Just then someone spoke up from the crowd and said, “Master, you should tell my older brother that he has to divide the family inheritance and give me my fair share!” Jesus answered, “My friend, you can’t expect me to help you with this. It’s not my business to settle arguments between you and your brother – that’s yours to settle.” Speaking to the people, Jesus continued, “Be alert and guard your heart from greed and always wishing for what you don’t have. For your life can never be measured by the amount of things you possess.” (Luke 12:13-15, The Passion Translation)

We often read this story from the perspective of the brothers or the people in the crowd. This time, let’s take a look at it from Jesus’s perspective. In this section of Luke, Jesus is on his long journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. He has just spoken a number of “woes” against the Pharisees and other religious leaders because of their hypocrisy. And here in chapter 12, Jesus is encouraging his followers to remain faithful and not to fear or worry about what those religious authorities might do to them.

In the midst of all this, someone comes to Jesus with this strange request to mediate a dispute about their family inheritance. The request is strange to our ears, but it was typical in that time for rabbis like Jesus to weigh in on disputes like this.

Watch how Jesus responds, though: “It’s not my business to settle arguments between you and your brother.”

Did you catch that? “It’s not my business.” Continue reading

I used to love playing the board game called Puerto Rico. It’s a well-designed strategy game in which each player builds a mini-civilization on their own island of Puerto Rico. Various crops can be raised (like corn, sugar, and coffee) and then shipped back to Europe or sold at the local trading post. Many buildings can be purchased and built, which enhance a player’s production, shipping, and trading. The gameplay mechanic is really fascinating, too: there are a certain number of “roles” that players can choose from each round, such as settler, trader, captain, or builder. When a player chooses a certain role on their turn, that player gets a specific bonus, and then all the players can take the actions of that role.

I love strategy games like Puerto Rico. The dynamics of the game, the strategy of how you will try to amass the most victory points, the choices that affect not only your board but the boards of other players – I find that kind of game really enjoyable.

But there’s a problem. I said at the outset that I used to love playing Puerto Rico. I don’t anymore.

Why? Well, I’ve left out one key part of the game. For any of your settlements or buildings to function, you need to staff them with people. Otherwise, they will sit empty and not do anything at all. In this game, the people are referred to as “colonists” and are represented by small, round, brown tokens.

Brown “colonists.” They literally arrive on a ship and are put to work on your island of Puerto Rico, working in fields or buildings as you direct them. You can shuffle them around, but they never leave your island.

There is another word for these brown colonists, a word that the game’s creators conveniently omit: slaves.

Because that’s the real history of Puerto Rico and so many other locations in the western hemisphere. Brown “colonists” were brought over on ships from Africa and were made to labor at their masters’ discretion. But they were not colonists at all. They were slaves.

You may have seen on the news recently that a new federal holiday has been approved by Congress. That holiday is called Juneteenth, and it celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth occurs on June 19 every year, because it was on June 19, 1865, that slaves were proclaimed free in Texas by the victorious Union Army.

To be honest, I had never heard of Juneteenth until about two or three years ago. I never knew about this important day in American history and this important celebration for African Americans – for all Americans. I grew up in Indiana, and Juneteenth simply was not part of the education I received, either in school or at church or in society. But I’m starting to learn, a little bit every year, just how significant Juneteenth is.

The point of all this is to say that I need to grow and change. I need to learn. I need to listen. I need to ask questions, seek answers, and knock on doors that I never even knew existed. I need to join in celebrating Juneteenth and to continue the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

I probably will never play the board game Puerto Rico ever again. But I look forward to celebrating Juneteenth with every passing year. And I hope I keep learning to uncover the blind spots in my vision – or, rather, the planks in my own eye. (Matthew 7:1-12)

Do you know who Barley MacTavish is? I’ll be honest, the name was unfamiliar to me until I saw it in an article from the Midland Daily News the other day. Barley MacTavish, as it turns out, is not the name of a real person. Instead, the Barley MacTavish Fund seeks to help people from Midland County with their financial needs. This fund is supported by anonymous private individuals, and the names of all applications for financial support are kept anonymous, too.

