Advent Devotion 12.9.17 Waiting –

Advent is a season of hope, joy, and big promises. A world set right. Dignity and self-determination restored. Justice and peace. So, it is almost inevitable that Advent leading to Christmas will be a disappointment. From the beginning, we know that the world will not be at peace on Dec. 25, 2017. Economic injustice will not be rectified by Dec. 25, 2017. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape will not end on Dec. 25, 2017.

Maybe the Christmas trees, the lights, the presents, and the stockings help to ease our disappointment with merriment.

This week I joined about 50 other clergy from the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ for a day with the farm workers in Immokalee, FL. We heard from the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and from the Fair Food Campaign. We also visited a grower and heard the story of his involvement with the Coalition.

Apparently, the Coalition approached this grower asking to have a conversation about the Fair Food agreement. The farm workers wanted to explain the issues that were important to them. The grower was not interested. And things stayed as they were. The farm workers asked again. No interest on the part of the grower. And again. No.

Twenty years after the first request, the grower came to the Coalition asking to hear about the issues that the farm workers were concerned about. And the grower eventually signed the Fair Food agreement and is a model grower working with the Coalition to get others on board.

Twenty years. The leaders of the Coalition waited twenty years. They told us that when the grower finally came, they were angry and frustrated that it had taken so long. They had to recognize their anger and hostility and put it aside so that they could work with the grower. And the results have been mutually beneficial.

Twenty years is a long time. But the promises of God for restoration and renewal may not come for a long time. People waited hundreds of years for the messiah. Some people today are still waiting for a messiah. Things like peace can take a long time to unfold. And we must not lose hope even though we may not live to see the fulfillment of the promises of God.

We also want to remember that when the promises of God do come true, especially if has taken a while, we may need to make the conscious effort to put our negative feelings about the delay on the shelf. Whatever may be holding us back from receiving the fulfillment of the Divine promises, whatever may be blocking our participation in the Divine justice and peace that is emerging, we must overcome it. And take part in birthing God’s intentions for humanity to live in peace and mutual respect.

Prayer
Sometimes things to take so much longer than we would like. We wonder why a dove doesn’t just swoop down and eradicate violence from the face of Earth. But God’s time may not be our time. We must learn to wait and maintain hope lest we miss the wonderful things that are happening to create a more just and peaceful world. We may get so caught up in our impatience that we miss what is happening and the dreams that are coming to fruition. May we stay attentive and alert to ourselves and what is going on around us. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.8.17 Comfort and Joy

Each Easter at Lakewood UCC the service opens with several hymns. One of them is always “Joy to the World!” Yes, it is typically sung at Christmas time, but it is fitting at Easter as well especially with all of the nature imagery. And Christian Educators tell us that singing the song at Christmas and Easter helps children and youth understand that both holy days are part of one story.

The Advent is a season to deeply appreciate and experience God’s comfort but with that comfort comes joy. The words joy and rejoice and joyful are used far more by the prophet Isaiah than the word comfort. The ultimate goal is joy! We can say this about Isaiah. We can say this about Jesus. We can say this about the Bible. And we can say this about God. The ultimate message is joy!

What is joy? Gratitude for being alive? Delight in the awe and wonder of creation? Appreciation of others and the loving relationships in our lives? All of that and more. Joy really is an attitude that comes from the inside. It is not dependent on outside circumstances or having certain material things. Joy is an inner orientation.

We often talk of taking comfort in something. This is a way to refer to something that gives us relief from our anxiety and distress.

But what about joy? I had a Christmas book as a child called “Take Joy!” by Tasha Tudor. I always found the title intriguing. We seldom say, “Take joy.” Really, how much do we use the word “joy”? Not much, I fear.

But I like the message of “take joy.” It seems to say – joy is there. Lots of it. Waiting for you to take it. Hoping you will have some.

Maybe if we were taking more joy, in life, in one another, in nature, in relationships, in the arts, we wouldn’t need so much comfort. Maybe our great need for comfort comes in part from a deficit of joy.

This is a season to remember that God desires humanity to live in joy, to be joyful, and to rejoice!

Prayer:
Joy to the world! Heaven and nature are singing! Earth is praising the wonders of Divine love. Let us join the chorus. Take joy. And repeat the sounding joy! Repeat the sounding joy! Repeat, repeat the sounding joy! Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.7.17 Comfort and Hope

Comfort is a word that we associate with this season. The prophet Isaiah offers God’s comfort to people who are in a situation of devastation and perhaps demise.

But God’s comfort is not just to soothe bruised spirits or to pacify sorrow. God’s comfort implies hope for the future: A future that shines with justice and compassion and right relationship. A future of peace and plenty. It’s a future that is hard to imagine when your cities and towns lie in ruins and you have no power of self determination. But God’s comfort comes with hope and promise. It will not always be this way.

There are certainly many who feel, at least some of the time, that we are living in a time of devastation and perhaps demise. I speak with people every day who are in shock over the way our society seems to be going backwards – more racism, more sexism, more income inequality, more intolerance, more violence, less education, less accurate information, less rationality, less faith in the government, less trust. To some it feels like a time warp, like we are going back in time. While much of this regression seems to have its locus in the president, it should be noted that the president is in part reflecting sentiments that originate in certain pockets of the US population. But most people did not expect those pockets to gain such power. We are being shown what was already there. And it is ugly.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are opening ourselves to Divine comfort and to Divine hope. We need our bruised spirits soothed, but much of that solace lies in the promise of a different future. In our Biblical heritage, we are promised a future characterized by justice, generosity, and peace. The birth of Jesus is the foundation of that future. And we must continue to build on that foundation – in hope. Maybe we put just one stone in place, but it is one more in building a beautiful world of peace for all; a world where every form of life is respected and nature is revered as a sacred gift to be enjoyed not exploited.

