Advent – The Promise of Peace

An Advent Devotion

“He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more” Micah 4:3

The image of a day when nations no longer go to war and the tools of war are recycled into tools of providence instead, encourages our souls. Who among us doesn’t want there to be an end to war, and an end to soldiers dying or being maimed? Who of us doesn’t want an end to the death, injury and harm of innocents forced to flee for their lives? Who doesn’t want an end to the suffering of people trapped by war?

God gives us a vision so we will work for it . . . A vision that encourages us to work for peace and not for war. It is the vision in the Christmas song which Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne captures in the music “Do you hear what I hear”

“Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light.”

Prayer: God of peace, your vision seems so far from us. Pictures of war fill our screens. Obstacles to peace appear insurmountable. We fear a nuclear disaster. We ache for the wounded soldier. We cry for the lost children. Our hearts bleed for lost lives. May we begin to look at your words of hope, not only as a dream, but your dream for all of us to live into. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found at: Advent & Christmastide Devotions by clicking here.

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When our Heroes Fall

I live in Lake Wobegon country and I must say, that heroes are falling fast. If you are a fan of Public Radio, you’ll recognize Lake Wobegon as a feature on the Prairie Home Companion show. Both our Minnesota Senator Al Franken and, former Prairie Home Companion show host,  Garrison Keillor have been on the front pages of our newspapers –  accused of sexual harassment. I’ll leave it to others to determine the truth behind the allegations. But, I have to say that I have been disappointed. We make our heroes invincible. We tell ourselves that they only act justly and fairly in their dealings with others. We put our heroes on pedestals and pretend they are super human, not given to the faults and flaws of others.

We want our heroes to be more saintly than we expect of ourselves. As a fan of Prairie Home Companion and an occasional teller of Lake Wobegon stories in my sermons, I’m feeling a bit deflated. Our heroes are not supposed to act inappropriately.  They don’t do drugs or drink excessively. Our heroes are supposed to remain true to our highest values and never let their humanness get in the way of their inspiring us.

There are, of course, no perfect people. Those on pedestals inevitably slip off. They make mistakes. Stress takes it toll in various ways. Sharp words, bitter words spew from mouths. Alcohol and drugs can be a too easy coping mechanism when one feels misunderstood or overwhelmed.  Addiction can rob the people we look up to of their credibility.  Inappropriate sexual contact happens, even  with  our heroes. So, what is a Christian to do?

My New Testament seminary professor used to say, “God forgives, but we live with the consequences of our sins.” Then he would add the promise of forgiveness and new life.    There is accountability and taking responsibility for ones actions.    If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” the psalmist asked. ( Psalm 130:3)   None of us  is without sin, which means we all need to keep perspective.  There are certainly degrees of wrongdoing, which  should bring about varied degrees of repercussions.

It helps to remember that even when people fail us, the good they have done is not erased. We will have a more nuanced image in the future – a more realistic image of our hero as a flawed human being.     Not everything is washed away by  a mistake, failure or inappropriate moment . . . which in  our black and white world we are tempted to toss.   We judge people as either good or bad and not the in-between we allow  ourselves to be.

We believe in redemption.    Our faith is one of second chances.     I’m grateful  for God  who gives us second chances, who restores us when we fail and promises us a life of new beginnings. I’m not sure what is going to be happening in Lake Wobegon in the next few weeks. What I do know is that in good  Twelve  Step Hazelden fashion, we make amends for our wrongdoing.  We start again, fresh over, knowing that the God of second chances, gives each of us the same gift. Meanwhile there is prayer. Prayer for people being accused. Prayer for those who feel victimized. And a prayer that we all learn something about respect and appropriate behavior whatever our status in life, wherever we are.

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Worshiping Guns or God?

When did we decide that we would worship guns instead of God? When did we determine that if we sacrificed enough of our children on that altar, the rest of us would somehow be safe? When did we conclude that everyone was entitled to the equipment which would allow them to slaughter innocents – instead of reserving that equipment for people charged with protecting our nation? Did we have a vote on that? Did all of us get a chance to be part of the conversation?

Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” He could have added, “along with the innocents who stand in the way of a disturbed, angry or radicalized person.” The truth is that we have made it possible for people to become mass murders. We have given them the tools and blessed their love of guns. We have decided that guns were to be worshiped and no one has a right to set limits. Not limits on their power. Not limits on who can own one. Not even safety limits that would protect toddlers who find and play with guns.

