“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So, it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
The church in Corinth was traveling through a difficult time when Saint Paul wrote these words. Some people believed that their spiritual gifts were better than spiritual gifts that God had given to other people. Saint Paul was under personal attack because everyone remembered the things that he had done before he became a Christian. Deep divisions had crept into the Church. Christians were busy suing each other. Sexual immorality was common, and some people believed that they were free to do things that other Christians did not think they should be doing. It was a real mess!
I find myself writing this message to you about two weeks before we elect the President of the United States and many members of Congress. It has been a hard election cycle. People in our nation are deeply divided, and many relationships have been pushed to the breaking point. I, sometimes, feel very overwhelmed when I listen to the news and hear about our continued struggles with the coronavirus. I miss having the chance to see people in worship and the opportunity to visit with them in their homes. And many people in our nation are asking about what is going to happen next. Are there going to be protests and violent clashes, no matter who is elected? What is November 4th going to be like? What are we going to do to mend the fabric of our society? What role will the Church play?
A handful of my ancestors came to America with John Winthrop in 1630. A small fleet of wooden ships filled with Puritans sailed to America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony about ten years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. I often think about what it must have been like to listen to John Winthrop remind people that they had come to America to establish a new society that would shine, like a “City on a Hill,” and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I often think about the fact that, just a little bit more than sixty years after the Winthrop Fleet arrived, Puritans were hanging people who had been accused of witchcraft in Salem.
America has never been a perfect place. What many people today call the “American Experiment” has been a journey filled with ups and downs. People in America fought two wars together (and sometimes against each other) to gain national independence. Family members fought against each other and even killed each other during a bloody Civil War. Americans stood beside each other and found their way through the Great Depression. Some of us remember violent clashes that erupted during the Vietnam War, the murder of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots that marked the early 1970’s, and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. And who can forget the horror of 9/11? The “American Experiment” is built upon the hopes and dream of many people, but the “American Experiment” has not always been easy.
We are people who live in a diverse nation that is filled with many ideas and beliefs. We do not always agree with each, but we have always worked together as a nation to find a path forward. We live in a society where many people have stopped trusting each other and where many people no longer trust the institutions that have made our nation great; and yet, surveys still indicate that nearly half of all Americans trust the Church and look to it for guidance and direction. This is a time when we need to stand together and to live into John Winthrop’s vision. This is a time when we need to shine as the “City on a Hill” that John Winthrop said would shine as a beacon of hope in the world. We are one. God has made us one. Jesus continues to work in our world to draw people together into one body called the Church. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we call ourselves a nation that is indivisible, and that is filled with liberty and justice for all people. These are fundamentals. Humanity has prospered and our nation has thrived in times when we have drawn close to each other and when we have worked together with hearts and minds that are committed to a common purpose and a common good.
I do not know what the next few weeks and months are going to bring. But I do know that we can move into a bright future, as individuals and as a nation, when we stand together and emphasize the things that unite us and make us one. Jesus once told us that a house that is divided against itself cannot stand, and those words are as true, today, as they have even been. The last 250 years have shown us that the great “American Experiment” can work when we are committed to working together and to finding the things in life that continue to bind us together in a world where other things are trying to tear us apart. And that is what I want you to think about no matter what happens on November 3rd, and in the days and months that follow this year’s Election.
We need to be looking for the threads that bind us together as Christians and as citizens. We need to remember that maintaining relationships with other people is, often, far more important than being right. We need to listen to each other. We need to care about each other. We need to remember, as Saint Paul once wrote, that we are one body – not only as Christ’s Church, but also as a nation.
May God bless you and may God bless our land in the coming weeks and months.
We have been discussing ways to journey through times of unavoidable conflict in the last three parts of this series. We have talked about the fact that people are a lot like porcupines. We can usually sail through life pretty smoothly on our own; but, once we begin to interact with other people, we cannot help but stick other people with our quills once in a while, or be stuck by the quills of other people. We talked about the fact that, during times of conflict, we need to be able to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened; and we talked about the fact that, at some point, we all need to assess the damage that’s been caused by the conflict. And then, in the third part of this series, we talked about a method of conflict resolution that Jesus provides for those who follow Him. And, if you recall, each step of this process involves trying to regain your brother or sister. Think about the fact that, when Jesus was asked how to pray, He included these words: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Many conflicts can be resolved if we’re simply willing to accept the fact that other people are no more perfect than we are and that most people are not trying to intentionally hurt and offend others any more than we are.
