Prayer Practices for the 5th Week of Lent

Creative Prayer Experience based on John 12:20-33
Create a drawing or collage of a growing plant–possibly a wheat stalk. Show the “dead” seed within the earth and the living plant above. If you would like, you can add words to your collage. Within the earth, write words that represent “deaths” you have experienced–deep disappointments, things you have given up, parts of the Jesus-path that are most difficult for you.  Above the ground, write words that express the life you have in Christ–the joy and grace you have found along the way.

Creative Writing Exercise
Consider Jesus’ statement in John 12:27: “Now my soul is troubled.” Jesus speaks these words after his entry into Jerusalem in anticipation of his arrest and crucifixion. If Jesus were talking with his closest friends or praying to God, what might he say about his troubled soul? Why is his soul troubled?  What does he most desire at that moment? How does he grasp for peace in the midst of his anguish?

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Micah 6:6-8 Call to Worship

So we’re not exactly using the Lectionary right now. This Sunday’s theme is “sacrifice,” and here is our call to worship based on Micah 6:6-8.

With what shall we come before our God?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
Should we write large checks?
Should we empty our wallets?
Should we promise to fast and pray every day?
Should we sign up for more committees?
Would that make God happy?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
With what shall we come before our God?
With humble hearts.
Hearts bent toward justice.
Hearts open in loving-kindness.
Hearts earnestly seeking God.

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Creative Prayer Experience: Ash Wednesday

collage materialsYou will need:

  • a piece of paper
  • glue or Modge Podge
  • foam brush
  • collage materials (magazines, pictures, patterned paper, etc.)
  • scissors
  • colored pencils

The Hebrew Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday have a lot of “heart” language. Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our clothing. The psalmist writes: “teach me wisdom in my secret heart;” “create in me a clean heart, O God;” “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If the imagery of the heart seems a bit trite right on the heels of Valentine’s Day, it is good to remember that the Hebrew term used for heart literally translates as “gut.” We’re talking here about the deepest place inside you.

In a sketch book or on a sheet of plain paper or card stock, create a collage that represents what is inside your heart–or your gut–right now.  In creating the collage, you can use pictures, words, and shapes. You can create your own images and/or use images from the collage materials you have. ModgePodge works well for creating collages, but you can also use regular glue.

On this Lenten journey, we seek to be in a holy space; a space where we are aware of our connection to God. Use a dark colored pencil to circle, shade, or otherwise indicate that stuff in your heart that keeps you from inhabiting holy space.  Use a light colored pencil or pastel to highlight the stuff that helps draw you into holy space.
Response suggestion: Choose one dark part of your heart to try to diminish this week and/or choose a light part of your heart to nurture.

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Epiphany Sermon Snippet

Somehow I managed to preach on the magi story twice last year, so this year I went with Isaiah 60 for Epiphany. This is an excerpt. You can also hear the audio and read the full manuscript.

– – – – – – – – –

I imagine the captured Israelites expected their return home to be an epiphany—an immediate burst of light to drive out all the darkness of captivity and exile. They must have dreamed for years about a glorious and triumphant return to their home country. The jubilant parades and the “welcome home” banners stretched across gleaming cobblestone streets. Their old houses ready and waiting; their old jobs available for the re-taking; their old friends sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for them to come back. Once they returned to their homeland, everything would be wonderful and perfect–just like that. A spectacular event. An epiphany!

That’s the kind of epiphany we all want, I think. The immediate, all-illuminating light. We seem particularly prone to these fantasies at the beginning of the new year, when we imagine the radical changes we will make to drastically improve our lives. We’ll get healthy and wealthy and spiritual and organized—just like that.

We want the shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord. We want immediate light and definitive revelation. We want our loved ones (or ourselves) to be healed, our bodies to be toned, our jobs to be fulfilling, our bank accounts to be large, our children to behave, our relationships to be whole—just like that. . . .

