Monthly Archives: September 2021

Wisdom shouts

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for September 12, 2021

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Container_Ship_%27Ever_Given%27_stuck_in_the_Suez_Canal,Egypt-_March_24th,_2021_cropped.jpg

Gospel Reading: James 3:1-12 and Proverbs 1:20-33

When the author of James wrote, “Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly,” there is no way that he could have envisioned what happened near his homeland in March 2020. In the early days of a global pandemic and mass shutdown, the enormous ship Ever Given, roughly the same size as the Empire State Building, got wedged in the Suez Canal, devastating global trade. The eyes of the world watched with great anxiety as the ship blocked traffic for six days in one of the most important waterways in the world.

In the case of the Ever Given, the rudder was not enough to keep the winds at bay. The ship got turned in a way the pilot could not avoid and the result was an economic disaster. While the Ever Given’s rudder was not enough, the point is still made: The tongue is powerful. Words matter.

We live in a world full of talking. The cacophony of 24-hour news, click-bait articles, pithy memes, social media ‘researchers’, talking heads on TV, and political maneuvering, feels as if we are surrounded by fire. Foolish words are doing real damage, and as the song of Wisdom declares in this week’s reading from Proverbs, “Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice. Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.” And yet it feels as if no one is listening.

Last week I shared an image with different petri dishes, each showing the growth of bacteria after breathing, coughing, and singing into the dish with and without a mask. I felt is a was a graphic representation of the wisdom of modern science. I believed it showed perfectly why masks were important, and that no one would be able to argue such a graphic and clear illustration.

As soon as I shared it though, I regretted it. Even as the likes start to count upward, I realized something. People are going to like the image or not like the image, but no one is going to gain anything from it. I was not sharing wisdom. I was sharing my perspective and making it clear that anyone who disagreed with me should feel ashamed for doing so. I deleted the post.

Was this a small step in “taming my tongue”? Maybe. I decided that it was more important to share compassion and kindness. Social media has created a world in which throwing matches on fires is easy. In fact, it is rewarded with little hits of dopamine called “likes.” There is little doubt in my mind that the comments sections have been set ablaze by the fires of hell. Intentionally rigged to fan the flames.

I cannot expect to bear good fruit on the vine of a rotten plant. Instead, I will try to cultivate true relationships. I will share kind words in hopes that wisdom can be heard above the noise. As the world seems to dig deeper trenches and divide along clear lines of demarcation, I will recognize my own tendency to bless God in one moment while cursing God’s image with the same mouth. Like James said, it shouldn’t be this way. I hope a voice of change can start with me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Open Up

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

In this reflection, I offer to you a prayer of illumination. Feel free to use it in your worship setting, and do not feel obligated to offer me credit.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for September 5, 2021

Gospel Reading: Mark 7:24-37

“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” has been the promise of the United Methodist Church since 2001. For twenty years the UMC has used this as a slogan in billboards, commercials, and websites. Today, if you go to umc.org, you will see the slogan at the very top of the page.

If you are anything like me, you have had misgivings about using the slogan. For many inside the United Methodist Church, it feels like false advertising. The exclusionary practices and policies of the United Methodist Church toward the LGBTQ community makes many wonder if the people of the United Methodist Church truly have open hearts, minds, or doors.

I still use the slogan, but I no longer think of it as a description. Instead, I see it as a prescription. I do not consider the word “open,” to be an adjective. Instead, I express it as a verb.

Today our passage includes Jesus healing two people. In the first story it seems as if Jesus himself is the one who is opened. This is a troublesome thought to many. They will use many dubious explanations about the diminutive form of “dog” to avoid what is clear in this story: Jesus acts in a closed-minded way. Yet this woman – a foreign woman from a foreign land – challenges Jesus and helps open his mind to the Gentile mission.

This is particularly poignant because this comes right off the heels of Jesus criticizing the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Now Jesus is confronted by a foreign woman and he does the unthinkable – he changes. In the second half of this passage Jesus is confronted with a man unable to hear or speak. Jesus takes him aside, gives him a holy wet-willy (not really, but it is shocking how physical this sign is when the previous one was done at a distance).

“Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (Mark 7:34). With this word, the man can hear and speak. Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep this miracle quiet, word about him spreads even more.

These are two stories of opening. First Jesus’ mind is opened. Then the man is opened. Sometimes open is a verb. Sometimes we are called as a church to do the opening. This is where the power of our slogan truly lies. It is our role as pastors, lay people, and Christian ministers all of us – to open up pathways to God’s power. We are to open our hearts and the heart of others. We are called to open our doors. We must always be willing to open our minds.

In my congregation, we say this prayer every Sunday before the reading of the Scripture. It is our prayer for illumination and keeps us mindful of our task as a church: “Holy Spirit, open our hearts to the story of your love. Open our minds to new ways of knowing you. Open our doors to all whom you would welcome.”

Many of us have been challenged by our own versions of the Syrophoenician woman. We were forced to open up our minds through encountering people who we may have at first considered “other.” Many of us have been opened up by Jesus himself. We were given ears to hear and words to speak by the power of the Holy Spirit. May all our closed spaces be touched by the grace of Christ. When I think of the United Methodist Church, I can’t help but look up to heaven, sigh, and pray, “Ephphatha.” Open up.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Jesus makes a poop joke

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for August 29, 2021

Gospel Reading: Mark 7:1-23

Jesus’ popularity was growing. Crowds were coming. Word of Jesus’ popularity had reached King Herod. Stories of plentiful food and calming storms circulating among the people. Chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel tells us that “Wherever he went – villages, cities, or farming communities – they would place the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to allow them to touch even the hem of his clothing. Everyone who touched him was healed.”

