One of the things I’m trying to do during this time of isolation due to the Covid-19 virus is to create and maintain some kind of a schedule for myself. I am a person that thrives on routine, so I’m trying to get out of bed at a reasonable time. I’m trying to go to bed at a reasonable time. I’m trying to eat meals around the same time every day. I’m trying to do my laundry every now and then, but really, how many different outfits do I need to be wearing each week when NO ONE sees me, except for an occasional meeting or our weekly worship online? Someone posted a reminder on Facebook that we should all remember to try our jeans on once a week, because our sweat pants are going to make us think everything is ok…! I’m maintaining a work schedule from my home office. And I’m trying to keep up with my yoga classes.
The classes are now streamed live, so I am grateful for that. I try to be mindful during the yoga practice, listening carefully to the teacher although I know he or she cannot see me because I block my camera. I try to keep up the pace. I try not to just sit on the floor, eating chocolate.
So this reflection from Christian Century’s Katie Hines-Shah caught my attention this week when I was beginning to think about our scripture reading today from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. She wrote:
“Ever since my first call in Berkeley, California, I’ve practiced yoga. I’m no aficionado, but I can complete a whole sun-salutation without direction and can recognize some Sanskrit shorthand. And, of course, I know about the importance of breathing.
“Or rather, to be quite honest, I know the importance of giving lip service to breathing. Every yoga teacher I have ever had has said something about how breathing is the most important part of yoga. Some suggested they could offer a whole class on the breath, just sitting on a mat. But I never met a teacher who dared to actually do it—until I went to India.
“Last fall my family traveled to India, where my husband’s cousin invited me to her yoga class. I was interested to see how yoga is taught in the land of its origins. Would I finally learn the secrets of the handstand? Perfect my mountain pose? Be shamed by my insufficient cat/cow? We would have a full 90 minutes of instruction, so anything seemed possible.
“In the crowded, un-air-conditioned room—in India, hot yoga is just yoga—we prepared our mats and bolsters. Our teacher explained we would do just three poses that day, all lying on the floor, because we were going to focus on the breath. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.”
Ezekiel must have had similar reservations. When the Book of Ezekiel opens, the prophet is in exile in Babylon and the city of Jerusalem is under siege. Though Ezekiel spoke about God’s judgment against the Hebrew people, it still must have come as a shock when Jerusalem actually fell and the temple was destroyed. It’s one thing to prophesy destruction and another to see it accomplished. Ezekiel must have wondered what God would do now.
And then he has a vision of a valley filled with dry bones. Years of exile and war have taken their toll. The people have been killed, their city ruined. A valley filled with bones is not an exaggeration.
But equally relevant is their spiritual wasting. Centuries of idolatry and sin have left the people with lifeless, hardened hearts. They have worshiped foreign gods and perpetuated acts of injustice against their neighbors. When God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live, the answer seems to be a clear no. But Ezekiel holds out a sliver of hope. God may know a way.
God, who created human beings from the dust of the earth, pledges to recreate the Hebrew people, and Ezekiel’s prophecy starts the process. The bodies come together, hip bones connected to thigh bones and so forth, but there’s a hitch. Despite Ezekiel’s words, there is no life in these newly restored bodies.
They need to breathe.
In yoga, I have learned there are different kinds of breathing. Sometimes we are led to breathe in through our noses and out through our noses. Sometimes we are led to breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths, and we make a fair amount of noise. No matter the type of breathing, I find it strange—and usually challenging—to focus so completely on a normally automatic process. When I can do it, I find it oddly meditative. Concentrating on the breath really does make it easier to clear the mind and just be.
Katie Hines-Shah continued to reflect about her yoga class in India. She wrote: “At the class’s conclusion, the teacher had us gather around. She reminded us that while someone can breathe for you for a short time, (and we are learning, of course, the amazing gift of ventilators that can breathe for us) ultimately each of us has to breathe for ourselves. We had practiced our breath in easy postures so that we would remember what to do when poses were harder. The feeling of the breath was important. If we could remember what breathing meditatively felt like, we might be able to do it again, even outside of class. This class was just a beginning, she reminded us. It would be up to us to take its benefits further.”
God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. The dry bones, reconstituted as bodies, get a kick-start—divine CPR from the four winds, filling them up and making them live. But they don’t seem to do much else, at least not yet. Ezekiel’s vision ends with a vast multitude of living bodies, standing in that valley, waiting. God promises to put God’s spirit within them, to set the people on their own soil, to make them know that God is their God. But how will they respond?
Christians have long used the season of Lent to engage in devotional practices. We fast, pray, worship, study, and do acts of service throughout the 40 days. Ideally these are automatic habits for people of faith, but we sometimes forget. As I learned in yoga class, intentionally engaging in even basic practices like breathing can restore us. We practice our faith in the season of Lent so that we know what to do when things get harder. The discipline of the season prepares us for experiencing suffering, loss, and even death. Hines-Shah says, “Activities conducted in the sheltered context of our homes, small groups, and churches ready us to work in a sometimes hostile and ruined world. Our faith practices become a bolster, lifting us up, helping us hold our posture and even stand in the face of that which could destroy us.” Such important words of encouragement for us to hear, today.
But, of course, the next steps are up to us. As Lent comes to an end next Sunday and Holy Week begins, we must choose to apply what we have learned. Will we just give our faith lip service, or will we live it? Will we turn away from idolatry, worshiping God alone? Will we engage in acts of justice, coming to our neighbor’s aid? Or will we fall back into old habits and unhealthy postures? Will we waste away, losing our sense of connection and continuity?
When it all seems like too much, we must remember: God will not abandon us. Life can come even in the dry places. We don’t need to be experts. We already know what to do.
It starts with simply breathing.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Remember When? And, What’s Next?
John 9:1-41 (The Message)
I saw a post on Facebook this week that simply said, “What a year this week has been!” I think that’s right! What a year this week has been. In the space of about a week to ten days now, the world as we’ve known it has changed dramatically. I don’t have to tell you that. You are experiencing it. You see it all around you. I suspect you feel the change deep in your soul. The Covid19 virus has changed the world as we’ve known it.
I’ve also seen some posts on Facebook that have made me laugh—or at least, smile. Usually they are pictures of fully-stocked toilet paper shelves or something similar to that with the caption, “Remember when?” That was just a matter of days ago! It doesn’t take much to stop and think back to a time--not long ago at all--when such a deluge of fear, uneasiness, confusion and separation didn’t rule our lives. When those kinds of feelings didn’t even cross our radar screens. They didn’t cross our computer, television, and cell phone screens. So, there’s a natural part of us that wants to be pulled back to a “time before this all began.”
In a recent Christian Century reflection on today’s scripture, written by Liz Goodman (pastor of the Church on the Hill in Lenox, MA and the Monterey UCC in Monterey, MA), Liz tells of a time not long ago when she was involved in a spirituality discussion group made up mostly of people who settled in the rural region where she lives in the 1970s and ’80s as part of a “back to the land” movement.
One participant gestured to her, knowing she’s a pastor, and said, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Get back to the garden?” Using the language of Joni Mitchell, this man had adopted the common assumption that the project of the faithful—given our sinful, “broken,” “fallen” state—is to return to where once we were perfect.
“’Not me,’ Liz said, maybe too quickly. ‘I’m not trying to get back anywhere. My tone was sharp,’ she said, ‘because I feel strongly about this: the Gospel of John has long had me looking ahead rather than behind, and this story of the man born blind has long had me concerned not with return but with continuing on.”
The gospel of John begins in the beginning, recalling Genesis 1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) But it lets off there, inviting a comparison, Liz Goodman suggests. Whereas the Genesis creation story counts down to completion, days one through seven, until we have this beautiful earth and the beauty of each other (“And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done…” Genesis 2:2), John doesn’t get much past the beginning, certainly doesn’t imagine finishing, and therefore never imagines God at rest. Instead, “God as Word-become-flesh and now living among us speaks often of continuing in the Father’s work. It’s as if this is why he has come. This explains why Jesus, according to John, has little regard for the sabbath, something not yet warranted.” God doesn’t rest when the work isn’t done.
Jesus uses mud—adamah, the stuff of God’s earliest creative acts—to bring the man born blind into a fullness of being. This now-seeing man demonstrates God’s will for Christ in the world. Christ’s work isn’t to restore the creation to some prior state but to complete the creation, to labor toward its perfected end.
Nor is our work to lurch backward to some mythic state of perfection—even if that mythic state was, in our minds, only a matter of days or weeks ago. It is not our work to long for some otherwise pre-corrupted, pre-complicated, pre-fallen time, like those days in the garden of Eden, or those days when there were packages of meat on the grocery store shelves. Our work is to continue on in the faith that God is yet with us, at work in all things for good.
It is true that God is yet at work amidst the creation and will bring all that is and was and ever shall be to God’s good and glorious end. This is an assurance of our faith. And I think it is the assurance people need to hear.
So maybe that’s where we come in, we people of faith. Lent is the perfect season to be assured that God’s word to us is “keep going. Keep going.” And John offers the perfect narrative to invite us once again to do the works of Jesus and even greater works than these. Liz Goodman writes, “This story of the now-seeing man is ripe with cause to hope that our most joyful days are not behind us but are ahead, hard-won though they shall surely be—and that the grace we rely on doesn’t call us to return to some distant past. It beckons to us from a glorious already-completed end—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—drawing us to it.”
This man was born blind not as punishment for sin but so that God’s works might be revealed in him—the working of God that persists among us and insists upon us joining the work. So let’s keep going.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
pick a spot
Psalm 121 (NRSV)
“Where are you looking? What is your spot?” I can tell you that I am not a dancer. I’ve never taken dance lessons, except square dancing in gym class in my elementary school years. I cannot twirl without falling over. I can’t really even get up on my toes, for that matter. But I do know that these are two critical questions for someone who is a ballet dancer. “Where are you looking?” and “What is your spot?”
In a turn, the body balances on the ball of the foot and spins. Dancers have to work on “spotting,” the practice of choosing a spot on the wall that becomes the focal point during a turn. To avoid dizziness, the eyes remain focused on the spot. In each turn, the face whips around at the very last moment to return one’s stare to the same spot.
This focused attention of the eyes enables a ballerina to complete 32 foute turns or 16 counts of chaine turns across the floor without throwing up or reeling across the stage. A flailing arm or a step off balance is a telltale sign that the focal point has been lost. The body follows the clear or muddled focus of the eyes.
The same suggestion—to “pick a spot”—is often shared by the teacher in my yoga class. This suggestion to focus on a single spot on the front wall of the room usually comes whenever we’re trying to stand on one leg, lean forward, lift one leg behind you, stretch one arm in front of you….in a “dancer’s pose.” I can’t really do that, either…
The demands of life often mimic the whirl of a turn. As we spin through our to-do lists, we can lose sight of our spot that orients our life: our faith. With the psalmist, we lift our eyes to the hills—or to the streets, churches, workplaces, malls, or smartphones—but our arms flail and our steps fail, because the hills are not a reliable source of strength.
The psalmist knows where to spot help and it’s not the hills, not other people, and not even one’s self. Our help comes from the Lord. Only God can ground us, clear our vision, and help us spin without reeling. The Lord will not let our foot be moved. The Lord will keep us; the Lord will watch over our going out and coming in.
Like the psalmist, we must make an intentional choice to spot the Lord. No one wants to be dizzy or nauseous (except young children who like to spin around and around and then attempt to walk without falling). We don’t want to feel helpless, at the mercy of the whirling world around us, so we must stake our spot. We look to the Lord. We keep our gaze steady and hold our sight, for our dust will always spin. God doesn’t stop the spinning, but instead offers a spot to give our turning focus.
Last Sunday, we began our Lenten Series based on the Discovery Channel’s series produced by Steven Spielberg, “Why We Hate.” After we watched the first episode, we shared a bit of what we had noticed, what had made an impact on us, what we would be walking away wondering about/thinking about.
Several people noticed that they had an uncomfortable reaction to the violent images in the episode…videos of people expressing significant road rage, people threatening others…verbally and physically, adults launching into fist fights.
When Deb Cullen and I met the next day for our regular time of focusing on our church’s education programs, we talked some more about this. I still had those violent images from the Lenten Series in my head. The more we talked about it, I realized that I have the profound privilege of choosing not to allow violent images into my life, into my field of vision. There is no discernible violence on my street in North Tonawanda. I don’t witness physical violence where I work. I’m careful to not get involved in road rage. I don’t often watch TV shows or see movies or play video games that are filled with violence. I’m so averse to violence that I wondered aloud with Deb if I would be able to physically fight back if I were ever attacked. I don’t know.
Violence is something I choose NOT to focus my eyes on. By the grace of God, I have not had to.
Many readers of Psalm 121 have connected it with some kind of a journey – an actual journey, or maybe “life’s journeys.” An Old Testament scholar told of a friend of his who always leads his family in reciting Psalm 121 when they depart on a journey. Many interpreters—when reading Psalm 121—imagine a traveler about to depart on a journey -- perhaps a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival, or perhaps any journey. Such a question is natural, whether one is thinking of a geographic journey through dangerous territory, a lifelong journey through many ups and downs, or a spiritual journey.
Life is full of many dangers. The physical: disease, injury, accident, war, infirmity, or natural disasters. The economic: recession, depression, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, or theft. The spiritual: doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, or false teaching. What more natural question to ask than, “From where will my help come?”
But pay attention to this: notice that the psalmist answers his or her own question with a confession of faith: “My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” The psalmist does not look to nature for help! Those hills, after all, might be hiding some threat, some predator. The psalmist’s help comes from the very one who made the hills, the heavens and the earth: God! The hills may obscure some threat, but they also by their very existence bear witness to the creator.
The psalmist leans toward the Lord and shifts her gaze from the hills to the creator and sustainer of life.
This season of Lent, we can change our spot from ourselves—or from anything else that distracts our focus--to God. The world will keep spinning, but faith will keep us from dizziness.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
it's not magic.
Matthew 4:1-11 (The Message)
When times get tough, people require more than platitudes. They need real-time solutions.
That’s why a Brazilian homemaker named Maria recently took desperate measures. Unable to count on support from her husband’s business after a brutal economic downturn, Maria hit the streets in search of a job — only to receive a pile of rejection letters after weeks of looking. So Maria went out on a limb and lifted up a prayer to Saint Expeditus, the patron saint of urgent causes.
In no time she got a phone call — an import shop needed a salesperson to start right away. Maria was convinced that her prayer had been answered, since getting a job in Brazil “almost qualifies as a miracle.” Saint Expeditus. The saint for real-time solutions. Sounds pretty attractive, doesn’t he?
You don’t have to be Brazilian or Catholic to be drawn to this patron saint of urgent causes, because we’ve all found ourselves in desperate situations. We’ve needed an infusion of cash to pay some bill ... a new brand of medication to control our depression ... a beneficial judgment in an ongoing lawsuit ... a healthy relationship to save us from loneliness ... a change in careers after years of frustration. The dozens of petitions deposited daily on the altar of the Saint Expeditus Chapel offer a litany of needs that would resonate with Christians of any nation or denomination. One appeal asks for the saint’s help in paying for kidney dialysis, while another contains the résumé of an unemployed executive, detailing his years of experience as a factory manager.
We know these needs. And we understand, all too well, these desperate cries for help.
But what’s interesting about today’s text is that while Jesus doesn’t call upon St. Expeditus or even the angels of heaven to get him out of a jam, he does seem to have a specific strategy down cold. When tempted, he turns to the written word of God. Problem solved. Scripture is so important in Jesus’ life, and it should be in ours as well. One of the best ways to resist the devil and draw near to God is to immerse oneself in Holy Scripture — just as Jesus did during his time of temptation.
