Sunday, October 9, 2016

From Jacob to Israel: What's in a Name?

Genesis 32:22-31

Names often have meaning, of course.

I think for instance, of my hometown. At one point in its history it was called "Hangman's Town" --- referring to a more than unfortunate incident which took place downtown early in its existence. Later, community leaders renamed it to "Rochelle" --- almost on a whim. Legend has it that a train was passing through carrying a load of "Rochelle Salt" and they liked the name --- thinking it sounded better than "Hangman's Town." And while this may be so, in some ways, the fact that one of the uses of Rochelle Salt was as a laxative doesn't necessarily make it all that much better!)

It is true for towns and villages, congregations and buildings and streets. It is also true with people:
Indeed, I do an exercise with our middle school youth every year. I ask them how they came to be named what they are named. Sometimes they can tell me. From time to time their names have been passed along to them from a parent or grandparent. Most of the time, though, they have no idea. More often than not, it turns out their names were just a matter of the preference of Mom and Dad.

In the family I grew up in, the choice of names became something to be smiled at. Indeed, we were told that in that time before genders could be determined before the actual birth, my sisters and I were all supposed to be called "Tom" after our dad. As it turns out, all three of my sisters have Biblical names (Martha, Mary, and Sarah.) I'm not quite certain how they came up with my name --- except perhaps, like with so many they just "liked" it. I do, however, share the middle name of my maternal grandmother who died suddenly a few months before I was born.

So yes, names can be a way of representing our history. They can also tell us where we belong and to whom we belong. My dad, for instance, was the first born son of Tom Clark. Tom Clark died when he was all of five years old. Later his mother remarried and after a time, A.J. Hunt adopted him and his brother, giving them a new last name. A new place of belonging.

And so today we have before us, Jacob, who after a long night of struggle was given a new name which told the world something about who he was and who he would yet be. Of course, we know that the name, "Jacob" also had meaning. If you go to the website "Behind the Name," you will get a sense of what some of those meanings are. I have also heard that "Jacob" means 'trickster' or 'deceiver' or 'supplanter' -- and while Jacob could certainly be seen as such, it is likely that meaning is one that was added on later. Perhaps it would be right to simply understand Jacob for who he was at the time of his birth: the "holder of the heel" which apparently represents the actual literal meaning of his name more truly.

And yet, whatever the second son of Isaac and Rebekah's name was at birth, after the long night described for us now, we are told he would be known as Israel, a word which described and represented both him and the nation of Israel: "the one who has striven with God and humans and has prevailed."

This is not, of course, the first time nor is it the last when a 'name' is meant to be more than a label. Think of this with me:
  • Adam actually means 'earth.'
  • Eve means 'to breathe' or 'to live."
  • God changed Abram's name to Abraham to mean 'father or ancestor of a multitude.'
  • Likewise, Sarai's name was changed to Sarah, meaning 'lady, princess or noblewoman.'
  • Isaac means 'laughter' --- perhaps to represent the joy and surprise of both Abraham and Sarah at his birth.
  • And it goes on and on. (Unfortunately, given the patriarchal nature of the text, it appears there is more information about the names of men than there is about women.) 
And yes, Yahweh (YHWH) is said to mean, "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be." Indeed, many understand that this was the very name which Jacob was grasping to know at the end of the scene described for us now.

And so we know this: names often do represent something about the one so named.  And yes, as we sense in the scene described in Genesis 22, names, once known, give one a certain amount of power over another. Without a doubt, this is why Jacob pleaded for the name of the one who had kept him up all night long. For whoever he was wrestling, he knew the force of God was somehow behind and within that one. And to know the name of such power? Who wouldn't want that? Indeed, perhaps it is telling that in this case the name is not disclosed. I expect even this is a sure sign of God's power over Jacob. And all of us.

And so it is that Jacob ends this long night 'renamed.' And while it is so that he has already had quite the life, it is in the events which follow that the future of God's people truly begins to unfold, living out the truth of his new name:
  • In his encounter with his long estranged brother, Esau, in the very next verses.
  • In his settling at Bethel with his family.
  • In the drama which plays out between and among his sons. And in the ways in which God brings good out of that which was intended as harm. (See Joseph's words in Genesis 50:20)
  • In the family's move to Egypt, setting the stage for the God's liberating work in the Exodus.
  • And again and again in the lived history of Israel.
Oh, yes, in and through it all, the truth of Jacob's new name, "Israel" is made known. For it is shown again and again that not only the individual but the entire nation "strives with God and people and prevails." By God's grace and gift this is so.
  • Above I have offered a number of examples of times when 'names' are more than a label. What examples would you add?
  • Can you think of times when a name has been changed after a period of intense struggle like what Jacob experienced --- either literally or otherwise?
  • What does it mean to be one who 'strives with God and people and prevails?" This was true for Jacob and for the nation of Israel. Perhaps this is also true for you or your setting. How has this been so?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Tenth Leper and How God is Already at Work in the World

Luke 17:11-19

I find myself thinking of the 'faith of the outsider' this week as we pause in the familiar story of Jesus' healing of the ten lepers now. For while are surely called to focus on the powerful gift of Jesus' healing as demonstrated in this story, what stands out is the grateful response of the one. The Samaritan. Here is how my perspective is developing:

I was privileged to assist in leading a Dwelling in the World workshop this last Saturday. "Dwelling in the World" is one of the six missional practices which are taught through Church Innovations Institute. (If you are interested, you can find more information here.)

Simply put, the experience equips us to be 'detectives of divinity' in the world. Rooted in the sending imagery of Luke 10:1-12, it gives us some tools for encountering the stranger --- and in doing so receiving the gift of witnessing what God is already up to in their lives and in the world. It is, in fact, a way of being people of peace and looking for people of peace in the world. (Again, see Luke 10.)

  • It is not necessarily meant to be a way of gaining new members -- although it may lead to that.
  •  It is not necessarily even meant to be a means of offering an overt verbal witness to one's faith, although it may lead to that as well.
  • It is not even supposed to be a way of actually meeting the needs of another --- although similar conversations repeated and shared may well result in a congregational effort to address a particular need experienced by many in a community.
  •  It is simply a practice which has us intentionally speaking to strangers, expressing genuine interest in their lives. It can look like a brief exchange with the teller at the bank. It may mean hearing the life hurts and hopes of the cashier at the grocery store. One has no way of knowing, of course, what these brief encounters may result in. But what fun to be there and to wonder at what may come of it. And no matter what happens next, the world is already a better, safer place because of the effort to engage the stranger.

And so it was that late on Saturday morning the thirty gathered were sent out into the community to seek out a stranger and to try to engage them. They came back in time for lunch laden with stories --- some poignant and some marked by hilarity.

  • There was, for instance, the one who found himself disappointed by the terse exchange with his bank teller, but who encountered two young men in the parking lot who were new to the community. And who returned with a lively story to tell about what he learned.
  • There was another who carefully observed the young man in charge of hospitality at McDonald's and when he came near, commented at how hard his job was. He paused to say, 'Yes, it is hard to stay positive when so many refuse to acknowledge his efforts at kindness.'
  • And there was one who engaged the owner of a small downtown store --- and who heard her whole life story. Apparently at some point she offered that she had been sent to do this from our workshop. She left and another of our folks wandered in and sought to engage her. And the woman said, "Oh, are you from that Lutheran Church?" We laughed to hear this and then wondered what it might mean if Lutherans actually got a reputation for engaging the world in our community!
  • Still another had forgotten to take off her name-tag and was called by name by the owner of the gas station in her neighborhood, completely throwing her off in her effort to reach out to him!
  • And the stories went on and on
Perhaps by now you are wondering what any of this has to do with the Gospel story which is ours to share this week. Just this:
  • Without a doubt, God was already at work in the life of the Samaritan so that unlike the rest, he offered a grateful response to the unexpected gift of life restored that he received at the hands of Jesus. And I wonder how God might already be at work in the lives of strangers we encounter every day. Indeed, I do wonder how we might become more aware of that wondrous work. Even as thirty Lutherans did last Saturday morning.
  • And this: I wonder about how God already be at work in the life of someone we least expect who we might just encounter. Who would be a Samaritan --- an outsider --- in your community, neighborhood, congregation? And how might you engage them enough to hear how God may be at work? 
  • And also this: Jesus offered a gift of profound healing to the ten who approached him that day. I wonder how you and I might be agents of such healing in our world today. Indeed, in a world too often marked by fear and division, might healing just be ours to offer (and in turn, receive) if we simply reached out with a word of kindness, curiosity, or affirmation even to someone we have never seen before who we may never see again? Or to one who we have passed by a thousand times (as those ten lepers must have been passed by a thousand, thousand times) without even noticing before?
  • And finally this: More than just receiving physical healing, the ten lepers were actually restored to community by the healing they received. How might we be called to restore others to community by simply engaging them? Even in casual conversation. Even now.
Indeed, perhaps one of the best gifts of a practice like Dwelling in the World is that it invites us to look outside of ourselves to see where God might just be at work in the world. Even as God was at work in the Samaritan who returned giving thanks so long ago. Can you just imagine how we might all be changed by more intentionally Dwelling in the World God made and God so loves? Wouldn't that be something to see? Isn't that something you want to be a part of, too?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"We Have Only Done What We Ought to Have Done"

Luke 17:5-10

I offered this image of my dad in a sermon more than twenty years ago now. It was a precious memory of me at the age of five and him carrying me gently in his arms when I was sick. I cannot now remember the particular text this recollection spoke to then. But I do remember him learning that I had spoken of this. I remember the befuddled look on his face. And I well remember his words,
"But Janet. That's just what a Dad does."
And of course he was right. In a perfect world --- and it is so that my childhood was a sheltered and good one --- that is just what dads do. Such tender care is simply a reflection of who they are. And at the time and also those many years later, to him, recognition or thanks were entirely unnecessary.

