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I am with you

God is still here, though. Walking with us in empty streets. Sitting with us in our homes. Moving us to do whatever we can to spread love in such a time of fear…

When you’re down look around and you’ll see I am with you. Look to me and you’ll see I will be there to guide you. Take my hand and I can lead you on for you know: I am the answer, I am the way, I am the promise, and I have called your name.

Mark Schultz

Life is confusing and messy right now. There are so many voices telling us one thing and others imperatively shouting the opposite. The illness that has been looming for so many weeks is just now beginning to take real hold among us – and we’re starting to see even our own friends and loved ones get infected.

We are in uncharted territory for the twenty-first century. We have never experienced anything like this. And we, in our society in particular, don’t like the idea that we can’t fix this easily. That we can’t do everything what we want anymore. That we can’t focus only on ourselves anymore.

What some may not have noticed, however, is that there is another epidemic in our midst: people genuinely doing what they can to help others. Sharing resources. Ensuring that those who don’t will actually have what they need. Displaying messages of hope any way that they can, even as we all stay physically away from one another.

In case you are wondering, that’s God at work.

God did not cause this pandemic. God is not trying to punish us for some particular sin. Contrary to some opinions, that is not God’s modus operandi.

God is still here, though. Walking with us in empty streets. Sitting with us in our homes. Moving us to do whatever we can to spread love in such a time of fear.

We cannot know what the future will hold. But we can rest assured that God is here at work among us. And we can trust in the gifts God has given us – including excellent scientists who are telling us how we can fight this nasty disease. So listen.

Listen to the wisdom of those who know what they’re talking about and stay home.

Listen to the kindness speaking through the words and deeds of your neighbors.

Listen for how God is calling you to join in.

The King of Love

For many of us, this time of distance from all we know may feel like we are running around in circles, chasing our own tails for no reason. But that is sometimes precisely what we need to do…

This weekend’s lectionary readings are full of so many important and special texts, that I am taking advantage of two blogs and a sermon to touch on three of them. Check out www.firstwelcomingall.blog for the Cinderella story of King David.


In death’s dark vale I fear no ill with thee, dear Lord, beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.

Henry Baker

Psalm 23 has to be one of the most beloved texts in all of scripture. It draws us through some of the most beautiful pastoral imagery in the book. It includes everything from luscious green pastures to a still, gentle stream to the table of plenty that comes from the work of the farms that provide us sustenance. These visions offer comfort and peace, no matter what challenge we may face.

Alongside these images for the sheep, come the descriptors of the Shepherd. God’s own self. Our true King of kings, who alone we are meant to trust through all things.

This comes from the ancient model of kingship held by the people of Israel, who believed that the kings were meant to be servants of the people, stewards of their kingdom, and there to ensure the flourishing of all God’s children under their charge. They understood this, however much they may have failed to follow it, because that is the truth of who our God is. The true King. The real great Shepherd.

There is so much that Psalm 23 can teach us about who God is and our relationship to God. But there is one piece of learning that is particularly poignant in the midst of the crisis in which we now find ourselves.

Many of us have learned that God “leads us on the paths of righteousness for God’s own name’s sake.” However, what if I told you that is not what the original Hebrew says? A few years ago, another biblical scholar pointed out that, in fact, the Hebrew says that God leads us on round-about paths until we find the right spot. In other words, sometimes God lets us run around in circles, chasing our tails, until we figure out where we are meant to be.

For many of us, this time of distance from all we know may feel like we are running around in circles, chasing our own tails for no reason. But that is sometimes precisely what we need to do. God is with us whether our path is circular, straight, or curvy.

So take advantage of your time away to rest in the presence of the good Shepherd. Trust that God loves you more than you can imagine and that God can get you to the right spot no matter what this life may throw at you. And know that whatever may come, God will still be with us in the darkest valleys or the most circular paths.

Do Not Fear

Whether we are toppling the patriarchy and racism in our midst, supporting those who have been hit by natural disasters, or intentionally keeping our distance to keep a disease from spreading, all begin with this same mantra – do not fear…

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And the waves will not overcome you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.

Hillsong United

Fear seems to be running rampant in our world today.

