Hard Wired to Pray

On Sunday evening October 3, the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes produced a segment on singer Tony Bennett. Bennett, now 95 years of age, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The segment focused primarily on Tony Bennett’s final concert, a sold-out event at Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga.

Interestingly though, in one part of the piece, filmed in Bennett’s apartment, his accompanist was there. He started to play, and Bennett stood beside the piano and sang for an hour. No music. No lyrics. He just sang. When the curtain went up at Radio City, he raised his arms, welcomed the audience, and performed almost flawlessly. Two days later the singer had no memory of the concert. Such is the nature of this horrendous disease.

Anderson Cooper sought out Bennett’s neurologist and asked her how it was possible that someone with Alzheimer’s disease could function so effortlessly in one area of life, yet not remember simple everyday things. The doctor said that the music was “hardwired” into his mind and while there is no adequate medical explanation, music and performance are intrinsic to who he is.

The segment brought tears to my eyes. Not only in admiration for Tony Bennett, but on a much more personal level as I reflected on my dad. My father suffered from a particularly virulent form of Alzheimer’s which not only took away his mind, but also deprived him of mobility. Diapered at bedtime and in the morning, he was totally dependent on someone to care for him. He had no idea that the person caring for him was his wife of fifty years.

If Tony Bennett is hardwired to sing and perform, my dad was hardwired to pray. He would have starved to death had someone not prepared meals and eventually fed him. But here is the anomaly. The moment he was seated, he bowed his head and prayed. Prayer was hardwired into his brain at a place where even Alzheimer’s couldn’t reach.

Each week in worship we pose the question, “How’s Your Prayer Life?” We have asked the question for so long now, that I wonder if we actually ponder it or simply accept it as another element of worship. Each Wednesday we offer two opportunities for persons to come to the church and pray. The only agenda at these two prayer meetings is prayer. At those times of prayer participants receive a list of scriptures for the following week as well as prayer suggestions. One can of course, pray in any setting and circumstance, there is however, a sacredness to the worship space that is conducive to prayer. Each Wednesday the sanctuary is open at 10:30 am and 7:00 pm for times of reflection and prayer.

The experience of watching my dad pray when all other cognitive functions were gone challenges my own practice of prayer. Oh sure, I set aside time in the morning for prayer and devotions, but is prayer such an intrinsic piece of who I am that I am hardwired to pray?

There is a challenge here for all of us. We need to take prayer so seriously that it is our first response to both trial and celebration. We can quickly fall to our knees in times of crisis but fail to say thanks in times of blessing and celebration. When Paul challenged the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” (1Thessalonians 5:17) he was encouraging them to develop such an attitude of prayer that it was as natural as breathing.

We have been speaking a great deal about church renewal and revitalization. Church renewal and revitalization begins and succeeds as we learn to be hardwired to pray. Prayer is a spiritual discipline and like any other discipline takes commitment and practice.

Some of us continue to share our lives with a prayer partner. Sadly, many of those prayer partnerships have fallen by the wayside, dying on the altar of “too busy” or more honestly, just not a priority.

In the strongest possible terms l encourage you: find a prayer partner. A prayer partner is someone you can trust implicitly with the joys and frustrations of your life. Selecting a prayer partner is itself and act of prayer. The process begins by asking God for discernment in leading you to the person with whom you may share very personal details of your life. I continue to be blessed by the prayer partners that God has brought into my life.

Ideally, prayer partners meet weekly in person. If in person is not possible each week a phone call or text can be meaningful. The agenda is quite simple. Share. Share the significant events of the past week. Trust. Trust that your prayer partner has your best interests at heart. Listen. Genuinely listen to the blessings and challenges that your prayer partner brings to the table. Maintain confidentiality. The bedrock of this relationship is that what is shared in these meetings stays between the two of you. Nothing destroys a relationship quicker than a violation of one’s trust. Finally, at the close of each session, each of you asks the other, “How can I pray for you?” As you are comfortable pray aloud for one another. In the intervening days until your next meeting, continue in prayer for your partner. If it feels appropriate give her or him a call or send a text just to check in to let them know you are thinking about them. Your prayers extend beyond a brief conversation.

