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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Lording It Over Them

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“But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.'”

                                                                                                      Luke 22:25-6

“Na-na-na-nah-nah!”  The old schoolyard taunt has been echoing in my ears this week, as the new US administrtion produced a record number of first week executive orders.  A friend of mine from the Order of St. Luke, a religious organization to which I belong, emailed me this week.  He is from Canada, and he asked with some degree of disbelief if this was all legal.  “Can the US president make laws without going through Congress?” he asked.

TV commentators from the pro-Trump side reminded listeners that these were all things Trump said during the campaign that he would do if elected.  And now he has been elected, and he is following through on camapaign promises.  But I have to admit, the speed with which he is turning out executive orders – a new record for the number of orders signed during the first week, almost feels like the schoolyard taunt.  “Na-na, look what I can do!”  He’s got the power and he’s gonna use it!

The Gospel lesson from Luke reminds us that the purpose of power is not to “lord it over” others, but to serve them.  Thomas R. Hawkins, a contemporary writer on Christian leadership, distinguishes between “power over” and “power with.”  Jesus certainly exercised power, but it was not power over; for him, power was exercised with and for, not over.  He mentored and taught his disciples, not lording it over them, not demanding.  He chose humility over pride and self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.

In the Gospel of John, Pilate is considering whether or not to order Jesus’ crucifixion.  He warns Jesus that he, Pilate, has power over Jesus.  But Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”  (John 19:11)  That warning reaches much farther than ancient Palestine. It suggests that power, political or otherwise, is not an excuse acceptable to God for actions that contradict God’s mission.  Time and agian the Bible tells us what is expected of us: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8); to witness by our lives to Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8); to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and care for the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46).  The Bible is adamant in its call for leaders to exercise justice with mercy, to seek righteousness with compassion, and to care for the least.  This is the purpose of power – to do God’s work of love and justice, to work with God for the good of the people.  In both Old and New Testaments, God calls for leaders who will care for the people – all of the people, not just those who are well off or fromthe right party or belief set.

As we move forward with a new administration, let us offer our prayers for our nation and its leaders, but let’s also demand accountability, and direct our leaders to exercise power with not power over, power that supports not power that undermines, and power that seeks to work for the good of all the people.

Prayer:  Almighty God, from whom comes all power and authority, I pray today that you will work in the hearts of leaders everywhere to teach them to use their power in ways that build up, not tear down.  May they exercise power for the good of all the people they govern, not just the few, not just those who agree with them.  Help leaders to care for the sick, to lift up the downtrodden, to bind up wounds caused by intemperate campaign language.  Let those who hold power use it to serve and to support as Christ taught his followers to use the power you granted them.  All for the sake of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Scylla and Charybdis

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“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”                                                                     Matthew 11:18-19

 

My little dog is afraid of storm sewers.  We go out for a walk every morning, and when we get near a storm sewer, he sits down in the street and looks up at me, as if to say, ‘How are we getting around this one?’.  If I’m lucky, he’ll let me walk him out to the middle of the street (if no cars are coming) to pass by the storm sewer and then return to the side of the road.  Sometimes, there is only a sewer on one side of the street. But often there are sewers across from each other.  When we come to them, the dog simply will not go any further; I have to pick him up and carry him past the storm sewers before he’ll proceed.  Like Odysseus sailing past Scylla and Charybdis on his way home from the Trojan War, dangerous sea monsters who lured sailors  from the left and the right, my puppy and I navigate the way between dangers to the left and the right!

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus reminds us that it is very easy to fall into the same trap.  We may condemn something only to sail so far in the other direction that we are ensnared in an equally dangerous position.  Whether it is condemning Jesus or John, criticizing a political figure, starting a diet or anything else, there is always the possibility that by swinging too far one way or the other, we may end up in danger.  Years ago I watched a friend who had struggled with her weight for years go on a diet.  She lost weight, and then she lost more, until she began to look like a walking cadaver.  Overeating wasn’t good for her, but neither was anorexia.

