Day 40: Saturday

Saturday

Luke 23: 56

“…On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

If you have any familiarity with the accounts in the Gospels about the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection, you know that there are interesting differences between them.  Much as there are whenever we recount important events.  This fact of difference makes the places of agreement all the more worthy of note.  In all four Gospels, the movement of events is “interrupted” by sabbath.  As the sun sets on what we call, “Good Friday,” Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb by a disciple named Joseph of Arimathea.  Then everyone went home.  It was the Sabbath.  They returned to their homes and waited a whole day before they would set out to deal with remains of Good Friday.   Instead, on that first 3rd day, they would find the signs of a New Day.  

I remember the night my mother died.  It was late into the night when she breathed her last in the hospital bed in the living room of my parent’s home.  My father and all of my siblings were gathered around.  When it was finished, we called the Funeral Director.  He said he would come right away.  We waited.  Mostly in silence.  We were bowed down with grief and depleted by weeks of anticipation of a moment we didn’t want to come.  She certainly didn’t—she was a young 75.  My mother was a person of deep faith and devotion.  But she was not going to participate in any farewell ritual.  There would be no intimations of her being beckoned to the “other side” by those who had gone on before. She breathed her last with furrowed brow and through clenched teeth—not speaking, never opening her eyes.  From all appearances, she wasn’t experiencing physical pain—she was mounting a final resistance.  She raged against the dying of the light.  The silence that followed was deafening.   Death takes our breath away.  Time stands still.  

As the living, sooner or later we all find ourselves on the backside of death…the day after.  Because of the Story we call Easter, we live by faith that it is also the day before…that there is a 3rd to come.  In the meantime, we keep company together on this 2nd Day.  That’s where we dwell in this world.  Good Friday’s come and go, but Saturday remains.  And we wait. 

But here, on this day, we rehearse again and again the dawning of the 3rd Day—most explicitly and dramatically on Easter Sunday.  But it’s part of every First Day of the week we gather.  The air of an anticipation borne of faith, hope, and love is never absent.  It’s always there in the background, encompassing us, holding us, holding all.  We keep company to keep faith.  Then we return to our homes to live, in every way we know how, in anticipation of that 3rd Day. 

And from time to time, the signs of a New Day become visible and we give thanks.

Prayer:  Gracious God, dwell with us as we dwell together in this 2nd day.  Keep us awake to all that has been, all that is, and all that is yet to be.  Amen.

Day 39: FRIDAY

Friday

Mark 15: 34

At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These are the last words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  On the Friday we thank God for.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an explanation of how we came to call this Friday “Good.”   It relates to an ancient, well attested association between “good” and “holy.”  This explanation also corresponds to other longstanding names for “Good Friday.” “Sacred Friday” was common among Romance languages and the Russians called it “Passion Friday.”

For the occasion of such horrible suffering to be named as ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ makes ‘God sense’ to me—and forever undermines all common sense that our suffering and God’s power are ultimately and finally contradictory.  

There is a resilience to goodness that we are, in every age, so tempted…and for good reason…to disbelieve.  Especially when things go dark as they do on Good Friday…and as they so often do in this world.  Evil declares victory…exoneration.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that did not spend much time focusing on Good Friday.  I do remember hot-cross buns.  That’s about it.  We knew better.  That was before Easter.  We lived in light of Easter.  

Tonight we will gather in our sanctuary and with readings, songs, prayers, and candles, we will let the story of this day have its say.  It will be a small crowd—one of the smallest of any of our liturgical services.  I wouldn’t miss it.  In a world where “Good Friday” makes so much sense, I need to remember how God is in the midst of THIS world.  Then, and only then, do I feel prepared for the 3rd Day…which never fails to take me by surprise.

Prayer: Gracious God, let me not turn away from the reality of this world and its suffering.  Let me never forget there is a light…there is a light…there is a love that is stronger than death.  Amen.

Day 38: GETHSEMANE

Gethsemane

Mark 14:32

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

Today is the day we call Maundy Thursday. The festivities of Palm Sunday have entirely passed from view.  The night is falling as Jesus and his disciples share their Passover meal.  Afterwards they make their way to the Mount of Olives.  There, at the base, is a garden called Gethsemane.  It is there Jesus agonizes in a way we have not seen before.  

He leaves one group of disciples and takes three of them (Peter, James, and John) with him.   He tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and keep awake.”  Then he leaves them as well, goes just a little farther away and, “throws himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.”  

Gethsemane is a man in crisis.  We are used to reading of Jesus facing and resolving—often miraculously—every manner of crisis.  But never do we see him in crisis.  And it is his alone. The disciples sleep through it.

