Broken Hearts at Christmas

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“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.'”
                                                                                         Matthew 2:16-18
Wednesday night many of us were glued to our television sets watching events unfold in San Bernadino, California.  We learned to our horror that multiple shooters had opened fire in a reception hall hosting a holiday party. We followed the developments as police chased a dark SUV and as shots were fired killing the two occupants of the car.  We watched as police went door to door looking for other assailants, and as commentators spoke by phone to terrified residents barricaded in their homes.
This morning we still have many questions – was this a terror act, a disgruntled employee, or some combination of the two? Why did the perpetrators leave the site of the initial shooting after a relatively short shooting spree, and why didn’t they leave the area to escape police?  We may never know the answers to all of our questions, but all of us should feel our hearts breaking for the families of those who were killed, for those who were injured, and for the bereft family of the couple who appear to have carried out this shooting.
On Thursday morning, the New York Daily News ran a large headline reading, “God Isn’t Fixing This!”  Earlier our president made a statement we all need to hear, regardless of your stance on his policies, when he pointed out that saying that our prayers and thoughts are with people is meaningless if we don’t do anything to help. I don’t know what the answers are to these horrifying mass shootings, but it is time that we do more than simply wring our hands and say isn’t that terrible.  It is time to do more than pray for the victims and think about the injured.  It is time for us as a nation rise up and tell politicians and the NRA that we won’t stand any longer for their platitudes.  The majority of NRA members favor tighter gun controls, but the NRA hierarchy won’t give an inch, sure that it will result in a slippery slope.  Politicians who are funded by significant NRA donations dare not vote for gun control.  We cannot, however, as people of faith, simply stand by and let this ‘do nothing’ response continue as it has after Sandy Hook, after Columbine, after Virginia Tech and on and on.
We may not be able to prevent every gun death, but surely there are things we can do that will decrease the number who die by gun violence.  Whether mandatory background checks or refusal of guns to people on terror watch lists which Congress refused to pass this week, whether reducing the size of legal gun clips or creating smart guns that are sensitive to fingerprints, there are options that will lead to fewer gun deaths, including the 2/3 of gun deaths that are suicides.
We often forget that the Scripture cited above is one of the readings for the Sunday after Christmas.  When we think of the holiday, we think of holly jolly Christmas, tinsel and presents, cookies and egg nog.  But at the heart of Christmas is the broken heart of God, a heart that ached on Wednesday night.  Christmas is the affirmation that Emmanuel has come, God With Us, in Jesus Christ.  Through him, God has experienced not only the joys of human life, but also the pains and sadness.  And yet, even amidst the incredible pain of the death of Jesus, God remained faithful and acted to save.
As we approach this Christmas, let’s give thanks for a God who cared enough to be with us fully, to live our human life, but who calls us to be more – to act for those who cannot act for themselves, to imitate the gracious action of the divine creator, and to be about the work of God today, not just praying empty words but acting as the instruments of God’s saving love..
Prayer: O God, our joyful approach to the celebration of Christ’s birth was jarred by the tragic news of this mass shooting.  I wonder how such sadness could enter into the season of light.  And yet I know, Lord, it was precisely to this world of darkness that Jesus came to bring hope and love. Let the light of Christ shine in me, through my actions and my words, as I work to bring hope and love into the darkness in your name.  Amen.
 