But it is not always that easy, is it?
We have talked about the fact that our relationships can be like pieces of fine china. A piece of fine china that has been dropped on the floor might be able to be glued back together. However, pieces of fine china that have been dropped on the floor may not be able to be glued together. Sometimes, quite sadly, our relationships with other people need to end; and this is most certainly true when some sort of physical or emotional abuse is occurring.
Abuse can be very confusing. People who are abused sometimes think that they are causing the person who is abusing them to hurt them. Abusive people often use something called “gaslighting” to confuse the people that they are hurting and to make their victims doubt their own sound reasoning. People who are abused often believe that there is nothing they can do to escape the horrible situation that they are facing because they cannot imagine what it would we like to leave. A lack of money can cause someone who is being abused to put up with what is happening. The lack of a place to live can be problematic. Uncertainty about the future of little children can create great angst. And, of course, many people who are being abused believe that the person who is abusing them will simply track them down and terrorize them if they decide to leave. The reasons to stay are many and the way to leave may not be clear. People who are being abused sometimes do not know what to do.
Let me remind you that you are precious and valuable. God smiled on the day when you were born and God is cheering for you, right now. You are a good person who deserves to live a good life. God created you to have good relationships with people who love you; but, maybe because of what is happening in your life right now, you have begun to doubt that. Abuse changes people’s lives and abuse changes how people think. If you think that you somehow deserve what is happening to you, I want to assure you that that is not true. If you are confused and doubting yourself, I want to remind you that God has given you a wonderful mind and the ability to think. If you are feeling both alone and isolated, please remember that there are still people who care about you and who want you to have a good life. If you are feeling trapped right now and believe that you don’t have any options, I want you to know that there are people in your community who are more than willing to help you to escape what’s happening and who are willing to help you to get back on your feet and move in a better direction.
Many people inside the Church have been told that they need to continue to make the best of horrible situations. I once heard about a pastor who told an abused woman that it was her Godly duty to continue submitting to her husband. Many Christians continue to remain in horrible situations because they can remember the day when they stood before God and said: “Until death do us part.” Many people continue to look at a divorce as a personal failure. And the Church has not helped. The Church continues to tell women to submit to their husbands and to keep their mouths shut. The Church continues to tell people who are divorced that they are not welcome to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The Church continues to proclaim that every relationship can be mended by forgiveness. The Church continues to tell people who have been sexually abused by members of the clergy that the problem is being fixed; and yet, the Church continues to protect members of the clergy who are named as perpetrators of sexual abuse by keeping files that contain important information sealed and by offering solutions to the problem that are far from clear. If you have been told that you need to continue to endure abuse, you have been told a lie. God weeps with you when you cry, and Jesus feels the pain every time someone hits you. God created you to live in a relationship where you are respected and loved. God understands that you may need to walk away from a relationship because of the physical or emotional abuse. God understands that you are lonely, and God will send people to support you. And guess what? No matter what you have heard from a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam, I want you to hear, right now, that God understands that a divorce is better than death.
And so, what are some things that you can do if you are caught in an abusive relationship?
First, let someone that you trust know about what is happening. People who are being abused often feel isolated and alone. Abusers often try to isolate people that they are hurting to protect themselves and to limit the options that are available to the people that they are abusing. You may be feeling totally cut off from your family and friends. You may believe that people are not going to believe you. You may have already tried to reach out to someone that you know. Many people that you know are afraid to get involved in situations that involve physical or emotional abuse. Many people that you know find it hard to accept the fact that people who are prominent and beloved leaders in their community are abusive behind closed doors. Isolation is scary and it is sometimes difficult to admit you are being abused to another person. But please remember that God does not want you to be alone. In the very Beginning, God saw that it is not good for any of us to be alone as we journey through life. Is there someone that you can talk with about what is happening in your life? Make a list of possibilities and promise yourself that you are going to talk with one of the people on your list as soon as you have the chance to do it.
