that provide a spiritual pathway to choosing God's own adventure for your life.

1. You are created in the image of God.  You embody the traits of a God who is loving, just, and innovative in response to the world.

2. You are the light of the world.  You are a child of light, radiating God's wisdom and love.

3. God inspires you in every moment.  God is a fountain of possibility and inspiration for your life.

4. God is always with you.  This means that your life is always centered in the One True Center in whom we move and have our being.

5. Your life truly matters.  The quest for meaning has always been a challenge for humans.  If God is truly present with you every day you live, then your life has meaning for you and for the world.

6. Our lives are woven together for wholeness of self and for the universe.  We are God's partners in mending the world.  We are co-creators with God and called to heal the world by the living of our lives.

A Prayer for our Adventure for the Next 40 Days:
Holy God, like Abraham and Sarah, we do not fully know where the adventure will lead.  But we do know that your love and inspiration never ends.  As we begin this journey of spiritual growth, inspire us to live by your vision.  Awaken us to new ways of living out our faith.  Give us courage when the way is uncertain.  Give us open hearts so that we might bring beauty and love to those who journey beside us and to this good earth.  In the name of Christ we pray.  Amen.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Holy Adventure--Lenten Study

I am going to use a book entitled, "Holy Adventure" by Bruce G. Epperly as my devotional book for Lent this year.  It has devotions given for 41 days so it is just right for Lent and for sharing thoughts about Lent.  I am going to share each day's thoughts on this blog so if you want to use it as part of your Lenten devotional material, please check back each day and you can read what I have shared from this book.

Today and tomorrow, I will share some from the introductory chapters that precede the 41 devotions he gives.  He sets the stage for the rest of the book with these chapters and helps prepare us for the remainder of the book.

Many of us have played games, either in books or in board games or on the computer that were "Choose Your Own Adventure" in format.  Years ago when I was a teacher, and computers were just beginning to be created for individual use, the school where I worked purchased a Commodore Computer that used cassette tapes for input into it.  We would put on the "Oregon Trail" game and my students would play it to make believe that they were traveling over the Oregon Trail in a wagon train.  They had to make decisions as if they were part of the traveling group and each decision would lead them on a path where other decisions were necessary.  It was a great game to teach logic, decision making, and geography, which was part of the social studies class I was teaching.

The author of our book, whom we will call Bruce, trying not to be too familiar but it is easier to type than Rev. Epperly each time I use it, begins with such an idea, that we choose our adventure as we go through life daily.  He uses stories from the Bible to illustrate his points and at this point he directs our attention to good ole Abraham and Sarah, the first travelers called to follow the God of Israel.  Abraham heard the voice of God telling him to go and he went, not knowing where he was going at  all.  "When we pause to listen and take the first steps on God's adventurous path, everything changes!", Bruce says.  We all are on the adventure of a lifetime and God invites us to travel with God as our holy companion.

Bruce asks these questions for reflection which would be good for all Lenten travelers to consider:
1. What restlessness of spirit awakens you at night?
2. What dreams in your life are still unfulfilled?
3. What ideals can you reclaim that you have sacrificed for comfort or success?
4. What seeds of new life lie dormant beneath the busyness of your everyday tasks?
5. If you were to claim an adventure in companionship with God's holy adventure right now, where might it take you?

Think about these questions and if any of them can be answered in your mind or spirit, think about how God might speak to you about your life and goals and plans for the future.

Read Genesis 12: 1-9 and reflect upon God's call to Abram and how God is calling you for your future.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Can You See God?

"Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, open the eyes of my heart, I want to see see you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory, pour out your power and might, as we sing holy, holy, holy,...I want to see you."

I have had that praise chorus stuck in my head the last few days as I have been thinking about the Gospel text for this next Sunday, the Sunday we call "Transfiguration Sunday" in the Christian tradition.  It is the last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany and the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  Each year we examine this supernatural revelation of who Jesus is, revealed to his disciples to help them know a bit about who he was for them.  For modern Christians, this text speaks to us about our need to seek the God who announced how special his son was to the disciples who followed him and how this man can be revealed to our lives too, in many special ways.

