Throwback Thorsday

Today is Thorsday (aka Thursday) and, I’m told, it’s also #NationalSuperheroDay. I don’t know why that’s a thing, but I like it. Since I was just talking with a friend about a sermon I once did about Thor…seems like a good day for an archive post. Plus, I really do enjoy Marvel’s Thor books. The current run with [SPOILER ALERT – look away if you haven’t yet read the story arc revealing the identity of the new Thor]…Dr. Jane Foster as Thor has been particularly fun to read and is beautifully drawn. Here’s a small sample:

Thor image

 

Pretty awesome, right? Anyway, here’s The Gospel According to Thor


Originally posted January 30, 2014

You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.

I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.

Let me know what you think.

photo credit Colleen Erbach
This was the bulletin cover that day. Photo credit Colleen Erbach

“The Gospel According to Thor”

Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23

Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!

Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:

Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games

Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.

Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.

So really, why not Thor??

Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.

Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.

“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”

“Why?”

“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”

“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”

“What! How do you figure?”

“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”

While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.

So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?

A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.

When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.

There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:

[I showed a few panels from Thor: God of Thunder #12]

-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…

-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.

-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.

-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.

-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.

-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.

-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball

-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.

-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.

Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.

So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”

“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.

We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.

As Julie Clawson writes, “We need as a culture to see that if we are creative and brave enough sometimes the biggest and baddest dragons can be defeated. Only story could do that for us.

Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:

For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.

Or consider this from CS Lewis:

“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Stories within stories within stories.

In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.

Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??

Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.

Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.

Stories within stories within stories.

There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.

(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)

God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.

Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?

Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.

One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”

You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”

Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:

-1 Billion w/o clean safe water

-800 million hungry

-27 million trapped in slavery

-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted

-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability

There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.

And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.

Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!

But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:

-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.

-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people

-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.

-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.

How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.

What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?

I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?

————–

*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.

 

My most famous photo

Well, the photo in question isn’t really famous. And it’s about the only photo of me that’s published somewhere other than on my own sites, so that “most” modifier isn’t really necessary. Oh, and it’s a picture of me but not by me. Other than those minor quibbles, the title of this post is totally accurate.😉

The picture in question?

OL didicating letters WUMC
photo credit: Patti Cash

That picture, or a version of it, appeared in a guest post I wrote for Bread for the World‘s Bread Blog. It appeared in the print version of that story in Bread’s Newsletter. I’ve used it for a post or two here and it serves as my representative on my About Me page.

Then last month I was interviewed about congregations conducting Offerings of Letters for an article to appear in Bread for the World’s April 2016 newsletter. As part of that interview, I was asked for a photo or two of our OL. I sent six or seven options, but in the end they chose this one. Again. I’m no photographer, but I guess it offers a decent amount of color, a vision of collection plates overflowing with letters, a peak at people praying, the context of the shot with “Dedication of Letters” visible on the screen, and it catches Tim looking at the camera.

Anyway, I love working with Bread for the World. They do a tremendous job combining Christian witness and advocacy through education, political engagement, and coalition-building. I’m proud of the way Woodridge UMC has embraced advocacy as worship. My congregation — and it’s Lead Pastors past and present — are amazing! I’m humbled and grateful to have Bread highlight our efforts. Here’s a taste of the article, Congregations Engage in Offering of Letters:

Bread for the World’s annual Offering of Letters campaign engages congregations and other faith communities in writing letters to Congress. There are as many ways to hold an Offering of Letters as there are groups that undertake the activity…

Rev. Dave Buerstetta serves as Koinonia pastor for Woodridge United Methodist Church in Woodridge, Ill. He has integrated the Offering of Letters into the life of Woodridge. He uses the power of social media to raise awareness. Buerstetta also writes a personal blog…

The letters from Cincinnati and from Woodbridge [sic] Church were among the more than 200,000 letters sent to Congress in 2015. In January of this year, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016…

Read the whole thing here.

I admit it makes me a bit uncomfortable to be offered as an example of how to effectively use social media in ministry. Still, thank you, Bread! That’s very kind.

How about you? With what forms of advocacy are you engaging? How can we amplify one another?

 

 

 

 

April 15th, Jackie Robinson Day

I love baseball. It’s been my favorite sport to play, watch, follow, and read about my whole life. Now it’s our 10 year old son’s favorite too. 

I love striving for justice, especially what usually gets called social justice. I love trying to learn more, reading about it, connecting with people and organizations  working on poverty, hunger, discrimination, and human trafficking to name a few. 

