With A Song in My Heart and Praise on My Lips

image                  Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”                   Hebrews 13:15

 

Most mornings, the dog wakes me up, ready for his morning walk.  He starts to whine somewhere between 6:45 and 7:30 am, and whatever stage of sleep I’m in, I quickly find myself focused on getting him outside.  I jump out of bed, throw on a pair of sweats and some old shoes, scoop up the dog, and head downstairs.  I snatch up his collar as we pass by the rack, fill my pocket with treats and waste bags, and head out the door.  Four or five houses down the street, I finally find myself truly awake and aware of my surroundings.

And then somewhere before the corner, I realize I am humming a song to myself.  I never consciously decide to hum, it just seems to happen.  And I never choose what I’m going to hum.  Whatever song I’m humming just comes unbidden, creeping out of my subconscious so that I begin humming or singing without realizing it.  And suddenly, I find myself mouthing song lyrics.  Today, it was “Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest height,” from Mary Poppins  Another day it might be a Broadway showtune or a Billy Joel song.  And sometimes it is a hymn – one day last week I realized I was humming “Fairest Lord Jesus” and trying to remember all the words.

I don’t know what causes a particular song to come to mind – perhaps a smell, a sense of the weather, some other association – who knows what.  But I wondered what it would be like to wake up every morning with songs of praise to God on my lips.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the Lord and give God all the glory for the good in my life.  But I admit, I do not “continually offer a sacrifice of praise” in song to God.

Oh, I can decide I should sing a hymn or praise song while I’m walking, but I wonder what it would take for that unconscious process to end up putting a sacred song into my head without my having to think, “Okay, what religious song should I sing?”.  What would be needed to make God’s praise the unbidden song on my lips in the morning instead of a rock and roll oldie that would only yield to a hymn after conscious thought and choice?

As I wondered about that, I remembered how I learned to drive a stick shift.  I started my driving on a ’64 VW Beetle with a stick shift.  I remember how I went through a mental checklist at every stop light – brake with one foot, push in the clutch with the other, come to a stop, move the stick into into 1st gear with the clutch in, when the light turned green begin to let the clutch out as I feathered the gas, go.  I went through that checklist at every stoplight, ticking off step after step.  But over time, I was able to skip a checklist step mentally – I just did it without thinking about it.  And at last, the whole process became automatic, second nature.

Maybe that’s how God’s praise needs to be.   Perhaps I need to be more intentional about running my praise checklist every day – rehearsing the reasons for thanking God, reminding myself of God’s praiseworthy characteristics and repeating songs and words that express that praise and thanksgiving.  Then, maybe God’s praises would come more unconsciously to my mind as songs and lyrics suddenly appear on my lips.  So first thing in the morning, I can give thanks to God for this new day; last thing in the evening, I can praise God for all the good that has happened during the day; and intermittently during the day, I can pause to give thanks where it is truly due – to the Lord who is over all things.  So maybe as I change my routine, the songs of my heart will become more about God and less about the glory days of rock and roll!

Prayer:  Lord of love and life, from you comes every good and perfect gift.  Accept my words of thanks and praise for who you are and for what you have done in my life and the life of the world.  Keep my heart ever grateful; keep my mind centered on your love, and keep my eyes open to see your compassionate hand at work around me.  Let songs of your praise be ever in my heart, my mind and on my lips.  For with thanksgiving and praise, I ask this in Christ’s holy name.  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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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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Gold Medal Humble

“The Lord has shown you what is good.           image
He has told you what he requires of you.
You must act with justice.
You must love to show mercy.
And you must be humble as you live in the sight of your God.”
Micah 6:8

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Have you been watching the Olympics this week? What an exciting time it has been, to see Michael Phelps extend his record for the most gold medals, and to see Katie Ledecky blow the field away in the women’s 800 meter freestyle. And the US women’s gymnastic team and little Simone Biles claiming the all around gold!

How does someone with 23 gold medals be humble? How does a woman who wins a race by six or eight body lengths stay humble? Or a girl who is told she is the best all-around gymnast in the world? Is that even possible without seeming fake? I guess it all depends on your interpretation of humble.

Thursday and Friday of this week I attended the satellite broadcast of the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, an event bringing together outstanding leaders in many fields to learn from each other. One of the speakers was the Director of Social Justice in the Western US for the Salvation Army. She told a story about her six year old son, trying on his Avengers costumes and running into the living room, jumping up on the ottoman, and shouting “Ta-da!” followed by “I’m…” and then he’d announce the costume he was wearing. First it was “I’m Captain America!” Then, “I’m the Hulk.” Finally, he ran into the room dressed only in his skivvies, jumped up on the ottoman and shouted, “Ta-da!” His mother asked him who he was, and he looked at her puzzled and answered, “I’m me!”

