Skeletons in the Closet

A Devotion for The Eleventh Day of Christmas January 4, 2018
Read Matthew 1:1-17

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew 1:1

The world Matthew lived in did not normally include women in the list of ancestors. Which is why the record of Jesus’s birth recorded in the gospel of Matthew is so important to us. It includes the names of five women, last of whom is Mary, mother of Jesus. Each suffered from prejudice in one form or another. Each woman included in the genealogy of Jesus has been a person on the outside. Through the words in the first chapter,  Matthew tells us that the Savior came for people who are the least loved in the world.  He does that  by naming the skeletons in the closet of Jesus.

Each of the women have compelling stories. Tamar’s story is found in the 38th chapter of the book of Genesis. Tamar is a young widow. In her world it was expected that when her husband died his brother would become her husband.  The tradition insured that the line of the lost child would continue, as well as support his widow.   Judah was Tamar’s father-in-law.   When  Tamar’s husband died,  she married his brother.   But, then that brother died.  Judah was convinced that Tamar was jinxed.    With the passing of years Tamar realized that Judah was never going to allow her to marry another of his sons.  Yet, she cannot legally marry anyone else. One day, disguised as a temple prostitute of a pagan religion, she meets Judah on the road. He spends time with her and she becomes pregnant. Some months later Judah  is outraged when he learns that Tamar is pregnant. He is ready to put her to death – until he discovers he is the father of her child. Among the ancestors of Jesus is the woman Tamar. Matthew is telling us that the Savior comes for people who have been unloved and unwanted.

The story of Rahab is told in the 2nd Chapter of Joshua. The Israelites are ready to move into the promised land. Rahab is a prostitute, forced into the trade by her economic circumstances. She offers to protect the scouts who stay at her home,  as she comes to believe that their God is the one true God. Rahab is brought into the community of Israel. According to rabbinic tradition, she is one of the four most beautiful women in the world and remembered for her kindness and courage. Among the ancestors of Jesus is Rahab, mother of Boaz. Matthew tells us that the Savior comes for those who have not always been proud of the way they have lived their lives. The Savior comes to give fresh starts and new beginnings.

The Familiar story of Ruth told in the book of Ruth, is the third woman named by Matthew. She is from Moab, a land and people hated by the Israelites. After her husband’s death, Ruth insists on going to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of her mother-in-law Naomi. Soon the village of Bethlehem sees Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law. They see her kindness, loyalty, and goodness. In spite of her immigration status she wins the hearts of the people and the heart of Boaz. Matthew tells us that among the ancestresses of Jesus is a foreigner. The Savior comes for the immigrant, the alien, the foreigner – anyone who is an outcast in society. Matthew tells us that the Savior came for people who have not found acceptance elsewhere.

The Wife of Uriah is the last before Mary to be mentioned. We find her story in the 11th chapter of II Samuel. Her name is Bathsheba and her story could be on the front pages of our newspapers. A powerful man and King takes advantage of her. She is caught between love for her husband and being a subject of a king. Her husband is off on the field of battle when King David spots her one day. She is a beautiful woman and he wants her for himself. Not long after he sends for her, he discovers that Bathsheba is pregnant. David decides to cover the deed by sending Uriah into the front lines, knowing he is likely to be killed in battle. Uriah dies, then David takes Bathsheba for his wife, but their first child dies. Bathsheba experiences losses and tragedy. She is violated by a king. Her husband dies in battle. Her life is manipulated by David. Since her first encounter with David, her life becomes crisis after crisis, filled with loss and pain. Later she will give birth to Solomon. Bathsheba stands in the line of Jesus as a statement that Jesus the Savior comes for those who have been violated and used by others.

Most all of us have some kind of skeleton in our closets. Along with the ancestors and family stories we tell only in whispers, there are the deeds we are ashamed of.   We remember moments when  we lost our temper. There are words we would take back if we could and attitudes which have been  destructive. We carry shame for things that have happened to us . . . ones we blame ourselves for. We keep our secrets tucked away. There are regrets and actions of an earlier day.

