A prayer of lament

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Holy One, you audaciously call us the “salt of the earth,” but who can hear you above the deafening roar of retaliation and mayhem?   You say that your followers are “the light of the world,” but what do you make of us, we who stumble in the darkness of despair?   You insist that “our light shines before others, so that they may see our good works and given glory to God in heaven,” but what if our efforts are insignificant when compared to the degradation and injustice that confronts us?

O Lord, in the face of suffering across our planet and this land now veiled in darkness, can you even hear the cries of your people?    Do you perceive the injustice committed in your name?   Are you aware of the cruelty committed against all your creation, but nevertheless justified by those who pervert your Word?

Yet you have promised that we are your children and will not forsake us – even to the end of our days.   You have sworn to be faithful, even when we have abandoned you.    You have suffused us with grace, so that we may set our sights on your hope once more.

Could it be when even a single voice is raised in opposition to wholesale complicity, it becomes salt for those weary of fabrication and incivility?   What if acts of kindness, however seemingly remote in the face of cruelty, become the illumination that lifts up the discouraged and disheartened?   Imagine if even the seemingly little that we strive to do becomes yeast, expanding the possibilities of what had seemed unlikely at best?

Hear our prayer, Divine Maker.   In your mercy, heed the distress of those who suffer – human and creature alike.   Hear the cry of those who despair of waiting in vain.    In these weary times, cover us with thy grace.  Come and come quickly, we pray.    Amen.

 

A Prayer for MLK Sunday

“Jesus said to his followers, ‘Come and see.”  John 1:39

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In our walk with you, Jesus, you are described as the “Light of the World.”  Whoever follows you will never walk in darkness.   So – no matter where we are on the spectrum that encompasses belief as well as bewilderment – be with us in these fearsome times.  For You, the Lamb of God who takes away the lovelessness, greed and the cruelty of the world, know us far better than we know ourselves.

We give thanks that your light embodies a gracious but unyielding persistence – calling forth the young and old – but particularly during times of unrest.     Acknowledging our own trepidation, compel us to remember those who answered were flesh and blood like us: Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, William DuBois, Rosa Parks, and gay activist Bayard Ruskin, who was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.   Still, You, You in your extravagant love, You in your mercy, You in your tireless commitment to justice, continue to beckon, calling those who decry the wholesale destruction of our planet, those who have pledged themselves to protecting the refugee, those who advocate for affordable health care, those who confront the deceit that undermines institutional life.  For just as you promised them, so you assure us, that whoever follows you will never walk in darkness.

We pray for those who are hurting and grieving.    For those who contend with serious illness, for those who struggle under the weight of disability, memory loss and declining health, for those whose grief weighs heavy upon them and those whom they love.   For the impoverished and the imprisoned, the falsely accused and unjustly condemned, those who out of fear and shame hide who they are as created by you.

Light of the World, Redeemer of the Lost, Healer of the Broken and Defender of the Powerless, we pray that you will equip even the likes of us.   So that we, will be beacons of your light, champions of your justice and visible reminders of your astonishing grace.   We ask this in Christ’s name.  Amen.

[1] image from the website, BibleStudyTools.  Photo credit, Meg Bucher

Called by name: a recollection of baptism

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43:5 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:6-7

    A year and a half ago, overcoming breast cancer consumed me.   Though the tumor was discovered early – its aggressiveness meant undergoing chemotherapy in addition to surgery and radiation.    Recalling the ordeal and how sick one can get during treatment, the passage from Isaiah 43’s theme of exiles came to mind, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold…”

How I longed to be released from the exile of illness and returned to the land of the living.

Throughout scripture, the Sovereign’s mandate bodes with nothing less than the full emancipation of God’s people.    Nor are God’s people summoned out of darkness nameless.   To be called by Jahweh’s name jettisons us out of categories long claimed by mortals.     Whatever our life’s circumstances, we were created for the Sovereign’s glory.

When a child is to be baptized, the officiant standing before the parents, asks, “What is the Christian name of this child?”

Note that the officiant doesn’t ask merely for the child’s name – be it Marie, Benjamin, Cynthia, or Andrew.   Whatever name is to be given to the child, it is not just prefaced but profoundly altered by the addition of the word, Christian.    Looking at its Greek equivalent, the name, Christian or Christianos, literally means “a follower of Christ.”