It seems to me it is precisely this sort of core identity that Jesus speaks of today when he uses a slave as an example of what it is to do what one does because that is who one is.

Now it is so that from my vantage point today, I rather wish Jesus had chosen another way to make his point. Indeed, I well remember sitting in a class a few years ago. I had chosen to write a a paper about the Philippians hymn where Paul speaks of taking the 'form of a slave (or a servant) even as Jesus did.' (Philippians 1:27-2:11) It was, in fact, the first time I would have the opportunity to learn among others whose racial identity was different from my own. There were, in fact, some in the room whose ancestors had been slaves. As you might expect, they heard Paul's words entirely different than I did. I offer this now as a sort of corrective to receiving these words glibly. Indeed, in the days to come I hope to check in with a colleague who, no doubt, will instinctively hear Jesus here in Luke's Gospel in an entirely different way than I ever can or will. Perhaps you might consider doing the same.

And yet, for all my wishing it different, I get Jesus' point. He is using a social construct of his time and it would have rung true in the ears of his first listeners. It was expected that people who held certain stations did certain things because of 'who' they were. It was a mark of their identity. And as a result, thanks were entirely unnecessary.

And so what is the point for us today? Is it, do you think, that you and I are also to behave as slaves to this world and to do so because this is simply who we are? And if that is the case, what exactly might that look like? In the words offered in today's Gospel, we are not told. And yet, Jesus has been giving content to this for months by now as Luke has told the story:
  • Indeed, might being who we are as followers of Jesus look like loving one's enemies doing good to those who hate us/ blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us? (Luke 6:27-28)
  • Might it mean being merciful and showing forgiveness? (Luke 6:36-37)
  • Might it mean being agents of healing and life? (Luke 7:1-17)
  • Might it look like indiscriminately scattering seed (you fill in the blank as to what that seed might grow) and letting our light shine in all ways on all days? (Luke 7:1-18)
  • Might it mean being sent out with a word of peace like lambs in the midst of wolves? (Luke 10:1-12)
  • And oh, might this mean picking up one's cross as Jesus did? (Luke 14:25-33)

Again and again, Jesus paints pictures of things which behave as what they are. He speaks of things not human like salt (Luke 14:34) and fig trees (Luke 6:43-45)  and yeast (Luke 13:20-21) which simply do what they do because of what they are and today he offers us an example using human beings who we are somehow to emulate. As Jesus did. Even as Jesus did.

I don't know that I will ever get to the point where like my dad in his role as "Dad," I am genuinely surprised to even be thanked for being and behaving as who I am as a follower of Jesus. But that certainly is Jesus' call today.

And yet, even knowing I am not, we are not, there yet, still I yearn for the day when all of us followers of Jesus more and more simply live like that is who we are, "doing only what we ought to have done." Don't you?

  • How do you find yourself thinking about the social construct of slavery which Jesus uses as an  illustration today? How will that "preach" in your context? (Who might you talk with who might hear it differently than you do?) Is there a way to redeem it? 
  • I have offered some examples of 'content' from Luke's Gospel in terms of what it means for us to 'do what we ought to have done.' What would you add?
  • Paul's words in Philippians 1:27-2:11 offers an image of what it is to live as a slave as Jesus did. Although not one of our readings this week, it does help me to think more deeply about it. Is it helpful to you? Why or why not?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"God is My Help": Seeing Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

It seems to me that in the story before us now, the sin of the rich man begins here: He did not see Lazarus. Or at least he did not see him as more than an extension of himself and his own needs --- particularly at the end. For if he had seen him for all that he was: once an infant and a boy, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather. If he had seen him as one with hopes and hurts, dreams and disappointments. If he had seen him as one beloved by God, then perhaps this story would have ended differently.

Only it appears that though their paths crossed --- perhaps as much as every day or more --- the rich man never even saw him at all.

I hear this story and I am deeply aware that on any given day it speaks of me. And no, I am not Lazarus. I am so much more like the rich man before us now. At the same time, I know I have been on both sides of the not seeing and not being seen.

Indeed, it was more than a decade ago now. I was at the airport --- although time has erased for me my memory of which one. I do remember that I was on my way home and the journey which I was on the last leg of had been a long one. Jet lag had caught up with me and I was walking bleary eyed, just trying to put one foot in front of the other as I made my way to my connecting gate. My carry on bag was rolling behind me.

I did not see her, truly I did not. In fact, I had no idea that my carry on bag had rolled over her foot until with eyes flashing she loudly (and rightly so) called my attention to it. I turned to look into the face of a dark skinned woman. And though on that very long day I do not believe my intrusion on her space (and her foot) had anything to do with my not seeing her because of her race, that was not how she experienced it. I could see this on her face. All I knew to do then was apologize --- which I did --- and move on.

I did not see her. And while exhaustion was my excuse that day, I do manage to pile on the excuses on other days as well. Exhaustion always works, of course. Or busyness. Or just not knowing or remembering to look for what is, in actuality, right in front of me --- or right around the corner if I am at all willing to look.

I experienced a bit of this 'not being seen' from the other side a few weeks back. I had taken my mother to an eye appointment. We were sitting in the waiting room. I was turned towards her, visiting quietly, when I was interrupted by the woman sitting across from me. She was looking at us with delight in her eyes, but one did not have to look hard to see the sadness just below the surface.

"Is this your mother?" she asked me.

"She is," I replied.

"Oh," she said, "I thought so. You remind me of my sister with our mother. Mom died last year."

She went on to share her name and spoke of all of her siblings. And what a hard year it had been. Honestly, though, while I felt for her, I was relieved that she got called quickly back for her own appointment, for never once in our exchange did she acknowledge my mother at all --- except as one to talk about. Yes, she saw her, but it seemed she only saw her as an extension of or as a reminder of her own loss. Not as the remarkable person she is. This became evident as she directed all of her conversation at me. And it made me uncomfortable. (If it had gone on much longer, I would have found a way to pull my mother into the conversation. I will be sure to do so next time, for I hope to be more ready.)

Too, too often, others are simply invisible to us. As a stranger in an airport was to me once many years ago. As my mother essentially was to the woman who sat across from us in a doctor's waiting room a few weeks back.  As Lazarus was to the rich man --- and no doubt to countless others --- as he sat and begged at the gate. The name "Lazarus" actually means "God is my help." And without a doubt, in the end God was the only help Lazarus had.

Only the parable which is ours today is meant to speak to us the truth that this is not how it is meant to be. Jesus teaches today that all of our lives are caught up with one another in ways that have consequences now and consequences into eternity. And if I see. If I truly see the other? Perhaps that can be the start of living in a way that acknowledges the truth that we all belong to one another. In this life. Right now. Indeed, I pray it may be so.

  • In a couple of weeks, several congregations in my community will be learning the practice "Dwelling in the World." This practice enables us to see and engage people we might not normally see at all. You can find out more about this practice at  Church Innovations.
  • Would you agree that the rich man's sin begins with his not even seeing Lazarus at all? Why or why not?
  • When have you not seen another? How was that oversight brought to your attention? And what did you do about it?  When did you 'see' another? And what did that 'seeing' lead to?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Yin Yoga and the Power of Parable

Luke 16:1-13

I tried out Yin Yoga this afternoon.

Now many of you have heard me speak of my experience of yoga before. I am, perhaps, the most physically inflexible person you know. Yoga is always hard. It always hurts. Still, I keep returning to it because the stretching, the posing, the breathing, opens something up in me and I wind up leaving more calm and centered than before.

So I tried Yin Yoga this afternoon. It's a lot like other yoga only you hold the poses longer. (In our case today, for beginners, we only held them for three minutes. I cannot imagine what it would be to hold them for up to twenty minutes or more as the more experienced do.) At least part of the point, of course, while one is holding the pose, is to pay attention to where it stretches. To where it hurts. And, as always, to breathe into or through the stretch or the pain.

And so I cannot help but wonder now if we might also think about living with the parables of Jesus in much the same way.

Indeed, Amy Jill Levine reminds us her chapter, "The Power of Disturbing Stories" in Short Stories by Jesus that the stories Jesus tells are meant to 'provoke, challenge, and inspire.' Moreover, she goes on to say,
Jesus knew that the best teaching concerning how to live, and live abundantly, comes not from spoon-fed data or an answer sheet. Instead, it comes from narratives that remind us of what we already know, but are resistant to recall. It comes from stories that prompt us to draw our own conclusions and as the same time force us to realize that our answers may well be contingent, or leaps of faith, or traps. It comes from stories that community members can share with each other, with each of us assessing the conclusions others draw, and so reassessing our own.
The parables, if we take them seriously not as answers but as invitations, can continue to inform our lives, even as our lives continue to open up the parables to new readings. (p. 275)
It is so, of course, that many of the parables can be summarized in a simple platitude --- although they may be over simplified even then, to be sure. The parable before us now is not one of them. This is why I find myself thinking of my recent experience with Yin Yoga and wondering if the odd story Jesus tells us now is not one we should ever try to repeat in a sentence or two, but is meant to be held close to us and inform us and our living and our receiving the gifts of God in a way a more simple teaching could not. For this is what a parable does by its very definition. It is meant to be laid alongside our lives, our experiences, our old ways of thinking and to offer wisdom or inspire insight which otherwise might be entirely inaccessible.