God’s comfort is an investment in God’s future. It comes with hope attached.

Prayer:
As we open ourselves to God’s comfort this season, comfort we so desperately need, may we recognize that Divine comfort comes with hope. God comforts us so that we can be part of God’s hopes and dreams for the future of Creation. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.6.17 Comfort – Gentle and Strong

When someone takes your hand or puts an arm around you it can be an expression of comfort. Perhaps a call or a card is an expression of comfort. We tend to think of comfort as the soothing of pain and hurt with gentle compassion. And that is something that is very much needed in these times when people feel buffeted and torn apart and scrabbling to hang on.

A woman stopped by the church recently telling of how she had had a car accident. After the accident she missed work. She lost one of her two jobs. She got behind in her rent. Now she is worried about getting evicted. And still trying to do the one job. And trying to recover her health. Where is the net for her? Where is the life line? Where is the helping hand? When this woman came to the church hoping we would help her with her rent, which we did, she mentioned how good it felt to have someone who would listen to her describe her situation and show understanding and compassion. She was very grateful for that. There’s clearly much soothing of pain with gentle compassion needed in today’s world.

But there is more to comfort than a kind word or a sympathetic gesture. The word comfort comes from the word “com” which means with or together. and “fort” which means strength mighty, steadfast, brave, spirited. It’s where we get the word fort as in a military post.

So the concept of comfort has teeth to it. There is an implication of solidarity and resistance. There is the sense that we are stronger together. Together we can be strong.

When God offers comfort to the people, as in Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] this implies continued relationship, loyalty, and steadfast love. True comfort is more than just a fleeting gesture, it is a long term commitment which is why I gave the woman who cameo the church for help with her rent some information about the church and invited her to come to church on Sunday. As a church, we truly want to be a community of comfort.

Prayer:
Comfort is so important especially for making it through difficult times. We are grateful for those who offer comfort when it is needed. May we receive the comfort we need expecting to be made stronger and expecting our relationships and connections to strengthen. May we always be able to count on the church for comfort in the fullest sense. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.5.17 Condos, College, and Comfort

An acquaintance was telling me about someone in his condo complex that has three greyhound dogs. Apparently there are rules in the complex about pets, size and number, and the three greyhounds exceed both criteria. But the person is allowed to have the dogs because there is some kind of documentation certifying that they are comfort dogs providing a mental health service to the owner. The person who told me about this volunteers at the Humane Society and was not complaining about the situation only describing it.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess my biases up front. We also have three dogs which provide a goodly share of comfort to our household though they are not designated “comfort” dogs. They are also a lot of work and a lot of fun.

But I have been thinking about those three greyhounds. How is it that a person needs so much comfort from dogs? Is our society so anxiety ridden? While the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] are reassuring, we also need to be thinking about why the comfort is needed. Why are people so distressed? The opioid crisis is another manifestation of the distress and anxiety of people today. What are the roots of that dis-ease?

I have heard that anxiety is on the rise among young people but I was still shocked to hear from my son who is in college that students are allowed to have pets in the dorm – dogs and cats and other animals – if the animals are certified as comfort animals. Again, what kind of community and culture is fostering so much stress and worry and anxiety?

Back in the dark ages, the 1980’s, when I was in college, sure it was stressful. And from what I have seen of college requirements today, we worked a lot harder academically. And how did we deal with the stress? We relied on each other, our classmates, for support and solidarity.

The story about the three greyhounds makes me wonder about our level of stress but it also makes me think about where we are getting comfort. Does this person in the condo have three dogs for comfort because she is not getting enough comfort from the people in her life? Does she not know that she can turn to the church for comfort?

When we think about the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that he was engaged in creating communities of justice. A healthy society is just and there is fair treatment of people, and equal access to opportunity, and a safe environment where life’s needs are met. This was the vision Jesus was sharing with his followers. He also showed compassion to all who were excluded or suffering or distressed. So he showed us how to create less stressful communities and how to be present to one another with compassion and comfort.

As we think about the theme “Be Born in Us Today” may Jesus be our guide as we consider the level of stress in our society and how we provide comfort.

Prayer:
May we be grateful for pets and animals that give us comfort and joy. May we remember that we are animals, too, not only with the capacity to be “comfort” animals, but also with the capacity to reduce distress in the world. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.4.17 Seeking Comfort

A look at the ads assaulting us each day indicates that we are a people seeking comfort. We look for shoes that are comfortable. We want a car that offers the comfort of a smooth ride. We like comfortable clothes. We are lured to the comfort of a sleep perfect mattress promising a good night’s rest.

But whatever the mattress and the comfort promised, we may find that we don’t sleep well when we are worried about our finances, about our loved one who has an addiction, about war with North Korea, about the impending environmental collapse. Maybe what we find is that we are tossing and turning on that comfortable mattress.

Comfort is about more than just making the body feel good. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” declares the prophet Isaiah. This comfort is about the spirit as well as the body. It is a comprehensive comfort.

In this season as we explore the theme “Be born in us today” we’re talking about the love and light of God possessing our lives so that we have true comfort in our trust in God. This is so much more than the mere bodily comforts promised by advertisements. It is all well and good to feel bodily comfort but with God so much more is promised. Comfort for the spirit is offered as well. The comprehensive comfort of God, comfort for all aspects of our lives and our being, is a true gift offered to us in this present moment.

May we take the time to wonder about our need for comfort and turn our hearts to the Love that offers comfort. It is that Love that is seeking to be born in us.

Prayer:
May we seek the comprehensive comfort of Divine Love this Advent season. As that Love is born in us, may we offer comfort to others. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.3.17

This is the first day of Advent, the four weeks before Dec. 25, when the church begins preparations for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In times past, Advent was called the Little Lent because is was shorter than the 40 days of Lent but it was still considered a time of penitence. Advent remains a season of quiet watching and waiting. It is a time for pondering, like Mary. And a time of wonder, like the shepherds in the fields who were watching their flocks in the birth stories in the Gospel of Luke.