Second, it is probably a good idea to explore what resources are available to you. You may want to do some exploring yourself, or you may want to ask someone who knows what is happening in your life to give you some help. Many communities have shelters where women and men who are being abused can land if they decide that they need to get away. Many of those very same shelters can help people who are being abused pursue legal actions that can result in protection from abuse orders. Some of those same shelters offer free counseling services. Some shelters even help people who have been abused to settle into a new home and start anew. You may, or may not, want to do this research yourself. Many shelters offer toll-free telephone lines, but the telephone number remains visible in your cellphone’s call history. Please remember to clear your web browser’s history if you search for help on the Internet. Many abusers want to control the people that they are hurting, and spend time searching through telephone and web browser histories. Please be careful. Help is available, but you may need some assistance to find it.
Third, you may want to think about what you will do when you decide that you want to get away. Are you going to need the assistance of another person (i.e. do you have access to a car, etc.)? Where are you going to go and how are you going to get to that place? Is there anything that you need to take with you? What are you going to do if there are children in the household? At this point, these questions may be very overwhelming. Please remember that it is OK for you to feel overwhelmed at this point. But please remember that, if you decide to leave, you are going to need to have a place to go. Your trusted friend(s) may be able to help you. Many pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and counselors can help to point you in the right direction. You are not alone, but how and when you are going to leave is, ultimately, your own choice.
Lastly, if you decide you need to get away, please remember that you are going to hear many apologies and many promises from the person who has been abusing you. How many times have you already heard, “I’m sorry”? How many times have you been told that what happened to you is never going to happen again? People who are abusing others make many promises and offer many apologies, but their patterns of behavior seldom change. One of the best things that you can do is turn your cellphone off, so that you’re not tempted to answer telephone calls, respond to text messages and emails, or even respond to messages posted on social media. One of the things that you are going to need, if you decide to get away from the person who is abusing you, is some time to think. You will probably be numb and confused. You might be afraid of what is going to happen to you. Your head will probably be spinning. But I promise you that your mind will settle and you will find that you are able to think more clearly when you have some time and space. Lean on the people that you trust. Take advantage of free counseling or legal help that is being offered. And remember that you are both precious and valuable, and that you deserve to be surrounded and to be supported by people who care about you.
Conflict is something that none of us can avoid. But please remember that there is a difference between conflict and abuse. Times of conflict can be addressed and ended by using some of the principles that I have offered in my previous posts, but physical and emotional abuse are different. You cannot reason with someone who is continuing to abuse you. You cannot trust that the person who is abusing you is going to change after a heart-felt apology. We all deserve to feel safe; and, while times of conflict can be filled with both angst and discomfort, physical and emotional abuse cannot be explained away and ignored. If you are being abused today, you need to get away from your abuser, so that you have time to think and to clearly look toward the future. I, of course, cannot tell you what you need to do after you have gotten away from the person who is abusing you. The decisions that you are going to make are your own. But what I can do is offer you some insights and ideas that may help to save your life.
I have been encouraging you to think about conflict in my last two posts. I have encouraged you to keep the line between what happened and your interpretation of what happened clear. I have, also, encouraged you to try your best to interpret the actions of other people (even when they hurt you) in the kindest way. I have, lastly, encouraged you to think about what I’m calling your End Game. Is what happened to you the result of what happens when two less-than-perfect people interact with each other and step on each other’s toes, or is what happened to you the result of ongoing physical or emotional abuse? If you have decided that you want the relationship that you have with another person to continue as you travel through a time of conflict, Jesus has some wonderful words of guidance to offer you.
Jesus lays out a path toward conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20.
Jesus speaks, firstly, about going directly to the person who has hurt you before you drag other people into the conflict. As I’ve mentioned before, there may be a difference between what happened and how you have interpreted what happened. You may discover that the person who has hurt you realizes that he/she has done something wrong and wants to apologize. You may discover that the person does not even realize that something has gone wrong. It’s always best to go directly to the person who has hurt you during a time of conflict (unless some sort of emotional or physical abuse has occurred and you have a reason to fear for your safety). And remember: When Jesus lifts this first step toward conflict resolution before you, the End Game is to “regain” your brother or sister. Most people appreciate honesty and being given the chance to apologize when they have done something wrong, and most people will become defensive when they know that you have been talking about them behind their back. And so, if you are moving through a time of conflict and if you have been hurt or put off by the actions of another person, try going to that person first.