Now surely, one of the hardest aspects of this particular teaching of Jesus is that he appears to be holding up dishonest manipulation and self serving behavior as something to be emulated. Like you, I cannot any other example like it in all of Jesus' teaching. Indeed, if you are trying to figure out how to preach this parable this week, I imagine you have already combed every commentary on your shelf and every on-line reflection to see if you can find anyone, anywhere, who knows what to make of this story. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if even the one who first put ink to scroll recording this parable was grasping at straws as he followed the story with these platitudes about faithfulness in a little and a lot, two masters, and God and wealth, for these don't even seem to apply.

And so as I have forced myself to lay this parable alongside my life in these last days--- holding the pose, if you will --- I have found myself extremely uncomfortable. This is so, I expect, in part because the main character is entirely unsavory. First he is wasteful. Then he is conniving. And through it all he is entirely self serving. His behavior here runs contrary everything I have been taught to be and do. And yet, if I am honest, I expect my discomfort runs deeper than that. For you see, when I "hold the pose" for a while, I realize that I, too, can be much like the steward before us now.
  • For yes, I have been known to be wasteful. And yes, while sometimes that wastefulness is known only to the eyes and heart of God, it is no less so for others not recognizing it
  • Yes, I can be conniving and self serving. I have been known to plot and plan in order to ensure my own future.
  • And  yes, even the good I seek to do (as perhaps the manager sought to do in lowering the obligations of his master's debtors) can be tainted by my own mixed motives.
  • And yes, oh yes, these are so far more often than I would want anyone else to know.
Oh yes, as I have pressed this parable against my own experience this week I cannot help but wonder if the rich man in the story might actually be God and if I am, in fact, the dishonest manager. Indeed, this understanding being so, I cannot help but think of the times when my motives have been mixed, at best, and when somehow by the gift and grace of God my behavior still winds up reflecting well on God. For this is so. In the time of Jesus a wasteful manager would have reflected poorly on the honor of his employer. At least, in the end, the manager's mercy with his master's debtors would have raised his master's esteem in the eyes of those who were indebted to him. And whatever else is so? Isn't the rich man, in fact, merciful in the end? Doesn't the rich man take even the mixed gifts his manager has to offer and forgive, or understand, or perhaps even make good out of them?

I know this analogy isn't perfect, but it's the best I have today. Indeed, perhaps if nothing else, as I "hold the pose" with this parable, I am driven to a posture of repentance and gratitude to God who always manages to 'make good' out of my paltry gifts. And who always gives another chance. Like the rich man does today.

Of course, it's entirely possible that if in the spirit of "Yin Yoga I continue to 'hold the pose' --- pressing this odd story against myself and taking note of where it stretches me or where it 'hurts,' that I will come to an entirely different conclusion in the end. I wonder where you will end up if you do the same. What do you think?

  • I have not spoken with anyone yet who really likes the characters in this parable. What is your initial take on this odd story Jesus tells today?
  • Does it make sense to think of the 'rich man' as God and you and me as the dishonest manager? Why or why not?
  • The practice of "Yin Yoga" --- holding a pose for a particular period of time --- might be one way of thinking about how we are to interact with the parables of Jesus.  What do you think? Or would you offer another?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Getting Lost and Getting Found: Joy in the Presence of the Angels!

Luke 15:1-10

I hate getting lost. For others it may be an adventure, I know, but I am one who is thrown into a state of panic when I do not recognize my surroundings. Or when I recognize my surroundings but know they are not where I am supposed to be. Indeed, I am profoundly grateful for the gift of GPS on my phone which hardly ever lets me down --- although it is also so that from time to time the maps in cyber space have not yet caught up with reality on the ground and more than once this fool proof tool for preventing getting lost has also let me down.

There is getting lost and there is getting really lost, of course. I have been lost --- unable to find where I am going. And I have been 'lost,' all the while knowing exactly where I am. And yet, it is so that as often as not, the 'getting found again' is not always met with the kind of joy we hear about in the examples Jesus offers today. I would offer one such example now.

I was eight years old and in the third grade. It was a day in October. I was new enough to this classroom that the teacher did not really know me yet. I was not so new that I had not already learned the consequences for certain infractions.

We were outside for afternoon recess. My sister, Martha's, 2nd grade class also happened to be on the playground at the same time and I was playing with her. This is, by the way, the only time I can remember this being so. Perhaps because of what happened next.

And so it was that I was away from my classmates and I did not see my teacher standing at her designated spot on the playground with one hand raised to signal it was time to go back inside. I did not see the other eight year old's form a single file line and follow her up the fire escape stairs and back inside for a Social Studies lesson. (Yes, these 47 years later I still remember that.) For some reason, though, I quickly sensed something was wrong. I looked up from our play and scanned the children remaining on the playground and realized my class was gone. I scampered to the stairs and ran up them as quickly as I could and I found myself peering through the window of the fire door that locks when you go out and which will not open without a key and I saw my classmates taking off their jackets and hanging them on their designated hooks. My teacher saw me. And she told the other children not to let me in.

True story.

And so I sat at the top of those stairs and considered my options.
  • I could walk around to the front of the building and make may way inside the other way. However, just a week before two little boys had made the same mistake and when they tried that our teacher simply shooed them outside to wait until she was good and ready to let them in. 
  • I could certainly walk on home, but then I would have to explain to my mother how I had managed to get locked out. I knew it was my 'fault.' I felt foolish and ashamed. And I did not want her to know.
  • Or I could just sit and wait.
And so I did. Just sit and wait, that is. For a good long hour I sat and waited until the school day was done and finally the door was opened to me so that I could come back in where I was kept after school to complete the lesson I had missed.

It was a profoundly shaming experience for me. And while I shake my head at this teacher's methods, this is also so: I learned my lesson. I was never late again.

Now through it all, of course, I knew exactly where I was. I was perched at the top of the fire escape outside the third grade classroom at Lincoln School on South Main Street in Rochelle. Even so, I was "lost." I was away from where I belonged.  

My getting lost started with my getting separated from the flock --- from my fellow third graders. My attention got distracted a little bit at a time and pretty soon there was no getting back to where I belonged on my own. 

One might say I was something like the one sheep who slowly eats his way away from the rest of the flock. She is looking down --- only focused on the food that is before her. She doesn't mean to get separated, for sheep, in fact, are born with a 'herd' instinct and they will never do this on purpose. But all of a sudden, she looks up and all the rest are gone. And the only way she can get back to where she belongs is if the shepherd comes after her.

In the same way in the story I offer now, the only way I could get back to where I belonged was if someone else opened the door.

Here is what I love about the stories before us now: They speak the certain truth that it is God's action that saves us and not our own. Like the lost sheep and the lost coin you and I simply cannot 'get found' all on our own. We cannot open the door ourselves. They speak vividly to God's intent always to rescue the lost.  They offer a marvelous picture of heaven --- all those angels throwing a party when the one who was lost is found again. And yes, they stand in sharp relief to what we too often experience in this world now. Which is part of what may make such as this so very hard to imagine. It is also what makes us so very grateful for the amazing gifts of God.
  • We have all been lost from time to time. All of us. By God's grace and gift we are found over and over again. Too often our experiences in this life, in this world, are not grace filled. Too often they look too much like what I experienced in the third grade so long ago. What stories would you offer which are similar to mine? Do you have stories which stand in contrast to the one I offer today?
  • Can you recall being lost in such a way that the only way you could 'get found' was by someone else's action? How does your experience compare to the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin?
  • Who are the 'lost' among us who we are called to welcome and rejoice in like the shepherd, the woman, and the very angels of God?  How do the words of Jesus speak to you and/or to your context now?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Choosing Life: It All Costs

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Luke 14:25-33

It's not often enough that I make the time to read fiction these days. This is so, in spite of the fact that a well crafted story --- factually true or not --- awakens my imagination and pushes me to measure my own life's choices in ways little else does.

And so it was a couple of weeks ago I spent a few days living alongside the two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle in Kristen Hannah's The Nightingale. Set in Nazi Occupied France during World War II, this remarkable novel is based loosely on the legendary life of one of the two sisters who devoted her life to the work of the underground --- specifically that of rescuing downed British and American pilots. Throughout the story we hear how these two women make hard choices, day after day after day. And on many days? It seemed circumstances created a climate which meant there was not necessarily one good, 'morally pure,' right choice. And yet, they kept moving forward, attempting to 'choose life' in the best way they could.

My life is clean and easy compared to the world I lived in alongside Vianne and Isabelle for a few days. Even so, it surely helps me to dwell in such stories for such as these remind me of the ways in which my choices, too, reflect my values, my hopes, my dreams, --- and hopefully, most of all, my faith.

Indeed, the story I offer now is an old one and is in some ways yet unresolved. And while it is so that it was a large 'choosing' that was mine to make then, it serves as but an example. Without a doubt, we also'choose life or death' in small ways every single day.

This is how it was. I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college where I was majoring in political science. It was in a course which focused on international relations and the power of multinational corporations where my eyes were opened to the sometimes abuses perpetrated by entities whose bottom line is always monetary profit. Now one doesn't have to work hard today to realize that much of what you and I consume is done so 'cheaply' at the expense of impoverished workers the world over. This was news to me then, though. It was but a footnote in a larger textbook which pointed out this sort of abuse by one such corporation in a country in the southern hemisphere. That company also had an operation in my hometown. Indeed, that very company in its local expression in a small town in Northern Illinois helped pay my way through college by giving me a summer job.