The theme for Advent this year at Lakewood United Church of Christ is “Be Born in Us Today”; the line from the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In Jesus, we see the fullest expression of Divine Love in a human life. We are shown the potential that is in every single human being. We all have the capacity to live from a heart center of universal love. We so need that spirit to be born in us today so that we can overcome the many forces that are dividing people and causing conflict in our families, in our communities, in our country, and in the world.

One of the most radical, as well as unique, teachings associated with Jesus is the command to “love your enemies.” In other religious traditions, there are important teachings about love of neighbor and do no harm, but the command to “love your enemies” implies actively seeking the well-being of the enemy. It implies not just don’t kill your enemy, but be kind to your enemy. Do good to your enemy. Help your enemy.

As we focus on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” we are thinking about how we can embody the spirit of Christ in the world. One place to start is with love of enemy. Usually this season, we are busy doing nice things for our families, friends, co-workers, and those we love and enjoy. To extend this in the spirit of Christ, I invite us to think about someone we consider an enemy and then to show love to that person in some way. Do good for that person. Help that person. Offer a gesture of kindness to that person. Maybe you could do something for an “enemy” once each week of Advent. Then see how it effects your feelings. See how it impacts the other person. See how it changes you. Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below this post.

Think you don’t have any “enemies”? Think harder. Is there a neighbor that annoys you? Is there someone in your family that you do your best to avoid? Is there someone in public life that ignites your rage? Is there a co-worker that sets your bells off every time you see them coming?

In thinking about this, I immediately identified someone who has behaved as an enemy of our church. That is where I am going to put my efforts at loving an enemy this Advent season.

Prayer:
We pray for Divine Love to be born in us this season. May we nurture this new life by loving our enemies. Amen.

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The Bible, The Church and #metoo

I’m wondering about #metoo and women of the Bible. It seems there are many women in the Bible who experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Women in the Bible are grabbed, groped, raped, and murdered. It pretty much starts in Genesis and goes on from there.

This heritage makes it all the more imperative that the church be vocal and visible in confronting sexual misconduct in the church, in the home, and in society today. The church needs to be safe space for all. It needs to be a place where women and men can share their stories and tell their truth, and know they will be treated with respect and compassion.

The church has come to this issue with too little too late. It is past time for the church to get out in front leading the change in our culture so that sexual misconduct is no longer tolerated, overlooked, or worse yet, encouraged.

This involves the church telling the truth about the Biblical stories we have inherited that have directly or indirectly contributed to the acceptance of sexual misconduct in Western culture.

There may be those who would defend the Bible. Those stories refer to ancient times. The culture and values were different. The stories don’t imply that God endorses sexual misconduct today. Ok. Then can’t we say the same about the Biblical perspective on other issues like the equality of women and homosexuality? Those stories refer to ancient times. The culture and values were different. Of course!

The Bible teaches humanity to honor the image of God in every single person. This is what we are shown in Jesus. And this is what everyone should see in the church.

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Lincoln Speaks Today

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1809

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a Nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

In a letter to Kentucky friend, Joshua F. Speed, 1855

“In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they could not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”

To Congress, December 1, 1862

These two quotes come from The Living Words of Abraham Lincoln: Selected Writings of a Great President, 1967, with a foreward by Carl Sandburg.

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Advent Devotion Christmas Eve 2016

untitled The Light Still Shines. This has been our theme for this Advent season and for these daily devotions. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the light of the world. We celebrate Jesus as a manifestation of Divine light.

We have explored how that light helps us to see the truth of our circumstances. It illuminates how things really are even when we don’t like what we see. We have thought about how the light invites us to change direction, turn, repent and live in a way more consistent with the intentions of God and the teachings of Jesus. We have examined the transformation needed for our well-being and the well-being of the world and the toll taken by avoiding change. We have considered the call to self giving and the need to keep at bay the lure of greed, selfishness, and arrogance. We have thought about how Jesus is a messenger telling us all that we need to know for the living of our days. We have sought out the way of Jesus, a way of compassion and joy.

Receiving the Light of the World requires soul searching and brutal honesty. It is an invitation to transformation when for the most part we don’t like change. But the result of committing to the way of Jesus, to following his light, is life. It is full, abundant life for ourselves. For others. And for Earth. It is peace and security that the world cannot take away.

Santa won’t have that in his sack. He won’t leave a package with that wrapped under the tree. He won’t stuff that in your stocking even if you are on the “nice” list.

Prayer: May we open ourselves to receiving the gifts that Jesus seeks to give us. Amen.

Don’t forget to bring your donation can for The Micah Center to the Christmas Eve Service. Music begins at 6:30 p.m. and the service starts at 7:00.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Seven 12.23.16

untitledThe Light still shines. And in our dark days, we need it. Looking at the newspaper has become scary. I find I am only looking at about half of my emails from organizations and movements. I don’t have NPR on much. The brevity of Twitter seems bearable. I find that I just can’t take all the darkness in the news, especially our national news these days.

Personally, I have a great life and I am not complaining about family, job, home, etc. Well, not much anyway. But despite the candles, cards, and carols, I can’t say that I feel much in the “Christmas spirit.”

In their book, The First Christmas, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have this to say about light:

Like much of the Bible’s language, the imagery of light is both personal and political. The contrasts between darkness and light are correlated with other central contrasts: bondage and liberation, exile and return, injustice and justice, violence and peace, falsehood and truth, death and life. These contrasts all have a personal meaning as well as a political meaning. It is important to see both. . . Too see only the personal meaning is to miss half of their meaning.

