Limping Along With Jacob

Being blessed by God doesn’t always mean a life of sunshine and daisies. It’s easier to focus on the nice things and be grateful. But what of those hard fought life-changing blessings? You know the kind. They leave us breathless, wondering what just happened, and, possibly, limping into the day. These are the kinds of blessings that neither the world nor the church wants us to talk about overly much. They aren’t pure happiness; they are the moments when excruciating pain leads to transformative joy. From that moment on we remain marked, different. Just as clearly, we are blessed.

Years ago a series of events lead me to the realization that I was not straight and this fact probably had something to do with the failure of the few romantic relationships I’d had. At the time, I believed I was working in my dream job, an ecumenical youth ministry. In a few short months, I’d come to accept this new self-understanding and to celebrate the feeling of wholeness that I’d never had before. Then I came face to face with a choice that would radically change my life. I had to decide whether or not to tell my employer about my self-discovery and that I was, in fact, dating another woman.

This was back in the days before gay marriage was legal anywhere. However, I thought everything would be okay because I belong to a denomination that already ordained LGBT folks. I also knew being honest with my employer was the right thing to do even though it was really hard. After all, I’d barely begun to understand it myself, let alone say it out loud to very many people. It also wasn’t exactly the safe thing to do, to come out publicly while serving in a highly visible position in the community. This was happening around the time of Matthew Shepherd’s murder. When word got out, people were not shy about sharing their opinions, some of them rather unpleasant.

I ended up resigning my position because I had been told that as a condition of my employment I would have to come out to several people in positions of authority within the town and several of the churches. This began a decade of challenge in my life. My relationship with the church was forever changed. My career path was altered beyond recognition. My trust in people to do the right thing was completely destroyed.

 

Looking back, however, I can see the blessing God gave me. From that first inkling of self-understanding to the moment I stood publicly for what I knew to be right, I no longer felt that something was innately wrong with me. Yes, I was unwelcomed in a lot of churches because of who I was. But I was not longer unwelcomed in my own spirit. I was free to learn to love myself, becoming the woman God created me to be even as I limped along.

I don’t tell this2014-07-24 19.39.27 story for any reason other than to say that sometimes wrestling with God for a blessing isn’t a bad thing. We just get to a place where we can either give up or hold on until we are blessed. Sure, it’s risky and it’s going to change you in a way that might be painful and unpredictable. It has to be better than always choosing the safe, easier way. But, then again, I might be the wrong person to ask about that. I have a natural tendency to choose the difficult way. Maybe this is why I have such a strong affinity for Jacob. He complicated his life repeatedly and not only did God bless him, God loved him for exactly who he was. Moreover, I’ll bet when Jacob looked over his life, he wouldn’t trade his limp for anything, not even a simpler life.

RCL – Year A – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 3, 2014
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 17:1-7, 15 or
Isaiah 55:1-5 with Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

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A Bit of Hope and Comfort

Because I work in a psychiatric hospital I am frequently asked, “Why did God do this to me?” Similarly, many patients will say, “God hates me!” They ask this question or believe that God hates them because they have mental illness and they often experience rejection in churches and other faith communities. They live under the stigma of major mental illness and struggle to make sense out of their own suffering.

This week’s passage in Romans is one that I often share with a patient who is questioning God’s benevolence. The opening verses give me hope. When I sit with someone who has committed a horrible crime as a result of psychosis or delusions, I try to remember that the words of my prayers do not have to be perfect. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The next verse is one that I find very helpful in talking with individuals who believe that trauma or tragedy is something that God has done to them. The idea that all things work together for good for those who love God allows me to gently challenge the idea that God makes bad things happen. I can honestly say to the person who is suffering with PTSD related to childhood trauma that God did not make the abuse happen. Just the opposite. Things happen in this world that God did not and would not choose. Human beings daily make choices that God really wishes we would not. As a result of some of those choices, innocent people get terribly hurt. However, with God something good can come out of even the worst tragedy. So keep fighting for health and recovery and you may be surprised at what good God can bring about.

