PRISONERS OF HOPE

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Return to the stronghold,
You prisoners of hope.
Even today I declare
That I will restore double to you. Zechariah 9:12

It has been a week . . .

Death of friends and loved ones in our congregation seem to have loomed large in our grief . . .

The Supreme Court was wishy-washy about non-discrimination . . .

      A gay man was killed in Soulard, our church's neighborhood . . .

      The big island of Hawaii continues to be ravaged by an erupting volcano  . . .

       A fashion icon hung herself in her apartment . . .                              

I suppose this list could go on for a while and no doubt, you could add your own particular things to it. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to dive full on into the rivers of all that is wrong, sad, unjust, frustrating and tragic? We are surrounded by reasons to engage these things until the lens through which we view the world become cloudy, gloomy and filled with despair.

And then . . . as people of faith, we are reminded that we are called to be Prisoners of Hope! Yes!

     We are called to remember the mystery and power of the One who loves us and walks with us . . .

We are encouraged to know that in every challenge, there is a lesson that brings us closer to our purpose . . .

We are invited to sew love where there is hate, understanding where there is injustice, grace where there is trouble and comfort where there is grief . . .

We are nudged to channel the power and presence of the Spirit who sustains and teaches us . . .

We are moved to be grateful for every blessing in every moment . . .

To be Prisoners of Hope will not take all the challenges and heartache away but it will ensure that there is a little less despair, a little less fear, a little less sadness and a little less cynicism in your own little part of the world. The promise of God is that restoration will return double to us. That my friends, can change the world. Join me this week in being a relentless Prisoner of Hope!

MEMORIAL DAY REFLECTIONS

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In Fannie Flagg's book Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man the main character says the following in the inscription: "What you are about to read really did happen to me, or maybe it didn't. I'm not sure, but it doesn't matter because it's true." 

This weekend marks the U.S. Holiday of Memorial Day during which we remember all the fallen soldiers both domestic and foreign. In the world where truth and facts are hard to come by, who these soldiers fought for does not matter so much as the fact that they all left their loved ones behind.

History can be quick to choose the winner of a conflict in a way that fails to acknowledge mutual hurt and the basic humanity of all who existed on both sides of any conflict. This weekend, while we gratefully remember those who fought for our country, I hope that we can also be mindful of those who fought for Iraq, Germany, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea, etc. As Christians, we celebrate Christ coming, dying, and ascending back to the Creator, while also having a faith big enough to offer grace and welcome to Jews like Paul who persecuted Christians, Roman soldiers who crucified Christ, and for all who walk this planet with different faiths or different countries.

I like Fanny Flagg's book's idea of what is true. The details of what happened, the details of our mistakes or our successes, are not as true as the Spirit with which we approach the world. And that truth is one we all must share with one another for the purpose of edification. That is what sharing the Good News of a God who is the loving Mother and Father of us all is all about.

What Has Your Attention

I have a picture in my office that says...

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I was such a fortunate child to have been the recipient of unconditional love from both of my parents.  The kind of love that is always there and is not used as a carrot or stick or chess piece.  The kind of love that caused me to never spend a single moment wondering whether I was loved.  I think that is why I have this picture in front of me every day at work.  It seems to remind me that in the simplest terms, God loves us so much that we get as many chances as we need and love is always available.

Love, grace, forgiveness, mercy . . . these are the gifts that God is always eager to offer us and yet, how often do we simply turn them down?  Sometimes, we allow our guilt and shame to take over and we reject the gift of forgiveness.  Sometimes we allow our feelings of being unworthy to cause us to turn away from God’s gift of grace.  At other times, we invest in our anger and bitterness such that we are unable to receive God’s love and mercy.

I invite you this week to work hard on noticing where you focus your thoughts, where you expend your energy and how you withhold your love because of fear, anger, disappointment and loss.  Quantum physics tells us that whatever we focus on expands so it is no small thing to notice where you focus is. 

Do you really want more negativity in your life as the result of focusing your thoughts on negative things?

Do you really want more bitterness, anger and disappointment in your life as the result of expending your energy on being angry and unforgiving?

Do you really want more fear in your life because you continually withhold love?

I fairly certain that none of us consciously want these things but I’m equally certain that we often walk around unconscious and don’t pay attention to the ways we are rejecting and turning away from the sweetness of God’s unconditional love for us.

“Lean in” my friends.  It can’t hurt to see if anticipating and focusing on these gifts just might cause them to manifest themselves!  The secret about God’s unconditional love?  It is always there and God is always ready for you to have it . . . so the power to receive it is all up to you. Open your heart to it and just sit back and see what God can do.

