MONDAY DEVOTIONS FIVE

“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

Matthew 5: 4

My father died 15 years ago today. For me, every March 4th is a time of reflection on the nature of grief.

The Beatitudes or blessings found in the sermon on the mount, say that those who mourn will be comforted. That promise is easier for some to accept than others. I have dear friends who are people of strong faith. They had to bury a child. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to be comforted in that kind of grief.

My dad was a wonderful man. He worked hard all of his life to take care of his family. He was a devoted husband and father. He was also a devoted Christian.  In  his later years, he became my best friend. Even this many years later, I still miss him. I wish I could confer with him in those times when I need his advice. I wish I had more chances to tell him how much I loved him and appreciated him.

So now, every once in a while, and on March 4 in particular, I talk to him. I share what is going on in my life. I try to discern what his advice would be. I try to remember what a great man he was. As Dan Fogelberg sang, “My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man. I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.”

And in those talks, I DO find comfort.  I am comforted of my memories of the time we had together in this life. And I am comforted in the  wonder  of the faith that he lived and taught me that there will be no limit to the time we will spend together on the other side.

So if you still grieve the loss of someone, let the words of Jesus give you hope. You will never “get over it.” And you will never be the same. But you can find comfort in the promise that God understands your grief. A little boy was at the neighbor’s house visiting a man who had just lost his wife of 60 years. The boy’s mother said, “You shouldn’t be bothered Mr. Smith. What were you doing over there anyway?” The boy said, “I was just helping him cry.”  Sometimes I think that God weeps with us in the sorrow of our loss. But God also reminds us that he is waiting on sorrow’s other side for a reunion of love.

I’ll see you later Dad.

MONDAY MORNING DEVOTIONAL FOUR

For the most part, performing a marriage ceremony is a part of ministry that is enjoyable.  It is full of hope and promise. Though sometimes it is difficult to remind the couple that this is a worship service. Some want it to be just about Hollywood’s shallow sense of romance.

There are two Old Testament passages that I have used in the wedding service. One is from the Book of Ruth. It is not set in a marriage promise. Ruth is the daughter in law of Naomi.  They have both lost their husbands while living in Moab. Naomi wants to return to her home country of Israel. Ruth wants to go with her. Naomi tells her to stay in Moab and look for another husband. But Ruth insists on going to Israel with her. In verses 16 and 17 of chapter one, Ruth says that she will go with Naomi. She tells her “Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. I will live and die with you no matter what.”

Even though that is not a husband and wife relationship, brides and grooms can learn a lot about the kind of commitment they are being asked to make to one another. Most couples make that promise with sincerity and resolve. But they have no idea how difficult it will be to keep that commitment. It’s easy for them to say “as long as we both shall live.” But it is more difficult than they can imagine.

It is hard for human beings to make that kind of commitment to another person. Neither person knows what the future will bring or the changes that will take place or the challenges that will confront them.

In part, that is why they make those promises in church. I know that destination weddings and beach weddings are popular. I do them if I have to. But I think the church is the best place to make those promises. (All right I am old fashioned.)

The other passage I like to use is from the very strange book of Ecclesiastes. In the 4th chapter the writer says that two are better than one when facing the sometimes difficult realities of life. Two can defend and protect and help each other and keep each other warm emotionally. Then at the very end he says that a THREE-fold cord is hard to break. All the time he was talking about two and then there is a third cord binding them together.

I don’t know if the third cord was meant as a reference to God or not. But I see it as a perfect illustration of what is happening when marriage vows are exchanged. God it the one who can make it possible to keep the nearly humanly impossible promises made on that day.

I saw a poster once that said, “Loved wedding.Now invite me to the marriage. God” Brides and grooms need to move over and make room for the third cord.

MONDAY DEVOTIONAL THREE

Is emotion a part of our faith experience? Should feelings be a part of our worship experience? The Presbyterians are not used to feeling much in worship. We have a reputation for being pretty cerebral in our approach.

There is a story about a woman who was visiting during a Presbyterian service. She was moved by something in the sermon and she shouted, “AMEN!” An usher came down the aisle and told her to be quiet. She explained that she felt the Spirit move. He said, “This is no place for that. This is church.”

Other denominations are not as restricted in their outward expressions of emotion. I have worshipped in churches where it was very emotional, but contained little substance to carry away from the worship experience. We used to talk about ardor and order. I wonder if it is possible to truly mix the two.

The earliest Christian writings contain a lot of emotion. Acts 20 is only one example of tears within the community of faith.  And in Philippians 4:4,Paul gives us this amazing command: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice.”

