Finding the And

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What is this proclivity of ours to divide ourselves? What is this propensity to force a choice, to say it must be either-or rather than and?
Reading Others
The more I read and listen to church leaders in other countries, in other faith traditions, in other times, the more I see our especially American tendency to eschew the middle of a continuum for the outer reaches.
We do this in religion and we do this in politics. Fundamentalism vs Liberalism. Republican vs Democrat. Often we confuse the whole thing completely and mix both religion and politics all up together in an inseparable soup of extremes.
Why can’t it be and?
Why can’t some of what fundamentalists teach and some of what liberals teach both be true? Is there truly no middle ground, no and?
N. T. Wright
N.T. Wright, a bishop in the Church of England and a respected theologian/historian who specializes in studying and writing about Jesus and 1st century Judaism and Christianity, spoke at a conference in America of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Eucharist
Wright described how the Roman Catholic church made the Lord’s Supper more and more mystical and ritual, almost turning it into something magical that had to be done with just exactly the proper rites in order for the bread and wine to become body and blood, and how the Protestant church reacted so strongly against this that they turned the Lord’s Supper into merely a symbol, a sign of something that happened a long time ago and nothing more.
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Wright suggested that perhaps it is both. Perhaps instead of either the Catholic view or the Protestant view, it is and.
The Lord’s Supper, as Jesus gave it to the disciples and instructed them to continue to practice it, was simple. There was no formula that had to be done in order to make it work correctly. Yet it also was  more than a symbol.
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In some mysterious way, when we take the bread and the wine, we are taking into ourselves the body and blood of the risen Jesus. We are taking into ourselves the presence of the living Lord which then gives us the power and strength we need to go out into our community and meet the needs of those around us.
This view harmonizes with the other things that Jesus did and said, such as his imagery of the vine and the branches, saying that we must abide in Him and He must abide in us, otherwise we can do nothing (John 15).
Of course, God can find other ways of giving us the power we need to bring His kingdom here on earth, but this is the primary, continuous way that Jesus gave us.
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If we open our hearts and minds, there are so many more and‘s to be found. There are many more ways in which the theology insisted upon by fundamentalism and the social justice insisted upon by liberalism are essential to each other rather than pressed up hard against one another.
If we find them, perhaps we can move one more step closer to the unity that Jesus prayed for us to have.
If we can only seek out the and.

 

Art credits: Eucharist relief; Catholic EucharistProtestant Eucharist; Eucharist tapestry; Eucharist in Prayer Book

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My Confession and Repentance

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I am prejudiced.
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Perhaps not overtly. I am not prejudiced in a way that anyone outside of my head would notice. I don’t consciously try to think poorly about those who are different than me or treat them badly.
The judgments, the assumptions, are there, though.
My own prejudice is not related to race. I am grateful to have had many friendships with people of other races. These friendships allow me to see similar people I do not know through the eyes of those friendships.
My particular prejudice is related to economic and educational status.
What is yours?
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When I see someone who speaks or writes as though they have not even made it through high school, I don’t treat them poorly, but I make assumptions. I make assumptions about their character, about the way they think, and therefore assumptions about what their future actions might be.
Some of the time I catch myself. I give myself a mental shake and try to see the person for who they really are.
I don’t always catch myself.
For this I repent.
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I will take responsibility for my own failings and take the first step towards making the Church a safer place for those who are not like me.
Repentance involves change. It is not simply apologizing and then continuing on. One must go in a different direction.
And so I repent.
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I repent for making assumptions about people based on their appearance.
I repent for judging people’s character based on the way they speak.
I repent for thinking myself better than someone who has not had as much education.
For truly? Truly, I am ashamed for valuing knowledge more than kindness. I sorrow over my valuing learning more than gentleness. I lament over my valuing schooling more than servanthood.
I confess and I repent.
Will you join me?
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May God have mercy and heal me of such things.
May Christ have mercy and heal the Church.
May the Spirit have mercy and heal our world.
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What I Saw