Like anyone with eyes, ears, or even a minute willingness to view reality as it actually is, I know racism is at the center of all our country’s other problems and issues. 

Today, all three threads join together (Voltran style?) in the form of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day. 

April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in MLB. One hashtag I’ve seen for it #Jackie4

  

So I’m going to try making this an open thread of sorts, updating throughout the day as I encounter stories or events about Robinson and/or confronting racism. 

Update #1: got invited to the Cubs v Rockies game. Thanks, Mike!

  

Update 2: In 1946, Robinson played for the Dodgers’ Minor League team in Montreal. Check out Keith Olbermann’s tweet with a program from that year:  
Update 3: On Jackie Robinson Day everyone honors him by wearing his #42. How cool is that?

  

  

Walking (and reading) the Stations

Last year this blog went through an extended new-post drought. While I wasn’t posting here, I was still writing and posting (at least occasionally) for my church site blog. Those posts felt specific to that audience, so I didn’t put them here even though I always use this site to write them (the WordPress process is so much more user-friendly than the church site one). Perhaps I thought those posts weren’t worthy of a wider audience?

I’m in awe of my friend Rocky Supinger’s ability to post five to seven times per week. His post this week, Something is Better Than Nothing, inspired me to decide I’m just going to share in this space at least a version of what I put on the church site. Perhaps I’ll even manage to empty out that Drafts folder in the coming days and weeks. Thanks, Rocky!

Anyway, here’s a response to our Good Friday worship experience at Woodridge UMC….

After our Good Friday experience of dining together and walking the Stations of the Cross, one participant asked if we could print the pictures used for each station instead of just having them on the screen. Another participant asked if we could offer the text from each station here on the website. So, here we go…

I was surprised by the number of people who weren’t familiar with walking the Stations of the Cross. I guess I thought the practice was more widespread, but that seems not to be the case, at least among our congregation. “I thought that was just a Catholic thing,” I heard a few times. Please note: not once was this said in the “that’s too Catholic for us” old critique kind of way. Each time it was said from a place of curiosity and wonder.

We started out by sharing that walking the Stations of the Cross is a form of prayer that’s been used since at least the Middle Ages, with some references of it going all the way back to St. Jerome, circa 325-420 CE. Christians have engaged in the practice for a long time.

Since we don’t have permanent Stations, we had to place our readings throughout the sanctuary and sort of hunt for them. At each station one person sounded a chime, another person read the station’s title and it’s description. Then the chime was sounded again to mark the end of that station. Plus, each station featured an aforementioned visual image projected on the screen.

You’ll have to imagine the chime and visual, but here then are the titles and readings we used for each station. They are adapted from a resource found at preachingpeace.org.

Station 1 — Jesus is condemned to die.

Pilate found no fault with Jesus, but when the crowd grew loud, he grew silent. “I wash my hands. You deal with it.” Pilate had the knowledge and the power to stand and say “No!” to the world as it sought to crush the Lord of Life, but he chose not to act on his knowledge nor use his power.

 

Station 2 — Jesus takes up his cross.

This cross has now been thousands of years in the making. Its weight still grows greater each time I look for someone to blame for the pain in my world. Each time I insist that sin must be punished, I add an ounce to the burden Jesus carries for me. This is the cross Jesus carries; it is the cross of blame, of vengeance.

 

Station 3 — Jesus falls the first time.

Jesus, they watched you fall, and nervously laughed together. The laughter transformed them from individuals to a collective, and gave them a sense of belonging. Their laughter reduced you to a joke, to something less than a man. They became a mob, and relinquished their individual sense of right and wrong.

 

Station 4 — Jesus meets his mother.

Jesus, they wanted to make you an object of laughter to isolate you completely, but your mother’s loving presence got in the way. She withstood the blows of taunt and sorrow to be present for you along the way. She alone remained to give you courage, to remind us that you are someone’s child, just like we are.

 

Station 5 — Simon helps Jesus carry the Cross.

They needed you to die, Jesus, but their rage had gone too far. You were beaten so severely, not able to go on, so they looked for a solution that wouldn’t involve them too closely or have them touch the cross themselves. The answer – find a stranger who had no idea who you were to carry the cross. Simon knew nothing of your innocence.

 

Station 6 — Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

Jesus, you had been beaten so badly that you were “marred beyond human semblance.” As you walked along, you were almost unrecognizable. It was so much easier to hate you, to jeer you, to wish you dead when they couldn’t see your face. Veronica did not permit that luxury. She stepped forward and wiped away the blood and sweat, revealing your human face to all the onlookers.

