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Being Willing

henchicksunderwingMessage for Lent 2 on Luke 13:31-35 on March 13, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. Our theme for Lent has been, "Grow Your Heart."

Since moving from Frisco to Richardson, I have finally gone to the new dentist close to our new home. I am embarrassed to say he has offered to come to St. Luke’s to teach all of you how to brush your teeth properly—because he is afraid you are all following my bad example (I wish I were kidding!).

I have a Sonicare, the automatic toothbrush—which I am supposed to let do the cleaning for me. I am not very good at that. So, my dentist has had to use filling amalgam –not for fillings—but instead to fill in at the base of my teeth where I am brushing off the enamel and wearing away my gums.

I joked with him that maybe I am trying to brush away my sins—which means I am an even worse example than poor toothbrushing since I am a Lutheran pastor who’s been ordained for almost 33 years to preach one primary message and that is grace--Gods’ unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness of us in Jesus Christ.

So why am I brushing the hell out of my teeth and gums?

But grace is hard to accept, isn’t it?

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Yes, grace is hard to accept. Jesus laments that Jerusalem—or all of us—are not willing. It’s so simple—that Jesus loves us as we are, forgives us freely, accepts us and embraces us, giving us the freedom to grow from there. But it’s hard to really accept that kind of love –I mean really accept it—down to our enamel, deep in our bones in a way so that we can treat ourselves differently—so we can treat our body with love rather than harshness or shame, with kindness rather than like a disappointed drill sergeant.
Or what about that internal conversation we always have going on in our heads. You know we talk to with ourselves more than anyone else—how well do we accept God’s grace for us there in how we talk to ourselves in our own head? Most of us are not very good at accepting grace in this internal conversation—using more criticism and “should, coulda, woulda” and “why didn’t you” and “you musts” and we save kindness for everyone else but us.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is a maternal lament—so much outpouring of love and acceptance and inclusion to offer—but we have to be willing, I have to be willing, you have to be willing-- to accept that deep, forgiving, comforting, protective, fierce kind of maternal, Godly, grace-filled love.

But we resist—Jesus is hanging there with his arms open wide, and we recite a creed, and we believe our faith statements, but we hold back parts of ourselves, corners of our heart, sections of our lives, ways of thinking where we do not allow love and grace to permeate, to free us, to change our behavior, our self-talk, our thought patterns.
There are many reasons why— for me, it’s always feeling unworthy and feeling like I have to earn it. For others it’s feeling that we do not matter, or a fear of being abandoned or betrayed, or unsafe, or that we are not special enough, or we simply have too much anxiety to trust anyone, including God. Whatever our gut issue, it comes back to being in control as way to manage our life and emotions.

But here is Jesus who knows us and lived like us and put on our skin and knows every last one of our anxieties worries and gut issues, looking at us and saying,
“you are behaving like a scared little chick in a storm. I am right here. You are scratching and clawing away at life to get to the place where you already are by grace. Come on in, tuck under my wing, my love, you’re already here, grace is for you, for all of you, for your whole life, and for all the other chicks in your life.”
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
Can you become willing?

Can we embrace the freedom of letting go of the negative control, for the gift of embracing the freedom and kindness of grace? By grace we have been saved, yes, yes of course we can.

So the way are growing our hearts this week of Lent is to identify one area of our life where would like to move from being unwilling to accept God’s grace to being willing to tuck under Jesus’ wing of love and forgiveness, and acceptance.

So, where are you treating yourself with harshness instead of love and kindness? What is one area you can become willing to let go of controlling your own way and come under Jesus’ wing of love and let forgiveness, wholeness, and acceptance of yourself in that situation flow through you and give you a new way to approach it--- a new way to behave, exercise, or talk with yourself, or manage a habit.

I talked with my friend, Karen this week and she has always struggled with procrastination, and we talked about what this would like for her to stop beating herself up for it and embrace grace. And she laughed when I told her the toothbrush story, because me being hard on myself came as no surprise to her. So we talked about how I can slow down and use it as a time to pray rather than rushing to get the next thing done. 

