Is It Enough to Pray?

Yesterday I read a blog from United Seminary professor and colleague David Watson about the recent UM Council of Bishops statement that came from their gathering. I am not going to enter into the fray on my denomination’s divisions over human sexuality among other things.

I am struck – again – by the lip service I pray to the power of prayer in my life and ministry after reading David’s blog. Not that action isn’t necessary – far from it. At its best faith requires a fusion of right-heart and right-action. It is, I think, what God demands of us and makes possible in Jesus Christ.

But I keep coming back in my own life and faith and ministry to how little I believe in prayer. At least based on my efforts in that direction in my spiritual walk.

Do we believe that God does things? Do we believe that a God who demands right-living wouldn’t also be a God of action?

I find myself losing hope about my denomination’s future unity and vitality. Which is, I think, a perfect invitation to pray. So I will… more.


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Things Look Different Today

No, not in the light of the election yesterday. But in the light of the sun. Sunday marked the return of Eastern Standard Time to my world. As I walked into church Sunday morning, I thought “Wow it looks different!” The sun was shining in my eyes and the world was bright. I had grown used to the morning twilight of recent weeks as I drove our son to school and then shambled into the office.

What a difference turning the clocks back an hour makes. At dinner time the difference will be there, too, as darkness covers the evening meal that was eaten in broad daylight not so long ago. What a simple act, turning back the clocks. Just an hour. But how different things look.

And how disorienting it is! My sleep is still a little off as my body continues to think it is Daylight Saving Time.

As I think today about church – worship, meetings, studies, groups – I think the same ought to be true. Just an hour. But it ought to change our perspective. It ought to disorient us a little as our comfortable assumptions are challenged and our faith is renewed by exercising and stretching it.

Faith IS a comfort and ought to be. But if that is all it is… faith puts us to sleep rather than waking us up and changing us as it should.

I leave you with my favorite quote on the subject of church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982



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Election Day Thoughts Don’t Matter – Your Vote Does

Today is election day in America. Although I have not yet voted before the day is out I will have. I can count on one hand the number of times in thirty years that I have not voted. And I always regret when I do not.

My vote… your vote… matters. If there is an American creed, this assertion must be at the top of the list. Voting is how we do America.

If you do not vote, then you have silenced yourself. No one else. Facebook is not a ballot box. Anything but. The truth is I don’t care what you think about the issues and candidates of the moment if you don’t express that thought through voting.

You may feel like your vote doesn’t matter. But it does. Your single vote may not sway the election. But the number of close elections that have been decided by a relatively few people’s choices argues against the impotence of your vote. And like many small acts that are right and good and may not seem to matter, this one does, too.

You may not like the candidates. Then put your name on a ballot somewhere – school board, village council, condo association, PTO, church board. Some group some where needs your leadership if you don’t like what is happening.

If you do not vote then the argument is won. Even if your vote cancels mine on some issue or candidate the bigger victory is that we exercised our right to vote.

And we live in a world where some still do not have that right. Some whose circumstances make casting that ballot difficult or, in other lands, dangerous.

And we live in a nation where men and women have died for the right you may not be exercising. Veterans who risked life and fallen soldiers and sailors whose lives were sacrificed. Women who risked censure and their safety to demand they receive the same right the men had. People of all colors and backgrounds but largely African-Americans who became martyrs because they took seriously the ringing words that “all men [people] are created equal.” Including that they should be able to vote.

If you can’t vote because you didn’t register, then watch and listen carefully to today’s lesson in American civics. And if you don’t go today to complete a ballot, then go here and complete the application so you can when this next American holy day arrives again:

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Go, Go, Go Joseph

If you recognize the title of this week’s blog, then you’ll also know the subject matter. Joseph. No, not that Joseph (as the person behind us at Sunday night’s performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat corrected her seatmate). The other Joseph – the son of Jacob, the great-grandson of Abraham. That Joseph.

Joseph’s story appears in the final chapters of Genesis. Thirteen chapters in fact. As much space as the story gives to his father and more than to his great-grandfather. Yet Joseph’s story ends when Genesis ends. The attention given him suggests he is the fourth patriarch and his biography fits the pattern well: a younger son, someone who experiences dreams and visions, a boy who grows into manhood and also into maturity in a foreign land where God has sent him to save his family.

But… nothing. We hear about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but Joseph is not added to the formula. If fact, when the twelve tribes of Israel are listed Joseph’s name disappears. His two sons are each remembered as half-tribes. Joseph is mentioned in Hebrews 11 among the roll of the faithful (11:22). But as far as I can see he disappears.

