Made in God’s Image

God created humanity in God’s own image,

in the divine image God created them,

male and female God created them.

-Genesis 1:27

Watched any good TV shows lately? I’ve recently been watching Parks and Recreation, a comedy about a fictional parks department of a small city. Although they have a shared purpose of keeping the city’s parks running and organizing recreation programs, the members of the department have very little else in common. The comedy comes in primarily because the characters are so very different. There’s a libertarian department head, a gung-ho overachieving deputy, a slacking receptionist, and a whole team of mostly well-meaning but ineffective workers.

It’s a common theme in TV shows: totally different characters, people you’d never expect to get along well, somehow band together simply because they have a shared purpose. Just think of Star Trek, M*A*S*H*, or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: very different sorts of people (or turtles) working together toward a common goal. No matter how different the characters might be, their common purpose brings them together.

At our best, this is true at church, too. We are old and young, liberal and conservative, well-off and barely scraping by, male and female and non-binary, outgoing and shy, polished and rough-around-the-edges, single and married and widowed and divorced, healthy and sick, lifelong members and newcomers, and any other difference you could imagine, and each and every one of us made in the image of God. Each and every one created by God just as we are.

I wonder, when you look in the mirror, do you see God’s creation, made in God’s image? When you express your creativity or provide for someone in need, do you realize that you are acting as God would, in the very image of God? What about when you look around at church? Do you remember that each one of those people is made in God’s image? What about at the grocery store, the restaurant, and the doctor’s office? Do you often think of those people as made in the image of God?

If you do, you begin to realize the diversity God must adore to make us all so unique. We are different. You and I and every other person: we are not the same. And God did that on purpose! It’s not our characteristics that join us together; it’s our purpose. When we come together at church, it’s not because we’re identical. It’s because we share the purpose of worshipping God. That’s all. That’s enough. We don’t have to agree about everything, and what a relief! We don’t have to look or dress the same. We are all made in God’s image. No matter how different we are, our common purpose and identity as God’s people brings us together.

God, thank you for the diversity of your creation. Help me see your image in myself and the people around me. Make us one people, brought together in your love. Amen.

A Moment of Unity

How very good and pleasant it is

when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,

running down upon the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

running down over the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion.

For there the Lord ordained his blessing,

life forevermore.

-Psalm 133

How “good and pleasant” indeed it is when people live together in harmony. When neighbors care for one another, when families check in on each other, when communities are considerate to all– this is good. It’s pleasant. It’s as valuable as precious oil poured out to anoint God’s chosen one, as this psalm writes. It’s as necessary as the dew that falls in a land of frequent droughts and dry seasons. It is part of the blessing God wishes for us: life. Full, abundant, satisfying life, both now and forevermore.

We don’t always manage to live in harmony, do we? As a matter of fact, many of us experience jarring discord as often as harmony. Life in unity comes in glimpses and moments, not all the time.

What if we tried for a few more moments of harmony in our lives? Sure, it’d be nice if there could be unity and harmony all the time, and we do hope and pray for it. In the meantime, knowing that it’s good and pleasant, not just for us but also to God, we might see what we can do to make just a bit more unity in the world.

I saw a moment of that unity this past week when we had our block party. About forty people came, including several of our neighbors. Adults chatted and added their flair to the sidewalk chalk contest while children laughed and blew bubbles. By the end of the evening, it was a toss-up whether there was more chalk on the sidewalk or some of the kids. Through it all floated the delight of accordion music. It was harmony, as a group of God’s people enjoyed an hour and a half of unity.

We don’t hear a great deal about unity these days. More often we hear words like “division” and “polarized” and “extremism” and a hundred other ways of saying that things are not good, not pleasant, and certainly not in a state of kindred living together in unity. There may be people with great and grand ways to get unity for all the people of our country, or all Christians, or all of any other group you might choose. Perhaps they even have plans that might work.

I would suggest that before any big acts of unity can be undertaken, small and simple ones must do. It is holy and hard work to make any unity happen, including the simple act of getting to know your neighbors. It is hard and holy work to take a chance of making an invitation and being rejected, or of being accepted and then figuring out how to make room at the table for a newcomer. But how good and pleasant it is when it happens! How delightful it is to God when we, any of us, live together in unity.

God, it is a delight to you and to me whenever your people live in unity. Give me the courage to work for unity in my life, and give me eyes to see unity when it occurs. Amen.

Our neighbor wrote this note about the block party:

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An Attitude of Gratitude

 I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all God’s wonderful deeds.