The stronger our commitment to prayer, the more we open the door for God to renew our church. And let’s be honest, we need renewal. The preceding eighteen months of lockdowns, quarantines, vaccinations, and political turmoil have taken their toll on the church. We have succumbed to external circumstances rather than relying on God to sustain our faith and commitment. This did not happen overnight, and the tide will not reverse itself overnight. The Church belongs to God, not us. We are the stewards of God’s church and as such we have not always done such a great job of caring for what has been entrusted to us. It is time to reverse that trend and live as the children of God.

We begin this reversal on our knees, both literally and figuratively. We ask for forgiveness for our intolerance of other people and opinions. We turn away from the evil attitudes and acrimonious words that permeate social media and infiltrate the church. We pray for revival in our church, community, and nation. We get over ourselves and remember that we are the children of God when we often act like children of the evil one.

My dad was hardwired to pray. Nothing, not even a devastating disease could take that practice from him. This would be a much different church if we could learn to be hardwired to pray.

What a Wonderful World? Oh Yeah.

I enjoy music. Each morning begins with music by MercyMe, Whitney Houston, Matt Redman, Michael Crawford, Carrie Underwood, and a gentle reminder from the great Louis Armstrong that it’s A Wonderful World.

Now, it doesn’t always feel like a wonderful world. In fact, many times it feels like a despicable, vile place. The world is full of ugliness, rude, and ungracious people. Even in the church we run into attitudes that make us cringe and cry out, “Where are you God?”

I go to worship with my music. For a few minutes I am reminded that Even If things don’t go the way I want them to, It is Well With My Soul. Michael Crawford reminds me of the promise of the psalmist, he will bear you up on eagles’ wings. Whitney Houston assures me God always hears my cry.

A fairly recent addition to my play list is Carrie Underwood who with beauty and simplicity sings great hymns, that assure me that I can come to God, Just As I Am. In gentleness she shares the great words of Fanny Crosby, Blessed Assurance Jesus Is Mine.

With Cece Winans, Carrie Underwood promises me each day that God’s faithfulness is never ending. The classic hymn echoes the words of Lamentations with the great affirmation that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

The next time you feel defeated, downhearted, and broken be assured that God’s faithfulness is absolute. Regardless of how lost you feel the faithfulness of God never fails. Even when you feel alone God is present. Hagar was seen by God when she was lost and alone in the wilderness. Whatever wilderness you find yourself in today, you are not alone. The great “I Am” sees you, hears you, and promises to love and be present with you.

God’s faithfulness cannot fail. God’s mercies are new each morning, they never end.

Affirm each day that it is well with your soul!!!

Hear Satchmo affirm, “Oh yeah!”

A Melancholy Christmas?

I confess to feeling a bit melancholy lately. It’s just three weeks until Christmas Day and I’m just not feeling it yet. We put the Christmas tree up early this year thinking perhaps that would create the right spirit, but not so much. We even did some outside decorating, but alas, that only brightened up the porch, not my spirit.

I’ve watched a couple of Christmas specials and heard some beautiful music. But there is something missing in the music. While I have heard two wonderful renditions of “Mary, Did You Know?” and “O Holy Night” by and large most of the holiday music concerns itself with romantic love and sleighrides. Now, don’t get me wrong I enjoy secular holiday music. Let’s be real, I need to hear Bing Crosby croon “White Christmas” and Nat King Cole serenade “The Christmas Song.” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” are timeless classics of the season.

However, as lovely as those songs may be, there is something sadly missing in the lyrics. But truthfully it isn’t the lyrics that bother me. It is the overall attitude that I find in myself and many of my brothers and sisters. In a time of global pandemic and political strife we need a message of hope and encouragement. The Word becoming flesh is meant to bring us just such a message. Luke tells us that the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place” Luke 2:15.

My suggestion is that we need to go to Bethlehem and celebrate this humble birth, announced by angels, to the simplest of folks. Now, I’m not advocating putting a sign in the yard that proclaims, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” If you feel like doing that, then go for it. But my thought runs deeper than a yard sign.

Rather, my thought is about a transformation of the heart, which changes both attitude and actions. One of the most disappointing aspects of the current healthcare crisis is the attitude portrayed by some who profess to be the children of God. It is hard for me to understand how one can proclaim love for God and love for neighbor and not demonstrate compassion for those with whom we come in contact. Just yesterday someone told me that the pandemic is a hoax. I’m not sure the families of the dead would agree. The Child of Bethlehem reminds me that I have responsibility to place the needs of my sisters and brothers above myself. If I need to wear a mask to do that, I’ll wear the mask. It’s a small ask.