Today we inaugurated a new president.  Some love him, some claim to hate him.  But whatever your opinion, let’s be careful not to swing so far to extremes that we end up losing our humanity.  All of us have good and bad.  Let’s applaud the good and challenge the bad.  We will probably disagree on what is good or bad, but we need to avoid the extremes between which we sail.  We should never idolize a political figure as if they could save us – only Jesus can do that.  And we should never demonize a person, forgetting that Christ died for them and they, too, bear the image of God.  Let’s sail carefully between idolatry and demonization and find our way safely through the coming years.

Prayer:  Almighty and everlasting God, who alone has the power to save us, and whose love is what gives value to our lives, help me this day to see this world as you do.  Let me stand for justice, but not by becoming unjust myself.  Let me call for love, but not with hate towards anothern my heart.  May I walk between righteousness and mercy in ways that reflect your grace.  When I am tempted to condemn, remind me of my own sin and show me the path that veers neither to the right nor the left, but follows your way of salvation.  This I pray through Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

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The Real Me

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“You have searched me Lord, and you know me.”        Psalm 139:1

This week I had an adventure in identity theft.  Tuesday night my phone stopped working.  Every number I dialed resulted in a message telling me I could complete my call with a credit card!  When I got home, my husband and I checked out the Verizon outage map, and sure enough, there was a big outage marked on the east coast.  My husband’s phone did work, but we thought it might be due to his having a newer phone.  Neither of our kids’ phones worked; they got the same message I did.

The next morning my phone was still out, so I went online to contact customer service.  ImGine my surprise to discover that according to Verizon I had walked into an Apple Store in Staten  Island and purchased three new iPhones as upgrades on my account!  My son, my daughter and I were all eligible for upgrades, and someone had used that to get new phones and have our phone service transferred to those phones!

We were able to restore our service and turn off the new phones, but I was left wondering how someone had impersonated me so successfully.  Surely, the store would have asked for a driver’s license, a password, some unique identifier?  Didn’t they know it wasn’t me?  Couldn’t they tell?

Psalm 139 reminds us that God knows each of us individually and intimately.  God knows our inner frame (verse 15), God knows our thoughts before we articulate them (verses 2-4).  There is no place where we can hide from God, for God knows us completely.  No way would God allow someone else to present the self as me; God knows me too well to fall for any imitation or impersonation.

On the one hand, that can be frightening.  In human relationships we sometimes put on a front in order to be liked.  But the good news is that God loves us for who u iquely are.  Because God’s love is faithful and true, we don’t need to hide behind a mask.  We don’t need to expend energy trying to put up a false front.  God accepts us and loved us just as we are.  Oh, God may want to see us grow and improve to become more fully who we were intended to be, but God’s love is sure.   O passwords needed, no photo ID required.  Just our presence before the Lord in prayer, worship and service.

Prayer:  Loving God, how wonderful it is for me to know your love.  Even when I am feeling unlovable and unworthy, I can still count on your loving presence in my life.  Help me today to feel the warm embrace of your love, and to live my life in an attempt to be worthy of that gracious love.  For I ask it through Christ, my Lord.  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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Want to Live Forever?

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have imageseen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[a] full of grace and truth.”                        John 1:14

“WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?” the headline read. Sounded intriguing. Reading on, I discovered it was a story about a new start up company, eterni.me, that storsd your memories for future generations. Someday they hope to download brains directly into a computer, but for the time being you just write out or record what you want stored, and they’ll maintain it for eternity. That’s not exactly what I think of when someone asks, “Want to live forever?”