 

Station 7 — Jesus falls the second time.

The first time you fell, Jesus, the onlookers laughed. Your fall made their hatred well up even more powerfully. Even though Simon was forced to help you, you fell again and showed weakness, so the mob screamed all the louder, “Get up! Get up!” desperate to find an outlet for their rage. They recognized that life was not the way they wanted it to be and someone had to be blamed, and so they taunted you. “Get up, Jesus! Hurry up!”

 

Station 8 — Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

Jesus, you told them, “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.” The women of Jerusalem, standing at a distance, wanted to weep for you as though your fate were unrelated to theirs, as though the violence you suffered did not affect them as well. You turned their sympathy back on to them; to remind them that your fate was their fate, too.

 

Station 9 — Jesus falls the third time.

Jesus, you did all you could do. You were utterly beaten, defeated, with not an ounce of strength left, so the remainder of what was to happen was left to the mob. They were not finished watching, taunting, hating. Like the potter’s clay, they fashioned you into what they needed you to be.

 

Station 10 — Jesus is stripped before the crowd.

Physical humiliation wasn’t enough. Spitting wasn’t enough. Whipping wasn’t enough. Crucifixion wasn’t enough. The mob needed to shame Jesus, to strip away from him any shred of human dignity. They were blind to the dignity in which his heavenly Father, our heavenly Father clothed Jesus. Unable to see his deeper dignity, they took sadistic pleasure in the shame they poured out on him.

 

Station 11 — Jesus is nailed to the Cross.

Hanging on the cross was not cruel enough, Jesus. Watching you suffocate would not satisfy the rage of the mob. So instead of using the traditional ropes, they needed to use nails to cut through your human flesh, to help the rage bleed away.

 

Station 12 — Jesus dies on the Cross.

The mob stood in stunned silence as they surveyed the result of their sin. The Lord of Life, Jesus, hung dead on the cross. The peace they pursued as they chased him up the hill refused to come. As they gazed upon Jesus, their victim, the realization dawned – violence would never bring peace. They were terrified and alone even as they stood with one another.

 

Station 13 — Jesus is taken down from the Cross.

Once the spectacle ended, the mob felt compelled to leave. There had been something both horrible and fascinating about Jesus as he hung there, and it was frightening to them. The task of dealing with his lifeless body, of touching Jesus, was left to those who were already unclean, so the mob had all departed by the time the guards permitted those who loved Jesus to bring him down from the cross.

 

Station 14 — Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Those who did not abandon Jesus, those who refused to join the mob, laid his body to rest with great tenderness into the empty tomb donated by a rich man. At that moment, they saw nothing divine in the torn flesh, nothing holy in the bloodied brow. They knew only sorrow, deeper than the greatest trenches of the oceans. Deep sorrow.

Moving from “Good” Friday to a holy Saturday

Today is known as “Good Friday.” Well, it’s actually only known as such among English- and Dutch-speaking people. Other names for this day include, according to UMC Discipleship Ministries, “‘Holy Friday’ among the Latin nations, “Great Friday” among the Slavic peoples, “Friday of Mourning” in Germany, “Long Friday” in Norway, and “Holy Friday” (Viernes Santo) among Hispanic peoples.”

We can only call this day “good” or “great” looking backwards from the perspective of Easter, of Resurrection. But it seems to me that we can better, more fully, enter into the story of Jesus by suspending whatever knowledge we have of Sunday and fully live into the despair of his death today. That’s what we’ll attempt to do with a three-part worship experience tonight at Woodridge United Methodist.

At 5:45 tonight, we gather around a table to share a simple meal, perhaps similar to the meal Jesus ate with his friends that final night. As this is a gathering for all ages, we’ll also have kid-friendly options. This is an interactive time as we consider together and enact the odd-to-us way dinners were served in Jesus’ time.

At 6:30, we continue to experience the story of Jesus’ final hours as we move from table fellowship to walking Stations of the Cross in our Narthex and Sanctuary. This ancient form of prayer invites us to hear 14 moments along Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Then at 7:00pm, a more traditional Good Friday worship time begins, making use of candles, songs, shadow, readings, and reflections.

We exit this service in silence, mirroring the silence of the grave. Jesus, our Lord, our teacher, our friend is dead.

