Sunday, May 27, 2018

Reflection on John 3:1-17

God is love.

There are many ways that people try to describe God, and Trinity Sunday is often filled with explanations from preachers about the nature of God. These explanations easily lull us calmly into a sermon long slumber, but I will leave the Trinity explanations to mystery and simply say what the scriptures proclaim: God is love. If you want to know about God, than look no further than unconditional love.

In a sense, we learn the most about God when we are surrounded by love. To help surround our hearts and minds by love, Rochester, New York journalism student Laura Jeanne Allen Hammond has a story about how her grandparents taught her a lesson in love that outlasted their lifetime and lives on in her own. She writes:

My grandparents were married for over half a century, and played their own special game from the time they had met each other. The goal of their game was to write the word "shmily" in a surprise place for the other to find. They took turns leaving "shmily" around the house, and as soon as one of them discovered it, it was their turn to hide it once more.

They dragged "shmily" with their fingers through the sugar container to await whoever was preparing the next meal. They smeared it in the dew on the windows overlooking the patio where my grandma always fed us homemade pudding. "Shmily" was written in the steam on the mirror after a hot shower, where it would reappear bath after bath. At one point my grandmother unrolled an entire roll of toilet paper to leave "shmily" on the very last sheet.

There was no end to where "shmily" would pop up. Little notes with "shmily" scribbled on them were found on car seats or taped to the steering wheel. The notes were stuffed inside shoes and left under pillows. "Shmily" was written in the dust on the mantle and traced in the ashes of the fireplace. The mysterious word was a much a part of my grandparents' house as the furniture.

Grandma and Grandpa held hands every chance they could. They finished each other's sentences and shared the daily crossword puzzle. My grandmother whispered to me about how cute my grandpa was--the man she met on a blind date--and how handsome an old man he had grown to be. Before every meal they bowed heads and gave thanks, marveling at their blessings: a wonderful family, good fortune and each other.

But there was a dark cloud on my grandparent's life, my grandmother had cancer. The disease had first appeared ten years earlier, and at that time I remember that she'd painted her room yellow. With a yellow room, she explained, she would always be surrounded by sunshine even if she was too sick to go outside to enjoy it.

With the help of a cane and my grandfather's steady hand, they still went to church every morning. But my grandmother grew weaker until she could not leave the house anymore. For a while, grandpa would go to church alone, praying to God to watch over his wife. Then one day, what we all dreaded finally happened. Grandma was gone.


It was scrawled in yellow on the pink ribbons of my grandmother's funeral bouquet. As the crowd thinned and the last mourners turned to leave, my aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members gathered around Grandma one last time. Grandpa stepped up to my grandmother's casket and, taking a shaky breath, he began to sing to her. Through his tears and grief, the song came, a deep and throaty lullaby.

Shaking with my own sorrow, I will never forget that moment. For I knew then that, although I couldn't begin to fathom the depth of their love, I had been privileged to witness its unmatched beauty.
"S-h-m-i-l-y. See How Much I Love You.

The game was fun. It was a game all about being surrounded by love in surprising places. It was a game all about sacrifices (small as they may be). I mean, who takes the time to unroll a whole roll of toilet paper in order to write “See How Much I Love You,” and then roll it back up perfectly. Now that is a sacrifice of love.

It is a small echo of the sacrifice of love that Jesus showed us. “Do you want to know how much I love you?” Jesus says. Look around for a bit. You might be surprised where you find it. It is actually on a cross. It is actually on an ancient instrument of torture.

Who would have expected to find love there? But, who would have expected to find love in toilet paper? Love can be found in surprising places, especially when it is a sacrificial sort of love that will go to any length for another person.

It is the sort of love that causes parent to take the fall for the crime of her child.

It is the sort of love that causes a soldier to jump in front of a bullet for a buddy.

It is the sort of love that causes a teacher to lunge toward a school shooter, bullets piercing his flesh, in order to save the children under his charge.

We do not expect to find love in the middle of crime, war, and shootings, but it is there. And on the cross, (that ancient version of execution similar to our gas chambers today) love takes its form in an eternal and universal sort of way.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (NRSV, John 3:16)

God is love. God is all about love. God the Father loves all creation, God the Son is the beloved, willing to sacrifice himself in an act of love, and the Holy Spirit is the love that is shared between them that moves even this day like the wind wherever the Spirit desires...even to the most unlikely of places.

God is a community of love, and you have been drawn into that community through God’s acts of love for you.

Nicodemus, that religious leader of Jesus' time, sought out the wisdom of Jesus in the night. He sought out Jesus in the dark. He sought out Jesus during the time of night when murders, robberies, and drunken beatings occur.

Surprisingly, Jesus was there. Love was there. Love can find us, even in the dark.

