Advent Devotion Eleven 12.7.16

untitledDecember 7th. If you are of an age, that date is etched in your mind. You can’t see it or write it on a check or a form without a flash of memory. December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack on a Sunday morning by the Empire of Japan that launched the US into World War 2. Then-President Franklin Roosevelt declared it “a date which will Iive in infamy.” And it should be remembered: 5 out of 8 battleships, 3 destroyers, and 7 other ships were sunk or severely damaged at . Over 200 aircraft were destroyed. Twenty-four hundred Americans were killed and 1200 wounded. In one attack.

There is more to remember. President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war. The Senate voted 82-0 in support of the declaration. The House voted 388-1 in favor of war. What about the one? The one “no” vote was cast by Jeannette Rankin from Montana. She was the first woman elected to Congress; an advocate for women’s suffrage and a strong supporter of social welfare initiatives. And she was a Republican. Rankin, a pacifist, also voted against entering of World War 1. Her rationale: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”

While December 7 was a dark day even in that darkness a light was shining. Jeannette Rankin was shining the light for peace, for standing by your principles whatever the consequences, and for maintaining your integrity and incorruptibility. In her subsequent comments, she made it clear that she loved and supported her country but also felt compelled to remain true to her convictions. She exercised the precious freedom that we hold so dear here in these United States. On the whole, Rankin was respected for her position. I’m not sure that would be the case today. Pacifism, principles, integrity, and respect seem to be in short supply.

May the darkness of December 7 remind us not to be afraid to shine our light. It is needed today just as much as it was in 1941 and maybe even more.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to remember a time that you were true to your convictions even when that was very unpopular or had significant negative consequences for you.

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Advent Devotion Ten 12.6.16

untitledAdvent is a time for reflection. It was once called “Little Lent.” There is a somber dimension to this season of short, dark days. It is an invitation to reflect on our need for the coming of the Christ Child.

Some years ago, I heard columnist Connie Schulz speak and she mentioned that we often think about religion in terms of helping ourselves and fixing others. Instead, she suggested that the true aim of Christianity is fixing ourselves and helping others. This is a season to consider what kind of fixing we need and what kind of help others need.

Many of the scripture texts for Advent talk about transformation. Valleys lifted up; mountains brought low; the desert blooming; swords turned into plowshares. This invites our consideration of what kind of fixing we need. How do we need to change to be more fully who we were created to be? Can we open our hardened hearts to let the love, forgiveness, and mercy in? Will we let the light shine on our lives with all their grime and glory and let ourselves really see what is there?

It’s easy to criticize others. The faults in others can be so glaring. Surely there are people that annoy you. There must be those whose outlook you find despicable. There’s that co-worker that you dread. And the kid you never want to sit next to in the lunch room. Advent is a time to look for the faults in ourselves. How can we be annoying? Who finds us despicable and why? Is there any validity in that? Are there those who avoid us and maybe for good reason?

When we let the light reveal who we really are, we can work on the fixing that is needed and move toward the healing offered by the light.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world and on my life. Amen.

Thinking about fixing yourself and helping others, remember The Micah Center today and put a donation in your box. Your gift will be a great help to the students who are served by the Center.

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Advent Devotion Nine

untitled This is a season of giving. People are not only thinking about giving gifts to friends and loved ones but are also making donations to charitable causes in the name of someone as a gift, and simply giving to organizations and movements that are making a difference. Year end charitable giving is encouraged for some as a tax advantage. [Please know that LUCC would be happy to receive additional charitable gifts as the year ends.]

Giving is important. Giving of money. Giving of time. Giving of forgiveness. Giving of knowledge. Giving of love. Giving a listening ear. Giving encouragement and support. Giving helps us to know how fortunate we are and how much we have to be grateful for. And it makes a true difference in the lives of others.

But giving is more than that. I got an email recently from a Christian group promoting “Live to Serve.” I think what we see from Jesus might better be described as “Serve to Live.” We think of the teaching that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains just a seed. And to save your life you must lose it. The implication here is that serving gives life; the abundant life that Jesus is offering to all people. Serving makes that kind of true life possible. It is the path to joy, community, and wholeness.

In this season at LUCC we are celebrating that The Light Still Shines. This season of giving is a time to remember the light of Jesus’ teaching about giving and serving. It is not just a feel good add on to life when it is convenient. When we follow the light of serving and giving, we find the gifts of joy and peace.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to note something that you did for someone else today and how that felt. You were letting someone know that The Light Still Shines!

And don’t forget your donations to The Micah Center. Jim Andrews mentioned in church today that the need is great. This highly successful program is in dire need of funds.

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Advent Devotion Eight 12.4.16

untitledThe Water Protectors at Standing Rock have been shining a light for all of us to see. They are shining a light on fossil fuels. Yes, fossil fuels have been great and have made a huge contribution to the progress of humanity but it is time to turn to other sources of power. Fossil fuels are no longer feasible to be used as a power source. Standing Rock is shining a light on a new future powered by renewable and sustainable power.

Standing Rock is shining a light on water issues and the importance of protecting the water supply for sustaining human life. This is close to our hearts here in Florida where we have lots of water issues – sewage dumping, Mosaic fouling the water supply, rising sea level, the Sabal Point pipe line, etc. It’s easy to take water for granted as we just turn on the tap and the water flows. Standing Rock is reminding us that water is sacred, it is part of creation, and it is necessary to our survival. We must honor its importance and value.

Standing Rock is also shining a light on respect for First Peoples. After hundreds of years we still do not have a healthy relationship based on mutuality, respect, and dignity between indigenous peoples and Euro Americans in the US. The people gathered at Standing Rock are shining a light on this woeful situation. We need to see what is being exposed by that light.