Wait. What?  Church people are supposed to be happy? Even the frozen chosen? Paul tells us to be happy, not just when they sing my favorite hymn or when the sermon is short or when the budget balances. He says, “always!”

That’s a pretty tough concept. We all have highs and lows emotionally.  I remember reading this when I was I was mired in a depression. I could not rejoice. Feeling joy was the asking the impossible. And lots of church folks find it impossible to feel joy in church, ever.  A man was walking the streets on a Sunday morning looking for beer bottles he could redeem for the deposit. He came upon a very stern looking woman sweeping her front stoop. He said, “Hey lady, got any empty beer bottles?” She gave him a sereve look and said, “Do I look like the kind of woman who would have empty beer bottles?” And the man said, “OK, do you have any empty vinegar bottles?

I’m afraid that is the impression some churches leave with the world outside. One cynical friend said to me, “Church people are joyless.” I don’t think he is right. But I understand where one could get that impression.

Church people are like any other people. Sometimes we are feeling great and joy is visible.  Other times the roof leaks and the rent is due and we are sad or worried or angry. Church should be a place where we learn to trust one another to the point where we can share any emotion. It is closer to the amazingly versatile Hebrew word, SHALOM. It means hello and goodbye and peace. But the essence of the word is wholeness; all is well. That is the kind of joy that Paul wishes for all believers because that is what Christ gives us. It is that which transcends the ups and downs of life. It sustains us, always.

So, Shalom

MONDAY DEVOTIONAL TWO

 

There is an old story about a man who went to his Rabbi for counsel. “My son is out of control. He disrespects me and does things that are against the laws of God and man. What should I do?” The Rabbi thought for a moment and then  said, “Love him more than ever.”

There are some truly strange stories in the Bible. Some of them grow out of cultural traditions for which we have no point of reference. But there is timeless truth in all of them.

One  such story is found in Genesis 15.  God has made significant promises to Abram. (He would be called Abraham until a little later.) God promised him that he would have offspring that would outnumber the stars. God also promised that he would have a land of his own.

Now at the time, Abram and his wife Sari were already on Social Security and he had no heir. He was also a nomad with no place to call his own. So naturally Abram needed some reassurance that God could keep these promises. So this was God’s command. He was to cut three animals in half and place the halves. So that is what Abram did.

He was to place the halves on either side of a path.  Then when the sun went down a flaming pot and a torch passed between the halved animals. This represented God’s promises to Abram.

OK, so that is the way God chose to illustrate what is called a covenant. But why did it have to be so gory and include so much death? It is because God is saying that if God breaks the promises made to Abram, God would die, like those animals. God was swearing on God’s life that the promises were true.

But the essential truth in this story is not that God keeps promises. It is found in what does NOT happen. Abram’s only job, it seems,. was to chase the buzzards away. Notice that Abram is NEVER asked to walk between the animal parts. God is making a unilateral promise. It is not dependent on Abram keeping his end of the bargain. In fact, it isn’t a bargain or even a contract. It is a holy promise and that’s what makes it a covenant.

If you are anything like me, you are glad that God’s promises are not dependent on our keeping ours. God keeps the promise of loving us forever, in spite of our behavior. All it seems that is required of a believer is to well, believe.

In the New Testament it’s called grace. Jesus loves and reaches out to save sinners. That’s good news for me. Of course God wants us to follow in the ways of a self-sacrificing savior who loves without conditions. But when we don’t, the promise is not withdrawn. Like the father in the story, God just loves us more than ever.

There is nothing you can ever do that will make God stop loving you. And there is nothing you can do to earn the love of our sovereign God. It’s just ours for free. It’s called grace. And it truly is amazing.

WEEKLY BIBLE REFLECTIONS

I have been preaching for 40 years. I thought I might start blogging about some passages of scripture once a week. These are in random order and based on thoughts over the years.

There are some passages that will NOT be included. For instance, the favorite passage of follically impaired men from II Kings 2: 23-24. The prophet Elisha is the subject of ridicule for being bald. He calls down a curse on the children who mock him and she-bears come out of the woods and kill the children. I will not be writing on this uplifting passage since I have no idea what it’s supposed to teach us.

Complete understanding is not required to appreciate some Bible stories. I start with a post-resurrection story from Luke 24: 13-35.  Two followers of Jesus are walking back to their homes in Emmaus. They have been in Jerusalem and witnessed the crucifixion of the one they thought was the Messiah. They were heart broken.

