Wandering in the Desert

2014-09-18 10.24.41

Having spent a week in the Arizona desert surrounded by memories of other times and places, I have greater sympathy for those ancient Israelites. The heat of the sun and the strange, twisted nostalgia that loss brings conspire to make the past much better than it was. Looking around at the dusty landscape makes one question how any life thrives there, let alone human life.

There is something else that lives in the desert, though. If it’s possible to stop and take a deep breath, there is an austere beauty. The mountains in the distance whisper of mysteries long forgotten. The spirit of this place—ancient, simmering, hidden—points toward a holiness. It is impossible to hide from God in desert places, but it is very easy to forget God’s presence, God’s abundance, and clamor for more than what is.

The mistake is in thinking that water will quench the thirst that seems constant or that a bit of manna will quench the hunger. It is only in the moments of quiet stillness that a soul can be satisfied. What if all those on that ancient journey took a moment to look around, to appreciate their freedom, to recognize God’s presence with them, to imagine the good things God had in store for them. To do all these things and give thanks instead of crying out for more, and more, and more. What if we all did the same?

I’m not a fan of the desert, but I do appreciate it’s beauty and the tenacity of life that grows there. I also think everyone should wander through a desert at least once just to realize how precious and fragile her or his life really is… and to get a sense of God’s abiding presence in the barren places.

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RCL – Year A – Fifteen Sunday after Pentecost – September 21, 2014
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

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Faith and Forgiveness: A Pastoral Prayer

Before time existed, Holy God, you were there. Before the world came into being, you just were. Long after this creation fades away, you will continue to be. Humanity is such a small part of all that is, yet we fool ourselves into believing we are invincible. You know better. You know our weaknesses and our propensity for destruction. We wage wars against our enemies, against our neighbors, and against ourselves because we are lost and afraid of our own frailty. We long for you to come to us as you went to the Israelites. We want you to lead us out of all that holds us captive, all that prevents us from being your people. Grant us the courage to follow the pillars of fire you set before us, leading us to freedom. You are the God who saves and we are a people in need of saving.

mountains

Gracious God, your steadfast love endures forever. You remember the days of Moses when even the mountains trembled before you. Be patient with us as we try to remember who you are and whose we are. Much has cluttered our lives, making it hard for us to recall or even to experience anew the wonder and awe of your power and presence. We worry over news of hate crimes, threats of more death and destruction in the Middle East, acts of war in Syria and Ukraine, the ebola virus spreading through parts of Africa, the anger and ignorance coming from our own politians, the sickness of loved ones, and our own personal struggles to find health and wholeness. We get so caught up in our worries and busyness that we forget that you are a God and we are not. Moreover, you are a God who is slow to anger and who abounds and steadfast love. You are present in all the broken places in our lives and throughout the world. You wait for us to turn to you for healing, for justice, for peace. Stir us to action, action that will set us on a path of service to you.

Long before we drew lines on our maps that separate one people from another, you claimed us all as your beloved. Your capacity for grace and forgiveness is beyond our understanding. We live in such narrow places and hold on to such petty anger. We are a forgiven people, a people called to live in love, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Remind us of how much we have been forgiven so that we may remember to withhold harsh judgment against our brothers and sisters whose lives may be so different from our own. May we seek to live in holy love, responding to hatred and violence with compassion and forgiveness that will lead to justice and peace for all your peoples. Let us not try your patience any longer with our selfish ways. Ignite your fire within our hearts that we may become beacons of hope for all who come seeking you.

Cape Trip May 2010 035Merciful God, you know us better than we know ourselves. We long to have the faith and courage of Moses as he led your people, but you know how reluctant we are to take our shoes off to stand on holy ground. Likewise, we yearn to be as forgiving as Jesus told his first disciples to be. Yet we fail to forgive ourselves as you have forgiven us, which often prevents us from extending forgiveness to others. Remind us of your enduring presence throughout human history—your astounding acts of grace, healing, and love—and all the people who have come before us in faith, showing us that you are an amazing God, worthy of our praise. You are the God who will not leave us alone no matter how often we are flooded with doubts or how long we hold onto anger and pain. Open our hearts that we may sing praises worthy of your name.

God of the quiet and the chaos, come to us once again in this time of prayer. Silence our anxieties and fears, humble our desires for greatness, and fill us with compassion. You have claimed us as your people to serve in your name wherever we find ourselves. Even though we are often distracted from what is truly important, we are grateful. We are grateful that we are your people here and now and that your love for us will never end. Trusting in your eternal promises, we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

 (Mountain photo used by permission Unsplash.com)

RCL – Year A – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost           
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

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Follower or Friend?