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Rest in the Lord

“The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
                                                                imagePsalm 116:6-7
Our family has a new member – Wesley, a 9 week old toy poodle.  We are all worn out from days of chasing around this little ball of fur, and short nights punctuated by the need to walk a dog with a tiny bladder.  It’s like having a new baby in the house.  But my heart melts every time I hold this little handful of energy and fur.
Wes, as we call him, is full of energy when he wakes up.  He chases after our feet, jumps up on legs like springs, and keeps us on our toes running after him.  He’ll go non-stop like an Energizer Bunny for two hours, and then let out a yawn, curl up and fall asleep on my lap.  He lets go of all effort, and rests on me with complete trust that he will be safe.  His body limp, his eyes closed, Wes rests on me with utter contentment, confident that I will be there to care for him while he is asleep, and still there when he wakes up to feed him, to play with him, and to love him.
God invites us to rest in the Lord with the same trust and confidence in the Lord’s love and care.  We work hard at jobs, at caring for family and loved ones, at school.  From time to time, we need to let go of all of our effort and rest in the Lord, recognizing that the world will go on without us and life continue without our help.  We can let go of all our work and effort, and trust in the Lord to keep things together while we sleep or rest from our labor, and to be there to love us when we resume our activity.  That is the meaning of sabbath, the ability to relinquish control in the recognition that life doesn’t depend on us.  We don’t carry the world on our shoulders. God is in control, and we can rest in God’s care just as innocently as Wesley rests on my lap after two hours of crazy activity.
So work hard and play hard, and then rest in the everlasting arms of God’s love to be renewed, revived and restored by the one who has dealt bountifully with us.
Prayer:  Eternal God, when I was just a thought in your mind, you created all that is, and even now your power controls all of creation.  Your power is exceeded only by your love, the quality that most defines your being.  Help me to rest in you, to let go of all my strivings and trust in your power and love.   Renew my soul and restore my spirit so that I may continue to work for the glory of your kingdom, trusting in you and doing my part to achieve your will.  Amen.
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Pope Envy and Radical Discipleship

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“Whoever is not against us is for us.
                    Mark 9:40
Did you watch the Pope yesterday?  I sat in front of the TV yesterday morning, hunched forward, listening and struggling a bit with his accent, but fascinated by his remarks.  Later in the day I saw a headline, “Pope Envy,” and I understood the sentiment expressed.  Oh, I have no intention of becoming a Catholic, but I admit I admire Pope Francis.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but he calls us to live a radical discipleship that I believe is closer to what Jesus intended than the faith many institutional churches promote.
The Christian life is not one that fits easily with the mores of society.  It wasn’t in 30 AD when Jesus proclaimed the gospel, and it isn’t any easier today.  The Bible calls us to care for the least, to protect the widow and orphan, to value all life and care for the creation, to love even the Samaritans among us, and to open our gates wide in welcome of the stranger as God has welcomed us into God’s kingdom.  Those are all challenging ideas.
I remember years ago reading about one southern governor, a devout Christian and a Republican in a Republican state, who saw a poll showing that his state was near the bottom in test scores for school children.  He proposed a small tax increase in order to pay for improvements to the educational system, citing his Christian faith as the motivation for helping children.  He was attacked for raising taxes, and voted out of office at the next opportunity.  The people of his state were overwhelmingly Christian, but only as long as there were no tax increases!
Jesus’ words were radical, and following the gospel way of life means radical change.  I know we can’t turn our lives upside down in one instant, but I challenge you to consider one way you might take a step forward in living that radical gospel of Jesus’.  Jesus did not die on a cross so we could enjoy prosperity; he did not suffer so that we could ignore the needs of the rest of our world.  Jesus gave himself for us and calls us to go and do likewise – to give our time, our talents, and, yes, our treasure, to be the living Body of Christ, continuing the work of Jesus caring for God’s people and creation, offering hope and love.
 
Prayer:   Lord Jesus, you have proclaimed a radical gospel, a call to live my life in a different way from the rest of the world around me.  But I don’t want to be different, I want to be like everyone else.  I don’t like being different, I don’t like the demands your gospel makes on me.  Remind me today of what you have done for me.  Help me to understand the magnitude of your sacrifice and let that inspire me to make small sacrifices in my life, so that I may embody your radical gospel in my own life.  Amen.
 

Flash Floods and Life’s Challenges

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
                    Psalm 19:14
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It rained yesterday; in fact, it poured.  The entire Philadelphia area was under a flash flood warning.  As I drove down route 202 in the early evening, I saw just how much it had rained. The traffic usually backs up around Route 29 in the evening rush hour, but last night, we were at a standstill in front of the Gateway Shopping Center in Wayne.  We crawled along and then had to converge from 3 lanes into 1 because of the water that had collected across two lanes of the highway near Chesterbrook.  A few brave souls drove through the lake in the middle lane, but no one braved the far right lane where the water had collected over a foot deep against the sound wall.