This is not to say that there is nothing to fear. Because there is – disease, unrest, disaster.

And contrary to what some purported followers of Christ have suggested, no, your faith will not banish away the viruses. Seriously, just wash your hands.

Here is what is true: your faith gives you strength to face the storm. Whatever it may be. You face it with tenacity and courage. You face it with strength to overturn what is wrong. You face it with humility enough to realize it’s not just about you.

Yes, God knows your name, because God created you. Yes, God will be with you when you walk through the fires of life, because God is always working among us. However, God is relying on all of us to do our part to make a difference, too.

All humans on this planet are in the same boat with us. And facing down challenges like we have today is daunting, to be sure. But we, who follow God, are not only looking out for ourselves. It is our job to look out for everyone else too.

The first step: do not fear.

Fear causes panic and hysteria, which leads to far more people getting hurt. Having a healthy respect for the surmounting issues in our midst is appropriate. But rather than freaking out or overstocking on toilet paper (I think we’ve forgotten we’re dealing with a cold not cholera), we simply need to use our heads, remember our common sense, and do our part to take on the challenges in our midst.

Whether we are toppling the patriarchy and racism in our midst, supporting those who have been hit by natural disasters, or intentionally keeping our distance to keep a disease from spreading, all begin with this same mantra – do not fear.

Then, get to work.

Draw to the Fountain

And here is why it is so important that we do: most often God’s miracles come through us.

All who are thirsty, all who are weak come to the fountain. Dip your hearts in the stream of life. Let the pain and the sorrow be washed away in the waves of his mercy as deep cries out to deep, we sing come, Lord Jesus, come.

Kutless

Lent has begun. And the question that everyone is still asking is, what are you giving up?

However, the better question we should all be asking ourselves is, what are we doing to work for God’s kingdom?

In worship a couple of weeks ago, we told our children that the Lenten practice we hope they will attempt this year is an act of random kindness every day. Because, as my favorite Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers, always said, kindness is the key to everything.

Start small. Find some little way to brighten someone’s day. Or give them comfort in distress. Or help them along their earthly journey. There are countless ways all of us can live into this practice.

And here is why it is so important that we do: most often God’s miracles come through us.

Five hundred years ago, Teresa of Avila wrote a poem that explains why this is so…

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Though God still brings about the major changes that God desires to see in this world, it is our actions, big and small, that help. We do them because God is alive within us, pushing us into greater acts of love. And it is that love that draws ever more people to the fountain of life.

So do something kind. Ask God to transform your heart into Christ’s own. And remember, that the love God has given you is meant to be shared in every moment, with every breath, at all times while we live on this earth.

 

Out of Dust

Ash Wednesday is a day we look this reality in the face. Our own faces. We acknowledge our own complicity and beg forgiveness from the One who never intended for any of these things to exist…

You make beautiful things out of dust.

Gungor

For much of the Christian community, today is the beginning of Lent – that season of preparation for Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We begin these forty days with a service that includes the imposition of ashes.

Why ashes, you may ask?

Because in the earliest of the scriptures from our holy book, God tells the people “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This statement was made to the first humans as they were expelled from the Garden of Eden for wanting to play God. It is a reminder that we are mortal. We are limited.

It is also a reminder that we are fallen.

This can mean many things, but here is what I am suggesting: all of us have sinned and fallen short. From a very young age we are taught the broken ways of this world – racism, sexism, classism, ageism, bigotry. Hatred in all of its forms. Some parents are even convinced that hate is the only way to teach their children right from wrong. What is more, the systems that keep our world afloat have these forms of hatred so ingrained within them that we forget they are even against God’s purposes.

Ash Wednesday is a day we look this reality in the face. Our own faces. We acknowledge our own complicity and beg forgiveness from the One who never intended for any of these things to exist. From the God who breathed life into us – God’s own beautiful, loved creations.

The truth is that we all prefer to play God every chance we get. In doing so, we break our relationships with other people, with God, and with the Image of God alive within us (the one that was created to love and be loved).

We are fallen. We are broken. We are dust.

