Initial J: Saint John the Evangelist

Saint John the Evangelist

(Click the image for an extraordinary closeup)

Georges Trubert (French, active Provence, France 1469 – 1508)
Initial J: Saint John the Evangelist, about 1480 – 1490, Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 11.4 × 8.6 cm (4 1/2 × 3 3/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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“Jesus wouldn’t help people in need?” What Jesus are you talking about?

I recently saw a comment online that said Jesus wouldn’t help people in need – that he would help people to help themselves.

Just another example of the damage some so-called, self-described Christians do in the name of Jesus — a Jesus of their own invention.

The only miracle Jesus performs in all four Gospels is feeding hungry people in need. (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15)

Jesus didn’t ask them if they could afford to buy their own food, he didn’t means test them, he didn’t teach them to fish, or offer them ‘tough love.’

Jesus saw people in need and helped them.

You’re projecting, if you think Jesus would turn his back on people in need.

Regardless of how people responded, Jesus ALWAYS gives of himself when people ask. People rejected him, and still Jesus gave of himself.

If I thought Jesus was as selfish as some people claim he is, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.

Thankfully, Jesus gives of himself, so that others might have life, and have it more abundantly.

Jesus gives us the example of how to give.

Thanks be to God.

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Being intentional and being still

We have a handmade pottery pitcher we use to water plants and add water to the fish tanks or the dog’s bowl.

The unique triangle spout design allows for a steady yet controlled flow of water.

But we have to pour at the pitcher’s pace. If we rush, the water overflows the spout.

The pitcher forces us to be thoughtful and intentional.

We must take our time and focus on the stream of water. A mere thirty seconds and the task is complete, but for the entire time we must remain attentive and intentional. Focused on the singular task at hand.

The pitcher reminds me how difficult it truly is to stay still and do one thing without distracting thoughts, for even a short time.

Taking time to be intentional is always rewarding, because the process itself is fulfilling.

And water doesn’t spill onto the floor.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.” ~ Psalm 46:10

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Fire and Rain and drops of pain

Have you heard James Taylor’s Fire and Rain?

Of course you have. Everyone has.

The first verse is about the suicide of his friend Suzanne Schnerr.

The second verse is about him kicking his heroin addiction, and the third verse is about the end of his band, “James Taylor and the Flying Machine.” The line isn’t about an airplane crash.

There is much pain and suffering in the song, which makes it easy for people to connect with.

We all have loses and regrets.

Imagine singing night after night about some of the deepest pain you’ve ever experienced.

I wonder how he does it. Did the pains heal to scars and the scars grow so thick that he can share the experiences, without feeling the hurt of them?

Recovery programs are effective because they allow people the space to give voice to their pains and hurts. By recognizing and talking out loud about pain and sadness, we release the power of the hurtful hold they have over us.

Perhaps James Taylor reinforces his recovery and releases his pain every night, on stage in the spotlight.

“Even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” – Frederick Buechner

None of us ever gets over pain, we simply get through it, and move forward.

Everyone has seen fire and rain. Everyone carries some sort of pain.

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” — Aeschylus

Fire and Rain
by James Taylor

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can’t remember who to send it to

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again

[Verse 2]
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again

[Verse 3]
Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you baby, one more time again, now

Thought I’d see you one more time again
There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now
Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you, fire and rain, now.

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“For Everything There is a Season”

Sermon for Dec. 31, 2017

For audio of the sermon, listen here:

From the Lectionary for Jan. 1. 2018

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
3:2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3:3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
3:7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
3:9 What gain have the workers from their toil?
3:10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.
3:11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
3:12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;
3:13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Today is the sixth day of Christmas.

Just a reminder, the Christian Christmas Season isn’t the days before Christmas, it’s the days after Christmas. The Christian calendar counts the 12 days from the day after Christmas to Jan. 6, Epiphany. Today is the sixth day of Christmas.

Epiphany was introduced into the Christian tradition in 361, six years before the Bible was codified in the current form.

A portion of the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child on Epiphany. Others commemorate the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany.

Today is the First Sunday of the new Christian year.

And, today, tonight, is also Watch Night.