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Let me tell you what I saw on Sunday.
Let me tell you what I saw as I sat on stage with the worship band at church.
I saw a miracle. A miracle of hope.
I saw a parade of different, a line of people as disparate as could be walk to the front of our church and choose Jesus.
This week the internet has been crammed full of articles and blog posts that tell me that within our church, which identifies as evangelical, the people should be sharply divided. That the white men should be seated on one side and all the rest of us should be seated on the other side, both groups shooting looks of anger and disappointment toward the other.
That’s not what I saw.
I saw, instead, person after person, so many people, walk to the front to be baptized.
I saw Caucasian American, African American, Asian American, Latino American, old, young, men and women all die to their old life and begin their new life in Christ.
And I saw Caucasian American, African American, Asian American, Latino American, old, young, men and women all come to their feet and clap and cheer and whoop and holler for them.
I wept.
All while trying to play a complicated part on a B-3 organ. Not the best plan for playing well.
Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off that baptistry.
Because what I saw on Sunday?
What I saw was hope.
Not perfection. Until Jesus comes back, there will never be perfection here on this earth.
The Church has been responsible for so many atrocious acts over the centuries. Nothing has changed. We are all still human and I know there was still a lot of pain and grief inside of the people in our church. We will still hurt each other and have to apologize and forgive. But there was also a lot of healing.
I saw people set aside, just for that moment, how differently they viewed the world and instead choose to cheer each other on toward Jesus.
I know we often do a horrible job of loving people, but every once in a while we get it right.
This Sunday, I saw us get it right.
I saw that parade of different and I saw the Church urging them on. I saw people focused on Jesus. I saw a miracle of hope.
So don’t give up on the Church.
Take a step back for a moment if you need to and take a deep breath.
But don’t give up on her. She is still the Body of Christ.
She needs us. She needs us to keep reminding her how to love those who are different.
Keep praying for her. Keep standing up against her when she becomes hurtful and standing up for her when others try to hurt her. Keep serving and worshiping with her. As a part of her.
Just keep taking one step at a time, one more step alongside this Church that is loved by Jesus.
After all, if Jesus hasn’t given up on us yet, perhaps we shouldn’t give up on each other either.
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House of Cards

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Why are we so defensive on God’s behalf?
Why do we become so frightened of hard questions?
Do we think the Bible asks us to defend God’s character, or is it deeper than that?
House of Cards
Not all of the time, but all of us do harbor a bit of the recurring agnostic inside. A tiny voice that says, what if it isn’t true?
What will become of me if it isn’t true?
This flicker of fear lingers so insidiously that when someone asks a questions to which we don’t know the answer, when someone expresses a doubt we ourselves have thought, we tend to lash out, to push away, to shame.
Remove one piece
If this piece of what I believe turns out not to be true, perhaps none of it is true.
Is God so fragile?
Is the God who flung the stars into space, who has the power to overcome sin and death so uncertain that one piece of the puzzle can bring the entire edifice crashing down?
Is our God a house of cards?
just one piece
what happens to the whole
If your God is a house of cards, you need a new God.
You need a God who is big enough to cradle all our questions, deep enough to hold all our doubts.
You need the God who shows His power through the universe we see, who reveals Himself through His Son in Scripture, who speaks to us through His Spirit within us.
When you know this God, you can let go of your need to defend. You can rest easy with, even welcome the doubts and questions of others.
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When you are safe and secure in the LORD Almighty, you become a place for others to find rest. You become a safe place where people can sit with their questions and doubts without feeling shamed or guilty.
What if we as a Church became a place where people could question and yet trust, where people could doubt and yet worship, where people could wonder and yet love.
What if we welcomed the not-so-sure rather than driving them away?
What if we could be comfortable with the hard spaces, acknowledging that not everything has an answer we can know right now?
It starts with you and with me. Can we let go of our fear and trust that our faith is not a house of cards?
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Imagine a church where people could worship even when they don’t have it all figured out.
Imagine a church where people could love and serve even in the times when they aren’t quite sure about it all.
Imagine a church full of people like…
Well, full of people like us.
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This One Is for the Ugly Days