And yet, as the worship song says, God makes beautiful things out of dust. No one is beyond God’s redemption. No one is beyond God’s love. God loves us before we even ask. Forgives us before we are ready to grapple with our own iniquity.

So hear these words of hope on this day of repentance: yes, you have sinned and fallen short. Yes, we all have a long way to go to see God’s kingdom fulfilled. But there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate you from God’s love. Nothing you can do. Nothing someone else can do to you. And our God does make beautiful things out of dust.

Worshiping Idols

God tells us to worship God alone. We are to have no idols before him. And yet, there are so many idols that we put in God’s place…

All these things I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.

Matthew 4:9

This passage sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It sounds sort of like something God would say. “Bible Quotes” books will sometimes even use this short verse.

The problem is that God nor Jesus is speaking.

This quote comes from the section of the gospel where Jesus is being tempted by Satan in the wilderness (remember that Satan’s name literally means “the tempter”). He is trying to get Jesus, God’s own self, to turn away from God. To worship a different power source. Jesus is neither amused nor fooled by his words.

God tells us to worship God alone. We are to have no idols before him. And yet, there are so many idols that we put in God’s place.

Sometimes it is money. Or power. Or popularity. Or strength. Sometimes it is even our religion or scripture. But the most dangerous of all idols are the human ones.

We must remember that God does not worship anyone. God does not prostrate God’s self before anything in this universe. Anyone who says otherwise is not only lying, but walking a dangerously fine line with blasphemy.

We should also remember that none of us is without sin, save God alone. All of us have sinned and fallen short. Which means that to place our trust in any earthly power is folly.

Whatever idol we choose, or whoever, we are breaking our relationship with God when we do. That is the very definition of sin.

People say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

So identify the idols in your life and then work with God to root them out.

Then seek the true worship of God. For pure and undefiled religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress. To loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free. To share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your home. To cover the naked and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

Go and do likewise.

Better Together

Because the truth is this: we are better together…

“Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.” 

River Phoenix

Yesterday I had to travel to Pittsburgh (from where I live in central PA) for a couple of appointments. And while I was there driving through town, I passed by the Tree of Life Synagogue. For those who may not remember, the congregation was attacked during Shabbat services one Saturday morning in October 2018.

I was living in Southern Louisiana at the time and I clearly remember all of us gathering at the synagogues in our city the following weeks to show solidarity as they faced the intense realities of what the tragedy had meant and would mean for their community.

Five months later, when the Christchurch Mosque shooting occurred in New Zealand, we gathered on Friday evening at the Islamic Center in Baton Rouge. Many of us who were not of the Muslim faith covered our heads in solidarity. And the congregation there told us it was their first candlelight vigil as they handed out the candles. But the most powerful moment that night was when members of the Jewish synagogues, who had been supported only months before, ended their services early so that they could be there for their brothers and sisters.

Because the truth is this: we are better together.

When we find the place that we care as much about our brothers’ and sisters’ safety (no matter who they are) as our own, then we are beginning to understand who God truly is. Throughout history and in nearly all the major world religions, God has proven God’s self to be about caring for people, creatures, and the creation. As Joachin Phoenix said, when he quoted his brother the other night, if you focus on love, peace will follow.

An important thing to remember here is that the love to which I am referring is not the romantic type we will celebrate later this week. It is instead the compassionate, merciful, emancipating, empowering force of nature that is God’s own self. That is the love we are meant to seek with every fiber of our being.

That means we do stand together when trouble comes, no matter where we come from. That means that we seek to befriend those who are different than us. That means that though we may tolerate other humans in their God-created bodies, we have no tolerance for hatred, injustice, and oppression.

For make no mistake: hatred is unacceptable.

We are all entitled to our opinions until that moment when our opinion harms another. Be it bigotry, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, or judging someone for their religion – none of them are acceptable. We cannot simply be non-racist, or non-ageist, or non-sexist. We who follow the God who is love must be anti-all of those things. Actively. It is a choice we must make multiple times every day, because it is that important.

So, this Valentine’s Day, reach out and get to know your neighbor. And not just the ones who look like, sound like, or think like you. Be God’s love to whoever needs it. Then, just maybe, we’ll start finding a way forward. Together.