Slow Down

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest?” -Luke 12:22-26

A week ago, I asked a group of elementary schoolers if they knew what holiday was coming up at the end of this month.

“CHRISTMAS!”

That’s not until the next month, I said. This month is November, and at the end of November, we celebrate Thanksgiving. We talked a little about the people for whom we’re thankful, but the start of the conversation stuck with me.

How often do you brush right past Now in favor of Next? Or, to put it another way, how much time do you spend worrying and planning for the future instead of living each day as it happens? We do this all throughout our lives: little kids want to be big enough to go to school, big kids want to be old enough to graduate, college students want to find a job and move out, parents of little kids want them to sleep through the night, middle aged adults want to save up for retirement, folks in retirement look forward to their next trip or family gathering, and hardly any of us manage to just be present in the present.

The people I know who are best at being present are people for whom the future has been uncertain. They’re the people living paycheck to paycheck who don’t see why they should bother about a future that might go wrong anyway. They’re the ones who have faced disease and known that each day might be their last. They’re the ones who have lived through turmoil, at home or in war or any other way, knowing that tomorrow is shaky, at best.

And you know what? They are, by and large, so willing to accept it. Not in a resigned sort of way. It’s a peaceful acceptance, the kind that only comes when you trust that the One who has power over your life loves you. It’s the acceptance that you don’t have control, but you trust God’s promise to be with you and care for you anyway. In fact, all the ways that we lose control over our lives can be reminders that when we worry and trust ourselves over God, we’re trying to take on a responsibility that’s not ours.

Instead, we can trust God to be God. We can let ourselves just be human. When we stop trying to catch up to what’s next, when we put our attention on what’s happening right now, we are trusting God to take care of the future. We are listening to Jesus telling the disciples not to worry about things they cannot control. We’re living in the present, in the right-now gift God has given us, and trusting God for everything else.

God, help me keep my focus on the present instead of the future. Let me trust you in all things. Teach me to worry less and trust more. Amen.

One Little Thing

Jesus said, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.”

-Matthew 17:20

Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a whole mountain? That sounds awfully implausible. What can a mustard seed, that small speck, do against something as vast as a mountain? Does Jesus have unrealistic expectations?

Well, here’s a different scenario: I was driving to Iowa City one day, and about two minutes down the road, I realized there was a fly in my car. No big deal, I thought. It’s just a little fly. What harm could it do?

Oy. Half an hour later, that tiny fly was the most annoying creature I’d ever encountered, and I was just about ready to invoke all the angry psalms in a prayer for its swift demise. It flew around my head. It buzzed in my ears. It landed on the steering wheel. If you’ve ever been trapped in an enclosed space with a fly, you know what I mean.

But the fly was so tiny! It wasn’t a great big horsefly. It was just a little one. It still managed to pester and annoy me all the way there. It seemed bigger and bigger the longer I sat in the car with it. It got me thinking: if a fly can do so much damage in half an hour, what other tiny things can cause trouble in our lives?

Most conflicts between people don’t start with a great big fight, after all. They start with something little, an annoyance or a slight that sticks around, irritating you until you snap. The same is true for abuse, addiction, and affairs: little steps in the wrong direction get bigger and bigger until everything is out of control and somebody has gotten somewhere they never intended to be. For that matter, even guilt and shame can be like a fly: it sneaks up on you, buzzing around, until you can’t think of anything else.

Looks like Jesus wasn’t being unrealistic after all. Small things have big consequences. It’s true about flies, and sin, … and faith. Even the smallest amount of faith, a tiny seed, can do remarkable things. A little bit of faith can lead someone to trust God on a day when everything goes wrong. A little bit of faith can lead someone to ask for help when they feel overwhelmed. A little bit of faith can keep someone going when life seems hopeless. Perhaps, if faith buzzes around enough, it could even move a mountain. Small, seemingly insignificant steps of faith can take us to a place where even mountains can be moved.