Jesus, then, speaks about what we should do if talking with the person who has hurt us does not work. Jesus tells us to take one or two other people along with us when we talk with the person who has hurt us. But even this sage advice can become problematic. Think about this second step as a paring knife. Paring knives can be used to pare a piece of fruit or to slice an apple. But a paring knife can also be used to open an envelope, to open a cardboard box, or even to cut plastic. The second step that Jesus recommends is just like that. We can reach out to one or two people who are level-headed and fair, or we can search for some allies. We can reach out to one or two people who are willing to listen to all of the people who are involved in the conflict, or we can select one or two other people who will simply take our side. When you try to get someone involved in a conflict that you are having with another person and to simply take your side, it is called “Triangulation.” And the neutral person can be one of your friends, your spouse, your pastor or even a counselor. But “Triangulation” does not work; in fact, “Triangulation” usually paints the person that you have asked to help you into a nearly impossible corner and will, most likely, deeply affect your relationship with that person, too. And so, if you believe that the person who has hurt you isn’t taking you seriously, you may need to take one or two neutral people along with you the next time that you talk with the person who hurt you. And please remember, again, that this step in the process is designed to help you to “regain” your brother or sister.
Jesus, lastly, talks about what to do when the first two steps in the process fail. Jesus talks about taking it to the Church; and, by “taking it to the Church,” I don’t think that Jesus means that we should stand up in the middle of a worship service and create a stir. Congregations have councils and elders who can provide a listening ear during times of conflict. Many Christian congregations have Mutual Ministry committees that can be consulted during times of conflict with church staff members. Many Christian congregations are a part of a larger denomination and have a bishop or president who can be consulted if an alleged incident of clergy misconduct occurs.
The road back to reconciliation becomes more and more bumpy as more and more people become involved in the conflict. If your End Game continues to be reconciliation and the restoring of the relationship, this final step should be considered as a last step in a longer process. People tend to become more and more defensive as more and more people are pulled into conflicts. The option of gracefully apologizing and searching for a path forward may disappear if too many people become involved and the person who has hurt you feels like he/she is being painted into a corner. But, sadly, there are times when things need to be taken to another level and when the relationship itself may need to end. And that’s why Jesus includes this step forward in His teachings about conflict.
In closing, I would like to lift one last idea before you.
Conflict can be difficult and can involve many different dynamics. But, at every step in the process, we need to ask ourselves: Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes? It is hard for us to open our hands and to let go of things that people have done when they hurt us. It is always going to be tempting to talk about other people behind their backs and to search for allies when we believe that we have been treated unfairly. But, sometimes, people are genuinely sorry about what they have done. People who have hurt us may offer an apology at any point in the process that Jesus provides. And so, as we move through the process that Jesus describes, we need to ask ourselves whether an apology is sufficient. Porcupines cannot unstick each other. A piece of fine china can be glued back together; and, while it will never be the same, it can be good again. And so, again, you need to ask yourself: What is my End Game? Do I want to be right, or do I want to be reconciled? Am I willing to let go of the hurt and disappointment that I’ve experienced, or does the path back no longer exist? Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes and is sorry about what happened? These are all questions that only you can answer. Jesus provides a process that we can use during times of hurt and conflict, but the process will only work if we are willing to allow it to work.
Martin Luther once said that, next to the Word of God, the devil dislikes music more than anything else in the world. Music can calm our hearts and lift our spirits. Music can help to restore a sense of peace in our lives and quiet our racing thoughts. Sometimes, I like to simply stop at the end of the day and listen to calming music before I go to bed.
We are traveling through a very unusual and stressful time right now. And, in response to that, I’ve added a new menu option to my blog entitled Calming Music. I’ve enjoyed playing the piano for many years and have even written some music and hymns of my own. I, also, enjoy creating new arrangements of familiar songs and hymns. I am offering these original recordings of familiar hymns and other songs for you to enjoy hoping that they can bring you moments of calm and peace in the midst of this storm. Please feel free to share them with other people that you know.
One of the songs I have included in this collection is an original composition entitled, “Through the Years.” I wrote this song while journeying through life with a very dear friend who was dying. I recently added an oboe part to the score. I have, also, added some other instrumentation to some of the songs that I have included in this short collection to add some variety to your listening experience.
I hope that you will enjoy listening to these songs that I’ve played and that they will bring you a sense of calm and peace during these unusual and challenging times.
I still enjoy looking through photo albums – even in a world where most of us store our pictures in our cellphones or somewhere in the Cloud.