In the Gospels we read various sayings of Jesus which give the distinct impression that Jesus knew what was going to happen.  It was his destiny.  He seems to have it all in hand.  That seems thoroughly consistent with how we would expect God—in human form—to approach death: fearless and unflinching—towering over it.  

But here in Gethsemane it is a very different picture and that’s worth pondering on this Maundy Thursday: Humanity and Divinity inextricably implicated.  Perhaps he had a choice, a real choice to extract himself from the cascade of cataclysmic events that were about to unfold.  That would help to account for the agony of the moment.  His plea, “remove this cup from me,” which he prays three times to the God, whom he calls “Father.” for whom “all things are possible,” is met with deafening silence.  

But there is more to his prayer, “yet, not my will, but your will be done.”  In the end, in this final, crucial moment, a choice is made.  Is it possible that all of heaven was poised to move earth to answer and intervene?  Is it possible that the final plea of Jesus’ prayer stays heaven’s hand?  That, of course, is beyond our knowing.  But, if it is in some way true, it would speak of a love that is stronger than death.

That’s worth pondering.

Prayer:  Gracious God, on this Maundy Thursday, awaken me to what it means to pray, “not my will, but your will be done.”   Amen.

Day 37: BETRAY

Betray

Matthew 26:21

Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.

Betrayal is a terrible thing.  If you were to ask me if I have ever been betrayed, there is one episode that comes to mind.  Perhaps there are “mini” episodes here and there.  But this was a breach of trust that stands apart.  The recollection retains the identity of betrayal but not the emotion of animosity. 

I was working in an institutional setting at the time—not a congregation.  It involved confiding in a priest who was a colleague.  I shared, at his encouragement, my struggle with one of my superiors, someone he knew well in the context of the work we shared.  He not only affirmed my struggle but went on to add his own personal view of my superior’s character—a view that was significantly more troubling than anything I had suggested or concluded.  A few weeks later I received a letter indicating that I would not be offered another contract.  It was co-signed by the superior in question and my priestly colleague. 

Do you have an episode that comes to mind?  

Standing on the eve of Maundy Thursday, the story of betrayal looms in the foreground of our recollection.  Betrayal is the spark that triggers the chain of events that lead to the death of Jesus—although the story does not “end” there. 

By comparison, any story of betrayal I have to tell doesn’t begin to rise even to the level of a “mini” betrayal. 

Jesus seems to know that his betrayer is among his closest companions…even so, he washes their feet and shares his last meal with them.  And when the moment comes, the act of betrayal is sealed with a greeting of a friend and a kiss (Matthew 26:49).  

Every time we celebrate Communion, we begin with the words, “On the night he was betrayed.”

There is something profoundly personal about betrayal.  If it is not personal, it does not descend to the level of betrayal.  So much turns on a story of betrayal.

If the story we tell in detail over the next few days in the life of our congregations does not speak to us personally— even as it speaks of a love that is universal in scope and meaning—we have not heard the story.  It is the story that reaches into all our stories—including those of betrayal, of wounding, of failing and falling—and offers a way through, onward and upward.  Redemption is always at hand.

I have often wondered if my priestly colleague—knowing what he knew and what he knew I knew—was making a way for me he knew I would not make for myself.  Who knows?  Nevertheless, as I look back now, I see a story of redemption that was unfolding beyond any I could comprehend in that moment.  (That’s a longer story…as it always is.)  And I give thanks.

Prayer:  Gracious God, awaken me to any ways I have held on to a betrayal that betrays my trust in you. Amen.

Day 36: Towers of Meaning

A different post today.  It is the day after Notre Dame burned.  As many of you know, we made our home in Paris for a year—not too far up the Seine from Notre Dame. Watching from afar yesterday as those nearby prayed, sang hymns and wept, we witnessed how that magnificent structure, the geographical and spiritual center of that grand city, testified to a transcendence that feels so fragile and contingent in this time we dwell.  

This morning as I prepared to write, I was reminded of something my friend, philosopher Albert Borgmann, shared in his book,  Holding On to Reality:  The Nature of Information at the turn of the Millennium.   In a chapter on “Building” he wrote eloquently of the tower of Freiburg Minster in the city of his birth in Germany.  Freiburg Minster was built in the 1200’s over the course of 100 years…and just a few years after Notre Dame.  Like Notre Dame it sits on an east-west axis, “toward the rising sun.”  Like the grand towers of Notre Dame, he recalls how its tower caught and held the rays of the setting sun even as the rest of the city descended into the shadows. He talks of how the tower miraculously survived the bombing that ravaged the city already savaged in so many ways from war and holocaust.   Albert recalls that In January, 1944, the poet Reinhold Schneider, a fellow citizen of Freiburg, amidst that devastating time, wrote a sonnet.  It is titled, “To the Tower of Freiburg Minster.”