Even more painful is the extreme hate generated by the current political climate in this country. We have reached a point where it is deemed okay to send death threats to our political opponents. Really? This a Christian nation? One nation under God?

It is these attitudes and actions that pull my spirit away from the manger of Bethlehem and lead me toward despair. Despair, however, is antithetical to the gospel. Paul told the Ephesians that we are to shod our feet with whatever will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. The Word is the light and life of a broken world. The Child of Bethlehem is the Savior of the world. Beyond easy slogans and bumper sticker theology. The only begotten Son of God showed us the heart of God, full of grace and truth. The Son promised the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. The Holy Spirit manifests itself in certain characteristics: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23.

It is these fruits, manifest in the attitudes and actions of disciples of Jesus the Christ that make the birth of the Savior incarnational in a fragmented, sin-darkened world.

I confess to feeling a bit melancholy. The sounds of the season, and the lights on the porch are doing little to relieve the sadness. I don’t need “a little Christmas”. I need to see the face and hear the voice of God’s Son. Can you and I manage in the next few days to find Jesus in the faces and voices of our friends and loved ones? Can we find something lovely in the people with whom we have serious disagreements? The fundamental question that fuels my disappointment is deeply personal, “Do the people I meet and interact with, see the Child of Bethlehem in me?”

I recall a song from my childhood, recorded by Jimmy Dean. In part it says,

If I owned a great big house, I’d have a Christmas room.
When things about me all went wrong, I’d find Christmas still in bloom.
There would be a great big tree with evergreen perfume,
Its branches bright with memories safe inside my Christmas room.
In summertime when tempers flare, when peace seems a never thing,
I’d slip inside and I’d abide where herald angels sing.
But since I’ll have no great big house when Christmas goes away,
Then make my heart a Christmas heart that carols every day,
And let it be my Christmas where good will toward men shall stay.

My prayer for each of this Christmas that we will have hearts that find joy in life and possess hearts of goodwill toward all peoples.

A New Heart

With great joy we celebrate our brother John Rodino’s successful heart transplant! It is an amazing blessing and a new life opens up to him. God wants to give each of us a new heart and when we accept that gift it will be obvious to all who see us that we are a child of God.

Receiving a new heart has some significant theological implications. To receive a new heart, someone first has to die. That’s rather blunt, but it is also true. A person makes a choice to be an organ donor and, at the time of death, organs are harvested so that they may be used to provide a new life for someone else.

There is the expectation that when we receive a new heart, we will experience a new life. In the case of those who receive a heart transplant, the doctors literally remove the old, diseased heart and replace it with a new, properly functioning organ. An organ that, if all goes well, will allow the recipient to engage in activities often impossible prior to the transplant and provides a sense of renewed hope for the future as an almost certain death gives way to endless possibilities.

We have all been faced with that certain death. (The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23). A new heart in Christ delivers us from death and offers us life in the presence of God, motivated and empowered by the indwelling of God’s spirit.  Theologically we examine the reality that this is precisely what Jesus did for us. Jesus died so that we may have a new life. Just as signing an organ donor card is a choice, Jesus offered his life freely so that each of us could have eternal life.

The prophet Ezekiel uses the metaphor of a new heart to describe God’s work of renewal in the life of the nation of Israel. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36: 26-27).

Ezekiel was a priest who was tasked with the overwhelming job of being God’s spokesperson to the exiles in Babylon. He was called to announce an end to Israel’s cherished institutions of Temple and Kingship, to proclaim the destruction of Jerusalem, and to declare the end of Israel’s relationship with the Lord’s land. Although Ezekiel’s judgment oracles intimate an end to Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord, God’s intention to renew Israel prevails.

It is on this point of renewal that I think we should focus. The time in which Ezekiel lived and worked was tumultuous to say the least. The treasured institutions on which people relied were brutally ripped away. Professor Gordon Matties writing in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible

describes the situation this way: “In Ezekiel’s world, superpower politics and small-scale ethnic nationalism were buttressed by idolatrous practices that legitimated military alliances, violent crimes, and oppressive economic policies.”

