What Does This Mean?

What does this mean?

If you grew up in a Lutheran congregation, you may be experiencing a sense of traumatic flashbacks at reading that question. Please don’t worry: I’m not about to quiz you on how well you have the Small Catechism memorized. If you missed out on the experience of memorizing and being tested on the Small Catechism as a 12-year-old, “What does this mean?” is the central question in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.

The Small Catechism is a teaching tool, written by Luther when he realized just how little ordinary people knew about the Bible. Luther knew that in a time where few people could read, much less own a book, a summary of Christian faith had to be simple and short. There were many sorts of catechisms intended to teach by memorization, a sort of back-and-forth with the teacher asking the prescribed questions and the students repeating the answers.

Martin Luther turned that expectation on its head. Instead of the teacher doing all the asking, Luther wrote his catechism as if a small child were asking the questions. For instance, the Small Catechism begins with the 10 Commandments:

Q: What is the first commandment? A: You shall have no other gods.

Q: What does this mean? A: We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.

Do you notice how different that feels if the answers are given by the teacher (or pastor or parent) than by the learner? Instead of just telling us what we need to know, Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism to show us what questions we should ask. At the heart of these questions is the repeated refrain: “What does this mean?” What does this mean for me? What does this mean for the way I live? What does this mean for my neighbor?

Whether we are children or adults, these are pressing questions. What does it mean? What is this at the center of my faith? What is at stake? What difference does it make?

Martin Luther wondered about this, too! We can tell he was concerned that Ten Commandments were interpreted too narrowly because he broadened them from a simple list of don’ts to include expectations for how we should act. Take the fifth commandment:

Q: What is the fifth commandment? A: You shall not murder.

Q: What does this mean? A: We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

Most people could say that they have never murdered, but could we say that we’ve never endangered our neighbors? Could we say that we’ve never turned away from helping and supporting them because it was too hard or too time-consuming? I couldn’t.

The Small Catechism is a gift because it challenges us to ask questions. It offers us a way to see the foundation of our faith through new eyes. It dares us to wonder: what does this mean? and to see what God has done for us.

Holy God, give me the courage to ask questions and wonder about my faith. Thank you for your servants like Martin Luther who have given an example of faith and curiosity together. Amen.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

-Isaiah 55:10-11

April showers bring May flowers, I kept reminding myself every time it rained for the past five weeks. April showers bring May flowers, April showers bring May flowers, over and over, in some combination of optimism and desperation that spring would really come. (We won’t ask what May showers bring.) I knew that in the logic of cause and effect and the change of seasons, that there would be flowers sooner or later. Some things just follow naturally, a cause and effect that can’t be derailed. It’s true for flowers in springtime, and it’s true in a lot of ways for our faith, too.

For example, Jesus told his disciples, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will move mountains.” Those mountains might only move one shovel-full at a time, but still: the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to move mountains. I think of the mountains I’ve seen in my own life or the lives of people around me: the mountain of facing illness, the mountain of getting sober, the mountain of being the first in a family to go to college, the mountain of coming out, the mountain of believing yourself to be worthy of love and belonging, the mountain of finding a new job, the mountain of admitting you were wrong.

Some of those mountains don’t move very easy.

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will move mountains. Cause and effect. As sure as April showers and May flowers. Somehow, the faith that we have in Jesus Christ is enough to move mountains.

Let me tell you something about mountains, though: you don’t have to be the one to move your mountains all alone. You can get together with one or two or a dozen or a hundred people of faith and put your shovels together to move a mountain together. You might even see that someone is paralyzed by the sheer size of their mountain and get in there and start shifting it yourself.

Here’s another cause and effect Jesus offers. He said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” As incredible as it might seem, the very act of declaring forgiveness works to forgive! Cause and effect: “I forgive you” means forgiveness has occurred!

Faith and forgiveness work every time. They are trustworthy for cause-and-effect because Jesus is trustworthy. Whatever God sets out to do, God does. God’s word does what God says it will, whether that word is spoken through Jesus or through one of us. When we say “I forgive you,” we speak as if for Jesus. When we bend to do the work of moving mountains, it is the faith God gives us that strengthens us. Cause and effect. Simple and extraordinary, all at once.

Trustworthy God, I know that you keep your promises. Give me faith to move mountains and forgiveness for my sin, that I may trust you evermore. Amen.

