A New Heart

An Advent Devotion for December 9, 2017                                 Read Ezekiel 36:25-27

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you.” Ezekiel 36:26

Who among us does not need a new heart from time to time . . . one that is not tinged with resentment, envy, self-righteousness, greed or selfishness. We make mistakes. We do some really dumb things. We hurt people we don’t want to hurt, and neglect people who need our care. Negative experiences in our lives can harden our hearts. Not wanting to be hurt or be used again, we push people away. We turn our eyes from human need, ignore the cries of the world’s people and forget, that we too have a need for forgiveness and grace.

God, knowing our human condition, promised “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Daniel Schutte’s beautiful and powerful hymn, “Here I am Lord” is a response to God’s call in our lives. In one verse we hear God speaking to us echoing the words of Ezekiel,

“I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have born my peoples pain.
I have wept for love of them. They turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak My word to them,
Whom shall I send?”

Chorus: Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.

Schutte’s hymn calls for a response from each of us. Will we go? Will we hold God’s people in our heart?

Prayer: Lord of Advent, as we journey to Christmas, may our hearts become more open, more generous, more kind. May we answer your call to go and hold your people in our hearts. Melt, Lord, our hearts of stone and give us hearts for you alone. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found at:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Reflecting God’s Light

An Advent Devotion for December 6, 2017                                     Read Luke 1:57, 67-79

“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

As a young woman, there was a time when I desperately clung to a thread of hope. When I think back on those days, I’m reminded how people simply cared for me. Near strangers reached out to me. They showed me Christ like love and compassion. The world needs people to care, to show the way through the darkness . . . people who will reflect Christ’s light. People who through actions and words give the gift of hope, expressing love to troubled souls.

Most of us will never be in a position to negotiate a peace deal with Iran, North Korea or Afghanistan or resolve the nations health care crisis. But, each of us can be an instrument of love and hope in another person’s life. We can be a person who lets another know that we care. We can be part of the light splintering the darkness for another person. We can be one who gives the gift of hope.

Zechariah was visited by an angel who told him not only that his wife would have a son, but that his son would prepare the way for the coming messiah. At John’s birth words long held back, spilled out of Zechariah’s mouth as he prophesied. “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.”

Advent is a good season to spread the light of Christ where we live and work, in our homes and in our neighborhoods. For there is one who has shown us the way through the darkness and who guides our feet into the way of peace.

In the week ahead:
Put a candle in your window to remind the world of the way home.
Send a note of love and care.
Give a gift card to a person who is struggling economically.
Call or visit someone you know is discouraged.
Drop some dollars in a Salvation army kettle or volunteer to be a bell ringer.
Give a hug.
Be a friend.   Advocate on behalf of one who needs a voice.
Send some flowers.
Find a way to reflect light to the world.

Prayer: God of Advent, In our Advent waiting, show us who needs us to reach out in love and compassion this season. Show us ways to care, to share what we are able to share. May we be your instruments of love and grace. In our Advent waiting may we reflect your light to the world. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found at:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Empty Your Pockets

I write this on a warm September day in Minnesota.   So much of our life in this section of the country revolves around the seasons. We glory in the changing colors of fall. We treasure days, with their crisp sense of urgency, when we  can  enjoy and  celebrate the world around us. Our steps are lighter on days like this.       Yet, I wonder if we sometimes get it wrong, because every day – whatever the outside condition – is a gift God has given us.  It comes to us on trust. Our job is to take that day and to use it in the best way we can.

Erma Bombeck was known for her humorous journalism.  Yet,  she frequently seasoned her humor with pinches of wisdom. At the end of a newspaper column on March 10, 1987, Erma wrote these words:    “I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will go like this: “So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams that were unfulfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?”

“And I will answer, ‘I’ve nothing to return. I spent every-thing you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.”(Detroit Free Press)

Erma had a sense of how best to spend a life. What about you? Have you got any dreams to work on? Unused talent to put to work? Some unsaid compliments that need to be spoken? And is there any love that you need to spread around?  May your day be blessed with wisdom and the joy of using this day as the gift God created it to be.