If We Simply Believe

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This is the interesting thing about miracles: Those who do not believe in them do not experience them. Even if they experience a miracle, they will have an alternative explanation like fate, luck, a drug, or a faulty test. However, those who do believe can attest to the many miracles they have witnessed and experienced in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. They see God's miraculous work all the time.

Doing the work of miracles also requires belief. If we are to claim the miracles God has for us as a congregation, we must believe that we can be a part of one; we must have faith in ourselves and in our God. When we dare to dream big it is not so much a test of our ability, but it is a test of our faith. Will you dare to place your trust in God?

This is a big and serious question. Some of us have risked putting our faith in God before, and we feel let down by the God we were taught about. Others of us put our faith in a church, and we were hurt when we realized that church people have all the same flaws as non-church people. 

Today...really every day...is your chance to have your faith renewed. Each day is offers an opportunity to see that while "church" may occasionally disappoint us, God never will. Scripture says that while we may be faithless, God will remain faithful. Even if we don't keep up our end of the bargain, the Spirit of God will never fail or falter. Open your eyes to the miracles God is trying to show you today. Let your faith be renewed by the Lover of Your Soul. What greater miracle is there than that?

25 + 29 = Life

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This last week Kevin and I made the mistake of going to see a financial adviser. You see, with 40 now looming large on the horizon we figured we should probably meet with someone who could tell us how we are doing with our preparations for retirement. Yet somehow, this quickly turned into a rude awakening about death.

I reached out and grabbed one of the suckers from the bowl on the desk...watermelon...my favorite since I was kid.

Our adviser, a gentle-talking man with a warm smile that made you feel safe, began by just asking the routine questions you would expect: 401k this, Roth IRA that, and so on. All the while he was typing all this information into his computer that he said would run some calculations and let us know how things were looking. What he was really setting up was a Good Cop, Bad Cop scenario.

You might be expecting this to be a story about how no one ever saves enough for retirement, about how Kevin and I were shocked by the amount we needed to save. But this is not that story. Kevin and I attended our church's Financial Peace University class so that part actually went okay. The lessons we learned here are serving us pretty well. The problem was that evil, disgusting, and rude computer of his told me when I was going to die. 

Yes, in an instant all that gentle-talking and warm smiling Good Cop adviser stuff was gone. Bad Cop computer was taking over now, and it popped it up right on the screen in a HUGE font so I was sure to see it: 25 working years, plus 29 retirement years. Add them up sir...it appears that barring any kind of violent early end or devastating cancer diagnosis that if all goes perfectly well you are still 6 feet under in about 50 years. 

It seems to me that a place designed to deliver such unwelcome news should be accompanied by more than a bowl of dum-dums on the desk to salve your wounds. Have you ever wondered if those bowls of lollipops were some kind of passive-aggressive statement from the office workers? I can imagine there being some real satisfaction after dealing with a difficult person by ending the conversation by saying, "Want a dum-dum?" (you dumb-dumb). 

Bad Cop probably enjoys tactics like that. "These numbers are just math, don't blame me," it says grinning and passing me a sucker. But maybe I am a dumb-dumb? Maybe I am a sucker?

As a Pastor, I know that death is just a part of life and that there are promises from God about what happens next. But as a normal human being, I'm a sucker. I'm a sucker for more years, more laughs, more fun, more...time. 

I'm sure there are many folks who would trade their math for mine. After all, 50 years is a good amount of time to still have sitting on the Bad Cop's screen. 

But I remind myself that I am dumb-dumb only if I fail to realize that the math has been the same my entire life. My current equation reads 25 + 29 = Life. This is nothing new. No reason to fret.

More importantly, I then remind myself (and you) that I am preparing for more than a long and healthy retirement. I'm doing a higher-level math than Bad Cop can even compute. This is not a death sentence. The very last word in the equation tells the whole story. This all adds up to life, not death. 

As I crushed the last bits of watermelon sucker between my teeth, Good Cop adviser looked at us, "You guys are going to be okay," he said with that gentle, warm tone. Kevin grabbed my hand and we smiled at each other. He was right. We are more than okay. 

Yes, in the math that matters, we are all more than okay.

A Time for Prayer

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This Sunday we will begin a new series that will focus our attention on The Lord's Prayer/The Our Father. Revs. Katie and Lillie will be sharing some of the preaching during this series so that you will have a chance to hear all three of us reflect on Jesus's prayer and on the importance of prayer to the spiritual life.

I personally attribute any "success" I have had in ministry to the heartfelt prayers of church saints. Since my first paid ministry job as a Children's Minister when I was just 17 years old until now, I have always felt the distinct nature of the support of daily prayer saints.