-Psalm 9:1

I thank my God every time I remember you.

-Philippians 1:3

There is a billboard just north of 80 about a mile west of the Garfield Avenue/Springdale exit. In large red and yellow lettering, it boldly proclaims: Say “Thanks” A Lot. There’s no sponsor or anything else listed on the billboard to suggest who paid for it. Every time I drive past it, I wonder: who spent all that money to send a message without getting any credit for it? Then that thought is gone, and I wonder: who should I thank today?

We all know how good it feels to be thanked. Who doesn’t enjoy being recognized for a job well done or for putting in a special effort? It seems obvious that being thanked would make a person happy.

However, the research says that it’s actually giving thanks, not receiving thanks that makes a person happiest. It might seem counter-intuitive. After all, we all like to be appreciated. The simple fact is that showing appreciation does much more to improve a person’s state of mind. An attitude of gratitude changes things for you. Saying thanks is good for your spirit.

It seems then that the imperative of the billboard is more than a nice idea or handy advice. It’s actually necessary to our mental wellbeing that we say thanks. We can say thanks for little things, like someone holding a door for us, or for a big thing, when someone goes out of their way to help solve a problem. We could even say thanks to someone just for their character, just for being who they are.

There’s more to it than that, though. As Christians, we are not only to recognize and thank those around us, but give thanks to God for them. Why? Well, it’s not because God needs to be cajoled into giving us more great people in our lives. It’s not that God will withhold the good things that we need if we forget to say thanks. Nope. It’s both simpler and more difficult than that.

When we give thanks to God, we are not just expressing gratitude. We are making a claim that God is the one who is actually doing the giving. It’s not just that your neighbor has such a great spirit of generosity that he mowed your lawn when you broke your arm. It’s that God gave him that generous heart and gave you the neighbor you needed. It’s not just that your cashier took care in packing your groceries nicely; it’s that God gave her a sense of responsibility and attention to detail and gave you the cashier you needed. In every instance where we’re grateful for a person, we can also be grateful to God.

When we nurture that attitude of gratitude, we make a difference for our neighbors and for ourselves. We put ourselves in the perspective of recognizing that every single pleasant interaction is a gift from God.

Generous God, thank you. Thank you for all you have done for me. Help me to show my gratitude to you and to the people around me. Amen.

Say Thanks A Lot (1)

In the Habit

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

-Colossians 3:12-14

I have always been told that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit. That is, that if a person wants to get in the habit of making her bed, flossing his teeth, or writing in their journal, it would require three weeks of reminders before the habit stuck. More recent research has indicated that twenty-one days is not enough– it actually takes, on average, sixty-six days to form a new habit– that’s more than two months!

This does explain why, on this first day of school, it often seems to take until November for classrooms to settle into their rhythm. Or why you never did manage to get in the habit of keeping a journal, since you gave it up after a month. Or why your partner had to remind you about fifty times before you remembered to put your laundry away without prompting.

Now, if it takes sixty-six days straight to set a new habit, you can imagine that it’s even harder to set a weekly habit. Why, sixty-six repetitions of a once-a-week habit would require more than a year!

You might have noticed that Sunday worship happens only once a week. If you wanted to get in a new habit of prayer or reading your Bible and decided to do that after worship, you’d need 15 months to make the habit stick– and that’s assuming you never missed a week!

Setting a daily habit comes much more quickly– only two months are required. A habit can be established as easily as putting on clean clothes in the morning. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, urging them to put compassion, patience, and on like clothing. Kindness can be a habit. In fact, the uniform worn by nuns is called a habit, linking together the clothing they wear with their character. Their habit (clothing) reminds them of their habit (character) as they go throughout their day.

What about you? Could you get in the habit? When you get dressed in the morning, could you imagine your shirt to be made of compassion? Your socks to be patience? Your dress to be tolerance? Your pants to be tolerance? Your watch to be forgiveness? Your shoes to be humility? Over it all, could you put on the love that makes all those habits work together?

Here’s your challenge: pick just one of the habits Paul lists in his letter to the Colossian Christians. Pick the one you most need to add to your wardrobe. Then, starting tomorrow, for every day until October 29, remind yourself to put that habit on when you’re getting dressed. Watch for your new habit to show up throughout the day. See how changing your habit changes your day. You might be surprised at how much God does with one little habit.