I’ve probably said it before and I’m saying it again:  I do not understand hatred and bigotry. Nor do I understand violence in any form but particularly as a means of problem solving. Every time I hear a statement that reveals racism or another form of bigotry I am startled. When I learn about another act of hate-motivated violence I am deeply saddened. This is not what we were created to be and it is not how we are meant to live. I want to ask why we continue to live in a world where fear is often used to ignite hatred and violence, but I know this is a pointless question.

Instead I am thinking of the writings of Dorothee Soelle who wrote about suffering, among other things. While I don’t remember the exact citation, I do remember a line from one of her books that said, “Jesus has many followers but few friends.” That stood out to me. Mostly because I’m not sure how many followers he really has since following Jesus is one of the hardest paths one might choose to walk, but also because I thought about what it would take to be Jesus’ friend in more than a superficial, acquaintance kind of way.

Soelle also wrote about Jesus as “goel.” My understanding is that this is a Hebrew word meaning “redeemer.” Soelle elaborates on this and adds the concept of witnessing suffering. But more than just standing by watching. The witnessing she spoke about was the active kind. Standing with those who suffer, sharing the pain of those who suffer unbearably. When I was reading her writing I thought about what it would mean to be the kind of Christian who would not leave Jesus to carry his own cross. There’s something to be said for the goel image, the witnessing redeemer who does not leave us on our own and who expects that we will not leave our neighbors on their own. So, I’m done with trying to be a follower of Jesus. I am want to be counted among Jesus’ friends.

So I will not shrug my shoulders and turn away when I read that there has been a significant increase in suicide deaths of older men in recent weeks. I will not shy away from the fact that human trafficking of girls and young women (boys and young men, too) happens in unexpected places a lot like where I live. I will not lash out at my Muslim neighbors because of the terrorist acts of a few extremists, no matter how disturbing those actions are. I will not laugh at the man with aluminum foil on his head, yelling at the cars as they go by. I will not accept the ignorant comments about a man wearing a yarmulke and Tallit Katan. What I will do is to name these ugly truths and do everything in my power to stop them from continuing.

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This will only be enough if we all stop following and start being Jesus’ friends. It’s time our witness becomes active. It’s time to heed the advice of the Apostle Paul with more than our words.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

RCL – Year A – Thirteen Sunday after Pentecost – September 7, 2014

 

Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 or
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

 

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Bible Study based on the UCC Statement of Faith

This is set up to be 8 or 9 weeks, meeting 1-2 hours per week. I created this many years ago for a congregation that was unsure of its beliefs and its UCC identity. It’s more of an outline than anything else. I tend to invite a lot of conversation and discussion when I lead Bible studies which allows the group to go where it needs to go. If you find this helpful, feel free to use and adapt it as is best for your setting.

Week One: 

Open with prayer

  • Overview of the history and formation of the UCC.
  • Highlights of social justice activites from The Amistad days to more recent events.
  • Brief talk about our polity and the structure of the Conference.
  • The goal of the next 8 weeks of Bible Study is to help answer the questions of why be UCC from a theological perspective.
  • Along the way, we will always seek to answer the “So what?” question in terms of what this means for us as a congregation and as individuals following Christ.
  • What other questions are folks wanting addressed?

Conclude with the reading of the Statement of Faith

Week Two:

Open with prayer

We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify:
God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death.

Read and discuss the following scripture passages:

John 1:1-14                 What does this passage tell us about who God is? Who Jesus is? Who we are?

Genesis 1:1-31            What does this story of creation tell us about God? About creation? About humanity?

Genesis 2:1-23            The second creation story. What does this story tell us about God, creation, humanity?

  • If there is time, you can also look at Genesis 3 and the “Fall Story.”
  • Based on these stories and our own experiences, what would we add or change about these opening lines to the Statement of Faith?
  • What does it mean that God “sets before us the ways of life and death? Does this mean what you thought it did or something different?

Conclude with reading The Statement of Faith

Week 3:

Open with prayer

God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

Read and discuss the following scripture:

John 3:1-21     What does this story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus tell us about God? Jesus? Ourselves?

Romans 8        This passage contains a lot. Spend some time discussing what it says about sin and what it says about God’s capacity for love.