The Water Protectors at Standing Rock are shining a light of the importance of taking action. It’s easy to sit at home and complain about what is going on in the world. It’s easy to sign an online petition. The people at Standing Rock are reminding us to get involved, stand up and be heard even when it is not convenient or we don’t have the time. The people at Standing Rock have left home, family, jobs, and livelihoods to be part of the encampment. Now they are facing extremely cold temperatures and the discomforts and dangers of winter weather. They are making a huge personal sacrifice for what they care about; for what truly matters. They are shining a light on the need to be directly, personally involved in creating the future we want to see. Someone else is not going to do it for us.

As the days darken this month of December, we give thanks for all the light coming from Standing Rock.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

NOTE: In the coming weeks, LUCC will be creating a banner for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. This is one of the things that they have asked for on their donation list. They find great encouragement in banners of support and solidarity.

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Advent Devotion Seven 12.3.16

untitled Even though the election was almost a month ago, I still have people telling me that they are “recovering” from the election. They are still “getting over” the election. Instead of it being over and done with and feeling relief, many are still enmeshed in the election and its aftermath.

In this Advent season in thinking about the images of darkness and light there was a lot of darkness that was exposed during the election season. There was plenty of bias and intolerance on all sides. The election exposed a dark underbelly that some hoped wasn’t really there and that others were ignoring and that still others are glorying in.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a house in our area was “egged.” The home owner thought he might have been targeted because he still had his Trump sign up. Evidently, he thinks there are deplorables in the Clinton camp, too. Plenty of ill will and bitterness to go around – on all sides.

In some ways, the election was like turning a light on. We saw a lot of things that were hidden in the darkness. We could choose our information streams to see what we wanted to see and not see what we didn’t want to see. The election broadened our view – like it or not.

What we see at Christmas is Jesus, the light of the world, shining the light on the world as it is. He shows us the truth of our reality. He exposes what is truly there. But he does not leave it at that. Jesus then shows us how the world could be, how the world is meant to be, and what the Divine intentions are for the world.

The election might have shown us more about how the world really is but as Christians we look to Jesus to show us how the world should be and how we are called to work with God to create that world.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Is there something you would like to write in your Advent journal today about seeing light in dark times? Maybe there is something you want to note that is lingering with you about the election, something you need to let go of.

And don’t forget your donation to The Micah Center to help shine the light for a student in need of support.

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Advent Devotion Six 12.2.16

untitledThis week several people from the church participated in the annual Cities of Light observance shining light on the death penalty and the moral and religious imperative to end capital punishment. The death penalty is certainly a place of darkness in our society. And since this policy is implemented by the government, and “we the people” are the government, this terrible practice implicates all of us.

This past summer when I was in Wisconsin visiting family at their cabin on a lake, we enjoyed catching up on past issues of the New York Times Magazine. There was one issue with an article about the death penalty. The article focussed on the five counties in the US with the worst records relating to the capital punishment. With trepidation, I opened the magazine, and sure enough, out of this whole big country of ours, our county, Pinellas County, was one of the five countries featured in the article. I was afraid of that. So, we here in Pinellas have even more work to do on this.

Will we just turn away from this darkness and ignore it? Is it someone else’s problem? Since we may not have direct involvement with anyone on death row, do we think we can just bury our heads?

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with our 21 year old son, Malcolm, and I told him that when I was young we didn’t have the death penalty. There was a moratorium. It was not being implemented anywhere in the United States. He did not believe me. He actually thought I was lying or mistaken or something. He couldn’t believe that this terrible practice had been abolished in the relatively recent past.

That memory, that knowledge, is our hope. It is our light shining in the darkness. Our society put this practice to an end once and we can do it again. It is possible. We must make sure that the light still shines on the horrors of capital punishment and on the realistic hopes of its abolition once again.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. May that light shine especially for those on death row and those involved with implementing capital punishment. Amen.

Is there something you would like to write in your Advent journal today about seeing light in dark times? Or maybe you want to note something related to capital punishment.

And don’t forget your donation to The Micah Center to help shine the light for a student in need of support. People who end up on death row tend to be poorly educated. By supporting the students at The Micah Center we may be helping to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

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Advent Devotion Five 12.1.16

untitled World AIDS Day

36.7 million people were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2015. That’s close to the entire population of California.

Of those 36.7 million people, 25.6 million are living in Sub Saharan Africa. There is no way to fully calculate the devastation that this is causing in that area.

Of the 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS, 1.8 million are children. Most contracted the virus from their mothers.

In 2015, Cuba became the first country to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV and syphilis. In 2016, Armenia, Belarus, and Thailand also received this designation.

Only 60% of the people with HIV know their status.

2.1 million people were newly infected in 2015.

1.1 million people died of HIV/AIDS in 2015.

35 million people total have died of HIV/AIDS.

While 46% of those with HIV/AIDS are receiving antiretroviral treatment, neither a cure nor a vaccine is available largely due to underfunding of research and development.

And before you glaze over from all of these remote statistics, remember that each and every one of these numbers represents people. With families and friends. Individual human beings. Created in the image of God. Many of whom feel forgotten or stigmatized because of their disease. And several of whom are part of the LUCC church family.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. May the light of comfort and compassion shine brightly for those living with HIV/AIDS. Amen.

Note: Statistics cited in this post are from the World Health Organization. WHO.int

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Advent Devotion Four 11.30.16

untitledApparently yesterday was “Giving Tuesday.” I got many emails from wonderful organizations and causes encouraging me to donate. From what I can gather, Giving Tuesday has now become part of the Thanksgiving aftermath: Black Friday shopping at malls and big box stores, Local Saturday shopping at local one of a kind stores, Cyber Monday shopping on line, and finally Giving Tuesday. It’s a kind of wave. Only, I think the wave is going backwards.

On Thursday, we eat a feast and express our thanks. And what should come after thanks? Giving! Thanks and giving go together. We are grateful so we share. We celebrate our bounty so we are generous. We remember what we care about so we offer our support. It’s a perfect link.

Instead, after three days of shopping, with much gratuitous spending, there’s Giving Tuesday. An afterthought to salve a remorseful conscience? And how generous are people really likely to be after they have just spent three days running up their credit cards?