The apostle Paul prayed that followers of Jesus would discover the gifts available to each of us.   He wrote,  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  Ephesians 3:16-19

Stumbling into God’s Arms

It is comforting to recognize that all of Jesus’ disciples, followers and friends slip. We flounder just after we’ve received the fresh insight, just when we think we’ve figured it out. We falter just at the time when we think we’ve come to terms with life and with God. Even those first disciples of Jesus swung between great insights and a certainty that Jesus was the Christ to the other side, of thinking that he had come to reclaim the power of a king in Jerusalem, replacing Herod. They had it together some days and others – not so much. One day they were faithful followers, the next doubting Jesus altogether. John Procotor, says of them “Enviable though their place in time may be, these disciples still flounder between insight and failure . . . their journey involves both progress and stumbling.”*

As do our journey’s. The grace-filled thing about this is that when we stumble, we stumble into God’s arms. We stumble between insight and failure. I think we feel this more, the greater our love for God is. We may see failure. God sees an opportunity for us to learn and grow. We get another opportunity to learn about kindness and grace. We are reminded of forgiveness and mercy. Humbling moments carry their own lesson on true humility.

There are times when we look to the giants of the faith, comparing ourselves to them. Yet, even they were not perfect. Mother Theresa had her moments of doubt. Others had issues with anger, relationships or grudges. Each of us carries a set of vulnerabilities. Some days we fail miserably and other we know we’ve done our best. We are frail human beings who need friendship, compassion, affirmation, love, encouragement and companionship. We need to know that we are both loved and loveable. God reminds us that no matter how high or how low our status, God loves each of us. God loves us in our fragility, woundedness, dysfunctional behavior and everything else. God loves us when we are at our worst and at our very best. God’s love never fails. But whenever we stumble, God gently and quietly draws us forward, pulling us back to places of healing and rest. For this I give thanks.

*John Procotor, “Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Volume I” Reflection on Matthew 13:10-17

The Power to Push Back the Darkness

CandleFlameOn Sunday’s when I’m home sick, I like to check out the online worship service at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City (www.cor.org). Adam Hamilton has been the lead pastor since the church began in 1990 around the idea that the church would be designed for “thinking people.” It was planned for people who are not shy about asking the questions of faith and willing to admit their doubts . . . People who sense that faith is more complex than the easy answers some would give us. A while back I was struck by Adam Hamilton’s comment, “You are God’s strategic plan to push back the darkness.” I have to admit, that I have never thought of myself in those terms. Yet, hearing the words and being reminded that we are the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, got me to thinking – Just what does a Christian do, to push back the darkness in our world?

The present political climate in the United States is cause for many of us to search for a way to push back the darkness. Our inner demons have been set loose. The past year of campaign rhetoric has fueled attitudes of arrogance, racism, and fear. All of which lack the compassion of a Jesus. I find it hard to comprehend the attitude of people who claim the name of Christian and then proceed to do hate speech on social media. Christians are seeped in foundational stories which ground us. We remember Jesus telling us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters , it is as if we are doing it for him. (Matthew 25:31-46) I’m troubled by Christian friends who have missed this compelling message of Jesus.

We live in a world of deep challenges, in a nation so divided that we find it hard to even talk to each other about the issues that divide us, but matter to all of us. Likewise, we live in a time of immense possibilities in need of people who will direct those possibilities for good. It comes to me that each of us, does have the power to push back the darkness. Each of us has the power of words, where we live and work, in our families and in our homes. We have the power to influence through our own attitudes and actions. Especially, we can use our words on behalf of people who are targets of bigotry, injustice and callousness.

We have been born into this time and this era for a purpose. We are followers of Jesus who need to act in love and be God’s strategic plan to push back the darkness, We do that by being agents of God’s love and grace. Our part may seem very small. It may seem insignificant, but daily we have the power to use the influence we have to build bridges of understanding. We can influence through our generosity. We can give support and encouragement to people who need to know the gift of friendship and the power of God’s loving care through us. Today we can make another person’s life better, because of who we are and what we do and say. We really can be people who push against the darkness.

