Coerced Faith?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,               but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will       say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in     your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them,      ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”                                                       Matthew 7:21-23

I read a news article this week about a mother in Phoenix, AZ, who used a taser to get her son to church on Easter morning.  The 17 year old boy wanted to stay home with his friends who were freed by their parents from mandatory church attendance.  His mother had a different idea.  When the boy refused to go with her, she ran to get her taser and, coming back into his room, tased him according to the boy, his brother and cousins.  Despite the mother’s denial, the taser marks could be seen on the boy’s leg by the police.

What kind of faith comes from coercion?  What kind of faith grows from enforcement?  I’ve counseled people who are struggling with their faith, and helped people discover ways to “fake it till they make it”, but it’s one thing to voluntarily go through the motions hoping to prime the pump of faith, and quite a different thing to be forced at the risk of bodily harm to act faithfully.  Coercion in the realm of faith is oxymoronic.  If I am forced to confess faith, then almost by definition, I have no faith.  If I only believe in order to avoid harm to myself or others, is that real faith?

This past Sunday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are asked to have faith in Christ and his resurrection.  This isn’t faith as a proposition we believe in intellectually, like 1 plus 1 equals 2. No, this is a call to put our trust in Jesus, to make his example and God’s will the guiding principles of our life.  Going to church is not faith – I’ve long said that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in McDonald’s will make you a hamburger.  No, the Christian is the one who chooses to follow the lead of Jesus in their every day life.  While corporate worship, reading Scripture and praying are all important, the most critical element of our faith is the choice to act in a certain way, according to God’s will.  But if we are coerced, then there is no choice, and thus there is no faith.

So as we go through this Easter season, let us be reminded that no one can force another to believe.  Nothing we say or do can force faith on another.  It is our lives, the example of loving words and actions that may attract people to faith, never a taser.

Prayer:  O Risen Christ, you could have called down angel armies to coerce our faith; you could have engaged in splashy miracles far and wide to make us believe in you.  Instead, you invited our faith by your love and sacrifice.  Teach me by your example so that I, too, may lead others to you through loving words and deeds, and recognize that coerced faith is no faith at all.  Amen.

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A New Year’s Prayer

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William Sloan Coffin taught at Yale Divinity School while I was a high schooler up in Connecticut.  Our Congregational church had him as a speaker numerous times.  These words of his, beginning with the Leviticus’s blessing, express my hopes and prayers for you as we stand on the cusp of 2017.

“May the Lord Bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May God give you grace not to sell yourselves short,
Grace to risk something big for something good,
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
May God take your minds and think through them.
May God take your lips and speak through them.
May God take your hands and work through them.
May God take your hearts and set them on fire.”

–William Sloane Coffin

A Happy New Year to all.

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A Kitty Hawk Christmas

image“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”     John 1:5

On a December day back in 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made amazing history.  After numerous failures to fly a heavier than air machine, the Wright brothers accomplished something that no one had ever done before.  Ecstatic, they sent a telegram to their sister, Katherine, back in Ohio.  It read “we have actually flown 825 feet.  Will be home for Christmas.”

Overjoyed, Katherine ran down to the local newspaper and pushed the telegram, one of the greatest news stories of the century, into the hands of the editor.  After reading the page, the editor smiled.  “Well, well,” he said.  “How nice the boys will be home for Christmas.”

That editor had no idea what great news he had received; he failed to understand the importance of what had happened.  The scoop of the century was his, and he let it slide right through his fingers because he wasn’t looking for the right things.  He was unprepared to look for the new things that happened, the unexpected things that thrust their way into the world.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?  A virgin is visited by an angel and given startling news.  A child is born and angels proclaim his birth, a star sparkles in the night sky above Bethlehem, but few took notice.  There is no record of celebrations and festivities except among a few people on the fringes of society – shepherds who were from the lowest of society’s classes, and wise men who came from some foreign country speaking a foreign tongue.  There are no accounts of government declared holidays, no synagogue ceremonies to memorialize this great event, no news reports from the day.  Just the worship of poor, dirty shepherds and the gifts of a bunch of new age astrologers.