If that description sounds a little too familiar, it is because many of these are the same issues and concerns we face in society today. We live at a time when nation, community, family, and church are bitterly torn by partisan politics, idolatrous practices that legitimize racism, violence, and economic disparity.

Although called to announce God’s judgment on the nation, Ezekiel is also tasked with proclaiming God’s intention to renew the nation. Renewal always begins with reflection and repentance. The ancient peoples had allowed themselves to follow idolatrous practices. This means more than just worshipping false idols. We practice idolatry when we demand our rights at the expense of another’s freedom or safety. Idolatry is allowing a person or an attitude to assume the place of God in our thinking and practices.

The first commandment is “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). But the reality is that I am human and I do allow other gods to supplant the place that God is to have in my life. However unintentionally, I make daily choices to exercise my freedoms at the expense of others. However unintentionally, I participate in systems that practice economic and social injustice. When I am brutally honest with myself, I must acknowledge racism and the practice of white superiority which is subtle in my attitudes towards persons different than myself.

My attitude is rarely the attitude that Paul describes as being the attitude of Christ: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8)

The first step in renewal is repentance. Repentance requires not only an honest introspection of my life and attitudes but also requires a change in those attitudes, beliefs, and actions which are not compatible with my new life in Christ. Therefore, I am called to change the trajectory of my life. The commitments that pull my loyalties away from the Christ I profess to serve must be removed. These conflicting loyalties are the “heart of stone” that must be removed to make a place for the new heart implanted by the hand of God.

Repentance is an act of the will in combination with the Holy Spirit. I can make all kinds of promises, but I need the Spirit of God to encourage, strengthen, and enable me to keep the commitments I have made. There are too many spirits of Anti-Christ in the world that pull me in a multitude of directions. I require the discernment that comes only through listening to God’s spirit. This requires a commitment to prayer. More than table grace or bedtime prayers, transformation demands a firm resolve to place myself in God’s presence each and every day. We never arrive at spiritual completeness. The journey to be like Christ is a forever voyage.

The good news is that regardless of how far we wander, God wants to bring renewal and restoration. If the first step to renewal is repentance then the second step is reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without humility. I need to be humble with God and with you. To dethrone the principalities and powers that vie for control of my life I must be forgiven and forgiving. Until I forgive you, God cannot forgive me. Therefore, the sin of unforgiveness is on the throne of my life. I am an idolater. I cannot be both idolater and disciple of Jesus the Christ.

On 3 December 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human to human heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa. The first heart transplant recipient, Louis Washkansky, lived only 18 days following the surgery before succumbing to pneumonia.

That is the date of the first human to human heart transplant, but God is in the business of changing hearts each day. Each new day is an opportunity for the people of God to demonstrate that we are people who have received a new heart. We put aside the practices of jealousy, hatred, enmity, and give ourselves freely in loving service to our sisters and brothers.

Words Matter

Words matter. I recently received a text which I will share with you in part. The author remains anonymous, and names have been omitted. “I wanted you to know that if I was looking for a church, I would never even consider your church.” The author accuses us of being rude and extremely judgmental. “I just know some comments and holier than thou comments, totally turn me off and I would never consider attending your church.”

As your pastor, those words cut deeply. I am called to reflect on my own leadership and teaching. As I reflect, I want to challenge each of us to reflect on what comes out of our mouth. In conflict with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus was challenged because his disciples did not practice ritual handwashing. In reply, Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matthew 15:11 emphasis added).

Beloved, words matter. Listen to this warning from the letter of James:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.   (James 3:5b-6, 9-10 emphasis added).

As we move through this difficult season, the question uppermost in everyone’s mind is, “When can we get back into the building?” We all want to be back inside where we can be comfortable and greet one another as family. But, as we look forward to that time when we can once again worship in our “family room”, I want to propose a spiritual exercise meant to help us prepare spiritually to be together once more.

In 1978, Richard Foster wrote a book titled Celebration of Discipline, which examines the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study in the Christian life, the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service, and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

As we anxiously approach returning to worship in the building, I want to encourage us to focus concentrated time on the practice of the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study.

My suggestion is that each of us commit a specific time each week dedicated to fasting and prayer. As a practical matter, I would encourage each of us to set aside lunchtime on Mondays and Fridays to fast and pray. It is acceptable to drink water during this fast and, of course, if medical concerns prohibit fasting, please do not risk your health. Rather than fasting from food, you might choose to give up television or internet time. The point is to sacrifice the time and something we enjoy to focus our attention solely on God and God’s direction personally and corporately.