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There are some days when it is easy to love.
Loving each other
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I am able to surrender to the Spirit which causes peace to fill me up and overflow into the hearts of my daughters, my husband. I have the supernatural strength to stay calm in the midst of tantrums, kind in the midst of misunderstandings, and joyful in the midst of hurt.
Then there are days like today.
Yelled at by Mommy
Days when something ugly wells up inside of me. Days when I want to be mean. Days when I feel resentful towards those I love best.
I hate these days.
What is this darkness, this nastiness that overwhelms me and threatens to spill out into the hearts of those I love?
Sadness
Tantrums
Anger
Defiance
My daughters cry to be held, fuss about wearing clothes, throw tantrums because school is hard, and my desire is not to comfort them but to scream like a crazed woman with fire in my eyes.
My husband makes an innocent comment and my desire is not to hear his loving intentions but to deliberately misunderstand and hiss a disparaging remark.
I intentionally fight against the changing of my mood. I want to savor, to wallow in my blackness.
I hate these days.
I get so tired of fighting this battle within me. I get so weary of fighting my very self. I long for the day when I finally look like Jesus, when my desire is to love rather than hate, when my heart is all light with no shadow at all.
As ugly as my heart can be, I am grateful that God refuses to give up on me. I am thankful that He does not save me and then leave me as I am. I am astounded that He is filling me up with Himself, crowding out the ugliness until there is nothing left but Beauty.
I try not to feel impatient.
Yet I know. I know. I know that I belong to Jesus. He gave Himself for me and therefore sin has lost its hold on me. I can hold on to that knowing even when I cannot feel it. Little by little, sin’s grasp is slipping away because Love has taken hold and nothing dark can hold on in the light of this fiercest Love.
As the recent hymn, In Christ Alone, says, “No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand; ‘till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”
No scheme of man. Not even my own schemes. Nothing can separate me from Love Himself.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Amen.

edited from the archives

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Desperate for a Little Character