Advent shines the light on our culturally ingrained consumerism and materialism which in addition to rotting our souls is ruining our planet.

A professor studying environmental issues in China went to one of the largest malls there. There was a waterfront beach inside the mall! It was over the top. He talked with shoppers randomly. One young woman told him, “They have everything you could want and even things you never realized you wanted.” Another young shopper said, “We all want the same thing – a beautiful life.” The implication was that this was to be found at the mall. While the professor was dismayed at the responses, he quickly realized that he would probably hear much the same thing if he spoke with shoppers at a fancy mall in the US.

Our faith teaches us that a beautiful life comes from giving everyday, not just the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. And it comes from giving of ourselves and our core resources, not just our leftovers. Everyday. All day.

This would be a good time to put a donation in that container for The Micah Center and then go on from there!

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Consider for your journal, what have you been given today? What have you given? Where do you see light or darkness in this?

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Advent Devotion Three 11.29.16

untitledLast year about this time my husband and I were visiting some friends when the wife brought out a small lighting device with a cord. She was very excited about this new Christmas light decoration that she had just gotten. She explained it to us with great enthusiasm. Then she plugged in the fixture and turned it on and there were some colored spots to be seen but it really wasn’t very impressive. Well, we were sitting outside on the patio in broad daylight after all.

But evidently this wouldn’t do. We had to get the full effect. So, we were ushered into the house, and after a bit of discussion between the husband and wife, the four of us squeezed into a small closet and the door was closed. It’s good none of us suffers from claustrophobia! Then, inside the dark closet, the light was turned on. Well, wasn’t that a show! The countless spots and the changing color of this laser light device was truly impressive. It was very much worth being crammed into a closet to see! I could see why our friend was so excited about this new addition to their Christmas decor.

The lights of Christmas do truly bring joy, at least to some of us! And, of course, they are most impressive at night, when it is dark.

In this season of Advent, we are preparing ourselves to receive Divine light. We are getting ready to celebrate and give thanks for that light. Spiritual guides throughout the ages and across traditions remind us that sometimes we see the light most boldly in the darkness. In the dark times of our lives, we may feel the healing presence of the Divine in a direct and powerful way. In a time of great discouragement or grief, we may look back and see Love’s hand working all things together for good. In a time of deep desperation a door may open, and we see the light ahead and can proceed onward.

Life brings much darkness and heartache. But that must not stop us from looking for the light. That may be when we see it shining most brightly.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Is there something you would like to write in your Advent journal today about seeing light in dark times?

And don’t forget your donation to The Micah Center to help shine the light for a student in need of support.

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Advent Devotion Two 11.28.16

untitled $110,000. What can you do with $110,000? If you want to build a hospital or start a company in the US, it’s not much to go on. In many cities in the US that amount of money won’t even buy you a small starter home.

I recently heard a post election interview on National Public Radio in which the person being interviewed said that their family income, for a family of four, was about $110,000. She went on to say that each year it was becoming more and more of a struggle to “get by.” And she was really worried about that. Get by? Really? $110,000 is about four times the poverty line for a family of four in this country. For millions of people in America, $110,000 looks like an unimaginable sum. And to the millions of people around the world living on less that a dollar a day, $110,000 looks like winning the lottery.

This Advent season is a time to examine the darkness that surrounds us. Often that darkness is of our own making. Our attitudes and assumptions and perspectives may be leading us to see a bleak picture. And that view may be distorted, skewed, and in need of refocus.

Advent is a time to step back and try to see afresh our context, our circumstances, and our assumptions. It’s a time to recalibrate our reality and get our perspective realigned. Or at least start to admit that we may not be seeing as clearly as we thought we were.

It is also a time to let the light in that may show us what we would rather not see. What does the light of Christ reveal about our incomes and our economic arrangements? While we may not be able to verify many facts about what is in the Bible, we can be sure that Jesus was poor. It seems by choice. And that he never saw the equivalent of $110,000 in the denarii of his day in his entire 33 years.

Examining the darkness and letting the light in may help us to see that we are far more blessed than we realized! And we may have thought we were just “getting by”!

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Remember to add an entry to your Advent journal about where you have seen darkness and light today. And consider putting a donation in your container for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion One 11.27.16

untitledWith all the craziness that is going on in the world where can we turn? So many things have happened that have left us reeling. Wracked by the Pulse shooting earlier this year and what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman referred to as the “crazy and disgusting” election of this fall where can we turn? For grounding? For sanity? For another way? For a new vision? How do we access a future that is anti-violent? Can we imagine a reality that includes respect for all people regardless of identity? Where do we look for economic arrangements that are equitable and fair? How can we envision a sustainable relationship with Earth? What can heal the alienation, violence, ignorance, greed, and self-centered myopia that pervades society?

Basically good, well-intentioned, caring people seem at a loss about how to make a difference and how to respond.

Although he was born over 2,000 years ago, and his time and culture seem distant, remote, and foreign, Jesus still speaks to today’s passionate desire for a different world. Jesus challenged the assumptions, power arrangements, ingrained habits, religious authority, and cultural mores of his day and his message is still challenging today. He is a light for the path to peace, justice, healing, and reconciliation.

“The Light Still Shines” is the theme that was selected for the Advent Season at Lakewood United Church of Christ. The season will be an exploration of how Jesus is still light for the world. These daily devotions will reflect that theme.

As part of your Advent journey, you are invited to journal or jot down a few notes each day on the themes of light and darkness. For this first week, you are invited to think about where you see darkness in the world and where you see light piercing the darkness.

You are also invited to set aside an offering each day for the Micah Center which offers an after school program with homework help, literacy, math development and mentoring free of charge for children on the free/reduced lunch program in Pinellas County schools. If you don’t live in the St. Pete area, perhaps you will want to find a program or movement close to your heart that is shining the light and set aside a donation each day during the Advent season. Then on Christmas, you will have a gift for the baby Jesus that reflects his light into the world.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

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The Day After

Posted by Rev. Kim Wells

As I woke up this morning, I asked myself, “How does our faith speak to us in the aftermath of the election?”