The Good News of Christ had come. People had bread. People were fed. Even the storms seemed to obey this wandering preacher. The movement was gaining steam and lives were being transformed. Herod wasn’t the only one in Jerusalem who had heard about Jesus. Enter the Pharisees and Legal Experts from Jerusalem. They came to see just what was going on, and what did they see?

They didn’t see the people with enough to eat. They didn’t see people’s lives being restored. They didn’t see the good news preached to the poor and oppressed. They saw the disciples not washing their hands. Germ-theory and best COVID practices aside, this is not what they should have seen. They were students of Torah – they should have seen God’s greatest commandment being lived out. Instead of rejoicing at the love of God and love of neighbor that was overflowing, they saw only the breaking of tradition.

“That’s not how we do it!” They complained to Jesus. “We have rules to follow. We have a discipline to uphold” (Mark 7:5 paraphrased).

They were worried that breaking their tradition could contaminate them. They were worried that if the proper way was not upheld, they would lose their relationship with God. They were convinced that the rules they had created were as important as the Law of God. Jesus, frustrated with their lack of being able to see what was actually happening, reminds them of what truly matters. The rules, well-intentioned as they were – had missed the point.

Quoting Isaiah, Jesus says, “Your worship of me is empty since they teach instruction that are human words. You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you” (Mark 7:7-8).

To get this point across to his disciples, he makes a wonderful poop joke (yes, Jesus makes a poop joke!). What enters the mouth exits the other end and goes into the sewer. The Pharisees were concerned about a rule that mattered about as much as what drains into the sewer. What harms our relationship with God is not breaking human rules. It is denying God’s love. They missed the gospel happening right in front of their face by focusing on what comes to a pile of waste. If they had really been paying attention, they would have seen God’s people being fed instead of hands not being washed.

In the end, we are left to reflect on what are human rules and what is God’s Law. God’s Law is love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love each other. Love yourself. To deny these aspects of love is to ignore God’s commandment. Jesus differentiates between human rules and God’s Law is love. Human rules should help us follow God’s Law. God’s focus is on the heart. So should ours. Focus on the heart. Focus on the love. When the rules and traditions stop helping us do that, they should be ignored. They are worth about as much as what flows into the sewer.

Leave a comment

Filed under IGRC for Unity, Lectionary Reflection

The Armor of God

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for August 22, 2021

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the devastating loss of human life, the threats to human dignity, and the fear of a looming humanitarian crisis cast a dark shadow over the reading of Ephesians this week. War metaphors to describe faith in Christ should always give us pause. This is especially so this week.

As we read the author of Ephesian’s language about putting on the armor of God, it is impossible not to think about the wars waged in the name of Christ over the centuries. My mind also goes to old Sunday school posters showing a man in armor – often anachronistic medieval armor – with each piece labeled.

While the labels were things like “peace” and “righteousness” and “truth,” I can’t help but feel like images of the warrior with shield, sword, and a full knight’s steal armor were painting a more lasting image than the words that went along with them. The lesson was simple: we are to be warriors for God, and if this means fighting an actual violent war, then so be it.

It is easy to read this passage and quickly presume that we are the warriors of God, and that all who oppose us are “the rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.” It is a short step then, to name those forces of evil. Once they are named, they can then be vanquished, and the armor of God can help us achieve this. For far too long and far too often, this passage has been used to justify militaristic, protectionist discrimination against those considered to be the “forces of evil” and the “darkness of this age.”

To get the full picture of this armor, we must take this letter in its context. This is not meant to be turned into a recruiting poster for God’s army. This is not a rallying cry for Christians to attack and belittle those with whom we disagree. This is certainly not a letter for those living comfortably within the dominant culture.

The letter to the Ephesians was a letter of encouragement to a people facing troubling persecution. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan city with important temples and pagan institutions. It was growing much more difficult to participate in the commercial and social life of the city while still following Christ. This letter was meant to remind the Christians how to live in a pagan, oppressive community.

This still feels like a call to arms for Christians who feel they are under attack. The enemies they may name today are secularism, atheism, and liberalism. Many fear the “gay agenda” or buy into conspiracy theories about powerful cabals of child-trafficking predators who are trying to run our government, steal elections, and inject the mark of the beast into our arms. Many Christians feel as if they are fighting a valiant spiritual war by denying the full humanity of LGBTQ people, long-term effects of institutional racism, the existence of a deadly virus, and the efficacy of a vaccine that has proven safe and effective.

It is important to not fall into the same trap and demonize and dehumanize others. People cannot be easily categorized or labeled. Terms such conservative, traditional, orthodox, liberal, and progressive do little to describe humans who care, love, hurt, and learn. The only path we have is to stand firm, but to stand firm with loving kindness. The armor of God is truth, justice, and peace. So, how do we live in a world of increased polarization, misinformation, and vitriol?

The writer of Ephesians does not offer a solution but does give us some guiding principles. Stand firm, but not obstinate. Do not react in anger against your neighbors. Do not respond to violent and militaristic oppression with violent militaristic opposition. Who is my enemy? Not people deceived by misinformation, but forces of oppression, consumerism, addiction, racism, sexism, and homophobia which can be found inside ourselves as much as they are found in others.

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” ~ Nelson Mandela

“Somehow, we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness humanity’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race. If we have a will – and determination – to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leave a comment

Filed under IGRC for Unity, Lectionary Reflection