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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to Live Forever?

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have imageseen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[a] full of grace and truth.”                        John 1:14

“WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?” the headline read. Sounded intriguing. Reading on, I discovered it was a story about a new start up company, eterni.me, that storsd your memories for future generations. Someday they hope to download brains directly into a computer, but for the time being you just write out or record what you want stored, and they’ll maintain it for eternity. That’s not exactly what I think of when someone asks, “Want to live forever?”

But that got me thinking. Christmas is God’s response to that question. God realized that the weight of our sin and the inclination of the human heart was such that we could never get back to a full relationship with a God all on our own. We were facing the consequences of our sin. We couldn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get back with the program to have everything right with God; the gates to eternity were closed to us. The only way to change the trajectory of human life was if God intervened; we needed a Savior. And so, in an unimaginable action, God, the divine, became human; the Word became flesh and Jesus was born. The one to whom all creation bowed gave up his standing to become a frail human being who would be helpless as an infant, experience pain and suffering, and even die in a shameful and agonizing death. God showed a willingness to do the unthinkable, to do whatever was necessary, to restore us to the circle of God’s kingdom and the possibility of eternal life.

Augustine rightly observed that without Christmas there could be no Easter. A corollary to that is that with Christmas, God proved willing to go to any length, from birth in a stable to death on a cross, to save God’s people. So on Christmas Eve as we go to the manger to rejoice at the birth of a baby, let’s also remember the incredible commitment of God. In the Lord’s willingness to allow the perfect to become imperfect, the eternal to become mortal, events were set in motion that would allow imperfect and mortal humans to receive the gift of eternal life. Christ came low so that we might be raised up and live forever. That’s a whole lot better than storing memories on a computer.

Prayer: O child of Bethlehem, in your willingness to leave your eternal home, you opened the door to my eternal home. In your willingness to die you enabled me to live forever. The Lord of creation became a helpless baby dependent on others. May I recognize even in Christmas the incredible sacrifice you made, and offer my worship and adoration to the one who came to save me. Amen,

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The Lights of Christmas

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“By the tender mercy of our God,                          
the dawn from on high will break upon us,

 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”                                                       Luke 1:78-79

 

We just put up our Christmas decorations, including the lights for the front of the house.  We have three kinds of lights illuminating the house.  First, we wrapped the porch columns with strings of colored lights.  They look great, but they only go on when you turn on the switch inside the house.  If no one is home to turn them on, they stay dark.  Second, we put a wreath with twinkling lights at the peak of the front porch.  The wreath is on a timer that turns on for 6 hours every 24 hours, so we set it to come on at 5 pm and go off at 11.  Finally, we put battery operated candles in the front windows.  The candles have electric eyes and turn on automatically when it gets dark, either at night or if it gets dark due to a storm.  Three different kinds of lights that give light in different ways.

It seems to me that there were three different ways for God to provide light to the world.  In the Old Testament we saw God raising up judges when there was specific need among the Israelites.  That’s kind of like the light on our porch pillars.  God had to operate the switch to turn on the light, to raise up the leader at the right time.  It worked for a while, but as Scripture tells us, pretty soon people did whatever they wanted to do, and faith became scarce.

Then came the era of kings.  God’s intent may have been to provide on-going light to the people, but instead it seemed that true leadership appeared only intermittently, when there was great need.  Like the lights on our wreath, leadership came and went, with years of corruption in between, and only the occasional David or Hezekiah.  

Finally, God sent a new kind of light to the people of the world – a light that would shine whenever and wherever there was darkness.  Like the candles in my windows, this light didn’t need to be turned on and wasn’t on for a 6 hours then off for 18.  This light would shine no matter what the time, no matter what prompted the darkness.  This was the light that would guide our feet from this world to the next – the light of Jesus Christ.

So as you look at the battle of the Christmas lights this season, take time to give thanks to God for the greatest light of all, Jesus Christ, who came to shine a light on our way and to illuminate the darkest corners of our world.  When you find yourself sitting in the dark, look for the light of Christ – it will be on wherever there is darkness to bring the light of God’s love, hope, peace, and joy.

Prayer:  Light of the world, you have come in Jesus Christ to to offer love and hope to those who live in darkness.  Shine brightly in my life so that I may be guided in the ways that lead to your peace and wholeness.  Shine so brightly that your light shines through me that I may contribute to your work of lighting the world.  Let me reflect your light, bringing love and hope to those who live in darkness.  Today, Lord, I especially lift to you the people of Aleppo and Syria, asking that you would change hearts so that the young, the infirm and the innocent may be saved.  Light of the world, shine brightly in that part of your kingdom today.  Amen.     

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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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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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Rowboats and Sailboats

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of imagehosts.                                           Zechariah 4:6b

Are you a rowboat or a sailboat?  I recently read a description of churches distinguishing between rowboat churches and sailboat churches, and I think the analogy can be applied to people as well as congregations.*

A rowboat person takes stock of the gifts and talents God has provided, rolls up their sleeves, and says, okay, it’s time for me to get to work.  They are grateful for what God has provided, offer thanks, and then step forward to add their contributions.  They assess, can I do this.  If the answer is yes, They work hard, stay focused and get the job done.

A sailboat person, however, has a different approach.  They don’t pick up the paddle and start moving the boat forward under their own power in the direction their paddling takes them.  No, they set their sails to catch the wind of God’s Spirit.  Yes, they have to put up the sails and tend the tiller, but they leave room throughout their life for God’s Spirit to be present.  With God involved, they are always attentive to the way God is setting the direction of the wind and providing for forward momentum on God’s path, because when they move with the wind, they go farther and faster.

Sometimes, we get caught up in acting like rowboats, choosing the direction, working up a sweat trying to get where we want to go.  We listen for God’s call, and then decide if we’re equipped to do that.  If we decide to move forward, we’re grateful for the boat and our strength, give thanks to the Lord, and then forget about God as we start rowing.  Prayer becomes the bookends of our lives – maybe a short morning prayer or devotion, then a day of hard work followed by a short prayer at bedtime.  God set a direction, we waved goodbye, and headed out from port.

But God wants more for us.  God’s desire is to be in communion with us, to share the load in all we do, to fill our sails and help us set a direction by which we can go farther.  To become a sailboat, however, we have to be attentive to the wind throughout our journey, sensitive to shifts in the wind, looking for the new things God is doing, and always seeking to be faithful.  Prayer is no longer reciting words – it is seeking God and resting in God’s presence, doing our part but always aware of God’s leading, trusting the Lord.

Who will you be today?  A rowboat, thanking God and then intent on getting through the day by yourself?  Or a sailboat, tacking as needed to keep God’s Spirit filling your life and sending you forward?

Prayer:  Spirit of God, fill my life today.  Keep me always running before the wind, depending on you for direction and looking to stay focused on your presence every moment of my day.  Remind me again and again that apart from you, my accomplishments are empty.  With your power in my life, however, I can be an on-going  witness for the love and grace of God.  This I ask through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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*The analogy comes from Joan S. Gray’s book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, Geneva Press, 2009.

 

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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