“The Elusive Presence” A Devotion on James 4:8

“Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”—James 4:8

James makes knowing God sound easy, but I’ve never found it so. When I was a young man, and had outgrown my Sunday school faith, I hungered to know God, not just as an idea, but as a living relationship. Continue reading

“No Doubts? I Doubt it!” A Devotion on James 1: 5-8

“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” —James 1:5-8 Continue reading

“Did God Say?” A Devotion on Genesis 3:1

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” —Genesis 3:1 Continue reading

“The Comfortless Time” A Devotion on Psalm 77:2-3

“In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
My soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.”—Psalm 77:2-3.

When I was eighteen years old my mother died. She was 53. That was fifty years ago yesterday. Her funeral was in the little church I had grown up in. I’d like to be able to tell you that my Christian faith was a great comfort to me at the time but it wouldn’t be true. I wasn’t sure about this God who could let such a thing happen. Continue reading

“Winners or Losers? Reflections on Vocation” A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

What are we to make of this strange story in which Jacob wrestles all night and gets a new name? I think it tells us something important about who our God is and about the identity of God’s people. And I want to reflect on what this story tells us about our own identity and vocation as Christians.

The first thing to notice is that whenever somebody in the Bible is given a new name it is best to pay attention. A new name signifies a turn, a change, a new chapter in the person’s life, and a new calling. A new name means a New Being.

So, for example, Abram becomes Abraham as God calls him to keep the covenant of promise. Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus and is changed from being a zealous persecutor of the church into the Apostle to the Gentiles. Fisherman Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his church. Continue reading

Norwood Days: We All have to Start Out Somewhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have to start out somewhere.

I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.

I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.

Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.

While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.

We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.

I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.

The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.

His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.

It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.

When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.

My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.

But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.

So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.

The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a  Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.

It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.

“What do you know about being God?” Reflections on Job

Blake“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” – Job 38:4

My friend Andy and I had just finished a prayer for the needs of the world when we started lamenting how endless those needs always are.

“If I were God . . .” Andy said, and stopped himself. “Always be suspicious,” he said, “of any sentence that begins, ‘If I were God!'”

We were not the first people to question the troubling gap between what we believe about our God and the immense suffering in our world. The Bible is full of just such questions.

Some of the very best of these questions are found in the Book of Job, which is the story of a good man enduring unbearable suffering. Job desperately wants to know why? His three “friends” offer him their pious answers, which are variants of “You had it coming!”

Their view that suffering is always deserved lingers: “What goes around comes around.”

But what if it isn’t true? What if the divine mystery is more complex than that? What if bad things do happen to good people? What if the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime? Read more. (From my Daily Devotional for today)