At my first church, I knew that people like Mary Scott and Ralph Farrar where praying for me every single day. When I began work at the MCC in Portland, Oregon, I learned to trust in the daily prayers of two couples: Stephanie and Teresa and my dear friends Jeanne and Cory. In Colorado Springs, a faithful former Catholic named Mary Brady prayed for me every day until I preached her funeral. And we have our prayer saints here as well. I trust in the prayers of folks like Jackie Rice, Bettye Babb, Toni Smith, and more. One thing I can tell you but I can't explain: there is a depth to the prayers of those who pray often that is self-evident and powerful.

Over the next several weeks as we talk about prayer, I want to invite you into a more active prayer life. Even if you aren't sure how to do it, if it "works," or what might happen, I really want to encourage you to consider testing prayer out and seeing what happens if you pray more often. In the end, prayer is simply talking to God, and I think we'd all be hard-pressed to suggest any reason why we shouldn't try to talk to God a bit more, right?

If you are ready to give it a shot, look for the "Pray With Me" program on the Featured Programs Page to sign up for our email-based prayer group. Over the next six weeks or so, this group will work on praying together each day. In this season of Easter, I'm excited to see what kinds of resurrections we may experience as we talk with our God.

 

Easter Resurrections

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When I was growing up, I thought of Easter purely as the time when we celebrate Jesus' resurrection. My family was careful to teach me about the significance of this day--especially noting that we don't just celebrate Easter to get an Easter basket full of candy and goodies. I am grateful for that balance that I was given and the spirit that was behind my parents' and my childhood church's teachings.

As I have aged I have learned that Easter is about Jesus--especially about Jesus--but not only about Jesus. There is one big Easter resurrection, but there are many other resurrections, large and small, that we pray for, celebrate, and remember each Easter.

When you've lived long enough to lose some close friends, family members, or worst of all, a child, Easter resurrection is no longer just about Jesus. It is about the eternal hope that we maintain for all those who have passed on from this world. It is about our faith that there is more life beyond this one.

And there are simple resurrections on Easter as well...simple prayers that some of the Good Fridays we've had in the last year will begin to fade in the Resurrection Light of Easter. That relationship that ended, the pet we lost, or the job that laid us off...any of these things are places where we may call on the resurrection hope and power of Easter.

So, as we prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday, I encourage you to take a moment and look inward. As you celebrate Christ, what other resurrections can you also celebrate? As you sing Easter "Hallelujah's," allow yourself to also consider the Good Fridays that God has brought you through this year. Join with Christ in celebrating your own resurrections.

Divide and Conquer vs. Divided and Conquered

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The culture wars of the last number of years are really taking a toll on me. I don't know about you, but I can hardly stand to unlock my phone or turn on the TV each morning for fear of what the latest controversy will be. I just can't take anymore.

This week the student walk outs became a battle between those who argued for "walk out" to ask for gun control legislation vs. those who argued for "walk up" to someone who is marginalized and be a friend and a listener. What has me confused is why we keep arguing with each other rather than working together toward the same goal. My simple response to these two groups is, "Why not do both?"

Everyone agrees that we need to avoid any more senseless murder of our kids in schools, our congregants in churches, and our neighbors at the movies or in a nightclub. We do not have to agree about how we get there. We can agree to divide and conquer, wishing each other the best of luck on the path we each choose to take. We need to see one another as partners working toward the same goals instead of enemies. What happened to our ability to be respectfully disagreeing friends instead of foes?

My prayer for each of you in our church family is that you will commit to praying for and blessing those who are working toward the goal of less murder. If you are a "more gun control person" work hard on that and pray for those who are working on addressing issues of mental health. If you are a "mental health person" work hard on that and pray for those working on gun control. And in the moment when either group is at a tipping point and real change is hanging in the balance, we should all show up to push it across the finish line. For we all want the same result of safer schools, churches, and public spaces...even if we disagree on the steps to get there.

The idea of divide and conquer is not new, and yet our failure to live it out will leave us simply divided and conquered. And every time I watch the news I feel a lot more divided and conquered. My soul cries out every day for the unity that Jesus went to God in prayer for on our behalf (John 17:21). 

I commit to working on the area of this issue (and any other) that speaks to me, AND I commit to showing up in support of either group when a tipping point is about to be reached. Will you?

At least here within MCCGSL, can we stand up and refuse to turn our neighbors into our enemies, refuse to divide our churches and families, and choose instead to work together in unity toward any and all forms of growth, progress, and hope? That is my prayer for us that I offer up along with Jesus's unity prayer.

The Individual versus The Group

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Since starting my preparation for our current sermon series, I have really started to notice how so many of our struggles in life come down to one simple thing. So, read on if you want to know the one thing behind all your problems! 