The promise of Christmas is, that the Savior comes for those who have reached their emotional and physical limits. The Savior comes for everyone who has felt forced by circumstances to compromise their deepest beliefs and values. The good news is that in Christ there is forgiveness for sins, a place for the outcast and acceptance for those who are living with shame. Most of all there is a love which frees us from our prisons of fear, of shame and of guilt.

Prayer: Loving Savior, You came to walk this journey with us. You came to free us from the hurt, pain, guilt and shame of yesterday. In this day, may we be willing to surrender our hurts, our pain, our guilt, our shame to you, trusting that in your love you will accept and love us even  as we are. We give thanks for the message that each of us is loved and cherished by you. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

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

Saved From Our Predicament

  It took me a long time to make my way through Marcus Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity.” I’d gotten stuck about midway and had almost consigned it a place on my bookshelf.   A friend’s words about the book encouraged me to pick it up once again. I’m so glad I did.

Borg talks about the “hatching of the heart, ” the transformation God works in us, when we open our hearts to God. He comments that we have taken too small a view of the Biblical images of salvation. While most of us think of salvation as God’s forgiveness for our sin, he reminds us of the many other images of Jesus which are also are part of the scriptures: Jesus came to be light in the dark moments of life; give sight to blind eyes, to set us free from the stuff that holds us captive; to welcome us whenever we return from the far country. Salvation includes our finding a home in God and  being resurrected from the land of the living dead we have consigned ourselves to. Borg says that salvation is really about being “saved from our predicament.”

I don’t know about you, but there are days I know I need to be saved from my predicament. I need a savior. A real savior. I  need God’s saving grace to save me from predicament’s I have landed in. I need that grace when my thoughts and actions do  not reflect what I profess to believe. I have needed  grace, when I’ve wandered away from God.

We need God’s saving power in those moments we realize that we are not at all where we are meant to be.  Instead we are in a predicament in a far country of the heart. We need light in our darkness and sight for our blind eyes. The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God provides a way out of our predicaments. God simply asks us to open our hearts to the truths and wisdom that will lead us out of our messes and into God’s arms.

All Things Working Together For Good

My sons were seven, six and four the summer they decided to poison their two year old sister. The two neighbor boys, who were generally down on girls and helped with the plan, were six and seven. I was never certain just what possessed my sons to do this. Their sister liked to tag along after them. But that could never justify in my mind, how they decided to put together a concoction of shaving cream, toothpaste and what they assumed to be poison mushrooms. Mostly, I remember my despair when the neighbor mom called and told me the plan my boys and hers had cooked up. Even now, I’m appalled when I think about it. I will tell you that I was not a calm mom at that point. I couldn’t wrap my head around what they wanted to do. There was never any real danger that my daughter would have tasted the mixture. Still it was a painful moment of recognizing that my perfect children were as vulnerable to imperfection as any others.

I wonder how the patriarch Jacob felt when he learned the true story of his son Joseph’s disappearance and presumed death. Recorded in the Biblical book of Genesis (chapters 37 through 50) the story of Joseph has intrigued generations of readers. Joseph with his special coat was sent to check on his older brothers. His brothers resented him and what they perceived as special treatment. Eight of Joseph’s brothers decided to kill him and rid themselves of the troublesome sibling. One, hoping to teach the boy a lesson and bring him home safe, convinced the others to put him in a pit. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when traders arrived and the others decided to sell their brother into slavery. Soaking Joseph’s coat in the blood on an animal, they let their father assume a wild animal must have killed his beloved son.

What they didn’t realize, in all of their scheming, was the devastating effect that losing Joseph would have on their father. The light just slipped out of his life. He was no longer the father they knew, but a broken man grieving for a lost child. Years would pass with Joseph’s brothers carrying a load of guilt and shame. Eventually, starvation led them to Egypt and their lost brother. By then, Joseph had risen to a status almost as great as Pharaoh.  His wisdom  prevented mass starvation in Egypt.  With the excess food that has been stored  he  can feed his brothers,  saving them and their famlies from famine.  Joseph could have treated his brothers with contempt. Instead, after revealing himself to them, he offers them forgiveness. It is not lost on the brothers that Joseph holds the power of life or death over them. To their surprise, Joseph tells them that what they intended for evil, God intended for good. The apostle Paul would say “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” Romans 8:28

My son’s intent to poison their little sister has proven to be a handy reference point, when I hear one of the three adult sons complain about children who are behaving badly. It is a a quiet reminder of their childhood and what behaving badly really looks like.