I remember still how my heart fell when I put all those pieces together. I remember the internal struggle I had for even though I was hardly out of my teens I sensed that I was somehow complicit in all of this. I wondered then what to do. Was I wrong to build my own future on a foundation which was literally destroying the lives of families not so many hundreds of miles away?

I made a decision then which I still mull over from time to time. At the end of the school year I returned to my home town and went back to work my summer job in the same place I had the year before that and the year before that. I reasoned to myself that my refusing to work there would not have any impact on the decisions of a big company like that. Especially in the low end job I held. I came to the conclusion that I would be better off finishing my education and maybe one day I would be able to make a difference in significant questions like these.

It's not that I was entirely wrong those many years ago. Given the scarcity of options even then for kids like me to work their way through college, perhaps I did not have much of a choice. It's just that now --- these 35 years later? I still haven't found a way to make an impact on these sorts of injustices. I still haven't found a way to "carry my cross" in the way that Jesus calls us to now into this particular matter. Indeed, when it comes to this, those choices which are before me still seem like small ones which likely won't make much of a difference at all.

And maybe it is so that this particular challenge is not what I am called to address even now. Perhaps there are other every day challenges where I am meant to stand alongside and raise my voice and affect change. For it is so, today as always, that there is no scarcity of injustice to be addressed.

Either way, you and I are charged with dong precisely what Jesus calls us to today as we seek to follow him: We are to measure our options. We are to estimate the cost. We are, in the words of Deuteronomy, to wonder and to act day after day on the question of what will lead to life and what will lead to death. We are to do so, always, carrying the cross which is ours to carry.

As I think back on the decision to stay in a job I had questions about some 35 years ago, I realize that at least twice since then I have been able to make a different decision --- actually picking up and leaving work where I felt I had to compromise too much of who I was called to be and what I was called to do. In both cases I came to the painful conclusion that I could not change it so I decided to move on. What was different was that both of those times I actually had other choices. Most importantly, in a way that was profoundly different from when I was a young adult, both times I was surrounded by communities of people who supported me as I discerned my way in attempting to choose "life over death." And yes, both times, I paid a price: in at least one case in dollars and reputation both.

It all costs. All of it. And just like two sisters in a novel I read a few weeks back, the choices may never be clean and easy. Even so, those choices are ours to make. Day after day we seek to cast our hope on the side of life. Oh, there will be days when we will side with death for the cost of life may seem just too high. And there will be days when the line between life and death is not entirely clear. On those days --- in all of our days ---- may the gift that the One who promises life also freely grants forgiveness and strength for a new day sustain us then. And may we awaken tomorrow with a heart renewed to try again to choose life. Whatever the cost.
  • What does it mean to you in your life to 'choose life?' Can you think of a time when the choice was not easy? Can you recall a time when you made the wrong choice? How do you find yourself thinking about that today?
  • What difference does a supportive community --- perhaps even members of Christ's church --- make in terms of how you choose? As I indicate above, it has made all the difference to me.
  • What has it cost you to 'choose life?' How has that compared to the cost of 'choosing death?'
  • In my reflections on this scripture in this space three years ago, I offered a number of 'real life' concrete examples of 'estimating the cost.' You can find my thoughts at "Estimating the Cost."

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rewriting the Guest List

Luke 14:1, 7-14

I took her to lunch a few months ago.

If you have worked in a church setting for any amount of time you may have come to know someone much like her.

I first met her when she called the church office late one afternoon a year or so ago. She was out of gas and stranded. Could I possibly spare a little cash so she could get to the small town she calls home some 20 miles southwest of here?

I jumped in my car and went to find her. When I did, I handed her $20 and asked her to let me know how she was. She took me at my word. And now she stops in frequently. And yes, she is always in need of something for her car breaks down. Or she develops an allergic reaction to her generic prescription and has to pay out of pocket for the non-generic kind. Or she has to make an unexpected trip to see family. It seems it's always something.

Part of what makes her stand out from others in similar circumstances is that she documents her needs so well. More than once she has come in with a pile of receipts showing where her meager disability income has gone and why she's coming up short. And yes, more than once I have helped out --- sometimes with the church's discretionary fund --- just as often when the needs are small out of my own pocket. Other times I have had to say 'no.'

Over the course of the last year I have learned some of her story. She is a college graduate. She is a person of faith. She is a recovering addict:clean for a number of years now. She is on disability from a high school basketball injury to her knee which caught up to her a few years back. No older than me, her gait is unsteady. She is supported by a cane. And this. She is also a poet. Several visits ago she recited to me a beautiful poem about fear and hope restored which she had penned herself.

In many ways we come from vastly different places and our daily challenges don't compare. I wasn't sure if we would find anything to talk about the day I offered to take her to lunch. Indeed, we met at a small diner a few blocks away from the church where too late I realized she might feel a little out of place for her dark skin stood out among the rest of the crowd that noon.  Still, in this place where the server knows what I will order even before I open the menu as I have been there so often, she was treated with kindness.

She ordered more than she could eat --- packaging up the leftovers for dinner later that day. I often take mine home in the same way after lunch out, but more often than not mine spoil in the refrigerator before I think to enjoy them. I'm quite certain this was not the case with her.

We meandered in our conversation some with her trying to get to know as much about me as I had learned about her over the past several months. For my part, I was working on a blog post and took the chance that she might have new insight into the text I was mulling that day. She did, in fact.

It went fine. And yet, there was an awkwardness in our sharing which I had not discerned in our previous conversations. Yes, this was still my 'turf,' if you will. And I was clearly 'in charge' for I was picking up the tab. And yet something happens when we sit across the table from one another. In this case, the 'playing field' was leveled some and she felt freer to ask questions then, if nothing else.

And there is this. Ever since she has been trying to find a time to invite me to her home to fix a meal for me. Unlike those described in Jesus' teaching in Luke, she sees herself as one who could, who 'should' repay me in some way.

Indeed, Jesus uses the common experience of shared meals to bring his teaching home today. In his first offering he speaks of the centrality of 'humility' to those who would follow him. In his second, he turns all conventions upside down and rewrites the guest list --- promising that in the end,we will be blessed in other than the usual ways.

Now, I don't know about you, but 99% of the time I eat with people I know --- those I have a lot in common with --- co-workers, colleagues, family, friends. These are people who, for the most part, who can and will pick up the tab the next time, if they did not, in fact, do so this time. Part of the surprise in Jesus' words now lies in this: that even more than sitting across the table from someone at the local diner, Jesus says we ought to be inviting "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" to something much grander when he speaks of a banquet. Perhaps we still sit with them. Perhaps we don't. Either way? These are to be treated as honored guests. And Jesus promises that in the end, we will be "repaid."

Oh yes, today Jesus makes his point using an experience which people across time and space and culture continue to know well. And I, for one, find myself sitting up and taking notice. Along with you who also listen in on Jesus now, I am wondering what this looks like and what this means for you and me. Is it like a shared lunch with the person who frequently drops by the church office asking for help?  Is that small, small step the direction Jesus would have us move today or is he speaking of something much, much more?

Whatever else is so, when we sit down to a meal together, neither one of us is the same. At least I know I'm not. And beyond simply being the "right thing," in keeping with Jesus' direction now and shy of the 'resurrection of the righteous,' when such as these will be paid in full? Maybe that kind of 'changing' from the inside out is exactly what Jesus intends for us all when we take even the smallest step towards doing and being what he calls us to today. Maybe he intends that in a shared meal we might just see in one another our common humanity. Maybe he yearns for us to offer a prayer of thanksgiving together. Maybe Jesus yearns for a shared meal to be the first step to a more equitable world. Maybe...

  • What do you think is Jesus' intent behind his urging us to 'rewrite' our guest list? What is the difference between lunch at a local diner and the sort of banquet he describes today?
  • With whom do you normally share a meal? When have you sat down to eat with someone from a different social class? 
  • Think of the last meal you shared with another. Does sharing a meal change you, your relationship, your experience of the world? How have you known this to be so?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Wondering: The Healing of the Bent Over Woman

Luke 13:10-17

It's been more than four years since the name "Dancing with the Word" came to mind as a title for this blog. Although anything but a 'dancer' myself, I have always loved the interplay of words and ideas. This has been especially so as I have learned to exercise such a 'light touch' when it comes to interpreting the Word among God's people. There is a back and forth-ness to dancing, just as it is in our ongoing conversation with the Word. For me, this is how this back and forth conversation often looks;