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Character - Light
Character - Truth
Donald Trump is a crooked, underhanded con artist and…a spoiled, overgrown brat. – Matt Walsh on The Blaze
Trump mocks the disabled, calls women dogs, and advocates for the assassination of women and children. Hillary Clinton is a proven liar. They both have, in short, a lack of character. And people flock to them.
Why? Does it even matter? Is a person’s character at all important in this modern age or is it a relic of outdated morals? Character is more than merely important; it is vital to our society. It is important to people as individuals and it is important to society in its entirety.
When we can cheat and lie “just a little bit” and still think highly of ourselves, when we show our children that it is necessary to sometimes do insignificantly wrong things to get by, when it is more wrong to judge evil than to do evil, then we are in trouble. For our society to function well, we need people of character in leadership positions, from teachers and managers to mayors and governors.
What has happened in our world? Why do ordinary people care so little about acting in moral ways? Much of this dearth of character, this scarcity of virtue, comes from the rejection of the idea that truth is unchanging, that truth can be the same regardless of place or time. If truth is, at best, all relative and only a matter of perspective and, at worst, a social construct and simply whatever we make it to be, then why should anyone work to develop a character that may or may not be valid to anyone else? If there is no truth that we can deliberate over and discover together as a society (whatever that truth may be and wherever it may come from), we are left with, as Christian Cleric Richard John Neuhaus says, “power and propaganda and grievance and anger and caucuses and anti-caucuses and special interest groups and victims and vengeance.”
This concept of truth comes from our distinctly American philosophy of pragmatism (founded by William James, 1842-1910, who said that the true was only the expedient. Truth, in other words, is what works.). When society contains multiple competing ways of viewing the world, and when all of those ways are equally valid, then the only way to determine which viewpoint is most true is to determine which is most useful. If truth is simply what is most useful, then truth will change over time.
There is an assumption in much of society, in many of our universities especially, that we cannot keep society and relationships moving forward if we speak of one truth for all people because truth brings only conflict. Truth has become the loud uncle we are vaguely ashamed of, assuming that anything so divisive has no appropriate role in public life. When the biggest wrong that can be done in a society is to cause an argument, we are left with a society that vacantly agrees with every new opinion. When the biggest good a government can do is to smooth everything to the same level of truth, we are left with a government that changes policy for each group that shouts louder. When truth is sensible rather than stubborn, as trustworthy as a weatherman, we are left with a prediction for Snowpocalypse that leaves Walmart shelves empty but a reality of 60 degrees and sunny. Society is left to flounder on a foundation of shifting sand.
How did this happen? How did truth get hijacked and associated with the negative? How did truth become linked with religious totalitarianism and Osama bin Laden? How did it become shameful to declare a belief in truth, even simply the idea of truth, regardless of what that truth is? Part of the answer, I’m afraid, comes from us, the Church. We have a history of wielding the truth divisively, of tearing down and even destroying rather than creating and building up. We have used truth as an excuse for starting crusades and we have used truth as an excuse to look at our neighbor with contempt. Truth has become a weapon used to elevate ourselves by bludgeoning down all those we deem as “other”.
This becomes all the more baffling when we remember that Jesus, God in the flesh, claimed to be Truth. If we are condemning our neighbor with what we claim to be truth, perhaps it is not truly Truth we are wielding. Using truth as a magic wand to turn our neighbor into a stepping stone is a natural consequence when we who claim to follow Truth succumb to our world’s version of expedient truth. This is what Trump has done and this is why so many evangelicals support him. Trump is the embodiment of pragmatic truth, and when the Church has forgotten the words and life of Him who claimed to be truth, the Church is easily swayed toward truth that is useful, truth that serves a purpose, truth that turns character into a liability. As much as we might wish it, truth is not in our service, rather we who claim to be Christian are servants of the Truth in the person of Jesus.
If Jesus is, as He claimed to be, the Truth, we are given a truth that is unchanging, yet personal. We are given a truth that produces genuine, enduring character. When we follow Jesus as the Truth, living and speaking as He did, we find that God’s Spirit produces in us a character of love rather than a character of expediency. And when we are possessed of a character of love, we find that we are asked to proclaim this pure, loving truth to our world. More difficult, even, than proclaiming it, we are asked to live it out. Neuhaus tells us that it is now the Church’s task to learn how to assert truth in public “persuasively and winsomely and in a manner that does not violate but strengthens the bonds of civility”. He reminds us that it is our duty to do more than merely tolerate those with whom we disagree but to eagerly engage them, even pursue them, in love.
How? How do we declare and live truth without being divisive and unpleasant, causing strife, conflict, and wars? By remembering grace. Amazing grace. We can live out stubborn truth beautifully by remembering that we ourselves are unable to live up to our own standards and yet we are loved. When we despise or feel superior to anyone, when our goal is, as Trump claims, to “make America great again” by marginalizing the poor and disadvantaged, we derive more power from our own exalted sense of self-righteousness than from God’s grace. Living by this brand of truth that exalts ourselves is what poisons the truth with divisiveness. This is what Trump does: cause divisiveness by playing one group against another, by exalting us by means of demeaning them. Living out Jesus as truth can also be divisive, but a much different sort of divisive.  Living out Jesus as truth produces a steady character of loving and caring for others. It is exalting others by humbling ourselves. This can be threatening, and therefore divisive, to those who have already exalted themselves, but it a way of living truth that is desperately needed in our world.

It is ageless, this genuine sort of character. It is what the early Christians did when they loved the poor, empowered women, and brought together the races and classes. It is how the early Church overran the Roman Empire when it wasn’t even attempting to gain political power. This is the sort of truth we need. The kind of truth that provides a firm and unchanging foundation for our society. One that will not allow people to helplessly flail but gives them the strength to build a society that lasts, one that cares for all of its members. Tim Keller says that this is the sort of truth that is “a God Who became weak, Who loved and died for the people Who opposed Him, forgiving them.”
Matt Walsh calls Trump a crook and a brat, essentially labeling him as someone who deceives others and who is himself deceived. It seems unbelievable, but this seems to be what many in our country are searching for. Someone like Trump or Clinton who does whatever is advantageous today, someone who manipulates and even creates truth to suit themselves and their supporters. If, instead, you are searching for someone who will lead by serving, someone who will follow Truth rather than create it, well, I’m afraid you probably won’t find that in the upper echelons of our country.
What, then, shall we do? Despair and give up on our country? Better yet by far than any vote you may cast, rather, become that sort of leader yourself in the world of your own influence. After all, presidents have never yet been able to save our country or her people. A country full of people who live lives full of Truth and Love, however? That sort of citizenry has been known to change the world.
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When Are You Blessed?