Our challenge in this time is to be honest about this. Our challenge is to keep Saturday Holy. We know Sunday is coming. We can’t wait for the color and sound explosion that is Resurrection Day. But that’s a day away. We can’t yet know that relief. As Slacktivist, Fred Clark, so eloquently writes,

This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know…

Here, in time, there’s just this day, this dreadful Saturday of not knowing.

There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him…

Seriously, just look around. Does it look like the meek are inheriting the earth? Does it look like those who hunger and thirst for justice are being filled? Does it look like the merciful are being shown mercy?

Jesus was meek and merciful and hungry for justice and look where that got him. They killed him. We killed him. Power won.

Our challenge is to be honest about this Saturday. Our challenge is to live with the silence of the tomb. As Taylor Burton-Edwards writes, “This is the silence of the tomb, or perhaps more accurately, the silence from the tomb. This is the silence that grabs us, if we are paying attention at all, when we contemplate the aftermath of the crucifixion.”

To help us experience this, Burton-Edwards leads a Holy Saturday service each year via Twitter. You may follow it at the hashtag #holysat16 beginning at 9:00 am (Central time) Saturday, March 26th.

Let’s keep this Saturday Holy by honestly acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and by allowing the silence of and from the tomb to wash over us. Perhaps then, when we gather Sunday morning at 9:00 and 10:30 am, our celebrations will be sweeter than ever.

Resources from Lent

The Psalms of Lent was our theme for the season at Woodridge United Methodist Church. as we prepare to enter Holy Week, I thought it would be fun to collect all the Psalms we used in one place…so I did.

bible-Psalms

Each Sunday in Lent we first heard the Psalm from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) through the sung Psalter in our UM hymnals. Then we heard the lectionary text from a different translation to give us another experience of it. As we’ve seen over and over again in our weekly bible study, hearing the text from a variety of sources really helps us engage. We hear and notice different things or react to the text in completely different ways depending upon particular word choices.

February 10, Ash Wednesday: Psalm 51 — New Living Translation

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
2 Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
3 For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
4 Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.[a]
5 For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 But you desire honesty from the womb,[b]
teaching me wisdom even there.
7 Purify me from my sins,[c] and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
9 Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
11 Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit[d] from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
13 Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
14 Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
15 Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
16 You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
18 Look with favor on Zion and help her;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit—
with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.

 

February 14: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 — The Message

You who sit down in the High God’s presence,
spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,
Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.
I trust in you and I’m safe!”

Yes, because God’s your refuge,
the High God your very own home,
Evil can’t get close to you,
harm can’t get through the door.
He ordered his angels
to guard you wherever you go.
If you stumble, they’ll catch you;
their job is to keep you from falling.
You’ll walk unharmed among lions and snakes,
and kick young lions and serpents from the path.
14-16 “If you’ll hold on to me for dear life,” says God,
“I’ll get you out of any trouble.
I’ll give you the best of care
if you’ll only get to know and trust me.
Call me and I’ll answer, be at your side in bad times;
I’ll rescue you, then throw you a party.
I’ll give you a long life,
give you a long drink of salvation!”

 

February 21: Psalm 27 — The Voice

The Eternal is my light amidst my darkness
and my rescue in times of trouble.
So whom shall I fear?
He surrounds me with a fortress of protection.
So nothing should cause me alarm.
The psalms provide us with a way to think about and pray through the various threats we face. Our enemies today may not be the same as in biblical times, but they are no less real. Consider the threats on the horizon. Some may be national. Others may be more personal. Still they come to surround us and destroy us if they could only get the chance. The reality is there are times when our enemies appear to have the upper hand and our cause is lost. But wait and listen to the psalm! All is not lost because, ultimately, God is our light and salvation. The darkness will lift, and our Savior will come. He will settle all scores, and we will live in the beauty of His presence.
2 When my enemies advanced
to devour me alive,
They tripped and fell flat on their faces into the soil.
3 When the armies of the enemy surround me,
I will not be afraid.
When death calls for me in the midst of war,
my soul is confident and unmoved.
4 I am pleading with the Eternal for this one thing,
my soul’s desire:
To live with Him all of my days—
in the shadow of His temple,
To behold His beauty and ponder His ways
in the company of His people.
5 His house is my shelter and secret retreat.
It is there I find peace in the midst of storm and turmoil.
Safety sits with me in the hiding place of God.
He will set me on a rock, high above the fray.
6 God lifts me high above those with thoughts
of death and deceit that call for my life.
I will enter His presence, offering sacrifices and praise.
In His house, I am overcome with joy
As I sing, yes, and play music for the Eternal alone.
7 I cannot shout any louder. Eternal One—hear my cry
and respond with Your grace.
8 The prodding of my heart leads me to chase after You.
I am seeking You, Eternal One—don’t retreat from me.
9 You have always answered my call.
Don’t hide from me now.
Don’t give up on me in anger at Your servant.
You have always been there for me.
Don’t throw me to the side and forget me,
my God and only salvation.
10 My father and mother have deserted me,
yet the Eternal will take me in.
11 O Eternal, show me Your way,
shine Your light brightly on this path, and make it level for me,
for my enemies are lurking in the recesses and ravines along the way.
12 They are watching—hoping to seize me.
Do not release me to their desires or surrender me to their will!
Liars are standing against me,
breathing out cruel lies hoping that I will die.
13 I will move past my enemies with this one, sure hope:
that with my own eyes, I will see the goodness of the Eternal
in the land of the living.
14 Please answer me: Don’t give up.
Wait for the Eternal in expectation, and be strong.
Again, wait for the Eternal.

