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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Snow!

I took my dog outside this morning in the first snow of the season.  It wasn’t very deep, barely two inches, but it covered the  grass and made everything look beautiful and fresh.  Yet I quickly learned that looks can be deceiving.

At first, Wesley romped with delight.  He jumped into the snow and like a rabbit or kangaroo, leaped straight up again.  He dug his little nose into the snow and tried eating it.  He seemed to be having a wonderful time, and I thought I would write this blog about the wonder of God’s creation.  But then, he began to slow down, and a little ways further, he started to whimper.  He picked up one leg and limped along on three legs, and then began to shiver all over.  I realized his fun romp in the snow had soaked through his toy poodle coat and left him freezing.  What had started out as great fun was now not only not fun, it was threatening to him as the cold seeped in.

I picked Wesley up and we walked home together, with him trembling in my arms the whole way.  When I tried putting him down, he held up his one leg and hobbled on the other three, so I ended up carrying him all the way home.  Once there, I wrapped him in a thick towel and rubbed him down, holding each paw in a warm grasp until he jumped out of my lap happy to be warm and dry.

It occurred to me that all too often sin enters our life in the same way.  When it first appears, it may look like lots of fun.  I’m reminded of the song from The Fantasticks where the young man is lured away by bright lights that are “shining brightly.”  But the narrator reminds us, “Those lights not only glitter but once there, they burn.”  One silly little joke that targets a racial group, one little drink for an alcoholic, one little lie to a friend so that we can go somewhere without them, one rearranging the numbers at work just this once so the boss won’t be mad – they can feel good or make our life seem easier, but the truth is that “once there, they burn.”  One can turn into many or the web of deceit grow impossibly complex.  Our life can end up spinning out of control leaving us hobbling along.

So as you look out at the snow covered ground today, remember that what seems beautiful and fun can also prove threatening and harmful.  God has shown us the way, not to riches and prestige, but to a life that is truly good and abundant.

Prayer:  Loving God, from the beginning of creation you laid out for humanity how we could live and enjoy the fullness of your presence and the blessings of your love.  Sometimes we see other ways of living and think they look better.  Help me, Lord, to trust in you, to follow the path you have laid out before me.  Let me know the warmth of your love and the joy of your abundant life today and every day.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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Half A Billion Betrayals

“He stands up for widows and for children whose fathers have died.  He loves outsiders living among you. He gives them food and clothes.”                                                                                             Deuteronomy 10:18

In January, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti and devastated Port au Prince.  Between 100,000 and 150,000 people were estimated killed (Haitian government estimates approached 250,000), and an estimated 3 million people were affected.  Over a quarter million homes were destroyed.  In the aftermath of the earthquake, the international community and international aid organizations pledged enormous support.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to help the devastated nation.

Reports by the Washington Post, CNN and others show that the promised aid was never fully given.  Six months after the quake, 98% of the rubble was still in the streets, with thousands of bodies rotting within the rubble.  Initial aid took the form of food, water and tarps to provide some form of shelter, but promises of new housing failed to materialize. The Miami Herald said some good work was being done, but much of the money that was spent was misdirected:  “Millions were spent on ad campaigns telling people to wash their hands. Telling them to wash their hands when there’s no water or soap is a slap in the face.” (Goldberg, Eleanor (11 January 2012). “Haiti Earthquake Recovery: Where Did All The Money Go? (INFOGRAPHIC)”. Huffington Post.)

In 2015, NPR and ProPublica investigated the disappearance of $500 million donated to the American Red Cross for Haitian relief, “one of the most successful fundraisers ever”. The  American Red Cross claimed that 130,000 homes had been built, but the investigation discovered that only six had been built. Investigators reviewed “hundreds” of pages of internal documents and interviewed former and current staff members.  They investigated the organization’s claim that 4.5 million Haitians had been helped “back on their feet.” The claim was vigorously disputed by Joel Boutroue, a Haitian government advisor, who stated that this number would cover “100 percent of the urban area” in every city in Haiti. A number of other claims did not hold up under investigation, and it was found that the project was riddled with “multiple staffing changes”, bureaucratic delays and a language barrier as many of the Red Cross officials did not speak French or Creole.   (Wikipedia, 2010 Haiti Earthquake, accessed 10-7-160

Yesterday, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti straight on.  Initial estimates are that at least 300 were killed in the storm, but that number could rise.  The images of storm-struck Haiti raised in my mind questions about our response to the earlier disaster.  If we had been less concerned with getting credit, with donors getting to designate the direction of their dollars, with appearances and organizational greed, and been more concerned with actually helping people, might some of those deaths have been avoided?  If we had built the houses that were promised, if we had mounted campaigns to rebuild with the same dedication we did on our own Louisiana- Mississippi coast, could we have prevented the loss of so many lives?  Do we bear some responsibility for the loss of life in Haiti?