Similarly, a person overwhelmed with feelings of guilt or shame who believes that God hates them or has condemned them to suffering, needs to hear words of hope. How much more hopeful than to hear that only Christ is in a position to condemn anyone and condemnation is not what happens. Instead, Christ intercedes for us and we are forgiven because nothing separates us from from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing can remove Christ’s love from us. Nothing, not even mental illness. The news doesn’t get better than this for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.

In other words, the news doesn’t get better than this for any of us. So when we are overwhelmed with life and the events in the world, our prayers do not have to be perfect; the Holy Spirit will intercede for us with sighs too deep for words. This includes our prayers for Palestine and Israel, Ukraine, immigrant children, our loved ones stricken with illness… anything we cannot articulate well. God knows our hearts and will hear our prayers. So, too, when we are faced with tragedy, trauma, and despair. God does not make these things happen, but with God something good will come from the pain. This doesn’t make everything all right, but it does give hope for the future. And reminds us that when all is said and done, there is nothing than can remove Christ’s love from us.2013-06-19 22.33.00

Now what are we going to do to honor this love that we have been so freely given?

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 27, 2014
Genesis 29:15-28 with Psalm 105:1-11, 45b  or
1 Kings 3:5-12 with Psalm 128 or Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52     

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Bidding Prayer for Hope

2014-05-13 19.24.04
Come, let us pray for the church in all its variations throughout the world.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
God of all times and places, reveal your presence in and among us. Your people yearn to proclaim your presence with Jacob’s surety. Too much distracts us from your grace and mercy and often we mistake our ways for the way everlasting. We think we can tell wheat from weeds and are quick to condemn those who think differently. Give us hearts of compassion, understanding, and grace that we might learn to celebrate diversity rather than fear it. Let the day come when we all stand together in your presence, shining like the sun.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ, here and elsewhere.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
From the wings of the morning to the farthest limits of the sea, you are with us, O God. We cannot hide from you or escape your presence. May this be a comfort to us in these times of change and transition. Let us not cling to unnecessary things or become slaves to fear. May we be open to all the possibilities you set before us as the body of Christ. Be with those you have called to lead us, especially Geoffrey Black our minister and president. Make your presence known throughout the United Church of Christ, sowing seeds of courageous faith and radical hope.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for all people throughout the world.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
Creator God, we hear the groaning of creation and wonder what can be done. War and violence erupt daily. Storms grow in intensity. People are in need of food, shelter, and care. We would turn away from other people’s troubles if it were not for you. You would have us walk in the way of peace, sowing seeds of hope and promise. In the midst of heartbreak over all that we have done and all that we have left undone, we ask that your hope be made real in us and through us. Remind us that you know the thoughts and hearts of all people as well you know each one of us.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for this nation and those in leadership.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
God of wisdom and welcome, you are indeed in this place, but we are a long way from the gateway to heaven. We are a nation divided by ideologies and economics and kept that way by those who trade in fear. Make us mindful of your commandment to love one another as you love. Hear our prayers for Barak Obama and all others in positions of power. Shape us into a nation where fear, violence, and hatred have no place.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for all who are in need of healing.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
God of the brightest day and the darkest night, enter into to the dark, painful, lonely, broken places and bring light. Hear our prayers for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit. Be to them a source of hope and healing. You have called us together to be your body here and now; may we be agents of compassion, offering sanctuary to those in need.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for all those who grieve.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
You walk behind us and before us, O God. Your presence comforts and reassures us. We ask that you would lay your hand on all those who are grieving. May those who sit in the deepest darkness of a sudden loss – murder, suicide, accident, or illness – find hope in your light. Show us how to bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers who struggle under the weight of their losses, letting no one suffer alone.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us give thanks to God for all of our blessings.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
Steadfast and gracious God, words fail to express our gratitude for grace you have given to us. Your mercy and forgiveness is unbelievable for many of us. Yet, you are our hope now and for all things to come. In our gratitude we share Jacob’s amazement at your presence in this place. Grant us the courage to shine with your righteousness, honoring and serving you in all that we say and do.
We pray in Christ’s name, trusting in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation. Amen.

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 20, 2014
Genesis 28:10-19a with
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or
Isaiah 44:6-8 with
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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A Little Reminder

I will confess that I had a prayer of lament ready to post this week. It included Israel and Palestine, the unaccompanied children trying to get into the US across the Mexican border, the plight of honey bees, and many other things that make me cry out to God. But something happened before I had a chance to post that prayer. I presented at a NAMI support group.