Worshiping at the altar of guns, we lost 38,000 people last year. How many is enough? At what point do the most ardent gun worshipers decide it is? I thought after the little children in Newtown Connecticut were slaughtered in their kindergarten rooms that congress would be willing to pass laws the majority of people in the country support. I thought for sure after Las Vegas some common sense would prevail.  Even now, in my cynicism, I carry a sliver of hope that something wise will come from the tragedy.

Like most everyone, today I’m praying for the families who lost loved ones and the community of Sutherland Texas.   I pray for God’s comfort and peace.  I’m praying too, that God is able to reach into the hearts, minds and souls of our elected official that they cease their worship of guns, and return to worship God . . . to worship God who is calling out for us to stop the violence. To stop the pain. To stop the killing of innocents.

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The Problem of Being Rich

I’ve begun to understand in a new way, why Jesus said that it would be more difficult for a *“Rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” Unless a person has lived a life of poverty, one cannot comprehend the importance of supports in place that allow a person to better their situation. To understand one either has to live the experience or take time to know some people who are . . .  To walk beside a person scrambling to just survive. Otherwise, it is very easy to make assumptions about the poor. Too often I hear people blaming the poor for being poor, not understanding the conditions which got a person into the situation, let alone how very difficult it is, to find ones way out. This administration has been filled with people who have lived in the upper side of life. Luxury is a norm. Most people in leadership have never had to decide whether or not they can afford care for a sick child. Paying for drugs for cancer treatment has not been an obstacle, nor has any other medical need been too expensive.

This week President Trump told an audience at a Values Summit that “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.” My problem with that statement is that I’ve been seeing far more anti-Christian values coming out of Washington than Christian values in these last months. I can understand how good Christians can differ on issues around sexuality and abortion. But there are core values of Christianity which are not debatable. Basic is a love for the poor. A core value is caring for people when their circumstances are difficult. When people are down and out, a Christian reaches out to give support and encouragement. A Christian does not to pull the rug out from under people who most need help. They don’t mock an entire country that has been wiped out by a hurricane nor do they take health care away from the poor. A Christian practices generosity. They do not give tax breaks to the rich at the expense of the poor. Christian values include a concern for all of creation. **We remember how Jesus said that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters, it is as if, we have done it to him.

I can understand differences of opinion. I can not understand the callousness of taking away from people who struggle the most, the supports they need to survive on. President Trumps decision to deny insurance subsidies to the working poor comes across as vindictiveness. It is certainly not leadership. Fixing something that is broken is far different than tearing it apart and destroying what is working.

So, I pray for this president. I pray for the nation, that we live the true Christian values of love, goodness, mercy, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, peace, patience and self-control. For there is as scripture says, “No law against such things.” Galatians 5:22-23

*It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

** Full passage – Matthew 25:31-46 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

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A Roller Coaster Called Health Care

When my youngest daughter was born prematurely in 1977, it was a very frightening time. Her early months were one roller coaster after another of wondering if she would survive. There was more than one Code Blue called on her. In the midst of that difficult time though, one of the gifts was to have health insurance which covered almost everything. Her three-month initial stint in the hospital, and several others that occurred in the year following, could have wiped us out financially. The $70,000 plus dollars of that time in medical inflation dollars today would be around *$570,000. But fortunately we had good coverage. Our out of pocket costs were hard to meet, but something we could manage.

We have been living a different kind of roller coaster in the Health Care debates of 2017. Just when one thinks the issue is a last settled, it is reincarnated in a new way to mess with the insurance market. I’m left mystified by the way the entire health care debate of 2017 has been held. I know way too many people, among the working poor, who would be negatively impacted if the Affordable Care Act were to end, without a solid replacement. Creating a health care bill without input from people who work in the field confuses me. Why would anyone create a bill without knowing the consequences of their actions? Especially, given the impact passage of that bill will have on millions of lives.

When the framers of the constitution met to determine what form of government we would have, I’m pretty sure they thought we would send our best people to Washington to represent us. They were expecting we would send the wise to do the work of the people. Knowing human nature well, they sent up a process where one house would be elected every two years and the other six. They felt that those who would be in office for six years would not feel pressured to act foolishly in the moment, but would use the wisdom they had acquired to judge and evaluate bills wisely. Our founders could never have envisioned the world of today, when news spreads in an instant and groups put pressure immediately, to vote a certain way. They would not have known how much influence donations to elected officials would have, or how that money would undermine working for the common good. They couldn’t have known that today’s Senators and Congressmen and women would be constantly running for office. Always fearful that they not upset a big donor.