Jesus said it another way, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized (NRSVA)

The Enigma of Donald Trump in the Evangelical World

The enigma of Donald Trump has both fascinated and frightened those of us who believe a country should be governed by people of principle, integrity and compassion. From the very beginning of his unlikely run for the presidency of the United States, he seems to be immune to the very attitudes which would get the rest of us fired from jobs, lose friends and be banished from the world of politics.

Some people believe that he is feeding off the anger in our nation. Other’s that his success is a product of obstructism in Congress. His campaign is certainly fueled by an anger that is both real and inflamed by media talk. Talk which has fanned imagined as well as genuine wrongs. I would never have thought we would get to this place in my country. I have begun to understand how Germany was given over to the Nazi’s in a different era.

What puzzles me the most is how Donald Trump has captured so many people who are Evangelical Christians. I’ve wondered, is there no correlation between faith and action? How can a follower of Jesus be a supporter of one so unlike Jesus? It isn’t that the Bible doesn’t offer some guidance. When the apostle Paul wrote to the people of Galatia, it was to give direction on how a Christian lives in the world. He bemoaned the reality he saw, of good people confused by other voices, giving into a faith that no longer resembled the faith of Jesus. He writes to them, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

Nothing in the campaign of Donald Trump shows any indication that he has taken seriously the words of Jesus. From his attitude toward, immigrants, minorities, women and the disabled, there has been a distinct lack of compassion, empathy or concern. So how can people of faith, accept this man as the person best prepared to lead our country? Paul goes on to talk about what a Christian looks like saying, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Galatians 5:22-23

I can understand people being angry who feel left out of the economic recovery. What I don’t understand are people of faith, turning to a person who lives so outside the values of their faith. Because if our following of Jesus is real, if it means anything at all, we ought to be growing more and more Christ-like in our attitudes, our actions, our values and our beliefs.

We should be looking at people to lead our nation whose faith is real, whose lives reflect the fruit of God’s spirit. We ought to be looking at people who are at the core of their being, filled with compassion and kindness. Political ideology aside, I want someone who reflects the values and beliefs of the faith they claim as their own.

Following Jesus – The One Who Is – Or the One We Want Him to Be

I attended a retreat recently where we were asked to think of ways that we have re-touched Jesus. When I saw the title of the talk, I immediately thought of the need to get close to Jesus, like the woman who thought if she could just touch his garment, she would be healed. But that was not the question. Instead, we were asked to reflect on the ways that each of us have, like an artist retouching a painting, retouched the Jesus revealed in scripture, to one more to our liking. Were we looking at the Jesus who is, or the one that we want him to be?

When I am honest with myself, I want a Jesus who thinks like me and agrees with me. I want one who understands when I don’t quite live up to Jesus’s value system. I want a Jesus who shares my political views and values. I want a Jesus who gets upset with the people I get upset with and who gets mad at the politicians I get mad at. I want a Jesus who agrees with me on all social issues and not just some. I want a Jesus who resembles me.

A few years back some prominent evangelical church leaders began to call themselves, “Red Letter Christians.” A reference to the way some Bible publishers print the words of Jesus in red. These leaders committed themselves to take seriously the words of Jesus in their day to day life. Focusing on the red letters, makes it more difficult to ignore what Jesus really has to say about being givers of grace, compassion, generosity of spirit and sharing our wealth. The red letters reveal the heart of God. They challenge on several levels. In Jesus’s words, love becomes an action, and not just a feeling. Personal morality is laced with mercy for others. The stones we’d throw at people we dislike, are pointed back at our own moral errors. Ignoring the poor and vulnerable – people who are homeless, hungry and strangers is among the “big sins” in the eyes of Jesus.

Following Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus demands from us more than our opinions and the biases or our childhood. It demands that we listen to him. When Jesus was revealed as God’s son, beloved and chosen, those who were with him heard the words, “Listen to him.” Modern followers of Jesus can do no less.