Several months ago, I found my Baby Book. It’s a book filled with pictures of me right after I was born, that carefully preserves pictures of me sitting on the laps of people who have been gone for decades and that even contains the bracelet that was placed on my wrist on the day when I was born. People often took pictures only at significant moments not all that long ago; in fact, many people were only photographed once or maybe twice in their entire lifetime (perhaps on the day of their wedding) about 150 years ago.
John’s Gospel tells us the story of a “snapshot” moment in the life of Jesus that would have most certainly been captured in a photograph if cameras had been invented.
Picture Jesus standing waist deep in water and being baptized by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River. And now, get your camera ready…. All of a sudden, the Heavens open and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus like a dove. There’s a great big booming voice from Heaven that says, “Jesus is my beloved Son and I’m pleased to call Him my beloved Son.” And, right after that, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the Wilderness to be tempted by the devil and to begin his earthly ministry.
Now, let’s talk about you….
Some time ago, you may have come (or even been carried) to a very special place to be baptized. It really doesn’t matter if you were baptized in the place where you worship now, in a lake, in a river, or even in a church building that’s been closed for many years. And, while you were being washed in the waters of Baptism, the Heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon YOU, and God said, “YOU are my Beloved and I am going to work in YOUR life to do incredible things.” Snap! Did you capture the picture…?
You are God’s Beloved!
And, just like God moved and worked in the life of Jesus, God is working in your life, too! God has a plan for your life that is bigger than anything you can possibly imagine. God has embraced you and has made you an important part of what God’s doing in the world today. God wants you to remember “who you are” every time you remember the day when you were washed in the waters of Baptism. That precious “snapshot moment” in life can help you to remember that you’re precious and God’s Beloved in a world that often makes you feel somehow less than what God created you to be. It can remind you that God is alive and working in your life even in a world that often tells you that you’re just not “big enough” or “powerful enough” or “good enough” or “important enough” to be a part of what God’s doing.
Remember that you have been washed in the waters of Baptism. You have been touched and filled by the Holy Spirit. And you are chosen and precious. In fact, every time you look in the mirror, you can say to yourself, “I am God’s Beloved.”
And with that vitally important truth planted in your mind, go out into the world in the coming days with confidence and courage. And let YOUR light shine before others and help them to see what God’s doing in YOUR life.
Some of us remember Christmas as a day when our family came together when we were growing up and we want that tradition to continue as we grow older. Other people look forward to seeing the twinkle in people’s eyes when they open the special gift that we bought for them. Still others resonate with the words “peace on earth and goodwill for all” and we long to see that happen in our lives and in the world. Yet others experience the coming Holiday as a time of loneliness, sorrow and hurt.
And then, right in the middle of our holiday preparations, the words of John the Baptizer ring in our ears (Matthew 3:1-12). John calls people a bunch of snakes. John calls us to repent and change our ways. John speaks not of the quiet coming of a little baby who is placed in a manger, but of a rather ferocious person who comes into the world to gather wheat into a barn and throw chaff into unquenchable fire. Whoa! John appears to be the biggest Christmas party-pooper who ever lived!
But, think about this. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hope it will be because we all have relationships that are strained and broken because of things we’ve said or done – and sometimes that’s why there are empty seats at our Christmas dinner. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we get so immersed in the Holiday cheer and buying presents that we forget that Christmas is about love. Sometimes our Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because our hearts are hard; and because, even in a Season of “peace on earth and goodwill for all,” we judge people who need our help and make assumptions about the lives of people that we’ve never met. Sometimes, Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we’ve gotten so swept away by the Holiday tunes and on the radio and preparing our Christmas feast that we forget about people who will spend Christmas alone and even end up throwing food in the garbage that could have been shared with a special guest.
But the Good News is that we still have a little bit more than two weeks to just stop and change course and do things differently. It’s not too late to go back to people that we’ve hurt and make amends, so that the empty seat at last year’s Christmas feast isn’t empty again this year. It’s not too late to remember that Christmas is about love and not about finding that “special gift” that is going to wear out or be broken and thrown in the trash. It’s not too late to drop some money into a Salvation Army bucket, or gather some people together to go Christmas caroling at the homes of folks who are confined to their homes because of health issues. It’s not too late to pick up the telephone and invite someone you know who is going to be alone on Christmas to be your special guest at Christmas dinner.
We all have ideas about what we want Christmas to be like. Christmas is a time of the year that’s filled with hopes and expectations and big dreams and deep longings for something in life that we don’t often experience at other times of the year. And that’s why the words of John the Baptizer are so important for us to hear.