We know this, and there’s probably no conscientious disciple of Jesus Christ who wouldn’t say “Amen,” to all that. But we’ve got to ask the question: What exactly gave these Scriptures power when Jesus cited them? Was it a case of simply finding the right scriptural weapon and lobbing it at the devil like some sort of biblical bomb? Was it like, “Okay, he’s throwing the pride temptation at me, where’s that Bible verse that conquers pride?”
Pick up a Gideon Bible in a hotel room, and on the inside back cover you might find a list of topics and related Scriptures. Are you in need of protection in time of danger? Are you going through temptation? Are you gripped by fear and need courage to make it through the day? There are scripture verses listed to help in all of these situations. And this is not a knock on the Gideons or the Scripture. All of these passages are worth reading and studying.
But do you think your spouse will stop abusing you because you’re clinging to a Bible verse? Do you think the temptation to abuse alcohol or drugs will vanish because you read the Bible this morning? Do you think that your life would be better if only you knew the Scriptures better — like Jesus did? Do you think that health, wealth and happiness will be yours — someday — if you faithfully say the Prayer of Jabez in the morning?
These verses are not magic formulas. They’re not incantations. They didn’t “work” for Jesus like a magic charm. So where’s the power?
Notice that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights in prayer and meditation before the battle royale began. And here’s a news flash: you spend 40 days praying in the wilderness, meditating on the word, spending time with God, and you can bet you’ll be in fairly good shape to handle what life or the devil throws at you.
In Jesus’ case, the devil tried to use his hunger, he tried to use Scripture against him, and he tried to appeal to a sense of glory. None of it worked. We don’t know if the devil simply was unaware that Jesus had been praying for 40 days, or whether the devil thought him an easy mark. But “Hello!” The man’s been praying for 40 days! So the devil throws up his hands and wanders off.
The power of Scripture lies not in the words on a page. That’s just ink. We can’t expect to use the Bible as some sort of garlic to ward off Dracula. Rather, the power resides in the person for whom the written word has become a living, breathing thing.
Columnist Andy Crouch tells the story of a girl named Elizabeth, who grew up in a Christian home in Southeast Asia. When she was 16, a relative in her village said she could find a well-paying job in a neighboring country. Anxious to help her family and earn money for college, Elizabeth went with this relative — and ended up being forced into prostitution.
Elizabeth was confined to a brothel, and was held there against her will for seven months, repeatedly raped by customer after customer. It was an excruciating existence, but Elizabeth was sustained by her Christian faith. In fact, she wrote on the wall of her room a number of Scripture passages, including Psalm 27, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (v. 1).
Elizabeth could still be trapped to this day, but God worked through a group called the International Justice Mission to rescue her. For nearly 25 years, this mission has mobilized thousands of young people — as well as lawyers, diplomats and law enforcement professionals — to intervene on behalf of girls like Elizabeth. When they freed her from the brothel, the truth of Psalm 27 became clear to all who saw the Scriptures on her wall: “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh,” says verse 2, “they shall stumble and fall.”
Elizabeth’s story reminds us that scripture is the ground on which we walk, the air we breathe, the lamp that lights our way.
Jesus turned to Scripture in his hour of temptation only because he was accustomed to turning to Scripture in his hours of prayer. It wasn’t the Scripture that saved him in his wilderness battle against the devil; quoting Scripture is no big deal. The devil can do it quite well. It was the 40 days of prayer prior to the battle that enabled him to survive, even as prayer, meditation and a daily walk with God will help us have the peace, the courage, the comfort and the strength we need. If we all lived like this, Saint Expeditus would be out of a job.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
You have to come down.
Matthew 17:1-9 (The Message)
Thomas Merton once said that at the root of all war is fear - not so much the fear we have of one another but the fear we have of everything. I suspect he’s right. Fear makes all of God's creatures do strange things. Once adrenalin hits the bloodstream, who can predict whether fight or flight will follow? For example, unlike other bears, grizzlies merit extreme caution from hikers because they have a highly unstable adrenal gland and are "high" on this fight-flight drug most of the time. Imagine having your insides - your nerves, stomach and heart - jangling, reeling and pounding all the time like you'd just seen the latest thriller movie. Almost makes you feel bad for the bears…and for anyone who gets in their way.
And fear doesn’t just come when meeting up with a grizzly…it comes crashing into our lives in all kinds of ways. I love this response from a little boy named Donald, who expressed his views to Erma Bombeck when she asked what he was afraid of about starting school:
"My name is Donald, and I don't know anything. I have new underwear, a loose tooth, and I didn't sleep last night because I'm worried. What if a bell rings and a man yells, 'Where do you belong?' and I don't know? What if the trays in the cafeteria are too tall for me to reach? What if my loose tooth comes out when we have our heads down and are supposed to be quiet? Am I supposed to bleed quietly? What if I splash water on my name tag and my name disappears and no one knows who I am?"
The disciples experienced that mouth-drying, heart-thumping, knee-buckling kind of fear on the mountaintop at the Transfiguration. After rejoicing at the presence of Elijah and Moses, they were suddenly reduced to blubbery, quaking jelly by the power and splendor of the voice from above. They couldn’t get their heads wrapped around the magnificence of the divine presence, and they couldn’t understand the implications of what the voice was saying. The entire experience was a mystery way beyond their comprehension. No wonder they reacted by curling into defensive little balls of fear at Jesus' feet.
The glory of the transfiguration event shines as brilliantly and as incomprehensibly today as it did for those disciples over 2000 years ago. And while we may not be able to imagine the depths of this vision, we can at least learn how Jesus would have us act and react to events that challenge our comprehension and threaten to paralyze us with fear. While Jesus didn’t explain the meaning behind the Transfiguration mystery, he did give us a map for coming back down from the mountaintop experiences in our lives.
Jesus' counsel to the disciples as he helped them to their feet might be paraphrased as, "Get up, come down, keep quiet (until the time is right), then yell!" These four steps for getting off the mountain work just as effectively in our lives today. When God does something dramatic, or when something "mysterious" happens in our lives - good or bad - we can get scared, too. Depending on how each of us handles adrenalin overload, we react with "fight-fear" or "flight-fear" - lashing out in panic or retreating in misery.
The sudden death of a loved one - how can death stalk us and life and God still be good? Or the struggling economy strikes home and suddenly we have no job, no career, no self identity - how can we find a new path for life? Even positive experiences confuse and confound. God calls us, challenging us to serve in ways that threaten the stability and comfort we have worked so hard for - how can we respond?
Get up: Jesus' first directive to his disciples was simple and clear: Get up! While still overwhelmed with fear, Jesus got them on their feet. Getting out of the fear position and into a more positive posture prepared the disciple's minds and hearts to follow their bodies. Jesus specifically told the disciples, "do not be afraid," because he knew how unpredictable a fearful heart can be. To help them lose their fear, Jesus pulled them upright so that they could examine the now ordinary mountaintop.
Veterinarians know that there are some gentle and placid dogs who are "fear-biters." When confronted with a situation they don't understand, these dogs bite first and bark later. Fear can manifest itself as anger or hatred or violence directed at those closest to us. Out of fear Peter, John and James might have taken out their feelings of helplessness on each other, lashing out with biting words and barking bitterness. It has been said that the people we should fear the most are those who are afraid.
Step two: Come down. After Jesus lifts the disciples out of the fear position and tells them not to be afraid, he immediately gets them moving. They don’t stand around contemplating what they have just experienced. They are instructed to "come down." We all know how to run away from frightening or overwhelming situations - we've all done it. Jesus' counsel to all of us is to resist that temptation to flee and to jump back instead into the mainstream of everyday life. Locking ourselves away because of fear and confusion just keeps us enslaved to that single response.
This stay-in-one-place syndrome cuts both ways. Peter had wanted to remain on the mountaintop when only Elijah and Moses were present with Jesus - he wanted somehow to prolong the glory by staying put. Neither fear nor fascination should keep us out of returning to the ongoing ebb and flow of life. Even if we don't feel normal, even if it seems we are just going through the motions, Jesus calls us back into the fray.
Step three: Keep quiet. Jesus differs pretty radically from many self-help strategists when he gives his disciples their third command. After "getting up" and coming down" Jesus surprisingly counsels them in "keeping quiet."
The word "mystery" comes from a Greek word which means "to close the mouth or lips. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, "a mystery literally means something about which we must keep silent, something of which we cannot speak.” Or as Samuel Beckett liked to say, "Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness."
Jesus' counsel takes the pressure off all of us who experience the incomprehensible and inconceivable in our lives. Death, disloyalty, visions or victories are all equally beyond our limited ability to understand. We watch as specially designed "disaster teams" of therapists swoop down on individuals, families or even whole communities that have undergone some trauma or disaster, urging everyone to "talk about it."
But in an interesting paradox, Jesus prescribed instead a period of retrospective silence. Some things do not make sense. Some things require time to take root in our thinking. We don’t always need to know the answer to our questions of "what now" or "why me " - but we do need the time to listen to that voice from beyond ourselves, hearing it say "be still and know that I am God."
Step four: Yell about it. For those who were beginning to worry that Jesus is suggesting that we deny or repress our experiences, this fourth step is an opportunity for triumphant testimony. After shaking free from fear, re-entering life and contemplating life's mysteries, Jesus declared that at that point it was time to shout about it. For his disciples, this moment did not arrive until after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Only then could they recall the wonder of that Transfiguration moment on the mountain and yell to the world that Christ is alive and in the midst of this and every mystery.
I believe following Jesus' four-step method brings us to this point - finding Christ's healing and helping presence in the midst of all the mysteries in our lives, even those that at first seem so overwhelming, so threatening. Christianity is, Zan Holmes suggests (Encountering Jesus [Nashville: Abingdon Press,1992],37) "a 'Come and Go affair.' We come up to the mountain, but we must go back down again. We come to worship, we go to serve."
I think the question we are left with today is this: as God’s people in this place, are we caught in fear, or are we ready to walk where Christ leads us?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Yes or No. it's that simple
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (NRSV)
Driving a rental car in a foreign country can be a real trip. Some of you know this…you know that if you choose to do this, you're looking for adventure, and more than likely, you're going to get it. Depending on the place -- London, Rome, Beijing -- it can be anything from a reasonable to a frustrating to a harrowing experience.
In some countries, drivers must drive on the opposite side of the road. They are piloting a vehicle that has the steering wheel on what we think of as the passenger side, and they have to shift with the left hand. In places like the United Kingdom, Thailand, Hong Kong and Australia, drivers must look to the right rather than the left when entering a roundabout and there may also be traffic laws in which we are unversed.
But beyond all that, a tourist driving a rental likely is not familiar with the regional geography. The signage may be in a language that's unreadable, and, even if it isn't, and the exit arrow points to Koln and another to Hamburg, most foreign visitors are unlikely to know which is the southern or northern direction.
And when arriving at a fork in the road, which way does one go?
There is a sense in which today’s passage from Deuteronomy can be thought of as fork-in-the-road directions.
Deuteronomy as a whole is presented as a sermon by Moses to the people of Israel as they are camped on the far side of the Jordan River. They anticipate crossing it and entering the promised land very soon. The people have never been in Canaan or lived in any settled area. The generation that left Egypt at the time of the exodus has died in the wilderness, and these people Moses is addressing are their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all born during the 40-year trek to Canaan.
To carry on the metaphor, we might say that they aren't familiar with the rules for navigating life in the promised land. So Moses, in what is the climax of his sermon, and whose own death is imminent, puts plainly to them that they are at a fork: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”
One way is life and blessings; the other is death and curses. And there's no question about which direction Moses wants the people to go: "Choose life,” he says "so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.”
So here the people are presented with a clear-cut choice, and there's no third option. Not to choose the way of blessing is to choose the way of curse. And—get this—to abstain from making a decision is to choose the way of death. Moses was saying that this was the primary choice upon which everything else in their lives depended. The choice they make right now, in this place, he says, changes everything! The decision to which it calls us is clear-cut. Yes, we like to talk about "gray areas” and "ambiguous situations,” but Moses, having heard the word of the Lord, will have none of it. There are two ways and only two ways, he declares -- God's way and the other way -- and we have to choose.
I have to say, this clear-cut “yes or no”, “life or death”, “my way or the highway” kind of decision-making makes me very uncomfortable. I happily—and proudly!—live in those gray areas Moses has no room for at this point. In general, when I am presented with a “this or that” scenario, I like to say, “Or….” Maybe there’s a third way. Maybe we can take a moment to imagine a different scenario. Maybe we can get some input from some other voices…people with more experience, people with a stake in the outcome. The “right” or “wrong” thing Deb shared with our children? I started to sweat! What if something is “right” for me, but “wrong” for you? I am generally more comfortable hanging out in the “shades of gray.”
On the other hand….it is also true that I don’t tend to want an unlimited number of options when making a decision. Then my eyes just kind of glaze over.
Did you ever go into the paint store looking for a simple color, only to be handed one of those color charts with dozens of little colored squares on it? "Let's see what we've got here,” says the clerk, trying to be helpful. "Do you want Pearl Gray, or Battleship Gray? We have Confederate Gray (with just a hint of brown in it). There's the ever-popular Blue-Gray. And over here's Mount Vernon Gray, faithfully re-created from the 200-year-old wainscoting in George Washington's back bedroom.”
"Choose life!” Moses proclaims. But how? It's never easy. But choose we must. That's Moses' point. Hem and haw over every decision, and we'll never glimpse the promised land.
This is not just an Old Testament thing, either. Jesus said the same thing in other words: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). No middle ground or third way is offered. Then, too, you might cite Peter's announcement to the ruling authorities in Jerusalem following his arrest shortly after Pentecost: "We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). It was God's way or no way. Think Mitt Romney.
Making this choice is critical, and its hard. It would be unwise to interpret the text as saying, "Making good choices is a secret to a meaningful and happy life.” While there's truth in the statement itself, that's not what is going on here. What Moses is saying is no secret, but it's also no mere suggestion or program for success. Deuteronomy is not a self-help book or personal improvement manual, and Moses is not a life coach. He's talking about the primary decision that defines all that we are: Will we be God's person or won't we? That's the choice.
The decision comes to every generation. God moves us to faith—but God also has given us free will. Choosing God means giving up the freedom to order our own lives and taking on a life that is ordered by God’s commandments. Choosing God—living in obedience to God—means living in ways that put others’ interests before our own. It means proclaiming God’s justice especially on behalf of those not invited to be a part of the discussion, and radiating God’s love in the wildly indiscriminate way God shows love to all people.
Being a faithful disciple—choosing life—is hard work. But this time, the direction is clear. One choice and only once choice is the correct choice and the choice will result in blessing. May we, as God’s people, and without hesitation, choose life!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
what do righteous people
Matthew 5:13-20 (NRSV)
When it comes to righteousness, the Pharisees are tough to beat. Jesus knows that these Jewish leaders are passionate about the law of God. Supportive of synagogues and schools. Attentive to purity rules and regulations. Focused on the resurrection, with a powerful hunger for heavenly rewards.
The Pharisees are the spiritual superstars of their day, exerting an enormous amount of peer pressure on the people around them. "I tell you," says Jesus, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". Jesus says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees. Not just match it, but surpass it. How in the world are we supposed to respond to this?
Peer pressure is a powerful force in our lives, and it can both help us and hurt us. David Greene, the host of NPR's "Morning Edition," explains that peer pressure can help us by inspiring us to do the right thing. Sit next to a good student in class, and her study habits can rub off on you. Watch your neighbors install solar panels on their roof, and you might be motivated to do the same thing.