This Christmas, will we have eyes to see what God is doing in our world?  Are we so caught up in looking for what we expect, that we fail to notice the unexpected but wondrous activity of God among us?  It won’t be spectacular, just a baby born to a poor couple in a backwater town, just an act of kindness by a Christian toward a Muslim, just a simple thing that might not seem so extraordinary, but oh, what an amazing thing it will be.  Let’s keep our eyes open and watch for the unexpected, for the in-breaking of God, for the light that will not be overcome in spite of our blindness.

Prayer:  Holy God, in the birth of Jesus Christ you acted to bring together the everyday and the extraordinary, to merge the Word and flesh, to do the unthinkable and the unexpected.  Few had eyes to see and notice the event, but that didn’t stop you from acting to save your world.  Grant me the eyes to see your activity, and the courage to align my actions with yours so that your kingdom may be served and the light of your love strengthened in the world.  For I ask it through the babe of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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No Running Allowed

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My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”                                                                                                                 Isaiah 26:9

On Thanksgiving day I used my new non-stick roasting pan for the first time.  I had wanted as roaster for the longest time.  This year, as I got in to cooking more, I found myself dreaming about roasting pans, checking them out on line and really yearning to get one for this Thanksgiving day.  So on Tuesday, I finally broke down, went to Macy’s, and bought one they had on sale.  And on Thanksgiving Day, my turkey came our remarkably well and the clean up was a breeze with the non-stick pan.   It was worth the wait, and I was so glad I finally got what I had been yearning for.

This Sunday begins the season of Advent, a time that recognizes the human yearning and longing for communion with God.  The culture around us has already begun to celebrate Christmas with store decorations, radio music and TV shows.  Over Thanksgiving weekend, you could see ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ on TV, listen to carols on the radio, and finish your Christmas shopping on Black Friday, all before the Thanksgiving weekend was over.  We have become a culture of instant gratification, no longer willing to wait and long for, to want and yearn.  We run toward Christmas, and we want it now.

In the church, we see the effect of this as churches cut back on Advent observance and start Christmas celebrations early in December.  Church members want to sing Christmas carols on December 1st, want the church decorated before the first Sunday in Advent, and schedule pageants and cantatas earlier and earlier in the month.  But the Christian calendar is not made to hurry up the season; it is created to remind us of our yearning, our longing for something or someone who will bring us back into relationship with God once more.  It tells us that we can’t make that happen ourselves; we have to wait, to watch, to hope with yearning and longing for God to act on our behalf.

So this December, I invite you to hold off on celebrating Christmas.  Take time to yearn for a Savior, to long for a renewed relationship with God.   Let this season of waiting remind us that in Jesus Christ, God did for us what we could no do for ourselves, overcoming the separation from God created by our sin.  All our singing and decorating can’t restore our communion with God; only waiting for and receiving Jesus as our Savior can do that.  And we couldn’t make that happen any sooner; we can only wait on God with yearning and longing.

Prayer:  Holy God, help me to wait for this Christmas with a sense of yearning, to long for the celebration of Christ’s birth with a renewed appreciation of what you have done for me and for humankind in the birth of your son.  Let me rest with that yearning so that I may understand once more how far from you I am on my own, and how great was your response when it came.  Let me not rush to celebration, but instead, allow me to live in that place of need, sustained by my hope in you and always aware that I am dependent on you to love and to save.  For I ask it in the name of the one who came in the fullness of time to save your people, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Living In Two Worlds

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are   image                                expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

                                      Philippians 3:20

The election is over and Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States (or will be when the electoral college completes its work).  Some of you are jumping up and down with joy, throwing your Make America Great hats into the air.  Others are jumping up and down in anger and fear over the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Before we get carried away on an emotional high or low, let’s pause for a moment and remember who we are.  We are Christians, beloved children of God, saved by grace and called to faithfulness and love.  President Obama said we are Americans before we are Republicans or Democrats, but I say we are the people of God before we are the people of America.

As citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to live holy lives.  Holy doesn’t mean self-righteous or arrogant.  It is a biblical term used to describe something or someone set apart for God’s special purposes.  That means we are set aside, drawn out of the crowds that surround us, to make the love, mercy, justice and righteousness of God visible in the world by living out those qualities in our lives.  The Bible is clear – God calls us to care for the widow and orphan, to seek justice and live in humility, to show mercy to others, and to love – love our neighbor, love our enemy, and love ourselves.

So no matter who you voted for, remember, our first citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and the first call on our lives is to live by the laws of that kingdom.  There have been numerous reports of Trump supporters accosting or threatening people from Muslims to liberals.  If you see that happening, stand up for those under attack.  There have been protests,  mostly peaceful, across the country against the Trump election with fires set and traffic stopped.  If you see that, urge protesters to refrain from injuring others or infringing on others’ rights. 

And in the months and years ahead, let us continue to live first as God’s people.  Let us commit ourselves to remaining open, to listening and considering Trump’s proposals, supporting what we can.  But let us also speak truth to power, Republican or Democrat,  when it is wrong as we  defend the weak, encourage the underprivileged and stand for justice.  Let’s remember all who feel outcast – African American, Latino, Asian, the disabled.  But let’s also recognize the pain and isolation of the white working class who have been taken for granted for too long.  Church judicatories have focused on urban needs, not a bad thing, but too often we have done it at the expense of rural areas.  There are few resources devoted to their needs as conferences have cut budgets and staff.  Let us now reach out with the love of God to neighbors near and far, people in red hats and white dresses, for as Paul reminds us, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” there is no longer Republican or Democrat; “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Finally, let us pray for President Trump, for President Obama, for Secretary Clinton, and for all who have a role to play in leading our nation.  May God grant them wisdom, strength of character and a commitment to justice and mercy.

Prayer:  Almighty God, remind me in these days that though the mountains tremble and the sea roars, you are still God.  In victory or defeat, I owe my first allegiance not to a political candidate or party, not even to an earthly nation, but to you.  Let my life be filled with the light of your love; let your goodness and mercy shine in all I say and do.  Keep my heart open to my neighbor, whether they supported Trump or Clinton.  Help me to seek your will for our nation and empower me to stand with those whom you love in their times of trial.  May I live everyday as a citizen of your kingdom, redeemed by your son, Jesus Christ, and called to holy living.  Amen.

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Rowboats and Sailboats

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of imagehosts.                                           Zechariah 4:6b

Are you a rowboat or a sailboat?  I recently read a description of churches distinguishing between rowboat churches and sailboat churches, and I think the analogy can be applied to people as well as congregations.*

A rowboat person takes stock of the gifts and talents God has provided, rolls up their sleeves, and says, okay, it’s time for me to get to work.  They are grateful for what God has provided, offer thanks, and then step forward to add their contributions.  They assess, can I do this.  If the answer is yes, They work hard, stay focused and get the job done.

A sailboat person, however, has a different approach.  They don’t pick up the paddle and start moving the boat forward under their own power in the direction their paddling takes them.  No, they set their sails to catch the wind of God’s Spirit.  Yes, they have to put up the sails and tend the tiller, but they leave room throughout their life for God’s Spirit to be present.  With God involved, they are always attentive to the way God is setting the direction of the wind and providing for forward momentum on God’s path, because when they move with the wind, they go farther and faster.

Sometimes, we get caught up in acting like rowboats, choosing the direction, working up a sweat trying to get where we want to go.  We listen for God’s call, and then decide if we’re equipped to do that.  If we decide to move forward, we’re grateful for the boat and our strength, give thanks to the Lord, and then forget about God as we start rowing.  Prayer becomes the bookends of our lives – maybe a short morning prayer or devotion, then a day of hard work followed by a short prayer at bedtime.  God set a direction, we waved goodbye, and headed out from port.