Yes, it is important for us to see the Light of Christ in personal and political terms. And, perhaps, this year, more than most, we need the political, though it may be just what we think we want to avoid. Maybe by avoiding the political implications of the teachings of Jesus, we are only letting in part of the light, we are restricting the full shining of the light, we are not opening ourselves fully to the Light of the World.

So many people in this country and around the world are celebrating Christmas – the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World. His light brings liberation, community, justice, peace, truth, and life. If everyone knew that, I wonder how many would still celebrate Christmas? It’s really a radical, subversive, counter-culture revolution. Truly honoring Christmas and the coming of the Light of the World is about setting the world on fire. Maybe if I open myself more to the political imagery of light, I will start to feel more of the Christmas spirit.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, reflect on how you see the light of Christ in your personal life and in society at large. Where is the light needed now?

There is still time to put more donation money into your can for the Micah Center. Won’t it be great to hear all that change clanking at the Christmas Eve service? Our giving to The Micah Center is both personal and political – we are helping individual students and we are working to remedy the injustice of the education system.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Five 12.21.16

untitled Today is the shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. There will be the fewest hours of daylight and the most hours of darkness on this day for half the planet.

Though we won’t see much sunshine, the sun is still there in space, blazing. When the stars are obscured by clouds, snow, fog, or rain, they are still out there in the great beyond shining. When we don’t see many stars due to urban light pollution there are still millions upon millions of stars beaming out in the cosmos. When buildings, trees, or other vegetation shield the light from the sun or other stars, they are still there burning brightly whether we see them clearly or not.

This helps to remind us that there may be things that obscure the Light of the Divine, but it is still shining. It is shining in us. It is shining in others. It is shining in the world. It is blazing through the universe. Whether we see it or not.

If we don’t feel like we are seeing the Light, or if the Light seems dim, we need to examine what is obscuring the Light. And then we want to remove those impediments to our experiencing the full, bright, shine of the Divine for we need that Light to help us make our way. The Light gives us direction for navigating the complexities of our time. The Light is a source of much-needed hope. The Light dispels the all-too-prevalent fear around us. And the Light empowers us to shine in our family, community, and society illuminating the world!

So, take the opportunity this Winter Solstice to reflect on what, if anything, is obscuring the Light in you and around you.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

School is out. Students and teachers are getting a break. Hopefully they will return to school refreshed. Your donations to The Micah Center will help the students succeed in the new semester.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Four 12.20.16

untitledAlexander Von Humboldt was one of the most amazing thinkers of the 19th century. He combined a keen scientific sensibility with a deep poetic sensibility. He intimately, exhaustively studied nature, but he was also moved by nature and in awe of the world around him.

On one expedition, he writes about the influence of a lone palm tree. It is a wind block. The tree with its fruit and leaves attracts birds. Sand builds up around the base of the tree. The soil on the side of the tree away from the wind retains moisture long after the rainy season. Insects and worms, scarce elsewhere, accumulate in the moist soil. One tree has a big impact upon its surroundings. [See Humboldt’s Cosmos, Gerard Helferich, p. 185]

This assessment of the impact of a palm tree, not likely to even be noticed, helps us to see the influence we may have when we shine the light of Divine universal love. When we shine the light, we may be having an influence in many ways. We may be subtly or not so subtly affecting the circumstances around us. We may be creating networks of people and projects. We may be offering protection. We may be helping others. We may be offering encouragement that is needed. There are so many ways we may be influencing things around us when we shine the light – improving the world around us and making things better for others. And we may have no awareness of the effect we are having. We may never know.

This Advent season is also a time to think about how others have been a light for us. Each one of us has received inspiration, encouragement, and support from others who are shining the light for us.

As we approach Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we reflect on the ways his light changes the world. We also trust that when we shine the light, we, too, are changing the world. The light still shines!

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

You may want to note in your journal something you have done which has changed the world because you HAVE changed the world!

The Micah Center is shining the light of support for students. Don’t forget to put some money in your can today.

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Advent Devotion Twenty Three 12.19.16

untitledIn the Christmas story in Luke, the shepherds abruptly head to Bethlehem to see this new born baby. They leave the sheep. They drop everything. They walk off the job. They clock out.

I am thinking about this sudden response. In what circumstances do we walk off the job? Drop everything? What is so important that we simply stop what we are doing and address ourselves to a new, unexpected situation?

Maybe this happens when the school calls and a child is sick and needs to be picked up. Maybe it happens when we are called from a hospital and informed that a loved one was in an accident and we are needed. Maybe we get up and leave work for a crisis or tragedy. It seems that it is even difficult these days to leave work to attend a memorial service.

All the things I think of that we would drop everything for are “bad.” An accident. A sickness. A sudden death. Some kind of catastrophe.

I am wondering when we would leave work, abruptly, suddenly, for something “good.” The shepherds in the story are told of something wonderful happening and they respond right away. They make the trek to the town of Bethlehem to see this thing which has been made known to them. When might we do something like that? What is so wonderfully compelling that we would drop everything and go? I can’t think of much. And I don’t think it happens very often.

Is it because we place too high an importance on work? We need our jobs. We need to make money. We can’t “afford” to leave abruptly and expect to come back. Is it that money, work, and a job are given too much significance? Is work running our lives instead of we running our work? Is work a tool for making a contribution and feeling worthwhile and providing for our needs? Or has work become a tyrant, and we more like indentured servants?

Again, in thinking about what we would walk off work for, is it also possible that we are not tuned in to being surprised by wonder? Is our capacity for being stunned by something wonderful diminishing? Are we so busy and so scheduled that we will only notice something remarkable on cue? Are we losing our openness to being knocked down in our tracks by something amazing?

Would “shepherds” today, say factory workers or field hands, walk off the job, risk the boss’s ire and being fired, in response to an angel chorus? Would you? Are we being offered good news that we are ignoring or not tuned in to see?

