A Kitty Hawk Christmas

image“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”     John 1:5

On a December day back in 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made amazing history.  After numerous failures to fly a heavier than air machine, the Wright brothers accomplished something that no one had ever done before.  Ecstatic, they sent a telegram to their sister, Katherine, back in Ohio.  It read “we have actually flown 825 feet.  Will be home for Christmas.”

Overjoyed, Katherine ran down to the local newspaper and pushed the telegram, one of the greatest news stories of the century, into the hands of the editor.  After reading the page, the editor smiled.  “Well, well,” he said.  “How nice the boys will be home for Christmas.”

That editor had no idea what great news he had received; he failed to understand the importance of what had happened.  The scoop of the century was his, and he let it slide right through his fingers because he wasn’t looking for the right things.  He was unprepared to look for the new things that happened, the unexpected things that thrust their way into the world.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?  A virgin is visited by an angel and given startling news.  A child is born and angels proclaim his birth, a star sparkles in the night sky above Bethlehem, but few took notice.  There is no record of celebrations and festivities except among a few people on the fringes of society – shepherds who were from the lowest of society’s classes, and wise men who came from some foreign country speaking a foreign tongue.  There are no accounts of government declared holidays, no synagogue ceremonies to memorialize this great event, no news reports from the day.  Just the worship of poor, dirty shepherds and the gifts of a bunch of new age astrologers.

This Christmas, will we have eyes to see what God is doing in our world?  Are we so caught up in looking for what we expect, that we fail to notice the unexpected but wondrous activity of God among us?  It won’t be spectacular, just a baby born to a poor couple in a backwater town, just an act of kindness by a Christian toward a Muslim, just a simple thing that might not seem so extraordinary, but oh, what an amazing thing it will be.  Let’s keep our eyes open and watch for the unexpected, for the in-breaking of God, for the light that will not be overcome in spite of our blindness.

Prayer:  Holy God, in the birth of Jesus Christ you acted to bring together the everyday and the extraordinary, to merge the Word and flesh, to do the unthinkable and the unexpected.  Few had eyes to see and notice the event, but that didn’t stop you from acting to save your world.  Grant me the eyes to see your activity, and the courage to align my actions with yours so that your kingdom may be served and the light of your love strengthened in the world.  For I ask it through the babe of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ.  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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Praying for Clinton and Trump?

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First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

                                                                                                1 Timothy 2:1-2

 

In 1981, James Hinkley, Jr., attempted to assassinate President Reagan in an effort to impress Jodie Foster, the actress about whom Hinkley was obsessed.  Although Reagan survived, his Press Secretary, James Brady, was shot and paralyzed.  In 2014, he died from causes related to the shooting over thirty years prior.  After the shooting, Brady and his wife became activists for gun control.  At one point, Brady’s wife was struggling with her anger at the press for what she was as mistreatment of her husband in newspaper articles.  She struggled with her anger, not knowing how to get over it.  A wise pastor counseled her to begin praying for reporters, and not just praying for some amorphous group, but to pray for one or two by name as individuals.

In the beginning Mrs. Brady struggled to pray anything meaningful, but she kept at it. Day after day, she asked God to bless and support specific reporters who had been especially harsh in their words about her husband.  Her prayers were half-hearted at first, praying because she had to, not because she truly wanted the object of her prayers to be blessed.  She reports that it took quite a while, but at last she began to pray in a new way.  She discovered that the act of praying for someone had, over time, opened her heart to care about them and to want what was best for them.  Her prayers became genuine expressions of care and concern.

In the letter to Timothy, Paul reminds us that we are not invited to pick and choose for whom we will pray.  God expects us to offer prayer support to all of our leaders.  If you’re a Republican, that means praying for President Obama and Hillary Clinton; if you’re a Democrat, it means offering prayers for Donald Trump and Paul Ryan.  At first those prayers may be half-hearted and elementary, but if you stick with it, praying regularly for the leaders with whom you disagree as well as those you support, you may find, over time, that your heart opens to care for them as God cares for them.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with their policies or support their positions, but it does mean that you and I can learn to exercise that love for one another that is God’s expectation for all people.

When we move beyond simplistic prayers to truly seeking the good for another person, we discover that they are a whole person, not just some demagogue.  We are reminded that each of us needs forgiveness, grace and love.  And we may learn that the ones we like are as flawed as those with whom we disagree.  Furthermore, whether we support a particular leader or not, they are often in a position where their words and actions can have tremendous influence in our world.  Should we not keep them in prayer, asking God to help their words and actions build people up rather than tearing down and destroying?

So I invite you in the campaign season to begin a discipline of prayer, asking God’s blessing not only on the candidates you support, but on those with whom you disagree.  Let us love one another, showing that caring spirit in our prayers, as we lift before the Lord all “who are in high positions.”

Prayer:   Gracious God, you have called us to love one another and to seek the good for each other.  And so today I lift up to you (name of politician you do not support).  I pray that you will bless them in their life.  In this campaign season, give them strength and stamina, clarity of thought and insight into the needs of your people.  Help me to care about them as an individual even when I disagree with their policies.  Open their heart to your love, that they may lead in ways that offer life and love to the world.  For I pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

All Right or All Wrong?

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.                              image

                                 Romans 3:23

I wasn’t really aware of Gold Star families until the controversy between Donald Trump and the Khan family.  Hearing several of the families discuss the loss of loved ones in active duty, I gained an appreciation for the sacrifice these families gave tad to make for our nation.  So earlier this week, when I found myself behind a car with a license plate indicating they were a Gold Star family, I was immediately predisposed to feel good about them.  That lasted about three minutes!