Another Easter come and gone

Another Easter come and gone. Or is it?

In the calendar shared by many Christians around the world, Easter is celebrated for fifty days, making it the longest season of the church year. (If you’re thinking “what about that endless green season in the summer and fall?”, that’s “ordinary time” or “time after Pentecost,” and it’s not usually considered a season.)

Why spend so much time on Easter? Fifty days of Easter means it will be June before we finally finish with Easter. For one thing, a LOT happened on the first Easter. We will hear Bible stories of the first Easter for several weeks. We already heard about the women who found the empty tomb, when Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord. That same Sunday, Jesus visited with the male disciples who ran away on Thursday and Friday, offering them peace. AND on the same day, Jesus walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, talking and sharing a meal with them. All in one day! I get tired just thinking about it.

Maybe that’s why we need fifty days of Easter. We need extra time to let the story sink in. We need to know what Jesus did after he rose to live again: he spent time with his frightened followers. He taught. He ate. He encouraged Peter and the other disciples for the work ahead of them of building the church.

Easter doesn’t end with the resurrection. The resurrection is the beginning. It opens the doors to hope and peace. It sets Jesus free from the power of sin and death so that we can be set free, too. That’s too big for just one day!

Some Christians call themselves “Easter People,” and I think that’s a great way to describe our faith. We are shaped by the fact of Easter. We are people whose identity depends on Jesus crucified and risen. And in that Easter identity, we might still not get it all the time. The disciples were still confused sometimes. They messed up. Being Easter people doesn’t mean we get it all right all the time. It means we trust that Jesus will bring us to new life, too.

In this season of Easter, these fifty days of Easter, we are especially reminded that resurrection isn’t a one-time, one-day thing. We’re Easter people. The resurrection keeps on happening for us, sinking into our spirits one day at a time.

Jesus, let the good news of your resurrection sink into me. Let me take time to hear your story of new life and to trust that new life is for me, too. Amen.

the gentle hands of the Savior

the dirt of the day,

accumulated by work and play,

washed now away in the gentle hands of the Savior

don’t wash my feet

caked with filth from the street

it’s not how I’d treat the gentle hands of the Savior

“I must wash you, child”

to me it seems wild

that my dirt is piled on the gentle hands of the Savior

then hear Him say

one of them will betray

take me not, how I pray! from the gentle hands of the Savior

now the cup now the bread

“Remember me,” Jesus said

all of us now are fed from the gentle hands of the Savior

“Let this cup now depart”

Jesus pled from His heart
“Father, please, take this part,” from the gentle hands of the Savior

then the faithful dear son

prayed, “Oh, let them be one

‘til the work here is done,” clasped the gentle hands of the Savior

soldiers come in the night

disciples fight then take flight

rough arms hold tight to the gentle hands of the Savior

accusers make mock

thrice crows the cock

round the fire they talk of the gentle hands of the Savior

Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

his own conscience to soothe

and “King of the Jews” fates the gentle hands of the Savior

up a long dusty trail

hear the women now wail

when the hammer and nail pierce the gentle hands of the Savior

“It is finished,” He cries

and He closes his eyes

to the Father He dies. cold the gentle hands of the Savior

on the first Easter morn

Mary wept, stood forlorn

new hope flowed reborn from the gentle hands of the Savior

oh that day when I see

past the grave’s tyranny

for I know He holds me in the gentle hands of the Savior

Over and Over

“For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” -John 3:16

Last Wednesday, we had our final midweek Lenten worship service for the year. We’ve used the same order of worship for the whole service each week, even down to the spoken parts of the liturgy. Those spoken parts of the liturgy were also used each week when the kids of this congregation gathered for SALT, our faith formation time. Each piece of the liturgy was taken from the words of the Bible. To put it another way, each word we spoke together in our Lenten worship was a word from scripture.

As I was getting ready for Wednesday’s service, greeting people as they came in for worship, one of the younger kids, not yet reading proficiently, came up to me and declared, “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son.” I did not jump for joy, but it was a near miss. John 3:16 was part of our liturgy, and this child had begun to memorize it by being in worship, hearing the readers speak it, and then repeating it back and forth twice a month since September.