 

February 28: Psalm 63:1-8  — Contemporary English Version

You are my God. I worship you.
In my heart, I long for you,
as I would long for a stream
in a scorching desert.
2 I have seen your power
and your glory
in the place of worship.
3 Your love means more
than life to me,
and I praise you.
4 As long as I live,
I will pray to you.
5 I will sing joyful praises
and be filled with excitement
like a guest at a banquet.
6 I think about you
before I go to sleep,
and my thoughts turn to you
during the night.
7 You have helped me,
and I sing happy songs
in the shadow of your wings.
8 I stay close to you,
and your powerful arm
supports me.

 

March 6: Psalm 32 — The Message

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
you get a fresh start,
your slate’s wiped clean.
2 Count yourself lucky—
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.
3 When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.
4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.
5 Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.
6 These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
7 God’s my island hideaway,
keeps danger far from the shore,
throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
8 Let me give you some good advice;
I’m looking you in the eye
and giving it to you straight:
9 “Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule
that needs bit and bridle
to stay on track.”
10 God-defiers are always in trouble;
God-affirmers find themselves loved
every time they turn around.
11 Celebrate God.
Sing together—everyone!
All you honest hearts, raise the roof!

 

March 13: Psalm 126 — The Voice

Remember when the Eternal brought back the exiles to Zion?
It was as if we were dreaming—
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter;
our tongues were spilling over into song.
The word went out across the prairies and deserts,
across the hills, over the oceans wide, from nation to nation:
“The Eternal has done remarkable things for them.”
3 We shook our heads. All of us were stunned—the Eternal has done remarkable things for us.
We were beyond happy, beyond joyful.
4 And now, Eternal One, some are held captive and poor.
Release them, and restore our fortunes
as the dry riverbeds of the South spring to life when the rains come at last.
5 Those who walk the fields to sow, casting their seed in tears,
will one day tread those same long rows, amazed by what’s appeared.
6 Those who weep as they walk
and plant with sighs
Will return singing with joy,
when they bring home the harvest.

 

March 20: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  — Common English Bible

Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,
because his faithful love lasts forever.
2 Let Israel say it:
“God’s faithful love lasts forever!”

19 Open the gates of righteousness for me
so I can come in and give thanks to the Lord!
20 This is the Lord’s gate;
those who are righteous enter through it.
21 I thank you because you answered me,
because you were my saving help.
22 The stone rejected by the builders
is now the main foundation stone!
23 This has happened because of the Lord;
it is astounding in our sight!
24 This is the day the Lord acted;
we will rejoice and celebrate in it!
25 Lord, please save us!
Lord, please let us succeed!
26 The one who enters in the Lord’s name is blessed;
we bless all of you from the Lord’s house.
27 The Lord is God!
He has shined a light on us!
So lead the festival offering with ropes
all the way to the horns of the altar.[a]
28 You are my God—I will give thanks to you!
You are my God—I will lift you up high!
29 Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,
because his faithful love lasts forever.