I think that’s what humility is all about. It’s not about pretending we are less than we are, nor claiming to be more than we are. It is simply being who we are, who God made us to be. Genesis 1 tells us that God made everything and then called it good, and that included us. The Apostle Paul tells us that God has given everyone at least one gift, so there’s no use pretending we have no gifts at all. We are who we are, not because we earned it but because God made us that way. We can develop the gifts we’ve been given, but we can’t create them from scratch. Michael Phelps was born with the physical gifts that, if properly developed, made him an Olympic swimmer. Simone Biles was doing flips around the house at an early age – she was born with natural skills. Both of them had serious issues in their lives to overcome – Phelps struggled with depression over the last 8 years; Simone was put in foster care as a young child until her grandparents found and adopted her. But they each had certain natural skills. Humility doesn’t mean denying those gifts God gave them; it means accepting the gifts but recognizing they are gifts, not something we deserve. And then, it also means recognizing that possessing these gifts and using them as they were intended does not make us better as a person, just better as a swimmer or gymnast or whatever our gifts allow us to do.

We live in an area where many people seem to be blessed with more than one gift and with the resources to develop them to a high level. Let’s never forget that we are not better people because of our gifts, just gifted people who had the resources to develop those gifts. Let’s give thanks to God and walk humbly with the Lord, recognizing the source of our gifts and looking to see how God might be inviting us to use those gifts for the good of all. That’s what will make us better people.
Prayer: Gracious God, you have made me your beloved child and given me gifts that I could never earn or deserve. Help me to recognize my gifts, to develop them as you intended, and to use them for the good of the world. Keep me from arrogance, keep me from denial. Let me see myself and all the world around me as you see. Most of all, let me see you as the God who made me and anchors my life. This I pray through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

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The Rev. Dr. Bronwyn Yocum is an ordained United Methodist elder.  She served God through the local church as pastor and as a district superintendent in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.  She has taught leadership and conflict management at Palmer Seminary (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary).  She holds a D.Min. in worship from the Theological School of Drew University.  Bron now provides assistance to local congregations through consulting and workshops as well as guest preaching.

Ready With Heart, Mind, & Strength

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“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”

1 Peter 3:15b-16a

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Wednesday morning Gordy and I had an adventure. We took the train into Philadelphia, riding for the first time on our $1 senior fare. What a deal that is! Then, we walked over to 17th and Vine for a tour of the new Mormon Temple. I had responded to an invitation extended to Philly area clergy to visit and tour the new building prior to its consecration this fall. Once a Mormon Temple is in use, only Mormons may enter it, so this was a wonderful opportunity to see the building before it was closed to visitors.

We began across the street in the meeting house where actual worship services will be held. The Temple itself is reserved for special services, weddings, proxy baptisms of deceased ancestors, and special instruction. Crossing the street, we entered the Temple after several volunteers helped us put coverings over our shoes to preserve the carpeting inside. The building is beautiful. The interior reflects the Philadelphia colonial period, the decor is gorgeous, and striking artwork adorned the walls. It was a treat to tour the four floors of the building.

What struck me more than the building was the knowledge of our tour guides. The husband had been a leader in the local church. He and his wife guided us through the building answering questions not only about the building but about the Mormon faith as well. They explained the theology behind the proxy baptism ritual, described Mormon beliefs about the afterlife, outlines the organization of the Mormon church and more. I was deeply impressed by their knowledge of their faith, but I realized he had been a leader in the church.

Following the tour, we entered a side building where refreshments awaited us, along with several dozen hosts and hostesses. I realized that throughout the tour, we had seen people on every floor to guide and direct. Altogether, there must have been nearly 100 people present assisting with the tours, all volunteers. There were young adults and youth providing music in the reception area, some young adults doing their 2 year mission assisting in various places, adults of all ages volunteering their time to help with the welcome across the street, the tours and the reception. It wasn’t just for one day, either. All of this will go on for several weeks as the Philadelphia area is introduced to the new Temple. And every participant is ready to speak of their faith, to explain why they are Mormon, and to offer God’s love, human hospitality and an invitation to faith.

As I looked around, I was struck by the knowledge and commitment of those who were involved, and I wondered, how would our denomination stack up? Each person we met yesterday seemed to feel honored to be present to extend hospitality to visitors. Each one was “ready to make their defense” and share their faith if asked. Could we say the same? Could we gather such willing volunteers and would they be ready to explain their faith, their church? In the Scripture passage above, Peter clearly believes that all of us who call Christ our Savior need be ready to explain the hope we have in him. Are we? Are we ready? Do we understand enough about our faith to give an account, do we know why we have hope or are we just blindly accepting a faith we don’t really understand?

As we move toward the start of school and the program year in churches, I encourage you to consider how you might deepen your knowledge of your faith. It isn’t a choice between knowing God or knowing about God; we need to do both. We are each responsible for working to grow closer to God through our own devotional life; but we are also called on to understand our faith, to explore it intellectually. I believe God is honored when we use our heart, our mind and our strength to know God. Perhaps we can best do that when we worship (heart – love), study (mind – knowledge) and serve (strength – service) the Lord.