The story that immediately came to mind was the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan? Yes.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, it is the most unlikely person who does what is compassionate. For anyone originally hearing the story, the Samaritan was the absolute last person who would be expected to help the victim beaten and lying by the side of the road. For us, it might be like someone from ISIS stopping to help. Yet in the story, something good comes from an extremely unlikely source. But, the Bible is like that.

Also in the story of the Good Samaritan, the responsible people of status and authority do not stop to help the person suffering in the ditch. And that person who was beaten had to accept help from one who was abhorrent. Evidently, today, too, there are many people who feel they are being passed by.

This day after the election many feel ignored, devalued, and alienated. As citizens of one country, sharing this our common home, may we be open to reaching out to one another with compassion and understanding.

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Standing Rock and Baseball

by Rev. Kim Wells

Images matter. Yesterday in my daily news feed, I saw a stunning picture of a Native American man at Standing Rock. Tall. Upright. Principled. Visionary. Strong. Determined. Peaceful. These impressions were emanating from the image.

Later in the day, I was exposed to another image. My husband’s family is from Cleveland. This motivated us to take in interest in the World Series Baseball Championship between Cleveland and Chicago. As we watched the ending of the series, I felt continually assaulted by the Cleveland logo of Chief Wahoo, an offensive caricature of a Native American. The red color and the insulting cartoonish grin disgusted me.

The United Church of Christ along with other groups have been advocating for decades for the Cleveland Indians to change this horrific logo to no avail. The UCC headquarters are in Cleveland which gives the church added interest in this matter.

Seeing the juxtaposition of the person at Standing Rock and the crude Cleveland Indians logo helped me to see how truly awful the logo is. To me, it is not just entertainment, historic, and well-intentioned. Seeing the Chief Wahoo image flashed across the screen again and again and again last night gave me a feeling of revulsion. It is so disrespectful and demeaning and not just to those of Native American heritage. It is an insult to humanity in all its rich and beautiful diversity.

Today clergy from around the continent gather at Standing Rock in solidarity, respect and reverence for Native Peoples and for the Earth. This is recognition of the image of God in all people and the sacredness of Earth. It is also a reminder that Native Peoples are not treated equally in this supposed land of “liberty and justice for all.” This needs to change along with the logo of the Cleveland baseball team.

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Who She Is

Near the end of his speech to the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016, Bill Clinton had this to say about his spouse, Hillary: “You could drop her into any trouble spot, pick one, come back in a month and somehow, some way she will have made it better. That is just who she is.” As I heard this, I found myself thinking about my mother. You could drop her down and come back a month later and, yes, things would be better. Much better, probably. Then I started thinking about the women at Lakewood UCC Church. One by one.  And as I thought about each one, I thought, yes, leave her for a month and things would be better.  And if you are a regular attender at the church, yes, I thought about you.

Now, this is NOT to say that if you dropped a man down in a trouble spot and came back in a month it would not be better. Sure, men are capable, too.

Is this statement of Bill Clinton’s an apt description of Hillary Clinton? Well, it pretty much describes every other woman I know, which just makes me wonder why the US has never had a woman president.

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Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Who could have foreseen what a bizarre, nasty, and divided election season this would be? Not only are we bombarded with constant trash about the candidates, here in Florida  there are also persistent lies about the amendments to the Florida State Constitution especially Amendment One relating to solar energy. And even if you try to avoid it all by ignoring the paper, the radio, and the newsfeed on the internet, they are dishing it up to you on your phone with incessant robo calls.

As Christians, much as this election season may disgust us, we know that it is an opportunity to vote our values and to express our faith in a way that matters and can make a difference. And so we suppress the urge to stay home and not even bother voting.

Let’s take a moment to examine how Jesus might vote if he were an American citizen today. Jesus was devoted to a God of love for all of Creation. He showed people a God of love and care for all with no prejudice based on religion, ethnicity, or sexual identity. With that God at his center, Jesus took action on a day to day basis. He showed us how to embody the universal love of God for all by acting with compassion and mercy for individual people. This exposed the injustices of the society of his day. Jesus disrupted the social, political, religious, and economic arrangements of his time because all of those systems were set up to protect some at the expense of others. It’s no wonder he was killed.

In thinking about how to make our voting decisions, we can think about Jesus taking into consideration the big picture: All of Creation is beloved by God. So, how will our vote affect all of Creation? How will our vote impact the besieged people of Aleppo? How will our vote make a difference to the melting polar ice caps and glaciers? How will our vote influence the child who is sent on to Middle School but still cannot read? What will our vote do for the people of all the nations of the world who are all made in God’s image and beloved? I think this is how Jesus would think about who to vote for.

In the Tampa Bay Times, there was a letter to the editor this morning in which the writer shares how he will decide who to vote for: “Both presidential candidates are flawed human beings. But we must vote for one. So, which might benefit us and our families the best?” That is how Leonard Mead of Apollo Beach will decide who to vote for. To me, this perspective is not consistent with the universal vision of Jesus. To limit our concern to “us and our families” in voting is not in keeping with Jesus’ concern for all of Creation. This is far too limited a perspective for someone committed to the way of Jesus.

In another letter to the editor today, R. B. Johnson of Indian Rocks Beach gives this advice for selecting who to vote for: “Instead of obsequiously marching in lockstep to the siren blandishments of party solidarity, we should be considering ourselves human beings first, Americans second, and members of political parties a distant third.” This perspective is much closer to the vision of Jesus. The writer is encouraging us to broader horizons, to consider the well-being of the whole human family, not just our own family. This is much more in keeping with the way of Jesus.

All of Creation is the self disclosure of God. All of life is sacred. Every person is created in God’s image. Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity are about a grand vision of the common good. And that is what should guide our voting as followers of Jesus.