Jesus took the three people closest to him up the mountain where he wanted to pray.  Peter, James, and John were the "inner circle" of the disciples, the ones who were privy to many of the inside secrets of faith that Jesus would share with them.  Perhaps he included them because he needed some of his followers to know what to pass on to future generations in the Jesus Tradition that makes up a large part of the Gospels we read.  These three men were with him as he was on the mountain in prayer when suddenly something fantastic and incredible and unbelievable happened.  Jesus' appearance was changed before them and he was joined by two figures from Hebrew history whose end of life on earth was different than others.  Moses ended his life as he crossed into the countryside away from the people of Israel and was never seen again.  Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Both men represent the Law and the Prophets, figures that the Israelites considered righteous and holy.

Peter was so awestruck with this divine revelation that he wanted to live on the mountain with them.  He suggested that a "booth" or tent be built for each one of them so that they could remain there.  Perhaps these dwellings were a bit like shrines so that these disciples could behold and adore the personages before them bathed in light.

Jesus could not answer Peter in regard to his suggestion because a voice from heaven spoke from the cloud around them words that Jesus had heard at his baptism.  This time, however, the words were directed at the disciples who were present--"This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!"  The disciples knew that Jesus was a special man and teacher and could work miracles but now they had been told directly that he was the Son of God.  They were nonplussed and could not speak and told no one about this special experience they had.  After all, who would believe them anyway?

How do you experience the presence of God in your life?  Does God come to you in silence, in nature, in the power of the thunderstorm or in the silence of a snowfall?  Does God make himself known to you in the face or voice of a child, in the last breath of a loved one?     Can you "see" God in the world around you as you live among and with others and experience the range of experiences that are common in life?  Can you hear God's voice speaking in response to God's commandment to "Listen to him!"as God spoke to the disciples?

We are the church of the Still Speaking God, in the United Church of Christ.  We believe that God is still speaking and will always be speaking to those who want to hear God's voice.  We believe that there is a continuing testament of God's Word that is given daily to those who are seeking to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  That Word of God is not written on paper but is written on the hearts of those who seek to know and serve God and their neighbor daily.

Transfiguration is a word that means change of appearance.  It is closely related to the word Transformation, which is about a change of being.  Even as transfiguration was known by the way Jesus looked, transformation is revealed by the way a person acts or conducts oneself.  We are being transformed daily as we look and listen and watch for signs that God is speaking to us.  Then, when we act according to God's Will for our lives, we continue to be transformed, day by day, little by little, until finally we leave this life and experience the greatest transformation ever, one that grants us entrance into the eternal life prepared for those who seek to follow God in this life.

"From glory to glory he's changing me....his likeness and image to perfect in me, the love of God for the world."  Another song from the past that speaks to our thoughts today.  May God always be at work in you to bring about God's Will and Way for your life.  And may God open your eyes so you will see Jesus in the world around you as you hear God's voice speak to your spirit.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Home Town Boy Comes Home

What is it like to grow up in a small town and have everyone know you?  Many in Weimar can relate to this because some have never left the town they grew up in while others left for their working years and have returned to retire here.  What is is like to be around people who knew you when you were growing up and have memories about the person you were then but cannot seem to accept you for the person you are now?

Perhaps that is what happened when Jesus went back to Nazareth after being baptized and tested in the wilderness.  Luke 4 recounts the story about Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 during his turn to read in the synagogue in Nazareth.  He stood to read the Isaiah passage and then sat down to talk about it, as was the custom with rabbis in his day.  All of those present watched his intently as he began, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  With those words, Jesus proclaimed to them that the one whom Isaiah declared 800 years before stood before them.  Jesus was saying that it was he whom Isaiah had predicted would come one day.  Could he be the Messiah?

At first everyone spoke graciously about him.  After all, this was the son of Mary and Joseph.  They had watched him grow up in their village.  They had seen him playing with the other boys and chasing about as children do.  They had watched him as he had grown and perhaps had seen him in the synagogue regularly, as was his custom.  He was Jesus, the boy they all knew who had been gone for a brief period of time but was not back in his village and expected to conform to their expectations of what he should be like.

Suddenly, they did not like what they heard him say.  The words of Isaiah he read were not "fulfilled" in their hearing?  Did he actually think that he was the one that Isaiah had written about so long ago?  Surely not, he is just the son of a carpenter, the boy who belonged to the peasant family that they all knew well.