Then another traveler joins them on their journey. They do not realize that it is the risen Christ. He explains scriptures to them and tells them about the meaning of the cross and the empty tomb. They still don’t recognize him until they invite him to stay for dinner. There he blesses and breaks bread and their eyes are opened.

Two wonderful things are in this story. The first is the reality of his resurrection.  The story of salvation could not end with the crucifixion. Jesus the Christ was more powerful than death. I don’t totally understand Easter. But I love it and embrace it just the same. I love the fact that Easter had not been overrun by the holiday machine like Christmas. It is a celebration of the soul and not just the mind.

The second wonderful thing in this story is communion; the Eucharist; the Lord’s Supper; the breaking of the bread. Bible study meant nothing to these seekers until he broke the bread in their presence.  It was in the sacred connection of the sacrament that they were able to see the truth.

I think that is true for us as well.  If we truly believe in the sovereignty of God then we realize that our salvation is not based on our understanding it. Truth is not just a matter of the mind. An elder once told me that he thought that children should not be allowed to take communion until they understood it. I replied that if we did that, I could not take communion either. I love this sacred touch point with God that is beyond human understanding. A baby does not have to understand how the mother produces milk in order to be fed by it.

Once the risen Christ becomes real to us in his broken body and shed blood then we are able to truly see him and we can begin to understand what discipleship is all about.

FAITH AND SCIENCE

 

FAITH AND SCIENCE

One night my next door neighbor was in my driveway obviously looking for something. I asked if I could help. He said,”Sure. That would be great. I lost my keys.” I said, “Did you lose them over here?” He said, “No, I lost them over in my yard.” Confused, I asked him, “Then why are you looking for them over here?” He said, “The light is better over here.”

I have been thinking recently about faith and science. Some Christians are anti-science. Some politicians are too. Well, I am a Christian and I am not anti science. I am also not afraid of what science will find out. There should never be any fear that the truths of God will somehow be disproven by science any more than my neighbor would find his keys where he didn’t drop them.

Science and faith are both pursuing truth. But they are looking for different kinds of truth. Science deals with the physical, observable, measurable universe. The truth of faith goes much deeper than that. When some believers feel threatened by things like evolution and the origins of the universe they should stop and remember that God’s truth cannot be threatened by anything that science might uncover. But then there is a lot about God that I don’t understand.

Some in science would say that it is irrational to believe in some spiritual prime mover in creation. But is it any less irrational to observe the intricate order of the universe and the human body and believe that it all just happened randomly? When there is order, does it not make sense that something or someone guided the process? I gave a children’s sermon where I put the parts of a watch in a bag. There were gears and hands and a face and a band. I shook the bag and pulled out a whole working wristwatch. The kids called me on it and said it was impossible fora working watch to just appear without someone making it. They were right.

The bottom line is that faith and religion can co-exist. One set of truths does not threaten the other. I think it is crucial for our faith to avoid being anti-science. Rational people will not be attracted to a faith that asks them to check their brain at the door of the church.  

I read the testimony of a science professor who stated, “I have learned enough about the universe to know that science will never find all of the answers that only faith can address. There is mystery in both fields and I, for one, am OK with that. There is truth that is beyond the purview of science.”

I could not agree more.

 

 

Answered Prayers

The pastor didn’t really like the cat. He tolerated it as it seemed it tolerated him. He fed it and changed the litter box. He felt like he was not so much it’s owner as its’ wait staff.

On day the cat climbed a tree. It was apparently not able to get down even when he tempted it with food. There was no way he could climb the tree. So he devised a plan. Her threw a loop in a rope around a branch near the top of the tree. He tied the other end of the rope to the back of his car. His plan was to pull the car forward slowly until the tree bent low enough for him to grab the stupid cat.

The plan was working fine until the rope broke. The tree snapped upward and sent the cat sailing into the sky. The pastor felt bad and went searching for the cat. But there was no sign of it anywhere.

A week later the pastor was in the grocery store and he ran into a member of his church. He noticed cat food in her shopping cart. He knew she didn’t like cats and so he inquired about the cat food.

“Pastor, you won’t believe this. My daughter has been bugging me to get a cat for months. Finally, I said that if God gave her a cat she could keep it. Well, she went right out to the backyard and started praying for a cat. And I swear, just at that moment a cat came flying down out of the sky. God sure works in mysterious ways.”

It seems that God answered two prayers with one “miracle.”