 

March 25, Good Friday: Psalm 22 — Contemporary English Version

 My God, my God, why have you
deserted me?
Why are you so far away?
Won’t you listen to my groans
and come to my rescue?
2 I cry out day and night,
but you don’t answer,
and I can never rest.
3 Yet you are the holy God,
ruling from your throne
and praised by Israel.
4 Our ancestors trusted you,
and you rescued them.
5 When they cried out for help,
you saved them,
and you did not let them down
when they depended on you.
6 But I am merely a worm,
far less than human,
and I am hated and rejected
by people everywhere.
7 Everyone who sees me
makes fun and sneers.
They shake their heads,
8 and say,
“Trust the Lord!
If you are his favorite,
let him protect you
and keep you safe.”
9 You, Lord, brought me
safely through birth,
and you protected me
when I was a baby
at my mother’s breast.
10 From the day I was born,
I have been in your care,
and from the time of my birth,
you have been my God.
11 Don’t stay far off
when I am in trouble
with no one to help me.
12 Enemies are all around
like a herd of wild bulls.
Powerful bulls from Bashan[a]
are everywhere.
13 My enemies are like lions
roaring and attacking
with jaws open wide.
14 I have no more strength
than a few drops of water.
All my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like melted wax.
15 My strength has dried up
like a broken clay pot,
and my tongue sticks
to the roof of my mouth.
You, God, have left me
to die in the dirt.
16 Brutal enemies attack me
like a pack of dogs,
tearing at[b] my hands
and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones,
and my enemies just stare
and sneer at me.
18 They took my clothes
and gambled for them.
19 Don’t stay far away, Lord!
My strength comes from you,
so hurry and help.
20 Rescue me from enemy swords
and save me from those dogs.
21 Don’t let lions eat me.
You rescued me from the horns
of wild bulls,
22 and when your people meet,
I will praise you, Lord.
23 All who worship the Lord,
now praise him!
You belong to Jacob’s family
and to the people of Israel,
so fear and honor the Lord!
24 The Lord doesn’t hate
or despise the helpless
in all of their troubles.
When I cried out, he listened
and did not turn away.
25 When your people meet,
you will fill my heart
with your praises, Lord,
and everyone will see me
keep my promises to you.
26 The poor will eat and be full,
and all who worship you
will be thankful
and live in hope.
27 Everyone on this earth
will remember you, Lord.
People all over the world
will turn and worship you,
28 because you are in control,
the ruler of all nations.
29 All who are rich
and have more than enough
will bow down to you, Lord.
Even those who are dying
and almost in the grave
will come and bow down.
30 In the future, everyone
will worship
and learn
about you, our Lord.
31 People not yet born
will be told,
“The Lord has saved us!”

 

Finally, one non-Psalm resource to share: some interesting neuroscience research. Here’s a part I quoted on Feb 28:

Here’s what brain research says will make you happy:
•Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps. Boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine, just like antidepressant drug
•Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it. activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system, reduces emotion
•Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of ‘best decision ever made on Earth.” Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control. recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control
•Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch. It makes you more persuasive, increases team performance, improves your flirting … heck, it even boosts math skills. Touching someone you love actually reduces pain.

I admit I was very nervous when, after I shared some of this, I looked up and our congregant with a doctorate in psychology was talking with mental-health professional colleague…so I asked her (in the midst of the sermon, because that’s the way we roll) if it rang true. I was relieved when she replied in the affirmative.

As you read through these Psalms again, what stands out? What do you notice? What moves your or bothers you? What questions do they raise? What thoughts and emotions do they evoke?

Time to act thankfully

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Global Food Security Act yesterday (Thursday). Our friends at Bread for the World, the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, and 65 other organizations endorse this bill. Why? More than 800 million people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger. The Global Food Security Act makes into law:

eradicating hunger and malnutrition, especially for women and children; assisting foreign countries to achieve long-term, sustainable, and inclusive agricultural development; and ensuring the effective use of taxpayer dollars to further these objectives. [you can read the rest of the summary and all about the bill here]

As you can see here, both of our Illinois Senators are co-sponsors. Now we just need the Senate to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, their version of the bill has 121 co-sponsors. That number includes almost all of the Representatives from Illinois. In fact, only two of 18 have not signed on.

While we are confident that advocacy to end poverty and hunger is biblically mandated by Jesus, the prophets, and God’s many acts of liberation — and is thus a form of worship — we haven’t nearly as often offered thanks when our members of Congress respond as requested. Our Outreach Committee recently acted to correct that omission.*

GFSA thanks pic

But there is still work to do. Bill and Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek fame joined with our local Bread for the World organizer, Zach Schmidt, to pen this op-ed on the Global Food Security Act which appeared in the Daily Herald. As they wrote:

We thank and applaud these members of Congress — across the political and ideological spectrum — for demonstrating faithful leadership, and we hope Reps. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican, and Darin LaHood, a Peoria Republican, will join the rest of the Illinois delegation in co-sponsoring this bill.