The group was made up of parents with children who have mental illness and some individuals who have mental illness. My task was to present on “Spirituality and Mental Illness.” As often is the case with these things, talking with these people in the hot church basement refocused my energy. Yes, there are plenty of things to lament in this world and that is a legitimate way to pray. However, this week’s gospel reading is the parable of the sower.

Prior to tonight’s meeting I had been focused on the negative things, in the world and in my own life. I was not attending to the seeds I was sowing or where they might fall. With all my talk about spiritual practices and paying attention and finding gratitude, I’d stopped doing these things. Who am I to complain about all the broken places in the world when I have stopped expressing gratitude for the abundance of grace?

Holy and merciful God, I thank you for the ways in which you call my attention back to you. While I pray for this broken world, grant me the courage to seek and find your abundance in each day. Let me be mindful of the seeds I sow, ensuring more loving kindness than lamentations where I walk. May your Word truly light my path. Amen.

RCL- Year A – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 13, 2014

Genesis 25:19-34 with Psalm 119:105-112 or
Isaiah 55:10-13 with Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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Prayer of Confession

God of all times and places, in Christ you set us free to pursue righteousness and holiness without the limits of the laws given to Moses. You wanted us to worship you without the framework that had become distracting for some of your people. You set before us a life filled with grace and love and the ability to choose to follow you.

Forgive us when we mistake our ways for your ways.

God of boundless love and grace, in your house and at your table all people are equal guests. By Christ’s example our hospitality is boundless for those who come seeking sanctuary. You are not interested in pretty clothes or proper dress so much as you are in compassion and mercy. Nor are you overly concerned with our ways of doing things, as much as you are with our genuine desire to worship you with our whole hearts.

Forgive us when we mistake our ways for your ways.

Creator God, no heart is unknown to you and no mind is a mystery to you. You created us all to bear your image into the world, not just in our bodies, but even more so in the way we live our lives. You do not see the lines we draw on our maps, separating one nation from another. Our patriotism is not the religion you would have us practice nor our politics the righteousness you would have us seek.

Forgive us when we mistake our ways for your ways.

Saving God, not one soul lives outside the reach of your mercy. You would rather we pursue peace and justice than almost anything else. We use your name to justify our wars while your heart breaks over each life lost or destroyed. The independence and freedom of one nation need not depend on the destruction of another. The call to peace is louder than greed, fear, and lust for power if we take time to be still and listen.

Forgive us when we mistake our ways for your ways.

God who is slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love, you invite all who are weary to come to you and set our burdens down. You would give us rest if we would but learn from you. Your gentleness and humbleness make an easy yoke and our hearts and souls would find much needed rest. Your ways are easier than ours if we walk with you. We spend needless energy asserting our opinions and trying to make others see how wrong they are. You would rather we bear your yoke of gentleness and humility, extending mercy to our neighbors.

Lord, in your mercy, forgive us when we mistake our ways for your ways.

Amen.

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 6, 2014
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

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A Tough Thought… or Two

By word of warning, this week’s lectionary contains complex theology. Here’s my attempt at distillation…31257464416_ORIG

This week I find myself strangely drawn to Abraham. It’s not his parenting skills I admire for sure. Last week we read how he exhiled one son into the desert because his wife told him to. This week we read how he was prepared to sacrifice his only remaining son, the son for whom he’d waited his entire life. What strikes me about Abraham is his faith. On the one hand his faith seems so simple and uncomplicated, but on the other, Abraham’s faith is deeper and more true than I can really understand. He spent his life responding to God’s call in one way or another.

I’m not a fan of the concept of God setting things up just to test a person’s faith. I just don’t believe God does this to anyone, let alone to people who are clearly faithful. So there has to be another point to this story about Abraham and Isaac. What would make a person willing to sacrifice that which he or she holds most dear?