The simplest way to say what I have been studying is to say that I have been studying the differences between individualist cultures (like ours) and collectivist cultures (like those found in Korea, Russia, or the Middle East during the time of Jesus). Individualist cultures teach us that the most important things are our individual freedoms, our rights, and our ability to do whatever we wish or dream. American culture and the American Dream are built upon individualist principles and values. Conversely, collectivist cultures teach that the most important things are unity and community solidarity. In collectivist cultures individual needs take a back seat to the greater needs of our extended family (which they don't even see as extended), our community, and the honor of all these groups of which I am merely one part. Collectivist cultures do not esteem individual stand-outs.

As I studied this, it caused me to see that so much of who we are and how we see the world revolves around our balance of these two things. The reality is that no culture is purely individualist or solely collectivist. We all exist on a spectrum. Each one of us lands on this spectrum and then weighs our options based on where we land.

For example, I came out to the shame of my family and to the sacrifice of my community. Coming out, for me, then required a decidedly individualist stance. I had to do this for myself. If I were a person with more collectivist values, I might have stayed in the closet to avoid bringing shame on my family or being cast out of my community.

I have read many opinions lately about gun violence and gun control, and I see in these debates the same spectrum of individualist vs. collectivist. The individualist says, "No, you won't and can't take away my gun." The individualist focuses on the individual's right to live in the way they wish. They approach this with the same kind of values that led me to come out of the closet. "It was my right." 

On the other hand, the collectivist perspective says, "We cannot allow our children to continue to be subjected to gun violence." As the collectivist says this, they are not necessarily even speaking of their biological children. They are speaking about "their children" in a much broader sense, meaning any of the kids in my community. We can see in this statement the collectivist view of the the extended family and the community being the greatest values that must be protected.

Hopefully with just these two examples (my coming out and gun control) you can see that at the heart of most of the questions and challenges in our lives there is this "decision kernel" that forces us to prioritize either the self or the community. At the heart of each decision we make, we must first decide to move up or down on the spectrum of the individualist vs. the collectivist.

Knowing this doesn't always make the decision easier because some decisions require us to land on the individualist side of things and some on the collectivist side of things. Still, I share this with you to encourage you to think about the matters that are on your heart and ask which is needed in this situation today? Jesus lived in a collectivist culture and often challenged them to be a bit more individualist. We live in an individualist culture. My guess is that he would challenge us to be a bit more collectivist.

May the God of all peoples and cultures bless you as you consider the nature of the responses that are needed from you in the decisions that lie before you today.

Ashes to Ashes

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Ashes, ashes, ashes. Next week is Ash Wednesday the official start of Lent, and this week I am scattering the ashes of my dog Herman at his favorite dog park in Colorado. Ashes, ashes, ashes.

When Herman died last year it broke my heart. He was in my life for 16 years, basically my entire adult life. As I thought about where to spread his ashes, someplace he loved, I immediately thought of his favorite dog park. It is an enormous, fully fenced, off-leash, multi-acre park complete with trails, a stream, toys, and more. When he was young, he would stay as long as I would let him. As he aged, he still pushed himself until my vet started recommending I not let him overdo it so much. He loved it there.

So, this week Kevin's work was taking him to our old hometown, so I decided to tag along to take Herman "home." One of the most surprising parts of the trip was how emotional I became about the simple cardboard box that held Herman's ashes. They weren't just his ashes, they were him. Kevin and I both found ourselves talking about them as we used to talk about him. Do you have Herman? Where is Herman? Let me hold Herman.

As we tearfully scattered his ashes on a hill overlooking the park, in full view of the nearby 14,000 foot-tall Pikes Peak mountain, I was overcome.

Each year as we come to Ash Wednesday I have to do some extra work to make it meaningful for me. I didn't grow up in a church that honored days like Ash Wednesday, and yet I have found there is a wealth of spiritual depth I missed because of it. I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to things like Ash Wednesday and Lent.

This year, though, it seems clear to me that the famous Ash Wednesday phrase, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return," will hold a much more powerful meaning. You see, this week I learned that dirt isn't just dirt. I used to walk Herman at that dog park and thoughtlessly wipe the dirt off my shoes and his paws after each visit. But now I realize that Herman (and many other precious pets) are part of that dirt. Our loved ones, our ancestors, all life on this planet is mixed up in the dirt of our lives. When we place God-lenses on our eyes, it is easy to see how every single thing on this planet--every part of creation--is truly sacred.

I won't be wiping the dirt off my shoes today. I'll let Herman walk with me just as long as possible. I hope each of you are blessed as you continue your spiritual walk today.