But God wants more for us.  God’s desire is to be in communion with us, to share the load in all we do, to fill our sails and help us set a direction by which we can go farther.  To become a sailboat, however, we have to be attentive to the wind throughout our journey, sensitive to shifts in the wind, looking for the new things God is doing, and always seeking to be faithful.  Prayer is no longer reciting words – it is seeking God and resting in God’s presence, doing our part but always aware of God’s leading, trusting the Lord.

Who will you be today?  A rowboat, thanking God and then intent on getting through the day by yourself?  Or a sailboat, tacking as needed to keep God’s Spirit filling your life and sending you forward?

Prayer:  Spirit of God, fill my life today.  Keep me always running before the wind, depending on you for direction and looking to stay focused on your presence every moment of my day.  Remind me again and again that apart from you, my accomplishments are empty.  With your power in my life, however, I can be an on-going  witness for the love and grace of God.  This I ask through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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*The analogy comes from Joan S. Gray’s book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, Geneva Press, 2009.

 

Imitate Me!

“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. ”                                                                      1 Corinthians 4:16

Before I went into ministry, I worked in the corporate world.  I rode the train into Philadelphia every morning. This was a time when both men and women wore business suits every day.  I had suits with skirts and suits with pants.  And many of the men wore 3 piece suits, mostly with however, white or tan shirts.  These were the uniforms of the day.

One year, we hired a new senior executive from outside the company.  From the very beginning, he set a new style.  He wore pink shirts, and frequently sported a bow tie.  Almost every day, while others wore ordinary white or neutral business shirts, he wore a pink shirt and bow tie with his suit.  And despite his colorful wardrobe, he also began to move up in the company, receiving promotions and gaining power and status.  It wasn’t long before pink shirts started showing up on junior executives in his own and other departments.  They wanted to be like him!

Imitation, it has been said, is the purest form of flattery.  It’s also a natural reaction to seeing another’s success.  When basketball stars wear a particular brand of shoe, there are many who go out and buy that same shoe, hoping to be like LeBron James or Stephan Curry.  When a movie star endorses a beauty product saying she uses it, women will flock to the store to buy the same product.  And unfortunately, when a powerful public figure spews hate and discrimination, there are some in our society who will rush to imitate.

Just this summer, the Wellesley, Mass. school system reported that racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic online posts had been made by Wellesley High School students.  This is in an affluent, upscale suburb of Boston, and this kind of language had never been an issue there before.  Over the last year, we have heard too many racist comments and slurs against people groups, words that were likely imitated by these youth.  Is this what we want our culture to become?

The Apostle Paul says “Imitate me!”  And in 1 Corinthians, he expands that: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ!”  We don’t imitate Paul because we want to be like Paul; we imitate him because we want to be like Christ.  God sent us not a book of instruction, but a person, the Son, to show us how to live.  He is to be the one we imitate.

Paul makes it clear in Philippians what that kind of life looks like.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Let these attitudes fill your heart and direct your life.  Let us keep our focus on the God of Jesus Christ who calls us to live holy lives of love, grace and truth..

Prayer:  Heavenly master, help me to keep my eyes on you and your son, Jesus Christ.  Let my life reflect your love.  Let my heart be filled with your goodness.  Let those who look at me see a child of your kingdom who strives each day to be worthy of the grace you have given me.  For I ask it in Christ’s holy name.  Amen.   

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All Right or All Wrong?

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.                              image

                                 Romans 3:23

I wasn’t really aware of Gold Star families until the controversy between Donald Trump and the Khan family.  Hearing several of the families discuss the loss of loved ones in active duty, I gained an appreciation for the sacrifice these families gave tad to make for our nation.  So earlier this week, when I found myself behind a car with a license plate indicating they were a Gold Star family, I was immediately predisposed to feel good about them.  That lasted about three minutes!