Stand unshaken, grand in spirit,
Great prayer of a faithful time.
How the day’s grandeur glorifies you
When long the grandeur of the day has died.

So I will pray that I may guard faithfully
The holiness you cast into the strife.
And I will be a tower in the darkness,
A bearer of light that flowered for the world.

And should I fall in this great storm,
Then be it for the sake of towers soaring,
And that my people may become a torch of truth.

You shall not fall, beloved tower,
Yet should the judge’s lightning shatter you,
Rise still more boldly in our prayers from the earth.

To which I can only add, Amen.




Day 35: JUDGE

Judge

Matthew 7:1

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

We all judge.  That is a given.  For example, researchers tell us that our brains make snap decisions about people we  meet (for example, how trustworthy they are) in milliseconds.  You may have already made a judgment about whether or not this post is going to be worth your time.  It’s instinctual.  It seems that making judgements (many of which are moral in nature) is built into us.  Even though Jesus did not have “the science of first impressions” to draw upon in his research, it is safe to say that he was not denying this reality.  At least that’s my judgement.

What I think he is doing here is making a judgement about what we might call judgementalism.  (Interesting:  my spellcheck refuses to accept judgementalism as a word.  Yet one more proof that technology is neutral. 🤓)  

In this chapter in Matthew, Jesus goes on to say, “For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”  What looms large in my negative evaluation of my neighbor is often a chip of the very same block that is lodged in me.  There is a connection between ignorance (of ourselves) and arrogance (toward others).

“You hypocrite,” Jesus goes on to say (so much for not making judgements!), “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”  The word “to see” Jesus uses here is different than the word he used in the earlier verse.  Here it is not just seeing (that condemns)…it is seeing in order to help.  It is seeing one another (and ourselves) with mercy.   

Some of the most important and essential insights I have gained about myself have come about because someone cared enough to help me see them.  In such moments, it felt as costly to the person offering feedback as it did to me receiving it.   I didn’t feel judged.  I felt loved. 

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me to see the sight line between my judgementalism and my need for mercy.   Let that be what I project onto others.  Amen.

Day 34: WILL

Will

Luke 22:42

‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

Will is a powerful thing.  We acknowledge its power when we speak of “the will to live.”  To say someone has “lost the will to live” is among the saddest things we can say of another.

The prayer that Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his betrayal and arrest, and eventual crucifixion, is a profound declaration of one’s will to live.  It is no less a declaration of one’s surrender, of the submission of one’s will to the will of God.  

Even as I write that, I feel uneasy.  The language of “surrender” and “submission” of my will cuts against the grain of my affirmation of autonomy, of freedom.  It feels like a tilt towards a resignation that smacks of fatalism, of a determinism that I resist.

This prayer that Jesus prays in this moment of excruciating struggle is not forged in that moment.  It echoes one of the phrases central to the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray whenever they prayed:  “Your Kingdom come, your will be done…”  That it was included in that model prayer for all our praying strongly suggests that submitting one’s will to the will of God was a common, well practiced habit of being for Jesus.  

This was not a prayer reserved for a moment of fox hole desperation.  It was a way of life.  

Perhaps at the very heart of being human, of embracing the fullness of our humanity, of exercising our will to live, is the surrender our wills to God. Perhaps that is the highest expression of our will to live.  Therein lies our true freedom.  Only then are we free from the lie that we can ultimately determine the course of our lives.  Only then do find what we need, the agency we need, to live redemptively, generatively, creatively, in relation to whatever circumstances we face in the course of our lives.  

In the end, in the beginning, and everywhere in between, there is a love, a will, that set us free to live…that frees us even from the fear of death in all its forms..

There is no obvious answer to Jesus’ prayer.  Events unfold, the darkness descends, the cup does not pass from him.  From below, the facts on the ground indicate no intervention from a loving Father.  Quite the opposite as Jesus cries out in utter dereliction, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”  

Of course, that is not the end of the story…but it is the crux (cross) of the story that speaks of the will of a God to know our suffering.  It speaks of a will to live that will not fail us even in death.

Prayer:  Gracious God, today, not my will, but your will be done.  Amen.

Day 33: PRAY

PRAY

Luke 11:1

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.

I mentioned Jacques Ellul in an earlier post.  Whenever I consider the importance of prayer, his words come to mind once again.  He talks of prayer as a “radical break” from, and as a “fundamental protest” against, the “rigorous mechanism of the technological society.”  He writes, “Precisely because our technological society is given over entirely to action, the person who retires to one’s room to pray is the true radical.”  