Love, of course, is drawn to the light. Love is light. Love brings all things into the light When the darkness is the best that we can do, Jesus (God’s love in the flesh) can still find us and redeem us. Jesus does not go into the dark places to condemn those places, but to find us and redeem us by his love. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

God is love. If you want to know about God, then look no further than unconditional love.

You are a part of God’s love. You have been found. You have been redeemed. Jesus has died for the world because of love. You are one with that love. “See how much I love you,” Jesus says. “See how much I love you.”


Monday, May 21, 2018

A Reflection on Acts 2:1-21

His life was not like my life in any way, shape, or form. My life is the normal life of a normal person who lives the daily joys and struggles of kids, living check to check, and preaching in two small congregations in rural Pennsylvania. His life was quite different.

For years, our family knew nothing of him. Even today I cannot remember his name, though my grandma would. But, he was a part of our family. Years and years ago, our family included a duke of Germany. On the Sunset of a Royal Marriage, I am reminded that my family too was royalty, a long time ago. It was most likely a marriage of political stability. My Danish ancestor married a German noble, and the borders between the two countries remained secure.

When you look at the family coat of arms from the time, you see herds of horses; in other words, great wealth. That draws me to think of my mother who dreamed as a child to have just one horse that she could ride. She still has that unfulfilled dream as she approaches retirement age.

We did not have wealth, but the Duke did. We are so different, yet we are a part of the same family.

I mentioned this to my grandmother, how different we are from our royal past. She simply said, “I’m sure if we could see him, that we would see some similarity. The nose, the eyes, the chin…something would be similar. We are family after-all.”

This is probably the case. Yet, we are so different. He lived a royal lifestyle; we lived a poor one. He lived with honor and respect due; we had to earn scraps of respect. We even lived in different countries and spoke different languages. We could not even talk to one another had we lived at the same time.

We are so different, yet there was one thing on that coat of arms that was the same. It was divided into four sections by a cross. We were one family in faith.

I think about that day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on the Apostles and gave them the ability to preach the good news to all the people gathered from different nations. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Cretans, and Arabs were all able to hear the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ through an outpouring of the Spirit upon them.

Even the slaves, both men and woman, were able to hear the good news as promised by the prophet Joel. The Spirit touches them all. In other words, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord is saved. Everyone.

He was a Duke. He was royalty. We are not. We more resemble the slaves of his time. Yet we are one family, not only by blood, but especially by the outpouring of the Spirit. We are one family in Jesus Christ, regardless of similar noses or chin structures.

We are one family in Jesus Christ, through the outpouring of the Spirit.

I am reminded of the worry of a parent as they considered sending their teenage child on one of those overseas Christians servant trips. Of course, all parents are naturally worried when sending their kids away for a number of days, but this parent was especially concerned.

“What if those foreigners don’t care about our kids?” the parents asked. “What if they harm our kids? What if our kids get lost? What if terrorists target them?”

The fear on the parent's face was palpable. You could slice the tension between their kid’s dreams of new experiences and the parent's concerns for the child's safety with a knife.

As the parent expressed their concerns I thought about my own experiences traveling to other countries and visiting other people in the faith.

I did not know the language of any of the countries that I had visited. I took the time to learn “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” and “Where's the Bathroom,” on the airplane. That was pretty much it. What else do you need to know?

Though I lacked some elements of basic communication, there is one thing I never experienced when traveling to other countries with the church: fear.

We are one of the faith. We are sisters and brothers in Christ. The Spirit has been poured on all of us just the same. Just as we would strive to never allow something terrible to happen to one of our visitors in the faith, so too, they strove to protect us and show us love every step of the way.

When I was in India, they had joy oozing from their faces as they showed us the uniqueness of their culture. They smiled when we burned our tongues on their food, sang with us as we shared church songs together, and shared our awe as we visited the temples and churches of their country. They were with us every step of the way, showing us the love of God.

When I was in Argentina, I had no problem worshiping with them even though my memory of Spanish from High School goes no further than the phrase, “Me gusto bilar en el bano.” I do not even know if I spelled that right! Translated, it means: “I like to dance in the bathroom.” That phrase gets you a long way in a foreign country.

But, I did not need to know that much Spanish to know when in the worship service we were confessing, then singing the Kyrie and Gloria, then reading the scriptures, then saying the creed, and then praying. And, I certainly did not need to know any Spanish to know that I was welcome to eat with them at the Lord’s table. I did not need to know any of it because we speak the same language of the Spirit. We speak the same language of love.

They did not need to explain to me why some Guatemalans were living in the extra rooms in the back of the church. After-all, love of the poor, hated, and outcast foreigner is a universal sort of Jesus-filled love. No explanation is needed.

They did not need to explain why the poor were invited to eat with them after worship. We did not even question it. It too is the Christian language of love. It is universal. It was poured upon us all that day when God poured the Holy Spirit out upon the Apostles.