Last week’s article in the Midland Daily News gave an example of the kind of letter that Barley MacTavish often receives:

“Dear Barley, I have contacted a number of churches to aid me, but they cannot help for a number of reasons. My neighbor suggested that I write to you with my request. I am a single woman and am disabled. I live on a fixed income. All of my family members have passed, so I do not have any relatives to count on. My biggest concern is with my well pump. […]”

Read that first sentence again. Read it a couple of times.

People contact churches for financial help all the time. Here at Mt. Haley, we usually get one or two phone calls a month from people who are asking for help to pay a propane bill, prevent an electric shutoff, or cover the cost of a hotel room and a meal. I welcome these calls, and I make a point to empathize with the life situations facing the folks who call for help. I usually ask about what other resources they have explored for help so far. Often, they say they have called 211, which usually has told them to call area churches for help. But the churches they’ve called either don’t help at all or have an application/interview process they have to go through. Occasionally someone will tell me they have had some success receiving help from a few different churches in the area – occasionally, but not often.

“I have contacted a number of churches to aid me, but they cannot help for a number of reasons.”

There are lots of reasons why a church might not help people. Maybe the church has been “burned” by people in the past – they’ve offered help but that help has somehow been misused or abused by its recipient. Maybe the church has given help with strings attached – “we’ll help you if you come to our service!” – and that has resulted in no help given at all. Maybe the church only helps people in its immediate community. (Did you know that’s how our congregation used to function? Our benevolence was essentially limited to people who lived within Mt. Haley Township.)

Something about this strikes me the wrong way. We are supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community. But if we make a habit of refusing to help people when they are in need, we are doing something wrong. Can you imagine people saying, “I have contacted Jesus to help me, but he cannot help for a number of reasons”? Yeah, me neither.

From beginning to end, scripture calls the people of God to live generously, with open hands and open hearts. Jesus himself instructed us to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 NIV). James gives a powerful example: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16 NIV). Our faith in God is shown to be real through the way we serve people in need. That’s one huge reason why “acts of service in Jesus’s name” is one of our goals as a congregation this year.

Our congregation has money set aside in our budget for showing this kind of mercy to people. We contribute $50 to whatever situation people are facing, without any requirements about where they live or what they do for us in return. We do our best to pay the vendor directly (Consumers Energy, the propane company, the hospital, the hotel, etc.) whenever possible. And we do this to let people know that God loves them, that we love them, and that they are not alone.

Churches need to do a better job of helping people in need. I’m thankful for Barley MacTavish, but I hope that people’s letters to Barley start having a different flavor to them:

“I have contacted a number of churches to help me, and they have helped a lot, but I am still coming up short. Can you help too?”

(If you would like to make a donation to the Barley MacTavish Fund, or if you want to request assistance, you can write to Barley care of the Midland Area Community Foundation, 76 Ashman Circle, Midland, MI 48640 or call 989-839-9661.)

This quote comes from a book titled “Invitation to Love” by Thomas Keating:

Whatever we experience of God, however exalted, is only a radiance of his presence. No experience in this life can be God as he is in himself because God infinitely transcends all categories and experiences. In the transforming union, the energy of faith, trust, and love is constantly being beamed to us whether we experience it or not. The body has been prepared and stabilized by the practice of virtue and the purification of sense and spirit so that it can receive the divine communications uninterruptedly. Divine love can now manifest itself in all our activities, even the most ordinary. The same all-pervasive union is present while walking down the street or brushing one’s teeth as in periods of contemplative prayer. External and internal realities are unified because all are equally rooted in God and manifest God. The entire organism is sensitized to all the ways in which the divine presence manifests itself, without mistaking any one of them as the ultimate expression of God’s love.

I’d like to reflect on this paragraph with you today, by connecting it to my recent running experience. (I know, I know, I talk about running a lot these days. But it’s a big part of what I’m doing in my spare time! I spend a lot of time thinking about it.)