We serve a God who cares for the widow and the orphan, for the poor and dispossessed.  And that God calls us to reach out in compassion to extend God’s love without looking for publicity, without seeking credit, but looking only to embody the love of God for God’s people.  In Isaiah 43, God promises that “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…”  God’s will is that these children of God not suffer in hurricanes and floods.  You and I have been called to be the instruments of that promise, to care for God’s children and ensure that love triumphs over greed and selfishness.  Yes, let’s pray for the people in the path of Hurricane Matthew, but let’s do more than that.  Let’s make a real difference in their lives so the next time, we aren’t wondering why the situation is still so bad.

Prayer:  O God, our refuge in the storms of life, you have created your church to be a city on a hill, a light on a lampstand.  Help us to be that shining light, that promise of abundant life to a struggling world.  Let us set aside every selfish thought and self-centered desire, and instead focus on the needs of the world, both near and far. Let our hearts be moved to respond imagewith love and care.  For the sake of your son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Amen.

Power vs License

 

image“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7

Years ago our family used to drive by a house in Wayne that we called “Nouveau Riche on Chelsea.”  It was a huge house, with its rear facing the road we drove on.  The house had originally been just a really big house.  But at some point a new owner took over, and decorated the back yard.  There was a pool, a colonnade, and more statues than I could count.  It looked like someone had said, “I want to show how much money I have so buy one of everything!”  It was incredibly ostentatious, and our family made it a fame to see who could call out “Nouveau Riche on Chelsea!” first as we drove by.

Money and power – two things that as a child I thought, if you got it, you flaunt it!  Got money?  Then let the world know!  Got power?  Then show it off!  It seemed to me as a child that someone who had money or power could do whatever they wanted, and if they didn’t do what they wanted, then they obviously didn’t really have enough money or power.  After all, wasn’t the point  to be able to do whatever you wanted to do?

Then I grew up.  As a parent, there were things I wanted to do, things I had the power and the money to do,  but I didn’t do them because I voluntarily limited myself for some reason.  Maybe I didn’t do something because it would hurt someone I cared about; perhaps I restrained myself because I wanted something else even more.  And sometimes, I held back because I had no need to show off money or power.  Of course, I didn’t have the kind of exorbitant money or power that the owner of that house must have had, but I certainly had enough to do what I wanted.  But I restrained myself.

Paul reminds us that a spirit of power does not mean doing whatever we please.  God’s gift of power comes most clearly when it also comes with a spirit of self-discipline.  Like the person who could sit at home clipping coupons and never work (not me!), like the corporate CEO who could tell people to jump and their only response would be “How high?”, some people have power and money but don’t feel a need to show it off to the world, but are content to balance power and money with a spirit of self-discipline.

It occurred to me that many people who feel the need to blatantly exercise power or spend money are people who are trying to convince themselves of their own worth.  They base their sense of self on how others see them.  If others cower in the face of their power, they know they are powerful.  If others are impressed by their spending, they feel rich.  I had a babysitter for my kids years ago who always felt it was important to tell me how much her mother had paid for every outfit she wore.  I got tired of her monologue pretty quick – she didn’t last long as our babysitter.

As Christians, our worth doesn’t depend on how others see us; our worth comes from God. God loves us, therefore we are worthwhile.  Not the other way around – we are worthwhile therefore God loves us. No, we derive our sense of worth from the love that God gives us, from our awareness that we are frail, sinful humans who are loved anyway by the author of creation.  And that gives us the ability to exercise power with self-discipline.  We don’t have to show off our money; we don’t have to make people jump in order to know we are worthwhile.  We know it because we know the Lord.  And that knowledge gives us both power and self-discipline.

Prayer:  Your love, O God, transforms me from sinful a human being to a beloved child of the king.  Fill me with the power of your presence; let me exercise that power with self-discipline and love, as your son, Jesus, did.  Amen.