The Wonder of Space

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?         Psalm 8:3-4

We just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas.  We had a wonderful time, but the highlight of the trip wasn’t the pink sands and aqua waters of the Caribbean.  No, the highlight for me was the stop on the way south at Port Canaveral and the day trip to the Kennedy Space Center.  I was awed as I stood underneath a Saturn 5 rocket; I was overwhelmed looking at the space shuttle Atlantis, and I was moved nearly to tears as I walked past the rows of pictures of those who died in the course of our space exploration.

Looking at the pictures of space and seeing the tiny space station on the magnificent canvas of infinite outer space, I was reminded of the words of Psalm 8, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them…”  The wonder of space and its billions of stars and billions more planets, the beauty of the universe in images from the Hubble telescope, the size of what is out there, all combined to make me feel small and insignificant.  And yet Scripture tells us that God loves us and gave Jesus Christ for our salvation.  What an awesome thought, that in this infinite universe, the God who is even greater than that cares for us.

It is the nature of our faith to combine things that seemingly cannot go together – a God who is infinite and yet came in the person of Jesus, a God who is transcendent and yet is present to us in every moment, a God who orders stars and suns but who also gives meaning and purpose to my daily life.  That in itself is cause for wonder and awe.

When you go outside tonight, look up at the heavens and consider the vastness of space and our faith in a God who is even bigger, even greater than that.  Open your mind to the reality that we worship the God who created all that.  And give thanks for the abiding presence and love of the master of the universe.

Prayer:  Infinite God, you have created a universe of awesome size and diversity, setting stars in the black velvet of outer space, twirling planets in a soundless dance, and mixing a palette of planet-hued colors.  And yet you care for us, seemingly insignificant in the vastness of space but given meaning and consequence by your love.  Help me to honor your greatness even as I give thanks for your abiding love.  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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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