But peer pressure can also hurt us. This happens when we are exposed to our very best peers and find ourselves becoming discouraged about ourselves. Their pressure might even cause us to quit. A 104-year-old woman was once asked by a reporter, "What do you think is the best thing about being 104?"
She replied, quite simply, "No peer pressure."
Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has studied the peer pressure that comes from people who are a little better than us, as well as the pressure that comes from people who are way better than us. In other words, the Pharisees.
Rogers says, "When you are compared to people who are doing a little better than you, it can be really motivating." Someone who is conserving energy might inspire you to use less energy, and someone who is voting might motivate you to vote. But peer pressure turns negative when you are compared to people who are unattainably better than you. If you decide to train for your first 5K race with an Olympic distance runner, for example, you are not going to be inspired. You are going to be really intimidated and probably drop out. This is exactly the effect of the Pharisees on the people around them.
But Jesus is not interested in making people give up when he says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". The Pharisees might be better than anyone else in terms of following religious rules and regulations, but Jesus has a new approach to righteousness that is not based on rigorous law-keeping. Instead, he wants his followers to be salt of the earth and light of the world, fulfilling the law in new ways -- as he does. As Christians, we don't have to feel peer pressure from the Pharisees. Our righteousness comes about in a whole new way, one that avoids faulty assumptions about who are the top performers. So what do righteous people look like?
They look like salt. Jesus says that they are "the salt of the earth". In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity used for sacrifice, purification, seasoning and preservation. Christians are to play all of these roles in the world, and are to remain salty by staying true to their mission and avoiding contamination. "If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" asks Jesus. It can’t, of course. Contaminated salt "is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot".
Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "Try to be the salt of the earth." He doesn't say, "It might be good for you to catch some classes at Salt and Light University to learn how to be salt." He doesn't say, "Go to the rabbi and elders and have them lay hands on you to beseech God to grant you saltiness." He doesn't say, "Take 30 minutes every morning to meditate and try to be in touch with your inner saltiness."
His comment is quite straightforward. "You are the salt of the earth. This is what and who you are. Don't forget it." His statement is not a command but a description. Too often, we're afraid that we're not "salty" enough, and when we get agitated like that, we're essentially making this all about ourselves instead of about Jesus. Whatever Jesus actually had in mind when he said, "You are the salt of the earth," we know that salt as an element has no value to itself. It's not about making salt better salt. Salt is salt. The value of salt is in its application to other things. No wonder Jesus calls us "salt." We exist for others.
So what do righteous people look like?
They look like light -- lighthouses, spotlights, flashlights, lamps, candles in the darkness. Jesus says, "You are the light of the world". Once again, being light does not involve sitting through a college class, reading literature on the subject or meditating about it. Jesus' statement is a description, not a command.
And, like salt, light does not exist for its own benefit, but for the benefit of everything it illuminates. Light provides warmth and energy to the world around it, and encourages life and growth. We do the very same thing when we act as the light of the world, and when we reflect the light of Christ to others.
"No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket," says Jesus, "but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house". Our righteousness as Christians depends on doing whatever we can to be lights to each other and to the world around us. We are to be open and honest instead of hiding in the dark, to offer other people warmth and encouragement instead of being cold and discouraging, to be an energy source for others, so that together we can advance the mission of Christ in the world.
"Let your light shine before others," says Jesus, "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven". Our challenge is to shine as a Christian community so that others will see what a life of love and faithfulness looks like. In a world of self-righteousness, we can be an example of Christ-righteousness -- right relationship, that is, with God and neighbor.
The Pharisees may have been the spiritual superstars of their day, but their righteousness was rooted in rules and regulations. Jesus respected their passion for the law, but criticized their failure to put it into action. The Pharisees of the Bible cannot be our role models for righteousness, because they neglected the justice, mercy and faith that are part of a right relationship with God and neighbor. And the 21st-century Pharisees who are alive and well in the church today, people who make other Christians feel unworthy through an excessive focus on religious rules and regulations…they can’t be our role models for righteousness, either.
We have only one role model for righteousness: Jesus Christ, the one who invites us to be salt and light. He offers us the very best peer pressure, the kind that inspires us to rise to the challenge of advancing his mission in the world. As salt, we can talk with openness and honesty about who we are as Christians. As light, we can bring warmth and energy to the world around us. We can be what righteous people look like. May it be so!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
claiming your voice
Psalm 50:1-7 (NRSV)
Like a lot of you, I feel like I constantly have a “frog in my throat” this time of year. When Debbie Sauer and I greet each other in the church office each morning, I notice we both have to clear our throats before we sound anything like ourselves. I suspect we unconsciously check on each other’s well-being by the sound of our voices.
When the kids who attend Soccer Shots in the Community Room on Wednesday mornings are at their best, there’s a lot of yelling going on! And I can’t help but be struck by the kid’s young, shrieky voices as they scream out for “Coach Peter!” and they laugh, and sometimes they cry. Without my even being able to see them, I can tell from the voices of the coach and the kids how things are going in that class. Generally, the more shrieks there are, the better the class!
A dear friend of mine told me that her granddaughter said to her: “I like your voice! It’s prettier than mine. No wonder granddaddy married you!” I can agree with her granddaughter…my friend does have a pretty voice.
Not too long ago, I was going through the Tim Horton’s drive thru to pick up my tea on my way to church. I say the EXACT same thing every time. “Good morning! I’d like a medium tea, black, please.” 99 percent of the time, my order for black tea is correct. In part, I contribute that success rate to my good diction. And my ability—learned over many years of preaching—to project. But this particular morning was different. When the unseen Tim Horton’s employee began to repeat my order back to me and tell me the price of my tea (generally, $1.90), she said something I’d never heard before. “Ok,” she said, “with your senior discount that will be $1.60.” What?! While I loved that 30 cents had been knocked off the price of my tea, I couldn’t help but think, “how in the world could this woman give me a senior discount when she can’t even see me?!” All I can figure was that it was my voice. It was something about my voice that morning that made me sound like I could use a senior citizen discount.
For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about our voices, lately. We’re pretty good at using our voices, a lot, and sometimes we make so much noise, we find it hard to actually hear the voice of God. I’m concerned about that. Our scripture from Psalm 50 begins, “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks…” So, God clearly has a voice. But can we hear?
Another friend of mine told me this great story about an experience she had one summer. She said, “the other day, a red squirrel got into my house through a door I had left open to help cool the interior. Fortunately, my dog Cody, who is always on high alert, began barking immediately to warn me of the intruder and we were able to quickly herd the squirrel back outside. Cody likewise protects my gardens from damage by helpfully barking anytime he sees a deer in the yard; he barks at the UPS delivery person so I know that someone is in the driveway; and he barks at the chipmunk trying to rob seeds from my bird feeder.
“Unfortunately, Cody also barks at the cars in the parking lot of the nearby hiking trails, and he barks when the wind blows a curtain against the screen, and he barks when Mathew gets up in the night to go to the bathroom, and he barks when my older dog Zack barks, who is himself usually barking because Cody’s clamor penetrated his otherwise deaf ears so Zack thinks there must be something to bark about.
“The two can keep this up for five minutes, Cody forgetting why he originally barked, Zack never knowing why they were barking in the first place, but both assuming if one is making a ruckus, the other should join in. In other words, Cody’s barking can be a good thing at times but I frequently wish that he would practice a little more discernment in his barking because the reality is that not everything is bark-worthy.” (Laurie DeMott)
In today’s increasingly fragmented society, people everywhere—all of us, like Cody—need to learn some discernment over what is bark-worthy and what is not. Not every person who differs with you is evil, nor is every opposing opinion going to bring about the end of the world if it prevails so there are some matters upon which we should be able to agree to disagree without resorting to protests and noisy resistance.
On the other hand…there are battles which are matters of ethical concern or safety or social justice and should be fought with all the noise we can possibly muster. Like when the young children are participating in the Soccer Shots class with full gusto! So how do we know which are which? How do we know when to raise our unique, God-given voices and how do we know when to keep silent, and listen?
Discernment is what the New Testament calls it. It’s the ability to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and God’s ways from the world’s ways…God’s Voice from the world’s voice…through listening, patience, openness, consideration, and humility.
Jennifer Brownell is one of the writers in the UCC Writers Group that contributes their thinking and writing to the UCC Daily Devotion. In June, reflecting on today’s Psalm…”The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks,” she wrote, “The kids are on the trampoline and I’m inside trying to get dinner ready. Through the open window I can hear that the squabbling over taking turns is about to turn into shrieking. Usually I’m from the ‘let-them-work-it-out’ school of parenting. This makes sense to a point because there’s always going to be stuff to work out, and it’s a good idea to figure that out early. But judicious intervention from time to time also makes sense. I don’t add my yells to their, but instead, I call out mildly, ‘Kids, listen. Take a break from the trampoline. You can try to work it out again later.’
“They could continue arguing. But instead they all look relieved. Then the youngest (who loudly proclaimed himself King of the Trampoline just a few seconds before) slides off, just like that, and the children run off through the grass to play something else.
“Consider the possibility that sometimes you need a Voice too. A mighty Voice that doesn’t join the yelling but says, mildly, ‘Let’s all take a break today.’ Consider the possibility that the peace you’ve been looking for—whether in your own backyard or on the national stage—may come as simply as stopping for a moment and for once deciding not to argue. May come as simply as listening to that still, speaking Voice. May come as simply as sliding off whatever high, hectoring place you’ve gotten yourself perched on. May come as simply as letting your feet touch the good, cool, firm earth again.”
“The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks…” Are we ready and able to hear?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
regrets? I've had a few.
Luke 16:19-31 (The Message)
Ron Wayne was one of the founders of Apple, along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. He helped steer the computer company in its early days and had a hand in designing the famous Apple logo. Wayne owned 10 percent of the company, while Jobs and Wozniak each owned 45 percent. But Wayne decided to sell his 10 percent stake for $800, fearing that he would be liable for a portion of a $15,000 loan if the company went under.
Apple succeeded, you may have heard. If you Google “how much would Ron Wayne have been worth today?” there are multiple posts that pop up. I saw one from September, 2017 that said his original 10 percent stake in Apple would be worth $80 billion. By August, 2018, it would have been worth “more than $95 billion.” Today, it would be worth “more than $100 billion.” Well, more precisely, as of Friday, it would be worth more than $100 billion. Who knows what it would be worth two days later.
Does Ron Wayne have any regrets? Surprisingly, no. “I made my decision on the information I had at the time,” he told James Thomson of SmartCompany. “I’ve got my health, my family and integrity—and that is the best fortune you could ask for.” Do you believe him? One hundred BILLION dollars, and NO regrets? Hmmmm.
Jesus tells the story of a rich man who was “expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption.” The man dies, is buried, and finds himself in hell being tormented. Does he have any regrets? Jesus implies he does. But none of his regrets involve poor decisions or missed opportunities to make money. He does not say, “I should have held on to my 10 percent stake in that apple orchard!”
Instead, this rich man’s regrets seem to go in a different direction. A nurse specializing in the care of the terminally ill recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and there’s no mention of business deals. No regrets about skipped bungee jumping opportunities, or even about marriage, despite the many jokes linking regret to the choice of a mate. According to one, a woman inserts an ad in the classifieds: “Husband wanted.” The next day, she receives hundreds of messages. They all say the same thing: “You can have mine.”
Instead, the top five regrets discovered by the nurse include:
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. People admit that they feared change in their lives, so they pretended that they were content. In fact, they wish they had laughed more and allowed themselves to be more playful.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. People feel badly that they were so caught up in their own lives that they let important friendships slip away.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppress their feelings in order to keep peace with others.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This regret was expressed by every male patient. Every single one of them.
And the number one regret, discovered by nurse Bonnie Ware and reported in The Guardian in 2012:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This is the most common regret of all. “Most people had not honored even half of their dreams,” Ware said, “and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”
Do these big regrets right true? What would you regret if this were your last day on earth?
Jesus tells us that the rich man was not alone in his life and death. “A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on the rich man’s doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.”
Lazarus may have had some regrets, but they probably didn’t include number 5: I wish that I had let myself be happier. For Lazarus, happiness wasn’t a choice. It was a scrap from the rich man’s table, which never came. Jesus tells us this poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. And there, in hell, we begin to get a sense of the rich man’s regrets.
Regret number 1: I wish that I had cared for the people around me. The poor man Lazarus was lying at his gate…dumped on his doorstep!...covered with sores, and the rich man stepped over or around him every time he left his home. Every single day, the rich man missed a chance to help Lazarus by simply giving him the leftovers from his table.
Regret number 2: I wish that I had listened to Moses and the prophets. The rich man realizes in death that he had not paid attention to the word of God as it came through Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) He had not heeded the prophet Isaiah, who commanded, “share your bread with the hungry…bring the homeless poor into your house.” (Isaiah 58:7)
Regret number 3: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. Every day, the rich man ignored poor Lazarus, fully aware of the teachings of Moses and the prophets. But he didn’t have the courage to live a life of integrity, one in which his actions were in line with what he believed.
The rich man saw the poor man and knew that Moses and the prophets commanded him to help. But he did not. The rich man fell into the trap set by people who blamed Lazarus for his poverty, insisting that he must be lazy or morally deficient. Sitting around the rich man’s table, the rich people would say, “God rewards goodness and punishes wickedness. It’s always been that way! So let’s dress lavishly and eat sumptuously. We deserve it!”
In hell, the rich man finally feels a big regret. He says to Abraham, “I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house—because I have five brothers—so he may tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here.” The rich man cares deeply for his brothers. He is not a man without feelings. Abraham replies, “You know what? Your brothers have Moses and the prophets to tell them the score. Let your brothers listen to them." “But I didn’t,” the rich man replies, “and they won’t either, but if someone comes back from the dead to warn them, they just might turn their lives around.”
Shaking his head, Abraham says, “Its not going to happen. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.”
Jesus has risen, but we still have regrets. We know none of us is perfect, and we will all come to the end of life feeling that we have made mistakes along the way. There are choices we feel bad about, alongside opportunities we wish we had seized. But what would it mean for us to die with no big regrets? What if we could avoid saying at our deathbeds: I wish that I had cared for the people around me. I wish that I had listened to Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, in which my actions were in line with my beliefs.
Here’s the good news: we are not yet in the afterlife. We are not stuck in a place of regretting that we did not do enough, that we did not do more, that we did not choose wisely, that we did not have enough time. As long as we are breathing, we can choose to care for the people around us, listen to the teachings of scripture, and live a life that is true to our deepest convictions. If we do, we’ll have no big regrets.
Choices do not have to be large to be life-changing. The rich man could have simply shared some of his food with Lazarus in order to care for the people around him. Hunger in America might not be eliminated without government intervention, but the hungry person or persons on your street corner can be fed, a sandwich at a time. The person who is cut off from their family can be visited. The friend who is struggling with a decision can be taken for a cup of coffee and listened to, really listened to. All the stuff we have that no longer has any value to us can be given away. The child who is struggling to learn to read can be tutored.
Putting our actions in line with our beliefs—living a life of integrity—is a change that is made one choice at a time. The result is a life you won’t regret. If that matters to you, find a way to get to work, in the name of Christ. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Come and See. go and show.