On my runs, I have been listening to the wisdom and encouragement of several coaches who talk through the various workouts in my training program. One theme that keeps coming up in many of the workouts, regardless of who the coach is that particular day, is the importance of being fully present, fully aware, fully “there” in the moment. It’s easy to dwell on things that happened earlier, or things that I’ll have to do after the run. It’s easy to think about how much farther I have to run before I can stop for the day. The challenge is always to be completely present in this moment, right now.

Thomas Keating writes that God’s “divine love can now manifest itself in all our activities, even the most ordinary.” Even while I’m running. Even while I’m passing the next mile marker or crossing the next road. Even while I’m admiring the buds on the trees or the frogs in the creek beds. Even while I’m shaking the tension out of my arms or focusing on controlling my breathing. God’s love, now, can show up in every single activity of every single day.

The challenge is to be completely present in this moment, to learn to be aware of God’s love which sustains us and inspires us and consoles us every moment of our lives.

A second way this paragraph from Thomas Keating connects to my running life is through an injury I sustained last week. My left Achilles tendon started acting up on me, and that made it painful to run. I was a bit away from home when I decided that I had to stop running and just walk the rest of the way home.

Now, I’ve dealt with a few leg injuries over the past few years. And in the past, when I’ve been sidelined by a pulled hamstring or a twisted knee, I have been really discouraged and frustrated. Doesn’t my body know that I have training to do? Doesn’t it realize that this pain thing is silly, and it should just straighten up so we can get back out there again?

But this time, when my left Achilles started aching and I had to stop running, I wasn’t frustrated or bothered. I decided to accept this situation, to welcome the next few days of rest, and to trust that eventually I’d be back on the road again.

I count this as one way that God’s presence is working in my life. Thomas Keating writes, “the entire organism [my entire self] is sensitized to all the ways in which the divine presence manifests itself.” Maybe, just maybe, my patience with myself is really God’s patience at work within me. Maybe this situation is God’s reminder to me that there are lots of people with chronic pain or severe injuries, people who don’t say “eventually I’ll be back on the road again” – so this is a call for me to learn humility and to practice solidarity with those who suffer. Maybe this injury is a chance for me to recognize God’s presence in the midst of the struggle – not to ask “where are you, God?” but to acknowledge that God is experiencing this injury with me and will walk (if not run) with me through it.

Now that the American Rescue Plan has been signed into law, most of us will receive $1,400 per person in this third round of stimulus payments. I’m not interested to debate whether or not this is a good thing, whether or not you agree with the ARP, whether or not you’re concerned about where all this money is coming from. The fact of the matter is that most Americans are going to receive $1,400 in the next few weeks, if not sooner.

My question for you is this: What will you do with $1,400?

This is a spiritual question, not just a financial question.

I’m not here to tell you how to use these stimulus funds. Every person is in a different situation, and there is no single “correct” or “best” way to use this kind of money. If you do a quick search, you’ll find lots of suggestions from financial experts about what to do with this third stimulus payment. (Here is one article with six really good ideas.)

What I want to communicate today is this: How you decide to use this $1,400 says a lot about your spiritual health.

You probably know as well as I do that the Bible talks a LOT about money. There are hundreds and hundreds of references in scripture to wealth, possessions, cash, and how we use these tangible resources. Jesus spoke frequently about money, as well. Remember these? “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24), the teaching about the poor widow who gave all she had out of her poverty (Luke 21:1-4), the parable about the rich fool who built bigger barns for himself (Luke 12:13-21). The list could go on and on.

Apparently, God believes that our relationship with money is important. How we view money, how we use it to care for ourselves, how we use it to help others, how it’s related to biblical issues like justice and righteousness and shalom – these are ways for us to gauge the spiritual maturity with which we approach the topic of money.