That’s an understanding of prayer and of our society worth pondering.

Jesus was a strong advocate of solitary prayer.  There are several occasions when we read of him going off alone to pray.  Perhaps most interesting in the verse for today is that it was the disciples who had to take the initiative in getting Jesus to teach them “how to pray.”  I find that intriguing.  One would have thought he was instructing them early and often about prayer.  It is a reasonable assumption that he would have been “leading them in prayer.”  Obviously he did, but not (for example) by interrupting their lively conversation whenever they sat down for a meal with a solemn, “Let us pray.”  However, they knew him as one who prayed.  I can imagine them one day negotiating among themselves who was going to put the request to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  They probably drew straws.

One of the things I struggle with when it comes to praying is that the practice of prayer I grew up with was far too cavalier.  I know that sounds strange.  But it was done anywhere, at any time, with any one without any need for thought or reflection.  It was too easy, too quick, too presumptive.   It has left me with a resistance to praying easily with people.  I know that sounds really strange for a minister to say.  I am supposed to be the expert on prayer and praying.  Even though I am called upon often to pray, I am a reluctant prayer with and before others.  As a result, I wonder if people experience this reluctance (in that I do not propose it as often as I could) as a sign of my lack of faith.  Perhaps it is.  I hope not.  I’m still learning to pray.

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request was to teach them what we have come to call, “The Lord’s Prayer.”   It remains for me and for Christians down through the ages, the center of my practice of prayer.  In Matthew’s account (Matthew 6) of this exchange, it is coupled with his instruction to find a private space, out of view of others, to pray.  I know of no better way or place to begin with prayer.  And I emphasize, “begin.”

Prayer:  Gracious God, teach me to pray.  Amen.

Day 32: TEMPTATION

Temptation

Hebrews 4:15

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Goodness in this world does not flourish apart from it being chosen.  The potential for choosing the good exists, but its actuality is not a given.  Temptation is how we speak of those identifiable moments in our lives when we say yes and no.  As one writer put it:  “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

To put it in stark terms, the addict no longer experiences that sacred space between stimulus and response.  That space for choice, where agency is exercised, is gone.  Temptation requires that space.  Understood in such terms, “temptation” is a gift.  

Upon reflection, all of us can recall pivotal moments in our lives when we said a “Yes” or a “No” (often at the same time) that made all the difference.  Often, in those choice moments, it was not a stark choice between good and evil.  And yet, as we look back on it, all such defining choices involved a decision about our perception of what is good.   This is true even when we have made what we now acknowledge to be a wrong choice.

The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the God we know in Christ as one who knows AND empathizes with our weaknesses…that is, with our capacity to desire and choose what is not good.  We always find great encouragement in our failing and fallings when we commiserate with another who knows first hand what we are going through or have gone through.  We don’t feel judged we feel upheld, understood, and empowered.  It creates the conditions for us to acknowledge the truth of our weaknesses without becoming defined or bound by them.  

A healthy recognition of temptation keeps us alert to the importance of choices we make.  In that sacred space between stimulus and response, we do not walk alone.

Prayer:  Gracious God, as tempting as it is to hide, today I choose to know you in the midst of my struggle to choose what is good and resist what is evil.  Amen.

Day 31: BODY

Body

1 Corinthians 6:19

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?

Throughout my life, I have had a complicated relationship with my body.  When I say that, I think I am saying that I have had a difficult time over the course of me life integrating “desire” into my spirituality.  From a fairly young age I learned a dualism that set bodily impulse over against spiritual longing.  One had to deny the former in order to cultivate the latter.  There are plenty of New Testament texts, if interpreted a certain way, that can feed into such a dualistic understanding.  I was a walking battlefield.

What was lost for too long on me was one of the most important claims of Christianity:  our bodies, no less than our spirits, are from God.  Our bodies are sacred.  We are ensouled bodies.  We are embodied souls.  

The problem was not the recognition of the tension of conflicting desires.  The problem, to put it mildly, was the assumption that bodily desire was evil and spiritual desire was good.  What could it possibly mean for the human being to flourish under such conditions?

Our bodies are from God and for God.  That’s a good starting place for our understanding of our bodies, ourselves.  It is a worthy place to return to again and again as we take up the spiritual task of honoring God, of knowing God with and through our bodies.

Prayer:  Gracious God, for my body, I give you thanks.  With my body, I seek to honor you.  Amen.

Day 30: WEALTH

Wealth

Matthew 6:24

You cannot serve both God and wealth.