You and I belong to God-in-Christ.  No matter how long or brief our lifespan, the losses we’ve suffered, the deep-seated regrets we’ve shouldered, the assaults incurred, and the failures endured, the marvelous mystery is this: you and I remain faithfully known and irrevocably claimed by God.

And this is Good News…

 

Be a Light (in a dark place)…a sermon during the Season of Epiphany

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When [the Three Kings] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  Matthew 2:11-12

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:5

Some fifty-two hundred years ago, before Stonehenge, before the great pyramids and before the birth of Christ, stone age farmers just north of what is now Dublin, conceived and constructed a large stone mound called Newgrange.   Two-hundred feet in diameter but just under fifty feet high, Newgrange consists of a solitary opening connected to a long passageway that leads into the interior of the mound.  At its center is a cavern made up of three alcoves.  What makes this structure especially remarkable is that the long passageway and its interior chamber are aligned to the rising of the sun each year during the Winter Solstice.

For at dawn, and on December 21st, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box of Newgrange and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear.
As the sun rises higher, the beam extends and widens, reaching its interior cruciform chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.

Each year scores of people gather in the darkness…and wait.

The activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman was quoted by Sojourner’s, noting, [The Epiphany season] ‘beings and ends in light.   From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, [a]…sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order.    The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and it sends.” [1]

Epiphany reminds us that we are summoned and sent to Be a Light (…in a dark place). [2]

Just last Tuesday and while offering a Bible study about the Christmas Season at the retirement community where I work, a resident asked, “If December 25 is over, just why are you continuing to talk about Christmas?”

But provided (as one author notes) that your eggnog hasn’t soured or that you haven’t stashed the creche until next December [3], there is a reason why the lectionary lingers on the Christmas Season and Epiphany.  Because the arrival of the Christ child is anything but sentimental…as much as we’re tempted to make it so.

Scripture recalls the visitation of Three Kings from the east, who seeing that the star’s radiance remained over Bethlehem, entered the house where Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Joseph were with the infant Jesus.   Despite that the newborn king was not surrounded by a royal entourage but lay in a feeding trough, the Magi were overcome with joy and adulation.  Kneeling down, these distant travelers paid him homage.  Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream NOT to return to Herod, they left for their country by another road.

But there is a problem – both as identified by scripture, and as experienced in the world, Jesus was born into.   It is not coincidental that the journey of the Magi to see the newborn king begins and ends with Herod.    The subsequent passage that speaks of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt following the Magi’s visit – because an enraged Herod sought to destroy the Light of the World by ordering the massacre of children and infants in the vicinity where Christ was born is not coincidental either.   Any more than it is coincidental that the gifts to the infant Jesus, foreshadowed his death.

Scripture points to this problem unequivocally, for darkness continues to cast its shadow.

Indeed, Herod and his kind have plundered humankind and all of creation for that matter, for thousands of years.

The birth of the Christ child and thus, the incarnation challenges our assumption – that the physical and the spiritual are irreconcilable.   Christ’s birth challenges the dualism and disconnect between matter and spirit, the secular and the religious, the practical, and the temporal.   It took a vulnerable infant born to impoverished Palestinian refugees who later crossed a border to flee from violence – to confront the lengths we go to – to keep the incarnation only about Jesus – so that we can get on with business as usual.

But what if each of us, as suggested by Augustine, Meister Eckhart, and others, were created to make real the incarnation, this synthesis between matter and spirit?   What if each of us like Mary are summoned and sent to give birth to the Son of God in our own persons and time and culture, to reconcile our spiritual sides with the work and action so desperately needed in the world?

In other words, to Be a Light (in a dark place).

Serene Jones, seminary president, theologian, and author observed how, for years, the conversion of the slave trader, John Newton, writer of the Song Amazing Grace, was often spoken of at the church she attended [4].  She had been told growing up, that after nearly losing his life at sea, John Newton became a Christian and completely turned his life around: returning to Africa to set the slaves on his ship free and becoming a fervent abolitionist from that time forward.