  • When we think about God’s love for us as it is described in these passages, what does it mean for us? What should it mean for us?
  • Would you add or change anything in this part of the Statement of Faith?
  • Where do you see evidence of God’s life in the UCC, in this church, in your life?

Conclude with reading the Statement of Faith

Week 4:

Open with prayer

God judges all humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles.

Read and discuss the following passages:

Mark 12:1-34        Have a discussion about what righteousness is and is not. How does this passage inform
us about God’s judgement and what it might mean to be righteous?

Micah 6:1-16  Is there anything in this passage that applies to us today? In this passage what is righteous
and what is judged negatively?

  • Do we believe that God judges humanity? If there is judgement, where does the love of Christ come in?
  • Do we live righteously as a church? As individuals? Where is the evidence?
  • What would you add or change in this part of the Statement of Faith?

Conclude with reading the Statement of Faith

Week 5:

Open with prayer

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator.

Read and discuss the following scripture passages:

Galatians 3:1-29         The church in Galatia struggled with what it meant to be Christian. How is their
struggle similar to our own? What part of being a follower of Christ is the most difficult? What part is easiest?
John 10                       There’s a lot in this passage. Discuss what it says about who Jesus is and what he intended to do for us. What does this mean for us today?

  • What does it mean to say the Jesus conquered sin and death? Do we live as if we are part of a creation reconciled to its Creator? What gets in the way?
  • In what ways do we show our belief that Jesus has conquered sin and death? Is there more we can do?
  • How would you change or what would you add to this part of the Statement of Faith?

Conclude by reading the Statement of Faith.

Week 6:

Open with prayer

God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

Read and discuss the following passages:

John 14           Jesus offered comfort to his disciples in this passage. What does it say to us about who Jesus is? Who the Holy Spirit is? Does it say anything about being bound in covenant?

Acts 2:1-39     This is the tradition reading for Pentecost. What does this say about the power of the Holy Spirit? What does this tell us about who is faithful?

  • Who or what is the Holy Spirit?
  • Where do we see the Holy Spirit at work in the world today? In our church? In our lives?
  • How does the Spirit bind us together in covenant with other faithful people?

Conclude by reading the Statement of Faith

Week 7:

Open with prayer

God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.

Read and discuss the following scripture passages:

John 15           What does this passage tell us about being disciples of Christ? What are the costs? What are the joys?

Romans 12      What does this passage tell us about being the church? How are we to serve one another and the whole of humanity?

  • Do we spend much time thinking about being disciples of Christ? What gets in the way?
  • How do we serve one another and our community in this church?
  • Where is there evidence, by word or action, of our proclaiming the gospel?
  • Who is welcome to eat at Christ’s table in our midst?
  • What would you add to or change about this part of the Statement of Faith?

Conclude by reading the Statement of Faith

Week 8:

Open with prayer

God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.

Read and discuss the following scripture passages:

Matthew 11:28-30      Jesus spoke these words of invitation after condemning whole cities for their
power hungry way of being. How do we respond to these words today? Is there comfort? Hope? Disbelief? What do these few verses say about who Jesus is and how he views us?

 
Isaiah 43:1-13             What does this passage say about forgiveness? grace? courage?

 
John 4:1-26                 What does this passage tell us about eternal life? Is it believable? Is it something we want? 

  • Do we live as though we believe in forgiveness and grace?
  • Where have you experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial? in rejoicing?
  • What does eternal life in Christ mean for you?
  • Do we as a church embody these things?
  • What would you change about or add to this part of the Statement of Faith?

Close with reading the Statement of Faith

Week 9:

Open with prayer

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God. Amen.

Summary of the previous weeks

Unaddressed questions?

Based on these weeks of study, what does it mean to be UCC? How do we show our beliefs? What do we do well? What could we do better?

If we were to write a statement of faith for this congregation, what would be similar to the UCC statement, what might be different?

Where do we go from here? What kind of study would you like next? What questions came from this study that you would like to explore?

Conclude with one last reading of the Statement of Faith

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Barefoot on Holy Ground

This week is a vacation week for me, but I’ve been thinking over this week’s scriptures because they are among my favorites. As a result, I offer this prayer based on Romans 9:12-21 with a nod to the Exodus passage.