There is no separation between our spiritual lives and our financial lives. The financial decisions we make are spiritual decisions, and the spiritual growth we experience will affect our financial attitudes and choices. When we make decisions about money, we should do so carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally, spiritually. I’m not saying that we should pray for ninety minutes before spending a single dollar. I’m saying that we should recognize the inherent spirituality of all our decisions, including our decisions involving money.

What will you do with this $1,400 stimulus payment? Who will benefit by your use of that money? How will you use it while remaining fully aware that God cares how you use that money?

Here are a few suggestions for you to try on for size:

  1. Be intentional with your use of the stimulus payment. However you decide to use this money, do so deliberately, thoughtfully, carefully, prayerfully, and responsibly.
  2. Invite a trusted individual into your decision-making process. Sit down with a close friend or mentor and discuss how you want to use this stimulus payment. This can have the powerful effect of helping you to see your motivations more clearly. Beware of the temptation to brag, to be prideful, to be self-righteous. Listen for wisdom, and respond with humility.
  3. Wait (if possible). Give yourself time to make this decision, if you can, because $1,400 per person is a lot of money. You may have an urgent need, such as an outstanding debt or an upcoming rent or mortgage payment. But if there is no sense of urgency, take your time. Journal about your decision. Sleep on it. Come back to it the next day, or a week later. You might find extra wisdom as you wait.

The second suggestion above might be uncomfortable or awkward, because we have been trained by our culture to privatize financial matters. But we have been trained to privatize spiritual matters, as well. I don’t think either of those is healthy. We need to be able to talk honestly with others about financial and spiritual issues, in the context of safe and (yes) confidential relationships. Ultimately, that’s a redundant statement, because financial issues are spiritual issues. So let’s deal with financial issues in spiritually healthy ways.

What will you do with $1,400?

I have mentioned on occasion that I am training for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon later this spring. It is just nine weeks away, and I am getting excited! Last week they announced that the event will be entirely virtual because of the covid-19 pandemic, which is a bit disappointing but understandable. I will still run my 13.1 miles on or around Mother’s Day weekend, but I’ll run here in Midland – maybe on the Rail Trail. I ran there for the first time last week, and I enjoyed the scenery as well as the lack of motor vehicles!

My training for this mini-marathon includes some really good coaching from the good folks at the Nike Plus Run Club. They have a free app which I use to track my runs, and they offer a 14-week training program for preparing to run a mini-marathon. Each week consists of five unique and challenging runs which allow me to change my pace, rhythm, distance, and effort, all while learning more about how my body works and how to succeed in this practice of running. I’ve enjoyed it very much so far.

Coach Bennett is the name of the primary coach throughout this training program. He introduces each week’s schedule, explains why each run matters, and offers lots of encouragement along the way.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was nearing the end of my 10k “long run” for the week, Coach Bennett said something remarkable. He said (and I’m paraphrasing): “I know the end of the run is coming up. You might feel the temptation to push harder and run faster over these last few hundred meters, but I don’t want you to do that. And I don’t want you to let up off of your pace and slow down, either. Keep giving a solid effort. Maintain a controlled, comfortable pace all the way to the finish line.”

That was hard to do. After running for 6 miles, it was hard to keep going at the same pace for those last 0.2 miles. My body was tired, and my energy level was getting lower. My legs felt good but it seemed like my stride was getting shorter. I was ready to be done, to get in the car and drive home.

The only problem was that I was still 0.2 miles away from the car. I wasn’t at the finish line yet. I could have given in and started walking instead of running, but one way or the other, my legs would have to propel me the rest of the way. Giving up was not an option.

Maintain the pace. Keep giving a solid effort. You may need to take a breather for a little bit, and that’s okay. But the finish line is still ahead of you, so don’t stop now.

I could turn the corner right here and apply this principle to our spiritual lives: as long as breath fills our lungs, we must keep running toward Jesus, keep living for Christ, keep running the race with perseverance. I could even back that up with scripture (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, for instance). But I want to put a finer point on this idea.

We have to keep running the race through the entirety of the covid-19 pandemic.