We were exiting Route 202 and approaching the traffic light where the ramp met the main road.  I watched as the Gold Star family car slowed as the light changed to yellow and then to red.  With his left turn blinker on, the driver had ample time to stop, but after slowing briefly, he seemed to change his mind.  Stepping on the gas, he blew through the red light, careening around the corner as the cars on the main road began to move.

I was reminded that none of us is perfect.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, the line between good and evil runs through the center of the human heart.  Most of us are a combination of the two.  We are honorable in some areas, and scoundrels in others.  Even Hillary and Donald have good points and bad ones.

Seeing people in terms of absolutes is one way to demonize a person, to steal their humanity away.  It is important not to idealize people as if they had no faults, nor to condemn them as if they had no value as persons.  We are all a mixture of self-interest and self-sacrifice, a melange of greed and generosity.  Too much of our contemporary debate ignores that.  We paint people in monochrome – all good or all bad – whether in political debate or ecclesiastical debate.  When we demonize or idealize people, we structure disagreements in ways that preclude any reasonable discussion.  After all, if they are evil, so is every idea they have and I can dismiss everything they say. 

When we are tempted to dismiss someone’s words, we need to stop and ask ourselves, have I given thought to this idea, or am I dismissing it because of who it came from?  And when we find ourselves painting someone with that monochromatic paintbrush, we can stop and take stock of both the good and the bad they represent.  Most of all, we can pray for those with whom we disagree, asking God’s blessing for them.  In that way, we can move ourselves a little more to the good side of the line through our own heart.

Prayer:  Gracious Lord, through Jesus Christ you came to a people mired in sin and affirmed the  good within us.  Help me to see others in that same way – to recognize the sinfulness and evil while still affirming the good and righteous.  Keep me from reducing people to two dimensional figures who exist only in my imagination.  Show me once more how to love even the unlovely, and to challenge those I admire.  Most of all, remind me that I am a mixture of admirable traits and dishonorable qualities.   Forgive my failures to live in imitation of Christ.  Empower me anew to live in response to your call to my better self.  Amen.

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This Is A Bible.

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I will open my mouth and tell a story.
        I will speak about things that were hidden. 
They happened a long time ago.
        We have heard about them and we know them.
                                                    Psalm 78:2-3a
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This is my favorite time of year.  No, not the end of summer or the start of the school year. No, this is the beginning of football season.  I love football, and since I was a child, I have loved the Green Bay Packers.  Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, they were the men I dreamed of on Sunday night after the game.  But the best guy of all was Vince Lombardi, coach of the Packers.


Lombardi had arrived as the Packers’ coach in early 1959.     The team  hadn’t had a winning season since 1947, and the year before Lombardi’s arrival their record was one win, ten losses and one tie.  That summer of 1959, when the Packers reported for training camp, Lombardi challenged his players in every way possible.  He led practices – inspiring, training, motivating the players. But one day, in the middle of a practice, Lombardi got so frustrated with what was going on with the players that he blew his whistle.  “Everybody stop and gather around,” he said. Then he knelt down, picked up the pigskin, and said, “Let’s start at the beginning. Gentlemen, this is a football. These are the yard markers. I’m the coach. You are the players.” He went on, in the most elementary way, to explain the basics of football.

After that year, he began every subsequent season with the same speech, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”  He never took for granted that his players knew the basics.  In fact, many of them said that the genius of his coaching was his ability to break down the game into its simplest elements and teach them again and again.  By focusing on the basics, by repeating them over and over again, Lombardi instilled them into his players so that doing the basics became second nature.  They were never too experienced to go back to the basics and review them again.

In the kingdom of God, we, too, need to revisit periodically the basic questions of our faith. Why do I need Jesus Christ?  How do I live out my commitment to God in my daily life?  Why do I bother to get up every Sunday morning to go to church?  What difference does church make in my life?  The answers you gave ten years ago or five years ago or even last year may no longer accurately reflect your faith understanding.  The world around us changes; our lives change; we change.  And as we change, our relationship to God changes and adapts to the current circumstances in our life.  So we must regularly reexamine ourselves, our relationship with God and how we are living out our faith.