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

Lent – A Season of Turning Around

IMG_8923 When Jesus began his ministry he said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15  Repentance is not simply feeling remorse for wrongs done.   Rather it is a time of turning around.   True repentance is a radical  reassessment of how we live our lives, opening ourselves to change our whole way of thinking, reasoning and being.  It’s letting ourselves see the world as God sees it and  turning away from those parts of our lives  which limit our compassion, our goodness and our following Jesus.  Lent is such a time of reconnecting and of turning around.

Many years ago, I knew a woman who could not let go of her anger at a sibling. The event in question had happened in her childhood. By then the woman was growing frail, yet she continued her long grudge. Her sibling had reached out many times in the sixty years since that breach. Other family members had intervened. She, however, refused all efforts, all kindness, all willingness to understand. She would not allow herself to be reconciled.

As I listened to her reasons, I thought how sad that she would allow those thoughts to destroy the friendship of a sibling who genuinely cared about her. I thought of a relationship she had missed out on and the family gatherings she had excluded herself from. I thought of her ongoing loss. What I found especially sad was how much healing would have come to her,  if she had only been willing to let go of her pride and forgive.

That we are willing to forgive others is important to Jesus. Who other than Jesus, or a mom with a brood of kids, insists that we forgive each other?  The problem with hanging onto resentment is that eventually it will eat us up. Long term grudges imprison our possibilities. We cannot live our lives with joy, while simmering with resentment.

The need to forgive is just as real and genuine as our need to be forgiven.  Not forgiving destroys our spirits and our souls. When we refuse to forgive it causes not only us grief, but God. Paul said as much when he wrote these words to the people of Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:30-32

In your life there may be a person who needs your forgiveness. There may be a person who really needs to know that you have decided to forgive. Who in your life might that be? What can you do to express that forgiveness? What symbol can you share? May God give you grace to forgive, even as God has forgiven you.

*The season of Lent begins this year with  Ash Wednesday on March 1.

Forgiveness comes as a Refreshing Balm

An Unknown wisdom maker once commented, “It’s easy enough to have a clear conscience. All it takes is a fuzzy memory.” Sin, in whatever form, weighs heavily on our souls. It burdens us and keeps us from being the person God intends for us to be. Sin pulls us down, crushes our spirit and demeans our self-worth. Sin is defined as “missing the mark” a moment when we are less than we could have been.

I suspect that one has to sin really big-time to fully appreciate the pardoning grace of God. Most of us are little sinners, compiling over a lifetime, sins of thoughtlessness, insensitive comments, small sized lies, semi-malicious gossip and nitpicking moments. Ours are the private sins which we know well. The apostle Paul speaks of the human condition when he says of himself, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19 NRSV)

Then there are those of us who “blow it” in a big way. Our marriage falls apart, a moment of carelessness causes an accident, we mess up with a family member. A DWI or some less than ethical business dealings land us in court. Our sin becomes public knowledge. We are constantly confronted with reminders of a significant mistake or failure in our lives. Not only the mistake itself, but its accompanying loss stand as a stark reminder of yesterday’s stumble.

To all who have failed in life, to those who have made mistakes that hurt both themselves and those they love, God’s word of forgiveness comes as a refreshing balm. No longer do our hearts need to be burdened with guilt and shame. Forgiveness frees us from the past with its mistakes and failures. While we may live with the consequences of past sins, we are also freed to walk on new paths. And, remarkably, God takes the very mistakes of the past, in all of their ugliness – Weaving them into our lives in such a way that things of beauty and goodness spring from them. The Psalmist says of God, “Far as east is from west, so far has God put our offences away from us” (Psalm 103:13NEB). This is God’s promise. It is a promise of grace – God’s compassion, fresh every morning. We are pardoned people. Thanks be to God.