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Devotion – Easter Sunday

Helen Nims, a 100 year old member of the congregation, died in her sleep on Holy Saturday morning about 3:00 a.m. He son in Connecticut spoke with her by phone at about 2:00 a.m. Helen has been ready to die for years. She has said many times, “I don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here.” She was not afraid to die. She did not know what was to come, but she was ready for it.

For Helen, her death is the fulfillment of her hopes and dreams. How beautiful for her to have that gift at Easter.

May Easter bring us all new life!

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Devotion 46 – Holy Saturday

Silence. You may have noticed that the devotion posted for Good Friday had no content. It was silent. Maybe on Good Friday, Jesus, in some way experienced the silence of God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Today, Holy Saturday, there is a tradition that Jesus went down into hell and brought back with him the souls that were in hell. There are paintings of Jesus emerging from the fires of hell with streams of people following him. Thus even in his time of abandonment to the grave, he still found a way to do good, to help others, to defeat evil. Even if God was silent for him.

In recent days we have had a glaring portrayal of the way of Jesus and the way of the world, the contrast, brought home to us. Prominent politicians talk about building a wall to protect the United States. That’s one image. A worldly, fearful, self protecting image. This week, we have heard of Pope Francis washing the feet of immigrants at a center outside of Rome. He is ministering to the very people the wall is meant to keep out. That is an opposite image.

The Pope is following Jesus. Doing the good. Helping those most in need. Reaching out to those who feel marginalized. We think of Jesus, perhaps at his lowest moment, dead, choosing to visit hell to save the souls there. Is it so much to do that here on Earth?

Even when God seems silent, we can still choose to do the good and to follow the way of Jesus. And wait. For the silence will come to an end.

Prayer
We pray for hearts open to the way of love, even when we ourselves face challenge and hardship. May we meet God in the faces of those who need us. Maybe it is we who need them. Amen.

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Devotion 44 – Viva la paz!

This week we heard of President Obama’s visit to Cuba. It was amazing for me to hear about it. An American president in Cuba. My whole life, Cuba has been an enemy of the US though just 90 miles from Florida. In high school we read 13 Days about the Cuban missile crisis. I couldn’t put the book down. Many of you may actually remember the conflict. The world was poised, at the edge, on the brink, of nuclear war. Now, the US president has visited Cuba. On one hand, I never thought I would see it happen. On the other, I wonder why things haven’t thawed sooner. Really? Cuba? We have relations with other communist countries and other countries with human rights records we condemn. Maybe it has taken so long because there are many Cuban exiles in the US and they exert a lot of political power.

I appreciated listening to the President’s speech to the Cuban people. He didn’t portray the US as paradise. He didn’t extol democracy as nirvana. He admitted that the US has many challenges. But the President explained that our open, participatory system allows the people to work for improvement and change. And he affirmed that changes and progress are needed in the US and in Cuba.

This week we are remembering Jesus’ life and ministry. This week, we remember his last teachings and his last days. We remember his crucifixion. Jesus’ unjust death stems from his life and teaching. He pointed people to God with no self interest involved. He encouraged God’s vision of community, inclusion, and justice, for no personal, individual gain. The gain was to be collective.

Before we get swept away by the glories of Easter, we want to remember that Jesus did not say that God’s way would be easy. A seed must die. Give up your life for your friends. Many of Jesus teachings show the cost of discipleship. They convey a path of sacrifice. Jesus died for being true to God. Others were killed for their faith. But the way of justice and peace is the very way to abundant life. Joyful life. Not simply going through the motions, in bondage to self interest, but living the good life for others, for humankind, for Creation.

I found President Obama’s trip to Cuba hopeful. I was moved to tears at his speech. Now, finally, we are beginning to act in mutuality with this small, poor neighboring nation. There are issues to be resolved. The countries have their differences and ever will. But we should be talking, visiting, playing music and baseball together, in a spirit of good will and mutual respect.

It was refreshing to see a US leader pursue peace with a former enemy without using a gun, or a bomb. And it stood in stark contrast to the bombings in Brussels. It was a bright spot, a moment of sanity, in a world that too often seems insane and inane.

Pilate let Jesus off. Herod let Jesus off. They didn’t think he deserved to be killed. It was the crowds that called for crucifixion. There are those who still call for severed relations with Cuba. May we be the crowds, the people, who cry out for peace.

Prayer
This Holy Week, remembering the death of Jesus, we pray for all the things that make for peace. Amen.

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Devotion 43 – Living by the sword

Today the world has been sent into shock again at the terrorist bombings in Brussels, at the airport and a metro station. People were going about their every day lives, lives taken by complete strangers who have no direct connection with the many who were injured and killed. This is so reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks and other attacks around the world. Strangers perpetrating violence against strangers, civilians in their every day lives, who have personally done them no harm, all done in the cause of an ideology.

In the story of Jesus’ arrest in the gospel of Matthew, when the guards restrain Jesus, one of his followers cuts off the ear of a slave. He is trying to protect his master. Defend him. But we are given these words of Jesus: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” [Matthew 26:52] Some verses later, we are told that the disciples deserted Jesus and fled.

Undoubtedly the disciples were afraid. Would they be arrested? Would they be detained? Would they be attacked? Were their lives on the line? Fear gave them a good reason to flee. But there may be more here. Jesus tells them not to respond with violence. We can imagine that their first impulse would have been to fight back. Take on the guards. Try to set Jesus free. That may very well have been the approach that they wanted to take: That they knew how to take. That they would have been comfortable taking. But Jesus tells them to suppress that impulse and quell that response. He has shown them another way. To take up violence would be to betray everything he has lived for and everything he will die for. The disciples don’t have an immediate Plan B, so they flee. They don’t know what to do if they don’t react with violence.

It seems that Jesus’ message is still having a hard time getting through today. The first reaction, even among Christians, is still to react with violence. We see many Christians idolizing the second amendment though it is very clear that Jesus would never support taking up arms. The sabers rattle in the face of terrorism. Presidential candidates threaten to bomb the terrorists into oblivion. And they are heartily supported with the votes of many Christians.