God, give me your wisdom to see what new habit I need. Clothe me with your Holy Spirit so that I may be a faithful reflection of your love for me. I ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

All times are soon

This week, I was doing some routine end-of-summer administrative stuff. Scheduling, planning, phone calls, that sort of thing. I was clearing out old emails (like, embarrassingly old) and came across a short exchange between me and my colleague Pastor Tommi, sent a few weeks before she died. Tommi shared her October newsletter article, describing her cancer diagnosis and prognosis, I responded, and she replied to my response. Tommi’s email ended with the words, “See you soon.”

I didn’t see her again. Tommi’s cancer was fast-moving and deadly. When I reread her email, I was sad, happy, amused, disappointed, and, finally, when I saw the words “See you soon,” I was angry. We didn’t get to see each other, soon or otherwise, and why? Because of disease and death.

Yes, of course, I believe as Tommi did in the forgiveness of sin, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting, but that seems like it’s an awful long way away, not “soon.”

Then I remembered a scene from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Aslan, the lion who represents Jesus, is talking with Lucy, the first and youngest child to visit the magical land of Narnia. Aslan says, “Do not look sad. We shall meet again soon.” Lucy replies, “Please, Aslan, what do you call soon?” Aslan answers, “I call all times soon.”

Our ideas about timing are not quite the same as God’s, are they? Especially where grief and loss come in. When we want now, we often get not yet, and when we’d prefer next year, we sometimes hear tomorrow. In the moments of grief, we lose long-term perspective as everything slows down to a minute-by-minute crawl. How can we consider eternal life as soon when death is right now?

Jesus, in his last words in the gospel of Matthew, spoke a promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s possible to see how C. S. Lewis imagined that “all times are soon” to God who promises to be with us in every moment, even until time itself ends. What, after all, is a year or a decade or more when at its end will come the life that never ends? No matter how long we find ourselves waiting in this life, Jesus has promised and prepared a new life that never ends.

Maybe, just maybe, Tommi was right, and the response to death isn’t “Goodbye,” but “See you soon” in the kingdom of God where all God’s children live forever.

God of life, I know that you will forever be with me and all who follow you. When death and grief strike, help me trust the promise of Jesus to be with us always. Turn my eyes to the soon-coming day when I will be reunited with all the faithful in the life that never ends. Amen.

It’s about who you meet.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae… Greet Prisca and Aquila,…greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus,…Mary, …greet Andronicus and Junia,… Ampliatus, …Urbanus, …Stachys, …Apelles. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus, …Herodion, … the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, …Persis, …Rufus, … his mother, …greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, …Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them… .All the churches of Christ greet you.” (From Romans 16)

A wise friend was talking with me about church trips, and he said, “It’s not about what you do; it’s about who you meet.” This advice seems consistent with what Paul might have said about his journeys. All of his letters conclude with greetings to the many people who have supported and worked with him on his travels to share the gospel. He gives recognition to the heads of households who hosted him on his way, to the community leaders who continued the work of the gospel in his absence, and to the ordinary people who made his journeys memorable.

It’s also simply true of life that the things we do are made meaningful by the people we share them with. At work or at play, we do our best to surround ourselves with people we enjoy, who impact us, whose very presence makes a difference.

On the youth trip I’m currently leading, we have met and spent time with many different people, some for a few minutes; others for many hours. Each one has shared a part of their story with us, and our trip has been enriched by it. Here are a few of the people our group remembers from the journey:

“Uncle Will because he taught us that it’s okay to feel what we feel and share our emotions with someone we trust”

“Kevin Poor Bear because he saw the power of prayer and faith and how important it was to share that while respecting other people’s differences.”

“Johanne because she taught me some language and things she does in Norway.”

“Uncle Will because how passionate he was that everyone was your family and how… yeah he just had a really good vibe.”

“Will, because of his story and how he sees youth and women as sacred, and how he was able to overcome hate and share the story of Wounded Knee with us..”

“Darrin because he was such a good storyteller.”

We remember and give thanks for the motorcyclist in the Thrivent t-shirt at the gas station, for Pastor Eric, Miranda, John, John, Kevin, and Mirna in Sioux Falls, for Pastor Kay, Nick, Lindsay, Josie, Will Peters, Marcella, Liz, Rose, Henry Red Cloud, Misty, Valery Brown Eyes, Kevin Poor Bear, the kids who played with us, and many other saints at Pine Ridge Reservation.

God, we thank you for all the people who touched our lives this week, this year, and throughout our lives. May we always notice and be grateful for their presence in our lives. Amen.