As American Christians move toward the start of a new program year, with a new pastor and new classes for all ages,  consider how you might revisit the basic elements of your faith.  Consider Sunday School classes, bible studies or other ways of intentionally returning to the foundations on which your faith is built.  Engage in dialogue with fellow Christians to recall the basics and how they figure in your life today.  And consider how your congregation is being called to be church in the world today.

Prayer:  Gracious God, remind me always of the basics of my faith in you.  Let me never lose sight of the cross of Christ or your abiding love for me.  May that foundation strengthen my faith and lead me into the world to serve you and your people.  For I ask it in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.
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Words That Hurt, Words That Heal

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“People have tamed all kinds of wild animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures. And they still tame them. But no one can tame the tongue. It is an evil thing that never rests. It is full of deadly poison.'”
                                                    James 3:7-8


“Do not be a false witness against your neighbor.”
                                           Exodus 20:16
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This week, we were all stunned to hear the escapades of a group of American swimmers in Rio.  Ryan Lochte and several others had gone to a party, had too much to drink, and then headed back to the Olympic Village for the night.  Along the way they stopped at a gas station to use the men’s room, and it appears they caused some serious damage to the property. They then made their way back to the village by taxi and headed to bed.  At some point the next day, Lochte called his mother and told her that he and the group had been robbed by a policeman or someone posing as a policeman.  Once the story escaped his lips, Lochte watched as his mother notified the media, the press sensed a big story, and the IOC became involved.  Lochte was on the Today Show, even claiming the robber had pressed a gun against his forehead.
A few nights later with Lochte already back in the USA, the other swimmers were detained, two of them removed from their flight home, to answer questions that had arisen about their story.  The Rio police had conducted an investigation and, at least for the moment, it appears the swimmers’ story may have been fabricated by the foursome.  An entire country shamed by what now appear to be false allegations of robbery and corruption.
Maybe Lochte and his teammates didn’t intend to report the issue, maybe he was just rambling on the phone to his mom while suffering from a hangover from the previous night’s partying.  Whatever the reason, once the words of the robbery tale were spoken aloud, the story grew and grew.  What began in a phone call home to mom became an international incident that has occupied police and diplomats in Brazil and in the USA.
James understood that words, while they can be helpful and healing, can also be hurtful and cause injury.  Like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube, once our words have come out, there’s no way to pack them back in again.  Lochte and his teammates bore false witness, lying about what happened to them in a way that could have led to legal problems for others.  The investigation is ongoing at the moment, but even the TV commentators are now siding with the Rio police’s version of events, and denying the credibility of Lochte’s story.   There are calls for Lochte to be permanently banned from international swimming meets.  What a sad end to an awesome athletic career, all because of words that should never have been spoken.
The story reminds us that our words are more than squiggles on a page or sounds in our ears.  Words have power; they can bless or harm, build up or destroy.  When we are tempted to lash out verbally, to respond to insult with insult, we need to stop, count to ten, and ask ourselves, is this truly how God wants us to relate to others?  Of course, we all fail at times and speak harmful words, but the goal is to challenge ourselves to pause, to reflect, to remember God’s amazing patience with us, and to respond as Christ would respond, even if we have to say, “I can’t respond right now, I’m too angry.  I’ll answer you in a few minutes.”
God invites us to treat everyone as our sister or brother, to see the Christ in each person we encounter. If we imagine that every word we say is addressed to Jesus Christ, perhaps we can tame that tongue a little bit more and work toward becoming more like him who is the head, the Son of God.
Prayer:  Loving God, you have so many reasons to speak harshly to me, to condemn me for my sin and for the ways my tongue slices like a blade instead of building up.  Forgive me for the times I lose control and speak in ways that hurt.  Help me this day to speak words that will encourage, support and show my love for my neighbor.  Remind me that my words are a reflection of the depth of my faith, so let my faith grow deeper and wider until all I say and do brings glory to you and your son, Jesus.  Amen.
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