The Spirit, which like the wind is wild and free, has worked its way even to us today, binding us all together into one family with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.

The concerned parent who was questioning whether or not to send the teen on the trip were reminded on one thing by the trip leader: “Remember, your children will be with your brothers and sisters in Christ. They will be treated the same way you would treat a guest in Christ. Can we promise that nothing terrible will happen to them while they are away? No. We cannot. But, can you promise me that nothing terrible will happen to them tomorrow when they go to school today? No. You cannot. At least, when they go on this trip, they will be with their family in the faith.”

In the end, the teen went on the trip. The teen went on the trip because the parent was allowed to see the truth of Pentecost; where the Spirit is poured out on all nations, making us one family, one people, despite our differences of language or custom.

What we eat and how we say, “I like to dance in the bathroom,” may all be different, but one thing is the same: the unconditional love of God as seen in Jesus Christ and poured on us all through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are one in the Spirit. We are one in our Love.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Reflection on John 17:16-19

Her mom had left her long ago. But, what she found in the box moved her.

First, you must understand that she was 16 when she heard the knock on the door. When she opened it, it was a police officer. He asked if her father was at home. As the officer talked with her father, and as she sat on the stairs waiting, she overheard the words that would change her life forever. “I’m sorry, but she died in the accident.”

But, her mother’s death was long ago. She had moved on in life long ago.

She had graduated college. She had gotten married, she had raised two kids, and now she was going through old boxes in order to make room for a playroom for the grandchildren.

She had not anticipated stumbling across the letter that her mother sent her while at summer camp when she was 12 years old. She had not anticipated that reading it would bring such strong emotions. She had not anticipated reading the words, “I am praying for you, my strong little girl. I will always pray for you.”

“Even still?” she wondered. After all these years, did her mother still pray for her from heaven? She had often prayed for peace and eternal joy for her mother in heaven, but it had never struck her that the prayers might be happening the other way around…until she was reminded of the promise in the letter. "I will always pray for you."

It had never struck her before that she might need her mother’s prayers. But, she did. She needed those prayers. Even after all these years, she needed her mother’s love.

That is what prayer is after-all: an act of love. During his last days, Jesus prayed for the ones he loved. He gave thanks for their devotion to him and his ministry. He prayed for their protection as the days ahead would be nearly impossible as they experienced sights of hatred, torture, and crosses. Jesus gave thanks that they were not lost from him. And, he prayed that through it all they might find joy.

Jesus prays for his people. Jesus loves his people. Jesus prays for us. Jesus loves us. Prayer is an act of love.

I wonder if that is why Jesus once asked his followers to pray for their enemies? Enemies, after-all, are not commonly prayed for. Enemies, by definition, are not loved. But, if you care enough to pray for them, then maybe you will care enough to love them.

A divided world could use a little more prayer for one another. A divided world could use a little more love. Prayer is an act of love after-all.

We could all use a little more love. We could all use a little more prayer. What do you hope that someone would pray about on your behalf. What in your life needs prayer? What weighs on your mind that could be relieved a little by unloading it through prayer?

Go ahead and actually think about it, then write it down. Now, here is the potential hard part, though it should not be. Hand your request for prayer off to someone else in the faith. Maybe, send it as an email.

I have to tell you that there is something powerful, that I cannot quite put my finger on, in knowing that someone is praying for you. There is something powerful in knowing that someone actually takes the time to interweave the fingers of their hands on your behalf. In prayer, you are not forgotten. You and your joys and your struggles are known by someone else in the same way that you and your concerns are known fully by God. You are not alone. There is something powerful in that message.

One day while we ("we" being seminary students, preparing to be pastors) were sitting in class, just out of the blue one of my classmates had an epiphany. Out of the blue, interrupting the lecture from our seminary professor, the student blurted out, “Did you ever consider that some congregation somewhere is praying that we might come? Did you ever consider that somewhere people are gathered together and praying for our learning and our willingness to serve? We have been held in prayer the whole time!”

The seminary professor, undisturbed by the epiphany that disrupted her class, responded, “That is very true. There are many people praying for you. And, did you ever consider that a professor might be praying every night for your learning? Did you ever consider that Jesus prays every moment for you?”

I think we underestimate the power of prayer. Through prayer, Jesus reminds the lonely that they are not forgotten. Through prayer, joys are shared and that joy spreads from one person to another. Through prayer, enemies are turned into friends. Through prayer, the faithful are united into one voice…one people.

To pray is to be one with the author of love, Jesus Christ. To pray is to love.

So, go ahead and follow the lead of Jesus and take the time right now to pray for someone...anyone. If you are brave, pray for an enemy. In doing so, you will be acting out of the love of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Reflection on John 15:9-17

Be loved. Love. Make a Difference.