Faith, at its core, is the trust we have that God keeps promises to us. A tiny bit of faith is enough to trust that when Jesus Christ calls us disciples, that is what we are. A small seed of faith is enough to trust that when our heavenly Father calls us beloved Children, that is what we are. A little speck of faith is enough to trust that when the Holy Spirit calls us forgiven, that is what we are.

God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, give me enough faith to trust your promises. Guard me from every little sin. Let my faith be the size of a mustard seed. Amen.

All Saints Day

All Saints Day is celebrated each year on November 1. Who is a saint? To put it simply, a saint is a forgiven sinner. On All Saints Day, we remember those forgiven sinners who have lived and died, not perfectly, but trusting in Jesus Christ.

All Saints Day is a day to remember. We remember famous names, recognized by many, and we remember everyday names of people in our lives who were God’s beloved. I invite you to take time today to remember. Maybe light a candle or perhaps just take a few minutes to remember the ones you have loved who now rest with God:

 

I remember the great ancestors of my faith,

from Abraham and Sarah, to Peter and Mary Magdalene:

I remember the prophets and priests,

the ministers and teachers who have taught me the way of God:

I remember my grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles,

those who have gone before me in my lifetime.

I lift up the memories of children and grandchildren,

Siblings and cousins, spouses and parents

whose lives ended too soon:

I lift up the pain of pregnancy and infant loss,

Often carried silently, trusting that you hold all children in your love.

I lift up to You, O God,

the names of those I have lost in this past year from my life,

knowing that they are with Your heart forever.

Comfort me in my grief, and strengthen my faith,

That I may be reunited with them at the feast that never ends.

I lift up to you, O God,

All those who have been baptized into Jesus Christ,

Knowing that they belong to you as children of the kingdom,

and trusting that when you call us children of God, that is what we are.

Uphold us in faith, and nurture your whole church

By the power of your Holy Spirit.

I give thanks, O God,

for all who have gone on to join with You beyond this life

and for all who walk as yet by faith and not by sight.

I trust in the hope of resurrection and the promise of new life in Christ,

and know that in my grief and celebration, O God,

You are with me through it all, and I am not left alone.

I anticipate the day when every tear shall be wiped from my eyes,

And I shall gather around the throne of God with all the saints.

In the name of Christ, in whom love lives forever, I pray.

Amen.

Let it Go

Jesus said: “I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” -Matthew 18:18

Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” -John 20:22-23

You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek (yes, the same Greek that fraternities and sororities use for their names), but I’m guessing you don’t know this: the word for “forgive” is the same as the word for “release” or “loosen.” Let me repeat that: in Greek, “forgive” is the same as “let go.”

In other words, when you forgive, you are letting go. You let go of the right to get even. You let go of resentment. You let go of guilt. Letting go, my friends, is not easy. Certainly it isn’t as easy as Disney’s Elsa makes it look in her dramatic song.

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When we don’t forgive and let go, our only other option is to hold on. We even talk about holding in the phrases we use: we “hold a grudge” or “hold guilt over” someone. The more we hold on and don’t forgive, the harder it is to let go. We also hurt ourselves when we hold on too tightly.

Don’t believe me? Try this: make a fist as tight as you can. Count to ten. Release your hand. Do you have marks where your fingernails dug into your palm? Are there red or white splotches where your clenched grip cut down your circulation? Did your muscles hurt from holding your fist tight? All that was only from ten seconds of holding a fist. Imagine how you’d feel after clenching your hand for a minute or an hour.

Make a fist again. Look at your hand. What can you do with it like this? All I can think of is fist bumps and punching. Fist bumps are pretty great, but otherwise all you can do with a fist is cause damage. Holding onto what’s been wrong instead of forgiving and letting go only causes damage, both to you and to the one you don’t forgive.

At the heart of the matter is this: what do you need to let go of? What are you holding so tightly that it’s only hurting you? What needs to be forgiven and released?