But the real story is quite different.  For though John Newton felt grateful to God that he had survived when others had perished in the storm, he did not immediately turn his ship around and free the slaves incarcerated on board.   If anything, though he became a personally pious Christian, he continued to trade and ship enslaved Africans for years – contributing his growing success to a state of blessedness.  It wasn’t until Newton reckoned the disconnect between his personal piety as being at complete odds with the human trafficking business he was engaged in that Newton realized aligned his professed beliefs with action.   It was then that he finally wrote the song, Amazing Grace, and became the abolitionist he is known for.

He finally chose to Be a Light (in a dark place).

I confess it is difficult to align one’s personal commitment – the matter of the heart – with what we do in the world.    It is and continues to be a lifelong struggle for me.    I suspect that many others struggle with this too.  But this is where God’s grace comes in.   To be an incarnate one of God, to continue to birth Christ in ourselves in this time and place is a high calling.   But I believe it is the only one worth giving our lives for.

Epiphany points to the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus.   But as the incarnation means the synthesis of physical matter and the spiritual, then the nativity isn’t only about Mary giving birth to Jesus.

The birth of the Christ child didn’t begin and end on Christmas morning.  Christ came so that God would be born within us and reconcile the dualism that has long separated matter from spirit.  Christ came so that we as God bearers can “Be A Light (in a dark place), champions and advocates for ALL of humanity and God’s good creation.

For our desperate world hungers for light.   Remarkably, though Newgrange is 5,200 years old, the acquisition and reliance upon the sun’s energy have continued to illuminate not only the passageway and chamber but people’s lives, who come for miles if not across the world.   It is extraordinary to wait in darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end. 

Poet Laureate Maren Tirabassi’s recently made a decision to leave Christmas candles in her window in the months ahead, despite taking down the tree and other decorations. [5] Knowing of how challenging it can be to synthesize matters of the heart with our work in the world, the candles are testimony to a grace-filled decision to be an incarnate one of God in a time of great trepidation…

…to be a light in a dark place.

[1] Jim Rice, Epiphany: A Light To The World, (Sojourners, Jan. 2012)

[2] John Pavlovitz, PavlovitzDesign

[3] Mary Luti, Merry Christmas (Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, Jan. 4, 2020)

[4] Serene Jones, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World (Penguin House, 2019), 126-27.

[5] Maren Tirabassi, The candles in my windows (Gifts in Open Hands, Jan. 4, 2020)

[6] Photo Image from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) website of Greater Mercer County,

 

 

Not Just Glad Tidings…

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“The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all, frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Holy One, often, I crave nothing more than to be rendered senseless.  As if in a deep and dreamless slumber.   Oblivious of the circumstances afflicting our planet, its creatures, and all humankind.    Numbed beyond recognition given the onslaught of violence inflicted on the most vulnerable.  Content to dwell amongst the distractions of the holiday season. Employing your nativity as a salve for my conscious, so that it is not anything other than nostalgic.

Yet you came and come still not just with glad tidings but as a power and force to be reckoned with.   You came and come again not to placate but to radically alter the landscape of our lives and whole communities.    You came and come still as a bearer of good news, yes, but one who abruptly awakens us not as accomplices but agents of change.

So, come, Sovereign Jesus, come!  Raise us from our self-inflicted lifelessness.  Summon us to speak truth to power, comfort the afflicted, and repair your beloved creation.  Come, so that we – newly awakened – may be harbingers of your costly hope, peace, and love.   Amen.

 

Advent’s Awakening – A Prayer for those of us who prefer being the offended one

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“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” Romans 13:8

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is that they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”  James A. Baldwin

O God, why do you ask us to love people whose opinions, politics, and words are offensive and even hurtful?  Does this mean you are asking us to pardon those – within our families and beyond – whose rhetoric is inflammatory and actions reprehensible?  By living into your commandment to love, are you asking us to excuse the undermining of institutions, laws, and practices that sustain us as a people, nation, and citizens of the world?

In other words, why are you saddling us with this burdensome commandment – loving others unconditionally – when so much is at stake?    