May we see the light shining this Christmas. May we hear the angel’s song. May we be caught utterly unawares.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

Here’s hoping that The Micah Center will be stunned by the generosity of our giving this Christmas season!

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Two 12.18.16

untitled The last time I went to my doctor, a new doctor, I mentioned something about church. She asked me about it. I told her I was the pastor. Then she asked me, “So, are you a Jesus follower?” Well, typically, if someone asks about my religion, I would say that I am a Christian. In today’s social climate, that could be taken many ways. So, it may actually be a response that creates confusion rather than clarity. Maybe that is why the doctor asked if I was a Jesus follower. My first thought was, I just told you I am a pastor. I have already answered your question, haven’t I? Evidently not. But as a pastor, what could I say? No. I am not a follower of Jesus. There was only one answer I could give to this question. The doctor seemed very excited about this. She followed up to confirm my response. She was beaming. In the course of the appointment, I had also mentioned that I go to a doctor of Eastern medicine for acupuncture and Qi Dong. At the end of the appointment, she said, “Don’t worry about anything. With me, your Chinese medicine doctor, and Jesus, we will take care of you.” There you have it!

Are you a Jesus follower? In this time of varying expressions of Christianity, expressions which are very much at odds, maybe a better way to describe our religious identity is to say, “I am a follower of Jesus” than to say, “I am a Christian.” What does it mean to be a Christian? Some Christians are decrying homosexuality and abortion and defending corporate America and promoting getting rich, while other Christians are working for gay rights, respecting the rights of women, decrying corporate greed, and promoting material simplicity. You’re Christian? What does that mean? Which team are you on? The media has taken the default definition of Christianity to be the conservative/fundamentalist version and that hasn’t helped matters.

To say, “I am a follower of Jesus” sends a completely different message than “I’m a Christian.” And perhaps the message is more accurate. Our expression of Christianity is more about following Jesus, behavior and action, than it is about theological propositions and doctrine. To say you are a follower of Jesus implies certain behavior and attitudes. People think of Jesus as loving, compassionate, and forgiving. He is concerned with “the least of these.” He is dedicated to serving, especially those most in need. To say you are a follower of Jesus implies that you are trying to make the world a better place for everyone and that you are willing to be helpful and compassionate.

To say, “I am a follower of Jesus” means that we are committed to shining the Light of universal love, justice, peace, and healing. Are you a Jesus follower? What is your response?

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to cite an instance in which you felt you being a “Jesus follower.”

Show your support and compassion for the students of The Micah Center with your donation.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-One 12.17.16

untitled We live in a time obsessed with scarcity and accumulation. We are constantly vying to get our place, get our due, make sure we have what we need and For, that we are prepared. We are constantly messaged that there isn’t enough, be sure to get yours. . . We are trained to buy and buy and buy things that we may or may not need and that we have been convinced to want. Think about it – have you spent more time in prayer, devotion, and reflection this month, or more time shopping? I’ll confess it straight up: My honest answer is shopping, thank you, Amazon!

The whole idea of scarcity, being worried about supply, running out, and having enough, is at odds with the Christian outlook which values generosity, service, self-giving, and material simplicity. So we are always paddling up stream in our context.

The candle is a great image for the Christians perspective on generosity and service. You light a candle. There is a flame. From that flame, you can light countless other candles. We will do this very thing on Christmas Eve at church. Spreading that light takes nothing away from the original flame. That’s how it is when we shine the light of love that is within us. We are not diminished. If anything, our light increases and shines more brightly. As the children’s song of yesteryear reminds us, “Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more. It’s just like a magic penny: Hold it tight and you won’t have any. But lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor. For love is something if you give it away. . .” Back in the day, we were taught that song in school (not church). It should be restored to the curriculum, at least in the schools that still have a music program. . .

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, remember a time that you have shared your light. How did that feel?

Maybe we can’t directly influence the school curriculum, but we can help the students at The Micah Center succeed in school with our donations. Put some change in your collection box today.

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Advent Devotion Twenty 12.16.16

untitled Monday is typically my “day off.” It is often my busiest day of the week! This past Monday, I stayed home all day cleaning and putting things away and dealing with Christmas stuff, etc. While I was suitably occupied with fairly mindless activity, I had the radio on. National Public Radio. I often listen in the morning while I am getting ready for the day. And I often listen while I am making dinner. And sometimes in between briefly while I am in the car. But Monday, I listened the whole day. News from the BBC. The Diane Rehm Show. Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Tom Ashcroft and On Point. And, The World with Marco Werman.

Toward the end of the afternoon, my spouse, Jeff, got home from school. We had a holiday dinner to go to in Tampa which I had been looking forward to. But as I was rushing around getting ready to leave I realized I was in a bad mood. Jeff commented about it. I said, “Of course I am in a bad mood, I was listening to the radio all day.” He said, “Why would you do that? Put on an audio book.” Of course, he is right. Why would I listen to the negative messages about the influence of Russian hacking on the election and the crisis in Aleppo all day? It was dark.

Yes, the light still shines, but we can be consciously or inadvertently shutting it out. It is up to us to make room for the light, to seek it out in ourselves, in others, and in the world. Jesus in story after story finds the light – in unexpected situations, and certainly in unexpected people. He does not let the darkness shut out the light. This is a season to remember that we can have some effect upon keeping the darkness at bay.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

Maybe in your journal you could comment on how you are letting darkness into your life and how you might change that.

Help dispel the darkness for the students benefitting from The Micah Center. Put a donation in your box today.

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Advent Devotion Nineteen

untitled Who would have thought that we would be seeing the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and other religions? In the ’60’s and 70’s when I was growing up we were taught, in school, that a more enlightened future was ahead. People would be more tolerant and accepting of difference. It seems that a backlash has occurred before we get to that more enlightened society that most people want to see.