John 1:35-42 (NRSV)
“If you really want to understand why the church is declining in North America, you need to recognize how frightened most of our people are by the word ‘evangelism.’” David Lose, pastor of the Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis wrote that statement a number of years ago, and yet, I think there is truth to it, even today. For some, it comes from being on the receiving end of someone else’s evangelism. Whether asked “Have you accepted Jesus?” by a domineering brother-in-law or “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” by a well-meaning but intense co-worker, too many folks have experienced evangelism as coercive, even threatening.
For others, the explanation isn’t nearly as sinister. It may be a conviction that religion isn’t something polite people talk about; or that one’s faith is private; or simply the desire not to be perceived as one of those people (you know, the kind we just described).
Whatever the reason, many of us not only have little experience in evangelism but are downright frightened of it. And that, of course, cripples our ability to reach out with the good news. In light of this situation, John’s story of Jesus’ baptism might be the perfect reading to invite us not only to admit our dis-ease with evangelism but also begin to overcome it.
Except this isn’t exactly John’s account of Jesus’ baptism, at least not as told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each of those writers records Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized, describes the descent of the dove, and shares the message of the heavenly voice. But the Fourth Evangelist is characteristically different. Here we get a second-hand account from the testimony of John the Baptist. But, quite interestingly, he doesn’t actually baptize Jesus in this gospel; instead he only shares what he sees.
And that may be the larger point of this story from the Fourth Gospel -- that when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, our primary job is to see and share. Not threaten, not coerce, not intimidate, not woo or wheedle or plead, but simply to “come and see” and “go and show.”
John the Baptist does that here. He sees the dove descend upon Jesus and tells others what he sees. That’s it. Andrew later does the same. He tells his brother what he and John’s other disciples saw -- the person they believe is the Messiah -- and invites Peter to come along and see for himself.
Could it be that simple? At its heart, evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.
Where do we even get this understanding of evangelism? Remember this isn’t only what John the Baptist does, and it’s not only what Andrew does. It’s also what Jesus does. When Jesus notices some of John’s disciples following him, he asks them what they are looking for. They, in turn, ask where he is staying. He doesn’t give an answer. He doesn’t question further. All he does in response is make an invitation: “Come and see.”
Notice. Share. Invite. These are the three elements of evangelism, sharing the good news of what God has done and is still doing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us and all the world. These are the three elements that Pastor Lose teaches his congregation about evangelism. The challenge, of course, is that most of us have little experience in any of these activities, so let’s take a few minutes to look at these elements together.
Notice. I have always wished that we would begin every church board meeting, every council or committee meeting, every confirmation class with five minutes of folks taking turns naming where they saw or felt the presence of God in the world and their lives. Or maybe, since at first that may be difficult, we just name those places we saw where God needed to be -- places of tragedy or distress or hurt -- and then over time we may get better at noticing where God actually is -- in the first responders or relief workers or a caring neighbor or friend. Over time, we develop the capacity to see God in our lives and the world. In all of it…the light and the dark, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows. And in all the times in between.
Share. Most of us are nervous about sharing our faith, either because of uncomfortable experiences we’ve had with feeling judged by others, or simply because we’ve never done it. That means practice is probably the only solution to this problem. For this reason, this is what Pastor Lose does in the congregations he leads or teaches in. He says, “when I’m teaching in congregations I often invite folks to turn to someone near them and share one reason they like this church, one reason they like to come. It’s intended to not be a big deal, and yet it sometimes is simply because we’re not used to doing this. But we can learn. The first time I tried this, an elderly man came up to me afterward. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as some folks definitely don’t like this kind of exercise at all. But he smiled, introduced me to his wife and said, “I want to thank you. You see, this gal and I have been going to church together for sixty years. And it turns out we’ve never known why the other comes!” Yes, we can learn.
Invite. This may at first seem the hardest of all. It can feel so intrusive, and of course it puts demands on us to follow through. And yet … think about it: we invite people to things all the time. To join a book club or play pickleball, to go to an after-school event or to come over for dinner, to attend a sporting event or to go shopping. We’re actually quite good about inviting folks to come to things … just not to church. And, of course, we invite people to those things we really like, those things we’ve enjoyed and think others would, too. We need to ask ourselves first, what elements of our church life do we most value? That is, we’re not just going because we have to but because we enjoy it. Then, our task is simply to think about who might also enjoy this event or activity and invite them. Framed this way, it’s probably not as hard as it seems.
Okay, this is a lot and, clearly, hearing one sermon can’t make us all suddenly feel comfortable with sharing our faith. But, being in worship together today can get the ball rolling, and we can all commit to practicing more regularly the skills we see in today’s scripture: to notice, share, and invite.
Beyond all this, one more thing: think about how small these things are as they play out in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and yet also notice what huge results they have, reaching far beyond what the participants involved could ever have imagined. John the Baptist simply shares the wonder of what he saw, and Jesus gains his first disciples, people who will carry his message to the ends of the earth. Jesus invites them to come and see, and they leave their homes and families to embark upon God’s great adventure. Andrew tells his brother he really ought to meet Jesus, and the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church falls into faith.
From the beginning of creation until now, God delights in taking little things -- things the world decides are nothing -- and doing something wonderful through them. So it can be with our initial attempts to share faith, our tentative ventures into telling others what we’ve seen and felt. They may feel like very small efforts, yet the God who brought light from darkness and raises the dead to life wants to -- and will! -- do marvelous things through them. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
January 19, 2020
god in it all
Mark 1:4-11 (The Message)
This past Monday, January 6, in the rhythm of the church year, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated—the manifestation of God in earthly form. Taking its themes from the journey of the Magi, the “wise” foreigners who undertook a journey of discovery in search of the Christ child, Epiphany reminds us that the Divine does indeed show up in unexpected places—among ordinary people in ordinary settings.
The fact that Mary and Joseph were an ordinary young couple making the best of a tough situation, reminds us that the light of God’s presence can shine in the midst of our own dark nights.
The fact that ordinary shepherds were among the first witnesses of the greatest story ever told, encourages us to be awake and alert to the good news of Christ’s presence in the wilderness places of our own lives.
The fact that the Magi were Gentiles reminds us that even though Jesus was the King of the Jews, he was born as a Savior for all humankind, not just those who were specially chosen.
This is good news for all of us!
On the Sunday following Epiphany—today--we commemorate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, which launches us into the season between Christmas and Easter which we identify as Ordinary Time.
In Christian tradition, the weeks between the Birth and the Resurrection are called Ordinary Time because we are not celebrating any particular mystery of our faith but rather the mystery of Christ with us in all aspects of our lives. The Incarnation—God with us in the flesh—transforms every aspect of our human experience into a place of encounter with the Holy One. It takes more than a day or a week to fully live into this reality; it takes practice to learn how to recognize it.
Joan Chittister writes, “The time between Christmas and Lent, and the time between Pentecost and Advent [are] known as Ordinary Time, time outside the seasons of the two great feasts of the church. Time to rest in the contemplation of those [things that are at the center of our faith], that are the lodestones of our souls…in this period that is between the two poles of the life of Jesus, we get to pause awhile. To take it all in. To make the connection between that life, that reality, and our own. Ordinary time gives us time to contemplate the intersection between the life of Jesus and our own…In the liturgical year we live the life of Jesus day after day until one day it becomes our own.”
After Christmas this year, I heard what seemed like “confessions” of a sort, from a number of people who said that they just couldn’t “do” what the Christmas season “required” of them. To deal with their flagging spirits during Advent and Christmas, they chose to simplify, or minimalize, or even give up some of the things they would normally do during the season. When Christmas was over, then, they were able to breathe a sigh of relief, almost, and turn their focus toward the New Year. They seemed glad and energetic to be able to do that.
Some people [though], find themselves in an emotional slump after the intense waiting of Advent, which culminates with Christmas, and then is followed immediately by celebrations associated with the chronological New Year. This letdown is understandable given the adrenalin-pumping pace of the holidays. It can feel like everything we looked forward to is now behind us and all that lies ahead is cold weather (for some) and getting back to work.
However, the celebration of Epiphany—with its emphasis on how God visits us in the midst of the ordinary—can actually fill us with anticipation. Epiphany reminds us that Ordinary Time is a season when things can get really exciting as we reflect on the “extraordinarily ordinary” aspects of Jesus’ birth story and renew our determination to seek God in the ordinary aspects of our own lives as well.
Just a couple of months ago, from her home in Michigan, Maggie Paulus wrote beautifully about this very time…”ordinary time.”
She wrote, “Today I walked across the yard and cried. Not because I was sad, but because I was heart-achingly happy.
Happy because my yard is full of a thousand leaves that crunched beneath my moccasined feet.
Happy because I felt the wind again across my face.
Intensely happy because even though my boy had slammed his finger in the door, he ran, fast as those legs of his could carry him across the yard, and I had the incredible privilege of opening my arms up so big and wide and pulling him into my comforting embrace.
I was happy because he got to have a Lightning McQueen Band-Aid and it immediately made him smile again. Moments later, he came tromping in, requesting a Band-Aid for his sister and then he tore out across the yard again, just to tape a little bit of happiness onto her perfectly fine finger.
And when I saw that, the way he ran toward his sister, whooping and hollering that she could have a Band-Aid, too, I lost it. Carrying the lawn chairs out to the shed to store them up for winter, I nearly wept.
Because why do I get to be witness to such beautiful things?
Why have my days been blessed with a kitty to pet and a stove to cook on and running water that’s always clean? Why do I get to have a handsome, loving bearded husband and three rambunctious beautiful kids, and why do I get to know about God and how come my heart is so heaping full of Him?
I don’t know the answer to these things. Especially, when I’m face down on the bathroom linoleum, crying out to God for the suffering that I read about and see. My sisters that are trafficked by pimps, trapped and abused. My brothers who suffer at the wrath of evil men. Little children who go through the most unbelievably horrendous things.
Sometimes I don’t at all know how to live this life.
I just know that every day is a gift and that the Maker of mine offers to share all these moments with me.
Some people have supposed that the Creator of the cosmos, holy as He is, would only dwell with the super spiritual folks. Or perhaps, that He’d only show up when His earth children were doing obviously spiritual things. You know, like preaching and praying. Like meditating and sacrificing or singing worshipful songs to Him.
But, the God in the narrative of Scripture never meant His children to separate their lives into distinct realms, as if some parts of our lives were secular and other parts were sacred. No, the God who conducts November winds and adorns the grass with frost, bids us to live even the mundane parts of our days in the Presence of His light-bearing face.
Coram Deo. It means before the face of God.
It signifies that there are no demarcation lines between what is spiritual and what is not. So that scrubbing the commode and chasing my kids in the yard, before the face of God, is every bit as sacred as preaching a message on Sunday.”
God is in it all. The extraordinary times, and the ordinary times.
There is a Christian practice that can help us remember that God is in it all. It is called the examen of consciousness and it is so very simple. All we have to do is take a few minutes at the end of every day to review the events of that day asking God to show us evidence of the Divine Presence we might have missed. (You may prefer to take a few minutes in the morning to look back on the previous 24 hours.)
As we reflect on every aspect of the day—waking, showering and dressing, eating, commuting, relating with others, difficulties and challenges at work, moments of pleasure and pain, consolation and desolation, decision-making, interacting with the news and needs of the world, returning home, the evening spent with friends or family, working late, crawling into bed—we can ask God, “Show me where you were present, making the ordinary extraordinary.”
When we incorporate this simple practice into our daily routine, Ordinary Time becomes anything but ordinary, and our awareness of “God in it all” grows.
Stephen Orchard wrote this poem, and I think it offers us a great way to begin this kind of daily practice:
“We thought we knew where to find you;
we hardly needed a star to guide the way,
just perseverance and common sense;
why do you hide yourself away from the powerful
and join refugees and outcasts,
calling us to follow you there?
Wise God, give us wisdom.
We thought we had laid you safe in the manger;
we wrapped you in the thickest sentiment we could find,
and stressed how long ago you came to us;
why do you break upon us in daily life
with messages of peace and goodwill
demanding that we do something about it?
Just and righteous God, give us justice and righteousness.
So where else would we expect to find you
but in the ordinary place with the faithful people,
turning the world to your purpose through them?
Bring us to that manger, to that true rejoicing,
which will make wisdom, justice, and righteousness alive in us.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
*Stephen Orchard, Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year, Janet Morley, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p. 48.
getting close is risky!
We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about Christianity Today, the evangelical Christian periodical that was founded in 1956 by Billy Graham. Graham started the magazine as a counterpoint to The Christian Century, the predominant independent periodical of mainline Protestantism, and as a way to bring the evangelical Christian Community together. If you need or want to know more about why Christianity Today has been in the news, Google it. There’s a lot to absorb and think about there.
I subscribe to The Christian Century. Since 1956, Martin E. Marty was a columnist and the senior editor for The Christian Century. For decades, I loved reading Martin Marty’s columns, and now I look forward to reading the “From the Publisher” column written by his son, Peter W. Marty. Peter became the publisher in 2016, and also serves as the pastor of the 3,500 member St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. In the November 20, 2019 issue of the magazine, Peter Marty wrote about an experience he had at the Grand Teton National Park, and it completely captured my attention. Here’s what Peter wrote:
“At the Grand Teton National Park Visitor Center, my wife and I listened to Rick leading an outdoor presentation for park visitors. He had on the sand-colored Stetson hat and gray shirt with the arrowhead-shaped emblem patch that gives park rangers their look.
Across a gigantic boulder in front of him Rick had draped a grizzly bear skin. He was explaining how to deal with grizzlies in the event that we should encounter one while hiking. This is not a scene we are used to in Iowa. There we have squirrels, and nobody gives talks about how dangerous they are.
After providing standard advice about hiking together and making plenty of noise, Rick turned to the bear spray clipped to his belt. “You’ll want to use this with care,” he said. “Always make sure to take the wind into account.” I imagine that, were I face to face with a grizzly, I’d be thinking more about my grave than the wind. But, point well taken: it’s bear spray, not self-spray.
Rick continued, “You’ll want to spray this toward the bear, but not when the bear is too far away. Wait until she is 30 feet away so that the cloud of mist doesn’t dissipate too soon.” I carry energy bars when I hike, not a tape measure. And who in their right mind would actually wait for a bear to get sufficiently close? But Rick knows more than I do. I kept listening.
“Bear spray is 99 percent effective,” he said. My mind immediately went to the 1 percent and how researchers might have arrived at that statistic. “In the event that the spray fails you, you’ll want to lie face down on the ground and play dead. Plant your face in the dirt with hands on your neck, legs spread slightly.” By the way, if you don’t know the definition of vulnerable, this is it.
“Oh, and if you have a backpack, keep it on. It creates more distance between you and the bear.” I couldn’t help thinking of those energy bars. Why would I want food within three miles of my body with a bear breathing down my neck? But, hey, Rick is wearing that Stetson hat, and he has 30 years of experience I don’t have.
The more Rick spoke, the plainer it became: risk is inevitable if you want to get close to nature. If you’re risk averse, keep your distance. Sightsee from your car. Study wild animals in a magazine.
When I reflected later on this obvious truth, it struck me that the same reality holds true for our relationship with God. If you want to get close to the Lord, there are risks involved. You become part of a people who don’t look exactly like you and whose company may unsettle you. You throw your money behind causes larger than your next Amazon purchase. You take to heart Jesus’ mandate about feeding kids who don’t ask to be hungry.”
Talk about risky…let’s think for a moment about today’s scripture in Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet to a nation on the edge of a cataclysmic change, a nation that stood on the brink of an abyss, and at the bottom lay the end of their history as an independent nation. All they could do was stand on the walls of Jerusalem and look to the horizon for the conquering armies that stood poised to sweep them off their land and into exile.