The GFSA will help 800 million hungry people, including 159 million children. That’s an impact worth fighting for — and giving thanks for.

————————————————————————

*A congregation as geographically-dispersed as ours lives in several Congressional Districts. However, a majority of our people find themselves in Representative Bill Foster’s 11th District.

 

 

 

 

‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…’

Interconnected. Mutual. “What affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.”

Issues overlap. We’ve talked about this a number of times at my church. For instance, I’ve been known to say something like this, “If we want to talk about ending homelessness, we have to talk about the lack of affordable housing. If we want to talk about the lack of affordable housing, we have to talk about society’s negative attitude toward the poor or anyone who needs help. Talk of affordable housing also requires us to talk about racism in the real estate market — both officially and unofficially. Talking about racism requires us to talk about privilege.”

Or, another instance, if we want to talk about ending the sex trafficking of minors, we have to talk about teen homelessness. To talk about teen homelessness requires us to talk about teens who come out as gay getting kicked out of their homes. To talk about that requires us to talk about the role Christianity plays in creating homes where being gay is literally unacceptable.

Our social/societal issues overlap. Which, admittedly, can make them seem ever more daunting and insurmountable. Conversely, perhaps, admitting interconnectedness can open up multiple avenues for addressing those problems.

Today’s case in point: poverty and criminal sentencing. Recently, our Bishop, Rev. Dr. Sally Dyck joined with three other Chicago-area bishops to offer this editorial in the Chicago Tribune. Here’s a taste:

As bishops in Chicago, far too many of the communities we serve bear the devastating repercussions of mass incarceration: increased poverty, fundamental insecurity, generations paying the price of one person’s mistake and a deep sense of alienation from the very system meant to protect and serve all citizens. Ultimately this comes at a real cost to all Americans, as we are robbed of the potential that millions of people have to contribute to building a stronger country…

We are encouraged by developments such as the coalescing on Capitol Hill around bipartisan solutions to unjust prison sentences like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would overhaul excessive sentences for low-level crimes, introduce more judicial decision making and lay the groundwork for programs that prepare prisoners for successful reintegration into their home communities and, equally important, cut down on recidivism. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., like many of his Republican and Democratic colleagues, has sponsored the bill. We hope Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., will do the same. [read the rest]

Reading that encouraged me because just a few days before that op-ed appeared, Bread for the World organizer, Zach Schmidt and I submitted this letter-to-the-editor at the Daily Herald:

Last week, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III wrote an op-ed calling for reforms to our criminal justice system. He wrote that as a result of our “overzealous” drug policies, “no other nation locks up more of its own people than the United States.” That is not how to live up to our motto as “the land of the free.” The cost of our prison population is staggering – about $30,000 a year for each federal inmate. For 219,000 federal inmates that comes to over 6.5 billion dollars annually. Does anyone think we are winning the “war on drugs” with this cost? 
 
Current policy requires lengthy sentences even for non-violent drug offenses, and judges are often unable to take other influencing factors into consideration. Their hands are tied. As Rev. Moss says, “we should be helping our neighbors find redemption, rather than seeking retribution for what are often victimless crimes.” In addition to reducing disproportionate drug sentences so men and women can reenter society as productive citizens, we need to provide better support upon their reentry. Justice is about much more than punishment—it is about protecting the security, dignity and flourishing of all people.
 
To help right our misguided sentencing policies, I join with Rev. Moss and hundreds of faith leaders across the state in calling for U.S. Senator Mark Kirk to cosponsor S. 2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. So far, 28 members of the U.S. Senate have already signed on in support—with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. This bill is the right step for Illinois and for our nation, and now is the time.

Unlike our bishop’s, my letter never appeared in the paper or on the website. Which makes me all the more grateful to see our episcopal leader collaborating with other faith leaders, using her and their voice on behalf of marginalized people — and calling on the power of the federal government to do the same.

Faith in action.

Yes, as this week’s Psalm of Lent says, we should “wait on the Lord.” But it seems to me — as our Friday study group said — ours is to be an active waiting, doing all we can to create Kin-dom moments “on earth as it is in heaven.”

What moments of interconnection did you notice this week?

 

‘I’m embarrassed…’

One recent morning at the gym I go to, the group present for class included a guy whom I hadn’t met yet. I’m still fairly new to this gym, so I didn’t really think anything of it. There are any number of members there I have yet to meet. After the class, as we were cooling down and getting ready to leave, the new-to-me guy said to our coach, “I’m sorry I was a no-show the other day. Again. I almost didn’t come today because I’m embarrassed about that.”

