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Three Promises

…something I know from experience is that when life gets difficult, sometimes we need the simple. The easily explained. The uncomplicated assurances that will get us through the day. 

Several years ago, I realized during Vacation Bible School that our youngest children needed the extremely simplified version of God’s promises to us. Ones they could remember. Ones they could hold on to when life got hard – because it always will.

This is where I ended up:

God loves you.

God is always with you.

You can be brave.

There is nothing in all creation or within you that will make God not love you. Nothing you can do or anything anyone else can do to you. God will always love you. Period.

God is always with us. Before us. Behind us. Above us. Below Us. Between us. Inside us. There is no where we can go that God is not already there.

Because God loves you unconditionally and because God is always with you, you can be brave. Brave enough to face fears. Courageous enough to live into showing God’s love. Strong enough to believe in hope even when all seems lost.

Though you all are likely not children reading this, something I know from experience is that when life gets difficult, sometimes we need the simple. The easily explained. The uncomplicated assurances that will get us through the day.

So here is your mantra for today: God loves you. God is with you. You can be brave.

Where is God?

So where is God in all of this? 

Right next to you. And me. And all of God’s children throughout this world. 

Whenever a major tragedy or world-altering event occurs, the question is inevitably raised: where is God? Why did God let this happen?

Some will immediately lift up the suggestion that “God has a plan” or “God is in control.” There are countless scriptures to back this viewpoint. However, to hold to it also means that God is causing the devastation, the tragedies, the genocides, the wars. God is causing pain and suffering.

Throughout the history of God’s people there has been a discomfort with this thought. We love and serve a God who is all-powerful, but also all-loving. And how can a God who literally is Love cause evil. The answer is: God can’t.

Though God is all-powerful, God chooses to allow events to play out. God gives us a choice to say no to what God is pursuing in this world. Like every good parent, God knows there are some lessons that we have to learn on our own.

And as to “acts of God,” as our insurance companies would call them, people have been blaming the gods since time immemorial for the sometimes crazy things that happen in nature. Mainly because we are more comfortable believing that God is causing harm than to sit in the mess and realize that some things just happen. Some things just are.

So where is God in all of this?

Right next to you. And me. And all of God’s children throughout this world.

The true promise of God’s providence is not that God will always fix everything to be perfect, but that God will be present through anything and everything that will happen. God will be there with us, holding on to us, and working good even in the most devastating of circumstances.

What is more, just as we can choose to not live into God’s loving purposes in this world and cause harm, because of God’s presence we can also choose to live into the Love that is loose in this world. As a wise Rabbi once suggested in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the act of God was not the devastating act of nature. The act of God occurred when the people stepped up to help each other.

My friends, God is with us. And God empowers and equips us to be tangible signs of God’s presence to one another. There are countless ways to do this. But what they all share in common is the mark they bear of our God who is Love.

So go share that love in every way you can. Even when all hope seems lost, love will always have the last word.

 

Lessons from John

…there is a promise in John that we should take firm hold of this particular Maundy Thursday: God will provide.

This is the air I breathe, this is the air I breathe: your holy presence living in me. This is my daily bread, this is my daily bread: your very word spoken to me. And I’m desperate for you. And I’m lost without you…

Michael W. Smith

Several years ago, I had the rare opportunity to study with an expert on one of the gospels. The professor’s name was Gail O’Day and she was one of the world’s foremost experts on the gospel of John. For nearly a week, I and a small room of classmates not only listened to her lecture, but we conversed with her over the gospel she loved. The words of the scriptures opening to us in a new way.

When you start reading the gospels carefully, there is a very strange gap in the gospel of John. All four gospels have records of Jesus’ baptism. But only three have the institution of the Lord’s Supper the way we hear it every time we gather around the table. John is the outlier. For many of us, this is quite a confusing discovery when we finally make it.

That week with Dr. O’Day, I learned the reason behind this omission: they didn’t need it. Because Jesus was physically present with them, the bread of heaven made flesh, there was no need to re-member his body.

Now, this is not to say that we do not need Communion. We likely do need it as much and as often as is humanly possible.

Nevertheless, there is a promise in John that we should take firm hold of this particular Maundy Thursday: God will provide.

In our tradition, we believe that the Lord’s Super is an outward sign of an inward change. That our Lord Christ is tangibly present with us. Knowing that God is able to do anything, there is no reason for us to doubt that God will still lift our hearts even if the physical elements are not present.

Christ is with us. Before us. Behind us. Carrying us. Walking with us. Working within us.

This night, the church I serve will not have physical Communion because we listened to medical experts who advised against distributing elements. Nevertheless, we will be saying the prayer of Great Thanksgiving – that ancient liturgy we speak every time we share Communion. We will hear God’s promises from scripture in the Words of Institution. And we will cling to God’s promise of the Holy Spirit as we pray together for Christ’s presence to appear.

And here is the most important lesson that this night will hold: no matter what may come, or how the church on earth is able to re-member Christ or not, Christ’s promise is that God is alive and working in us through the Holy Spirit even now. The efficacy of the Sacraments relies on God, not on us.

Tonight, our hearts beat as one as we remember our Lord’s last night on earth. Share in the joy that only Communion can bring. And trust that God is filling our need for holy sustenance no matter what.

Blessed Be Your Name

Our God is love. Love that will never force its own will. But love that will always pursue us with open arms and sustenance for the journey ahead…

Blessed be your name when the sun’s shining down on me, when the world’s all as it should be, blessed be your name. Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name…

Matt Redman

When I was a senior in college, I was a worship leader with the band of a local college ministry. Right after Easter, my last remaining original grandparent, who had  been a key figure in my entire life, he passed away.

The night before I left for his funeral, I was leading worship and we sang this song. When we got to the line above, I realized that I understood what it meant.

Based off of many different psalms, this worship song focuses on our need to praise God no matter the circumstances. Some may take this as a requirement to give thanks for all of our challenges and trials because they are a part of some divine plan. That we should be happy no matter what.

Like the psalms, that is not how I take it.

My trust is not that God is in control – because if God was manipulating everything, then why is there still evil and death. Instead, mine is a belief that God is present. Walking with us. Carrying us at times. Helping us to survive whatever we must so that we can one day thrive again.

Our God is love. Love that will never force its own will. But love that will always pursue us with open arms and sustenance for the journey ahead.

As we continue on this #alonetogether journey, with no end in sight, my encouragement to you is this:

You don’t have to be happy all the time. You don’t even have to be okay all of the time. But I hope you can trust in this: no matter what is happening, God is there with you and will never drop you. That is why we can bless God’s name – because God is always, always with us.

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.