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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
What are you clutching in white-knuckled fists?
Clutching for blessing
Blessed are you who hold your possessions loosely, knowing that they are a gift to be stewarded rather than a treasure to be hoarded.
What fear keeps you awake at night?
Fear over blessing
Blessed are you who are grateful for each year you grow older, knowing that old age deepens beauty and wisdom rather than bringing a loss of beauty or worth.
Which loss are you afraid would bring you to your knees?
Desperate for Blessing
Blessed are you who allow your beloveds the freedom to belong to God, knowing that He will care for them far better than you ever could.
Possessions, youth, loved ones. Some of you have already lost these things. All of us will eventually.
What will you do when your arms grow weary, when your hands lose their grip and these things you hold so dear are gone?
Losing your grip
We are all already poor, whether we understand this or not.
If clutching what you love is not the way to possess it forever, what should you do instead?
Open your hands. Relax your grip.
Surrender for Blessing
Surrender it to God.
Whatever it is, whomever it is, surrender it to God.
Acknowledge what is already true, that you are poor. Acknowledge the reality that you are in possession of nothing.
When you surrender that which does not truly belong to you, God gives to you in return the most precious gift of all.
God's Presence is Blessing
He gives you the gift of Himself, of His presence in that place where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

Art Credit: Christ and Samaritan Woman by Siemiradzki

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Lift Up Your Head

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The deep darkness in this world can sometimes weigh our heads down. Our eyes remain fixed on our next step, our minds focused on not stumbling, not falling flat on our faces.
It is easy to become mired in the muck of a broken world. We struggle and strive, our backs bent under the bulk of all that is upon us.
Yet God is here.
Right here.
Closer than your breath.
The evidence is all around you. So lift up your head just for a moment.
Beauty 1

 

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Beauty 3

 

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Beauty 5
You who are bowed down with physical pain, lift up your head.
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Beauty 9
You who dwell under the weight of loneliness or depression, lift up your head.
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Beauty 12

 

Beauty 13

 

Beauty 14
You who are crushed by a grief that prevents you from even getting out of bed in the morning, lift up your head.
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Beauty 16

 

Beauty 17

 

Beauty 18
You who are burdened by the venom between fellow countrymen and fellow Christ followers, lift up your head.
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Beauty 20

 

Beauty 21

 

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Beauty 23
You who plead with God to do something, to rescue you, to save you, for God’s sake doesn’t He even care,
lift up your head.
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Beauty 25

 

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Beauty 29
Lift up your head and take a breath of wonder. He is all around you. This beauty is for you.
It doesn’t fully dispel the darkness, at least not yet, but it will give you the strength to keep shining your own light for another day.
And that’s all you need. Just one more day.
Lift up your head.

Art credits: Mountain photos and tulip photo by Kirk Sewell; Space photos by NASAElk photo by Kevin Tuck; Elephant photo by Stella Bogdanic; all other photos are mine