If that brief statement made them wonder about him, what would his longer explanation do to them?  Jesus went on to explain that God worked miracles among the Gentiles as well as the Jews when he spoke of the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that told about Elijah and Elisha doing works for the widow of Zaraphath and Namaan the Syrian leper.  It was as if he was telling them that God loved Gentiles as well as Jews and would do the things for them that God had promised to his chosen people, Israel.

Suddenly, their graciousness turned to anger and wrath.  Suddenly, they did not want him in their presence or anywhere for that matter.  They wanted him dead.  So, they led him to a cliff  and were going to throw him off but somehow in the confusion of it all, he escaped their grip and their wrath.  Jesus went on his way, and the angry mob somehow made their way back to the city to tell each other how wrong Jesus was to say that God accepted others outside of their faith.

How is it that people can be so gracious to others when they like what they say and approve of their views but suddenly become an "angry mob" when those people voice views that are not of their liking?  How is it that seemingly rational people can be turned against others simply for not speaking words that are agreeable to them?  It happened to Jesus and it happens to many of us in our lives.

There is a song played on Christian radio stations from the 1970s-80s that said, "Friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them, and a friend will not say never for the welcome will not end..."  It is a wonderful sentiment but the truth is that for some, friends are friends as long as they agree on everything and if they do not, then the friendship ends.

Rejection can come about as an overt act in which persons demand and tell others what they want them to think and if they do not agree then the relationship is over.  Rejection can also happen as a covert act in which persons simply stop talking to others or recognizing their presence.  The Jews had a phrase for it...he's (or she's) dead to me.  They would simply act as if that person does not exist.

Jesus suffered rejection from the ones who knew him best in his own hometown.  They expected him to be Jesus, the son of Joseph, the boy who learned the trade of being a carpenter from his father.  They did not expect him to be a self-proclaimed fulfillment of ancient scripture.  That made them very uncomfortable, so much so that they wanted him silenced and dead.

How do we react when persons we know speak words that make us uncomfortable?  How do we feel when we read words posted on social media or hear words that come out of mouths that we respect only to change our opinion because of the weight of the words in our minds?  Do we react in anger and want the person silenced?  Do we give that one the benefit of the doubt and attempt to discuss our feelings rationally with them?  Do we respect them despite the weight of their words in our minds and allow them to think and let us think as we wish, knowing that sometimes we have to "agree to disagree" in order to preserve a relationship?

Last week we read from I Corinthians 12 in which Paul told the Early Church that God uses people in a variety of ministries for the good for the Church.  He concludes chapter 12 with the sentence, "And I will show you a still more excellent way."  With that sentence, Chapter 13 begins what we call "the love chapter" of the Bible, read at more weddings than any other scripture passage.  Paul writes about love and its merits and qualities to tell the Church that none of what is done in the Church has value unless the meaning behind it is love.  Work done in a loving way, respecting the feelings and integrity of others, is truly worthy.  Without love, what we have done is worthless.

Jesus' friends and fellow Nazarites could not love him because they hated what he said so much.  His words stung them to the point that they only wanted him out of their sight, for good.  They could not see beyond their anger, prejudice, and fear of the change that God might bring about if Gentiles were given equal access to the God of Israel as they had so they had to silence the speaker of the words.  Once he was gone, all would be good once again.  What a chilling example of human nature...both in the ancient world and still happening in our world every day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Coming and Going

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

There are beginnings and endings to every part of life.  The writer of Ecclesiastes states that fact and then enumerates times for different life events.  A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to harvest; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to week, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, a time to dance.  Life is full of beginnings and endings.  Each ending signals a new beginning of something else.  An end to childhood brings a beginning to adulthood.  An end to working years bring a beginning to retirement.  An end of our days brings a beginning of eternal life.

Pastors know that their ministry has beginnings and endings also.  When I worked as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, my ministry setting was dictated by the Bishop and his cabinet.  They directed me where to go to be in ministry and how long I would stay there.  My ministry in a certain place was determined by what was good for the entire conference in which I served.  If I were needed 300 miles away, I was told to move at the next annual conference.