We can well imagine Jesus weeping in disappointment and despair for we still have not grasped his transformational message. Violence begets violence begets violence begets violence. The only thing that ends violence is love.

Prayer
We pray for all those suffering the effects of violence in Brussels and around the world. We give thanks for Jesus, who has shown us how to put an end to the spiral of violence. May we continue to try to learn the way of peace from Jesus so that his death is not in vain. Amen.

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Devotion 42 – Judas, are you here?

There is a Holy Week litany which asks, Judas, are you here? Judas is remembered for betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver and then hanging himself. There is also a stream of belief that Judas did this out of devotion and faithfulness; that it was necessary so that Jesus’ mission could be fulfilled.

When we think of Judas as a betrayer, the case can be made that Judas betrayed Jesus because Jesus did not fulfill Judas’ expectations of a Messiah. Perhaps Judas was looking for more of a political rebel as a Messiah. More of a fighter. Someone who would take up arms and challenge Roman rule, then set himself and his friends up in positions of power. Then, when Jesus did not meet Judas’ expectations, Judas betrayed him. That is the customary view. And it has insights for us, even if we don’t see Judas that way.

We may feel that our faith is not strong. That is does not make enough of a difference in our lives. Maybe we feel that we are not making enough of a difference in the world. Perhaps we wish we were closer to God. We may have these disappointments because we feel our expectations are not being met. But maybe the problem is our expectations. Maybe what we think we want is not what is best for us, or what is needed by the world, or what is truly consistent with the way of Christ, or fitting for our circumstances. Maybe we are disappointed because what we are hoping for is not what we need.

Our faith could be offering us wonderful experiences, amazing new life, and exciting transformation, but we could be missing it all because it is not what we are looking for or expecting.

This Holy Week is a time to let ourselves be surprised and stunned by Love.

Prayer
It can be very hard to follow. We want to lead. We want to be in control. We think we know best. This Holy Week, may we open ourselves to the leading of Divine Love even when it leads us to the cross and beyond. Amen.

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Devotion 41 – Follow the Money

Jesus leads a peace procession in the streets of Jerusalem. Evidently even then, there wasn’t peace. The parade culminates at the Temple. This should be the locus of God’s peace in the world. This should be a place of serenity, devotion, and reverence. You know the hushed feeling of awe you get in a sacred space. Even in our little church open to the world, there is a sense of reverence. The Temple should have been a holy place of peace where you know to speak in hushed tones.

In the Palm Sunday account, when Jesus and the peace procession get to the Temple, what occurs is surprising. Instead of a candlelight vigil or a prayer service, we are given the story of Jesus driving out the money changers and overturning their tables. It’s as if things go from a peaceful demonstration to a riot. We know that line can be thin. An orderly market is thrown into chaos. This is one of the few stories we have of Jesus literally upsetting things. He disrupts the functioning of the Temple. Obviously, some people will not be happy about this. Surely the money changers were not thrilled with following their coins all over the ground and collecting their pigeons and other animals from hither and yon. The Temple officials would not have been happy about the disruption to their business and their income. They would not like the upset of the sacrifice system from which they benefitted and were fed though at the expense of the masses. To bring peace, Jesus uncovers the corruption of the sacrifice system. The peace of God and bilking the believers do not go hand in hand.

This episode shows us Jesus getting right to the heart of things. Follow the money. In religion, in society, in politics, in our personal spending, Jesus shows us that what is going on with the money is what is going on. It reveals people’s true commitments and intentions.

If you want to know more about yourself and what you care about, look at your spending and your budget. To know more about an organization, look at what is done with the money. When investigating political candidates, see where the money comes from and what the person’s policies are around money. Want to know more about a church or religious institution, look at the budget and finance statements. And if you can’t get access to the figures, someone does not want you to follow the money because it leads to the truth.

Prayer
May we align ourselves with Jesus’ procession of peace even when it disrupts our financial assumptions and conventions. May we follow the money and see the truth exposed. It is only through honesty that we can rid ourselves of the corrosive effects of greed which prevent God’s peace. Amen.

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Devotion 40 – Palms and Paradise

Palms. We are told they were used to line the path for the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem. His was a parade of peace. He did not enter the city as a military conqueror, though that is what some people would have liked. Jesus entered Jerusalem as the embodiment of peace, of hope, of reconciliation, of a new future. And not only a new future, but a different future. A future in which the oppressed do not apply the tactics of the oppressor to reverse the situation. Jesus comes into Jerusalem as a symbol of a reality in which violence, harm, and pain are not used as weapons against others. Jesus is leading the way to a reality in which the innate dignity of every person is honored and the creation itself is revered as the self-disclosure of God.

The palm tree is quite unique. It provides food through the nuts and date. Oil can be made from the palm. The fronds can be used for making baskets and for roofing and other practical applications. The trunk and the crown are home to countless insects, birds, and other flora and fauna.

Then there is the symbolic nature of the palm tree. It is associated with tropical warmth, the beach, vacation. Can you remember driving south on I-95 from the frozen north, eagerly seeing that first palm tree by the side of the highway in South Carolina? With global climate change, maybe they are in North Carolina now. But the palm tree is a symbol of tropical paradise especially for those from temperate climes.

So we see that the palm is really a very fitting symbol for the new reality that Jesus is pointing us to: a reality of peace, lived in harmony with one another and with nature. Paradise.

Prayer
May we keep focused on the kind of community and world that Jesus shows to us. May we be disciplined and keep ourselves from the allure a self-centered, greedy, violent society. May the palms around us remind us of Paradise and peace. Amen.

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Devotion 39 – Lent 2016

“When they came to the land of Goshen, Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to meet his father Israel in Goshen. He presented himself to him, fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Joseph, “I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” Genesis 46:29-30, NRSV

The story of Joseph can be seen as a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus. As one commentator says, “The long and moving story of Joseph, who is sold by his brothers and then becomes their saviour, is the first image of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ in the Bible.” [From The Christian Community Bible. Translated, presented and commented for the Christian Communities of the Philippines and the Third World; and for those who seek God.]

Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, so unjustly gotten rid of. He is then falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, which lands him in prison. So he knows what it is to be an innocent victim. When the brothers return home, they tell their father that Joseph is dead. Jacob mourns inconsolably. For Jacob, his son is dead. His pride and joy, gone. It is final. Finished. He has the blood-stained robe to prove it.

Then after many years, the drought drives Jacob to sent his sons to Egypt for grain where they encounter Joseph. Eventually, all is revealed. Well, almost all. We don’t ever hear the brothers confessing to their father what they did to Joseph. We are just told that Jacob finds out that his beloved son, Joseph, whom he thought for years was dead, is alive. So, in the story of Joseph we see the innocent victim, whom his father believes is dead, appearing alive once again to his father and family.

Jesus would have known well the story of Joseph. We can imagine the saga of Joseph and his trials, the suffering of Jacob, and the ultimate working of all things together for good was a comfort to Jesus as he was undergoing his own suffering and grief.

In this season of Lent, we examine our lives to discover and acknowledge where we are dead. In our personal lives, our dreams, as a church, as a culture, where is there death? The story of Joseph and the story of Jesus show us that God brings new life, even from the most dead places, where we have long given up.

Prayer
We like to portray the image that everything is fine. We may obsess, medicate, or otherwise obscure reality. We can delude ourselves into ignoring where death holds sway. May we open our eyes to see the death around us and within us so that we can welcome the new life God brings. Amen.

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Devotion 38 – Lent 2016

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you out of this land to the land that God swore the Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’ And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” Genesis 50:24-26

So ends the book of Genesis and the saga of Joseph. Joseph wants his body to rest where it first came into the world. He wants to end where he began. Full circle. Fully rooted in his family, land, culture, and religion of origin.

Joseph began in Canaan. His brothers sold him into slavery. He ended up in Egypt. In Egypt, he was a servant. He was imprisoned. He was put in charge of the country. His family came to Egypt and he was able to sustain them through the drought with the grain stores of Egypt. Joseph is reconciled with his family and they settle in Egypt. But still, Joseph wants his final resting place to be in his original homeland of Canaan. He still longs for what he considers his home.

We live in a time of much migration and mobility. People move from place to place for jobs, for weather, for retirement, to be near kids, for school, for lifestyle, for culture, for love. There is also much migration that occurs because of violence, war, and drought. Migration may be caused by severe weather events, like Hurricane Katrina. Many people left New Orleans and did not go back. With rising sea levels, there will be even more migration.

Our faith teaches that our true home is in God. And God is everywhere. So we can be at home everywhere. We also affirm that God is within us. So wherever we are, God is with us, and we can learn to be at home. We think of Jesus always going from place to place. And everywhere he went, he was at home. May we find our way home to God this Lenten season.

Prayer
The Earth is full of the glory of God. May we look for that glory everywhere, even within ourselves, and certainly within others. Aware of the presence of God, may we find our true home. Amen.

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Devotion 37 – Lent 2016

“God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘I am God, the God of your fathers; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.’” Genesis 46:2-3

Jacob/Israel was coming to the end of his long life. He was old and had a large family. We can well imagine that his intent was to make his transition from this life in his comfortable homeland of Canaan. That was where he was familiar and entrenched. That’s the land he had spent his life on. That is where the people were that he knew.

Maybe Jacob/Israel thought that he was winding down; that God was pretty much finished with him. He had done his job, been faithful, followed God’s way. Now it was time to coast to the end. A gentle landing. But instead, he finds himself moving to a new country;  family, flocks and all. It’s a huge transition but not the one he was expecting to make ending his life on earth. This is a big, unexpected change into a new future here in this life.

Sometimes we may feel that God is not active or present in our lives. We may feel that God is quiet in our lives. We may wonder why we don’t get more direction or intimation of a godly nature in our lives. But maybe we are getting the signals and we are ignoring them. Maybe we are being called to make great changes but we are comfortable with things as they are. Maybe we are being sent in new directions but we are turning off our GPS to God because we don’t want to head that way. We like how things are going. We don’t want our apple cart upset. We don’t want to be bothered with drastic change. We just want to coast. But there can be a lot of friction to deal with when we coast against God.

Prayer
When life is good and we are happy, we may resist change. When we are struggling, we may resist the kind of change God intends for our good. May we keep listening with openness and a sensitivity to our resistance. Amen.

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Devotion 36 – Lent 2016

“So they went up out of Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. And they told him, ‘Joseph is still alive! He is even ruler over all the land of Egypt.’ He was stunned; he could not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Israel said, ‘Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.’” Genesis 45:25-28

Jacob was giving out. He was an old man with wives and children. He had flocks and holdings. He had done what he needed to do. Then he hears about his son Joseph being alive. And his life suddenly takes a new turn. We are told that he revives.

It is easy for us to simply go into a coast mode. We have what we need, we go long, we plod from day to day. We pay the bills, we go to the doctor, we go through the motions. Our spirits flag. Our passions ebb. It may be gradual, so much so that it goes unnoticed. We may be disengaging and loosing interest and not even really be aware.

Joseph gets word of the son he thought was dead, and suddenly he once again has a passion for life. Pope Francis suggested that people give up apathy for Lent. This is a time to ask ourselves if we are apathetic. If we have lost interest in things. Do we need to be revived? Do we need to regain our passion? What is the condition of our spirits?

If we notice some ebbing of spirit, there are things we can do to engage. We do not just have to sit around and wait for something amazing to happen in our lives. We can dip our toe in the water. Try getting involved in something you care about. Try investing yourself more deeply in a relationship. Try a new hobby or a new subject or activity. Or pick up something you have not done for a long time. Spend some time in nature. Volunteer somewhere. Write a letter about an issue that you care about. Eventually you will find something that revives you. That excites you. That impassions you.

Prayer
Jesus went to the wilderness to discern his mission and his passion. In this Lenten season, may we consider our passion. May we see more clearly how we are being called to be engaged in the enterprise of faith. Amen.