Our coach, being the good guy that he is, responded, “Don’t be embarrassed! I’m just glad you’re here today! Good job getting through that tough workout.” Coach’s sincerity was evident.

I couldn’t help but think, “Wow! That same scenario happens at WUMC!” In the 20 years I’ve been a pastor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a variation of that conversation: the sheepish look, the expression of guilt or shame for having been away, the presentation of reasons for the absence, the admitted hesitation to return.

Which, believe me, I get. Whenever I skipped a class in college, for whatever reason, it was easier to skip again. It was always harder to go back. We often become our own harshest critic. Same for those few times a year I’m not in worship on Sunday. It’s harder to go back after being gone.

But I promise you this: when I say, “I’m glad you’re here! We’ve missed you.”, I genuinely mean that. I’m not trying to guilt or shame you. That’s not the way of Jesus.

So, I’ll listen to your litany of reasons for being away, if you really want to name them. But, that’s really not what I’m after. I’m not your professor or your parent. Those excuses aren’t required for your re-entry into the building. Or, more importantly, the community.

Here’s what I say to our congregation: Your presence matters because we are better together. Each one of us has gifts to bring and share — gifts that further God’s work in the world through Jesus (aka, the Kingdom of God, the Kin-dom of God, bringing God’s dream for the world to life, God’s love revolution, etc.). Life can be really tough, so let’s walk through it together.

There’s a story in Luke chapter 5 that we read for our weekly bible study wherein Jesus tells some professional fishermen where to cast their nets in order to obtain a huge catch. After which, the one named Simon knelt in front of Jesus and declared himself unworthy of being near Jesus. But Jesus responds, “Don’t be afraid.”

So many people seem to expect the church — and thus, by extension, Jesus — to say to them, “you aren’t worthy!” While I understand that feeling — honestly, far too many people who self-identify as Christian are far too ready to tell whole groups of people they are unworthy (women, LGBT, Muslims, etc.) — notice that Jesus did the opposite of that. Jesus never tells anyone they are unworthy of him. Just the opposite–Jesus consistently sought out the marginalized, the outcast, the “sinner” in order to talk with them or share a meal with them.

Whether you’ve been a faithful attendee for all 53 years of WUMC’s existence or you’ve never been here, or anything in between, don’t be afraid to enter those doors. Whomever you are, wherever you’ve been, whomever you love… You’re welcome here. We’re glad you’re here today. You matter here. You are a beloved child of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes it works

Here’s a little something that got sucked into my black hole of non-blogging during the last [gulp] half of 2015:

OL 2015 collection

That is a picture of the results of the Offering of Letters we collected in October. Apparently, it wasn’t as memorable as I would have liked. When I asked our church’s Administrative Council what the subject of the letters was, no one had an answer.

Here’s a look:

I urge you to make sure children at risk of hunger receive the healthy meals they need to thrive. One in five children in our nation live at risk of hunger. For every six low-income children who receive a school lunch, only about half also get a school breakfast, and only one also gets a meal during the summer months. In other words, many children are probably missing some meals daily.

Specifically, I urge you to pass a child nutrition bill that protects child nutrition programs and connects more children with healthy meals while not cutting other safety-net programs.

When we write such letters, it is easy to wonder about their efficacy. Do our 80-some letters do any good? Well, when combined with the 220,000 other letters written around the country as part of Bread for the World’s 2015 Offering of Letters, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”.

Late January came good news about a child nutrition bill: The Senate Agriculture Committee passed the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016. This bill would reauthorize expired child nutrition programs. Additionally, the bill would “streamline summer and after-school meal programs to make it easier to serve meals to kids year-round. The bill allows some states to provide summer EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards to families in hard-to-reach areas to purchase groceries. It also allows some states to use alternative methods of reaching kids when they are unable to make it to meal sites.”

See that last request in our letters: “while not cutting other safety-net programs.”? Well, the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act does not make cuts to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) or other anti-poverty programs to pay for these changes! Our law-makers listened to us! Hallelujah!

While this Act has yet to pass the full Senate and is not yet law, the bipartisan cooperation is a very good sign. Neither Illinois Senator is on the Agriculture Committee, but when the bill goes before the full Senate, Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin will need to hear from us again.

Stay tuned…and stay alert to the continual movement of God’s Holy Spirit among us — especially in surprising places like the U.S. Senate!