Prayer: Gracious God, you have given us hearts to love you, minds to know you and strength to serve you in this world. Help us to offer you all of ourself, not holding back any part but giving our all to you. Open our hearts to receive your love and offer you our own. Open our minds to know you more fully. And open our hands to serve you in the world. May we find in knowing you that we love you more dearly and want to serve you, for we ask it through Christ our Lord Amen.

 

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Setting Aside Bitterness and Anger

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“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” 
                                                            Ephesians 4:31-32
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Over the last two weeks, we have watched political rhetoric at its height.  First the Republican and then the Democratic conventions presented their respective candidates and their positions with speeches, endorsements, music and balloons.  Hyperbole and attack language filled the convention halls.  And throughout these two weeks, Facebook and Twitter have been overheating with responses from people on the left and on the right.
This week, I read the words of one friend who wrote, “I hate Hillary Clinton.”  I was very surprised by his words, since we first met at church and I know he considers himself a solid Christian.  I felt his language was inappropriate for a Christian, but I hesitated to respond to him  I thought about simply unfriending him, but finally felt I had to address his words directly with him.  I wrote back to him that I was disappointed to hear a fellow Christian use the words “I hate” about a person.  I explained I was upset by his statement knowing he considered himself a Christian, reminding him that we can disagree with another person, we can hate their policies, but our Christian faith calls us to set aside all hate and anger towards persons.
My friend responded later that day in the most wonderful way.  He wrote on his Facebook page that “a friend” had called him on his language and he realized his words were inappropriate for a Christian.  He apologized for the statement, and then went on in a more reasoned way to explain his disagreement with the Clinton campaign.  And I found myself so filled – filled with forgiveness for my friend, filled with repentance for any ways I myself may have committed the same acts, and filled with gratitude that God had led me to call out my friend on his words.
There are three full months of campaign still ahead for us.  There will be many outrageous statements and efforts to demonize others by both sides of the race, Republican and Democratic.  Let’s commit to setting aside bitterness and anger, wrangling and slander and malice.  And let’s agree to call out anyone who claims the name of Christ but acts in ways that deny that allegiance, whether they are candidates, campaign workers or friends down the street.  Let’s act in ways that will lead others, on every side of politics, on every side of any debate, to see the love of God in our words and actions.  Let kindness, respect and love be our guiding principles even in the midst of disagreement.
Prayer: Eternal God, you have called us to seek justice and love kindness.  You have told us that what we do to the least, we do to you.  Help us in the coming months to see your face not only in the faces of those with whom we agree, but also in the faces of our opponents.  Give us the grace to speak with love and kindness even when we disagree.  Let us lead with love so that all the world will look and see in us the love of the God who welcomed us even when we were sinners, acting in opposition to God’s kingdom.  For I ask it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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WHO YOU GONNA CALL?

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The new Ghostbusters movie opened this past week across the nation. Thirty years after the original, a new foursome tackles the battle against the supernatural powers of chaos. Some things are different; for example, the main characters are all women this time around. But just like thirty years ago, we’ll be hearing cries of “Who ya gonna call?” all around us. And for the next several weeks, the answer will come, “Ghostbusters!”

But fictional characters in a movie can’t really change the world around us.  In this political season, we need to remember that even the President of the US and other political figures are limited in their impact.  There is only one we can call on who has the power to create in us a new heart, to model absolute love, and to change the world – the God of Jesus Christ. When our lives are out of control, when we worry that we cannot find a way forward, who else would we call but God?

Over the last few weeks we have seen violence in too many places. Shootings by police, shootings of police, nearly one hundred killed in an intentional truck crash in France, the list goes on and on. We look at the conflicts behind these acts of violence, the animosity between people based on race or religion, and we wonder how on earth we can find peaceful resolution and reconciliation. Left to our own devices, the answer is probably that we can’t. But we are not on our own. When the world threatens to overwhelm, when the obstacles seem insurmountable, who are we gonna call? We can call on the name of the Lord in prayer. We have a God who cares about us, listens to us and wants what is best for us.

So as we go forward as a church, as a nation, as a world, let’s remember that there is one we can call on who has already won the battle with sin and death, one we can turn to whose love for us is steadfast and whose power is infinite. The God of Jesus Christ is there for us, waiting for us to turn and reach out in prayer and in love.

Prayer: Almighty God, we look around us and see such overwhelming problems, and we wonder if peace and reconciliation are a possibility in this world. Remind us that we do not tackle these problems alone. You are there for us if we will just call on you. Turning to you in prayer, may we follow your will. Sensing your presence and love, may we live this day with courage and hope. For I ask it in the name of the Lord. Amen.
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The Rev. Dr. Bronwyn Yocum