I have to tell you, this was my hope all along. One of the ways people learn is by repeating. When a coach teaches an athlete to shoot a free throw, the coach demonstrates the proper technique, corrects errors, and then sets up the athlete to practice, over and over, repeating until the muscles simply know how to shoot a free throw. When a baker learns to bake bread, he has to practice kneading until he knows just the right texture for the dough. While the first few tries may be over- or under-worked, he slowly starts to get a feel for kneading that allows him to get it right every time. When a musician learns to play the violin, she starts with stickers to show her where to hold the strings to make each note. Soon, she doesn’t need to look at the stickers, but knows exactly where each finger belongs. Eventually, she doesn’t need the stickers at all!

We learn what we repeat. It’s true in basketball, baking, playing violin, and worship. It even happens with things we never intended to repeat. Even though I haven’t heard it in years and never tried to learn it, I can still sing the jingle for the liquor store in the town I grew up in all because it played on the radio so often when I was a girl.

All this makes me ask: what am I repeating? What is being repeated around me? Am I paying attention? You might want to ask yourself those questions, too.

Some things are not worth repeating. Other things are so incredibly worthy of being repeated over and over that we can hardly say or do them often enough. For instance: “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son…”

Holy Week, the name we give to the days stretching from Palm Sunday to Easter, is a story worth repeating. It’s a story so compelling that we repeat it every year! We retell the memories recorded for us in the words of the Bible so that they become familiar and well-loved. We repeat words like “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “This is my body, this is my blood; do this in remembrance of me,” and “Crucify him!” and “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” We say them over and over every year because we know that they are important. These words matter. They are worth repeating.

Holy God, you loved the world in such a way that you gave of yourself in order to give me life. Teach me your ways and your words, over and over, until they are as much a part of me as you are. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Passover

Each of April’s devotions will focus on stories of Holy Week, the name Christians give to the last week of Jesus’ life on Earth.

One of my dear friends in high school was Shelly. We sang together in choir and ate lunch together in the cafeteria. Shelly was Jewish. One year, about this time of year, Shelly’s mom said to me, “Why don’t you come over to our house for Passover? You can eat the meal with us, and you and Shelly can have a sleepover afterward. I think you’d enjoy it and learn something, too.”

I was delighted. I knew of the Passover, of course, from the stories in what I called the Old Testament, what Shelly and her family called the Torah. I had never observed the Passover though, because, well, I wasn’t Jewish. When that Friday night came to go to Shelly’s house, I was curious and nervous and excited all at once.

A big table was set out in the dining room with enough seats for eight. Four in Shelly’s family, plus me, plus Shelly’s mom’s two coworkers made seven. Who else was coming, I asked? Shelly’s mom explained that it was tradition to make up an extra seat so there would be room for any unexpected guests. More than a decade later, I think about that extra chair and wonder how often I really make space for unexpected guests to arrive for worship.

Because it really was worship. It seemed sort of strange to me for worship to happen around a dining table in a home with a family and friends, but I learned that many of the Jewish festivals are family affairs. Worship happens at home as well as in a synagogue, I learned.

As we ate and drank in the patterns of the Passover, our meal would pause to hear a story from the Bible or sing a psalm. We ate parsley dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears shed in Egypt. We prayed for God’s blessings. Again and again, we were reminded of God’s faithfulness in delivering the people of Israel out of slavery into freedom. The meal ended with a prayer for God to come and reveal the Messiah. For a Christian, Jesus was and is the Messiah, but the Jews believe the Messiah has not yet come. That’s why every Passover ends with the hope for a Messiah.

Passover, or Pesach as it is also called, is different now than it was when Jesus was alive. Jesus and his disciples probably did not eat parsley dipped in salt water, but they would have eaten lamb, which was absent from Shelly’s family Passover. It’s also quite different from the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When Christians gather around the table to eat the bread and drink the cup, we do so believing that Jesus, our Messiah, is already present with us, even in the bread and cup.

I am so grateful that I was invited to Shelly’s house for Passover. It was truly an invitation– Passover was not my festival to celebrate. It is a Jewish holiday, just as Holy Communion is a Christian observance. I wasn’t pretending to be Jewish; instead, I was learning and sharing in a tradition with neighbors who knew God differently than I did. It was a gift to me.

Holy Week is a good time to learn about our Jewish neighbors. Sometimes in the history of Christianity, Christians have harassed or hurt their Jewish neighbors during Holy Week in a misguided attempt to take revenge for the death of Jesus. This should not be. We can work to make peace by getting to understand Jewish traditions and getting to know Jewish people.