Love your neighbor, only… all of them, all the time.

The young man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

-Luke 10:27

“Why can’t I throw my bat after I hit the pitch?” asked one of the actors at Vacation Bible School earlier this week. “It’s fun, and I haven’t ever hurt anyone.”

Now there’s a question I’ve heard a time or two in different forms: what’s the point of this rule? I’ve never had any problems when I break it. You’ve probably asked it yourself a time or two. “I never wore a helmet when I rode my bike, and I’m fine.” “I’ve never crashed into another car when I drive ten over.” “I make jokes about other people all the time, and no one has ever complained to me.” “I don’t worry about food allergy labels. Why should anyone?”

In that VBS skit, another actor pointed out that baseball bats are hard and heavy, especially when the whole thing gets launched to the side as somebody takes off running. People nearby can and do get hurt. Is it really loving, the actor wondered, to choose to do something that might hurt someone else just for fun?

The first actor admitted that he hadn’t really been thinking about how throwing the bat might impact someone else. It never occurred to him that a wild throw might knock out someone’s tooth or give them a black eye.

It can take a bit of practice to get in the habit of thinking of other people as naturally as we think of ourselves. What would it look like to love my neighbor so that when I drive, I think about the other drivers and pedestrians as much as I think about getting to my destination? What would it look like to love my neighbor so that when I shop, I am considerate of the workers and think about the people who worked to produce whatever I’m buying? What would it look like to love my neighbor so that when I speak, I consider how my words will affect the people who hear me?

Some people call this the “Golden Rule”: do to other people what you’d want them to do to you. Jesus isn’t talking about just “doing” though. Jesus is telling us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This includes our actions as well as our thoughts. It’s a high demand, this greatest commandment.

It’s even, as we heard at Vacation Bible School, a command that has the power to change the world, because to love means also to forgive. When we forgive our neighbors and are forgiven, we show the same great love that God has for us. God loves you and forgives you and asks you to do the same for your neighbor.

God, teach me to see my neighbors in every place and at every time. Give me your love so that I may give it to the world that needs it. I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prayer in Any Language

The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray…”

Our Father (who art) in Heaven,

Hallowed be (your/thy) name,

(Your/thy) kingdom come,

(Your/thy) will be done,

On Earth as (it is) in Heaven.

Give us (this day/today) our daily bread,

And forgive us our (sins/trespasses/debts)

as we forgive (those who sin/trespass against us/our debtors).

(Lead us not into temptation/Save us from the time of trial)

(and/but) deliver us from evil.

For (thine is) the kingdom, (and) the power, and the glory (are yours),

(now and) forever (and ever).

Amen.

Once or twice a month, I get to lead worship at the care facilities in Tipton. During those services, I always include the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, there are people from many different Christian backgrounds at those worship services, so we don’t all pray the Lord’s Prayer in the same way. Now, we could fix this by printing out the words so that everyone said the same ones in the same way at the same time. To say that we can “fix” it suggests that there’s a problem with praying the Lord’s Prayer in different ways, though, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re following a model of how to pray, not what to pray. This is especially good since I don’t imagine most of us would feel very excited about learning to read Greek so we could pray the exact words written down in the New Testament. Instead, Jesus is teaching us how to pray: with the trust that a child has for a loving parent, with the confidence that God’s will is good, with the confidence that God will provide for our needs, with the assurance that God will forgive us and keep us from harm, with the awareness that all glory and honor are God’s forever. We can do this whether we say “sins” or “debts” or “trespasses” or some other words altogether.

In fact, when I was in Jerusalem, my travel group worshiped on Sunday morning in an international Lutheran church where the pastor invited us to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of our hearts. Not only did I hear different English versions, I heard other languages altogether! Our words were different while our hearts were in union.

There’s not a lot of prayers or songs or words for worship that all Christians know. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the Lord’s Prayer is the closest thing to a universal prayer for Christians. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught us, we are joining millions of other Christians who have trusted and hoped in the God who cares, provides, forgives, and protects us. Whether the words or the language are similar or different, our hearts are joined.

God, I thank you for the diversity of your people and the unity our hearts find in you. However we pray, let us find our peace and joy in you, to whom belong all power and glory. Amen.

Living Water

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

the face of God?

-Psalm 42:1-2

 

It is hot out there. Like, really hot. Like, warnings on the radio and the weather app hot. Like, you can’t help but feel for everybody working outside or living in a home without air conditioning hot. It’s really, really hot.