Yet in this season of Advent, you tell us that “now is the moment for us to wake from sleep…[and that] the night is far gone, and the day is near.” (1)   Having clung to antipathy and being the offended one for so long, what if these are not evidence of awakeness but self-numbing slumber?    What if anger that fans the flames of hostility, actually shuts us down?

O God, you have been described as one, “who will come as a thief in the night, when we least expect it.” (2)  If this is so, and I believe it to be true, then make haste, Lord, to loot what I have hoarded for so many years.   Take my deep-seated resentment, self-righteous indignation, and despair at the seeming futility of it all, and in your mercy, purge my inmost self of all it. (3)  And in its place, remind me over and over again that you loved us first, and that this love is non-negotiable.

[1] Romans 13:12

[2] Matthew 24:42-43

[3] Matthew Johnson, December 1, Advent 1a, (Christian Century, Nov. 6, 2019)

So Many Distractions, So Little Time

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A Prayer for Those Consumed by Too Much to Do

O God, we confess the obligations of work, family, church and other commitments consume us.    So many distractions, so little time.   But the power of your Presence lies in its expansiveness.   Challenging the limits of our imagination, You push the boundaries of our consciousness – allowing us to yield to the Spirit’s leading.   As your resurrected people, we ask that You remake us each moment and every day ever more in your likeness.   So that liberated once more, may we share your glad tidings and embody your potent grace.   We ask this in Christ’s name.  Amen.

Let Each Syllable Meld Into our Inmost Selves

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A Prayer of Illumination for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 27, 2019

Abba, though we may be uncomfortable in admitting this  – we need restoration – not just once in a while but each day.   Let us then not tarry in reading, hearing and discerning your most Holy Word.    Let each syllable meld into our inmost selves, so that your salvific presence may be as salt, and light and leaven.   In your love, churn up the unseen and unacknowledged places that remain hidden, and are in dire need of your reclamation.  Speak so that we may hear your summons, and hasten to answer your call.   We ask this in the wondrous name of Jesus, your beloved Son, and our Redeemer.   Amen.

When Nationalism and Self-Righteousness, Surface

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“‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ Jesus asked.   The lawyer answered, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’   Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”  Luke 10:27

In the wake of ICE raids and cruel incarceration at our borders, Luke’s Gospel provides not a comfortable narrative but a subversive parable – exposing not only the ancient bystander’s unconscious prejudice but in particular our own.    Here is a modern retelling of this timeless classic:

Once there was an elderly woman who needed some groceries at the market in a neighboring town.   Not wanting to take the bus, she called for a cab to come and pick her up at her home.   It was late in the day.

When she arrived at the market, rather than select her items right away – she took a few minutes to sit down and peruse some of the magazine offerings in the front of the store.    It was good to be out and about.

Then taking a grocery cart, she carefully went down the aisles selecting the groceries she needed.    Looking up, she realized it was getting dark.   But she wasn’t concerned.

Only when she opened her purse when stepping into the check-out line, she became alarmed.   Somehow, she must have left both her wallet and cell phone in the cab.    Looking up, she realized everyone around her just wanted to get their shopping done and go home.   But she didn’t know a soul at that store.

Then out of the corner of her eye she saw a minister from a nearby church.  Having just finished purchasing his groceries, she managed to get his attention.    But instead he pointed to his watch.   He was in a hurry, so he turned and left.

She began to grow alarmed.  What to do?   Then she saw a security guard.  The Help Desk had since closed.   Maybe he would help?    But as she approached him, he abruptly shook his head.    Crossing his arms across his chest, he tersely said, “Look lady, my shift is nearly over.   Helping someone I know is one thing, but I haven’t seen you before in my life.”

Tears came to her eyes.  Pushing her grocery cart aside, she made her way to a bench and plopped down.   Over the loud speaker, it was announced that the store would be closing in fifteen minutes.

Turning around, she gazed out into the parking lot.   By now it was dark and the lot was nearly empty.   Clutching her purse, she looked furtively around her.   Tears came to her eyes.  She was alone.

That is until she looked up and saw a woman looking her way.    The woman wore a scarf; only it was also draped around her neck and shoulders.   Her skin was much darker than her own, as were her eyes and the dark hair that peered out from under its covering.   She looked, well, foreign.