God of all people, thank you for revealing yourself in many ways to many people. Help me love and understand my neighbors, even those who see you differently, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Puddles or Potholes?

…but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

– II Corinthians 12:9

A five-year-old in rainboots was walking down the street with her parents. It was not a rainy day. She was simply fond of rainboots. It was a town rather like Tipton, with streets rather like Tipton. As her parents tried to steer clear of a large pothole ahead, she headed straight for it. Getting closer, she turned to her dad and step-mom, declaring with triumphant joy, “Look! A place for a puddle!”

Most adults are not as quick to see possibility as children are. We mostly see problems instead. A pothole is a risky place to drive, a bump that might damage a car and will certainly jar its occupants, or a hazard along the road leading to a twisted ankle. A pothole is a problem, not a possibility.

What about you? When you look at the world around you, do you see problems or possibilities? Potholes or puddles? What about when you look at yourself? Do you look and see problems or possibilities? Are you too old or full of experiences? Are you too sensitive or able to easily feel empathy? Are you too demanding or do you have high expectations? Are you too bossy or are you a confident leader? Are you too hurt or are you ready for healing? Potholes or puddles?

Most of us, most of the time, are quick to see problems. We notice the potholes in ourselves and the world around us. Not children like the girl in the story. They notice possibility. They see what could be. As the cliche goes, children see through rose-colored glasses. They see what could be filled, not the emptiness. Puddles, not potholes.

So it is with God. When God looks at you, do you think God sees a whole bunch of flaws and failures? Of course not. God sees possibilities, not problems. Puddles, not potholes. When you see an old wound, God sees a place to fill you with healing. When you see a long-held grudge, God sees a place to fill you with reconciliation. When you see sin, God sees a place to fill you with forgiveness. Puddles, not potholes.

All the things we see as potholes, as problems, as weakness in the words of Paul (II Corinthians 12:9, above), these are what God sees as an opportunity to fill us more fully with the power of God, even with Jesus living in us. Puddles, not potholes.

God of possibility, teach me to look at myself the way you do. Give me eyes to see the work you are doing to make me filled with Jesus Christ. Help me see puddles, not potholes in myself and the world around me. Amen.

thoughts and prayers

I woke up this morning to a news alert on my phone: there had been an act of terrorism in New Zealand. As always, the report was filled with numbers. 49 dead. More than 20 wounded. Two mosques attacked during worship. One shooter in custody.

What can we say or do? How can we feel? Faced with tragedy, particularly evil and deliberate tragedy, we so often feel that we must say or do something, anything, but what? We sort of instinctively know what to do when tragedy strikes close to home: hold the hug a few extra seconds, bring a casserole and a plate of cookies, send flowers to brighten a gloomy day.

But what do we do when the tragedy is a headline and the numbers race past? When we feel sad for victims and loved ones, angry that so many lives were cut short, confused by how a person could do such a thing, overwhelmed at the scale of the tragedy, guiltily relieved that it was no one we knew, determined that this should not happen, helpless that it has happened: all these and more? What do you say? What do you do?

“Thoughts and prayers” has become something of a controversial cliche. After almost any tragedy, large or small, an outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” comes. To some people, “thoughts and prayers” seems like a convenient way to avoid doing anything. To others, it’s the most sincere way they know to express their concern.

Here’s what I can tell you about thoughts and prayers: as a Christian, I take prayers seriously. I hope you do, too. I recognize that whenever I pray, I am asking God– you know, the one who created and formed each thing, the one with power to save the lost and raise the dead, the one who knows us each by name, that God– to act. When I ask for comfort for the grieving, mercy for the dead, and strength for the living, I truly believe God is working to do those things.

I also take those thoughts seriously. As I think about a man with a gun entering a mosque, a place of worship, on the day Muslims gathered there in worship, I think about the holy places where I have been in worship, the sense of betrayal that a temple should become a tomb. I think about what difference I might be able to make on the people around me, so they never become the person who would murder others because of a difference in faith. I think about what I can do, on a day struck by tragedy, to bring a little extra hope into the world.

Those “thoughts and prayers,” you see, are not a casual add-on to a condolence. It is work to think and pray for those who suffer, work to which God has called us as God’s children.