But that got me thinking. Christmas is God’s response to that question. God realized that the weight of our sin and the inclination of the human heart was such that we could never get back to a full relationship with a God all on our own. We were facing the consequences of our sin. We couldn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get back with the program to have everything right with God; the gates to eternity were closed to us. The only way to change the trajectory of human life was if God intervened; we needed a Savior. And so, in an unimaginable action, God, the divine, became human; the Word became flesh and Jesus was born. The one to whom all creation bowed gave up his standing to become a frail human being who would be helpless as an infant, experience pain and suffering, and even die in a shameful and agonizing death. God showed a willingness to do the unthinkable, to do whatever was necessary, to restore us to the circle of God’s kingdom and the possibility of eternal life.

Augustine rightly observed that without Christmas there could be no Easter. A corollary to that is that with Christmas, God proved willing to go to any length, from birth in a stable to death on a cross, to save God’s people. So on Christmas Eve as we go to the manger to rejoice at the birth of a baby, let’s also remember the incredible commitment of God. In the Lord’s willingness to allow the perfect to become imperfect, the eternal to become mortal, events were set in motion that would allow imperfect and mortal humans to receive the gift of eternal life. Christ came low so that we might be raised up and live forever. That’s a whole lot better than storing memories on a computer.

Prayer: O child of Bethlehem, in your willingness to leave your eternal home, you opened the door to my eternal home. In your willingness to die you enabled me to live forever. The Lord of creation became a helpless baby dependent on others. May I recognize even in Christmas the incredible sacrifice you made, and offer my worship and adoration to the one who came to save me. Amen,

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The Lights of Christmas

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“By the tender mercy of our God,                          
the dawn from on high will break upon us,

 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”                                                       Luke 1:78-79

 

We just put up our Christmas decorations, including the lights for the front of the house.  We have three kinds of lights illuminating the house.  First, we wrapped the porch columns with strings of colored lights.  They look great, but they only go on when you turn on the switch inside the house.  If no one is home to turn them on, they stay dark.  Second, we put a wreath with twinkling lights at the peak of the front porch.  The wreath is on a timer that turns on for 6 hours every 24 hours, so we set it to come on at 5 pm and go off at 11.  Finally, we put battery operated candles in the front windows.  The candles have electric eyes and turn on automatically when it gets dark, either at night or if it gets dark due to a storm.  Three different kinds of lights that give light in different ways.

It seems to me that there were three different ways for God to provide light to the world.  In the Old Testament we saw God raising up judges when there was specific need among the Israelites.  That’s kind of like the light on our porch pillars.  God had to operate the switch to turn on the light, to raise up the leader at the right time.  It worked for a while, but as Scripture tells us, pretty soon people did whatever they wanted to do, and faith became scarce.

Then came the era of kings.  God’s intent may have been to provide on-going light to the people, but instead it seemed that true leadership appeared only intermittently, when there was great need.  Like the lights on our wreath, leadership came and went, with years of corruption in between, and only the occasional David or Hezekiah.  

Finally, God sent a new kind of light to the people of the world – a light that would shine whenever and wherever there was darkness.  Like the candles in my windows, this light didn’t need to be turned on and wasn’t on for a 6 hours then off for 18.  This light would shine no matter what the time, no matter what prompted the darkness.  This was the light that would guide our feet from this world to the next – the light of Jesus Christ.

So as you look at the battle of the Christmas lights this season, take time to give thanks to God for the greatest light of all, Jesus Christ, who came to shine a light on our way and to illuminate the darkest corners of our world.  When you find yourself sitting in the dark, look for the light of Christ – it will be on wherever there is darkness to bring the light of God’s love, hope, peace, and joy.

Prayer:  Light of the world, you have come in Jesus Christ to to offer love and hope to those who live in darkness.  Shine brightly in my life so that I may be guided in the ways that lead to your peace and wholeness.  Shine so brightly that your light shines through me that I may contribute to your work of lighting the world.  Let me reflect your light, bringing love and hope to those who live in darkness.  Today, Lord, I especially lift to you the people of Aleppo and Syria, asking that you would change hearts so that the young, the infirm and the innocent may be saved.  Light of the world, shine brightly in that part of your kingdom today.  Amen.     

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