The elderly woman put her hand to her mouth.   What would she do if this woman came over to her?    But as if seeing the elder’s distress, the woman clad with the headscarf crossed over – and began walking her way.   Then standing before her and speaking with an accent, she asked, “Do you need help?”

Fumbling with her purse, the elderly woman felt her face grow hot with embarrassment.   This was an unthinkable situation.   But when she looked up and her eyes met that of the stranger, she saw only compassion.   Her shoulders relaxed a bit.

Realizing that the store would be closing shortly and without thinking, she blurted out.   “I left my wallet and cell phone in the cab.”

“Are those the grocery items you need to buy?” the woman asked motioning to the cart beside her.

Without looking up, the elder woman could only nod.

Taking her cart, the woman got into the checkout line.  After purchasing the items, she returned to the bench.    The elder looked up and seeing the bagged groceries, said, “Oh, I don’t have any money…my wallet.   But I want to pay you back.”  Her voice trailed off….

“It’s alright,” the woman said assuredly.   “I don’t drive but I’ll call a cab for you also.  You need to get back home.”

“But, I don’t have my wallet, my money!” the elderly woman protested.   “I can’t pay for it.”

Again, the woman gently reassured her.   “I have a mother your age,” she said.   “Let me help you get back home.”

With that, she offered her arm.   “The store is closing,” she said.   “I’ll wait with you outside for your cab.”   So the elderly woman took her arm and got up from the bench.    She held on to the scarf-clad woman as she deftly steered the grocery cart outside, her own bag of groceries alongside those the woman had bought for her family.

Looking back, the elder woman couldn’t recall how long it took for the cab to come as they waited on the bench in front of the empty and darkened lot.   For the most part, they were silent.    But after a while, her embarrassment and awkwardness gave way to a kind of winsomeness….even wonder.

When the cab arrived, the woman got up and taking the elder’s arm walked with her over to the waiting vehicle.    When the cab driver got out to put the elder’s groceries in the trunk, the scarf-clad woman gave him instructions along with money for the cab drive back home.

No longer afraid or embarrassed, the elder realized that the woman who had helped her – didn’t have a car or ride.   She said, “You have extended such mercy to me, but how will you get safely home?  It’s dark.”

The woman smiled.  Nodding in the direction of an apartment dwelling just adjacent to the market, she said, “I live just over there, with my family.   I’ll be alright.”

But the elder shook her head and nodding in the direction of the cab driver said, “We won’t go until you’re across that parking lot and safely back home.”   Seeing the driver smile, she continued, “I may not ever be able to repay you…but I want to do this.   For you showed me, mercy.”

And then the scarf-clad woman’s entire face lit up.    “You have done likewise,” she smiled.   Then lifting her bag of groceries onto her hip, she turned and walked into the darkness….but now as a neighbor and a friend.

 

[1]  The painting, “The Good Samaritan” is from the English School, 19th century

Companioning each other on the journey

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As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 2 Kings 2:2

Ever since the outcome of the 2016 election, there is a fantasy I’ve engaged in.   Out of nowhere, a spaceship emerges.  Massive, it can be seen for miles.

Suddenly, a mass exodus of people migrate towards it – illegal immigrants, deportees, children who had been housed in cages at the border, gays, and transexuals, the poor and disenfranchised, the undereducated, underemployed and homeless, the exploited and maligned, those without any healthcare, the disabled and unwanted, those who hit bottom a long time ago and never resurfaced.    They come over many miles and walk for days and even weeks on end.

They go seeking refuge.   Like Elijah of old, they seek to be taken up in a whirlwind into the heavens.    But in the meantime, they live on a planet fractured by ecological devastation, war, famine, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and abject cruelty.

No, they are not the Elijah of old.   They have no emancipatory deeds or prophetic speech to their credit.   But like the chair that is left empty at gatherings in anticipation of his arrival, they are with us now.

Yet there are no spaceships or chariots of fire on either our immediate or distant horizon.  No direct means to sweep them up from the terrors and extreme disappointment of this life.   But they do have us.

No, we are not the heir apparent, Elisha.    Painfully aware of our own limitations, we haven’t sought a double portion of the prophet’s spirit as our inheritance.

But imagine if we did.