Because my issue is not ultimately just about tooth brushing—when myself care routines are so harsh, they do damage, I have not allowed God’s grace and love to permeate this part of my life---I need to tuck under Jesus’ love and acceptance and forgiveness and reimagine them from a place of unconditional love how all my self-care habits can come from kindness and acceptance rather controlled “you better shape up” kind of harshness. (If you hang out with my long enough you realize everything can have spiritual significance—even tooth brushing!).

Growing our hearts this week involves accepting Jesus unconditional maternal love for us, as he embraces us in all of who we are, and loves us into the freedom of grace.
When you become willing for Jesus to love you in this fierce and tender, unwavering maternal way, just imagine all the harsh stress you can be freed from! Just think for a minutes if you released just some of the shame, guilt, unworthiness, fear, anxiety, lack of trust, self-criticism and judgments you carry—what energy will be released! This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said for freedom Christ has set us free. To stand off by ourselves unwilling to come under Jesus’ complete wing of love is to be trapped and stuck. But to run, willing and ready to allow Jesus’ complete forgiveness, acceptance and grace wash over us and spill into our thoughts, our behaviors, our actions, how we treat ourselves—that releases and frees us like only God’s liberating love can.

We become magnets of grace who exude love and possibility because people drawn to those who shine the light of Christ and love to the world; people are drawn to those who are overflowing with love. (And in case you were wondering, it all starts with patiently and softly rolling your toothbrush down from the gums on the top, and up from the gums on the bottom!)

I would love to hear how YOU are becoming more willing to accept Jesus love and grace more deeping into your life, as we all become greater beacons of light as God loves us forward into our higher selves.

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The Wilderness is Now

ronan furuta OPv10mICdJk unsplashMessage for Lent 1 on Luke 4:1-13 given on March 6, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

It's usually like watching a short play isn’t it? We used to hear the temptation story cheering Jesus on from the audience. We wait for the grand finale, the music swells, Jesus defeats the devil, we jump from our seat for the standing ovation, and then we go back to our lives until next week’s drama. This story seemed so far removed from anything in our life—it’s just how Jesus’ ministry begins, it gives us the 40-days of Lent before Easter when we give up chocolate until the Easter bunny comes, yada, yada, yada…

But this year feels different. Two long weary years different. The coronavirus is in retreat for the moment, but who knows how long that will last? Certainly, its effects on the economy, political divisiveness, the increased drug and alcohol use, and the pandemic pounds around our wastes make the temptations of the devil (literally “ho diabolos—the diabolic one) in the wilderness for Jesus to satisfy his own desires with bread, feel close at hand.

The images of war, civilian deaths, hospitals, and neighborhoods being bombed, talk of nuclear threat, and millions, especially children and their mothers, fleeing Ukraine—make the power grab of the diabolic one in the wilderness into thinking he can wield kingdoms and increase Jesus’ power, sound very real.

The amount of stress we each are managing, the mental health struggles, anxiety, depression, and other issues surfacing in ourselves, our family and friends make the distrust and testing of God and the misuse of Scripture by the devil in the wilderness, feel a little too close to home.

Life has catapulted us from the audience of this story onto the glare of the stage. And the truth is, this wilderness is not just the place where Jesus begins his ministry—but rather, this temptation story shows us that all of Jesus’s life and ministry is a wilderness experience; this first wilderness is where he needed to hone his survival skills and learn to completely trust God.

Jesus will be tempted in every way, everyday—to give up his ministry:

• when he is rejected in his hometown,
• when he is challenged and questioned by both religious and political leaders,
• when his own followers do not understand him,
• when his family thinks he is crazy,
• when mobs press in on him and then abandon him,
• when he prays for the cup of crucifixion to passed from him—

Yes! All of Jesus’s life and ministry is a wilderness experience, tempting him not to trust in God’s power and God’s plan.

And yes, it is true for all of us who follow him. Poet Cheryl Lawrie draws us in this way:

i just realized
that in my imagination
the wilderness is always somewhere else;
a foreign landscape i actively have to enter
in the act of being faithful.

the wilderness is always where i am
right now
and faith is the courage to stay with it
when i’d rather pretend i am
anywhere else.

The wilderness is where we are right now with temptations the devil—the diabolic one—uses to thwart God’s ultimate power in our life, and our ability to trust completely in God.

With each temptation, Jesus shows us how to completely trust God, how to keep God center stage, the ultimate power in our life—how to grow our heart, so that it belongs to God alone.