The portion of Jeremiah 31 we are looking at today is the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing book. The 30th and 31st chapters of Jeremiah are known as the “Book of Consolations” because within these chapters the prophet holds out the eternal hope that no matter how bad things get for Israel and Judah, God will still keep the covenant, God will turn back to the people with compassion and the people can and will be restored to God’s good graces.
The passage speaks of restoration—salvation brought by the Lord, the return of exiles from the farthest corner of the earth, even the most fragile and helpless of society sheltered and protected—all at the hands of a loving and forgiving God. Everyone shall be forgiven and brought home again.
In some ways, this text reads like the second half of a terrible joke. “What do you want first? The good news or the bad news?” Before we get to chapters 30 and 31, Jeremiah has already delivered the bad news. And you know what? We know about bad news, too. We live in disruptive times. While not unprecedented, we are living in a time that leaves us reeling, wondering what on earth and in heaven is going on. Anyone who lives in disruptive times looks for companions who have been through them earlier, wanting to know how they went through it, how they made it, what it was like. In looking for a companion who has lived through catastrophic disruption and survived with grace, biblical people more often than not look to Jeremiah…they receive him as a true, honest, and God-revealing companion for the worst of times.
And this is why…our text today finally springs the good news on the people of Judah, and on us. And it is good news, indeed! It’s totally amazing, almost unbelievable. The good news is that if we are willing to risk drawing close to God, then there is always hope. We may need to work with God a little bit to make the good times roll again. We may need to intentionally place ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable. We might have to back up our words with our actions. But there is always hope.
Back to Peter Marty. He concludes his reflection about the risks of getting close to God this ways: “If want to avoid the risks associated with getting close to the Lord, keep your distance. You can choose to talk about God, which is what a lot of religions and pledges of allegiance do. If you want to get close to the Lord, prepare for some vulnerability, and be open to letting faith splay you wide open. Risky as loving this One may be, it’s our only way of getting near to the grace and mercy we so desperately need.”
Thanks be to God for the never-ending gift of hope.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Ugh! Not Again!
Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)
I have found this year’s Advent scriptures particularly difficult to deal with. The world already seems so dark and painful…and off course. I feel the distress of others more this year than in the past. A part of me wants to curl up under the comforter and call it a day. Every day. By 9:30 a.m.
And then in “walks” John the Baptist. Ugh.
One of my favorite writers in the Christian Century at the moment is Matthew Johnson. He is offering up some particularly helpful (for me) and insightful (to me) thoughts about these Advent scriptures. Regarding this story of John the Baptist he tells the story of the liturgist who got to share today’s reading in worship at his church one year. When the liturgist got to the end of the selection, he turned to the pastor, paused, and said, “Um, that seems mighty harsh.” Indeed! This story of John the Baptist’s appearance is anything but warm and cozy, like that comforter I wouldn’t mind crawling under these days.
Years ago, Calvin Chinn, another writer for Christian Century told about how “John the Baptist is alive and well in San Francisco. He appears at the corner of Powell and Market Streets, where long lines of tourists wait to catch a cable car ride over scenic Nob Hill and Russian Hill on the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. He enjoys a captive audience. Some days, you can choose from among several candidates. Whether toting a sign or a Bible, their message is the same. Repent! Or else!
Chinn went on to say that “These days, I don’t find the message inappropriate. I may be put off by their appearance, but from the first John the Baptist in the gospels to the ones I encounter today, we need to pay attention to their message: Repent!”
I have to say, this is not the message I sense most people want to hear ringing in their ears during these days leading up to Christmas. You will absolutely hear all sorts of Christmas music playing non-stop starting in early NOVEMBER, but you will not hear this message much, if at all: Repent! It’s a word/action that carries a lot of baggage for a lot of us.
Chinn said he was told recently that his progressive theology did not take the call for repentance seriously enough. “I was challenged to address the issue of how my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), could change its ordination standards to permit LGBTQ candidates to be ministers without requiring them to repent of their sins. The accusation bordered on a vicious attack.” I guess this is where my own head tends to go when I hear someone shout “Repent!” I sense a vicious attack. Or I sense it as a threat, maybe, because “or else” is usually verbalized or implied after the shout of “Repent!”
Chinn went on to say, “The irony is that I do take repentance seriously. A colleague once wrote that ‘everyone reads the Bible selectively, no exceptions. The question, for everyone, is, ‘what do I select to follow, to value, to credit and why?’” This, my friends, takes a lot of head and heart work. What do I—what do you--select to follow, to value, to credit, and why?
So let’s be absolutely clear: Advent hope is about God coming, AND this God who comes is disturbing. John the Baptist doesn’t just say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He doesn’t just say, “Repent, change the way you live,” but repent and prepare for the coming of the kingdom of heaven which will ruffle all your securities and overturn anything you try to leave in place.
But here’s the good news (because if I can’t identify the good news, then I really never will get out from under that comforter): Yes…our world is full of injustice, oppression and unrighteousness—I personally feel this so deeply, these days—so something has to give when God enters this world, and it is not going to be God.
The good news is that repentance allows for the possibility of change! The very God who calls US to repent was once called on by Moses to repent, AND GOD REPENTED. (See Exodus 32:14….) God is a God who doggedly pursues wayward people, holding out the possibility of life when situations point to death. This is why we look, during these days of Advent, to the scripture in Isaiah that tells us “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his root. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:1-3)
This is why we draw such great comfort from what Isaiah continues to say: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
So we have a shoot growing from a stump, and a return to paradise where animals live at peace. The wolf dwells with the lamb. The dangerous, predatory animal is invited to play with its prey. The enemy is made the guest. The poor and the vulnerable need not fear, but can welcome their oppressors. All of this is the undreamed-of result of God’s righteousness and justice…and our willingness to repent.
In these days of turmoil, we can use a heavy dose of repentance. Calvin Chinn said “The world would be a better place if more of us confessed, apologized, sought forgiveness. If we can get past the strangeness of John the Baptists, his message to re-orient ourselves needs to be heard. We have ears. May we listen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
breaking and entering
Matthew 24:36-44 (The Message)
In a recent issue of the Christian Century, Matthew Johnson said about today’s scripture reading exactly what has been on my heart as we have moved—seemingly at a rapid pace!—to the Advent Season. He wrote, “As Advent begins, I want to be drawn into an anticipation of joy. I yearn to have the Spirit encourage my imagination, to point my heart toward wholeness and reconciliation.”
He goes on to acknowledge that this text from Matthew does little to spark that feeling. Earlier in chapter 24, some of the disciples ask Jesus about “the end of the age.” Now he is deep into answering them, imploring them to be ready for what is coming. Matthew Johnson says he is troubled by what Jesus says to them, and I have to agree with him. I am troubled by what Jesus says.
Jesus talks about the surprise of the great flood in the day of Noah—how people just went on living, oblivious to what was about to arrive. An end that comes with destructive force is troubling, no matter how great the new thing that emerges might be. Jesus speaks of the end as if some will be swept up and disappear. Communities will be separated, families divided. It’s all very troubling.
Matthew Johnson is associate pastor at Barrington United Methodist Church in Barrington, Illinois.
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And then he compares the Son of man’s “coming at an unexpected hour” to that of a burglar, or a thief, as some translations write. Unexpected like a thief? That is downright terrifying.
Matthew Johnson tells of a memory from childhood—a memory of discovering that someone had broken into his home. I am grateful that I have never had this experience myself. Maybe some of you have. Johnson wrote: “My family and I returned just before evening, and the sun had almost set behind our 1920s-era bungalow. I remember being struck by the way the fading orange light obscured the details of the structure and the lone oak tree behind it. All we could see from the sidewalk was a glowing shadow, as if the gabled roof had swollen or grown a head.
“As we walked up the steps, things felt amiss. It was difficult to tell in the twilight haze, but the lines of the door were off. A small triangle of darkness rested in the kick plate of the screen door. The oak door behind it, normally a burgundy rectangle, had become a trapezoid. Passing headlights reflected off its two square panes of glass and projected the mirror image of a family photograph that hung on the perpendicular wall. The door was ajar.
“My mother swept my brother and me away from the door and back out to the sidewalk. My father grabbed a piece of driftwood he’d found in Lake Superior and stowed under the porch swing. He’d planned on repurposing it into furniture, not a makeshift club. He raised it in his right hand and stepped softly across the threshold.
“Remembering that day, I am troubled that the Son of man might arrive with criminal intent. It seems contrary to the nature of holiness and the gift of grace. We claim he’s our Prince of Peace, not [a Prince of] thieves.”
If Jesus said this now, the story might be different. Home surveillance companies are raking in billions with the assurance that they can blanket every square foot of our residences with camera coverage. Intruders, package thieves, misbehaving pets, and even the Son of man should beware. In that scenario, I’d say I could be ready. I’d have the upper hand. That is, unless the end were to arrive like a thief during an internet outage.
Matthew Johnson says he wants to believe this criminal comparison is just a poorly conceived metaphor. If that were true, I think we’d all feel better. “Just a handful of verses later, Jesus speaks in more positive terms, saying the kingdom is like a wedding and being ready is about attending to the bridegroom. I want to believe this was all concocted by a sect of his early acolytes, those convinced their rabbi messiah would be back soon enough to steal them away part and parcel. I want to believe that Jesus is just in a bad mood throughout this chapter full of doom—destruction, disaster, persecution, Matthew’s patented “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“Yet I actually believe this illustration is intentional.
“That day of shadows lit in orange, when things outside our home were ajar, nothing inside seemed different. Nothing was missing. If things had been rifled through, the prowler had been meticulous about putting them back. As my brother and I nodded off in the yard, the police came and dusted for fingerprints—but if anyone had been inside, they left no trace.
“Looks like you were lucky,” an officer told my mom.
“Except that for a long time every creak of the floor or rattle of the furnace made us jumpy. Every little thing that seemed different had us second-guessing that officer’s assessment. It felt as if we were constantly guarding against a ghost.
“A week later, our neighbors awoke to discover a gloved man lurking around their living room by candlelight. By the time the police arrived, all they found were the doors sprung open, the same as ours.”
Maybe—whether we want to believe it or not—maybe the Kingdom of God has to be sneaky—because otherwise we probably wouldn’t cooperate. In perfectly apocalyptic fashion, maybe we need to be disrupted so the true nature of our faith can be revealed.
Johnson continues by saying, “If a new beginning is to take place, a number of things I value greatly will need to be stolen—things far more harmful than the dishonorable behaviors Paul warns against in Romans 13. I excel in divisiveness. I have perfected the art of letting anger linger. I draw strength when finding the fault in others. I refuse, quite often, to let my aims be sidelined or even interrupted. I struggle to give any of these things up willingly. Having them stolen might be the only way I let them go.”
Matthew (the gospel writer!) delivers a blunt reminder: Advent can be a season to remember that what you and I hope for is rarely what we need, nor is the way God gives it the way we’d prefer to receive it. This Advent, we can all be working on being ready for that—ready enough to accept that this season brings trouble with the aim of establishing joy. Thanks be to God for getting our attention.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
water can flow
John 4:7-15 (NRSV)
The water looked clean, but the children kept getting sicker and sicker. No one knew what to do. "One time, I had four children all in the hospital at once," says a pastor named Justin in the African nation of Rwanda. He didn't understand about germs and disease transmission in the local water.
Then Larry and Carolyn McBride showed up on a mission trip from Saddleback Church in California. After seeing children carry dirty river water over long distances, they returned home with a deep desire to do something for thirsty African children. The McBrides gathered friends for prayer and planning. They began to craft clean-water systems for Rwandan hospitals, clinics, orphanages and pastors' homes. Their project, called the Clean Water Initiative, also created teams to equip hundreds of Rwandan church volunteers to improve health and sanitation in 116 communities.
The Clean Water Initiative provided a water filter for Pastor Justin's home and funded a well in the community. "We have people coming from all over to get clean water, and we haven't been back to the hospital since," he reports. "It has changed our lives and given us hope for the future."
Teams are now taking Clean Water Initiative technology and education around the world - to Argentina, Mexico, Tanzania, Tibet, Kenya and East Timor. They're even going to Haiti to help combat the cholera outbreak. The McBrides dream that "no child would miss another day of school or die of such a preventable death."
New life begins with just one drop. Jesus knows this, which is why he cries out in the seventh chapter of John, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:37-38).
Whenever the Bible speaks of "living water," it's pointing us in several directions. Living water can mean fresh, running water - water from a spring, as opposed to a container. It can also mean life-giving water. In this case, Jesus is suggesting both because he knows that fresh, running water is also life-giving water - something everyone needs for a life of health and vitality. Just ask the children of Rwanda.
But John the gospel-writer offers a third meaning of “living water.” John is convinced that the living water Jesus offered to the woman at the well and to the crowds of people gathered at a festival is nothing less than the fresh, running, life-giving Holy Spirit of God, which comes to Jesus' followers on the day of Pentecost, and is available to us every day. Living Water. Holy Spirit. Both change our lives. Both give us hope for the future.
Clean water and the Spirit of God can flow together in some powerful ways in the mission of the church today. An organization called Living Water International exists for one simple reason: to provide "a cup of water in Jesus' name." They know that when they give thirsty people something to drink, they're really serving Jesus. For decades, this Houston-based nonprofit has been building clean-water wells in poor parts of the world. It believes the simple presence of one clean-water well can transform a community. Clean water leads to health, which leads to productivity, which leads to education and commerce and forward progress. It isn't just about a cup of cold, clean water. It's about a future.
Jesus tells us the power of the Holy Spirit has the same effect. When we turn to Jesus in faith, we receive a free-flowing and life-giving Spirit who has the power to transform our lives. The Spirit makes us happier, healthier and better able to serve God with passion and purpose. Just one drop. That's where it begins. Then the flow of the Spirit becomes a river of living water.
Our transformation begins with just one drop - a drop of concern for a child in poverty. That drop can turn into a trickle - a trickle of help for a neighborhood in need. This trickle can become a river of living water - a river that carries the good news of God's love around the world, washing over people with improvements to their spiritual and physical health. Whether fighting cholera in Haiti or installing water filters in Rwanda, Christians are changing lives as they follow the Holy Spirit's leading. Jesus' words are coming true: "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38).
It can start with just one drop. The installation of one water filter. The digging of one well. But once the water begins to flow, nothing can stop it. Same for the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
water can be still
Major-league baseball is now off our radar (and television) screens until the third week of February, when the league’s “Spring” training kicks into high gear. But don’t despair! There is still plenty of football ahead. Maybe you’ve heard this before…George Carlin musing on the nature of baseball and football:
Baseball is played in a park - a baseball park. Football is played in a stadium - often called Soldier's Field or War Memorial Stadium.
Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything is dying.
Football is concerned with downs. "What down is it?" Baseball is concerned with ups. "I'm not up. Is he up? You're up!"
In football, you receive a penalty. In baseball, you make an error. Oops!
In football, the specialist comes in to kick something. In baseball, the specialist comes in to relieve someone.
Football has hitting, clipping, piling on, spearing, personal fouls and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.
In football the objective is for the quarterback, sometimes called the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense, hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun, with short bullet passes and long bombs. He marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial attack with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the front line of the defense. In baseball, the objective is to go home and be safe.
If you were in worship last Sunday, you will remember that we are thinking about water for a couple of weeks, and using the story of Noah and the flood, we thought about how water can be destructive AND purifying. This week, I want us to think about how water can be still. The difference between destructive water and still water can be as dramatic as George Carlin’s understanding of the difference between baseball and football!
Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord, who is our shepherd, leads us “beside still waters.” I love that image. I believe we are led “beside still waters” so that we can become still. So that our souls can be restored. But there is no doubt in my mind that achieving a stillness that can restore us is very hard to do. This is not news to you…most of us are always on the move. With all that is demanded of us (in reality, or in our own minds) it is hard to figure out how to be still.
In my pastor’s article for the November/December edition of our church newsletter, The Good News Focus, I wrote about my love of napping. I offered up a photo of my 2-year-old great-nephew, Nolan, coming to a full-stop on his walk on the canal path, to take a nap! At least, that’s what I imagine he is doing. Right there on the pavement. Totally relaxed. Oblivious to where he is. I just assume his little body was completely worn out and he had to stop. And be still. I know it is not easy to give ourselves permission to close our eyes and be still, but Psalm 23 tells us that is, in fact, one way in which God takes care of us. God leads us beside still waters, so we can become still.
For so many people though, even if we are able to achieve some level of stillness in our bodies, we can’t still our minds. Our brains resist being still, I think. I’ve heard stories from so many people who know how excruciating it can be to be in bed, their body completely still, but they cannot fall asleep because they cannot still their mind. “He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” Tell that to the person who cannot rest at night. They probably have a completely different story to share.
We all do so much during each day to stimulate our brains, often on purpose! An article in the Buffalo News on October 18 reminded the reader how the phrase “use it or lose it” has dominated our thinking on how to—in theory--protect our (aging) brains, and as we tend to do, when we think something is good for us, we find ways to overdo it! Now, according to this article written by Carolyn Johnson, a study published in the journal Nature, suggests more isn’t always better. Excessive activity—at least at the level of brain cells—could be harmful.
As I understand it, there is a protein in our older brains called REST (is that not perfect?) that tamps down genes involved in sparking brain activity. After some testing on mice and roundworms, scientists found that in some very long-living roundworms, when the REST protein is increased, the brain activity decreases and the roundworms live longer. Fascinating! Cynthia Kenyon, vice president of aging research at Calico Labs said, “I think this is overactivity, out-of-control excitation—it’s not good for the brain. You want the neurons to be active, when and where you want them to be active, not to be just generally firing off.”
A favorite verse for many people comes from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still. Lead me beside the still waters. Restore my soul.
Henri Nouwen said, “Without solitude it is almost impossible to live a spiritual life.” I would suggest, “without times of stillness, it is almost impossible to live a spiritual life.” Living in a world of constant noise and distractions, we are exhausted and disconnected. Yet scripture commands, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Many fear silence and stillness because it often forces us to slow down and listen to our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. But the promise we hear in Psalm 23 is that our souls will be restored by still waters. There is something about water that is still that brings us comfort, peace, rest. A chance to catch our breath.
For just a moment, I want you to call to mind a place you love that has still waters. Picture yourself by that water. Take a deep breath, and let it out.
Know that God is in that stillness. And be restored.
water can be destructive
Genesis 6:11-22 (NRSV)
I enjoy being near water. I like that I live an easy distance from the Niagara River, the Erie Canal, Tonawanda Creek, Ellicott Creek, and Lake Erie. I love being on the beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in Englewood, south of Tampa. What I do NOT like being near is waves. What I do NOT like being near is hurricanes. What I do NOT like being near is tsunamis. It’s true that I’ve never personally experienced a hurricane or a tsunami, but I am confident I do not like them.
We are nearing the 15th anniversary of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, one of the most powerful and deadliest natural disasters ever. On December 26, 2004, an undersea mega thrust earthquake that registered a magnitude of 9.1-9.3 occurred off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. People on the coast felt the earthquake, of course, but then many of them became fascinated by the rapidly receding water…it was like all the water was being sucked away, and behind it there was this great expanse of ocean floor that people had never seen before, never walked on before. So they ran out onto the newly exposed ocean floor.
Fifteen to twenty minutes after the earthquake, the first waves of that ocean water came roaring back to the coast. The tsunami waves topped 100 feet, and traveled as fast at 500 mph. For nearly 230,00 people, there was no time to get out of the way.
I was serving the Salem United Church of Christ in the city of Tonawanda at the time of this tsunami. I remember very clearly that we wanted to give people in the church opportunities to make donations to organizations that were trying to offer assistance in the aftermath of this disaster, so we created a massive bulletin board in the fellowship hall, filled with photographs from the Buffalo News and Time Magazine and National Geographic, with information about where to make donations. When I close my eyes, I can still see some of those photographs…particularly the ones that show the 100 foot wall of water approaching the coast, and the ones that show mothers and fathers and children clinging to the branches of trees or sitting on the roof of a house, hoping against hope that they would not be swept away in the water. They probably were. I looked at those photographs for months, and they made me deeply sad. As hard as I tried, I just could not fully imagine the fear and panic that must have suddenly gripped the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of people as the relentless walls of water came.
We hear at the beginning of Genesis that God had an idea, about water. With just a word from God, a dome appeared, separating the waters from the waters. The waters above the dome were separated from waters under the dome. God called the dome Sky. And it was good. A little later, God created humankind, and that was a good day, too.
A long time later humankind wasn’t so good; in fact, humankind was behaving in an ugly fashion. Then God had another idea about water and with another word, water came, floods of it. It fell from the sky, it rose high on the earth, and God’s simmering anger drenched everything everywhere, and only those few animals and humans aboard the boat survived. The earth was purified. What I want you to hear this morning is that God’s message about the flood is a beautiful message which came in a time of great ugliness.
Why? Because the story tells us that at the time of Noah, human consciousness and the resulting behavior had become quite ugly. Our words and actions reflect the peace, or lack of peace, the beauty or ugliness, in our hearts. What we think affects our behavior, and our behavior affects the world we live in. Long after the world was first created by God’s word and pronounced good, the world had indeed become an ugly place. The descendants of Cain and Seth had multiplied greatly and spread broadly across the land, and everything had become a mess. The thoughts and hearts of the children of Seth and Cain turned continuously to evil, and so naturally the world reflected their thoughts and hearts, and it became an ugly, awful, and evil place. God was not pleased (Genesis 6:1-6).
So God had a thought to destroy all of it except for Noah’s family and the animals who went aboard the ark. God had this thought, said the word, and the waters became ugly, and began to fall, and to rain, and rain, and flood the earth, until all living creatures were blotted out, purifying the earth, washing it clean (Genesis 6:7-8).
As terrible as it sounds, God used chaotic, destructive water to purify the earth, to cleanse it from human thought, from human behavior, and from human life. As painful and destructive as it sounds, this story of water has everything to do with God’s ongoing desire to purify us. Even though God regretted making humans, even though God saw that humans had made a mess of everything, even though all of that happened, God decided to give all of humanity a second chance at getting it right.
We can be thankful that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Human beings may have behaved badly, we may have had ugly ideas, and sometimes live ugly lives, but we were — and we are — innately, intrinsically well made, and deeply good.
In Noah’s day, when God was frustrated with the way humans behaved, and with the way things turned out, God gave all of creation a thorough washing and a second chance. If God could give such second chances to all of earth and humanity back then, then certainly God, who continues to wish to purify us and make us whole will give us second chances—and third and fourth chances—today.
So let us give thanks that even though this most basic element of nature—water—has the power to destroy, God uses water to purify and heal. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
who doesn't love a good eraser?
“School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days …” If you remember that old song it means you’re, well, old; (Note: I do NOT remember this song!) and that means you’re at least old enough to recall when the front of your school classroom featured a big blackboard on which all of your assignments for reading, writing and ʼrithmetic were carefully inscribed by your teacher with chalk. (Notes: I DO remember blackboards!)
In fact, you might’ve been the good kid who got the special privilege of cleaning the erasers by banging them together, creating a cloud of chalk dust which had everyone coughing for five minutes. Or maybe you were the bad kid who got after-school detention and had to wipe down the whole board with a damp cloth. Whether you approached it for praise or punishment, or to work out that difficult math problem in front of the whole class, the blackboard was the nerve center of classroom life.
It still is to some degree, although kids today will never know the smell of a cloud of chalk. Instead, they get the alcohol smell of the markers for the dry-erase board, which started to phase out the blackboard in the late 1980s. Actually, the blackboard’s demise started a little earlier than that with the advent of the green chalkboard, which was made from steel and porcelain and was less fragile than the older, heavy, slate boards. The green color was also supposed to be easier on the eyes, and the chalk powder didn’t show up as much, making it easier for the Bart Simpson-esque class clown to wipe it down after school. The evolution of the classroom board continues today as some schools have “smartboards” that allow what’s handwritten on them to be immediately photographed, digitized and downloaded — no need for copying down your homework.
We might think of the blackboard as ancient technology, but the truth is that since civilization began in Mesopotamia, people have been scribbling on things, and then correcting their mistakes. The Akkadians and Babylonians used wet clay tablets and a stylus for writing, the marks of which were easily erased unless you wanted to bake the clay and make them permanent. The Romans used wax tablets that could be warmed and reformed as a kind of early Etch A Sketch. In fact, Rome is where the term “clean slate” comes from. In Latin, tabula rasa means “clean slate.”
Of course, if you want something to be permanently written, you “write it in stone.” The first real document we encounter in the Bible is written that way, the Ten Commandments being chiseled on stone tablets when Moses was in conference with God on Mount Sinai. The Israelites carried those tablets around in the Ark of the Covenant for generations until the Ark itself rested in Solomon’s Temple. It was the set-in-stone covenant that God had made with Israel, but that covenant itself had had its own evolution of media, from God’s first toddler-like instruction to Adam in Genesis 3 (“Don’t touch! Don’t eat!”) to Abraham’s bloody path of animal guts in Genesis 15. Stone tablets seemed more sophisticated by comparison, communicating God’s word to his people in a permanent medium.
In Jeremiah’s day, however, those stone tablets were gone. They disappeared sometime during the Babylonian invasion of Judah and the subsequent exile of God’s people to Babylon around 586 BC. Whether they wound up in a forgotten hiding place, were destroyed or are languishing in a warehouse in New Jersey, nobody really knows. What we do know is that the exile was a major event in the history of God’s people, destroying the world as they knew it and leaving them with an uncertain future. How were they to move forward now that the covenant with God had been broken by their sin? What was to guide them when the tablets were no longer around to give them the rules? How would they now relate to God on the other side of exile?
Through Jeremiah, God had promised the people they would return from exile and have their own land again and God promised not to leave the people to suffer endlessly for their sins. Whereas the old covenant was chiseled in stone and offered no practical means, other than endless animal sacrifices, to erase the sins they committed, God promised the returning exiles a new covenant. It wouldn’t be like the old Sinai covenant, which was brittle enough that they broke it repeatedly. Instead, God would write this covenant on their hearts — a “heartboard” that could be repeatedly erased, cleaned and made new. “I will put my law within them,” said God through the prophet, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people”.
In an elementary school classroom, you might expect the rules to be framed and hung on the wall for all to see, and if you violated them, you might be required to write them 25 times on the chalkboard, whiteboard or smartboard as a punishment. Whether that punishment is effective, however, depends on the orientation of the child. No amount of scribal repetition will change the hard heart of a rebellious child. In a high school classroom, on the other hand, you’re less likely to see the rules scribbled out on the wall. Instead, those rules should already be internalized by people old enough to have the capacity to know what’s right.
The same is true for God’s people. Knowing the commandments and obeying them are two separate things. To obey freely, one must have an inward sense of what’s right and wrong, an inward orientation to please the one in authority, and a desire for repentance and forgiveness.
God’s people had spent 70 years in exile. It was like a timeout — plenty of time to figure out what they had done wrong. Going forward, God now expected them to relate to him in a different way — not as coerced, chastised children, but as people on the way to maturity. Repentance and forgiveness were the means by which God would work in his people, forming them into a covenant community based not on external compulsion but on internal communion with God.
No longer will they need those stone tablets or endless, repetitive instructions about who God is. Instead, they will know God by God’s grace, by God’s forgiveness, by what God does in their hearts. And what is God doing there? Erasing the brokenness. “For I will forgive their wickedness,” says the Lord, “and remember their sins no more”. In other words, their “heartboards” could be cleaned and renewed.
And in the ultimate reversal, they wouldn’t have to clean those boards on their own as a constant punishment. Instead, Someone was coming who would take their punishment on himself and enable their hearts to be washed clean of their sin forever. Jesus embodied the new covenant, and we who are his people by his grace are made new, our sins erased and our lives given a tabula rasa, a clean slate.
What’s inscribed on your heartboard? Maybe it’s a problem from the past, a sin you can’t shake, a fear or shame that binds you and keeps you in exile from God. Hear again the good news: God is ready to wipe your life clean through the grace of his Son, Jesus Christ. No need to pound the erasers!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
October 20, 2019
to love and be loved
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 99 times. Over the years, 89 men, 17 women and 24 organizations have received it. Last October, the prize went to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In 2017, the Nobel was given to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Ten years ago, Barack Obama received the prize for his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy.
Forty years ago? Well, that was 1979! Do you even remember 1979? 40 years is the number of years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. Forty years is the amount of time it takes for a new generation to arise.
Forty years ago, on October 17, 1979, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She heard a call from God to help the poor, and she founded a group called the Missionaries of Charity. In India, Mother Teresa and her helpers built homes for orphans, nursing homes for lepers and hospices for the terminally ill. According to the Nobel website, she was a “saint in the gutter.”
In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, she said, “I am sure this award is going to bring an understanding love between the rich and the poor. [That] is why Jesus came to earth, to proclaim the good news to the poor. And through this award and through all of us gathered here together, we are wanting to proclaim the good news to the poor that God loves them, that we love them, that they are somebody to us, that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and to be loved. Our poor people are great people, are very lovable people, they don’t need our pity and sympathy, they need our understanding love.”
One particular word pops up again and again in these lines from Mother Teresa’s speech: love.
The group that Mother Teresa founded in 1950 is called the Missionaries of Charity, an organization that now has more than 5,000 members. They are focused on charity, but unfortunately that term is often misunderstood. So often we think of charity as the act of giving help to people in need, typically in the form of money. But the word “charity” comes from the Latin caritas, which means “affection.” Charity is fundamentally Christian love and affection, not a monetary gift. We should all be missionaries of charity.
Forty years have passed since Mother Teresa gave her speech. She died in 1997 and was declared a saint in 2016. A new generation of Christians has arisen. So how are we doing on the goal of creating “an understanding love between the rich and the poor”? How are we doing with Christian love and affection?
In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul challenges his younger colleague by saying, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David — that is my gospel” (v. 8). When we “remember Jesus Christ,” we remember his words about love — words which are not so much a fuzzy feeling as they are a call to action: In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands us to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
When asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus says, “ʻYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Jesus also gives the order, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).
“If you love me,” says Jesus, “you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
So, what does it mean to remember Jesus? Love your enemies. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love Jesus. Love one another. Show so much love that you lay down your life for your friends. In other words, be a missionary of charity. A missionary of Christian love and affection.
The world needs this kind of Christian love now more than ever. In the United States, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and there is not much “understanding love” between the two. In 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of families took home an average of 26 times as much income as the bottom 99 percent. Income inequality has risen in nearly every state, and it has a lot of negative effects, including increases in crime, increases in illnesses and decreases in high school graduations.
Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching out to the poor with Christian love. She didn’t judge them, but instead offered them affection and assistance. Her loving actions were the way she remembered Jesus Christ, “raised from the dead,” even though these actions caused her hardship. We can do the very same, as we seek to create “an understanding love between the rich and the poor.”
In the novel City of Peace, a stranger appears at the door of Riverside Methodist Church on a Sunday morning. He says, “I’ve been out of work for a month, and money is real tight. I could really use some food.”