Above all, I think and I pray about love. I thank God that each of us is God’s beloved, and that each person killed today was God’s beloved, and that the man who planned and carried out these attacks is God’s beloved. I ask God to teach me to love my neighbors across the street and across the world. I beg God to fill the world so overwhelmingly full of love that there is no more room for hate.

God of love, we pray for victims of this and every act of violence. Give us endurance for the thoughts and prayers ahead of us, that we might show the world your love. Amen.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. -Romans 6:3-5

Do you remember singing the children’s song “Ring Around the Rosy”? The very last line goes like this: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” As a child, I remember singing and dancing to that song, until we all fell down together on the last word before leaping back up, laughing, to do it all over again.

But then when I was about eight, an older kid told us that the song was really about people dying of the plague! When a teacher confirmed this interpretation, I was horrified. We had been playing about dying and no one had stopped us? In my childlike way, I didn’t understand death, exactly, but I was pretty sure I was supposed to be scared of it, not laugh at it!

Last Wednesday I was reminded of those words as I prepared for our Ash Wednesday worship service. The ashes went into a little bowl, and I thought of the words I would say to each person who received ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In some ways, it feels like a more sophisticated but no less bleak version of the children’s song: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

I put ashes on a lot of foreheads. Three-month-old foreheads, ninety-eight-year-old foreheads, bald foreheads, oily foreheads, healthy foreheads, sick foreheads. It’s true that one day, each and every one of those foreheads will die. Mine, too. Suddenly, death seems even less like a laughing matter.

Or does it? We have, after all, been buried with Christ in baptism. The ashes remind us that we are, in a sense, already dead. If we have been united with Christ in a death like his (and we have), then we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Faced with the reality that the only way out of death is through it, I say that we can indeed laugh at death. The power of death, which seems so final, is not even great enough to hold Jesus for three measly days. The reminder that we are dust and will return to dust reassures us that we will be reunited with all who bear this cross, with the parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends who have died and live now with Jesus.

Death thinks it can separate us from the life of Jesus and the ones we love? Hah! As if! Death has no power that Christ has not already overcome. Death is, contrary to all our expectations, truly a laughing matter. When death threatens us, we can laugh and remind ourselves that we belong to the God of life.

God of life, you marked me for death and resurrection when you claimed me as your child. Give me courage to face death with good cheer, for I know that you will bring me and all the faithful to everlasting life. Amen.

Love your enemies?

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” -Luke 6:27-28

Have you ever disagreed with someone? Okay, so I might as well ask if you’ve ever spent more than five minutes around any other person. Think about the last time you disagreed completely with someone on an issue that seemed really important. Think about a disagreement where you felt passionately certain that your perspective was the correct one.

Maybe it was about whether this winter is evidence for or against climate change, maybe it was about how to budget in your home, maybe it was about which movie should have won Best Picture. Whatever it was, think about how that conversation went, whether it was in person, on the phone, or over the internet. Did you passionately but deliberately present the overwhelming evidence for your perspective, thus impressing your opponent into a swift and complete change of mind? No?

Or was it more like this: you started off politely enough, but as tempers flared and buttons were pushed, you both got more and more defensive and less and less willing to listen? Been there, done that. Maybe you skipped the polite exchange and went straight to the stereotypes and insults. Been there, done that, too.

Whoever it is opposing you, whether it’s a family member, friend, neighbor, or stranger, there can come a point when they start to feel like an adversary. When that happens, what do you do? Some days, you might just decide it’s not worth it and drop it. Of course, if this is a person you plan to interact with ever again, that doesn’t work so well. You could, I suppose, agree to NEVER EVER talk about that contentious issue, but that hides the disagreement instead of dealing with it.

When our friend starts to feel like a foe because of an argument, I suggest that we follow the words of Jesus: love. Love looks like remembering that the people with whom we disagree hold their beliefs for many reasons. Love looks like asking ourselves to consider the issue from another perspective. Love looks like paying attention to the people in the conversation even more than to your next argument. Love looks like caring about what the other person thinks, even if you’re already sure you disagree.

Love, of course, is hard work. It is much easier to jump to conclusions, ignore other perspectives, and treat our conversation partners like enemies. As with much of life, the harder choice is by far the better one.

Jesus, teach me to love the ones who seem to be my enemy, to do good to them when they do evil to me, to bless them when they curse me, and above all, teach me to follow you even through the hard things. Amen.