These are strong words from Jesus about wealth.  To be honest, not too many (if any) of us would put ourselves in the category of serving wealth rather than God.  Which is interesting because it is our pursuit, accumulation, and expenditure of wealth that determines so much of our everyday lives.  I’m not making a judgment—just stating a fact.  It makes sense that, given how much of our lives are spent on wealth (or being anxious about our lack of it), there would be an ever present possibility that we have made it our “God.”

I remember making a final visit to the congregation in Maine with whom I was negotiating the terms of my compensation.  It would be the first congregation where I would serve as a pastor—the only pastor.  It was a congregation about half the size of GUC and with an endowment of over one million.  I had already accepted their invitation to serve in this role but, upon seeing their “offer,” felt that we needed further conversation.  It was 1989.  I was 32 years old.  Julia was 2 and Jennifer was 6 months pregnant with twins.  Their offer was $17,000 in salary.  Of course, a house was provided as well.  It was a VERY tense negotiation.  Except for one person, everyone in the room was 30+ years my senior.  In the end, they agreed to increase my compensation another $1,200.   The vote was far from unanimous.  One gentleman in the room—George, as I recall— took it upon himself to remind me, for the duration of my pastoral tenure, that I was there to serve God and not wealth. 

Beware of us ministers preaching about the evils of serving wealth—we are all too ready to assume the moral high ground.  But, if the truth be told, we ministers are no less in danger of serving wealth rather than God.  Scarcity (not to mention envy) no less than abundance can co-opt one’s soul.  

So, how do we assess our devotion to wealth vs. our devotion to God?  The sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, proposed that if we are to remember that money is profane vs. sacred (an object worthy of worship), we must treat it as such.  Which means, in his view, that we should treat it with the disrespect it deserves.  He proposed that there was no better way to do that than to be reckless in giving it away.  Only through abundant generosity will money be prevented from becoming the object of our worship.  That’s worth pondering.  Such abundant generosity would make it less likely that those who lack basic wealth would become preoccupied with the kind of anxiety that poisons the soul. 

There are a lot of proposals circulating among emerging Presidential candidates about taxing the uber- wealthy— such as a wealth tax of 2% on those who make $50M or more in a year.  What I find curious about all such proposals, is that it is never suggested that such a tax would be an opportunity for the uber-wealthy to show their love of country and for their fellow citizens.  It is never framed as a question of where one’s true loyalty lies.  

Do I serve God or wealth?  That remains, for ALL of us, an open question.  

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me remain open to the question of where and how my heart is invested.  Amen.

Day 29: SERVE

Serve

Matthew 20:28

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

We all begin this life being served.  If we live long, chances are, we will end this life in the same way.  In between, if we live well, we learn the art of serving.  At the heart of a Christian understanding of God is the claim that, in Christ, God comes to us as the One who serves.  It is in serving one another that we become God-like.

When service becomes slavery, God and humanity are lost.  In slavery, a way of being that is essential to our humanity becomes a means of oppression and degradation.  That Christianity was employed as long as it was to legitimate the evil of slavery is one of the most tragic legacies of our history.  Perhaps, along with the legitimation of violence, it is ‘“the” most tragic and shameful legacy we bear. Slavery is a violence that destroys the soul. The shadow of that evil still looms large.

Lord, have mercy.  

As we move through our day, we will be served by others and we will serve one another.  In our households, as we move into the public sphere, as we transact business of all kinds, serving will be evident in countless interactions.  Even though there will often be a fee for the service we receive, when we experience someone who is truly serving, offering themselves to us, we know “you can’t pay for that.” 

Pay attention to those who serve you—in ways large and small.   Don’t let that gesture pass by unnoticed, unrecognized. 

Service is how God shows up.

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me to see you in all who serve me this day…help me to be for others, in every opportunity I have to serve, a sign of your Presence.  Amen.

From the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (sent to me by Howard Conant)

From the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (sent to me by Howard Conant)

Day 28: ENEMIES

Enemies

Matthew: 5:44-45

But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’

Jesus assumes we have enemies.  Do I have real, bona fide enemies?  Who qualifies as an enemy?  In a wartime situation, it is clear.  Then, someone identifies me as an enemy and is out to kill me.  Personally I have never been in that situation.  Chances are, I never will be.  I remember reading St. Augustine years ago (can’t find the exact quote this morning) where he was grappling with these words from Jesus.  I think it was in a piece on advice to soldiers.  He wrote something to the effect: “It’s permissible to kill your enemy as long as you love him while you were doing it.”  Not ever being faced with that situation, I’ll never know if that is even possible. It was also Augustine, when writing of loving our enemies, who wrote, “it is possible in the case of one and the same person, both to hate him for his sin, to love him for his nature.”   A little more practice-able…but no less problematic.

