“A Continual Course Correction” A Devotion for Lent

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 3.02.37 PM“A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.” —Matthew 21:28,29

Repentance has long been an important theme for Lent, but many are put off by the idea since it seems to demand one big life-changing event. A friend of mine had a big poster on his wall that said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” In small print at the bottom it said, “If you have already repented, please disregard this notice.”

But I contend that we should never disregard that notice since repenting is something we must do again and again and again throughout our lives.

The Greek word we translate as “repent” simply means to change direction. The son in today’s parable repented of his first answer. He changed his mind and did what his father asked him. He started out in the wrong direction, but finally turned to the right one.

I have come to view the Christian life as a continual process of course correction. Our instincts are often wrong, our decisions often bad, and we easily get off course. We hurt others; we hurt ourselves.

But the good news is that God loves us enough to want us to get back on track. Like a GPS of the soul, God’s love keeps beckoning us to come home, and in our several turnings find our way back to God.

Prayer: O God, keep us ever turning and returning toward you. We pray this in the name of Jesus, the one who called himself “the Way.”

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotional for March 19, 2017. To see the original go here. To subscribe to the Daily Devotional and receive it every day by e-mail go here.)

“Of Fig Trees and Second Chances” A Sermon on Luke 13:6-9

266_AlexanderMstrJHlsCrppWmnPrblBrrnFigKoninklijke_BibliotheekTheHague1430CROP-1Author T. C. Boyle has an intriguing short story entitled “Chicxulub.” Chicxulub is the name of an enormous asteroid (or perhaps a comet) that collided with the earth sixty-five million years ago on what is now the Yucatan peninsula, leaving an impact crater one hundred and twenty miles across, and twelve miles deep.

Boyle’s short story intersperses such episodes of catastrophic natural disasters with a story of one night in the life of one family. The main characters are a husband and wife, parents of a 17-year old daughter named Maddy. They receive a phone call from a hospital: “There’s been an accident!”

Apparently Maddy has been hit by a drunk driver while walking home from the Cineplex. They head to the hospital in that dream state of shock that overtakes those in the midst of disaster. At the hospital they are unable to get much information out of the staff. They are told she is in surgery. They wait and wait. Finally a young doctor comes out and speaks to them. He drops his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he tells them.

When I first read the story I was deeply moved, even though I knew it was a work of fiction. But Boyle was toying with his readers. He was toying with me. Because in the end we learn that Maddy is not dead. The dead girl on the gurney is a sixteen year old friend of hers, Kristi, who borrowed Maddy’s I.D. to get into an NC-17 movie in the next theater. Maddy gets another chance. Continue reading

What I Love about the Gospel of Luke

St LukeFor our Lenten adult study we have been looking at each of the four Gospels and Brent (our pastor) has asked me to share briefly with you what I love about the Gospel of Luke.

Each of the Gospels has features about it I love. Like many Christians my idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mixed-upped conflation in my mind of all four Gospels.

When I started studying the Bible as a young man I began noticing how each Gospel tells the story in a somewhat different way, and something about that bothered me. I wondered, “Where they differ what is the truth of the story?”

One of my teachers helped me with this by having me imagine a beloved mother with four children, and upon her death each child wrote a remembrance of her. Each child’s remembrance of their mother would be different, but they would all be true.

Another helpful analogy I heard was that the Gospel is like a diamond, when you turn the diamond the light catches different facets of the precious stone. Each of the four Gospels is a different facet of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was in the Christmas story where I first noticed the differences in the several Gospels. Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus. Only in Matthew do we hear about the visit of the Magi, their meeting with Herod and his slaughter of the innocents, and Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt.

But it is especially Luke we think of most often at Christmas time. Only Luke has the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, and only in Luke do we have the choir of angels addressing the shepherds.

And so these early chapters of Luke might be a good place for me to start to tell you what I especially love about Luke. Continue reading

“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)

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.)