But instead the light usually comes as a glimmer rather than a bright explosion. Because people—individually and as a society—we rarely change quickly; circumstances rarely alter immediately for the better. Deep darknesses of inequality and injustice and violence won’t disappear in a sudden burst of light. It didn’t happen for the ancient Israelites, and it won’t happen for us.

True, Epiphany is more than an interlude, but it is also more than an event. The shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord—these are events, yes; but they are events that mark the beginning—that suggest the possibility—of a season of Epiphany; a journey toward revelation; a gradual brightening of the light.

One of the blessed, beautiful things about light is that it doesn’t take much of it to make a big difference. (I’m probably not the only one who has been irritated by the glow of a cell phone screen in an otherwise darkened auditorium.)

Despite the dilapidated buildings, the social unrest, the temple in ruins, a prophet declared to the people of Israel: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Turns out that our light does not come from us or depend on us. Our light is the light of God; the Divine light that shines for all people. It is a light that draws people—and camels, apparently–to it—maybe sometimes because it is so bright; but I think, most often, people are drawn to the light no matter how dim it is; simply because it is there, promising to dispel the thick darkness, promising to reveal, slowly, in hazy glimpses, a better way.

So may we truly live into this season of Epiphany. May we arise and shine knowing that our light has come; that our light is here; that our light—which is God’s light–will always be shining no matter how thick the darkness. Amen.

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Worship Pieces: Exodus 1-2

For those following the Lectionary, here is a call to worship for this Sunday inspired by the Exodus reading:

In this act of worship
we lay down our fears;
we refuse our oppressors;
we deny the forces of death.
In this act of worship
we know God’s protection;
we receive Divine power;
we are embraced by the Giver of life.
Let us worship God with joy.

*You might also be interested in this reflection on the power of the women in the story, and this one on the connections with this story and current events related to the shooting of Michael Brown.

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A White Mother’s Neglect

One more brown body
and I think of all the lessons I never
my son like
avoid the police at all costs
dress nice
and don’t wear red or blue or any color that they might think means you’re in a gang
keep your hands at your sides in the store
so they know you’re not stealing
or packing
or preparing to throw a punch
and if they accuse you of stealing
or packing
or preparing to throw a punch
say “sir” and “m’am”
and keep your head down.
I have not taught these things to my son.
And not once
have I thought to give him the script
that should have saved Michael Brown’s life
but didn’t.
Never have I said,
when they take aim at your beautiful body
you must
spread your fingers,
raise your arms
and say
clear as day
‘I do not have a gun.'”

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Yes, You Have a Choice

greendoveLast year my teenage son got in trouble for playing Pokemon with a friend before school instead of attending a meeting he was supposed to be at. He informed me that it was my fault he was playing Pokemon because I would not let him be in Pokemon club. So he had to play before school with his friend.

“No,” I told him. “That was not my fault. You made a choice–a poor choice–about what to do that morning. You had the power in that situation. I don’t have a remote control that works on you. (If only I did!) You need to take responsibility for your choices and their consequences.”

I find myself wanting to have this same conversation with our denominational leaders.

The Executive Board report released the end of June does not come right out and say “It’s the delegates’ fault that we have to refuse to recognize Theda Good’s credentials,” but that is the distinct impression I get. The implication of the report seems to be that the board must abide by the foundational documents (approved by delegates) and therefore they must refuse to recognize Theda’s credentials. And gosh gee if the delegates would just do something already because the board’s hands are really tied here.

“No,” I want to say to Ervin and the board, “This is not the delegates’ fault. You are made a series of choices that lead to your decision to refuse to recognize Theda’s licensing.”

First, the “foundational documents” that the board has to abide by are documents that they chose to identify as foundational. Yes, many of them have been approved by a delegate body. As have many other documents that are not listed as “foundational.” The board chose which documents to consider foundational.

Second, the board chose which parts of the documents to emphasize and how to interpret those documents. (Gordon Oyer articulates well some alternative understandings of these documents.) It is not the documents themselves that prevent an acknowledgment of Theda’s credentials, it is the board’s particular interpretation of those documents.