If we take Jesus’ teaching at face value, even if we cannot identify “enemies” in the extreme sense, it calls upon us to “love and pray for” all those in our lives who populate that spectrum between friend (those we love without thinking about it) and enemy (those we do not love unless we make a deliberate, persistent choice to do so).  The truth is, enmity comes in many shades.  In that no man’s land between “friend” and “enemy” there is a lot of room for us to put into practice what it means to “love an enemy” even if we never come face to face with someone out to kill us.  That being said, let me tell you a story that forever changed my view of categorical enemies. 

My grandfather, on my father’s side, served in World War II.  He signed up to serve with the Australian army as a non-combatant—a chaplain of sorts.  He was a pacifist because of his Christian convictions.  Between the Old Testament, “Thou shalt not kill” and the New Testament, “Love your enemies,” he felt there was no option for him to take up arms.  But he did feel he had a Christian duty to serve his country.  We have only one picture of him from his war days.  There he is, in his fatigues, serving coffee to soldiers on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific.  And there is only one story he ever told.

At a low point in the offensive against the Japanese, my grandfather was forced to take a pistol in hand and follow behind the advancing troops.  His assignment was to put one bullet in every fallen enemy soldier he came across to insure that no one was feigning death . Then he was to search every body to retrieve any supplies or important papers.  Among the belongings of one young soldier he confirmed dead, he found a Japanese New Testament—with underlined verses and a picture of his wife and children tucked inside.   It was the one possession he kept from his war days.  It spoke of a grief he never resolved.

When I first heard that story, something fundamental shifted in my world.  The category of “enemy” never seemed so definitive after that…and loving an enemy never so out of the question.

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me to risk exposing to love the enmities that I harbor in my heart.  Amen. 

Day 27: SIN

Sin

1 John 1:8

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Like the verse from John we considered a few days ago, “Jesus wept,” this verse from I John was one I committed to memory early on in my life.  As I recall, I recalled it often in the course of my adolescent and young adult years.  Looking back, it is accurate to say that I suffered from an overactive conscience.  The sense that I was falling short of what was required of me by God was always near—my salvation depended on it. 

Lord, have mercy.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to grow up without possessing any meaningful concept of “sin.”   I wonder:  does the absence of any operative notion of ‘sin’ leave one with a more or a less truthful understanding of oneself?  I think it is safe to say that the absence of ‘sin’ from one’s self understanding would not eliminate the experience of guilt.  It may leave one ill equipped to make sense of that experience—an experience that is intrinsic to the human condition and crucial to the formation of a true self.  That being said, without the experience of a love and a grace that is greater than any sin, a truthful self-understanding would remain beyond one’s grasp. 

In my adult years, I have come to identify “self-righteousness” as one of the most troubling traits of all among us human beings.  When I confront “self-righteousness” in others, it’s as if there is no opening for truthful engagement.  Even in situations where one may be right, it feels all wrong.  Truthful self-knowledge requires a capacity to acknowledge one’s own fundamental and enduring need for grace and forgiveness.  (One defense against an over-active conscience—I speak from experience—is to over-estimate one’s own righteousness…which includes the certainty that one has overcome self-righteousness.)

In spite of the enlarged concept of my own sinfulness in my formative years (as untruthful as that was), I remain convinced that a meaningful category of sin is an essential defense against self-deception.  However, it must be said, without an equally meaningful comprehension of grace, of a love unbounded from the God who created and redeems us, our experience of our human condition will inevitably require a cover-up.

Prayer:  Gracious God, may the truth of your love grant me the capacity to know the truth about myself.  Amen.

Day 26: FREEDOM

Freedom

John 8:32

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

There is a promise Jesus makes to his disciples on which the experience of freedom depends:  you will know the truth.   Often “knowing the truth” these days sounds more like a threat than a promise: “Make no mistake, the truth will come out.”  Truth is hard won. Recall the words of T.S. Eliot, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

Truth can be threatening.  At some point early in our lives, we all have the experience of being deathly afraid that the truth will come out and we will be exposed.  Early on we develop an uncertainty of the relationship between the truth being known and the experience of being free.  No wonder we have a reflex to opt for something less than the truth…and, thereby, cultivate habits that fall far short of true freedom.  Hopefully, in time and with love, our uncertainty resolves in favor of freedom—we come to know how truth and freedom are inextricably bound together.  Perhaps it is the knowledge borne of love is the deepest truth of all.