It’s been a full year, I know. The first official death in the USA due to covid-19 was recorded a year ago. Since then, over 524,000 Americans have died from this disease. That’s an average of more than 1,400 every day, for a full year. That’s about 0.16% of the nation’s entire population, or 16 out of every 10,000 people. That’s a lot.

Vaccines are giving us hope. We have three available for use now: Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. The best advice I have seen from experts in the field is that we should get whichever vaccine becomes available to us at the earliest opportunity. I am fortunate to have received my first Moderna shot last month, and I’ll get my second one next week. People over 50 years of age throughout Michigan will be eligible to receive a vaccination by the end of the month, if not sooner. I know it is an anxiety-inducing struggle for some folks who are waiting eagerly for their turn in line to be vaccinated. I know others are just plain sick and tired of this pandemic and want to life to go back to “normal.”

Maintain the pace. Keep giving a solid effort. We’re not at the finish line yet.

With the onset of spring, many people will feel the urge to relax – to get together with friends, to skip physical distancing recommendations, to put away those blasted face masks. Churches in particular face the pressure to get back to “normal” soon – we all feel the loss of the gathering of God’s people for worship.

But we’re not at the finish line yet. One way or the other, we have to move forward for the next 0.2 miles. It may look and feel like an eternity, but we have to keep going.

Coach Bennett has taught me that the real growth in a long run happens in that last section of the run, those final several hundred meters. That’s when we are stretching ourselves to the limit. That’s when we are testing the depth of our resolve, when we are learning how to stay mentally focused on the process of running. That’s when we get to choose to keep going, to finish the race, to persevere.

Maintain the pace, friends. Keep giving a solid effort. We’re not through this pandemic yet. I believe our response to the pandemic is just as much a sign of our spiritual well-being as anything else in this world could be. Covid-19 is a generation-defining moment, much in the same way that 9/11 and Vietnam and WWII have been. How we choose to persevere right now says a lot about our spiritual health and vitality.

The end is in sight, but we’re not there yet. Get your vaccinations. Keep wearing your masks. Maintain the pace. I’m cheering you on, even as I run right beside you.

Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, a season when we remember important people and events in the history of African Americans. The first Black History Month was held in 1970 at Kent State University, but a week-long mid-February celebration of African-American history dates back to 1926. Why February? Because it’s the month when Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born.

This year, let’s center African-American voices in our readings and reflections. I am challenging myself to read a book by Barbara Holmes entitled “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church” (second edition). This book was published in 2017 and contains chapters that explore spiritual life during the time of slavery, congregational life in African-American churches, the fusion of contemplation and activism in the Black church, the role of Christian faith in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the contemplative presidency of Barack Obama. I have had this book on my shelf for a couple of years but have not gotten around to reading it yet. I’m going to make it a priority this month.

In our daily “Scripture and Prayer” videos this month, we will read historic and contemporary prayers written and/or spoken by African-Americans. In the past, almost all of the prayers I have shared in these videos have come from one specific book, which predominantly features European (white) people. But the world is much bigger than Europe, and we all need to hear the voices of those whose ancestry traces back to a different continent.

Why is this important to do? Because the voices of people like me are heard all the time. Because the voices of people different from me have been ignored (or misunderstood) by people like me for a long time. Because Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black prayers matter. Because sometimes (perhaps often!) the prayers of African-Americans speak to situations that people like me would never experience. Because people of color have much to teach me about God’s compassion, provision, and presence. Because I need to listen in order to understand and to appreciate and to be transformed.

Join me in centering Black voices this month.

photo by dlkinney
photo by dlkinney

Perhaps you have seen the new series on Netflix called “The Queen’s Gambit.” That show brings back a lot of memories for me. More than two decades ago, I was a high school student, and one of my favorite extra-curricular activities was to play chess with our school’s chess club. We stayed after school one day each week to play, practice, study, sharpen our skills, and have a good time. Our practices were in preparation for weekend tournaments which were scattered throughout the school year.