Jesus is famished, having not eaten in 40 days, so the first temptation is for Jesus to use his authority to turn a stone into bread to satiate his own personal cravings and desires. But Jesus is filled with a greater power than physical desire—he is full of the Holy Spirit. He quotes Deuteronomy 8- “One does not live by bread alone.’” Human life is more than our cravings; instead, we live by the provision of God as did the Israelites who received manna in the wilderness. How important for us in this wilderness, coming out of the last phase of pandemic that our most important provision is to be filled with Holy Spirit and the Word of God, to grow our heart and to turn the Lord for our sustenance. Giving in to temporary desires only leads to more and more cravings that never deeply satisfy, as does the love of the Lord your God.

The diabolic one then takes him up and shows him all the kingdoms of the Roman empire, claiming them as his own, if only Jesus will worship him. It’s almost humorous, how deluded the devil is—thinking all of this is really his. But Jesus is full of a different kind of power—the Holy Spirit. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy again and rebuts the devil with the True Eternal Owner of all, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus sees that if attaining fame requires becoming a servant to the diabolic one, the cost is too high. Jesus shows us that for faithful disciples, there can be no price too high for loyalty to Jesus Christ. Full of the Holy Spirit, we are willing to suffer energy and other material costs to save lives and find ways to deescalate the threat of further conflict.

From the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, the devil gives Jesus the third temptation: to test God by throwing himself down for a dramatic rescue. God would have to save him if God’s plan to usher in the kingdom through Jesus were to be fulfilled. Here the devil tries to use Jesus’s tactic against him—by quoting Scripture at him to make it sound like a legitimate request. Scripture can be used to justify anything, right? But testing and putting God on trial is a self-serving, and Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, makes this clear to the diabolic one when he quotes Deuteronomy again, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

How difficult it is to not test and bargain with God when we are weighed down with worries of people we love, when we cannot see how the problems, anxieties, and crises are going to be resolved—and we grasp at some form of control and rescue. Jesus invites us to shift our attention to Scriptures that rekindle our awareness of the Holy Spirit within us and help us trust in God’s power, presence, and provision in the wilderness. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…I will never leave you nor forsake you..” “I have chosen you and not cast you off…Do not fear for I am with you…”

the wilderness is always where i am
right now
and faith is the courage to stay with it

The wilderness is the place where Jesus cements a trusting relationship with God—a deep, abiding relationship that gave him Holy Spirit power to fulfill his purpose, to usher in the kingdom, to break the power of evil and save us from sin, death and the devil. He remained faithful through the cross and onto Easter morning.

The wilderness is here this moment, and it is a place of cheering—not from the audience, but from center stage. For right now is the place where Jesus grows our heart—giving us the Holy Spirit in a faith that sustains us, granting us strength to live with courage, and deep trust in God who is the ultimate and only true power in our life.

Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

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Christ is All

Ash WednesdayMessage for Ash Wednesday on Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 for March 2, 2022 

We do not need to be reminded of death this year—on this Ash Wednesday. It seems like death is all we have had for 2 years—951,000 dead in our own country, almost 6 million deaths worldwide. The news reports more deaths than normal to suicide, drug overdoses, car accidents; there is more anxiety, more teens suffering from depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, and if all that was not enough, we now have an unprovoked invasion into Ukraine resulting in more the loss of life. We feel like the Apostle Paul in 2nd Corinthians in his catalog of calamities where he describes what he has gone through as great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and so on…..haven’t we come close like never before, understanding what Paul meant?
No, we do not need to be reminded of death this year; yet here we are—Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Death. Our mortality.

Paul did not need a reminder either—he suffered every day for his faith, for spreading the good news about Jesus and his power over death, his resurrection from grave, and the light of his forgiveness for Paul—a murderer, and persecutor of the church. What an unfathomable forgiveness Jesus had given him. And here is Paul, after all he had gone through to share Jesus’ love, trying to prove his credentials and credibility as an Apostles to the Corinthians –We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

At the end of the day, Paul concluded he had nothing—nothing to show them, nothing to prove that he should have their respect or attention. He was not worthy of forgiveness, nor to preach Christ any more than anyone else. All he could say was through all the suffering he endured, he continued to believe in Christ’s victory over death, and he continued to share this truth. Being a pharisee, a well-educated, a high-ranking Jew, earned him nothing—it spared him no suffering—–from beatings, storms, shipwrecks or plagues, the only thing he had to show for his faith at the end of it all was Christ.