Finally, the board chose to respond to their selection and interpretation of foundational documents by refusing to recognize Theda’s licensing. It was completely within their power to say, “These documents indicate that Theda should not be licensed, but we don’t care. We will recognize her pastoral calling and authority anyway.”  

The board report indicates that the delegate body can present resolutions at our 2015 convention that might allow for a new understanding of credentialing, and indeed several people are currently working on such resolutions. The fact remains, however, that the Executive Board is exercising power in the choices it makes about how resolutions are submitted and processed and which resolutions get to the floor for discussion and vote. The idea that the delegates are all-powerful over the Executive Board is a false one.

Currently the denominational leadership is refusing to send Theda a copy of the survey that is going out to all credentialed MCUSA pastors. She has been told that the Executive Board statement leaves the survey-sending powers that be “no choice” but to not send her a survey. In reality any number of people at the national office could choose to send Theda a survey. It would take a computer connected to the internet and about three minutes. Would that choice have consequences? Of course. But that doesn’t mean there is not a choice.

Obviously I disagree with many of the choices the Executive Board has made and continues to make regarding LGBTQ inclusion in general and Theda’s credentials in particular; but I am most concerned about people with power pretending that they do not have power; about people with choices convincing others–and maybe even themselves–that they are left with no choice.

The denominational leadership does have a choice. A very difficult choice. If they choose to “enforce” their interpretation of the “foundational documents,” many congregations and even conferences will be placed under discipline and possibly choose to leave the denomination. If the board chooses to regard and interpret the church documents in a way that allows space for conferences such as Mountain States to ordain LGBTQ clergy, then many congregations and even conferences will choose to leave the denomination. If they choose to continue on the current path of pretending not to choose and referencing the ever-ellusive “third way,” we may all just collapse from exhaustion.

As we move forward in our conversations and (please, God) actions related to inclusion of LGBTQ people in our denomination, we all need to be honest about the power we have and the choices we are making. We need to make the most loving and faithful choices we can make, and we need to take responsibility for those choices and the consequences that come with them.

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Easter Benediction

From Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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The Palm Sunday Crowd

442780252This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 11:1-11. As you prepare for Palm Sunday, you might also appreciate this prayer of confession and offertory prayer.  For more Lent and Easter worship material, check the “Lent/Easter” category on the right side bar or go to the Index and scroll down to “The Year” section.

- – – – – -

For the Palm Sunday crowd, I think that Jesus was a convenient person on whom to pin their hopes. A learned Jewish teacher, said to have performed miracles, riding into the holy city on a donkey colt. It must be him!

“Him” being . . . whoever they were wanting him to be. And they took his silence as consent. Because he did not tell them otherwise, they clung dearly to their ideas of how and when and why Jesus would save them. In their own minds, the people in the crowd made Jesus into the savior they most desired.

Now, if you know anything about history, then you know that the original Palm Sunday crowd is not the only group of people guilty of taking advantage of Jesus. From Constantine to the Crusaders to Nazis to the Klu Klux Klan to Fred Phelps and his “church.” It is so easy for people to use Jesus as a rallying cry for their own ideals and causes.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Of course, there are examples less drastic than Hitler. A perusal of the religious bookstore will prove my point. Now, I am sure that some of these books contain good theology. I’m also sure some of them don’t. Still, it is instructive to consider the range of titles available on Amazon:

Jesus CEO; Jesus, Entrepreneur; Jesus, MD; Jesus, Life Coach; Rabbi Jesus; Jesus the Pastor; Jesus . . . A Religious Revolutionary; Jesus, the Greatest Therapist who Ever Lived; The Laughing Jesus; Jesus Mean and Wild; Jesus in Blue Jeans; My Best Friend, Jesus; Jesus Christ, Superstar; The Yoga of Jesus; The Politics of Jesus.