Most of these tournaments were Saturday events. We would arrive at a school or convention center – local to us, across the state, or in another state – in the morning for registration. We then would play five games, each lasting up to ninety minutes. Then, at the very end, the tournament results would be announced, and trophies would be given to the top several players and teams. Everyone would celebrate a job well done, and we all would go home.

I was on a good team, and I was a pretty decent player. So we expected to win. At each tournament, our team expected to come home with a team trophy. We would easily finish in the top ten, but maybe we could place in the top five, or even win the whole tournament. Individually, I usually finished at least in the top 20. If I had a pretty good day, I would finish in the top 10. Finishing in the top 5 meant I had played really well that day – winning four out of my five matches and only losing once, maybe winning four games and drawing (tying) the fifth, maybe even winning all five.

We won a lot. We won the state team championship in my junior year. We were the sixth place team in the nation that same year. I brought home lots of trophies from smaller tournaments: second place here, ninth place there, fifth place here, seventh place there.

But I don’t want to write about winning today.

I want to write about losing.

I had a couple of bad days in my chess tournament career. Really bad days. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before, or maybe I just wasn’t mentally focused. In one tournament, out of five games, I went 1-3-1 – winning only one game, losing three, and drawing one. Needless to say, I didn’t bring home a trophy that day.

But the one day of losing that really stands out in my memory comes from my senior year in high school, twenty-three years ago this winter: the eleventh annual Lexington Winter Scholastic, in Kentucky, about four hours away from home. For some reason, my mom and I drove separately from the one teammate of mine who played in that tournament too. That was unusual because my parents rarely came to my tournaments. (I don’t blame them! What parent wants to sit in a high school cafeteria all day on a Saturday?)

In the five rounds of that tournament, I won three games and lost two.

My first loss came to a guy named Gabriel Popkin, who ended up winning the whole tournament. I lost to him in the third round, which didn’t bother me too much.

But then, in the fifth and final round, I faced his younger brother, Alexander Popkin. This kid was much younger – I think he was in middle school. His chess rating (a numeric measure of a player’s skill) was much lower than Gabriel’s, and much lower than mine. I fully expected to beat him and finish the day with four wins and the one loss.

Alexander wiped the floor with me. The game wasn’t even close. He won easily. And I still remember him sitting across the board from me, smirking at me, as if he were thinking, “My brother beat you, and now I’m beating you. You’re not that great!”

I lost badly. Not just on the chessboard – in real life, too. I left the gymnasium and started crying furious, angry tears because I had been so humiliated. My mother tried to console me. I remember another lady, a stranger, probably some other player’s mom, saying to me that it was honorable just to compete and participate in the tournament. I remember crying and shouting, “there’s no honor in this!”

I made quite a spectacle, I’m sure.

I was so upset that I asked my mom if we could leave right away. I didn’t want to be there any longer. I didn’t want to wait for the trophy presentation. I just wanted to go home.

So we left.

courtesy of uschess.org
courtesy of uschess.org

The next week, back at school, I found out from my teammate (who won four games and finished third) that I, with my three wins, finished ninth out of 37 players. The tiebreak system put me at the top of the list of players with three wins, because my two losses were against players who finished first and sixth.

I finished in ninth place. They awarded trophies to the top ten players. When they called my name, I wasn’t there. I was already on the road back home.

I was such a bad loser. To this day I don’t know exactly why losing to Alexander Popkin sent me over the edge, but it did. (It’s quite possible that I was exhibiting some early struggles with anxiety, which became a bigger issue for me in the next several years. Thankfully, through therapy and medication, I don’t have these kinds of outbursts any longer!)

I learned several important lessons about losing that day:

  • Losing badly can overshadow any wins and any positive recognition by others.
  • People notice when someone loses badly. (My mom, the other parents, the other players, my teammate…)
  • Perception does not always correspond to reality. (I thought I did poorly; I actually finished ninth.)
  • Losing is part of life.
  • No one can win all the time.
  • Running away doesn’t change the results.
  • Losing tells us more about ourselves than winning does.