As far as religion is concerned, more light leads to a more open, accepting, loving and compassionate religious expression. I know that the more I learn about the Bible, about theology and faith, the deeper my understanding of Christianity becomes, the greater my appreciation of other faiths. More light leads me to a more expansive spiritual sensitivity.

Hard, intractable expressions of religion seem, well, smaller somehow; less worthy of the grandeur of a larger reality. Rules, punishment, fixed theological and political ideas seem more primitive and less developed. The mystery of transcendence implies a greater scope to our spiritual understanding. If the Divine is so awesome why not accept that the Divine can shine light not only through my religion but through other religions as well? Why would I want to restrict the workings of God, or why would I think I could restrict the scope of the influence of Divine Love?

In this era of globalization and information, an awful lot of people seem to want to keep their picture small. How sad. Jesus was always expanding his circle outward, to people on the edge, on the fringe, beyond the scope of his religious tradition and ethnicity. That’s how it is in God. Borders, boundaries, differences don’t take on undue significance or limit the scope of our loving.

This is a season to look for light – wherever it may be shining. And to let that light show us more and more and more of this big, wide, amazing reality in which we find ourselves.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, can you write about a time that you had your assumptions or attitudes expanded by the teachings of Jesus? I’ll never forget when we had a prayer service at church on 9/11/01 and someone asked that we pray for those who carried out the attacks. That really expanded the horizons of my compassion and showed me the greater light of God in the teachings of Jesus.

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion Eighteen 12.14.16

untitled There is that scene in the movie “The Little Mermaid” in which the mermaid, Ariel, is trying to figure out what a fork is. She finds one under the sea, a metal rod with four sharp, pointed spikes. She runs it through her hair. What is this thing? And what is done with it? We know, of course, but if you haven’t seen western culture on land, how would you know?

This Advent season we are thinking about the theme The Light Still Shines. The light of God helps us know how to interpret, understand, and frame our experience. Things happen. How do we understand the experience? The light of God helps us to know what is loving, just, compassionate, and forgiving. The light shows us what is good and true for us as individuals and as a society. The light of God shows us how to interpret what is going on around us and within us.

There are many things going on around us and it can be difficult to make sense of it. Maybe all the information just seems like random noise. But the light of God which is shown to us through Jesus, helps us to understand what is going on.

When we let the light of God show us what is going on, we can see where we are needed. We can see where change is needed. We can see what is good and just. We can celebrate what is beautiful and generous. Without the light, we lose our way often spiraling into self interest, greed, and fear. At times, we may not like what the light shows us, but it can be trusted.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, you may want to note an example of how your faith has helped you to see something in a new light.

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion Seventeen

untitled Fossil fuels are amazing. They have brought humanity far along in its development. They have made a wonderful contribution to the furthering of civilization. Advances in transportation, electricity, and new materials such as plastic are incredible and have made such a difference to humanity. We are so fortunate that fossil fuels were discovered and put to use in so many helpful ways.

Now we know, however, how damaging fossil fuels are to the environment and how they are significantly contributing to global climate change. We know that the environment is poised at a tipping point in large measure due to the use of fossil fuels. So we are in the midst of a transformation in the energy sector away from fossil fuels and toward renewable, sustainable, clean energies such as wind and solar.

This is a large scale, global transformation, consequently, it will take time, which is of the essence given recent findings provided about carbon emissions. And, as with any transition, there are challenges and difficulties along the way. Some want to go slowly and others are resisting entirely. Some are oblivious. And for some, it can’t happen fast enough. But in a hundred years, we’ll see how things were and how the transition was accomplished, and everyone will be adjusted to the new paradigm without fossil fuels.

Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that there were no airplanes. Now we fly everywhere. There was a time when there were no cars on the road. My grandfather delivered milk with a horse and wagon in New York City. Now the problem is too many cars and too much traffic. Oh how things can change and sometimes just within a lifetime.

Technology is not the only thing that changes. Religion changes, too. Jesus stepped onto the scene and he called for major changes in religion. He challenged some of the foundational assumptions of his religion. Here are just a few examples. People believed that if someone was sick or disabled it was because they had sinned. Jesus challenged that assumption. If a person was hurt or killed, by accident even, it was assumed that this was a punishment from God. Jesus did not support that position. People believed that if you were materially wealthy it was because you had found favor with God. And they thought the opposite was true: If you were poor, it was because you had not found favor with God. Jesus completely rejected that thinking. Jesus challenged things and changed things that no longer served the deeper intentions of his religion. To some, Jesus’ thinking was scandalous.

In terms of religion, we are also in the midst of a great transition. The thinking and assumptions of times past are being challenged. New ideas and theologies are emerging within Christianity. Some of these new ideas preserve the original intentions of Christianity but shed outdated, antiquated thinking that can no longer be accepted given the advances that humanity has made. Some of the new thinking in Christianity is related to new scholarship about the Bible and the context of the original writers. In a hundred years or so, people will look back and see the old ways and how new versions of Christianity emerged. That does not mean that what came before was bad or wrong. What it means is that new ways of thinking are needed to enable Christianity to continue to have a positive impact on the world, to bless the world, to bring love and joy to the world. And, as with other major transitions, there are challenges and difficulties along the way. As with fossil fuels, some want to go back to older modes of Christianity, some are oblivious, some want to proceed slowly, and some can’t move ahead fast enough!

In this Advent season, we are thinking about how The Light Still Shines. New energy means that lights will still shine, they just will not be powered by fossil fuels. In terms of our faith, The Light Still Shines, but it is being conveyed in new ways.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, you may want to note an example of how your concept of Christianity is growing, changing, and evolving.

And don’t forget to put a donation in your box for The Micah Center. Education is about shining the light!

