“Just as I am”

ABBY“Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” —Psalm 90: 8.

Having the light of God’s countenance shine on us sounds like a good thing, but today’s passage has the unsettling implication that we have no secrets from God.

Who among us can feel entirely comfortable with that kind of scrutiny? Is God really like a Santa Claus character who “sees you when you’re sleeping” or a prying parent who stalks your Facebook page?

The Scriptures again and again refer to God’s closeness and intimacy with our lives. Psalm 137 asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

I don’t know about you but I do a bit of hypocritical compartmentalization in my spiritual life. I want God to be close, but I don’t want God to see the less pleasant aspects of my life, what the Psalmist calls “secret sins” (and some are not so secret.)

I once saw a prayer that said, “O God, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

But the good news is that God doesn’t love just our idealized selves, the dog’s view of us, or our well-crafted on-line persona. God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way.

Prayer: You have searched me and known me, O God. Let your unconditional love change me into the person you want me to be.

(This my Daily Devotional for today in Re-Lent, the 2015 Lent Devotional from the UCC STILLSPEAKING  Writer’s Group)

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Continue reading

Ash Wednesday: “You won’t despise a broken heart!”

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“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17

The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality; the one pre-requisite for resurrection is death, something we will all face in time.

But literal death is not all there is to death. Throughout the New Testament “death” is not merely the cessation of mortal life, but also a power that insinuates itself into the living of our days.

Lent is the season that invites us to consider the spaces and places in our lives that are dead. To ask ourselves where has this “power of death” touched us? What is dead in our relationships, in our church, in our society? What is dead within us, where we once had life?

This kind of scrutiny is never easy. It is painful to acknowledge death and the denial of death is strong within us.

To see the dead places within and without us can break our hearts. But our text today says that this very condition of heartbrokenness is a sacrifice acceptable to God.

Because once we open our eyes to the ways the power of death has hold over us, and feel sorrow and remorse (which is what contrition means) God meets us there and can begin to ready us for the promised new life.

Prayer: Accept our broken spirits and contrite hearts, O God, as an acceptable offering to you, and take away the power of death from our lives.

(This is from Re-Lent the United Church of Christ Daily Devotional for Lent 2015. I also wrote a Lenten hymn of the same name which can be found here.)

(Picture. The cover to Re-Lent is also a poster available for purchase that can be ordered here.)

A Prayer for the Common Good on The Fifth Sunday in Lent

O Lord, by all your dealings with us, whether of joy or pain, of light or darkness, let us be brought ever closer to you. Let us not value your grace simply because it makes us happy, or because it makes us sad, because it gives us or denies us what we want, but because all that you send us bring us to you. Let us realize that in knowing your perfection, we may be sure in every disappointment that you are still loving us, that in every darkness you are still enlightening us, and that in every bump in our journey’s road you are giving us life, just as in death you gave life to your Son, our savior Jesus Christ.

O Lord, our whole world is in the midst of struggle about our future, and there is great fear and uncertainty among us. We worry about war and peace, about terror and trouble, about the environment and the economy. Calm us down and let us speak to each other as those who have a common stake in our life together, as neighbors rather than as adversaries

Keep us from rancor and strife, from rumors and accusations. Let us seek the truth as best we can know it, and the common good above our own particular interests. Deliver us from the need to build ourselves up by cutting others down.  Let us listen more than we talk, and think before we speak, and realize that we are all in this together,

O Lord, you alone can control the days that are gone and the deeds that are done; remove from our burdened memory the weight of past years, that being set free both from the comfort of complacency and the paralysis of remorse, we may reach forth to those things which lie before us, and press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.

(Photo: R. L. Floyd)

Ruminations on Late Winter and Late Lent

 

I have been outdoors more this Lent than perhaps ever before.  There has been lots of winter hiking and snowshoeing, which has been a real and unexpected blessing for me, since for various health reasons I have been unable to hike the trails for a couple of years, something I have sorely missed.

So many of my Lenten reflections have been on snowy trails in the nearby Pittfsfield State Forest, just a ten-minute drive from my home.  During the week there is hardly anyone there; often I hike for hours without seeing a soul.

I have gone out in all kinds of weather, and joyfully watched the daily changes that were taking place there, just as I was noticing the daily changes taking place within me.

I have always loved to be outdoors, but in my theological writings I have shied away from too much talk about it because it so easily degenerates into a kind of nature worship, or the garden variety pantheism of so much popular culture.