He was powerless. His community did not even affirm him—having nothing, and yet possessing everything—only Christ. When everything was stripped away—his status, his respect, possessions, his health, and even nearly his relationship with the Corinthian community, all he could do was cling to Christ—that is humility, that is the right place of the creature next to the Creator, the follower behind his Lord, the sinner beside the Savior. Powerless with only the gift of faith. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Paul realized all he had was Christ; Paul realized all he needed was Christ.

You are dust and to dust you shall return. We have gone through a great endurance, afflictions, hardships, pandemic, racial strife, inflation, political division, war—we are powerless over so much of it. Does our education, or income or our politics save us? No. When it’s all stripped away—possessions, respect, status, relationships, health, wealth—what do you have? All we have is Christ.

When in suffering, the only thing we can cling to is Christ—that is our humble stance, the right place of a creature next to the Creator, the follower behind her Lord, the sinner beside the Savior. Powerless with only gift of faith. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything. All we have is Christ; All we need is Christ. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

We begin Lent with mortality and death to remember that when all the dressing, degrees, and details of our life are gone, all we have is Christ. And Christ is truly the only thing we need. We discover this only through suffering, when our control and management fail us. It puts in sharp relief what really matters—what is really important and what is not. What is essential to life and what is not.

The suffering of pandemic times and all its attendant crises offer us this gift of clarity that Ash Wednesday and Lent puts again into sharp relief: all we have is Christ. We have all heard the phrase, “you can’t take it with you” when you die, whatever “it” is. The only thing you can take with you from this life is Christ—Christ is all that matters, having nothing, yet possessing everything.   

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. The only thing with you in the ashes and dust through to the other side is Christ. Knowing this, now, therefore, how are you going to live? Not just for Lent, but with Christ as the most important gift and possession you have?

Isaiah invites us to ensure that people around us experience justice and love and the basic needs of life. Matthew tells us that the practices of our faith are never done for show or for accolades or credit—because we are nothing without Christ. So, pray from the heart out of what Christ has done for you. Give from the heart because Christ has given you all you need. Forgive others because Christ embraces and forgives you in all of your flaws and brokenness. Authentic spiritual practices and acts of justice flow from the life and heart of the one who to whom Christ matters most—to the one who has nothing, yet possesses everything in Christ.

Ash Wednesday strips us down to ashes and dust alone, not as a morbid reminder of death, but as a complete washing in love, so we can see the only true need of our life is Christ. His love is the only thing we can take with us beyond the grave. Lent asks us to live with Christ as our most valued possession—having nothing yet possessing everything.

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Transfigured by Prayer

transfiguration4gh120po mediumMessage for the Transfiguration on Luke 9:28-36 on Sunday, February 27, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

We have all heard the saying, “prayer changes things.” If you google “prayer changes things,” you can download posters, and pictures and blogposts about how an active prayer life changes “things.” Because that’s what we want, isn’t it? For our petitions, requests and pleas to God to change things out there--around us—difficult situations, obstinate, misguided people, and certainly war-torn countries like Ukraine; we want God to solve our problems, to give us the answer, and to effect the outcomes we desire.

The issue, if this is our only view of prayer, is that it treats God like a holy vending machine: if we deposit enough requests, adequate petitions, with enough faith and the right attitude, God will dispense the goodies. A colleague of mine who worked on a college campus had a student come into her office crying over the death of her father to cancer. She said she prayed and prayed for God to heal her dad and it did not work. Her Christian friends told her she did not have enough faith. While offering prayer petitions is an important part of our prayer life, we can clearly see the limits of having only a limited vending machine model for prayer.

In the story of the Transfiguration, we see a completely different view of what happens in prayer. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain to pray. Jesus does this repeatedly in his ministry—often going off alone to pray. If prayer for Jesus was simply asking God for outcomes, you would think that at the top of his list would be that his disciples would start to understand his mission and purpose! That they would start to get it! And that they would be able to stay awake during prayer! But if these were part of Jesus’ prayers, God does not seem to pay them any heed, nor answer them in the least.