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If there was ever a reminder for us of our resistance to knowing the truth, of the inextricable relationship between truth and freedom, and of the knowledge of love as the deepest truth of all—it is the witness of Dr. King.  

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

Prayer (from Kenya):  From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truth, from the arrogance that thinks it has all truth — O God of truth, deliver us.  Amen.

Day 25: WAY

Way

John 14:6

I am the way, the truth and the life…

One of the earliest descriptions of the Christian community is found in the Epistle to Diognetus, written in the late 2nd Century.  It is the attempt by a Christian to give an account of the phenomenon of Christianity to one who was not.  The writer names Christians as those who are identified with a “way of life.”  Interestingly, the word “Christianity” does not appear in the text at all and the word “Christian” (a word that only appears three times in the New Testament) is only used in this text as an outsider’s term for the early Christian movement.

Point being that the early Christian movement was not first and foremost identified with a set of propositions or a prescribed set of beliefs or a definitive creed—but with a way of being in the world, a way of living in relation to God and one’s neighbor.  A “way of life” was in the foreground.

In the New Testament, Christianity in its earliest days was known simply as, “the Way.” (Acts 9:2)

I recently gathered a group of folks who have been attending our worship services here at Glencoe Union Church—some for only a few weeks, some for several months, and others for more than a year.  As I talked about what it means to become a “member” of our congregation, I realized that I talked less about signing on to a doctrinal statement or creed, and more about becoming identified with a group of people who do certain things regularly—gathering for worship being the most obvious, but by no means the only thing. I talked of the how the practice of Worship involves one in many ways.  In effect, I was inviting them to join us on this way we are on together.   As we walk together in this way, we cultivate a way of life, of knowing, and of believing.  In the words of Robert Frost, “way leads on to way.”

In my earlier days, I understood this verse from John 14:6 with much more emphasis on “the” than “way.”  I now place much more emphasis on the “way.”  It is a distinctive way, to be sure.  But a way, to be sure.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Prayer Gracious God, as I make my way through this day, guide me in the way that leads to life.   Amen.  

Day 24: BUT

But

Matthew 5: 43-45 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

We all have our reasons for how we live our lives.  Much of that reasoning operates below the surface of our movements and perceptions in the course of any given day.  There is a logic that abides within the habits of heart and mind that informs and sustains our assumptions, attitudes, and actions.  

Jesus has a knack for exposing and challenging the foundational logic of everyday life.  

“But, I say to you…”  

How ready, how able am I to hear the challenge Jesus poses to the underlying logic that justifies and determines my actions and attitudes day in and day out?

From our perch in the early 21st Century, we ponder how in the world so many who have gone before could have abided so much that we now find so utterly reprehensible:  the enslavement of fellow human beings and the fundamental logic that justified it and legitimated the degrading social practices in everyday life that extended well beyond the “end of slavery”, the logic that legitimated the inferiority of women and justified attitudes and actions that were pervasive in society, the underlying assumptions that would lead a people to enact a holocaust against the Jewish people.  As mystified as we may be about how such reasoning could have held sway over so many for so long, we know that such reasoning is not without traction in our day.

Our need never diminishes to listen for that upending word, that inconvenient ‘but’ that interrupts our settled logic about God, ourselves, and our neighbor.

Prayer:  Gracious God, as I move through this day, expose where I have become unwilling to have my reasoning interrupted.  Amen.

Day 23: WEPT

Wept

John 11:35

Jesus wept.

I know that few if any of you will relate to my early childhood appreciation for this verse.  In the church culture of my upbringing, having a verse handy that could be recited by memory on command was important to winning a certain kind of recognition.  My Sunday School teachers would regularly hand out prizes of inestimable value (to a 7 year old) for anyone who could recite a Bible verse from memory.  John 11:35 was always at the ready.  In case there was need for a back up, Genesis 1:1 was the second verse of choice:  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”   

I was well into adulthood before this two worded verse evoked a whole new level of recognition.  It names a moment in time when Jesus stood before the grave of his friend, Lazarus, along with grieving family and friends.

Jennifer was working as a plumbing designer in a small engineering firm in Hartford, Connecticut.  Peter was her boss.  His seven year old daughter, Laura, had stayed home from school with a fever and flu like symptoms. A visit to their physician confirmed the diagnosis of a flu virus and advised accordingly.  Days later, Peter held Laura in his arms as she took her last breath.  The ambulance they had called when Laura suddenly became unresponsive arrived minutes later.  It soon came to light that she had been suffering from spinal meningitis.  