A few years ago is was introduced to this simple formula, a shortcut you might say, to being a Christian. Its biblical basis is John 15, but it untangles the jumble of “love me”s as I have “loved you”s, and “abide in me”s as "I abide in you"s. It is a simple, memorable phrase that a Christian can put in their pocket or hold in their heart.

Be loved. Love. Make a Difference.

"Be loved."

I am constantly surprised at how many lifelong Christians do not know that they are loved by God. Maybe I should not. Though sermon after sermon reiterate God’s unending, unconditional love for us, I guess it is still hard to hear that message in a world that is constantly telling us that we need to prove ourselves in some way in order to be loved.

Students need to get good grades in order to have a good life in the future. It is a lot of pressure. It is a lot of messaging that says, “Prove yourself and you will be loved.”

That message does not stop after you get the good grades and the good job though. Instead, the message gets even stronger. You must to do well at your job in order to get the reward. Do you want to be out of the street? No? Then do better than the next guy at your job, because the next guy just might take it from you. “Prove your worth and you will be loved.”

It does not even end at conclusion of your career. Adult children failing to come around often? Maybe, it is because they do not love you. Maybe, you were not a good enough parent to make them care. Maybe, you are not lovable.

Do you see what I mean? The world in no way loves you unconditionally. Quite to the contrary, the world requires you to prove yourself over and over again.

Before I was married, I once bought carpenter shorts under the delusion that they would find me love. You know carpenter shorts. They are basically cargo pants with the little loop on the side where you can carry your hammer. Because, after-all, what guy goes places without their hammer?

Plus, the big, overblown picture in the store showed a guy wearing his carpenter shorts with an infatuated girl hanging off of his left shoulder. He had a hammer hanging from his shorts.

He was rugged. He was hard working. He was scraggy in that good looking way. He was a person who bought a hammer.

Hammer? I need to add that to the shopping list!

I have to make a startling admission at this point in my life. After I bought the pants, and the hammer, girls never flocked to my side.

I do not know if you have ever realized this or not, but the whole loving the guy with the carpenter shorts thing was all a big con to get me to buy some shorts…and a hammer. I never even bought any nails…just the hammer.

I wanted so desperately to be loved, and an ad agency played right into that insecurity. They knew scientifically that girls do not flock to guys with cargo fashioned carpenter shorts. They knew that girls flock to guys with tight fitting jeans. But, they used my insecurity over wanting to be loved, to try to fill that void with shorts instead.

They wanted money. I wanted love. They got their money. I got a hammer. Makes total sense.

But, I was loved. That is the thing that makes this all so tragic. If I had stayed awake during church rather than using the time to take a nap or draw scenes of storm troopers battling the rebel alliance on the side of the bulletin inserts, I would have heard Jesus say, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.”

“Abide in my love.”

These are not just some nice words; they are an invitation to live in God’s love…to bath in God’s love.

Swim in God’s love. Soak in God’s love. Let it envelop you and soak into your skin. Jesus displays so much love for you that he would go to any length for you. He would even die on a cross, just so that you would know the extent to which he loves you.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus says.

Allow yourself to “Be loved,” because you are.


Jesus means that as a command. “Love.” Love one another. Again, that is not a command that you need to perform in order to be loved. Rather, since you have been bathing in the love of Jesus Christ and it has been entering into your pores and into your soul, you probably have more than enough.

Like an 8 year old girl who has just discovered the wonders of perfume, the smell of love should be exuding from your every pore. You have allowed yourself to “Be loved,” now love will simply come from you.

Sitting in the motel room for which a local charity had paid the night, the boy asked his Mom, “Why?”

“Why did you quit your job? Why did you stay in the hospital room with me every night? Why did you use up your entire life savings to be with me? Why?”

It was not that he was ungrateful. The absolutely needed her during the spells of puking from the chemo. He needed her when he felt like he was going to die. He needed her hugs and reassurances the entire time. But, she had ruined herself in the process. “Why did you do it Mom?”

“Because, I love you,” she said simply.

It was all that needed to be said.

When you are given a great amount of sacrificial love from Jesus, you cannot help but to share that love yourself. That sort of love can, of course, land you in a hotel room with no money. That sort of love can, of course, land you on a cross of torture. But, the mother thought that it was worth it. And, so did Jesus. Jesus Christ thought the cross was worth it.

Do not worry about the boy and his mom . They are good now. Some other followers of Jesus Christ gave of themselves and helped them to get back on their feet.

That is what Christians do after-all. We allow ourselves to “Be loved,” we “love” others, and in doing so we automatically “Make a difference” in the world; if even in a small way.

Be loved. Love. Make a Difference.

It is the motto of those who abide in Jesus’ love. It is the simple guide to all that is holy. It is the short guide for those whom Jesus calls friends.

Be loved. Love. Make a Difference.