Instead, Jesus goes to a quiet place on the mountaintop where there are no distractions so he can commune with God, become one with God, experience unity, strength, and divine love in the embrace of God. And “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Jesus’ prayers don’t fundamentally change God. Jesus’ prayer changes him. Prayer changes Jesus. Prayer transforms Jesus into his fully resurrected glory. Then Moses and Elijah, in their resurrected glory appear with him, reassuring him, strengthening him, embracing him—giving him all he needs to walk down the mountain and toward the cross. Moses and Elijah’s appearance conveys a message that Jesus can trust God to get him through his departure into death and back into this glorious state because God was faithful to Moses and to Elijah and the entire witness of the Scripture they represent.

Jesus shows us that prayer is not about what we are doing for God, but rather, it is fundamentally about what God is doing for us—God is giving us the divine self in love, in strength, in glory, in whatever it is we need for the present moment. Prayer is much more than simply making petitions to God. Yes, make your requests and needs known to God—ask for the desires of your heart, the changes you seek, your prayers for the sick, and certainly, please pray for a change in Putin’s heart and for the people of Ukraine, for petitions for peace, but just do not stop there. Prayer is also to remain. Remain, in silence, and wait; wait for God to love you, stay for God to change you, and shape for your divine purpose.

For prayer is not designed to change “things” out there—prayer changes us. Prayer is about what God wants to do in us and through us, and making ourselves available for God to do this work.

We all have times or season when we avoid prayer—maybe we are afraid to say the wrong thing, maybe we do not know what to say—now you know that’s it’s not about what you do, so I hope you are relieved of that fear! Or maybe we do not want to face the ways in which God will change us if we give God the chance. Maybe we want to act like Peter and build a dwelling where we are, so we can stay exactly the same, and never have to engage in the parts of ourselves we do not want to look at or give up. Then we do not have to figure out how to bring the glory of the immanently loving God to this messy and violent world.

I get it. I have avoided prayer myself at times. But then I notice again how lousy I am on my own. How anxious. How controlling. How much I want to live by my own agenda.

And I remember, that is the very reason Jesus went frequently to commune with God. Because prayer and communing with God opens him to the Holy Spirit, which enables every powerful act of Jesus in the world –from his Baptism, to healings, to the calling of the 12 disciples, to enduring the temptations, to speaking the truth. Jesus receives the strength and Holy Spirit that takes him through the cross, to conquer death and back to life again. It all comes out of what God does for him prayer—it comes from showing up for God to love him, strengthen him, empower him, fill him with the radiant light of grace.

Carmelite nun Ruth Barrows describes meditative prayer that allows God to change us in this way:

What is the core, the central message of the revelation of Jesus? Surely it is of the unconditional love of God for us, for each one of us: God, the unutterable, incomprehensible Mystery, the Reality of all reality, the Life of all life. And this means that divine Love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! This is God’s irrevocable will and purpose; it is the reason why everything that is, is, and why each of us exists. We are here to receive this ineffable, all-transforming, all beatifying Love.Jesus invites us into this kind of all-transforming, all-beautifying Love that he experienced with God in prayer—so we can become vehicles of his radiant light in the world. Filled with the power of his Holy Spirit, the luminous love of God radiates from our hearts so that others might experience the transcendent, loving presence of the reality of God.*

And how much does our world need this love now. Our world needs the message that Jesus has defeated death itself, not just the current death-dealing powers that be. In the face of war, of increasing anxiety, drug use, accidents, burn-out, insomnia, and other symptoms of pandemic trauma, people you encounter on a daily basis—whether friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers at the store—will receive hope and salve to the soul because of your light, your luminous presence when you are transfigured by God’s love in prayer.

Mother Theresa said: “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”

So, try five minutes of quiet a day with God this Lent. And if you already do that, expand it to ten minutes. Allow yourselves to be loved by Love, so you can be changed by prayer, transfigured by beautifying love, transformed by God’s glory into a radiant light!

*See Fr. Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation for Feb. 14, 2022 from the Center for Action and Contemplation or Essence of Prayer by Ruth Barrows (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2006).

Image Copyright. Anonymous. Transfiguration, from , a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.