In the African American community, Watch Night services later tonight commemorate the evening of Dec. 31, 1862, as slaves looked to Jan. 1, 1863, and the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The idea of a New Year’s Eve service actually is older than Freedom’s Eve, and in fact finds its roots in the Moravian Church and a 1733 New Year’s Eve service held in Germany.

Never one to let a good idea go un-adopted, John Wesley incorporated the service into his denomination. Some Methodists continue to hold monthly evening services, known as “Covenant Renewal Services.”

The Watch Night service obviously took on deeper significance on New Year’s Eve, 1862, when it was more important than any before or since, and the effects will still be observed in black communities tonight.

In 1862, millions of American residents – not citizens, slaves with no rights – eagerly looked to the new year for the promise of hope.

You can imagine their trepidation and excitement. Many of us share similar feelings, in our own ways, as we consider the year to come, 2018, less than a day away.

January takes its name from the Roman god Janus. The dual-headed god of beginnings, endings, transitions and time. Like Janus, all day today, we look back on the year that was and we look forward to the coming year.

I try to take time on New Year’s Eve for self-reflection, to consider the sort of person I’ve been, and the sort of person I’d like to be. Have I been as kind as I could be? Have I been considerate of others? how can I improve? What sort of person do I want to be in 2018?

Today’s scripture reminds us that there is a time for everything. A time to ponder the past, and a time to focus on the future.

In verse 11, it says, God “has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

All time for God is now. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are as one.

Writer C.S. Lewis compares God’s ability to control time to an author’s control of time in a book. God doesn’t move from page to page, day to day, the way we do. God moves outside of time. For God, there is no yesterday or tomorrow. For God, there is only always now.

When Moses meets God, God is introduced as “I Am.” A better translation is “I am becoming that which I am becoming.” God is more than now, God is always, ever-active, constantly in motion, constantly becoming – yesterday, tomorrow and always now.

These words from Ecclesiastes remind us that there is a time for everything. But these words also are a reminder to try to follow God’s example, and be present in each moment, experience the now. Enjoy this moment, don’t worry about the past moment. Pay no mind to the next moment, be present in this moment, this time. Right now.

It’s not easy. We live in interesting times. Difficult days, for many of us.

Some today are glad to see the year end. 2018 can’t get here fast enough. The year has been hard, a struggle. The headlines and news, overwhelming.

Others, are sad to see this final day of 2017. They remember joys and successes, slowly fading to happy memories.

Everyday is a transition, a moving forward towards the unknown of tomorrow.

Finances and romances. Births and deaths. Stressors and pressures.

Distractions from what’s important, sometimes so distracting that we forget what’s actually important.

The world tells us this is important, and that is important. Society says occupy your mind with this idea and worry about that. Our own hearts tell us what’s important. The Creator of Heaven and Earth writes upon our souls the things that are truly important. Make time for this, our hearts say, it is not time for that.

Sometimes we feel conflict in our spirits, because we are living as the world says to live, and not living aligned with God.

The scripture tells us to focus on one thing at a time, when it’s the time to focus on it. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Today’s scripture reminds me of Psalm 30:5: “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

There is a time for weeping, and a time for joy.

A time to seek, and a time to lose. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.

In the coming year, there will be hard times. There will be difficulties and disappointments. There will be frustrations and troubles.

Weeping lasts through the night…

There is a time to build and a time to breakdown. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

… joy comes in the morning.

The year to come will bring with it untold joys, countless moments of happiness. Celebrations and graduations. Achievements and accomplishments. Growth and gratitude.

Let us thank God for the opportunity to celebrate each season of our lives. To pause and consider the joys and sorrows for what they are, as they unfold.

Let us thank God for the chance to live our lives to the fullest, to be present and fully involved in the great gifts God has given us.

Let us thank God for the year that has past, and the year to come.

Let us thank God, that weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Delivered at First Mennonite Church Richmond, Dec. 31, 2017.

God of the four seasons. God of the four points of the compass. God of the land and water, the air and Sun, be with us in our celebration and in our time of need. Be present in our lives each season in ways that give us strength and prepare us for the road ahead, in ways that comfort us, and in ways that help us live more connected to ourselves, to each other, and to You, the maker of all things. Amen.