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Stop Slicing Off Ears

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It is early October.
An election is fast approaching, along with all of its requisite vitriol.
Flag with light
As emotions become more volatile, as words become our weapon of choice, I offer a word of warning. A plea, to myself as well as to you.
I’ve already spoken of how important it is for us, the Church, to be unified.
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Not for us to agree on everything, but to love each other. To love each other no matter what.
This is so important that it was one of the last things Jesus asked of God before He was crucified.
Why is this particularly important right now, in this month, in this country?
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As this election looms closer and larger before our wide open eyes, we are afraid.
And fear causes us to do crazy things, both to each other and to those around us who are outside of the Church.
You and I, we who claim to follow Christ, we are falling out of power.
The America of the past – the America of white, Protestant government, is becoming just that. A thing of the past.
Abortion.
Gay marriage.
Transgenders in the military.
Whatever you personally believe about these and other similar issues, most would admit that they are not generally promoted as God-sanctioned by the Evangelical church as a whole.
Just a look at these issues in our country today strips away the illusion that we are in control.
Many are fighting back against this. “Make America great again!” “Take back America!”
We as a Church are good at fighting.
crusades
Throughout our history, we have fought wars, both collectively and personally, against anyone who tries to take away our power.
Our earthly power, that is.
You can look as far back as the first twelve leaders of our church, as far back as Peter, to see our blind tendency to misinterpret what Jesus actually seems to teach.
When Jesus speaks of His kingdom, we assume that He means a kingdom here on earth.
A kingdom that forces everyone to live under God’s rule.
The sort of kingdom we seem to want America to be.
This is what Peter believed. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and how close it was, and Peter decided to help it along by using his sword to start slicing off ears.
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Jesus, however, picked up that ear, placed it back onto it’s owner’s head, and walked quietly off to meet His death.
We are losing power in this country, and perhaps this is a good thing.
The kingdom of God has never increased by force; rather, the kingdom seems to expand most quickly when those who are in power are against it.
Jesus speaks over and over again about His kingdom coming through the humble, the weak, the foolish. He is adamant that the kingdom of God is not about force or any kind of earthly power.
Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew that all of the kings and rulers exercise their authority in one way but you, you who call yourself My disciples, are to do things another way.
He tells them that you are to bring forth My kingdom by becoming a servant, by giving up your life for all.
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Everything we do to live out God’s kingdom here on earth must be done under the shadow of the cross.
Perhaps we should stop fighting to regain political power and start figuring out how to further God’s kingdom in this new America. Perhaps we should remember that God’s kingdom grows best one soul at a time through lives lived in quiet love and service.
Perhaps we should stop slicing off ears and instead begin the work of healing by dying to ourselves as we live as Jesus did. We can start by loving each other.

Art credit: Photograph of cathedral by Kirk SewellImage of the Croisés from 1922; St. Peter Cuts the Slave’s Ear by Duccio di Buoninsegna

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What Jesus Thought Was Most Important

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We are the Church.
You and me.
Trinity Lutheran
Notre Dame rose window inside
Whatever our stage of life or economic status, whatever bits of theology on which we might differ, whatever our politics or race, we are the Church.
When the world wants to know about Jesus, to know what He thought was most important, they look to us.
What did Jesus think was important?
Well, He said that loving God with all of your being was the most important thing of all, followed by loving others. In fact, the Bible teaches that one of the main ways you love God is by loving others.
Jesus thought that this loving others business was so important, in fact, that He named it as the main way that the world would know we follow Him.
Would the world know that today’s church follows Jesus?
Church light
Arched ceiling
If you knew you were going to die in the next day, what would you pray for? Trivialities and side issues, or would you pray for whatever was paramount in your heart?
When Jesus was about to leave His disciples and head toward the cross, what did He pray for? What did He think was most essential?
He prayed for His followers to love each other. He prayed for unity. He prayed that His followers would be one in the same way that He and the Father were one.
We are the Church.
You and me.
Is that what the world sees?
Dome St Peters
Michelangelo
Jesus is no longer on this earth. His Spirit is inside of each of us, but we the Church are now His body to bring God’s kingdom to this world.
Are we acting like a body or is the hand slapping the head in the face? Is the right foot kicking the left leg?
Jesus pleaded with God to make us one. Why? So that we could be happier and have easier lives while treating each other more kindly?
So that the world would know God’s love.
This is how those in the world can know that God loves them – by the way that we love each other.
What does the world see when it looks at the Church?
That question makes me want to weep.
What does the world see when it looks at you?
Whatever has come before, I implore you now. Love each other. Be unified.
Invite someone from another faith tradition to go along with you the next time you head out to serve the hungry and the orphans.
Find someone who grew up in another culture or another part of the country or even just a different side of town, and take them out to lunch. Listen to them. Ask questions.
After this particularly nasty election is over, invite someone who voted for the other candidate over to your home for a meal.
Altar
St Peter altar
We are the Church.
You and me.
I entreat you to show the world what Jesus valued. Astound the little piece of your world with your love for other Jesus followers nearby.
Our world needs some astonishment. And it is up to us.

Art credit: Photos of various cathedrals by Kirk Sewell

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