God is surely known in his Word, Jesus Christ, in the preaching of the same, and in the bread we share and the cup we drink together.  He is known to in the daily life of his congregations, where I served for more than thirty years.  These things I know.

But this Lent I found God’s presence too in the small rivulets running under the ice even in the hard frozen days.  Many of my Lenten Ruminations here on this blog have been illustrated with photos I have taken in the forest, with my ancient digital camera.  I wasn’t sure why.

It took some time before I made the connection between what I was seeing in the woods and streams and what was taking place in my own Lenten journey.

Today I went hiking in the rain with my daughter and her boyfriend for about three and a half hours.  It was mostly just drizzle or light rain.  The snow and ice are melting from the week-end’s heavy rains, the brooks and streams are filling up.  It is late winter.  A week from today is officially spring (though not really here!)

Today I saw a roaring swollen brook and I felt somewhere deep inside me that my Lent this year is almost over, and that I am almost ready.

I was wet, but happy.

(Photos:  top, Swollen Stream by R. L. Floyd;  bottom: Wet but Happyby R. M. Floyd)

A Poem for Late Winter and Lent by Arnold Kenseth

 

My friend the late Arnold Kenseth was a Congregational minister and a first-rate New England poet with an eye for God’s presence in the world all around him.

It’s late winter here in the Berkshires (he lived about forty miles from here in S. Amherst).  I matched up his poem with a photo I shot yesterday of a still frozen lake while snowshoeing on the Taconic Crest Trail on the Massachusetts/ New York border.

I thought Arnold’s poem has a Lenten ring to it.

A COLLECT FOR COMPASSION

There in the rudest tree
Where winter grips and rocks
The black indefinite cold,
Comes the small chickadee,
And like my soul, pipes
Anxious prayer, implores
An opening of doors,
Some crust and surety.
My hand, give him his bread!
May whirlwind God pause
From His storms and come
To me with Cup and Crumb.
Arnold Kenseth (The Ritual Year, 1993)

(Photo: R. L. Floyd,  Frozen Lake,  March 8, 2010)

“Walking the Walk:” Prayer as Action.

 

P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) is so quotable that you can practically open any of his books at random and find nuggets of truth and grace, which is pretty much what I have done today.

This one is on prayer.  For Forsyth prayer was not at all passive, but powerfully active. Here is one of his thoughts about what today we might call “walking the walk as well as talking the talk.” It is a perfect thought for Lent:

A prayer is also a promise. Every true prayer carries with it a vow. If it do not, it is not in earnest. It is not of a piece with life. Can we pray in earnest if we do not in the act commit ourselves to do our best to bring about the answer? Can we escape some kind of hypocrisy? This is especially so with intercession. What is the value of praying for the poor if all the rest of our time and interest is given only to becoming rich . . .

If we pray for our child that he may have God’s blessing, we are really promising that nothing shall be lacking on our part to be a divine blessing to him. And if we have no kind of religious relation to him (as plenty of Christian parents have none), our prayer is quite unreal, and its failure should not be a surprise.

To pray for God’s kingdom is also to engage ourselves to service and sacrifice for it. To begin our prayer with a petition for the hallowing of God’s name and to have no real and prime place for holiness in our life or faith is not sincere.

The prayer of the vindictive for forgiveness is mockery, like the prayer for daily bread from a wheat-cornerer. No such man could say the Lord’s Prayer but to his judgement.

What would happen to the Church if the Lord’s Prayer became a test for membership as thoroughly as the Creeds have been? The Lord’s Prayer is also a vow to the Lord. . .

Great worship of God is also a great engagement of ourselves, a great committal of our action. To begin the day with prayer is but a formality unless it go on in prayer, unless for the rest of it we pray in deed what we began in word. (“The Soul of Prayer,” p 27-28)

(Photo:  R. L. Floyd, Living Water 2,  Pittsfield State Forest, March 2010)

God’s Ways are not our Ways: Ruminations on Isaiah 55:8-9 for the Third Sunday in Lent.

 

The Psalm (even thought it isn’t one) appointed for this Sunday is from Isaiah 55, one of my favorite portions of scripture. For those of us who have earned our bread as theologians and ministers of the church, and who sometimes assume an unhealthy knowledge and familiarity with the ways of God, there is a word here we need to hear again and again:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What can we know of God’s ways that are not merely a projection of our own hopes and desires? The God we worship is very often an idol of our own imagination, carefully constructed to advance our interests and causes.