These last months have seen us going through one cycle of votes after another trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a well-thought-out replacement. Meanwhile, I find myself growing anxious with every new bill that undoes the good for people who live on the edge. What I have hoped for from the beginning was for congress to fix the broken parts of the law, just as they did when Medicare became the law of the land. Instead we have had this long battle which has done none of us any good.

I keep asking God to work in the hearts of God’s people in Washington to make wise and good decisions about health care. I pray that they will let God lead them beyond their political party and into the truth God wants them to know. Imagine, how much good could be done if all of our leaders really did put God above their respective political party and paid more attention to the one who told us that “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40 NRSV

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We All Drink from One Water

“We all drink from one water
We all breathe from one air
We rise from one ocean
And we live under one sky
We are one” Anwar Fazal

We take the earth and its cycles for granted, until something out of the ordinary occurs. The heavy hand of two Category four hurricanes in the space of three weeks was cause to stop and think about our changing climate . . .  our rising and warming oceans. Only a few years ago the idea of global warming was just a debatable question in academic circles. All too rapidly, our climate is changing. Signs of that change are most apparent in the arctic where the permafrost is thawing, glaciers rapidly shrinking and entire villages being consumed by the sea. Polar bears are losing their habitat.   Meanwhile, in Florida the city of Miami experiences flooding monthly when the moon pulls strongest on the tides.   Many scientists believe that we are quickly coming to a place of where the course will be set irreversibly.

The issue is one that goes beyond political and national boundaries. All of us are in this together. Anwar Fazal expresses this so well in his poem.

“We all drink from one water
We all breathe from one air
We rise from one ocean
And we live under one sky
We are one
The new born baby cries the same
The laughter of children is universal
Everyone’s blood is red
And our hearts beat the same song
We are one
We are all bothers and sisters
Only one family, only one earth
Together we live
And together we die
Remember – We are one
Remember – We are one
Peace be on you
Brothers and Sisters
Peace be on you.”
Anwar Fazal, From Prayers for a Thousand Years Blessings and Expressions of Hope for the New Millennium By Elizabeth Roberts, Elias Amidon

The scripture tells us that we are caretakers of the earth. We have a responsibility to care for this world that God has entrusted to our keeping. We are reminded that “The earth is the Lords” and not ours to abuse or misuse. Our Christian faith teaches us that whatever we do to the least of the worlds citizens for good or ill, we also do to Christ. And for those of us who have received much, much is required.  If we fail in this, future generations won’t ask about our political loyalties but wonder how we could have so denied the evidence and the prophetic words from the worlds scientists.   They will wonder how we could have allowed an environmental catastrophe to happen. Our actions or inactions will have consequences which will outlast our lives. Future generations, including our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live out the repercussions of our decisions. What kind of world do we want our distant relatives to inhabit? What might God be asking of each of us to make that a reality? In our prayerful searching, may God guide our thoughts and direct our actions.

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Choosing to Look Past our Differences

Henri Nouwen said, “To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other. Often quite unconsciously we classify people as very good, good, neutral, bad, and very bad. These judgements influence deeply the thoughts, words, and actions. These self-created limits prevent us from being available to people and shrivel up our compassion.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Ten years ago, the 35W bridge collapsed and fell into the Mississippi river during rush hour traffic on August 1, 2007. I rarely drove across the 35W Bridge into Minneapolis, but a wrong turn had sent me over the bridge a few days earlier. Thirteen people died. Many were critically injured. More than one hundred forty people were transported to hospitals by pickup truck, cars and ambulances. As I look back, what strikes me most were the number of people who immediately jumped into action. Before First Responders could get there, bystanders were diving into the river, rescuing people trapped in their cars. They were just ordinary folks who happened to be there and knew they needed to help. That evening, no one worried about the political, ethnic or religious background of the injured or the rescuers. There were no questions about immigration status. All of that was immaterial.

I often get discouraged about the enmity between people in today’s society over race, religious faith or immigration status. Ten years ago, in that life or death moment after the bridge collapse, all judgements were suspended. What mattered was searching for survivors, breaking windows of submerged vehicles and pulling people from the river. What mattered was getting children off a school bus about to erupt in flames or tip into the river, to safety. What mattered was stabilizing an injury and offering comfort. People checked in with family and with friends they rarely talked to. It was one of our finer moments as we collectively worked together in the midst of a tragic event – evidence that if we choose to, we can be that again.

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