Anyone who’s ever spent much time outdoors in weather like this can tell you how important it is to stay hydrated. They’ll tell you the warning signs of dehydration: flushed face, headache, no longer sweating. They’ll even tell you that by the time you feel thirsty, you are already becoming dehydrated. You’ve got to be drinking water long before you feel that you need it.

The ancient Israelites knew this well. In Israel, you see, there are a few rainy months when the wilderness bursts to life as dried out riverbeds are flooded with rain. During those months, everyone and everything has enough water. The rain stops, and then, well, finding enough water can get a bit dicey. Humans learned to deal with the problem by digging deep cisterns to collect water during the rainy season and portion it out through the dry season. They also dug wells and fought to keep the water for themselves.

Animals, however, didn’t fare so well as people. No deer I ever heard of thought to dig a well or store up water for the dry season. Livestock depended on the water stores of their owners, and wild animals depended on migrating or going thirsty until the next rains arrived. During the dry season in Israel, only one river and one lake remained as freshwater sources. You can imagine how every creature competed to get the water they needed, and how they longed for the rainy season when they could return to the wilderness streams.

Have you longed for God like a deer longing for water in the dry season? Most of us have, at one time or another. The writer of this psalm knew what it was like to be spiritually dehydrated, to thirst and long to see God face-to-face. Maybe the psalmist found themselves longing for God and unable to get what they needed. Or maybe the psalmist wasn’t paying attention to the encouragement to stay spiritually hydrated- to make time for prayer, worship, service, fellowship, confession, and forgiveness. We don’t know. The psalm doesn’t tell us. I’m guessing, though, that it was the second option. Most of us have lots of opportunities to be nourished by God. When we do so regularly, we are much less likely to become spiritually dehydrated.

Even when we do everything we know we should to stay close to God, to be well-hydrated in spirit, we can still find ourselves longing for God. When that happens, you should hear the words of Jesus for yourself: “I am the living water… those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Jesus, I thank you for giving me yourself as living water. Let it nourish and sustain me in every dry and barren place. Amen.

Bananas

How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

-Psalm 119:103

About four days into my eleven day trip to Israel, I realized that I hadn’t seen a banana anywhere. I usually eat a banana a day, and while I had access to fresh melons, pomegranate, dates, apples, cherries, oranges, pineapple, mango, and more– there were no bananas. Now, if you’re not a banana eater, you probably wouldn’t even have noticed the lack of bananas amongst the rainbow of fresh fruit options. But after four days with no banana, I sure noticed their absence. As the days stretched on, I noticed that it wasn’t just that I missed bananas: about eight days in, I really wanted a banana. By the time I landed back in the U.S., I was craving a banana so much that I spent $1.40 for a single banana in the airport.

It’s easy to take things for granted when we have quick access to them all the time. I can and do get bananas at Family Foods all the time when I’m home without thinking twice about it. Traveling internationally made me realize how easy it is to take not only food for granted, but anything. On this trip, we visited religious spaces belonging to Jews and Muslims, and also to Christian denominations whose idea of how to decorate and behave in holy space was quite a bit different from mine. Being away from what was familiar was a challenge, as I longed to find meaning in these spaces without quite feeling at home.

Until, that is, Sunday morning, when we went to worship in the only English-speaking Lutheran church in all of Jerusalem. We settled in for worship, and there in the pew sat a cranberry-colored hymnal, from which the pastor began to play Holy Communion Setting Six, and suddenly I was at ease. I was so used to these words and melodies that the familiar hymnal was almost an unnecessary accessory. Worship was so sweet and satisfying in a way I hadn’t expected it would be only a week after the last time I had been in church, and yet it was exactly what I needed after the whirlwind of days spent visiting so many different and unfamiliar spaces. Confession and forgiveness led to prayers, to readings, to preaching, to prayers, to communion, to blessing, all intermingled with hymns I knew or could at least follow along. I was as far away from home as I’d ever been, and yet I was right at home.

The experience of worship with familiar words was centering both because of how well I knew them and because of how sweet those words are. Words like “peace be with you,” “Lord have mercy,” and “the body of Christ given for you” were sweet to speak and sing and hear. They showed how God’s faithfulness and love are greater than any distance or difference. The sweet familiar words reminded me how often we all need to hear that we are welcomed, chosen, and forgiven. Those words are even sweeter than honey. They nourish the spirit and restore the soul.

Dear God, let your words always be sweet to me. Wherever I go, may I find my home in your words. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

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