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Advent Devotion Sixteen 12.12.16

untitled Virgin of Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe may be the best known “version” of Mary in the Catholic church. She is the patron saint of Mexico and she is taken very seriously. Practically everywhere you go in Mexico you see Guadalupe: in stores, restaurants, homes, businesses, hotels, banks, offices, and, of course, churches. Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is not restricted to Mexico. She is revered by Catholics around the world.

To me the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a wonderful example of how the light of Divine Love finds a way to shine and cannot be put out. In the story of Guadalupe, we can see God always somehow finding a way to get through. The light still shines!

When the Spanish came to Mexico, they came to give Christianity and take gold. The first peoples were killed off through war and disease. Their cultures were decimated. The temples of indigenous religions were taken down and the stones were used to build churches on the same sites. Gone were the gods and goddesses related to the seasons, agriculture, and fertility. In came the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and Mary.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is about the Virgin Mary appearing to the poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531. She tells Juan Diego, in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire, to instruct the archbishop to build a church on a certain hill in her honor. It happens to be on a hill where the Indians had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods which had been taken down under Spanish orders. Juan Diego tries to persuade the archbishop to build the church but to no avail. The archbishop wants a sign. The Virgin of Guadalupe shows Juan Diego to a bed of Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming in the middle of winter and instructs him to take the roses back to the archbishop as a sign. Juan Diego gathers the roses in his tunic and takes them to the archbishop. When Juan Diego presents the roses to the archbishop on the fabric of the tunic there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the middle of all of this, the Virgin also heals Juan Diego’s uncle. She does not relent until the archbishop agrees to build the church. And so there is a huge church on the site on the north side of Mexico City and because the old church was no longer structurally sound, a huge modern church was built in the 1970’s. And this Basilica to Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

There are many things to love about this story. The “little guy” wins. The indigenous people essentially get the monolithic, monotheistic Catholic church to give them a goddess. Mary won’t take no for an answer. Guadalupe is essentially the primary figure in the Mexican expression of Christianity virtually preempting the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, thank you very much.

Even if we can’t relate to much of this story – the context in Mexico, Catholicism with its devotion to Mary and to the various versions of Mary – hopefully we can see that Divine light finds a way to get through. Whatever the circumstances and conditions and context, Love finds a way to beam into our darkness.

Prayer: The light of God is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

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Advent Devotion Fourteen

untitledI had dinner with friends recently and we had not seen each other in a long time. In catching up, we got to talking about the election. The friend said he was reticent to discuss it for fear that someone at an adjacent table would overhear the conversation and perhaps threaten us in some way. I said, “I am not giving in to that.” This is a free country and we can say whatever we want to about the election or anything else, for that matter, while we are at dinner. We are entitled to free expression as a human right according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today is International Human Rights Day. On 10 December in 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yes, it’s long and comprehensive, but it is worth reading. [It is included below.] It is an expression of light. I hope that in my lifetime I have the opportunity to live in a country that honors all of the human rights enumerated in this glorious declaration.

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

Perhaps in your journal you might want to mention how you are helping to ensure basic human rights for all people.

In light of Article 26, consider making a donation to The Micah Center so that all children have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of an education.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Preamble
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. 

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.
 Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. 
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5. 
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6. 
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7. 
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8. 
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9. 
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10. 
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11. 
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12. 
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13. 
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14. 
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15. 
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16. 
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17. 
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18. 
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19. 
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20. 
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22. 
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23. 
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24. 
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25. 
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26. 
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27. 
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28. 
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29. 
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30. 
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

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Advent Devotion Thirteen

untitled The Light still shines. Yesterday was Bodhi Day. It is the commemoration of the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree. He vowed to sit and meditate under the bodhi tree until he had found the root of suffering and how to be liberated from it. That is a big commitment. He could have been sitting there for who knows how long.

That’s the thing about the light. Yes, there is light and it can be found in differing religious traditions, but to experience the light one must look for it and be open to it. The spiritual quest takes commitment, devotion, time, energy, courage, and perseverance.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t need religion or religion doesn’t do anything for them. To see the light, for religion to impact us, we have to embrace it. We have to invest ourselves in our faith and let it work on us. Time and attention to spiritual practice, service, and the faith community lead us to the light. It is when we go deeper in our faith that we find the light.

If we aren’t seeing the light, maybe it is because we are not really open to it. Maybe we are not looking hard enough. Maybe we need to be more devoted to our religious practice.

This holiday season is a busy time of year. But are we busy with the things that reveal the light? Are we setting aside time for prayer, the reading of scripture and devotional writings? Are we attending worship? Are we making time for silence and reflection? Are we finding ways to serve and give that make a difference?

Yes, the light still shines, but we have to make the effort to see it.

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

In your Advent journal, you could note how you are investing yourself in your spiritual quest for the light. Some people keep track of an exercise regime. What about keeping track of our spiritual regimen?

Your donations to The Micah Center are a sign of commitment to light. They will help individual children to succeed in school. That is shining the light!

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Advent Devotion Twelve 12.8.16

untitled Happy Bodhi Day! Have you put the lights up on the tree yet? Will you light a candle? Bodhi Day is the annual remembrance of the day in 596 BCE that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, sat under the Bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. While Bodhi Day is celebrated on different days and in different ways depending on the country and culture, it usually includes chanting and meditation, as well as decorating a Bodhi (fig) tree with colored lights and lighting a candle. The remembrance lasts for 30 days. The lights that are used to decorate the home or the tree are multicolored to represent that there are many paths to enlightenment.

For Christians this is a season for lights on the tree and candles as we remember the light of God coming into the world in Jesus. For us, Jesus is a path to enlightenment or awakening. We remember him with the image of light.

For those who are Jewish, the festival of lights is ahead. Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve this year. It is an annual celebration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE following the successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy. Candles are lit for eight nights in observance of Hanukkah.