For those of us driving, this was just an inconvenience, but flash floods are nothing to minimize.  I was reading recently that a flash flood with just six inches of mud and water can carry a car away.  It doesn’t take a tsunami size wave to endanger life – just six inches of muddy water moving swiftly.  We think, “oh, it’s just a little water,” and then, bam!  The little stream sweeps our car off the road.
Isn’t life like that, sometimes?  We think, “oh, I can get through this,” and then, bam!  We get swept away by the life equivalent of six inches of muddy water.   We need an anchor in the face of the flash floods of life; we need a rock to steady us and provide us safety when the muddy waters rush by.
“O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  When things are going well, it’s all too easy to forget about God, but when our life is in shambles, when the flash floods of health concerns or job loss or relationship issues strike, we need someone to be our rock and redeemer.  I was able to avoid the deep water on the roadway, but in life we can’t always avoid the flash floods.  They can strike without warning and sweep us away.  But God will be our rock if we seek the Lord and anchor our lives on God’s steadfast love.  Our faith community is an extension of that love, providing us with tangible signs of God’s love and care in times of need.
But we need to find that anchor before the storms strike, we need to develop our relationship with God when the sun is shining in order to be prepared for the flash floods that may come.  Developing our relationship with God is something we can all do through spending time in God’s Word, Bible study, prayer and ministry.  When we do that, when we have taken time to get to know God as the one who loves us, then we can be assured that no matter what life throws at us, God will remain with us as our rock in this life and our redeemer for all eternity.
 
Prayer:   Loving God, help me to put my trust in you.  Let me grow closer to you in the good times so that I will recognize your loving care in the flash floods of life.  Be my rock; anchor my life in your love and law so that nothing can sweep me away from your presence.  Amen.
 

Stairway to Nowhere?

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“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.'”
                                                                                                Acts 2:38-39

My husband and I just returned from wonderful road trip to St. Louis and Chicago. We drove out the PA Turnpike to Pittsburgh and then turned south to head for St. Louis. Coming home from Chicago, we came across the northern route, following Route 80 to Cleveland where I found the house I lived in between ages 4 and 9, and then continued on Route 80 till it met the PA Turnpike at the edge of the state.

Out near the Breezewood exit of the PA Turnpike, there is a curious place that has always fascinated me. On the eastbound side of the turnpike, sitting on the land overlooking the turnpike, is a church. Across the way, on the westbound side of the turnpike, is a cement staircase leading from the turnpike up to the road above that crosses over the turnpike. Next to the staircase, at the side of the turnpike, is a sign that announces the church and its mass schedule.

I’ve always wondered about that staircase. The sign and staircase appear suddenly, just beyond the bridge abutment for the road that runs over the turnpike. At 65 miles an hour, the sign and stairway are there and gone alost before you realize it. And if you did want to stop, there is no safe pull-off area to park your car, just the regular little shoulder section of road. The sign certainly lets you know the church is there, but is a stairway with no safe parking area really an invitation that means anything to a traveler? Is a stairway with no advance warning likely to attract anyone to come and draw closer to God?

As I thought about that stairway, I wondered about our evangelism efforts in the church. Do we offer Christ to the world in a way that others can actually take advntage of, or do we simply go through the motions of evangelism, putting signs where no one can act on them, claiming we’ve provided access to God for the unchurched but actually building stairways that no one in their right mind would use? Are we connecting with the world in meaningful ways that enable people to come and see, or are we sitting back in our stained glass towers content to offer Christ in ways that will not connect with the people around us?

Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go into the world, baptizing and teaching.” Some may be more skilled at evangelism than others, but all of us are called to share Christ in some way, whether through an invitation to an ice cream fest, sharing about the church we love, or accompnying a friend to worship for the first time. Don’t let your efforts be limited to signs that pass by too quickly or stairways that can’t be used. Let’s all work together to create meaningful ways for people to experience Christ and find in him the answer to their prayers.
Prayer: Gracious God, you have welcomed me into the kingdom of your love, and asked me to extend that invitation to others. Help me to create meaningful ways for others to hear of your love and to take advantage of your invitation to discover purpose, community and saving grace through faith in Jesus Christ, your Son. Amen.

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Ordinary People

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“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
                                   Acts 4:13
The new “Mission Impossible” film opens nationwide today. It looks like a real nail-biter. The trailer for the film depicts Tom Cruise hanging on to the outside of an airplane as it takes off, and that’s just in the opening moments of the film. It’s pretty clear, this will be no ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man. Tom Cruise’s character is extraordinary.

Watching movies like that can leave us with an inferiority complex. I know I could never hang on to an airplane as it took off nor do most of the things Cruise has done in the Mission Impossible series. I’m just an ordinary woman, condemned to watch as others do extraordinary things. But then I read the book of Acts, and I see very ordinary men, Peter and John, Stephen and Philip, men who showed no sign of being anything out of the ordinary, suddenly accomplish great works for the kingdom of God. They do it, not because they are extraordinary human beings, but because the extraordinary power of God fills them and empowers them.

This is the story of our God. From Moses to Gideon to the twelve disciples, God has selected the ordinary and achieved world-changing purposes through them. Each one of us has the ability to do the same. Not because we are extraordinary, not because we can hang on airplanes or leap tall buildings in a single bound, but because we can open our hearts and minds to the presence of God. When we invite God into our life, when we offer God a willing and humble heart, we open the door to the possibility that God will work through us to accomplish God’s great work of redemption. We offer God the opportunity to take someone absolutely ordinary and accomplish the extraordinary.
So enjoy movies about amazing characters, and then open your heart and mind to discern what God might want to accomplish through you. Not because you’re the next Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie, but because God has work to be done and is willing to accomplish God’s purposes through ordinary people like you and me.

Prayer: Almighty God, take my will and let it reflect your will. Take my heart and mold it to want what you want. Use me today to accomplish your purpose in the world. Let me always be aware of your presence empowering and directing me, so that I may be part of the great work of your kingdom with humility and love. Amen.

 

Laughing with Jesus

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“A person’s attire and hearty laughter,

                         and the way he walks, show what he is.”

                                                          Sirach 19:30

      “A pastor, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…”  How many times have you heard some variation of that?  And you knew what was coming next.  Oh, maybe not the exact words, but you knew that a joke was coming, and you listened with an expectation of laughter and fun around the corner.

     Today, July 24th, is National Old Joke Day.  Take a moment to share a joke with a friend or neighbor.  Laugh with a family member. Laughing, reports WebMD, changes us physiologically: “We stretch muscles throughout our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our  tissues.”  (http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/give-your-body-boost-with-laughter)

     I believe Jesus loved to laugh.  If you look at the stories of his life, he’s always eating out with people.  From Pharisees to sinners, Jesus loved to belly-up to the table and break bread. I can’t imagine his doing that without letting out a good belly laugh at some point.  Whether as host or guest (or meal!), Jesus came eating and drinking and, I think, laughing.

     So in the midst of all of our serious study of Scripture and commitment to prayer, let’s take time to gather at the table with friends.  Remember that God’s first act was one of delight and pleasure – to create a world that would bring delight to the Lord.  Let’s be intentional about creating special celebrations, laughing together, rejoicing in each other’s presence, and giving thanks to God for the delight of this day. Then, before you clear the table, turn to your neighbor and ask them if they’ve heard the one about the pastor, the priest and the rabbi.

Prayer:   God of laughter and joy, who made us for your pleasure and delight, I pray that my life will bring a smile to your face rather than a frown.  Help me to approach the world with the same delight and joy with which you made it, and to rejoice at the wonder of your love in my life as you rejoice at my love for you.  Amen.