A Short Story

AL

A SHORT STORY BY RICK SWEENEY

The number four horse was four lengths off the lead as they made the turn into the home stretch. Most people were surprised that a horse that went off at fifteen to one was running so well; but not Al. He had picked that horse, War Painter to win.

Actually, I had placed the bet. I had just allowed Al to pick the horse. This was the second leg of the Daily Double.  Al had picked the winner in the first race and that horse ran away from the field and won by nine lengths. Now if War painter won, we were in for a big pay-off.

The horse made his move at the top of the stretch. He overtook two of the horses in front of him on the outside. He was neck and neck as they neared the finish line. Then, just as Al had predicted, War Painter passed the other horse and won by a length.

“Told ya. I told ya that horse would win.” I could hardly hear him over my screams. I had been cleaning up at the track since I started taking Al to the track with me.  He was never wrong.

Al was always delighted to go to the track with me. He claimed he loved horses. “I can tell which one is going to win just by looking at them. They talk to me and I talk to them.” He never got to go much of anywhere. He lived with his mother and his aunt and they didn’t have a car. So any invitation to go out thrilled Al.

I met him at the ball field near his house. He came to watch the games. He had offered to be the bat boy for our team.  Now this was just a beer league. There was not really a need for a bat boy. And besides, Al was not a boy. I estimated his age as about the same as mine. The other guys on the team had mixed responses to Al’s participation. Some let him perform as a sort of mockery. Others saw him as a kind of a mascot.  Al had serious mental challenges.

I wasn’t quite sure why I liked Al.  It certainly wasn’t some righteous cause. I knew I hated it when the other guys called him retard. I guess I always had a soft spot for the underdog. I guess I sort of took him under my wing. I listened as he would tell me about how he loved horses.  “I watch the races on that cable station all the time.”

Since my divorce, I was always looking for a diversion. The track was one of the places I could hide from the loneliness. I always thought that if I could win some money that wouldn’t count towards my alimony, all the better. But just like the rest of the losers who hang around at the track, I was lucky if I broke even most nights.

After one game I asked Al if he would like to go to the track with me the next night. “I would love to go to see them horses run if my mom will let me go.” I got the impression that mom was understandably protective of her special son.

So I went in to meet his mom. There was no sign of a father in the house. She wanted to make sure that I was not someone who was going to hurt Al. I reassured her that I liked him and I would not let anything bad happen to him. She said, “I guess it’s OK. He loves horses.”

That first time at the track, Al asked if we could go down to where the horses walk around before they are called to the track. “I want to see them up close.” We wandered down to the paddock area as the horses paraded by. Al was doing more than just admiring them. He was studying them intently.

“Which horse to you like Al?”

“Number seven is the fastest of them all, but he will fade before the finish line. I betcha number five will win.  He’s steady Eddie.” Al laughed at his joke. I figured, “what the hell? I haven’t exactly been picking winners up till then. So I placed a modest wager on number five. He was six to one. That’s not a bad price.

“All right Al buddy, I am counting on your horse sense here. I have ten bucks on this nag.”

“Don’t worry. He will win.” Al reassured me.  The horse had trouble getting out of the gate. But he got back to within striking distance by the second turn.  It was then that I noticed that the number seven horse had opened a big lead on the rest of the field. “Coincidence” I thought.  But damned if he didn’t start to fade in the far turn. Steady Eddie slowly gained on the rest of the field and won in a close finish.

“Al, how did you know that was going to happen?”

“The horses talk to me. Not really talking, I just have a way to tell which one is really ready to run.”  

I was amazed. But I wasn’t convinced that Al had some magical power to decipher which horse was going to win. “Beginner’s luck” I thought.

I didn’t feel like running down to the paddock area and back up to the betting window for every race. So the sixty bucks I won was soon gone. Al did not seem to be enjoying the evening as much as he did at first. I thought he had gotten a taste of picking a winner and dampened his enthusiasm without picking a winner.

The final race of the night I told Al that we would once again go down and have a close look at the ponies. Once again he studied them like a mathematician searching for the solution to a difficult problem.

“Number eight” he said with great certainty. I looked at the racing form and saw that number eight was a real long shot.  Nineteen to one was a suckers bet. But I wanted to let Al have some fun. I only made a two dollar bet. The last of the big time spenders.  You probably already know that horse that seemed destined for the glue factory won going away. So I collected my thirty-eight dollars and we headed home.

“You really seem to be able to pick em Al. Would you like to go again next week?

“You bet” Then he laughed again. “Get it? You bet?”

The next Friday I picked up Al at his house. His mom was grateful. “Al don’t have many friends. He really liked going with you last week.”