These holy days in various religious traditions all involve light. These observances remind us that Divine Light comes into the world. In many ways. Through many religious traditions. The Light is so intent on shining that it is not just restricted to one way of entering human experience. Humanity is wildly diverse, so it only makes sense that Divine Light would be made manifest in many ways. We don’t want to limit how the light of Divine love and power comes into the world. It will find a way. And if one way is not effective, there will be another.

This season, we join our sisters and brothers of different religions around the world in celebrating Light. The light has come into the world and the darkness has not put it out.

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

Remember to make a donation to The Micah Center. Shine the light in support of increased student achievement!

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Sermon 12.4.16 “Brooding Vipers”

Date: Dec. 4, 2016 Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon: Brooding Vipers
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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Last week we saw a banner depicting John baptizing people at the Jordan River in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Burlington, Massachusetts. The image shows a happy scene. People are dressed in bright colors. Women with covered heads looking like Muslims line the banks of the deep blue river kneeling in prayer. John is waving to Jesus off in the distance headed out to the wilderness. It’s a peaceful, serene, joyous scene.

Yet in the scripture we heard this morning, we are told of John the Baptizer ranting and railing. It hardly seems peaceful or serene. Apparently, the people are coming from nearby cities and towns to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins. That is going fine. But then the religious authorities arrive from Jerusalem and that’s when the fireworks start. Religion is supposed to be a comfort and a guide. These leaders should be offering light and hope to people. Instead, they are imposing laws and rules that cannot be followed and are very costly. These imposed requirements reinforce the authority and power of the leaders which fuels their tyranny. Their teachings and directives end up generating income and personal prosperity for the leaders. Instead of offering religion that is a comfort and support to people, especially people that are downtrodden, they are taking advantage of the people for personal gain. This ignites John’s fury!

While people may have expected John to rail against Rome, the Roman Empire, and the oppressive occupation being imposed by the Romans, a tirade against the religious leaders was probably quite unexpected. In his excoriating remarks, we hear John malign the leaders for banking on their relationship to Abraham to save them. They are counting on their privilege to work to their advantage. They are not concerned with truly repenting, changing their ways, reforming their religious practices, and showing forth the fruits of generosity, compassion, and mercy. They are children of Abraham. They do not expect to be held accountable for their deeds. They expect a free pass. Privilege then worked the same way that privilege works today.

But in the story we heard, John tells these people of privilege just what they can expect from the God that shines light for all people, not just some people. There is one coming, one who represents God, who is going to clean things up; get religion back on its proper footing. There is light coming that will shine joy, peace and hope upon all people. There will be no more undue privilege in the name of religion. There will be no more taking advantage of everyday people in the name of religion. There will be no more power abuse and manipulation for self gain in the name of religion. Not the religion of the God of the Jews. No. The light will expose these abuses and will shine in a way that is pure, healing, and restorative.

It is interesting to note that later in the gospels, Jesus, too, has a melt down over the power abuse of the religious authorities in the story of the overturning of the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Religion is to be a source of sustenance, hope, and comfort. It is to help people be morally good and compassionate. Religion is meant to feed the human spirit so that it flourishes and bears the fruits of compassion, justice, mercy, and right relationship. Religion is precious to the vitality of the human soul. Misusing religion for personal gain is heinous and we see that conveyed in the vehement condemnation from John and from Jesus.

I think that if John were to show up at the waterfront today, he would find plenty of brooding vipers. Still many abuse religion as an avenue for personal gain and as a way of validating their cultural values and attitudes. Religion is still used today to keep some people down and to privilege other people. And religion is still used to make some people rich and to give some people power over others. So, I think John would find plenty to rail about today.

We still need to be reminded that there is no room in the intentions of God for some people to benefit from privilege at the expense of others. There is no provision for gender bias in the reality of God. There is no place for racism in God’s domain. There is no tolerance of homophobia in the dreams of God. There is no space for discrimination against “foreigners” for there are no foreigners with God. Everyone is family in the reality of God. And there is no room for hatred of neo Nazis, white supremacists, or fundamentalists. Later, Jesus will tell his followers, Love your enemy. Maybe today it would sound something like, Love the deplorables – whoever they are for you.

In the stories of Jesus, we are told that the first word he utters when he begins his ministry echoes John: Repent. Turn around. Change direction. Reorient your life toward God. Chart a course in the direction of love. Accept grace. Like plants and trees that naturally grow toward the sun, be led by the Light.

Even brooding vipers are welcomed by the open arms of God. No matter what we may have done, all are offered grace. Everyone has a place in God’s realm of love and light. We can all make a new start. No one is doomed to perpetually living at the expense of others. Even well-ingrained habits of abusing power can be broken. The Gospel is good news for all people, including those who have been caught up in systems that abuse and oppress.

There is no one that is beyond the scope of Divine grace. We all, each and every one of us, have the capacity to bear the fruits of repentance – generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and justice. The Light of the world offers joy and peace to all, all upon whom the sun shines.

Brooding vipers. It’s quite an image. Distasteful, gross, scary. Yet the snake is really a quite fascinating creature. The color patterns and markings are quite remarkable. The mobility of snakes is astounding. They are incredibly flexible even able to defy gravity and climb trees! Snakes are also strong and very efficiently designed. When a snake grows, it must shed its skin to accommodate its expanding body. To do this, it rubs its nose against something rough to break the skin. Then through a long, slow, tedious process, the snake maneuvers its way out of the old skin and leaves that behind. Underneath is reveled a new skin. One that will stretch until it is time for other new skin. The old skin is dull and flat in finish. The new skin usually has a glossy shine.

Given their unique traits, snakes have long been a cross cultural religious symbol. In Christianity, the snake, with its shedding of skin, is seen as is a symbol of resurrection – leaving behind an old life and embracing a new life. In the reality of God, everyone is always welcome, even brooding vipers, because in God new life always awaits. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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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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