We attended the funeral.  Her classmates were seated together in the first four pews.  The Priest sought to comfort them (and presumably her parents and the rest of the weeping congregation) with these words:  “Laura was so good and God loved her so much that he wanted her to be with him sooner versus later.”  I remember hearing a marked increase in the volume of weeping from those front pews and thinking, “their tears are now less from grief that their friend is gone and more from fear that one of them could be next.”  My grief turned to anger.

I was never more thankful that John 11:35 was so deeply embedded in my memory.  I resolved then and there to always recall it whenever I stand with others in mourning…never to forget the image it gives me of how God is related to our grief as human beings in the face of death.  I resolved then and there that, as a Pastor, whenever I am called upon to speak of God to those whose grief is beyond words, whatever I say will be an elaboration of John 11:35.

One final note.  I have another memory from this time.  Jennifer and I attended Laura’s wake.  We took our place in the receiving line.  When Jennifer greeted Peter, the first time she had seen him since Laura’s death, to her surprise and mine, she threw herself into Peter’s arms and they wept. Standing by, I recalled a simple verse from my childhood.

PrayerGracious God, let me never forget where you are when I find myself in tears…when I stand with others in their tears.  Amen.

Day 22: REST

Rest

Matthew 11:28

 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest.

We don’t rest well these days.  Even though we have at our fingertips more time saving devices to accomplish more in less time in just about every area of our lives, we don’t seem to be luxuriating in the extra time we have to rest.  Instead, we feel compelled to do more. We are increasingly a rest-less people.

Living a life in reverence for God had become an onerous thing in Jesus’s day. Ordinary people felt the heavy burden of obedience to meticulously detailed laws of observance.  For example, if one was to observe the sabbath—the day of rest on the 7th day of the week—there was a body of legal detail that was mind boggling to the point of being tyrannical.  One was always in danger of blowing it.  So much for rest.

In Jesus’ view, people were being robbed of rest, of the gift of sabbath, in their very effort to keep it.  It was meant to be an experience of freedom, of release from the laborious nature of human existence, and a recovery of simply being in time as God intended.  Abraham Heschel puts it this way: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

Rest is not simply the absence of work.  It is the experience of being embraced by the mystery of our being—of suspending our need for recognition and productivity in order to recognize the grace that is intrinsic to our very existence.  

When our attention is constantly arrested by our plethora of technological devices day in and day out, one day of rest FROM our technologically mediated lives is a good place for us to start.  It might be the best way for us to begin to feel the unrecognized, wearisome burdens we are carrying.  

Nothing angered Jesus more than his observance of a burdened people in need of rest.  I have no doubt he would find our existence no less troubling.  St. Augustine prayed, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

Prayer:  Gracious God, on this Sabbath day, I seek to rest…in Thee.  Amen.

Day 21: PEACE

John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.

Even though my day to day life is, objectively speaking, void of conflict and disruption, I feel uneasy, unsettled about things.  I live in a wonderful house in a VERY comfortable neighborhood, my email alerted me this morning that my paycheck has been automatically deposited into my checking account, I am healthy, I have an amazing wife, my kids are living interesting and good lives, I work in a congregation that is encouraging and appreciative of my efforts.  These things, in and of themselves, don’t leave me at peace.

I live with a sense of how much I am leaving (have left) undone.  I can’t shake the feeling that the state of our common life is being hijacked by evildoers (you may not agree…I’m just telling you, how it feels to me these days), democracies (both young and old) all across the globe are teetering on collapse (even the UK for crying out loud), the climate is warming and the oceans are rising.  That’s just a scratch of the surface of my unsettledness. 

Peace is illusive for me.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”  These words were spoken by Jesus on the night he was betrayed, about to be arrested, tried, sentenced to death, tortured, and crucified.  “Your whole world of purpose and meaning will be, very shortly, entirely pulled out from under you.  You will desert me, I will be taken—but I leave you peace…I give you my peace.”  In time, his companions would know the truth of these words.

To trust his words, is to entrust myself to a peace that abides, a Presence that stands by, is always there awaiting my acceptance.  It’s not resignation, it’s not escapist, it’s not rooted in or threatened by circumstances that surround me, it is not dependent on my achievement of moral perfection…it is not a given.  It is a gift, pure grace.  The Apostle Paul once called it, “a peace that passes all understanding.”  My experience of this peace comes and goes…even as it abides.

Perhaps unsettledness is not the absence of the peace Jesus leaves with us.  It’s not what’s left when all that unsettles is resolved.  Such a state is illusive.  The peace that Jesus leaves us with is a peace that is always standing by in the midst of our actual lives, and awaits our acceptance.  Only then will we understand…one day, one prayer at a time. 

Prayer:  Gracious God, I entrust myself to your peace…the still point, at the very center of my turning, churning world. Amen.