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Christmas Day

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Virgin birth? What difference does it make?

The Virgin and Child / Bart. Coriolanus Fecit. Bononiae anno 1630. Library of Congress

As sure as Christmas means Santa and gingerbread, someone asks about the “virgin birth.”

Some Christians find value in the Biblical birth narrative.

Some demand belief in the Virgin Mary or belief in the scriptures that give us the Christmas story of a babe born in a manger.

But early Christians weren’t as concerned with the birth of Jesus, as they were concerned with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The story of Jesus’ birth is in only two of the Gospels. His resurrection is in all four Gospels.

What happened was a guy was executed by the government, and then a few days later, he came back to life. Turns out his claims of being the Son of God were true. Hundreds of people saw him alive and well, and they told people, and they told people, and they told people, and someone told me. It happened.

The life, message and lessons of Jesus mean more to me than the Biblical accounts of his birth, and the need to ‘fulfill scripture.’

I don’t care about fulfilling Jewish scripture. I care about the guy who overcame death itself because he was God in a human body.

Just as God assumed the humble life of a child, so too, does God call us to become humble and innocent.

HOW the child came to be isn’t as important as the fact we are called by that child to help other children.

Jesus, God in human form, calls us to do God’s will. And he clearly explains what we are to do — love God, love others.

Take care of others, as we would take care of a baby.

Trust in the Lord as a child trusts.

Pour out our love on others, empty ourselves, so that God can fill us.

Be born again, innocent and new, like a child. Be like the child born someday, somewhere, 2,000 years ago, who was God incarnate and the savior of the world.

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Shamash — the helper

A seven-branched menorah symbolizes Jewish Temple tradition.

The nine-branched Hanukkah menorah is lit during the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah.

A new branch is lit on each night of Hanukkah.

In the ancient story, when the Maccabean revolt led to the restoration of the Temple, there was only enough oil to light the lamp for a night. But in miraculous fashion, each evening enough oil remained for another night. And then another, and finally enough oil for eight nights.

The ninth holder on the Hanukkah menorah is the shamash, the “helper” or “servant.” This is the light used to light the other candles.

When are you the shamash?

When do you bring light to others in their darkness?

When do others turn to you for help?

Who is your shamash, your helper?

Let us strive to remember our shamash, to be thankful for our helpers.

Let us strive to be the light in a dark world.

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Kiel, Germany, December, 1931.

Rachel Posner, the Rabbi’s wife, took this photo in her living room, across the street from the Nazi headquarters.

It was the last night of Hanukkah.

Hate, vitriol and racist lies were sweeping across Germany.

Rachel wrote upon the back of the photo:

“Chanukah, 5692.
‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.
‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

Rabbi Posner recognized the dangers of the Nazis, and encouraged any Jewish people who would listen that they needed to flee. He and his family left Germany in 1933, taking the photo and the Hanukkah Menorah with them. (For more on the history behind the photo, visit:

In 2017, the Trump White House held a Hanukkah service — without inviting a single Jewish Democrat. The bigotry, antisemitism, racism and sexism in the White House and Congress are at levels not seen since the United States defeated the Nazis on the streets of Berlin in May, 1945.

It’s easy to dismiss comparisons of the United States to Nazi Germany.

Nazi Germany was led by educated, articulate, experienced military men with a clear focus on world domination.

The Trump administration is filled with rubes and fools.

It’s folly to compare the leadership of the two countries. Comparisons can be found among the people of 1931 and 2018.

Both countries are brimming with Anglo-Saxons proud of their country’s history, with an over-developed sense of nationalism and a profound willingness to let government representatives get away with taking the rights, property, and the lives of citizens and residents.

Political propagandists routinely manipulate citizens into making decisions against their own best interests.

Working people blame every minority for every issue, and turn a blind eye to the racism, bigotry or violence of white men and the socioeconomic, political and legal systems that protect them.

Millions ignore economic exploitation of the working poor, while simultaneously blaming them for their situation.

In less than a heartbeat, bigotry and hate can be unleashed and focused with deadly consequences on the streets of Munich or the streets of Charlottesville.

Let us not fool ourselves into believing that it can’t happen again or that it can’t happen here.