Jesus began his ministry at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  People gathered on the Sabbath to hear the hometown boy read the scripture and preach from it.  Jesus was the guest liturgist of the day and the preacher.  He stood and read from the prescribed reading of the day, from Isaiah 61, where the prophet spoke of the servant who would bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and the news of God's favor for all.  Jesus sat down after reading, which was what the preacher would do, and then he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  (Luke 4:21)

It was at that point that Jesus ministry to the world around him began.  Jesus told those people who knew him best, his home town folk, what he would be doing for the rest of his life.  It was not something that they wanted to hear but he told them what he believed was important that he do with his life and then began to do it.

Working to bring good news to others should be something that everyone would celebrate.  There are some in the world, however, who do not want good news to be brought to everyone.  They believe that some are more worthy of God's favor than others.  After all, they surmise, some have brought misfortune upon themselves by the way they live for by bad choices they have made.  Shouldn't they have to suffer for their actions?  Isn't God's favor reserved for the righteous and holy in society?  And shouldn't we be the ones to decide who is righteous or holy enough to deserve God's favor?  That was the thinking of those who were listening to Jesus' read and talk about what he read.  His declaration that Isaiah's words were being fulfilled in and through him did not sit well with many who heard his speak.

Ministry is done, many times, among and for the very ones who are totally undeserving of favor of humans or of God.  Ministry is done on behalf of many who have made bad choices in life.  It is done for some whose life choices have placed them in circumstances that are undesirable or pitiful.  We often look down upon them because of the way they live.  Declaring God's favor for them does not say that we condone or approve of the actions of others.  It says that God's grace is enough to go beyond anything that humans may do or act or think.  It says that God's love reaches out far beyond what humans are capable of doing.  It says that if God can love us, despite our failings and faults, then perhaps God is calling us also to love others, despite their failings or faults or misfortunes.

Jesus' ministry began on that day he preached in Nazareth.  Jesus' earthly ministry ended when he died on the cross and his life as a human ended.  Jesus' resurrected ministry among humans continued until he ascended to return to live with God the Father.  Jesus passed on to his followers what he had begun so that we who say we believe in Jesus will do his works and greater works even because he is empowering us through the Holy Spirit.

The Church is the Body of Christ on earth equipped by the Holy Spirit to work on behalf of others who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We are a community of faith working together to proclaim that the year of God's favor is here, that God loves everyone and that no one is excluded.  We, in the United Church of Christ, believe and teach that whoever you are and wherever you are on the journey of life,  you are welcome in our church.  We teach and believe that God's love is for all and that we are the ones with the mission to tell others that Good News.  That is why we exist.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Happy Epiphany Day!

Today marks the end of the Christmas Season....this is the 12th day after Christmas, also called Epiphany.  It celebrates the coming of the Wise Men to see the child Jesus.  They are often lumped in with the shepherds in the Nativity pageants and stand alongside them in our outdoor displays, but actually they did not see Jesus when he was an infant, more like a toddler.

The story from Matthew says that they were from "the East" and often we sing the song that says they are from "the Orient" but no one really knows who they were or where they were from, simply that they were "wise men" who had observed a star rising in the sky that they thought would indicate the birth of a great person.  So, they began to watch that star and to follow it.  They went on their journey, not knowing where they were going or who they were looking for, but they felt an urgency that made them continue their trek even when they were unsure why or where they were going.

Epiphany is a word we use that means "revelation" or "surprise" or "a-ha".  It is one of those "light bulb" moments when suddenly "we get it".  Epiphany is called the season of light because it is the light of God that reveals truth to all.

The wise men finally saw that the "star had stopped" and the result was that "they were overwhelmed with joy".  They journey had ended, at last.   They had found what they had been looking for.

Today is a religious day.  Some churches have church services.  People may pause and reflect upon what it means to them to have light shine in their lives and reveal the truth to them.  Most people will have the day come and go without even thinking about it.

Today begins the Season of Epiphany which lasts until the beginning of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10. It is a small, short season during which we hear the stories of Jesus' ministry on earth again--changing water into wine, preaching in his home synagogue only to be rejected by many present, being transfigured before his disciples high on a mountain.  In each story, a little light is shown on Jesus revealing who he is and what he is about.  That light then shines on us to help us understand what Jesus' life and ministry means to us.

Happy Epiphany Day!  Let the light of Christ so shine that others will see your good works and give praise to God in heaven for God's wondrous love.