‘I’m glad to have him along” I said.

The first race Al studied the horses and told me he was sure that number two would win. I bet number two and he won.  The second race we went to check out the horses up close once again. “Number two. No doubt” It was another winner. Now I was starting to believe in whatever magic Al possessed. I was cleaning up. Al had never once asked for any of the money that we won. I started to feel a little guilty about not sharing the winnings with him. I offered but he refused. “That’s your money” he said. I was starting to think of Al as a friend, and not just a way to pick winners.

The next week was the same. I was cleaning up. Then when he picked the winners on the daily double we were talking about some serious money.  I went a little crazy. I bet more money than I had ever laid out before. Al made his selection. It was another long shot. That seemed to be his specialty.

“And they’re off.”  Our long shot was Charioteer. He lagged at the back of the pack until the home stretch. I wasn’t even worried. I was adding up how much money I would take home with that huge bet I had made on a long shot. Charioteer moved up to third, then to second. He was getting close to the leader when all of sudden the horse fell to the ground with the jockey’s leg beneath him. I stared in disbelief.

“Oh my God, O my God, that horse is hurt” Al wailed. “He’s hurt.” I thought he was going to cry. I was already near tears myself; not for the injured horse, but for the staggering financial loss I had taken.

I couldn’t be angry at Al. He had been right more times than anyone I had ever heard of.  One the way home, Al was very quiet. Don’t sweat it Al. you win some and the lose some. That’s how it is with horse racing.”  Bu Al was not consoled because he was not upset about not picking the winner. He just kept muttering, “That horse; that poor horse. I think he broke his leg. He was trying so hard because he knew was supposed to win. Then he broke his leg. Now they will shoot him. That poor horse. I jinxed him.” I ain’t picking winners no more.

When we got to his house I asked, “Next Friday?” He stared out the window and said, “No. I ain’t going no more. I can’t stand to see them get hurt.”

“Come on, Al. That doesn’t happen very often. Don’t give up on me now.”

“No. You just want me to go so you can win money. I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t stand to see them get hurt.”

That was the last time I took Al to the track.  How strange it was to think that he had some way to connect with those horses that none of the rest of us could understand. With his mental limitations, he was able somehow to make a connection with those horses that went beyond words of explanation.  Maybe he really could hear those horses. Was it possible that he was able to communicate with them on a deeper level than anyone else? I sure as hell wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.

In the long run I had broken even as usual. But I had gained something else. There was a kind of giftedness that I would never understand. Thanks for the lesson, Al.

Not My Enemy

I have been giving a lot of thought to the caustic political environment in our country. I cannot remember a time when the divisions have been so deep and so hateful. This bothers me a great deal. I follow the teachings of a savior who would not abide hate; not even for people who considered themselves his enemies. So I am ready to make three vows when it comes to politics.

I WILL NOT HATE ANY POLITICAL FIGURE

Admittedly, this is not easy. President Trump has elicited some very strong feelings among supporters and opponents alike. I am not a supporter.  But I have found myself drifting into feelings that were pretty close to hate. I will not allow that to happen. My faith is much more important to me than anything political. My Lord says that hate is the moral equivalent of murder.  No matter how much I disagree with policies or personal behavior, I will not hate him.  Hate corrodes the container that holds it. I refuse to hate him. I will strongly disagree with him. I will act politically to oppose him. But I will not hate him. 

FRIENDS ARE NOT MY ENEMIES

Facebook is filled with venom from both sides. People indicate that if you don’t agree with their perspective on Trump, then you must be stupid or evil.  There are a number of people who are Trump supporters who happen to be people that I love. I refuse to consider them my enemies because we disagree politically. I don’t know if real dialogue is possible at this time. That’s because there is a lot of emotion involved that clouds rational thinking and makes it impossible to debate the issues.  Maybe the best we can do right now is to agree to disagree without being disagreeable.  If you are a Trump supporter, I do not hate you. I will not cast aside our friendship because of our disagreement. I can only hope that you will grant me the same tolerance.

I WILL PRAY INSTEAD OF DEMONIZING

Donald Trump is not a demon. Neither are the members of Congress.  They are flawed human beings who are part of a very imperfect system. I wonder if our nation would be healthier and more God like if we would stop hating and started praying for each other and all of our leaders.  I will not fall into despair. This is because my faith and my hope are not in human beings or human institutions. My faith and my hope are alive and well because God is ultimately in charge. Let each of  us continue to be active politically, but stomp the hate, and for the sake of our nation, PRAY!