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.

image

Advertisements

This Is A Bible.

image
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
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
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.
image

Words That Hurt, Words That Heal

                                                                                                                                    image
“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
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
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.
image

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

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
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.

image

 

 

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.

Setting Aside Bitterness and Anger

                                                                                                                                      image
“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
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 
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.
image

WHO YOU GONNA CALL?

                                                                                                                                               image
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.
image
 
The Rev. Dr. Bronwyn Yocum

In God’s Time

image

 

“To everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1          

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I was overjoyed when my last church gave me a Kitchen Aid stand mixer as a retirement gift. I planned to start cooking once I had the time, and so after my last Sunday, the mixer was christened with flour.  Cookies and cakes began to appear on the kitchen counter.  And best of all was the homemade bread.

The first day I made bread, the taste was okay but the loaves didn’t look quite right.  They did’t seem to rise enough.  As I thought about it, I realized I may have been a little over anxious to get them made.  The directions called for me to let the dough rise for an hour, punch it down, divide it in half and put it in loaf pans.  Then I was to let it rise again until it was higher than the edge of the pan, about another hour, before baking.  I think I was so excited about making bread that as soon as the dough got anywhere near the top of the loaf pan, I shoved it in the oven, not giving it the time it needed to rise the full amount.  What came out tasted good, but wasn’t really as high or light as it could have been if I had waited the full time.  I was too impatient.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that God has a sense of time as well.  Sometimes we want to rush things along.  We don’t allow God to accomplish things in God’s time; we want it done now. I remember a woman at one of the churches I served who told me how alone she felt after her husband died.  Her friends were great for the first two months, but then they started to tell her to get on with life and stop moping over her husband’s death.  They wanted her grieving to be over in their time.  The reality is that it takes years to fully grieve the loss of a spouse.  

Too often we want to leave behind the old and dive right in to the new without taking time for reflection and evaluation.   We want to shed the old with its challenges and hurts, disappointments and concerns, leaving it behind like a hermit crab moving to a new shell. But our life experiences are not something we can shed like an old shell.  What happens to us in our lives becomes a part of who we are.  We need to acknowledge what we’ve experienced, process it, learn from it and discern how God is inviting us to move forward, incorporating our past experience into our approach to life in the future.  Where there has been success, what can we do to build on it?  Where there has been hurt, how can we become wounded healers?  Where we have failed, what might we do differently in the future?  

In the New International Version, Ecclesiastes 3:11a reads “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”  If we are sensitive to God’s time, if we refrain from rushing things and give God the time to work as God desires, then we, too, will find that God can accomplish wonders that make life beautiful.

Prayer:  Loving God, help me to live this day in your time, not mine.  Let me wait patiently for your way to be made clear; let me live hopefully, knowing that in your time all things work together for the good of your people.  Show me how to learn from every experience in my life, and to find your presence in the middle of every situation.  For I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

image