For Abraham it was trust in God. Whether it was trust that God would provide an alternative sacrifice or trust that God would make sacrificing Isaac worth it, can’t be clearly determined. There is more here than blind trust, though. God and Abraham had a long relationship in which God often asked that Abraham do unusual things while God took care of the impossible. Considering this, it is highly likely that Abraham desired to please God more than he desired anything else. He was not perfect to be sure, but he did seem to strive for righteousness to a degree that modern thinking has a hard time understanding. He would do anything to be “right with God.” For many of us in Mainline Christian traditions, we don’t spend much time thinking about righteousness or just what, exactly, God might be asking of us. The idea of pursuing righteousness or living holy lives does not much trouble the hearts and minds for many Christians. What if we let ourselves be concerned with such things?

Like my response to Abraham this week, I find myself surprised when I read the passage from Romans and nod again and again in agreement. Of course, my understanding of sin may be a bit different than the Apostle Paul’s. Yet, the point he makes about where and how we put ourselves out in the world, how we use our bodies, or allow ourselves to be used, rings true all these centuries later. Should we not endeavor to follow God more deliberately knowing that we are set aside for holy purposes in Christ? I think of all the suffering in the world, all the struggles for power and position, all the hoarding of resources and wonder what would happen in the world if we all took the idea of being enslaved to righteousness with the reward of sanctification a little more seriously.

This concept that we are set aside for a holy purpose resonates with something deep within me. Would I be willing to sacrifice that which I hold most dear if God asked it of me? I want the answer to be, “Yes, of course.” However, I honestly don’t know what I would do. I’m pretty good at telling God that I am willing to serve wherever God may call. Underneath my prayerful words, though, are all the qualifiers and preferences I have about my willingness to serve. I admire Abraham for his trusting pursuit of righteousness. Likewise the Apostle Paul. Realistically, though, I have a ways to go before there is clear evidence of sanctification in my life. Perhaps it’s time to pursue righteousness, a life lived in covenant with God, self, and neighbor, with far more intention and enthusiasm.

We are sanctified. It is time to pursue righteousness.scan0005

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:1-14 with Psalm 13 or
Jeremiah 28:5-9 with Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

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A Prayer for the Hagars and Ishmaels

Incline your ear, O Lord,
   and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
 
Preserve my life,
   for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
 
You are my God;
   be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.

Merciful God of all, it is so easy to forget that you hold this world in your hands. We think it is ours to do with as we choose. We think that we can decide who has your favor and who does not. Yet, if we listen to your Word, we know this is not true. We know that you call us to much greater things. You would have us care for the earth and welcome all people. You protected Hagar and Ishmael, claimed them as your own. Will you do the same for those who now wander in the wilderness?

Do you hear the voices of those cast out of their homes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa and other places where the violence of war makes new refuges every day? Do you hear the cries of those who wander without homes in every city and town? Do you see the tears falling from the eyes of hungry children everywhere? Do you feel the anguish of those who live with unrelenting symptoms of mental illness? Do you know the pain of rejection felt by LGBT youth no longer welcome in their homes or churches when they claim who their identity? Do you witness the foolishness of racism that harms so many innocent lives? The voices that cry out to you are more numerous than I can bear. Will you claim them all as you did Hagar and Ishmael so long ago? Will you call to them and show them that life is possible even in the midst of the desert when death looks like the only option?

Patient and steadfast God of life, I hear you even as I add my own cries in the wilderness. As I ask you what you will do, if you will claim these suffering souls as your own, you ask me the same. You tell me that they are already yours and ask when those who claim your name will act accordingly. You have shown us how to be merciful and loving when you saved Hagar and Ishmael with your love and grace. You offered them life beyond their imaginings. You wait for us to hear your Word and follow you with our whole lives. You desire for all your people a life of abundance beyond our imagining. Will your steadfast love endure until no one wanders in the wild places cast-out, forgotten, waiting for death?

Have mercy on those of us who think ourselves righteous because we live in homes apart from war, poverty, hunger, and disease. Open our lives to the cries of our neighbors that we might claim with your love, name them sister or brother. Teach us the way of gratitude and mercy that benefits the whole of creation.

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Gladden the soul of your servant,                                              (photo from unsplash.com)
   for to you, O Lord,
I lift up my soul.
 
For you, O Lord,
   are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love
   to all who call on you.

Amen.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday After Pentecost – June 22, 2014
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

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