“We’ve got a food pantry,” says Harley Camden, the pastor, “and you are welcome to a bag of groceries.” Harley has a lot to do before the Sunday service, and he feels annoyed that this scruffy, middle-aged stranger has ambushed him. But Harley has been in the business long enough to know that ministry happens in and through interruptions, so he decides to try to be patient.
“I was delivering pizzas, but I wrecked my car,” says the man as he starts to examine the shelves of canned food and dry goods. “They couldn’t keep me on without a car. I’ve been looking ever since, but it seems like nobody’s hiring.” Harley stands nearby as the stranger slowly fills his bag, examining each food label. “Sorry to hear it,” the pastor replies, wishing that the guy would make his selections a little faster.
“You know, I’m a pretty spiritual guy,” says the man when he finishes filling his bag. “I can feel things. People say I have a sixth sense. I knew the exact moment my brother died, even though he was far away. I feel the Spirit is here, right here in this church.” “Really?” replies Harley, surprised. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” says the man. “I appreciate the groceries.” And then he slips out the back door and heads down the street, leaving Harley to marvel at the people he has met who have keen spiritual sensitivity, folks with built-in radios that can pick up stations no one else can hear.
In City of Peace, Harley Camden discovers the truth of what Mother Teresa knew in 1979: “Poor people are great people, are very lovable people, they don’t need our pity and sympathy, they need our understanding love.” All of us, rich or poor, are created by the same loving hand of God, made to love and to be loved.
So let’s commit to this in the life of this church: let’s commit to doing our best to present ourselves to God as disciples who actively love God, love neighbor, and lay down our lives for our friends. Missionaries of charity. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Luke 17:5-10 (NRSV)
I despise roller coasters. At least, I think I do. I haven’t been on a roller coaster in decades, but I distinctly remember the last time I was, probably at Seabreeze, in Irondequoit, near Rochester. Seabreeze is not known for having the world’s largest roller coasters, but still, riding the one they had was enough to make me hate them. You know how the very first thing you do on a roller coaster ride is slowly head up a huge incline? That’s when I started crying and screaming. On the way up.
But for some people, there’s something exhilarating about traveling at high speeds, being dropped from terrifying heights, and feeling like you just might lose your life. And do you know what these people do when they finish the ride? They get in line to do it again! They want more! Unbelievable.
Most of us tend to look at life this way. If something is good, then more of it will be better. So we make faster roller coasters—or live in bigger houses, buy fancier cars, and so on. But at some point, living in a culture where bigger is better leaves you thinking that what you do or what you have isn’t enough.
I read something this week written by Dennis Sanders, the Lead Pastor at a church in Minnesota. He wrote, “When I was called to be the pastor at my church six years ago, I wondered if I could do it. I spent five years as an associate pastor, but could I really be a solo pastor of a church? As someone who is on the autism spectrum, I am always wondering if anything is enough. I felt like I entered this profession with so many deficits. Can I preach good sermons? Can I engage in small talk? Can I connect with the congregation? Can I be a leader? Can I be a Christlike presence to those around me? It’s hard to look at other pastors—people who are master speakers and can exegete like nobody—and not feel inadequate.”
I desperately wanted to tell Dennis that he isn’t alone, and his feeling of inadequacy isn’t because he’s on the autism spectrum. I’ve been in ministry for nearly 35 years, and any time I am around a group of pastors, I find myself asking the same questions Dennis asks. It’s hard not to feel inadequate! Many, many pastors ask the same questions. With shrinking congregations and budgets, we wonder, can we continue this ministry to the community around us? Can we afford it? Why can’t we draw people like that megachurch down the road?
In today’s reading from Luke, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Like us, the disciples tend to think that more is better. If they could only have a bit more faith, then everything would be great. They have seen what Jesus has done. Jesus made blind people see, removed leprosy from the skin of people, cast out demons, fed 5,000 people with a few fish and a little bread, and so much more. How do you live up to that? They realize there is no way that they can do what he did with their puny faith. If they want to do even 10 percent of what Jesus did, they will need an extra-strength faith. That’s the world we live in: more is always better.
But Jesus counters this by telling his disciples that to move a mountain, you only need faith the size of a mustard seed. It’s not about having enough faith. Being faithful is doing what God would have us do in the world even when we think our faith is incomplete and doesn’t measure up. Jesus is not a figure skating judge who rates us on our faith.
In Thursday’s Daily Devotion from the UCC Writing Group, Kenneth Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, wrote about his English teacher from 7th-9th grade, Ms. Hutchinson. He wrote, “She stands a demure 4’11”, wears spectacles and is quite soft-spoken. When she walks into a room, no heads turn. There is nothing at all intimidating about her presence or her demeanor. You’ll likely not find her leading any kind of protest or vociferously espousing any campaign.
Yet, for the past sixty years and counting, Ms. Hutchinson has been one of the most effective warriors for quality public education in our nation.
“She doesn’t fight with protests and press conferences. She fights by proving that when school resources and broader community resources are invested adequately, even children in the ghetto can excel academically. She fights by non-abrasively advocating for pedagogical means that measure critical thinking capacity, not just test-taking proficiency. She fights by being relentless in her efforts to instill within each of her students a sense of self-esteem and self-respect. She fights by personally inviting the parents of her students to take seriously their roles as partners and mentors in the educational development of their children.”
Pastor Samuel goes on to reflect: “There is need for change and reform in so many areas of our nation’s collective life. Do we need mavericks adamantly pushing for reform on the front lines? I think so.
But we also need fighters who understand the strength of inobtrusive perseverance. We also need warriors who face impossible odds every day, but who still fight to make progress—quietly but impactfully.”
With this great example in mind, are you reminded of God’s preference for small things? Gideon, the weakest guy in the land of Israel, is called by God to defeat an occupying army. His 300 men defeat thousands on the other side. When Samuel meets the strong, handsome sons of Jesse, God chooses the youngest, David, over his brothers. And God chooses a young, poor woman—living in Israel under the Roman occupation—as the one who would give birth to Jesus. God is into using what little we have and performing great works.
God doesn’t need us to believe enough. God calls us to be faithful—to seek to do God’s work in the world. Faithfulness is about being a witness to the grace and mercy of Jesus; it is about trusting in God’s faithfulness to us even when our faith is wavering. We are faithful when we proclaim the good news and do acts of compassion, even on those days when our faith seems small. It’s faithful to pray with a family when they learn their loved one is not going to get better. It’s faithful to bring communion to a church member who can’t make it to worship. It’s faithful to come together to write notes thanking a guest for their presence in worship, and encouraging them to come again.
The disciples don’t need more faith, and neither do we. We are called to trust God with the faith we have. It’s not a fancy faith and it may not seem like much, but in Christ it will move mountains. It is not about having enough; it’s about knowing that we are enough. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa L. Drysdale
Psalm 71:1-6 (the Message)
Once upon a time…I’m told…people used to hide their money under the mattress.
But then they figured out that the mattress was one of the first places that burglars look for cash. So they decided to put their money in an old sock in the bottom of the sock drawer ... in a watertight plastic bottle in the tank on the back of the toilet ... in an envelope taped to the bottom of the cat's litter box ... inside a big coffee cup in the back of a cupboard ... or in an envelope inside a DVD case.
Very clever. But not completely secure. You don't want to come home and find that your spouse has given away your copy of the movie The Color of Money. You know, the Paul Newman, Tom Cruise film. The one that is filled with your money!
Fearing such losses, most people choose to put their money in bank accounts that can be accessed online with the use of passwords. We come up with a simple string of characters -- somewhere between six and 16 -- and figure that our money will remain safe.
Well, maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. It may be no safer than if it were sitting in a plastic bottle in a toilet tank.
According to Wired magazine (November 15, 2012), a password is no longer an adequate means of securing precious data. No matter how complex or unique, our passwords can no longer protect us.
As we know so well, hackers are now breaking into computer systems and releasing lists of names and passwords on a regular basis. We are putting so much personal information in the internet "cloud" that it is ridiculously easy for nefarious people to figure out our passwords. That’s why there’s so much focus on a two-tier system of recognition…someone would have to know my password and have my fingerprint, or my eyes, to access my information.
This is all very depressing. We can only hope that Internet security experts are still working hard to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. At some point, we're going to have to move past the password altogether. Or go back to taping an envelope to the bottom of the cat's litter box.
Psalms 71 challenges us to think long and hard about the source of our security. For years, we have trusted government to provide us with political security, law enforcement to provide us with community security, our medical system to provide us with health security, and our financial system -- including online banking -- to provide us with economic security. But we are learning every day that there can be breakdowns in these systems.
In today's cloud-based world, where is solid security to be found?
The writer of Psalm 71 calls God "a granite fortress, our bedrock," one who can free us "from the grip of the wicked". The psalm challenges us to put our faith in the Word of God instead of in human words, in online passwords; to place our faith not in technological fixes, but in theological fixes, and be willing to put our personal information in the eternally secure "cloud" that is Almighty God. We can reveal everything to God and trust God to protect us and save us.
The psalm begins with the words, "I run for dear life to God, I’ll never live to regret it". We do not know if the psalm-writer was being really being chased by enemies and needed to hide, or if he was struggling with illness, weakness or age, and needed healing and help. But in any case, he pleaded to God, "Do what you do so well: get me out of this mess and up on my feet".
At times, we all need a strong fortress -- a refuge that cannot be penetrated by hackers or criminals, illnesses or enemies, failures or betrayals. We long for a place that is a rock of refuge, a mighty fortress, a bulwark that never, ever fails.
Martin Luther felt the need for such a place when he took his stand against the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. In 1529, he wrote a hymn which began, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing."
These English words are powerful, but the original German is even better. Historian Michael Streich points out that Luther compares God not only to a fortress, but to a stronghold -- what he calls a "Feste Burg." The word feste points to a strong and completely secure tower, and by doing this Luther stresses the absolute power of God over the invading forces. This is why the hymn's second verse ends with the triumphant prediction, "Christ will prevail triumphant!"
"A Mighty Fortress" moves us past the password to something much more secure -- to a completely unbreakable stronghold created by God.
But Luther goes deeper in the German version, speaking of a "Feste Burg." Historian Streich explains that "a Burg was a fortified town. When invaders approached, the surrounding populace fled to the safety of the walls" -- sometimes to layers of walls within walls. In his hymn, Luther is saying that God is like the most powerful of all Burgs, one in which nothing can breach the walls.
When we need a place of refuge, God offers us his Mighty Fortress, his Feste Burg. This stronghold cannot be hacked or broken into, since it stands as a fortified town with eternally unbreakable walls. Inside this fortified town, we are delivered, rescued and saved by the Lord who desires to have an eternal relationship with us.
Let's be clear, however -- life in the Feste Burg is not free of struggles. As long as we live, we are going to face what Luther calls a "flood of mortal ills." We will still experience personal attacks, betrayals, failures, illnesses, and the difficulties that come with advancing age. But God acts as a helper amid the "flood of mortal ills," one who supports us and shields us from complete annihilation.
Inside the Mighty Fortress we discover that (as Paul so beautifully writes in Romans) "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Absolutely nothing. That's real security, much more powerful than a password.
Psalm 71 continues with the words, "My God, free me from the grip of the Wicked, from the clutch of Bad and Bully". The writer of the psalm is turning to God for help, and asking to be rescued from the cold grip of wicked, unjust and cruel people. In short, writes biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr., "the psalmist trusts that God -- not the wicked -- rules the world."
What a bold statement of faith: God rules the world. The psalmist is saying that God the Creator is really in charge of the grand sweep of human history, despite the evil, unfair and heartless acts that people commit every day. God can be trusted to work his purposes out, in spite of the selfish and sinful decisions that people make.
To trust God in this way is to concentrate on living according to God's priorities. As the members of British indie folk band Mumford & Sons sing in the song "Awake My Soul":
In these bodies we will live,
in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love,
you invest your life.
Most of us have learned how to invest our money, putting it in various online accounts with password protection. But have we learned how to invest our love, putting it into words and actions that serve our neighbors and glorify God? The writer of Psalm 71 has learned how to do this, saying, "For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth". If outsiders looked at us, would they see evidence that we have put our complete hope and trust in God?
"You keep me going when times are tough," says the psalmist; "I’ve hung onto you from the day of my birth…I’ll never run out of praise". If neighbors assessed our spiritual investment strategies, would they see signs that we have been hanging onto God and offering praise?
Where you invest your love, says the song, you invest your life.
But so often we make our investments elsewhere.
Psalm 71 challenges us to put our total trust in God, rather than in the people or institutions of this world. It invites us to depend on the Lord for security, rather than on anything that lies behind a password-protected Internet portal. When we put our faith in God, we discover that he is a rock of refuge and a strong fortress. We find that he is strong and willing to help us, as he guides us through the grand sweep of our lives.
Invest your love in God and in his plans for the world. There you will find security, eternally.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
September 29, 2019
fear cannot lead
Judges 7:1-8 (Contemporary English Version)
Experiencing fear every now and then is a normal part of life. I assume we all know that. If we couldn't be afraid, we wouldn't survive for long. We'd be walking into oncoming traffic, stepping off of rooftops and carelessly handling poisonous snakes. We'd be hanging out with people who have tuberculosis. In humans and in all animals, the purpose of fear is to promote survival. In the course of human evolution, the people who feared the right things survived to pass on their genes. In passing on their genes, the trait of fear and the response to it were selected as beneficial to the race.
I did some reading about “fear” this week. I can tell you I did not just wake up one morning thinking I should know more about fear. Instead, I read a very brief devotional based on the idea that fear cannot lead. It cannot take the lead. The devotional was written by UCC pastor Kaji Dousa, and her reflection was based on this passage we are thinking about from the book of Judges.
Well. I don’t think I’ve ever preached from the book of Judges! Why would I? In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, he writes a synopsis of the book of Judges and says, “Sex and violence, rape and massacre, brutality and deceit do not seem to be congenial materials for use in developing a story of salvation.” No…no, they do not. Even so, in this book there is this great story about Gideon preparing to fight a mighty battle for God’s people, Israel.
As an aside, Gideon is quite a guy, and I laughed when I re-read about an encounter he had with God, where he is trying to make sure that going forward into this battle is, in fact, what God is calling him to do. Listen to this, from Judges 6.
Gideon said to God, “If this is right, if you are using me to save Israel as you’ve said, then look: I’m placing a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If dew is on the fleece only, but the floor is dry, then I know that you will use me to save Israel, as you said.”
That’s what happened. When he got up early the next morning, he wrung out the fleece—enough dew to fill a bowl with water!
Then Gideon said to God, “Don’t be impatient with me, but let me say one more thing. I want to try another time with the fleece. But this time let the fleece stay dry, while the dew drenches the ground.”
God made it happen that very night. Only the fleece was dry while the ground was wet with dew.
So Gideon began his preparations for battle. And I found myself thinking about fear. During the 19th-century debate surrounding evolution, the "face of fear" -- that wide-eyed, gaping grimace that often accompanies sheer terror -- became a talking point. Why do people make that face when they're terrified? Some said God had given people a way to let others know they were afraid even if they didn't speak the same language. Charles Darwin said it was a result of the instinctive tightening of muscles triggered by an evolved response to fear. To prove his point, he went to the reptile house at the London Zoological Gardens. Trying to remain perfectly calm, he stood as close to the glass as possible while a puff adder lunged toward him on the other side. Every time it happened, he grimaced and jumped back. In his diary, he writes, "My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced." He concluded that the entire fear response is an ancient instinct that has been untouched by the nuances of modern civilization [ref].