Most every week I start with the text itself. I read through it once and I read it over again. I pull out a pen and underline what strikes me this time around. I dip into the commentaries, hoping for a new way into the story. Sometimes I go to the original language, but it is so that this is not my best gift. I try hard to set aside whatever conclusions I came to the last time around --- and yes, this can be hardest of all. Sometimes one way of thinking gets cemented in my brain and I have to work hard to be open to new possibilities. Many weeks I find the best way to open myself up to new ways or thinking is to simply start writing down questions about what is before me. In this way, I force myself to 'wonder'at the text. Indeed, my own journey to the sermon almost always begins with questions like those which follow as I have sat still in the story before us now:
  • What was it that caused Jesus to notice the 'bent over woman' in the first place? And why her and not another?
  • Was it a hard choice for him to abandon his teaching and focus on her? Did it cross his mind that he might offend someone by choosing to heal on the Sabbath or was he actually trying to bait those who would oppose him on this?
  • Why does it matter that Jesus does this on the Sabbath? Now surely it is so that any conversation about "Sabbath Keeping" today must necessarily differ greatly from such conversation in the time of Jesus. At least my observation of the culture where I serve leads me to believe that questions about what is appropriate or not on the Sabbath rarely enter our collective or individual conversations. Indeed, many of us could perhaps benefit from a more 'rigid' interpretation of this particular practice. On the other hand? Hardly a 'day off' goes by without interruption of text or phone message causing me again and again to re-evaluate how I will 'keep Sabbath' this time around. What is your experience of this? How have you resolved it?
  • If "Sabbath" is not a "rule" which gets in our way, is it possible that like the leader of the synagogue, we also sometimes hide behind 'other rules' which keep us from faithfully from following Jesus? What are those 'rules' in your experience? Are there ways in which our 'rules' --- both spoken and unspoken --- help keep the status quo? Indeed, are there ways in which our 'rules' keep the privileged, privileged and don't allow a way in for those who are not so privileged?
    • What must it have been like to be the formerly bent over woman  to suddenly find herself standing up straight? I wonder if unused muscles were stiff at first. I wonder it this new/old posture took some getting used to.
    • Certainly I have known people who are similarly physically bent over by arthritis and other ailments. What would it look like to ask them how it is for them? Would I be able to ask what it is they miss the most from the time before their bodies and/or spirits so betrayed them? Would you?
    • I can't help but notice that the woman never actually asked for healing. I find myself wondering if I have ever experienced healing I never even thought to ask for. I wonder if there are parts and pieces in my life and experience which beg for healing but in resignation or despair I have simply stopped asking. I wonder if that was so for her. I wonder if that is so for the people for whom and with whom I bring the Word this week. And I wonder at the utter grace of receiving unasked for, unanticipated healing!
    • I find myself asking whether we have ever experienced this kind of healing in this way: Because this woman's affliction did not allow her to stand up straight, she was not able to see without struggle. How does the healing Jesus brings simply allow or enable one to see the world more clearly? As individuals? As congregations? 
    • Can you think of a time when the 'healing touch of Jesus' actually enabled you to see something you had not seen before? Something wondrous? Some injustice? What was that like? And what happened next?
    • And this as well: What is it about Jesus that he is willing to physically 'touch' those whom were considered 'unclean?' How has Jesus touched me/touched you in my/your most broken places? When have I/have we hesitated to do the same? When have you/when have I done so anyway? What was the result of such risk taking? Oh, I have not forgotten the hospital call I made more than twenty years ago now. The child I went to see had HIV AIDS. My mind told me even then I could not contract this disease by touching his hand. And still my heart leaped back even as my hand reached for him. Unclean? Of course not. Treated that way by the world? Absolutely. Consequences for me? Absolutely none for other than to his immediate family, his diagnosis remained secret even to the grave. Although perhaps it was of some comfort to his family that I did not outwardly flinch even though I was inwardly wary. Either way, I have never forgotten my instinct to pull away and how much that differs from the example Jesus offers now.

    And so I wonder as  you journey to a sermon or just a deeper understanding of the story before us now, what questions would you add to mine? What makes you wonder?

    What new path might your questions take you on as you seek to follow Jesus in your living, in your sharing, in your preaching, if that is your call?

    Finally, how might experiencing this one familiar story in new ways begin to change how you see and interact with the world? What does it mean for you to be "healed" in order to be able to stand up and see? What are you seeing more clearly already?

    Sunday, August 7, 2016

    Running This Race...

    Hebrews 11:29-12:2

    It is an odd, random memory which surfaces at least every four years about now and it came to mind again this week as I watched the opening ceremonies of these 31st Olympic Games. Indeed, I find myself remembering the Summer Olympics when I was 15 years old. No, not anything specific about the games that year, only that they were and that they took place in a time when with so few other options, it seemed the whole world tuned in. This is what comes to mind today:

    I was not yet driving and so my only mode of transportation was the 10 speed bicycle my folks had given me a few years before. I was riding it on a summer's afternoon on South Main Street and pumping as hard as I could. Perhaps it was my energy which impressed the old man who called out from his vantage point on his front porch, for I cannot imagine I was going all that fast. I can still hear his voice shouting at me, wondering if I would try out the next time the Summer Olympics rolled around.

    I can remember rolling my eyes for I was not then nor have I ever been particularly athletic. No, my sister, Martha, inherited those particular genes from our dad. Indeed, I am quite certain the only reason I made the high school volleyball team was because I was willing to work harder than anyone else. In those days, running the stairs in the old gym did not cause the kind of trepidation or downright pain in my left knee that doing so would do now. I shake my head today to marvel at how I took such physical exertion for granted those few short decades ago. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when compelled to run even a short distance at my early morning workout, I found it helped, somehow, to imagine someone chasing me so as not to give up before I reached the "finish line!"

    As these memories come flooding back, I realize that this is so: such recollections of who I used to be or expectations about who I should be now sometimes keep me from entering the 'race' altogether. This is so both as I try to better tend my physical body as I am by now deep into middle age and in other areas of my life and faith as well. I don't know about you but at first as I consider this 'race of faith' we are called to in Hebrews today and when I think about the examples of heroes the writer offers now, I am tempted to give up before I even begin. Indeed, how could my gifts, my participation in this race, compare to that of Gideon or Barak or Samson or the rest?

    And yet, perhaps it is so that while the image before us now is a vivid one --- both of runner and those cheering her on --- we have to remember that the only "winning" that it seems to be pointing to is the act of actually 'finishing" this race, whatever that may mean. At least this is so if we actually pay attention to the remarkable role models offered by the writer of Hebrews today. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to say that any of those named were exactly "winners" in the classic sense all the time:
    Gideon, for instance, was an altogether reluctant warrior. He was not confident in his own ability and he asked for proof that it was even the Lord talking to him at all. (Judges 6-8)
    Barak refused to go to battle without Deborah at his side, and while to my mind there is nothing wrong with that, still that must have been unusual in that time. More than that, for all of his willingness to put his life on the line, he was told up front that in the end the honor would go to another --- and in this case another woman. (Judges 4)
    Samson, for all of his superhuman strength, does not come off as all that bright and as his story comes to a close, he dies making his point. (Judges 16)
    Jephthah, though described as a mighty warrior, essentially traded the life of his only child, his daughter, for a military victory. (Judges 11)
    David was, of course, the 'ideal king' for the nation of Israel, but for all of his remarkable gifts, he committed adultery and arranged for the death of Bathsheba's husband. (2 Samuel 11:1-12:25)
    Samuel, for all of his faithfulness, failed to convince the people that being ruled by a king would surely be their downfall. (1 Samuel 8:10-22)
    And as for Rahab who is mentioned even before this litany of other "heroes of the faith?" For all the good she did, she was still remembered as a prostitute.
    All of these whose stories of 'running this race of faith' are passed along to us are far less than perfect. In fact, some of them stumble and fall in rather remarkable ways. Perhaps it is so that these are named so that all of us --- regardless of our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes, our failures, our moral stature or our moral weakness --- all of us are called by God to simply get in 'the race' and trust that God will take care of what it means to 'win.' And maybe by simply being 'in the race' we are among those who are 'persevering.'.

    Indeed, in a world as full of challenges as the one you and I inhabit, it might be tempting to simply turn in our 'running shoes' and head for home. This would seem to be especially so if we thought it was up to us to vanquish all that which causes the suffering and pain in this world which God's people are called to address.  But no. Along with Rahab and Gideon, Barak and Samson, Jephthah, and David and Samuel and all the rest? You and I are simply called to 'run.' And to keep our eyes on Jesus as we do so, trusting that Jesus will take care of the rest.

    • What gets in the way of your 'entering the race' in all of its fullness? What doubts or fears plague you?  Does it make a difference to you to remember that the 'litany of heroes' offered here also had doubts and fears and failings in addition to their remarkable gifts?
    • When were you last tempted to 'turn in your running shoes' and go home? What kept you 'running?' What keeps you 'running?'
    • In this late summer days when at least some of our attention is focused on the Summer Olympics, are there stories which capture your imagination which might help illustrate what it is to 'run the race?' As for me, I am especially taken by the story of the Olympic Refugee Team. If you haven't heard their story yet, you can find it here. Any one of their individual stories could offer a shining example of perseverance in life and in the sport which has called their name.

    Sunday, July 31, 2016

    Where Your Treasure Is...

    Luke 12:32-40

    I am working these days on a funeral sermon for a 93 year old.

    Jesse was a 'true original' -- one about whom everyone he encountered had a story. This is one of mine:

    It was Easter morning a couple several years ago. Nearly fifty of us were bundled up against the cold for the early service at Fairview Cemetery in DeKalb --- always my personal favorite. For me, while there are other places where the Easter Message is so needed, the cemetery seems like a good place to start. Just like on the first Easter so long ago. And so it was in those last weeks of Lent we had asked members of the congregation to share the names of loved ones who are buried at Fairview. Part of our gathering would include speaking aloud those names, one by one by one.

    I read those precious names in groups of eight or ten --- pausing in between each grouping to repeat the Easter Proclamation: "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!" As expected, those gathered enthusiastically responded, "He is Risen, Indeed!  Alleluia!"