I love the story of Joseph. One of my treasured passages of Scripture comes from the mouth of Joseph:

 “ But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20 NIV)

My affection for this dreamer is the reason I love the Broadway show so. And his life is one to which I constantly return for inspiration in my own walk of faith. So I am distressed at his seemingly being written out of the story.

Perhaps Joseph is a reminder (not unlike the Joseph who is father to Jesus) that our place in God’s narrative begins and ends. Others will follow. Even the most important of us fade into the background of divine purpose and providence. We matter but not as much as we might assume or our pride expects.

In the words of the fictional Joseph -

“If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers lie
Far from this world.” “Close Every Door”

“Close Every Door”
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

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Enemies at Home

“…a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:36 NIV)

Matthew quotes the prophet Micah, both of whom are talking about the end times. But when I hear this passage these days I hear the part about my own household – the places and people closest and dearest to me.  Eugene Peterson in his translation of this segment puts it thus:

“—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God.
Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.” (The  Message)

I spent a few days with people who include some of my dearest friends. They are not biological family members but are family in the sense of affection and loyalty. Among them are also folks who test me mightily! I crossed paths several times, for instance, with someone about whom I wrote in an earlier blog and whose betrayal and breaking of trust still hurts deeply.

I know that I am ripping this verse out of its context. But part of what I think Jesus meant by the startling words about family is that family and friendship will be where our Kingdom commitments and character will be most sorely tempted.

Some of us face or will face great public trials of our faith. Some followers of Jesus will experience great hardship or unimaginable tragedy. Some will have to affirm or deny Christ in dramatic ways. But most of us will live out Jesus’ ways in our homes, offices, schools, and neighbourhoods.

The people we most love and with whom we spend the most time are often also the people we struggle to forgive and to love as Jesus demands (and not as our feelings or inclinations alone may lead us). While enjoying the renewal of friendships this weekend I also was tried in my commitment to love, to forgive, to extend grace.

Eugene Peterson wrote in a book on teenagers (maybe something I should read?) but something that applies broadly to families and family-like relationships:

“The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption, after the manner of William Faulkner’s plots in Yoknapatawpha County.”

Eugene H. Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager
(Eerdmans, 1994), pp.110-11

Let the redemption continue…

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Outside In or Inside Out?

Earlier this week I caught this story on NPR:

‘Mass Mobs’ Aim To Keep Pews Full At Old Churches

Each Sunday, a crowd of worshipers descends on a Detroit church that used to be filled with people but now faces closure and death. The pastor and administrator in me listened with interest but also with concern.  What happens next week when the pews – and the offering plates – are again empty? How does one Sunday of great attendance improve the viability of the local church in any meaningful way?

What really caught my attention was this line:

“People are upset that the churches are closing, but the simple reason is, people don’t go…”

The speaker meant that people don’t go to the churches and therefore the churches are empty. I wondered if the real problem lies in the very words he spoke but seen from the other side?

In the interest of fairness, I do not know these churches, their leaders or their congregants. But when did keeping the physical doors of the church open become a passion worthy of the church? Worthy of the sacrificial nature of a Christ who gave himself if others and not for himself?

This story troubles me because – honestly – much of my work as a pastor is directed to this very thing — keeping the church open, moving the church forward in growth, etc. And guaranteeing that I have a salary and a home and a retirement account.

What this story says to me is that the church will survive and thrive when its people – when Christ’s people – go rather than lamenting that people don’t go to church. Not a new thought for me or for many but a thought energized by this sad story.

I certainly hope the churches in this story stay open. I hope, even more, that they and we go instead.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 16:25 NRSV

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Broken Dreams and Callings

This week I read one of the most unsettling – and liberating – things I have ever read:

Discovering Your Calling Won’t Make You Whole

It is troubling because it speaks to so much of what we spend our adult lives pursuing… purpose, meaning, calling. Why am I here? What am I here to do? We believe that if we find this calling all will be easy – or at least clear.

Andrea Lucado in the above post bursts that bubble. And it should be burst.

So much effort spent on finding our unique calling. So many books written, seminars given, and (yes) money spent on this dream. So much agonizing over my place and purpose. Not pursuing this unattainable dream in a fallen world can free us for better things.

What if our purpose is rather to particularize God’s vision for the world in our lives and relationships?  This is enough of a dream for most of us! I wonder if our striving for our calling and purpose is a slightly off-course attempt to do this very thing? Another sign of the brokenness of the world. But also a source of hope.  As Andrea Lucado quotes Jesus in her blog:

“But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33c

Jesus has done so… therefore I do not have to overcome it. What could be more liberating and hope-filling than that?