We have a little bit more than two weeks to do the things that will help Christmas to be what we want it to be. We still have a little bit of time to stop and change course and think about ways to let other people know that the “Reign of God is near.” And that’s the message that John the Baptizer speaks to us even today.
Our lives consist of many moments when ordinary life and the sacred connect.
Many Christians live their lives awaiting the return of Jesus Christ. We see nations rising against nations. We hear about earthquakes and famines and fatal illnesses and disease. This morning, I learned that the government of China has begun to arrest Muslims and remove them from society. We hear about children shooting each other in our schools. We see world leaders rattling their sabers in an effort in intimidate each other. I’ve even noticed that every time something happens, like a “Blood Moon,” people start saying that this is yet another “sign” that the End is near. And it all simply wears me out….
John the Baptizer proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near to us. Reza Aslan, who wrote the book Zealot got it right when he said that the message of John the Baptizer was carried forward by a much more famous man named Jesus. In a world that’s filled with nations rising against nations, the Kingdom of God is near. In a world filled with bad news about earthquakes, famines, diseases and school shootings, the Kingdom of God is near. When your life is filled with abundant blessings, the Kingdom of God is near. And, the Kingdom of God is near when you climb out of bed, when you kiss someone that you love, when you’re afraid that you’re going to flunk a test, or when you lose someone who was dear to you.
Our lives consist of many moments when ordinary life and the sacred connect.
What would life look like if, instead of waiting around for Jesus to return, we went out into the world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near? Maybe, realizing that God journeys with us each day, we could bear witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God is near by buying a child, whose family is struggling to make ends meet, a new winter coat – or maybe, we could proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near by visiting people and sending them encouraging messages when life is hard? Maybe we could proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near by not running away and hiding from people when we know that they need our help now more than ever? Maybe we could try harder to speak-out on behalf of people in our world who aren’t being heard by people who look at them as nothing more than a drain on society? Maybe, especially at the holidays approach, we could tell other people that the Kingdom of God is near by carrying light and love into dark places where people are grieving, fighting diseases, trying to escape from abusive relationships or fighting a battle with some kind of substance that’s taken over their lives?
One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my journey of faith is that every moment that I live is a “holy moment” when the Kingdom of God is near. And in those “holy moments,” God prepares me to go out into the world and tell other people about God’s love and to remind them that the Kingdom of God is near in every moment of their lives, too.
You see, it doesn’t really matter what day, or month, or year Jesus returns. It doesn’t matter if the End arrives before I have a chance to post this message, or if the End comes long after I’m dead and buried.
What matters is that I have the wonderful opportunity to live a life that’s full of times when God is near. What matters is that, in the “holy moments” when the Kingdom of God is near to me, God always points me back to people who believe that things are so bad in their lives that the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.
When we realize that the Kingdom of God is near and that each moment of our lives is a “sacred time” when God is close to us, our walk of faith becomes more about learning to live faithfully in a world that can be pretty scary, rather than about waiting for some Day when Jesus will return to fix everything. When we realize that our lives are filled with “sacred moments” when the Kingdom of God is near, we have something to share with people – when their lives are going well and when their lives are falling apart.
It’s always difficult to face the death of people that we’ve loved.
God brings special people into our lives because God knows that it’s not good for us to travel through life alone (Genesis 2:18). We share our lives with a wide variety of other people: parents and grandparents, perhaps siblings and a spouse, teachers and friends, perhaps a pastor or someone at the place where we worship. And our lives are enriched by relationships, and we even learn about life from other people.
But, sooner or later, we need to say, “Goodbye.”
Death can come suddenly, or it can come after a long illness. We, sometimes, see people trying to make everything “right” with their friends and family members before they die; but, sometimes, people die leaving unresolved conflicts and people who have been hurt and alienated behind. But, no matter what the circumstances, death is always hard and one of the things we often do is wrap people in thick layers of sentimentality that leaves us believing (or wanting to believe) that they were more perfect than they really were.
I’ve heard people say things like, “Nobody could ever bake an apple pie like Grandma did,” but people don’t want to talk about the fact that Grandma’s coffee almost always tasted burnt. We want to remember “Mom” as a lady who did wonderful things for other people, but we don’t like to talk about the fact that Mom loved to argue with others so much that, when nobody else was around, she’s stand in front of a mirror and argue with herself.