    I had made my way through the list and paused to ask if there were other names to share. And Jesse piped up with this:
    "I forgot my gloves! I forgot my wallet! I forgot my hearing aides! But, I'm having a great time!"
    And we smiled and responded, "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!" "He is  Risen, Indeed, Alleluia!"

    As we sit with both the promise and the expectation articulated in Jesus' words before us now and as I reflect back on Jesse's life, this memory is front and center. For it seemed to me that in his 90th year, Jesse had it right. His "treasure" was in just the right place. For while he may have left behind a whole lot of things that normally would matter that morning, not cold hands nor muffled hearing nor even the fact that he had left his cash and driver's license behind, could get in the way of his utter joy of being with God's people and celebrating the Easter Promise!

    Now it is true that as I listen to Jesus' words for us once more, I found myself wondering as I always do. For why it is that God's Reign is not already ours to celebrate in all of its fullness if, in fact, it is "the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom?"  And then I read the next line. For with his next breath Jesus seems to imply that while God is waiting to hand it to us, these amazing gifts of God are perhaps already residing within each and all of us. All we have to do is pick up our heads and see what is already so; that the things of this world which 'wear out and fail' do not reflect the Reign of God. They just don't. And perhaps as you and I come to recognize and embrace and live like this is so, this Kingdom God can't wait to give us will gain a foothold in our hearts and in our lives.

    I don't know if it took our friend, Jesse, nine decades to figure this out. I do know that he offered a wonderful glimpse into our shared future that brisk early Easter day a few years ago of a time when the things we count on and think we need in this life now will become entirely unnecessary and will be entirely replaced by the joy God is yearning to give us even now.

    I can't help but wonder if God is just waiting for you and me to wake up and recognize what is truly "treasure" and what is not. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if as we live into and are embraced by the gifts of this promise, perhaps the Reign of God might be glimpsed more fully even now. Even as it was at Fairview Cemetery that early Easter Morning a couple of years ago.

    • I have offered here a story of one who recognized "treasure" in a way that perhaps ninety plus years can surely teach us. What similar story would you offer?
    • How is it that you and I can gain that kind of hard earned perspective now? How would our lives look different if this were so?
    • Do you think you and I are part of 'bringing in the kingdom' which God is yearning to give us? Why or why not?

    Sunday, July 24, 2016

    Being Rich Toward God...

    Luke 12:13-21

    The parable Jesus offers now is surely about an individual and choices he has made. And yet, I have found myself thinking instead about the choices we make collectively as God's people about our 'barns' and all they hold. About what matters and what doesn't. About what it means for us together to be 'rich toward God.'  Yes, certainly the words of Jesus now are worth sitting with a good long while as we consider our priorities in our own individual lives and in the lives of our families. And yet, this time through I find myself thinking about lives together as congregations.

    And so it is that the memory I share today is an old one.

    I was a young adult, working with the youth at my home congregation in that season between graduating from college and starting seminary. Now mind you, youth ministry was not then and is not now God's best gift to me, but it was a good and needed balance to my front desk job at a local hotel before I headed off to St. Paul and the rigors of "Summer Greek." But that is for another reflection.

    If I am remembering right, I had coached the high school youth through some kind of worship experience where they dressed up as clowns --- complete with clown white make up and grease paint. (This was at least familiar to me.) We had been in the nave for this experience. The carpet around the altar was white. And as you can well imagine, by the end of our sharing, at least one spot on that carpet was not as white as it had been only hours before.

    This is what stays with me now: the sight of my normally dignified and calm pastor on his knees frantically trying to get red grease paint to let go of its hold on that formerly pristine white carpet --- all the while mumbling the name of the church custodian almost under his breath. But not quite. Not quite under his breath that is.

    This came to mind this week as I settled into the familiar words of our Gospel lesson and its constantly needed message that bigger barns and all they promise to hold will not save us. This came to mind as I considered the lesson Jesus offers to me and to those I serve, individually and collectively as a congregation. Oh yes, this unsettling memory came to mind as from time to time I recognize myself in my old pastor now --- caught up in the anxiety of others' anxiety about protecting and preserving our 'barns.'

    It should be an easy case to make in churches, of course, for all that we are about is not finally about the 'barns or what those barns contain.' And yet, who among us has not gotten caught in the battle about preserving what finally doesn't matter at the expense of what does?

    Indeed, in the place where I serve we are blessed with a profoundly beautiful 'barn.' This very summer, in fact, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the building itself. (The congregation itself is, in fact, much older.) We have been fortunate that previous generations have kept it up well and it is, to be sure, a beautiful place to worship with ample room for most any gathering you can imagine. And yet, you who serve in old buildings know the struggle well:

    • The cost of maintaining old 'barns' too often precludes us from being about meaningful mission. 
    • The anxiety associated with keeping those 'barns' pristine too often keeps us from welcoming into our holy 'barns' those who would perhaps benefit the most from the gifts we are called to share.
    It is not easy balance, this one and I, for one, don't think the struggle will ever fully go away: perhaps not until 'our very lives are demanded of us.' No, in fact, the tension that is illustrated in Jesus' parable for us now is one before us and within us every day, in our own lives and in our life together as God's people:

    Take a moment to think this through with me:
    • What is the balance between 'tending the barn' and letting it be used for mission and ministry? 
      • Doesn't it matter that the carpets are clean, the roof is not leaking, the garbage is properly disposed of, the altar rail is dusted?
      •  And does it really finally matter that there is clown make up on the carpet around the altar? Does it?
    I do know this. My heart still aches to remember my old pastor who gave me many a positive example of what it means to serve God and God's people well -- kneeling on the floor anxiously trying to remove that stain from that white carpet. My heart aches, too, when I recognize that same kind of anxiety in myself. For nothing about it, then or now, boasts of 'richness towards God' which is where Jesus' words finally point us now.

    Oh yes, Jesus' story of one rich man compels us to examine ourselves, our congregations, our lives and our life together, and while I don't imagine that worry about 'having enough' in this life will ever fully leave us, if we could but allow ourselves to be shaped by the question of what it means to be 'rich toward God' in our own lives and in our life together, perhaps our 'wealth' might just begin to accrue where it really matters.

    What do you think?

    •  I have chosen to consider here how the 'barn' itself may just be a parallel for all the 'barn holds' --- at least for many of our congregations. Is this a logical path to take? Why or why not?
    • In your experience, what does it mean to be 'rich toward God?' How does that contrast with our anxiety which has us 'building bigger barns' or just protecting the barns we already have?
    • Might it be enough to start by simply asking the question about what it means to be 'rich toward God?' How might the right question asked faithfully and often begin to change our values and priorities?
    • What might it look like in your own life or in your life together with your congregation --- at a council meeting, a finance committee meeting, a Sunday School Class --- to ask the question of what it means to be 'rich toward God?' And how do you see yourself leading others past the blank stare which is typically our response to such a question never pondered before? How might this very important conversation change everything?
    • Are there other ways in which we as leaders put our energies into matters which do not lend towards 'richness toward God?' How are you being called to reconsider your priorities in your life and ministry these days?

    Sunday, July 17, 2016

    Lord, Teach us to Pray...With Whom Shall We Pray?

    Luke 11:1-13

    Most weeks, I have the 'prayers of the people' written by Wednesday. I always send them on to our assisting ministers by Thursday afternoon so they have a chance to look them over before worship on Sunday. (Yes this may seem early, but my normal day off is Friday and some weeks I can actually stretch it through Saturday without going into the office.) Almost always I include the caveat that things could change. And almost always they do.

    Sometimes it is a last minute phone call, an email or a hand written note handed to me just before worship which has me penciling in a special need. Lately, the world  has seemed to blow up all over again between Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning and I am adding in names and places where the suffering is beyond profound. Orlando. Florida, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Dallas, Texas. Nice, France. Istanbul, Turkey. And on and on and on we pray.

    Oh, it is so that on occasion, I have heard and resonated with those who have wondered if prayer makes any difference. And, if honest, I have confessed the truth that sometimes my promise of prayers is only that: a promise unfulfilled. And in the end, I can't help but wonder if the point of prayer is not to change God's mind --- no matter what our Gospel lesson offers today --- but to change us.

    And yet, as God's people in the midst of doubt and fear and questions, still we pray. For we follow in the footsteps of the one, Jesus, who prayed.

    It is these experiences of prayer which my memory has been revisiting in these last couple of weeks:

    In the days after the massacre of the Charleston 9, I was in communication with the pastor of a local Baptist Church whose membership is mostly African American. I was mortified that the one who brought such carnage to a holy place was a confirmed member of the denomination I call my home. Pastor Joe's reply was, "Let's gather our people for worship and prayer." And so we did.

    After Orlando, I received a text from Joe. His message was the same. "Let's gather our people for worship and prayer." This time people representing Muslims and Unitarians and Presbyterians and Jews and Methodists and Lutherans and United Church of Christ and Episcopalians and others all came together for a night unlike any other.

    After the tragic deaths of Anton and Philandro and the targeting and killing of five police officers in Dallas, I texted Pastor Joe once more. This time I asked permission for some of our people to join them for worship on Sunday morning. I asked for a minute to speak. In spite of his own struggle in the wake of all of this, his response was immediate; "You are welcome." And 14 Lutherans and others from area congregations showed up for the 7:30 service. Some of us made it back for much of the 2 hour and 45 minute 10:45 service as well.