Most of us are no longer fighting (or running) for our lives in the wild, but fear is far from an outdated instinct. It serves the same purpose today as it did when we might run into a lion while carrying water back from the river. Only now, we're carrying a wallet and walking down city streets. The decision not to take that shortcut through the deserted alley at midnight is based on a rational fear that promotes survival. Only the stimuli have changed -- we're in as much danger today as we were hundreds of years ago, and our fear serves to protect us now as it did then.
But look at what today’s story in Judges says about fear. God felt like Gideon’s gathered army of 32,000 men was too big; God felt like an army that big would take credit for the win, and not remember God’s hand in all of it. In an attempt to whittle down the army from 32,000, God told Gideon to make a public announcement: “Anyone afraid, anyone who has any qualms at all may leave Mount Gilead now and go home.” 22,000 took God up on this offer. They headed for home.
God was planning to do something decisive and wanted the people to know it for the miracle it was. “If you’re afraid, that’s ok. Just go home.”
Fear could not take the lead. God was very clear about this.
Kaji Dousa reflected, “It is not bad to fear; it is a natural response to danger. The trouble is not feeling afraid. [But] problems arise when fear takes over. Fear cannot take the lead for any of our major advances, especially as we do the work of God. Fear cannot be the start of the advance, the impetus behind the action, the driving force.”
Fear cannot take the lead.
To pull all of this much closer to home, much closer to our own lives and hearts, consider the decisions of your day.
Is there a choice you need to make, an action you need to take, where you have been putting fear in the lead?
If so, remember Gideon’s shrinking army and know that God needs you (God needs me) to sift that fear out, set it aside, and send it away.
As Kaji Dousa concludes her reflection, “Setting aside the fear makes room for the miracles to occur.”
May it be so for us! May we be ready for a miracle. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
what's your sacred space?
Psalm 27:1-6 (Contemporary English Version)
In April, 2016, Elizabeth Palmer wrote about sacred space in the Christian Century. She said, “I was in Boston for a day, and my friend asked if there were any local sights I wanted to see. I tentatively suggested the Liberty Bell. ‘That's in Philadelphia’ my friend laughed. ‘But I know where I'll take you. You're going to love this place.’ We got on the interstate and drove to a shopping mall. We entered next to a seafood restaurant, took the elevator down to the basement, and walked down a hallway. I heard chanting and prayers. Vested priests were lined up in a procession. We were at the doors of a Carmelite chapel. The 4:00 mass was about to begin, and the pews were packed.
“A chapel in a shopping mall is counterintuitive, but as I worshipped that day I marveled at the ease with which sacred and secular mixed in that holy space. The church was adorned with statues of Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Jude, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The sermon was lively, the cantor's voice was like honey, and more than 300 people received the Eucharist.
“At the same time, people were in and out--shoppers with their bags, some of them talking loudly in the hallway and others coming into worship. The gift store next to the chapel, where I bought my daughters orange and yellow cross-shaped suckers, reminded me that we were, indeed, inside a mall--at the crossroads of commerce, where the swipe of a credit card could secure tangible souvenirs made of corn syrup and wrapped in plastic.”
It is nearly impossible to define what is “sacred space,” because what is sacred is different for everyone. There may be general agreement about some very famous spaces, like the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When that 800+ year old cathedral dealt with a massive fire on April 15, news reports used the words “horror,” and “gasps” and “grief” to try to describe people’s reactions to the scene. French President Macron, recognizing the profound effect this tragedy was having on people, vowed to have the church fully repaired in five years.
What space is sacred to you? I asked this question of the members of the church’s 20/20 Vision Team. The Team has been working to discover what is most valuable to this congregation in terms of mission, worship, and even very practical things like advertising, and welcoming, and…where we choose to sit in this large sanctuary when we worship together. Here’s some of the committee members’ reflections: a sacred place is a place that is dark, quiet. It’s a beach; a place where one can feel completely in tune with the surroundings; there’s such power in being in the presence of water. It’s a view of mist on water, and ducks, and music. It’s a room in my house that is quiet, and exactly the right color, and there are personal knick-knacks and religious books around. See how personal sacred space can be?
Then I had the 20/20 Vision Team engage in an experiment one evening this past winter. We came into the sanctuary and everyone sat where they would normally sit on a Sunday morning for worship. We were, as you can imagine, no where near each other. I sat behind the pulpit. A couple sat near the back. Others sat near the side aisles, near a pillar, in a particular pew. For five minutes, there was complete silence, and we just sat in our spaces, looking around, trying to understand what it is about that particular space that makes us feel comfortable. In reflecting together after the five minutes were up, we noted the calming effect of the blue color though millennials might say its an old-fashioned color. We talked about the comfort that comes from sitting in a pew where family has always sat. There’s a comfort for some in sitting where certain, dedicated, hymnals are near, or where certain people are always near.
Then we all moved to sit in a spot where we never sit in this sanctuary! Five more minutes of silence and paying attention. Then the reflections came: some felt completely disconnected from everything and everyone by sitting in the back. For those who sat right up front, they said they felt closed in, and didn’t like the thought of people sitting behind them looking at them, or they felt alone sitting near the front.
From there, we sat in a circle on the floor by the steps, then we moved to sit in a circle right on the chancel. We talked about how this spot—and being in a circle—brought a deeper sense of intimacy. All of a sudden, the ceiling didn’t seem so massive. Being closer to the cross on the chancel made the space feel especially sacred.
This was a very small experiment in thinking about sacred space. What we are doing together for a couple off weeks is also a small experiment in thinking about sacred space. Why are you drawn to a certain space in this sanctuary? What happens for you when you attempt to experience the spirit of God in a different space? What bothers you, and why? What comforts you, and why? We do have a couple of people who will easily sit anywhere in this sanctuary…what is going on for you??!
In a triumphant song, David writes in Psalm 27, “I ask only one thing, Lord: Let me live in your house every day of my life to see how wonderful you are and to pray in your temple.” (vs. 4) Then he writes, “You will let me defeat all of my enemies. Then I will celebrate, as I enter your tent with animal sacrifices and songs of praise.” (vs. 6) House…temple…tent. For David, it doesn’t matter what the venue is. It simply matters that it is a place to experience God, a place to pray, a place to sing, a place to celebrate.
Every time we gather for worship in the Fellowship Hall—as we have for the past two summers—people tell me how much they value the intimacy that comes with sitting closer together, even facing each other. I certainly value the ability to be closer to you when I preach…where I can clearly see your facial expression and your body language. Where I can get a glimpse of what is making some kind of an impact on you. Or not. All of this feeds my ability to lead you in worship.
Here’s what I am encouraging all of us to do in these last couple of weeks in September: pay attention to where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling when you encounter something or someone or someplace that is sacred for you. Think about how that sense of sacredness can be felt in this place. And think about how we can all expand our understanding of sacred space to include all the spaces God has created for us.
By the way, in case you were wondering…when the Notre Dame cathedral was burning, some people were very concerned about the honeybee hives that are kept on a roof of the cathedral. These hives house over 20,000 honeybees! The good news is, all the hives survived in good shape. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Lisa Drysdale
what's our address?
2 Samuel 7:1-7 (The Message)
I hate camping.” This is how Matt Laney began his Daily Devotion on the UCC website one day in August. “I hate camping,” he said, and I laughed. I’m pretty much with Matt on this one. When I was a teenager, I did travel with some kids from my church’s youth group in a Winnebago across the country to lead a week of vacation bible school with the Hopi Indians in Second Mesa, Arizona. While in Arizona, I believe we slept on the floor of a church on or near the reservation. The rest of the nights we usually slept in the Winnebago parked in some parking lot somewhere along the road.
And I have done some tent camping in my life as a director of a youth camp in Sandusky, NY. For a week. And those tents were built on large wooden pallets and had single cots and bunk beds in them so even then, some would say, I wasn’t really “camping.” I remember one night we took all the Junior High kids out to camp under the stars. I have absolutely no memory of how that went, so I must have blocked it out of my mind.
The truth of the matter is I’m not a big camper. But for people like me, there’s always “glamping!”
Camping is a thrifty way to vacation. It can also be a huge hassle: the complex packing and unpacking; the loud, drunk people at the adjacent campsite with the yappy dog; the mosquitos; the frightful bathrooms.
Glamping, on the other hand, is where stunning nature meets modern luxury. It’s a way to experience the untamed and completely unique parts of the world—without having to sacrifice creature comforts.
There is no doubt that the way we travel has changed. We no longer want a generic, one-size-fits-all vacation. We want to explore on our terms and immerse ourselves in local culture, and we no longer just want to simply witness nature—we want to live in it. A fusion of glamour and camping, glamping is a way to authentically experience the most awe-inspiring locales around the world.
Glamping is much more than a nice tent.
The glamping movement is growing, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Across the globe, you’ll find incredible destinations, each offering their own unique advantages. You can wake up in a yurt on a mountaintop. Reside in the forest canopy in a treehouse. Take in the panoramic views in an eco-lodge. And that’s just to name a few.
Glamping lodges, for example, are the perfect way to experience nature while still having four walls and a ceiling. These unique destinations from Nepal to Maine have carefully constructed the ideal dwellings for their properties, allowing guests to stay in complete luxury while still developing an up-close-and-personal relationship with the surrounding nature.
Glamping.com has researched the best glamping tent accommodations throughout the world. These glamping tents are a far cry from the do-it-yourself tent in a bag. They offer amenities like comfortable beds and in some cases en-suite bathroom facilities. When you're glamping, there's no tent to pitch. All you have to do is relax and enjoy the unique experience provided by these luxury glamping tents.
But without the advantage of glamping at his fingertips, I can understand King David’s misgivings about God having to camp while David stays indoors.
David had just scored a decisive victory against the Philistines and marked his reign over both Judah and Israel by bringing the ark of God into Jerusalem. Remember that the ark of the covenant was built by Moses to hold the Ten Commandments, given to him by God. The Israelites carried the Ark with them during their 40 years spent wandering in the desert, so its not hard to imagine how deeply attached they were to this sacred container. In a moment of rest, David finds himself thinking it odd that a mere mortal like himself lives in a grand post-and-beam cedar house, while the Almighty Master of the Universe dwells out back in a tent. God should have a temple, a big one!
Then the word of the Lord comes to David through the prophet Nathan, “I’ve lived in a tent since I brought your ancestors out of Egypt. I don’t want a house. I like the freedom and mobility that comes from camping!”
Well, for someone like me who “hates camping,” this is just hard to understand!
A house for God was eventually built anyway, a big one in the middle of Jerusalem. That might come as a relief for those who resist camping. It also says how uncomfortable we are with a free-range God. We prefer God to stay where we put God. It says how we prefer a God who affirms and mirrors our values, biases and preferences. It says how much easier we think it is to keep God “here,” than it is to try to keep up with God moving all over the place “out there.”
What I want you to think about is this: do you identify as a camper, or a glamper, or a strictly indoors kind of person? How comfortable are you with the concept of a “free-range God”? What are the risks of a God who continually moves? What are the risks of a God who stays put?
The challenge for all of us is to remember that God’s address is everywhere. It’s in the elaborate temple, and it’s in the cave on the side of a mountain. It’s in the grandest cathedral, and its in the humblest of meeting rooms. It’s here in this Fellowship Hall and its in the beauty of our sanctuary.
God’s address is everywhere. What about our address?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Selections from Exodus 16
If you’re like most people I know, you’ve already thought about where your next meal is coming from. Maybe it will be from the vegetables in your garden. Or from groceries you haul home from the store. Or something on a restaurant menu that looks good to you. Until recently, these were about the only choices most of us had, meal-wise. Until, that is, the advent of meal-kit delivery services.
Once the domain of those trying to lose weight, gourmet meal kits have become a hot little corner of the food industry. Trading under names like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, these companies offer subscribers a box of fresh ingredients each week that they can use to whip up their own gourmet meals at home. Open box. Follow recipe. Dig in. Once you have a subscription to one of these services, the food cartons show up each week like clockwork. You don’t have to order them — although most services do allow for some substitution options. The boxes just come.
One day, long ago, the Hebrews, recently emancipated from slavery in Egypt and at the point of starvation in the wilderness, woke up to find bread from heaven! They called it manna, and like the Blue Apron boxes, it came on a regular basis — not once a week, but every morning!
This went on for years. Israel’s manna rations didn’t include such ingredients as quinoa, fresh basil or chili paste. But without fail, each daily delivery included a fine, flaky substance that “was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:30). The Israelites scooped the stuff up and baked it into cakes, the ultimate in convenience food for busy working refugees.
There was no shipping box, no freezer pack, no insulating liner like today’s shipments. The manna arrived on the ground fresh, like shimmering morning dew. Its shelf life was limited to one day, so there was no stockpiling it for the future. But who among them was concerned about that, when the Lord delivered a fresh supply each day (with double, less-perishable rations on the eve of the Sabbath, to spare God’s people the temptation to work on their day of rest)?
It’s remarkable how often God sends us just what we need, when we need it. It was true for the ancient Israelites, and it remains true for us today.
When these holy wanderers were lost, God guided them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
When they were thirsty, God told Moses how to strike a rock with his staff, calling forth a bubbling spring.
When they were hungry, thinking back with longing on the three-square meals a day their slave-masters had provided, God offered them flocks of quail, easy to catch, and also this unique gift of manna from heaven.
The word “manna” literally means “What is it?” I am confident that was the question they asked themselves, when first they saw this crusty white substance on the ground. At least, it’s what every child (and adult?) still says when they see some kind of food they’ve never had before. What is it? Scripture tells us it went on like this for 40 years — an entire generation. Manna was the gift God gave the Hebrews daily, to preserve their lives.
Some Bible scholars have tried, over the years, to figure out what manna was. There are all kinds of theories. Some say it was the secretions of certain insects; others, tree sap; still others, a sort of edible fungus that sprang up during the night. The bottom line is, nobody really knows. To the authors of the Bible, it’s a miracle — and that’s probably all we need to know. The elegant image of manna from heaven is a powerful way of depicting God’s goodness in providing all that we truly need in life.
What we’re talking about here, in theological terms, is called “providence.” It’s not a word you hear so often anymore — unless you’re talking about the capital of Rhode Island. That city was named by its pious founder, Roger Williams. He gave thanks for “God’s merciful providence” in leading him and his followers to that place. This was after they were driven into the wilderness by the governing authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who clearly did not like Williams’ unorthodox theological views. The early settlers of Rhode Island didn’t discover any flaky white stuff on the ground, but they did find plenty of game in the forest and fish in the streams. That was manna enough for them.
Isn’t that so often the way it is with us, in times when we feel trapped by dire circumstances? When jobs are lost, when relationships fail, when sickness intrudes — even when we’ve locked the keys in the car — we may not think at the time that God is close at hand, guiding our circumstances. But then, wonder of wonders, we discover that we have what we need, after all. And we give thanks.
Such experiences are our manna moments. They may not always seem so at the time — but, later on, with a little distance to reflect back on the situation, a pattern of loving care emerges. We come to see the providential hand of God active in our lives in the most remarkable ways. When that happens, the place we once imagined to be wilderness turns out to be a place of blessing after all.
From time to time, we gather at the table of the Lord. Here we consume not manna and quail, but bread and juice, which we understand to be, for us, the body and blood of our Savior. Listen for a moment to these lines from the Heidelberg Catechism, which dates from a time when the concept of providence did not seem so mysterious and strange as it does to so many people today: “I trust God so much that I do not doubt God will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world.”
Powerful words indeed — for all our manna moments!