As the community of faith let’s make a commitment to fast and pray for our individual and corporate renewal. I suggest that we begin this practice on Monday, August 3, and continue to exercise these disciplines throughout the month of August. If we follow this practice for three weeks, it will become a staple in our lives. We will experience a deeper relationship with God and our sisters and brothers. As we grow in these practices, we will soon feel comfortable adding another hour to our practice of spiritual discipline.

I want to offer some suggestions as you move into the practice of spiritual disciplines. Let me be clear at the outset that my focus in leading you this way is for the ultimate renewal of our church. Returning to the building is not a spiritual exercise. While it will be a welcome relief to the vexing issues we have been dealing with, the building is not the community of faith. The church is not a building or a place. We are the church – whether actually at church, in public, or on-line. Wherever we are, we are the church. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Moving into this practice of spiritual disciplines, I want us to be guided by meditating on four Rs. Reflection. Repentance. Reconciliation. Renewal.

Reflection. As a community of faith, we take great pride in our relationship as family.  One of the concerns that has been raised since we have been unable to gather is the loss of fellowship with our sisters and brothers. We want to greet one another with a hug or a handshake.

There have been some disappointing consequences in the absence of that fellowship. We can no longer say that we do family well. We need to reflect on the way we have responded to one another during this time of separation. Have our words spoken and written, represented the Christ we claim to serve? Some of our personal opinions have devolved into ungracious and cutting words which do nothing to build up the body of Christ. I am aware of relationships in this family that have been damaged to the degree that nothing less than the Spirit of God can bring healing.

Therefore, the first act of returning to the building is to reflect on how we conduct ourselves outside the building. I am called to reflect on the way I represent Christ in personal conversation, email, texting, and social media. For Disciples of Christ, there is no place where we do not represent Christ. I wonder how Christ would react to my words.

Words matter. The spiritual reflection upon which we embark over the course of the next month will lead us to the second R, repentance. It is important to understand that repentance means more than being sorry. Repentance means a change of direction. I reflect on the words that come out of my mouth or my keyboard. I reflect on my words as the words of Christ. When I find that I have failed to meet the standard of Christ, I choose to change direction. I choose to take a step back before I speak. I offer a sentence prayer for patience and understanding. Words matter. I commit to go in the opposite direction, practicing love and compassion.

Repentance does not come easy. We are often so entrenched in our opinions that we cannot tolerate another’s thoughts. Disagreements can be a healthy part of human interactions. We share ideas, gather new information, gain new understanding and insights into what others are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. What is not acceptable is when those disagreements devolve into personal attacks and insults on one who does not share our beliefs.

Oswald Chambers makes an interesting observation relevant to this point: “It is perilously possible to make our conceptions of God like molten lead poured into a specially designed mold, and when it is cold and hard we fling it at the heads of the religious people who don’t agree with us.”

Sadly, his quote is often too true within the body of Christ. I have a close friend with whom I often disagree on matters of politics and religion. The disagreements have never turned personal. There has never been name-calling or attacks on one’s personal appearance or intellectual abilities. We love and respect one another too much for that level of pettiness.

Reconciliation. When we reenter the building, we will find ourselves face-to-face with some of the same people with whom we have been in deep conflict. It should be extremely uncomfortable to sit across from, or heaven forbid, shun a member of the family because of ungracious, thoughtless words. Words matter.

The reflection that I will engage in over the course of the next month will lead me to a sense of Godly repentance. The need to change direction and attitude requires that I seek reconciliation with the sister or brother with whom I have been in dispute. This may not be easy and likely will not happen overnight. But, simply sitting in a sanctuary, does not a church make. The act of being the church requires work, discipline, sacrifice, and understanding.

Let me suggest that you take time during one of your periods of fasting and prayer to read 1 John 4:7-21. If we honestly sit with those words for a while, we will quickly come to understand that we cannot be the children of God while holding a grudge against a sister or brother. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  (1 John 4:21 emphasis added).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a great deal to say about interpersonal relationships among his brothers and sisters. “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22 emphasis added).