    I can't say I was not afraid, for I was. For the most part that fear was rooted in a sense of uncertainty about how we would be received, no matter the pastor's kindness. More than that, I wanted my words to be true and to bring comfort, not offense. And so I spent much of Saturday walking and fretting and praying and mulling over what I would say. And praying. Finally what I wound up offering was this:
         Thank you for allowing me a moment to speak to you this morning.
         The world has felt especially broken to me in these last days.
         And if this has been so for me, I can only imagine how it has felt to you who have lived with very real terror --- perhaps all of your lives. For I know that it is so that you have grown up in and lived in a very different experience of this country than I and others who who look like me have. I know this. I say it out loud to you in a spirit of deep sorrow. And I ask your forgiveness for having held my silence in the face of it for far too long.
         Which is why today it did not seem as though it would be enough to only send my thoughts via text message to your pastor. Or to only pray in the safety of my sanctuary across town. It seemed important to come and stand with you. And hear God's Word with you. And pray with you. And sing with you in the face of the fear that threatens to overwhelm us all.
         For I know that we hold a great deal more in common than that which makes us different. I know that we are loved by and seek to follow the same God. I know that we are family in all the ways that matter.
         I also know that in spite of the brokenness we all are experiencing today, God is not done with us yet. I believe that God promises to be our strength in our weakness, our faith in the midst of doubt, our stubborn hope driving out all fear.
         I do not know what it will mean if we can see a way to stand strong on those promises together. But today I want you to hear me say that I  --- and others from First Lutheran and other communities of faith --- are standing with you and beside you. And we are listening hard to what it means to be 'children of God' as peacemakers alongside all of you.
         Indeed, may we never forget those who have senselessly died at the hands of violence and fear in these last days:
    •    Alton  Sterling
    •    Philando Castile
    •    Patrick Zamarripa
    •    Brent Thompson
    •    Michael Krol
    •    Lorne Ahrens
    •    Michael Smith
    •    Others whose names and memories we hold in our hearts.
    •    And countless others, perhaps known only to God.
         May our pain be a catalyst for new hope and not despair.
         Finally, I would offer a blessing that was shared among Lutherans in Chicago as they gathered for prayer and lament a few days ago:
       May God give you grace to never sell yourself short,
       grace to risk something big for something good,
       and grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love. Amen.
    And as for my first fear? It was entirely unfounded. For as I checked with those from the congregation I serve who made their way to worship with these dear people across town, their over-riding response was one of being overwhelmed at the welcome we received. It was, indeed, something to behold.

    Back to Jesus' teaching about prayer today:
    • We hear a lot about the faithfulness of God in today's Gospel reading.
    • We are offered words which give us a way to frame our prayer.
    • I wonder now what Jesus would have to say about who it is we are to actually pray with.     And I wonder if it makes a difference. I surely hope it does.
    For these days when so very much threatens to drive us apart? It does feel like an answer to prayer to find myself praying with those whose backgrounds and and experiences and often at least nuances of belief differ so from my own --- among those who pray to the same God but where perhaps the substance and style of our prayers differ. In spite of all that would drive me to my knees in despair, this gives me hope. It does. Indeed, perhaps this answered prayer alone gives us the strength to keep on praying. And who knows what will happen next?
    • What do you think? Jesus surely doesn't address this in his teaching today, but does it make a difference with whom we actually pray? Why or why not?
    • What do you think is the main point of Jesus' teaching on prayer today? What gives you hope? What raises more questions for you?
    • This question may be unrelated to the text, but I am wondering how you and/or your faith community have responded to the challenges we face in the world today. What has been your experience? What would you offer the rest of us who are trying to find our way through this time which feels like no other?

    Sunday, July 10, 2016

    Sitting in the Presence of the Holy: Mary and Martha

    Luke 10:38-42

    I found myself walking under pine trees one day last week. The sight, the sound, the smell of that moment took me back to when I was seven years old.

    I grew up in a family where there were four of us girls --- all close together in age. From time to time our household expanded to include others --- cousins, sometimes --- a grandparent at others: all together in a four bedroom house with one bathroom. My parents were easy with us, yes, but sometimes the pressures on them had to be great. Without a doubt, they, like all of us often found themselves in Martha's corner today: "worried and distracted by many things."

    Of course, I am quite certain that my seven year old awareness could not fully comprehend this at the time. What I do know is this. Once a year we would go on vacation for Family Week at Pine Lake Bible Camp outside of Waupaca, Wisconsin. Somehow, more than the swimming and the playing and the music and the nightly campfires and the daily Bible stories, I remember this. I remember being stretched out in the way back of our family station wagon looking at the sky passing over head as we made our way north. I remember the sound of our tires hitting the ruts of the gravel road as we turned onto the drive of the camp. I remember the first sight of pine trees overhead. And I remember the deep sense of well being that filled me up as I anticipated the week to come. No doubt this was partly because of all the fun adventures which were in store. But it was also this. In that week when my parents were able to rely on someone else to be sure there was a meal on the table and where there would be learning and refreshment for them as well, they were different, too. More present, somehow, in a way they simply were not able to be the other 51 weeks of the year.

    I think of that now and I realize how you and I as leaders in any system set the tone. And I am deeply aware that if I am 'worried and distracted by many things' --- no doubt that also potentially adds to the anxiety of everyone else around me. Ironically, too, when my heart and mind get that 'busy,' I also become less clear about what it is I am actually called to do.

    Now in spite of the way this story is too often heard, I am not convinced that the ways of Martha and Mary are necessarily an either/or option. All of us, much of the time, have to be 'doers' as Martha was. It's just that worried and distracted part we must learn to let go. And yes, sometimes, the contemplative practice modeled by Mary leads to action. Sitting in the presence of the Holy can well give clarity to what we are called to do next.

    This is how I saw this play out in these last difficult days.

    Along with countless, countless others,  I have been glued to the news coverage: first Baton Rouge. Then suburban St. Paul. With the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on my mind and in my heart I texted a colleague, an African American leader in our community. I expressed my pain. He responded in kind with his own chillingly prophetic prediction that if something isn't done things will get much worse.

    That very night I grew weary of watching the Chicago Cubs play (they are in the midst of a painful losing streak) and I switched channels to catch the news. With the nation, I sat up straight, horrified at what I saw living out before my eyes in Dallas.

    I hardly slept that night.

    In the midst of my angst I sent an email to local colleagues asking if they would gather the next day. I set our meeting time for later in the day as I had a memorial service in the early afternoon and I wanted to be sure the group had a chance to respond. Early morning would likely have excluded some.

    A handful responded. We sat down over warm cookies at Panera and stumbled in our sharing with each other. We knew our need to be together. We just didn't know what we needed to do next. Mohammad Labadi, the president of the DeKalb Islamic Center arrived last. He pulled up a chair and confessed that he had not really heard what happened. I was surprised, but in fits and starts we recounted the news.

    He listened intently. He shook his head with us. And then he looked up and he said, "Let's go." "Go where?" I asked. "Let's go to the police station. Let's take flowers and cookies."

    And so we did.

    Now Mohammad prays five times a day. In the absence of an imam, he often leads the prayers for his community. In addition to his responsibilities at the Islamic Center, he runs several businesses. And yet, as busy as he is, he is also one of the most 'restful people' I know. I am imagining now that his faithful and frequent practice of "sitting in the presence of the Holy," much like Mary, gives him a certain clarity about what to do next. At least it did this last Friday afternoon.

    We covenanted, too, to go together to New Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday morning. By now I was following Mohammad's lead when I contacted my colleague there to tell him that some Lutherans and others, too, would be coming to worship. I would have to leave early, but asked if I would be able to speak. The day before I did my best to have a 'restful' day so that I could be more fully present to those dear people whose hearts are also breaking now.

    So you see, I don't think Martha and Mary are exclusive of one another. Contemplation can lead to thoughtful and authentic action. We need both. No, Martha and Mary are not mutually exclusive. Except that bit about being 'worried and distracted.' And I don't know about you, but I'm still working on that.

    • How do you hear the story of Mary and Martha today? Are the examples they set mutually exclusive one another in terms of their preference for us? What do you think?
    • In my reflection here I have offered the example of a Muslim leader as a parallel to Mary. Does that 'preach?' Why or why not?
    • Although I have not directly addressed this above, I am wondering what helps you to keep from being 'worried and distracted?'

    Sunday, July 3, 2016

    The Samaritan: Where is God at Work in the World?

    Luke 10:25-37

    I will admit that it can be challenging to hear this parable of Jesus and actually hear anything new. We have heard it so many times, of course, and  more than that, there are so many overlays of interpretation and understanding --- both cultural and otherwise --- that it can be difficult to uncover Jesus' true intent here.

    Trying to hear this familiar parable in new ways this week, I spent some time with Amy-Jill Levine's interpretation in her book, Short Stories by Jesus. I would recommend her treatment of the parable especially for her take on the ways in which for thousands of years it has suffered from inaccurate understandings which are rooted in antisemitism. Even more than that, she brings to it a point of view which perhaps only one deeply seeped in Jewish scholarship can bring. If nothing else, reading her perspective will surely slow you down enough that a new angle on this familiar parable might just emerge.

    In the end, though, I Dr. Levine puts forth an understanding of the parable which I have always carried. To be a neighbor is to show mercy. It is to act in love, not only to feel compassion for the suffering of another. And in the explosive-for-the-time example Jesus offers, this way of being comes alive through the actions of a Samaritan.