In Psalm 149, the writer speaks about something called a “two-edged sword.” Two-edged swords are forged to pierce armor. Two-edged swords are forged to puncture and pierce through something that is wrapped around people in order to protect them. And, I think that’s a helpful image to remember when we honor and memorialize those that we have loved who have died on a day like All Saints Day.
We, sometimes, wrap people in a thick layer of sentimentality when they die. When we are remembering those who have died, we might want to remember them as people who were somehow bigger than they actually were. And that can leave us thinking that we are somehow “less.” The thick armor of sentimentality that we wrap around people who have died can cause us to forget that their lives were a mixture of both bad and good, great strengths and character flaws just like our lives are marked with those very same things today.
But, what would happen if we allowed a “two-edged sword” to pierce through the thick layer of sentimentality that we wrap around those who have died?
Perhaps, we could more authentically celebrate the goodness in the lives of people who have died while remembering that they were no more perfect than we are. Perhaps, we could more clearly see that, in every Age, God’s people have displayed a rather odd mixture of both good and bad – a bold reminder that we all live our lives as saints and sinners at the same time. Perhaps, we could more honestly admit that people who have died had a few quirks and flaws; and, yet, God worked in their lives anyways. And, in that realization, we could begin to more easily understand that God is working in our lives to do good things – even though we sometimes live our lives as our own worst critic.
God has done wonderful things in the lives of those who have gone before us who now rest in the arms of the God who has promised us the gift of Eternity. And yet, if we allow the “two-edged sword” of God’s Word to pierce the “armor of sentimentality” that we all too often wrap around those who have died, we can see them in a much more authentic way. And, when we do that, we’ll find it easier to understand that those who have died were not any more qualified to have God work in their lives than we are.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.
We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.
The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.
We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.
I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Living Faithfully with One Another
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.
The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.
With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.
We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.
Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.
We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.
We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.
We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.
We’ve all asked God to intervene in our lives, haven’t we?
Some people ask for God’s help when they’re looking for a new job. Other people have asked God to help them win the lottery. I’m sure that we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve asked God for the gift of healing – either for ourselves, or for someone that we love. A woman told me that she once asked God to provide a parking place for her at a local shopping mall, so that she didn’t have to walk through the snow when she went there to finish her Christmas shopping.
Jesus once told a story about a widow who had been treated unfairly. She asked a judge to help her, but he didn’t. And so, she started going to the Courthouse to plead her case every time the judge came to work and every time he left the building at the end of the day. But, the widow didn’t stop there! She started following the judge home and beat on his door in the middle of the night. And the same thing happened night after night after night, until the judge (who really didn’t care about God or even about people) caved-in and granted her the justice that she sought.
Have you ever felt like you were beating on the doors of Heaven, but that God wasn’t listening to you?
Maybe you didn’t get the job that you asked God to provide? Maybe you didn’t win the lottery and couldn’t pay your mortgage? I remember a time in my life when I prayed and prayed and prayed for young man who had brain cancer – and he died. What if God does not provide a parking place for you at the shopping mall during the busy Holiday Season and you have to walk through the snow – just like everyone else?
Many of us think that prayer is about asking God to give us the things that we want; and, when we don’t get what we want, we get mad at God. “Where was God?” we sometimes say when bad things happen. “If I’ve prayed every day for a young man who had cancer and he died,” we might ask, “then what’s the use in praying at all?”
As I’ve journeyed through life and as I have matured as a Christian, I’ve come to see that prayer is about far more than asking God to give me something and, then, expecting it to miraculously happen. God builds our faith as we pray; and, sometimes, God gives us the strength we need to face things in life that we can’t change. God helps us to see things in different ways when we pray and God promises to journey with us even when things are going dreadfully wrong.
St. Paul once wrote (Romans 8:35-37): “What shall separate us from the love of God?” “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And St. Paul answers that question by writing: “No! In all these things we are far more than conquerors!”
That’s living faith!
Faith is not about learning how to make our God jump through hoops. Faith is not about “doing something” to catch God’s attention; and, then, expecting God to bless you beyond your wildest dreams – even though that’s what the Prosperity Gospel proclaims.
God promises to journey with us through thick and thin. God promises to bless us with the gift of faith when we need it the most. God promises us that we will never be left all alone, and that God will never let go of our hand in the midst of a raging storm.
That’s the God that I meet and that I spend time with every day when I pray.