He goes on to instruct. “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24 emphasis added)

Excuses don’t count. “She started it!” “He said it first.” This is not a school playground. This is the body of Christ. If we want our community to represent the Christ we love and serve, then we will seek forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. God will not bless division.

Renewal, reflection, repentance, and reconciliation will open the door for God to renew our church. My ongoing petition is that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on us in such a powerful way that merely to walk through the door will bathe one in the presence of the Almighty.

When the Holy Spirit empowered the early church, lives and circumstances were transformed. Luke describes it this way, Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47 emphasis added).

What we cannot tolerate, what will, in fact, be the death knell of the church is the criticism leveled against us that we are rude, cutting, and intolerant. When the church is the body of Christ, the community sits up and takes notice. The early church enjoyed the goodwill of the people. Sadly, as the text noted above indicates, we would not enjoy the same affirmation.

I challenge all of us to fast and pray Monday and Friday at noon beginning August 3 and continuing through the month. Let us all honestly, reflect on our relationship with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Repent for the words and actions that we may have expressed toward others. Change direction and seek reconciliation where we feel God leading us. Remember, God will not, cannot forgive one, who does not practice forgiveness. Renewal of the church is not about where we worship, but who we worship and how we treat one another.

– Jim

There Are NO Instructions…

Over the last few weeks I have come to realize a significant gap in my education. College, seminary, and graduate school did not prepare me for the current situation. There was no course titled Pandemic 101. I wish there had been. I would like to have had a textbook that outlined the steps a pastor takes during this type of crisis. A lecture or two from someone who had been through the experience. But alas, no such course exists, there are no textbooks and no lectures.

We do affirm as the people of God that we have absolute confidence in the creator of the universe, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the only one who sees the end of this crisis as we struggle to walk through it each day.

Since we don’t have a pandemic textbook to walk us through the next steps I will suggest that we can take some steps in discerning God’s will and plan for the future. The first and most obvious step is prayer. It is impossible to discern God’s will without spending time listening and talking with God. God is a good listener.

Let me further suggest that we practice patience. If we believe that God is omniscient, then we believe that God has purpose and works in every situation. God doesn’t always work the way I want, but I’m not God. Prayer for God’s direction and patience will help us as we walk through this difficult time.

God doesn’t allow difficult times to teach us something. God allows difficult time to build character. The nature of our character is clearly on display in the ways in which we speak and act toward one another.

We are not in this alone and it’s not about what I want, but about building up the body of Christ. Over the course of the next few weeks you will notice some changes in worship as we seek to involve others, working toward a safe and healthy reopening so all can join in corporate worship. Moving forward we will continue to offer worship online each Sunday morning at 10:00, Have your Hurd?, Wednesdays with Wolfe, and How’s Your Prayer Life? Some small group activities will begin to hold functions at the church. It is our intention to move forward prayerfully and carefully. We need your prayers and your patience. I’ve been a pastor for almost forty years. This is my first pandemic. Please be gentle.

National Day of Prayer

Today, May 7, is set aside as the National Day of Prayer. The National Day of Prayer is an annual day of observance held on the first Thursday of May, designated by the United States Congress, when people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation”. The president is required by law to sign a proclamation each year, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day.

The modern law formalizing the annual observance of a National Day of Prayer was enacted in 1952, although earlier days of fasting and prayer had been established by the Second Continental Congress from 1775 until 1783, and by President John Adams in 1798 and 1799. Thomas Jefferson established a day of prayer and thanksgiving, but this occurred while he served as governor of Virginia.

The National Day of Prayer shares common roots with the celebration of Thanksgiving; both were national proclamations establishing a day of prayer. In the New England Colonies under British rule, traditional observances in late fall called for prayer and thanksgiving, while observances in the spring or summer called for prayer and fasting. The fall observance was established by President Abraham Lincoln as the official Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. The spring observance was established by President Harry S. Truman in 1952 as the National Day of Prayer.

In the community of faith, every day needs to be for us a day of prayer. We don’t require an act of congress to call us to prayer. As the children of God, we celebrate the opportunity to carry our joys and sorrows, celebrations, and disappointments to the great “I Am”.

Paul instructed the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”. The New Living Translation says simply, “never stop praying.” St. Augustine declared, “True whole prayer is nothing but love.”