We were exiting Route 202 and approaching the traffic light where the ramp met the main road.  I watched as the Gold Star family car slowed as the light changed to yellow and then to red.  With his left turn blinker on, the driver had ample time to stop, but after slowing briefly, he seemed to change his mind.  Stepping on the gas, he blew through the red light, careening around the corner as the cars on the main road began to move.

I was reminded that none of us is perfect.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, the line between good and evil runs through the center of the human heart.  Most of us are a combination of the two.  We are honorable in some areas, and scoundrels in others.  Even Hillary and Donald have good points and bad ones.

Seeing people in terms of absolutes is one way to demonize a person, to steal their humanity away.  It is important not to idealize people as if they had no faults, nor to condemn them as if they had no value as persons.  We are all a mixture of self-interest and self-sacrifice, a melange of greed and generosity.  Too much of our contemporary debate ignores that.  We paint people in monochrome – all good or all bad – whether in political debate or ecclesiastical debate.  When we demonize or idealize people, we structure disagreements in ways that preclude any reasonable discussion.  After all, if they are evil, so is every idea they have and I can dismiss everything they say. 

When we are tempted to dismiss someone’s words, we need to stop and ask ourselves, have I given thought to this idea, or am I dismissing it because of who it came from?  And when we find ourselves painting someone with that monochromatic paintbrush, we can stop and take stock of both the good and the bad they represent.  Most of all, we can pray for those with whom we disagree, asking God’s blessing for them.  In that way, we can move ourselves a little more to the good side of the line through our own heart.

Prayer:  Gracious Lord, through Jesus Christ you came to a people mired in sin and affirmed the  good within us.  Help me to see others in that same way – to recognize the sinfulness and evil while still affirming the good and righteous.  Keep me from reducing people to two dimensional figures who exist only in my imagination.  Show me once more how to love even the unlovely, and to challenge those I admire.  Most of all, remind me that I am a mixture of admirable traits and dishonorable qualities.   Forgive my failures to live in imitation of Christ.  Empower me anew to live in response to your call to my better self.  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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Words That Hurt, Words That Heal

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“People have tamed all kinds of wild animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures. And they still tame them. But no one can tame the tongue. It is an evil thing that never rests. It is full of deadly poison.'”
                                                    James 3:7-8


“Do not be a false witness against your neighbor.”
                                           Exodus 20:16
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This week, we were all stunned to hear the escapades of a group of American swimmers in Rio.  Ryan Lochte and several others had gone to a party, had too much to drink, and then headed back to the Olympic Village for the night.  Along the way they stopped at a gas station to use the men’s room, and it appears they caused some serious damage to the property. They then made their way back to the village by taxi and headed to bed.  At some point the next day, Lochte called his mother and told her that he and the group had been robbed by a policeman or someone posing as a policeman.  Once the story escaped his lips, Lochte watched as his mother notified the media, the press sensed a big story, and the IOC became involved.  Lochte was on the Today Show, even claiming the robber had pressed a gun against his forehead.
A few nights later with Lochte already back in the USA, the other swimmers were detained, two of them removed from their flight home, to answer questions that had arisen about their story.  The Rio police had conducted an investigation and, at least for the moment, it appears the swimmers’ story may have been fabricated by the foursome.  An entire country shamed by what now appear to be false allegations of robbery and corruption.
Maybe Lochte and his teammates didn’t intend to report the issue, maybe he was just rambling on the phone to his mom while suffering from a hangover from the previous night’s partying.  Whatever the reason, once the words of the robbery tale were spoken aloud, the story grew and grew.  What began in a phone call home to mom became an international incident that has occupied police and diplomats in Brazil and in the USA.
James understood that words, while they can be helpful and healing, can also be hurtful and cause injury.  Like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube, once our words have come out, there’s no way to pack them back in again.  Lochte and his teammates bore false witness, lying about what happened to them in a way that could have led to legal problems for others.  The investigation is ongoing at the moment, but even the TV commentators are now siding with the Rio police’s version of events, and denying the credibility of Lochte’s story.   There are calls for Lochte to be permanently banned from international swimming meets.  What a sad end to an awesome athletic career, all because of words that should never have been spoken.
The story reminds us that our words are more than squiggles on a page or sounds in our ears.  Words have power; they can bless or harm, build up or destroy.  When we are tempted to lash out verbally, to respond to insult with insult, we need to stop, count to ten, and ask ourselves, is this truly how God wants us to relate to others?  Of course, we all fail at times and speak harmful words, but the goal is to challenge ourselves to pause, to reflect, to remember God’s amazing patience with us, and to respond as Christ would respond, even if we have to say, “I can’t respond right now, I’m too angry.  I’ll answer you in a few minutes.”
God invites us to treat everyone as our sister or brother, to see the Christ in each person we encounter. If we imagine that every word we say is addressed to Jesus Christ, perhaps we can tame that tongue a little bit more and work toward becoming more like him who is the head, the Son of God.
Prayer:  Loving God, you have so many reasons to speak harshly to me, to condemn me for my sin and for the ways my tongue slices like a blade instead of building up.  Forgive me for the times I lose control and speak in ways that hurt.  Help me this day to speak words that will encourage, support and show my love for my neighbor.  Remind me that my words are a reflection of the depth of my faith, so let my faith grow deeper and wider until all I say and do brings glory to you and your son, Jesus.  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.