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Devotion 35 – Lent 2016

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your bothers, ‘Do this: load your animals and go back to the land of Canaan. Take your father and your households and come to me, so that I may give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you may enjoy the fat of the land.’ You are further changed to say, ‘Do this: take wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and for your wives, and bring your father, and come. Give no thought to your possessions, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours.’” Genesis 45: 17-19, NRSV

In the story of Joseph, we see the Pharaoh listening to Joseph and following Joseph’s counsel. Joseph is a foreigner. He is an outsider. He is an alien. And he begins his time in Egypt as a slave. He is from the bottom of a rigidly tiered society. And yet Pharaoh takes Joseph’s advice and recommendations seriously, he respects Joseph, and does what Joseph suggests.

How often would a national leader in the US take the counsel of a low class, foreigner who has spent time in jail? We would probably just be trying to deport the person!

In the recent session of the Florida State legislature, there was a bill presented to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry their guns openly. There was also a proposed bill to allow people to carry concealed weapons on state college and university campuses. It is hard to see how these bills could do anything but open the door to more shootings and violence. Thankfully, both of these bills failed to be passed and will not become law though they had substantial support in some quarters. But it is hard to conceive that these bills were even seriously considered and yet they were. We can see how the world gets the impression that America loves guns.

Recently, an international $1 million dollar prize was awarded to Hanan al-Hroub for excellence in teaching. She is a teacher in al-Bireh just outside of Ramallah in the West Bank. Al-Hroub is a Palestinian, an Arab, and a woman. And yet she won this prestigious award. She is committed to teaching peace. Her mantra is ‘no to violence’ and she stresses the need for dialogue. She is absolutely committed to creating peace through non violence and this is the focus of her educational efforts. Chances are she probably wouldn’t win a teaching award in the state of Florida. [See Tampa Bay Times, 3/14/16, “Palestinian wins $1M Global Teacher Prize”]

Maybe we should wise up like Pharaoh and listen to this foreigner, this person of low status, this outsider, this woman. Maybe we should be taking her seriously and listening to what she says, and implementing her vision. She is showing us the way to being a free, safe, democratic society.

In the UCC we say that God Is Still Speaking. We don’t limit where this speaking comes from because we do not limit God.

Prayer
May we listen to what we need to hear, even when it is difficult, or comes from an unlikely source. Everyone can be a voice for Divine Love and healing. Amen.

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Devotion 34 – Lent 2016

“And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” Genesis 45:2, NRSV

When Joseph is finally revealing his identity to his brothers, he weeps uncontrollably. We can imagine tears for the years lost, for being brought together, for the unreconciled wrong between them, for the grief and pain about what has transpired and for the raw, ragged emotion of the whole situation. Maybe he did not even know that he had such tears to come forth. He wept upon his brother, Benjamin, and he kissed and wept upon all of his brothers.

It’s interesting that we are never told that the brothers weep. They are dismayed. Finally they speak. But we are not told of weeping or kissing on their part. We are really not even given a good apology scene. The story marches ahead with plans for Jacob’s family to relocate to Egypt. We don’t see tears and wailing on the part of the brothers. Does their guilt hold them back? Are they so wracked with regret that they have become expert at keeping their feelings down?

This makes me wonder about crying. When do we cry? How much do we cry? When has there been sobbing and wailing? Uncontrollable grief? The way Joseph’s crying is portrayed, we see that this reconnection and reconciliation is momentous and made even more poignant by the complete surprise involved. Surely Joseph never expected to see his brothers again. And the feelings are overwhelming. I am wondering when we let ourselves be overwhelmed by our feelings. When we just let it out.

The brothers, the guilty ones, seem more reserved, more hesitant, more stoic. Does guilt stifle feelings of grief and tears? Does regret lead to stuffing feelings for self preservation? Maybe there are things we need to let surface this Lenten season.

Prayer
Tears are a gift that help us to know our hearts. We are told that even Jesus wept. Crying is not weak, it is human. May we not be afraid of the tears that are evidence of our full humanity. Amen.

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Devotion 33 – Lent 2016

“When Pharaoh calls you, and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our ancestors’ – in order that you may settle in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians.” Genesis 46:33-34

As Joseph plans for his brothers and family to settle in Egypt, they have to work around a problem. The Egyptians don’t like sheep and shepherds, and Joseph’s family are shepherds with extensive flocks. So the family settles in Goshen, outside the capital, in an outlying area, where they won’t be disturbed by the prejudice of the Egyptians. So, even back in those days, new ethnic groups settled in ghettos, off by themselves, for protection and solidarity.

We are also told that the Egyptians would not eat with Joseph’s family for that was abhorrent to them. The Egyptians let the Hebrews come and stay in Egypt, but they are clearly not fully accepted or welcomed. Later, under a different Pharaoh, the Hebrews are forced to work as slaves.

In today’s world, we know intellectually that there are no justifiable reasons for this kind of division and bigotry. And we know that separate means unequal. Thousands of years have gone by since the time of the story of Joseph in Egypt and yet the same issues face humanity. We wonder when we will choose to move beyond these divisions and prejudices. When will we truly accept that in God’s eyes, there is but one race, the human race. And its diversity is vast and amazing. Something to embrace and be enriched by, not something to fear.

If anything, in America at this time the problems of ethnocentrism and classism seem to be increasing not decreasing. People publicly demonstrate against a homeless shelter in their area, or a half way house of some kind, before you even get to a different ethnic group, skin color, or a community of legal refugees.

Our Christian faith teaches us that everyone is our neighbor and we are to love our neighbor. That means we are to work for the well being of our neighbor. Today, with the migration of populations which will continue to increase, we are needed to speak up and welcome all. Lent would be a good time to befriend someone who is different from you in some way.

Prayer
God is beyond our knowing and beyond our imagining. A hint of the amazing creativity of God can be seen in the vast diversity of the human population. May we see this diversity as a divine gift and appreciate it. Amen.

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