What can you learn about yourself through your experiences with losing? What can you learn about others by how they lose?

2020 was an apocalyptic year

When you hear the word “apocalypse,” you might think of the phrase “the end of the world.” Armageddon. The return of Jesus. Judgment Day.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

“Apocalypse” means an “unveiling.” It means revealing something that has been hidden. Think of the Wizard of Oz – not the big, scary projection on the wall that Dorothy and her friends saw, but the man behind the curtain, who stayed hidden until Toto pulled back that curtain. Once the Wizard of Oz was revealed, the truth was known, and everything changed.

That’s what I mean when I say 2020 was an apocalyptic year. The curtain was pulled back, in so many ways. Now we can see what is really going on, what is really important to us, and what we really believe, if we choose to look at ourselves carefully and honestly.

Let me summarize three topics from the past year. Our responses to these topics are particularly revealing.

  1. The Pandemic

Is covid-19 a serious disease, or is it just a bad flu? Do you believe the numbers of deaths and infections, or not? Should we wear masks around others, or not? Should we be allowed to gather in large groups, or not? Are politicians trying to take away our rights, or are they working in the best interest of everyone? Should churches be treated differently than other organizations where people gather? Are you planning to get vaccinated or not? What should be done about the financial hardship facing so many people?

Each of these questions is revealing in its own way. Each of us responds to these questions differently. What has become clear in the past year is not so much that there is a pandemic in the world (certainly there is!), but that you and I have motivations, beliefs, perspectives, and desires which may be vastly different.

  1. The Election

Was November’s presidential election fair? Was there massive voter fraud in several key states? Do you trust our nation’s electoral process? Who do you believe won the election? Who, if anyone, do you believe is trying to steal the election? How do you feel about or make sense of President Trump’s continued efforts to stay in office? What do you hope will happen between now and January 20? What do you hope will happen after that?

These are revealing questions, too. Our responses to these questions say more about our motivations, beliefs, perspectives, and desires than they say about the election itself. This entire election season has been apocalyptic – revealing – about what motivates us, our neighbors, and our elected officials.

  1. The Racial Unrest

Why did George Floyd die? Why did Breonna Taylor die? Why did Ahmaud Arbery die? Is there corruption among police officers? Do Black Lives Matter? Should NFL players be allowed to kneel during the national anthem? How do you respond to this summer’s marches, protests, and riots? What books have you read about racism in America? Does our country have an ongoing problem with racial injustice?

Like the previous questions, these are revealing as well. How we respond to them (and even which questions we think to ask) says a lot about what is important to us. Once again, what has become clear in 2020 is not so much that there is racial unrest in our country, but that our perceptions of reality significantly influence how we engage with this issue.

2020 was an apocalyptic year. So much has been revealed about what we believe, what we value, what we hold most dear. The curtain has been pulled back.

Let me make an analogy to that climactic scene of the Wizard of Oz, where Toto pulls back the curtain, and Dorothy and her friends discover who the Wizard of Oz really is. In this analogy, you and I are NOT Dorothy and her friends. You and I are the Wizard of Oz. We might portray a bold, confident, perhaps frightening image for other people to see. But the pandemic, the election, the racial unrest – important parts of 2020 (Toto in this analogy) – have pulled back the curtain to reveal who we really are.

Our choice now involves how we decide to move forward. Are we willing to acknowledge the reality of the situation, admit what we really believe, and let go of whatever false images of power and confidence we have portrayed to others? Are we willing to acknowledge our shortcomings and listen humbly to the needs of others? Are we willing to use our abilities, resources, and voices to help others whom we encounter?

That’s what the Wizard of Oz did. And that’s what made him wise.

 

Our 75th anniversary celebration weekend is just around the corner! One of the songs we will sing this coming Sunday morning is an old Church of God heritage hymn entitled “The Church’s Jubilee.” It’s a song that I grew up singing in my home church. Perhaps you remember it well, also. But we have not sung this song at all – not even once – in my time as pastor of this church. This Sunday will be the first time. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why. Continue reading