    Now it is so that I am given opportunities to emulate the Samaritan most every day --- although it is also so that usually the circumstances of the neighbors I am asked to help do not appear to be as immediately life threatening as the one described before us now.

    There was, for instance, the couple living in a van who took up residence in the parking lot behind our church a few weeks back. I went out with a bottle of cold water, some McDonald's gift cards, a gas card, and the suggestion of a better place to park for the rest of the day so as to avoid getting towed. It seemed like the right thing to do, and perhaps was in keeping with what is before us now. but my meager offering does not compare to the Samaritan's who, at his own expense, saw to the long term healing of the who he had come upon on the road to Jericho.

    And there is the woman who calls every month or so. Her car keeps breaking down and those repair bills make it hard for her to pay other bills. And so she calls me or (at least) one other pastor in town for help. Her story is especially compelling and the last time she stopped in I took her to lunch. I try to help when I can: sometimes from my own wallet and sometimes from the church's discretionary fund.  And yet, it is also so that sometimes I avoid her calls.

    And then there was just last week. I had put on literally hundreds of miles in the last seven days or so and was, at that point, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I was simply exhausted both physically and emotionally from the toll of those last days. Only we got home and realized we were out of milk so I ran out to the store. As I walked in, I caught some movement from the corner of my eye and I looked up to see a young woman with a little girl. The child was sitting in a grocery cart, tucked back a ways beside the building and the woman was on her cell phone. I kept walking. When I came out of the store twenty minutes later they were still there.  I thought about pausing. I did not. As I put my bag of groceries into the back seat of my car, I realized I had forgotten something so I went back in. When I emerged a few minutes later, they still hadn't moved. Again, I kept moving.

    I am not proud of this. Perhaps there was nothing I could have done or perhaps there was nothing they needed, and yet it would have been 'neighborly' to at least ask. And yet, in that moment I felt I simply did not have it in me.

    And so it seems to me the bar is high as Jesus paints it now. Most days, most weeks, I know I do not come close to meeting it. And while surely grace abounds, that does not seem to be the point of what Jesus offers his listeners then or now. And yet, while it is no excuse, at the same time, most days I feel as though I cannot save 'everyone.' Alone I do not have the resources: the time, the money, the energy, the strength, the creativity, the hope to meet the needs of all those whom life has "beaten down and left to die at the side of the road."

    Even so, it has also occurred to me in these last days that maybe this is not mine (or yours) to do alone.

    Now, I do not know that this is what Jesus meant when he offered this story so long ago. And I am pretty certain that Dr. Levine might shake her head at this as well.  Still, this is what I am wondering now:

    • I wonder if for you and me the priest and the Levite in the story here represent the organized/established church as we know it. (I know, that is none too original, is it?) 
      • And maybe they are simply tired.
      • Or thinking about something else.
      • Or maybe they are afraid.
      • Or maybe they are discouraged, believing as I too often do that they simply do not have enough to save the lives of everyone who finds themselves "dying by the side of the road."
     And yes, surely they (and the church) are indicted in this telling for they and all too often, we, are surely not coming close to meeting the ancient understanding that to be a person of faith is to love God and love neighbor.

    Even with this certain truth, however, I cannot help but wonder if the Samaritan actually represents all the ways God is already at work in the world showing mercy where it is most needed in unexpected places and using profoundly unexpected people.

    •  And I wonder if you and I who represent the church could somehow get over thinking it is all up to us and just started looking for the ways in which God is already working. 
    • I wonder if we just did all we could to catch up with where God is at work in the world and just joined in if we might be doing exactly what Jesus calls us to now. Even or especially when the one we are catching up to is Samaritan. Or Muslim. Or Mexican. Or Republican. Or Democrat. Or.... well, you fill in the blank.
    • I wonder if then we might be given new energy and hope and purpose as we seek to live as we are called to live. Or more to the point, as we seek to love as we are called to love. 
    I cannot say for sure, of course, but it is so that this could get us to the place that Jesus points us to now --- to being a people marked by mercy. What do you think?
    • The parable before us this week is so familiar it can be difficult to find anything new to say about it. What helps you to explore stories such as this one in new ways?
    • What keeps you from living and loving as the Samaritan did? What might give you new energy or hope to more closely follow the example Jesus offers today?
    • What do you think of the possibility that the Samaritan represents the ways God is already at work in the world? What would it mean for you and your community to simply 'catch up' with what God is already up to?
    • Do you or your community sometimes have trouble seeing where God is at work in the world? For help in recognizing God's activity all around us, consider looking into the Church Innovations Workshop Announcing the Kingdom.

    Sunday, June 26, 2016

    The Lord Sent Them On Ahead in Pairs

    Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

    "After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go." (Luke 10:1)

    I can think of no other time when I have been more grateful to have partners in mission and ministry than I am today.

    This is how it is where I live and serve. Unlike in many other contexts, we do not have what one would call a strong ministerium. Ecumenical relationships are few and where they do exist they are tentative. And yet, over the last couple of years, forces larger than us appear to be working to bring us together in new ways. This is how it has been:

    In the wake of  Ferguson, Missouri, it seemed especially important for us to be talking about race, and yet, I serve an essentially all white congregation. So at a volunteer chaplains' lunch at our local hospital, I spoke with Joe Mitchell, pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church --- a congregation which is primarily African American about our struggle to hold this conversation. He invited our participation in the newly started Beloved Community Dinners. The primary purpose of these monthly gatherings is to promote conversation across our racial differences.

    Several months later the nation stood in shock when a young man opened fire in a church during their Wednesday night Bible Study in Charleston, killing nine. The young man happened to be a confirmed member of the denomination I call home. I called Joe Mitchell again. We agreed we needed to worship and pray together and so we did, inviting our communities to join us.

    In the wake of the Orlando Pulse Night Club massacre two weeks ago, Joe called me. Again he suggested the need for worship and prayer.

    Over the last several months other colleagues have been working to try to gather area clergy for a monthly breakfast with decidedly mixed results. Usually no more than three or four of us sit down together. All I have been able to determine is that we are all just too busy and perhaps it is so that gatherings such as these can seem like a waste of time. Even so, by now I had an email list and so after talking with Pastor Mitchell, on Tuesday afternoon I sent out an urgent email to everyone on the list, suggesting a breakfast gathering the next morning. Six of us showed up and over scrambled eggs and coffee we agreed that we would put together a response which would include interfaith worship. You can read our letter to the editor here.

    By Monday of this week, the group had more than doubled in size and it continues to grow. Next Wednesday night we will gather together for prayer and song and reflection and candle lighting.

    And so I have found myself thinking about partners in mission and ministry in a very concrete way over these last couple of weeks. Here is what I have observed so far:
    • When the need is urgent, and it surely is, people respond. Even if we are too busy.
    • When we can discern a common mission --- even across our many differences --- people respond to the call to come together.
    I have also found this to be true:
    • This is hard work. We don't all speak a common language --- not even those of us who call ourselves Christian --- even though for the most part we come from decidedly mainline churches. Perhaps because we do not know each other well and because the stakes are so high, we find ourselves needing to work hard to listen well enough that we understand each other..
    And yet, that is the whole point, isn't it? Isn't it precisely the opposite of the willingness to do this hard work which has us stumbling around in shock after yet another crazed gunman picked up his too easily obtained gun and ammunition and forever altered the lives of not only the 49 killed, but countless, countless others? Oh yes, it is hard work to try to understand one another and to find our common voice and it is surely something we should have been about a long time ago. And yet, we are finding it is not impossible.

    There is so very much before us in today's Gospel lesson from Luke, but given my recent experience of 'partners in mission,' I am settling in with Jesus having sent the disciples out in pairs. Without a doubt, this partnering was done for their own protection and for companionship. And yet, in these last days I am starting to wonder about how those partners were not only gift but were also challenge to one another. Indeed, without a doubt, it was their mutual need and their common mission which held them together.  Even so, I imagine along the way there were animated conversations shared:
    • About which house seemed most likely to provide for their needs and which one or ones they ought to just bypass; 
    • About who was going to heal the sick this time and who would offer simple words of peace; 
    • About when and where it was appropriate to wipe the feet off in protest.
    For aren't we always both strength and check to one another? How very much we need each other as we seek to meet this world God loves with God's peace and promise that the kingdom is, in fact, near!

    I, for one, have never known the truth of this more than I do today as by now more than a dozen of us from varied faith traditions have covenanted to not only worship and pray and remember together, but also to bear a common witness to the world about  the intrinsic worth of all people. I am filled with anticipation as I consider these growing partnerships and what these dear people are teaching me about myself, about the world, and about where and how we can do and be together as we are "sent out like lambs into the midst of it." I do not know where we will be taken in the weeks and months to come, but I am so very grateful that in keeping with the model offered in today's Gospel, I am being sent out with others with this powerful message of peace and promise.
    • This Gospel reading from Luke is a rich and multi-faceted one which continues to speak powerfully in a variety of contexts and circumstances. It is this passage which Church Innovations uses to teach its disruptive missional practice: Dwelling in the Word.  You may want to check it out.
    • I am so very blessed to be able to say that I could easily come up with countless stories illustrating the importance of partners in mission and ministry. I have offered but one above. What comes to your mind when you think about who Jesus has sent to walk alongside you?
    • Usually when I first hear this passage, I think of the gift of companionship and even a kind of protection such partners offer. This time I had reason to recognize that such partnerships can also challenge us and that may seem to make the work more difficult at first. Can you think of a time when such a partner's challenge was vital to you and your shared mission?