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Can’t Complain

“The dominant impression we have of our journey to freedom was that it was filled with complaints. The complaints started in Egypt, when Pharaoh responded to the first stirrings of liberation by making life more miserable for our people. The complaints continued at the shores of the Red Sea when we seemed trapped there. And, they pretty much continued all the way until the day Moses died.”


The same might be said of many of us – certainly me! We LOVE to complain. Like the people of Israel on their wilderness journey. if we aren’t careful it might be the thing that people most remember about us, too. I certainly do not want to be remembered as a great complainer. Or to have complaint as the defining trait of my character. Complaint excludes the possibility of other things taking center stage -
hope, affirmation, love. It drives out any possibility of gratitude.

Last year I attempted to give up complaining for Lent. Let’s just say I am revisiting this flawed area of my character. Last Sunday I challenged my church to join me in the  21-day Complaint Free Challenge   I offered a basket of simple rubber bands and asked folks to take one and put it on their wrists. When you complain… when you are sarcastic (ouch – this one is where I fall the most)… you move the band to the other wrist. The goal is to change this behavior by not moving the rubber band for 21 days. I have yet to develop a tan-line on either wrist if that tells you how I am doing on week into the challenge.

I believe one of the keys is to replace complaining with something rather than simply removing it from our speech and thought. To speak grace into every situation. To share hope in the face of every challenge. To bless with love every person with whom we interact. And to speak with love about every person whose path crossed ours before this moment.

“Gracious speech is like clover honey — good taste to the soul, quick energy for the body.” (Proverbs 16:24, The Message)


On the journey of Christian discipleship we have an ally in this attempt — the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit can squash our temptation to complain. The Spirit can shape our words and transform our hearts in the face of real challenges and people who try our patience (and our desire to not complain about them)! At the core of this ministry of the Spirit is love. To love and not complain… something to strive to achieve. But not alone.
If this call to cease complaining speaks to you today, take a look at these articles and resources –
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The Other Thing…

Last week I wrote about Tolkien’s notion of Eucatastrophe and a Christian hope that, in the end, God will bring about a surprising rescue.

The other thing lying behind this post and that I swing around to consider today is that on an individual level it does not always work out (at least not in this life or world). Sometimes things go disastrously wrong – not around the corner or  to someone in a far away place – but to me. To you. To my family and friends.

This state of affairs need not surprise us. Jesus speaks several times about the likelihood of persecution from following him: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”( Matthew 5:11 NRSV). Jesus says that good happens to everyone and so does evil: “… for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5;45b).

Evil in all its forms may – often does – come our way. Sometimes we delude ourselves that it will not. Sometimes the Christian witness gets corrupted into a promise that everything will come out swell in the here and now. Or that following Christ means following him to a place of prosperity and physical blessing. The pundits of positive thought and hard work make similar claims. Work hard. Work smart. Do what I suggest and you will thrive.

But you may not. I may not. People get cancer and die. Companies eliminate jobs and cast off hard-working people. Hurricane strike cities full of faithful, positive thinking people. Accidents of nature and senseless acts of violence (in every sense of that word) come our way.

I have been working with someone who encouraged me to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search of Meaning (I recommend you read it, too!). In the Forward Rabbi Harold Kushner summarizes Frankl’s observations from the horror of the Nazi Holocaust -

“Finally, Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations: Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

I am living into this compelling observation in this season of life. I cannot – you cannot – control what happens by any amount of positive thinking, strategic preparation, or correct belief. I can – you can – respond in faith and hope and with a sense of purpose. In this life it is all we have.. and it is enough.


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Yesterday was the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. The fact that almost anyone can write or say “9/11″ is sufficient proof of the enduring effect 9/11/01 has had on our national psyche.

So often we look toward the next disaster, the next catastrophe. Today, the day after such a somber remembrance, I am in need of a eucatastrophe. Today in the light of what sometimes feels like cascading brokenness in the world I need a eucatastrophe.

“Eucatastrophe” appeared in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” It means when the protagonist in a story faces certain doom but is saved in the end from that doom. For Tolkien, the Christian Gospel offers the ultimate eucatastrophe — the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of “human history” and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.

I long for eucatastrophe in my life and our world. 9/11 reminds me how broken our world remains – and how insoluble these problems seem. We are about to launch air attacks against ISIL, for instance. The human story doesn’t seem to be one that can end well.

But it does. It will. It must. The hope of the Gospel is more than that my soul will survive into eternity with God. It is that the unfolding and endless catastrophes of human history will end in eucatastrophe.

So this Friday after 9/11 I look for that day, I long for the echoes of its arrival. It will come. It has to.


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