It is just at this point, I believe, that much of Mainline Christianity went off the rails. We started speaking of God in general, and not of God “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Even less did we want to talk about the crucified God, a scandal in New Testament times and no less one today (1 Corinthians 1:23 ff).

But if we can know anything about the ways of God, which are not our ways, it is in the Crucified One. For this is the form in which he has chosen to show us himself.

Karl Barth, writing on this subject, writes,

“We have to see what Peter had to see, namely, that there is no flight or escape to another Christ in another and more radiant form, because it is in this (crucified) form that He is the temporal and eternal truth which encounters us. He encounters us in this form, or not at all. But if this is so, we have to accept the total otherness and strangeness and isolation of God in Him and His isolation He speaks remorselessly of the God whose thoughts are not ours, nor his ways ours (Isaiah 55:8), who is not directed by us, by whom we ourselves must be directed, whom we can only recognize as our Lord and Judge, and before whom we must acknowledge the worthlessness of all our thoughts and beliefs and dreams of what is meant by God or divine. It is of this God that the Crucified speaks. And He does so as this God alone can Himself speak of Himself.” (Church Dogmatics, 4.3.1, p 415-416)

It is this God, the Crucified One, whom we prepare to encounter in the coming weeks of Lent and what is to follow.
(Picture: William Blake, The Ancient of Days)

Ruminations on Luke for the Second Sunday in Lent with the Help of Cyril of Alexandria

 

I am doing one of my rare preaching appearances this week, so I have been ruminating on the lessons for the Second Sunday in Lent.

The New Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for this week is Luke 13: 31-35, and imbedded in the passage is a curious foreshadowing of Jesus’ triumphant entry on Palm Sunday.  He tells them, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (NRSV)

In the rhythms of this penitential season we still have weeks to go before we hear these words again. So what are we to think of this coming so early in Lent?

One of my homiletical disciplines over the years has been to see what the church fathers (and a few mothers) had to say about it. A great resource for the preacher who is interested in seeing what this long and deep tradition of the church has to say about particular passages in Scripture is the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Thomas Oden, and published by IVP, which, regrettably, only started turning up toward the very end of my active ministry.

There’s some good stuff here. For example, on this week’s Gospel there are excerpts from Augustine, Ephrem the Syrian, and Cyril of Alexandria.  Here’s what Cyril (366-444) had to say in a homily on this text:

“And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” What does this mean? The Lord withdrew from Jerusalem and left as unworthy of his presence those who said, ‘Get away from here.”[The Pharisees had just told him to flee Herod] And after he had walked about Judea and saved many and performed miracles which no words can adequately describe, he returned again to Jerusalem.  It was then that he sat upon a colt of a donkey, while vast multitudes and young children, holding up branches of palm trees, went before him, praising him and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Having left them, therefore, as being unworthy, he says that when the time of his passion has arrived, he will barely be seen by them.  Then again he went up to Jerusalem and entered amidst praises, and at that very time endured his saving passion on our behalf, that by suffering he might save and renew to incorruption the inhabitants of the earth.  God the Father has saved us by Christ.”  (“Commentary on Luke, Homily 100,” from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 3, IVP, 2003)

In these early days of Lent, the readings from Luke’s Gospel keep reminding Christians of Jesus’ unique vocation, which will lead ultimately to his atoning death on the cross (and his ultimate vindication on Easter).  If we let our gaze wander too far from this heart of the Christian Story, Lent risks becoming a vain exercise in legalism (just dos and don’ts) and various forms of self-justification.  The Church Fathers generally kept their eye on the whole story and its center at the cross of Christ; not so much focus on what we need to do for God (not that we should forget that), but on what God has already done for us.

A Prayer for Lent by Henri Nouwen

 

In the early days of my ministry, in the mid 1970’s, I went through a big Henri Nouwen stage, where I read everything that came from his pen. Nouwen (1932–96) was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, writer, lecturer, and spiritual director. He taught for a time at Yale Divinity School, and introduced many Protestant clergy to previously unfamiliar spiritual disciplines from his tradition. Later in his life he was a leader at the L’Arche Daybreak Community for people with mental and physical disabilities.

I was given his book The Wounded Healer as an ordination gift by my pastor and mentor Dudne Breeze.  That book is still worth revisiting.

Here is something else by him which speaks to me this season, a good prayer for these early days of Lent:

How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess…. I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.   (From A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee, Orbis)

(Photo:  “Parker Brook in Winter,” Pittsfield State Forest, by R.L. Floyd)