Often we fail to let things go because we aren’t really willing to forgive. If you’ve ever tried to let go of something only to find you are still holding tight to it, perhaps you really didn’t want to forgive. You can’t have it both ways, though. You can’t let go of your resentment while holding onto someone else’s guilt. You can’t hold onto a grudge and let go of the hurt someone caused you. You can’t forgive yourself and keep beating yourself up. Forgiveness is all-or-nothing.

That’s something, isn’t it? If forgiveness is an open hand reaching out and judgment is the fist threatening to hurt anyone deemed guilty, you can’t reach out with one hand and throw punches with the other. As Jesus said, if sins are forgiven, they are forgiven. Period.

This is true of God, too. When God forgives, it is complete. God’s not reaching out to you with one hand, waiting to sucker punch you with your leftover guilt. God’s not waiting around with fists raised, looking for sinners. Instead, God’s Holy Spirit is always letting go and forgiving. The Holy Spirit even forgives us when we screw up on forgiving!

God, I thank you for the complete forgiveness you give to me and all your people. Help me to let go and forgive just as you have forgiven my sin. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

-2 Peter 3:8-9

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care?

If so I can’t imagine why

We’ve all got time enough to cry.

-”Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” by Chicago

A year ago, I made a terrible mistake. I taught my then-four-year-old how to read the digital clock on the oven. Specifically, I taught him that bedtime would happen when the first number on the clock was 7.

The terrible mistake was this: armed with the knowledge that bedtime began when the clock said 7:__, my child now refused to go to bed early for any reason. Had he skipped his nap that day? Was he sick? Had it been an extra exhausting day? None of those were compelling reasons to start the bedtime routine before the clock struck 7.

I’m not exactly proud of the solution I devised, but it did work: whenever it was clear to me that he needed to go to bed early, I changed the clock. A few taps of the buttons, and 6:15 became 6:55. The time wasn’t accurate, but it was right: bedtime needed to come in just a few minutes.

The Bible has two different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is the time that we’re used to, measured in minutes and hours and days. Chronos is precise. It doesn’t change. Kairos, however, is the kind of time that comes when the time is right, whatever the clock says. Kairos is subjective: my timing might not be your timing which might not be God’s timing. Kairos says that one person’s time for grief might be longer than another’s, and that both timings are right. Kairos says that a sixteen-year-old and a sixty-year-old might both, at the same moment, need time for figuring out what their life needs next. And, I daresay, kairos might even say that it’s bedtime now.

Kairos is about God’s timing, not about our schedules. Kairos says that God might call one person to discipleship through baptism as an infant, and one person through confirmation class as a teenager, and one person through a quiet persistent inner tug in their 40s, and one person through Bible study at the Senior Center. The timing is different, but the timing is right because the timing is God’s. Kairos means that we do not get to compare our faith timeline to anybody else’s. Their faith, their life: they are unfolding according to God’s kairos, not our chronos.

Your life and your faith, too, are unfolding according to God’s timing, not your schedule. This might frustrate you. It might frustrate other people. It doesn’t frustrate God. God is patient with us even when we are not. God takes God’s time to work according to kairos, not chronos. Sometimes that means things take longer than we want. Sometimes it means things go far more quickly than we expected. Sometimes, God might just change the clock in order to overcome our stubborn attachment to our schedules. Whatever the time, whatever the chronos, God is working the kairos for us, God’s beloved.

God, I know that your time is not the same as mine. When I feel impatient, give me patience. When I feel rushed, give me peace. In everything, help me trust your timing. Amen.

Let Your Light Shine

Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” -Matthew 5:14-16

Earlier this week, I was having a conversation with a group of eighth and ninth graders. We were talking about “letting your light shine.” I talked about how when we are baptized, we receive a candle and the charge: let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your heavenly Father. I told them one thing it means to “let your light shine” is all the ways that we use our gifts to show the world about God.

There are many ways we can show God’s love to the world. It includes praying for others or helping someone who needs it. This even includes, I told them, things like doing well in math class if God has given them a mind for numbers, playing sports if God has gifted them with a strong body, or singing in choir if God has given them a voice to sing. I asked them to share a way that they have let their light shine.