I want to suggest to all of us that in this difficult time of sheltering in place, health concerns, and economic woes that this is a moment when we need to commit ourselves to never stop praying. In our prayer we affirm our love for God and for our sisters and brothers. When we intercede for our neighbors, we see them as God sees them. In this moment of stress tempers flare and angry words are too easily spoken. True whole prayer reminds us that God loves each of us equally and requires that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

In addition to prayer, I would like to suggest that we practice the spiritual discipline of fasting. In fasting we turn our attention away from our physical wants and desires and spend time in spiritual contemplation. I would suggest that we choose a meal or a special treat and refrain from that meal or treat until the time we are able to be together as the Christian community once again. The time spent in eating is set aside to be a time of reflection and prayer. Remember the instructions of Jesus. We do not fast to be seen by other people. Don’t tell anyone what you are sacrificing. This is between you and God. We fast and pray for our nation and the world. We fast and pray for those stricken with Covid-19, we pray and fast for the physicians, nurses, and first responders, who risk their own health to care for those who are ill. We pray and fast for those who are suffering severe economic crises because they are unable to work and care for their families. We pray for this community of faith that we will be a community of loving, faithful servants.

True whole prayer is nothing but love. Love God and love your neighbors. Practice prayer and fasting. Trust God. Live in faith.

The letter to the Ephesians ends with this admonition: Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

‘May the Lord bless you
and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor
and give you his peace.’

No Really, What WOULD Jesus Do?

As we talk together today, I want to remind us of something important. In John 15:4 Jesus states, Abide, in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. Disciples are persons who have made a firm, settled commitment to abide in Jesus. The only way to bear fruit that represents the message of Jesus is to be in relationship with Jesus.

As this time of “sheltering in place” drags on with no end in sight, it seems that fewer and fewer of us are abiding in Jesus. Tempers are flaring. Angry, ungracious, and unloving words are being thrown about without regard to the damage they can do. These words are often spoken by persons who claim to be disciples of Jesus.

We all know the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 7:12 In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. This text is known as the Golden Rule and most of us would quickly give intellectual affirmation to its veracity. Intellectual affirmation is not the same as living out the basic premise of this command. In our lives as the children of God we need to be practitioners of this rule, not merely robots reciting a creed.

Let’s consider these two questions. First, what does it mean to abide in Jesus? Second, what does it mean to bear fruit?

To abide in Jesus means that we have decided, to live our life as if Jesus were living it. In other words, when people see us, hear us, or read our words they are seeing, hearing, or reading the words of Jesus. Now that’s a problem. It is difficult to reconcile our angry outcries and name-calling with the life of Jesus as Jesus would live it in me.

I have a close friend with whom I sometimes disagree. Neither one of us resorts to name-calling or hateful language. We love and respect one another and we seek to abide in Jesus, therefore name-calling, angry words, and threats have no place in the conversation. We can effectively agree to disagree without damaging the relationship. We have been friends for more than thirty years.

Abiding in Jesus means that we need not stoop to personal attacks. Personal attacks obfuscate the underlying issue. Using an abusive name in an argument destroys the integrity of our position. More damaging, it diminishes our witness as a disciple of Jesus.

The most striking example of this is found in political discourse. A policy or position is put forth with which I strongly disagree. Rather, than analyzing and explaining my opposition, I blurt out, “You’re stupid!” In that comment I did not address the issue, I simply attacked the person.

This response is known as Ad hominem (Latin for “to the person”) or against the person. This term is applied to several different types of arguments, most of which are fallacious. As indicated in the example the argument is fallacious because genuine discussion of the topic is avoided by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.

If I truly abide in Jesus the language of personal attack is never appropriate. The fact that we disagree does not make either of us stupid. The disciples of Jesus had arguments over who was the greatest or most important. Jesus refereed the disagreements without resorting to name-calling. To abide in Jesus means that I live my life as though Jesus were living it through me.

Do my words, either spoken or written in the safe space of social media represent the Lord I claim to love and serve?

The second question, “what does it mean to bear fruit?” is most adequately answered in the words of Paul recorded in Galatians 5:22-23: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

When I abide in Jesus, I can bear the fruit of the Spirit. It isn’t easy. My blood boils, and I angrily react to much of the political rhetoric that swirls around me in the age of a twenty-four-hour news cycle, that is short on news and long on rhetoric. I’m tired of being told where I can go and when. Frustration overcomes good sense and I thoughtlessly rage at people rather than circumstances.