Save us, we beseech you! O please, please, give us success!”

We are desperate for salvation. When a savior comes along, our tendency is to mold that savior, in our own minds, into whatever we think we need from a savior.

It is easy to follow Jesus when we simply make Jesus into the person we want to follow. It is much harder to follow the one who rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt in silence, tottering towards death.

I imagine this was a lonely, heartbreaking time for Jesus. As he listened to the praises of the crowd, he must have known that he would not live up to their expectations. That the salvation he offered was not the salvation they wanted.

It is easy to do. To make Jesus into what we want him to be. To latch onto him at just those moments when he seems to fulfill our hopes, our needs, our expectations.

But ultimately, when we only look to Jesus for the salvation we want, we deprive ourselves of the fullness of the salvation Jesus offers.

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Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Mark 14:53-65; 15:1

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon. The full sermon text is posted here.]


In his massive two-volume work, The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown gives an overview of the scholarship on the Passion Narratives in the Gospels. It quickly becomes clear that there is a wide range of opinion regarding the historical details of this trial before the Sanhedrin–for example, scholars don’t even agree on exactly who was part of the Sanhedrin or what rules governed the body.

But beyond all the questions of historical accuracy, there is a deeper question of why. Why would the religious authorities have been so concerned about this 30-year-old rabbi from Nazareth?

As Brown notes, we cannot simply dismiss the religious leaders as evil hypocrites. There might have been a few among them who were simply power-hungry and cruel, but most of them were genuinely concerned for the greater welfare of the Jewish people; they deeply loved the Law and did not want to see it diluted by some fly-by-night miracle worker.

Jesus was a threat to the faith they loved. He hung out with sinners–and even forgave them. He healed and blessed people for no good reason–even women and children and non-Jews. He broke the Sabbath regulations. He implicitly and explicitly criticized the religious authorities. He threatened the Temple–the very heart of Jewish worship.

Jesus gave the Jewish leaders plenty of reason to be upset–even afraid. Brown, who, in addition to being a well-regarded biblical scholar was also a Catholic priest, points out that self-consciously religious people rarely appreciate it when someone comes along and tells them they need to change their minds. He writes, “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

The early Anabaptists certainly found out how offensive it could be to suggest that religious leaders had it wrong. Infant baptism was a foundational practice for Catholics and protestants in the 15th and 16th centuries. Those religious leaders most certainly did not appreciate a bunch of people telling them that the Bible actually did not condone infant baptism and that their sacrament would have to be done again for adults. This suggestion of religious error was enough to get many Anabaptists banished, and even killed.

And I will admit that I have also been thinking about Brown’s assessment in relation to modern day Anabaptism. His comments seem pertinent to the current conversations–and threats–in our denomination [Mennonite Church USA] related to Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensing Theda Good–a woman married to another woman–for ministry: “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

In essence, that is what Mountain States is doing, what the Western District Conference did when they upheld my credentials, what our congregation does by being open and affirming of sexual minorities–we communicate to the broader church that, in our understanding of scripture and the way of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit, “God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.” We should not be surprised that people are offended. We should not be surprised that authorities call us up for hearings and trials.

Now, I do not want to foster a persecution complex; and I do not want to equate my arduous journey to Newton, Kansas, for the Leadership Commission review with Jesus’ trials and beatings and crucifixion. They are very different things.

We also must consider that it is dangerous for us–or anyone who is not Jesus–to assume that the beliefs we hold represent the heart of God merely because we hold them. When speaking and acting in opposition to others within our faith family, we may be in the role of Jesus, but it is also possible that we slip into the role of the Sanhedrin from time to time. As people of faith we are called to accountability in community, to prayerful study of scripture, to an openness to the Holy Spirit.

Still, as we walk toward the cross through these days of Lent, it is good for us to consider the whole story of Jesus’ death; to acknowledge that it is not just the secular world that opposes the way of Jesus. Resistance to Jesus can be strong within the religious community as well.

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