Silence.

Frantically trying to rescue the conversation, I tried again. “What are some ways you’ve seen other people let their light shine?”

Suddenly the examples flooded out:
“Oh, my mom takes care of a lot of people and helps them whenever she can.”
“My friend did a great job at her track meet.”

“My teacher was there for me when I needed someone to talk to.”

“My dad works really hard at his job to help people.”

“That girl from Sweden is telling people about taking care of the environment.”

“Martin Luther King stood up for Black Rights.”

“My brother is a great team player.”

They even started pointing out ways their classmates had let their light shine– the very same teens who, minutes earlier, couldn’t name a single way their own light was shining. Everybody had a light shining bright with God’s love and power in their lives, but none of them could see it for themselves until somebody else pointed it out. It’s like they have oddly specific blinds that prevented them from seeing their own light while letting all the other light in.

I’m willing to bet that it’s adults as much as teenagers who struggle to put into words how we ourselves let God’s light shine through us. It seems kind of gutsy to come right out and say: “I let my light shine by doing such-and-such or by saying this-and-that.” Most of us have no trouble coming up with a dozen examples of someone else shining their light, though. Why is it so easy to see how other people are letting their light shine but so hard to see it in ourselves?

You might be thinking, “But what if I’m really not letting my light shine at all? Maybe I don’t have any light to shine.” I guarantee that you have a light to shine.

How can I say that? Well, dear reader, you were formed by God and filled with God’s Spirit in order to shine. Your light, the light of Jesus Christ, shines in you. Maybe you just need to open the blinds and shine.

Jesus Christ, light of the world, shine in me and through me so that I can be the light that shows the world your love. Let me see my light as well as the light around me so that I too may give praise to the Father. Amen.

let your light

A Season For Everything

There’s a season for everything

and a time for every matter under the heavens:

a time for giving birth and a time for dying,

a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted,

a time for killing and a time for healing,

a time for tearing down and a time for building up,

a time for crying and a time for laughing,

a time for mourning and a time for dancing,

a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,

a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,

a time for searching and a time for losing,

a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,

a time for tearing and a time for repairing,

a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,

a time for loving and a time for hating,

a time for war and a time for peace.

-Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Monday is the first day of Autumn, at least by the calendar. The weather may tell a different story.

Seasons change. Little is as predictable as that. Snow follows turning leaves that follow scorching heat that follow buds on the trees. Even on sunny tropical islands, there is a season for hurricanes.

Our lives have seasons just as the climate does. There are seasons we expect: school, work, parenting, retirement. They come and go predictably. There are seasons that catch us off-guard: unemployment, heartache, illness. There are seasons that seem to last forever: ironically, both being a teenager and parenting a teenager seem to fall into this category. Even a season when everything goes wrong for a few months can seem longer than a year of business as usual.

And then there are seasons that, in a puzzling kind of way, seem to fade in and out. Just when we think the season is over, it comes right back. Take grief, for instance: it’s there and then it’s not and then it shows up again, like these summer thunderstorms I thought we were done with for the year.

Even our faith has seasons. There may be times when we feel unshakably confident in what we believe. There may be other times when we’re in a season of self-examination, trying to figure out if what we’ve believed still works for us. There may even be times when we find ourselves in a season of doubt and feeling like we’re just going through the motions of faith. And then suddenly we may be back in a season of trust and deep meaning in faith.

Seasons come and go. God does not. God is with us in the sunshine and in the rain, at work and at play, when delighted or depressed. There is a season for everything under heaven, declares Ecclesiastes, and in that declaration we can hear that none of those seasons is too much for God. Whether we are killing or healing, crying or laughing, loving or hating, God is with us.

O God, in all the seasons of my life, help me to trust that I am not alone, but you are with me. When I face a difficult season, help me. When I enjoy an easy season, let me give you praise. Amen.

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.

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