If we choose to abide in Jesus, we choose to change our thinking. That sounds simple, but it is not simplistic. Jesus commands that we abide in him. That requires a complete reordering of our lives and priorities. The battles we face are not of flesh and blood but are spiritual. That is, they are won or lost in our mind, by our attitude. By an act of the will. We choose to abide in Jesus. Listen to Paul’s words to the Ephesians: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (4:8)

The apostle says to think about these things. That is to change the focus of our thinking away from disillusionment, disappointment, and the failure of other people to meet our expectations. It is to change our attitude to be like Christ who humbled himself to the point of death.

As we face this anxious time which requires us to practice social distancing, wear a mask, and shelter in place we do so in the presence and power of Jesus the Christ.

Let me share with you a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Jesus is the Lord of the ages and is always with his own, even when things are difficult, and will abide with us; that is our comfort. If tribulation and anxiety come upon us, Jesus is with us and leads us over into God’s eternal kingdom.”

We do not walk this walk alone. We abide in Jesus who is with us, and leads us into God’s eternal kingdom.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

When I was a senior in high school, we were required to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth. For extra credit we could memorize the speech “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow”.

The last line of the speech describes life as being full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. It occurs to me in the present situation that we are being given the opportunity to evaluate the “sound and fury” with which we surround ourselves. I would suggest that this time of waiting is an occasion for us to evaluate our life’s activities and determine where our priorities lie.

Isaiah 40:31 declares, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (italics added)

Habbakuk 2:3 indicates that to receive God’s vision requires that one wait for the vision to be revealed. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay”. (italics added)

There is a time to wait for the presence and power of God to make itself known. It is not in the “sound and fury” that we find the strength to run the race set before us. Rather, we need the times of waiting to be renewed physically and spiritually. It is possible that the sound and fury masks the lessons that God would have us learn.

If we want to discern God’s vision for our lives and for the community of faith, we are required to learn the lesson of waiting. God has vision and purpose which are revealed in God’s time, not ours.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time, while Kairos signifies a proper or opportune time for action. While Chronos is quantitative, Kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature. I assure you that God operates in Kairos time not Chronos. We can rant and rave against being told to practice social distancing, and shelter-in-place or we can accept the circumstance in which we find ourselves and, in the waiting, anticipate what God is about in God’s time. We are empowered by God’s strength. We are inspired by God’s vision. We wait in God’s time.

Resurrection of the Lord – April 12, 2020

Suggested Readings:
John 20:1-18
Matthew 28:1-10
Psalm 23

Sunday’s Coming

Friday was filled with brutality and violence. The promise of Bethlehem shattered by nails driven into soft flesh. The One John proclaimed to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36) executed in the vilest manner possible. A stone sealed the entrance to the tomb. The women bereft, waiting for the Sabbath to pass in order to perform the proper burial rituals. Saturday, a quiet day of sadness, reflection, and fear. The pall of death hung in the air.

There is, however, good news. Sunday’s coming!

On the first day of the week, Sunday, God raised Jesus from the dead. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we can face dark Fridays and quiet Saturdays. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, there is always the hope of Sunday. We may traverse the darkest valley, face an immovable mountain, but we do not face these trials alone. Sunday’s coming!

Christian worship takes place on Sunday precisely because it is the day of Resurrection. We celebrate new life each Sunday as we gather for corporate worship. The music, message, and prayers are all meant to remind us that Jesus is alive.

Regardless of what we experience in life, Sunday’s coming. Sunday is the day when the risen Lord called Mary by name. It is the day when God calls each of us by name and reminds us that even in our darkest hour we do not walk alone because Sunday’s coming.

The empty tomb does not prove the resurrection. The resurrection is proved because Sunday is always coming. New life is always possible because Jesus is raised from the tomb.

The place of the skull is viewed as an ugly black stain on the face of humankind. Crucifixion demonstrates the worst in humanity. Those we love suffer and die. We sit forlornly outside the tomb, lost and alone. Suddenly the darkness breaks and the gloom is lifted. The sun breaks through our despair as we hear the voice of the Risen Lord speaking our name into the pain that we felt was inexorable. Sunday is here! The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Prayer:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. Sunday is here! Christ is Risen! Thank you, Father God, for the inexpressible gift of the Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.