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Wash us all with your love, Holy One, that our love may be genuine

            Teach us to hate all that mars the beauty of your creation

                        greed, pettiness, violence, entitlement, war, oppression, self-righteousness

                        the list goes on and we know it as well as You do if we stop to pay attention

            Remind us that all our neighbors carry Your image     

                        never should it matter where they come from

                        or by what name they know You

May our love be genuine

 

Stir in us Your Holy Spirit, that our zeal may never lag

            Call us to serve You fully, making all our ground holy

                        hope that comes from You will enable us to endure all things

                        even as we open our doors to strangers, offer sanctuary in Your name

            Guide us to a day when hospitality is the only way we greet one another

                        without worry or fear, judgment or disrespect

                        for in the other we will see the One

May our zeal never lag

 

Create clean hearts in us, O God, that we may be overcome by good

            Show us how to be the Body of Christ that is needed right now

                        letting go of yesterday’s vision, opening to today’s needs

                        seeking wisdom, patience, courage and acceptance

            Save us from our the limits of our selves and free us to find the abundance of You

                        may our actions match our prayers for all to live in peace

                        with food, drink, and safety for all of creation

May we be overcome by good.

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RCL – Year A – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 31, 2014
Exodus 3:1-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c or
Jeremiah 15:15-21 with Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

 

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A Little Pre-Vacation Poetry

Since I am heading out very soon for vacation, I am sharing this poem from one of my books. It is based on a verse from this week’s reading from Romans. It is on pg. 27 of Barefoot Theology.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
-Romans 12:2

Discernment2013-02-17 11.11.02

Clouds
nearly black
cloak the sun
they rush from horizon
to shore across a churning
sea bringing defiant winds painful hail
excessive lightning streaming rain mind–numbing thunder
I created this storm that rages
through my life watched it
gather strength knowing it
would hurt me
I changed
nothing
ignored intuition
stubbornly focused on
my having my own way
until the first startling thunder shocked
me into stillness recognizing my reckless needless
flight into chaos God would have
me do otherwise if
I’d just be
still and
know

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RCL – Year A – 11th Sunday after Pentecost – August 24, 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10 with Psalm 124 or
Isaiah 51:1-6 with Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

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A Prayer for Mercy

Holy and merciful God,

I stand here as waves of sentiment wash over the world

wondering what I am to do…

Grief, sadness, anger as a beloved actor dies by suicide

Indifference at odds with outrage when a teen is shot

and protesters are abused seemingly because of race

Fear fueling anger, blaming and naming Muslims as terrorists

when there are others swirling hatred and politics in Israel, Palestine, Syria

Then comes the undertow of worry

This Ebola virus, can it be contained before it reaches our shores?

 

Lessons of forgiveness and radical hospitality taught to us by Joseph

echo unheeded in our ears

And when Jesus showed us the inclusivity of grace

we focus on the seemingly harsh words that came before

rather than the beautiful healing and compassion

After all, someone has to be blamed for all this pain

 

So, please, dear God of grace and compassion, have mercy

Have mercy on those who have died by suicide,

on those who live in its aftermath,

and on those who are so lost in the painful dark that death seems the only way

Set us free from the painful anger that suicide brings

turn our hearts to hope and healing

and our attention to those who sit in darkness

May we become the Light of Life for those in such desperate need

 

Have mercy on those who are blinded to the beautiful diversity of the human race

Jesus reached beyond the boundaries and prejudices of his day

showing us the need to welcome and love for all our neighbors

Stir your Spirit within us

Allow us to stand with those who are disregarded and discarded

Let your people cry out with the pain of injustice

until all realize that your love

knows nothing of our borders and boundaries

 

Have mercy on the Muslim, Christian, or Jew who has lost sight of you

Forgiveness, grace, and hospitality ought to be practiced by all

Fighting over land, politics, religion seems senseless

when we remember we are called to walk in the way of peace

Reveal your Truth

May no one justify war or murder in your name

Open our eyes and our hearts to the sister and brother

we now see as other

 

Have mercy on those who are sick and dying,

on those who mourn the loss of loved ones,

on those who seek to contain the virus,

and on those who live in constant fear

Let no one speak words of condemnation,

believing you sent this virus to punish a sinful people

Remind us all that you are a God of love and healing

whose forgiveness blankets the world with abundant grace

Make us ever mindful that each life is a gift

to be honored and treasured

 

God of all creation, hear my prayer

Hear this prayer even as my words fail to capture the depth of need

even as others speak louder

Hear this prayer for healing, for justice, for peace

in my life, in the lives of my neighbors, and in all creation

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RCL – Year A – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 17, 2014
Genesis 45:1-15 with Psalm 133 or
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 with Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

 

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