It is happening again.

It is happening here.

Americans are victimized and victimizing everyday. Minorities are being  abused by the majority.

And yet again, goodhearted people turn a blind eye to the system of bigotry and economic exploitation.

God is not on the side of bigots.

God was on the side of the Israelites when a day’s worth of oil lasted for eight nights.

Scripture in the hands of bigots is not of God.

Scripture in the mouths of racists is like ashes.

Jesus is on the side of the victim, not on the side of an angry public enforcing unjust laws.

We must stand up for victims today, and we must stand in honor of the victims of the past, those who waited in vain for someone to stand up for them.

Germany failed their moral test. Now it is our turn.

The Unites States is in a pivotal point in history. How will we respond to the growing hatred? By responding as Christians or as Nazis?

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St. Nicholas might be a Klingon

St. Nicholas *Might* be a Klingon.jpg

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As much as we’d like to see Nazis get punched in the face

As much as we’d like to see Nazis get punched in the face,

It’s wrong to punch people in the face.

Even racist, bigoted, Nazis.

Even racist bigots who feel emboldened by the support of the President of the United States.

We live in interesting and difficult times.

Hate crimes are on the rise, emboldened by Nazis, bigots, and racists roaming our city streets and our halls of power.

Much as we might like to punch them for being racist haters, we must remember that hate can not drive out hate.

“Do not be overcome by evil,” Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “but overcome evil with good.”

Darkness and light can not exist in the same place. Light will drive out darkness.

It’s tempting to respond to angry headlines with anger. But anger can not drive out anger. Anger and joy can not exist in the same place.

Respond with joy.

Yes, we live in interesting and difficult times — racism and bigotry are mainstreamed.

But joy, happiness, and love are the answers. Not punching people in the face.

Overcome evil with good.

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Life is stressful.

The news is stressful.

All forms of social media are stressful.

Finances, college funds, finding a new job, car repairs, relationships, family — the list goes on and on. Internal issues like fear and insecurity can create stress faster than a rock in your shoe. This doesn’t even include major life moments like deaths, divorces or marriages. Everything is stressful.

Happy times can create stress. A graduation, a birth, a promotion, all are stressful, even when we don’t realize it.

You can shift your focus, and look at things a little differently.

Yes, it’s stressful having a child move from home, but be thankful your child is healthy, strong and able to move away.

Yes, car repairs are costly, but be thankful you’re not riding the bus.

If you are reading this, then you have the capacity and ability to find a job and shelter to meet your basic needs.

We can ‘succeed’ all our lives, and yet feel out of control. ‘Failures’ can feel like victories if we feel in control of our destiny. Our stress is influenced by our perspective.

We can try shifting focus, and remaining positive and goal-oriented, but the fact is it’s easy to feel stress when you think about loading your stuff into a truck and moving away.

In 1967, two psychiatrists created a stress inventory to determine if stress contributes to illness. “They surveyed more than 5,000 medical patients and asked them to say whether they had experienced any of a series of 43 life events in the previous two years. Each event, called a Life Change Unit (LCU), had a different “weight” for stress. The more events the patient added up, the higher the score. The higher the score, and the larger the weight of each event, the more likely the patient was to become ill.”

You can take an on-line Holmes-Rahe inventory here:

A better explanation of the life events can be found here:

In times of stress, the best response is to be pro-active. To know that the headlines will upset you, to realize that the holidays are stressful, even when they are enjoyable.

We feel stress when we feel out of control. When we take control of a situation, we feel less stress.

Sometimes prayers and faith simply aren’t enough. To get through stressful times, we often have to turn to trusted friends for help or accept that some things can be ‘good enough’ rather than perfect. When feeling stress, we must strive to remember that we will be okay. You will be okay.

It may rain today, but the sun will come out again.

Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Because, as Will Rogers wrote, “worrying is like paying on a debt that may never come due.”

As difficult as it seems, the simple answer to stress is to not worry. To try to see beyond the fear, and rest in the comfort that the Spirit of God is with us, in good times and bad.

“For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat or drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on,” Jesus says. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the air, they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by worrying can add a single hour to her life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. … You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ … For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

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