Unattached

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They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
–Colossians 2:19

I wrote a strange story, years ago, about a land called Umbillica.  In this world, umbilical cords were permanent.  Children remained attached to their mothers by very long strands of veins and arteries, connecting one generation to the next.

In this way, as many as five generations would travel and live together.  Families were literally bound to each other.  When a woman decided to marry, her new husband would disconnect from his clan, and tie on to his wife’s family.

This kind of connection was the only way the citizens of Umbillica knew how to live.  And in this world, there was really only one thing to fear:  Being unattached.

Being unattached? It only happened in the rare instances when a calamity wiped out the rest of one’s family, leaving a poor figure to walk the world alone.  Or, far more scandalously, it happened when an occasional clan member deliberately untethered themselves from their family, and scampered off into the night, never to be seen again.

There was nothing more taboo than to be unattached.

As the creator of this peculiar world, even I’m not sure why I set it up that way.  But can you imagine such a world?  Where familial attachments reign supreme, and untethered people feel ostracized?

Yeah, I can, too.  Sounds familiar.

Our society can project a subtler form of response to the unattached.  Sometimes we will pity people who are on their own, as if their lives must be sad and incomplete. Sometimes I suppose that’s true, but unattached people frequently find their own new clans to be a part of. New people to connect with.  And unattached people can find joy in their independence, adventure on the horizon, peace in solitude.

It’s important to remember that God’s grace is not just delivered in family-sized doses.   It comes to every person in every circumstance.  Maybe your family is healthy, or in shambles.  Maybe you’ve cut yourself off from your family because of conflict or abuse or dysfunction.  Maybe you can feel the tug of that umbilical cord…it’s just a very long one.   Whatever your attachment (or unattachment) issues are, know this:

God longs to connect with you.  Through other people, out in the world, through scripture, through your family, through the Holy Spirit, and a million other ways.

That’s the way the creator of this peculiar world set it up.

Don’t worry.  God is not stalking you, or trying to smother you.  God’s grace is not dependent on the number or strength of any of your connections, either.

And it comes (you’ll be happy to learn),

with no strings attached.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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I am giving up for Lent.

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Chocolate. Smoking. Facebook.
Soda.  Pizza.  Swearing.
Smart Phone. Complaining. TV.

What are you giving up for Lent?

Alcohol. Procrastinating. Fast food.
Shopping.   Salt.  Red Meat.
Caffeine.  Gossip.  Selfishness.

There are so many things people give up for Lent.  You could choose any one of them to help you focus spiritually this season, or…

You could just give up.

As in, “I give up!”

As in, “My hands are raised in the air, God.  This is me giving up!”

As in, “I surrender”.

This is not an easy thing to do.  Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane?  He says, “My Father if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) , and then,  My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” Matthew 26:42

That passage is not about Jesus wanting to give up drinking for Lent! It’s about Jesus putting his life in God’s hands.  He gives up his own human desire for self-preservation, and surrenders himself into God’s will.

This is what I want to do, this year.  I want to try.  I want to give up for Lent.  For me, giving up means consciously resisting the urges I have to resist God.  I want to avail myself of God’s will as much as I can.

That means trying, at least, to give up some of my worst habits.  My overwhelming desire for comfort. My fear of speaking and acting in faith.  The pain that has me looking at the world through jaded eyes.

I want to give all that up!  Release it into the cosmos.  Then I want to listen obediently.

I do not expect God will lead me to a cross.  But I expect God will lead me.  And giving up is my sign of willingness to follow.

Along the way I may eat a little chocolate.  I may complain a bit.  I may stumble and fall, for the journey to the cross is not always easy.

But I will rest in the knowledge of the One…

Who never gives up on me.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Candy Dust to Dust

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You’ll never believe what happened when Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday fell on the same day, back in 2018.

Here’s what happened:

I had left the house in a rush, grabbing my stuff and wishing my wife an “I love you!” as I ran for the door.  I had to make it to church in time for the come-and-go imposition of ashes. We decided not to have a service this year, opting instead for a couple hour-long spans when people could come to the church, receive ashes and a devotion booklet, and be invited to pray in silence.

There were already a couple people sitting in pews waiting when I got to the sanctuary.  I dropped my stuff in the front pew and reached in my satchel for my vial of ashes—and it wasn’t there!  Instead I found a bag of Valentines candy.  Little candy hearts I was going to pass out to my staff and family that evening.

I stood there, paralyzed, as another person came into the sanctuary.  The man walked down the aisle right to me, brushing away his hair so I could impose the ashes that I didn’t have.

Panicking, and not knowing what else to do, I ripped open the bag of hearts, grabbed one, and placed it in the man’s palm.  Looking down, we read together what it said:  “Be Mine”.

He looked at me, startled.  Straight-faced, I muttered, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” He slowly turned away, as if trying to decide if he was supposed to eat it or not.

There was a line now.  The woman behind him stepped forward, and tentatively held out her hand.  I pulled another one out.  It said, “Hot Stuff”.  Obviously that wouldn’t do, so I popped it in my mouth, said a silent prayer, and pulled out another.  “True Love.”  That was more like it.

“Repent and believe the Gospel,” I said, placing it in her hand.  She smiled.  That was a good sign. The line was all the way down the aisle, now.  Would I have enough appropriate hearts to pass out?  I said another silent prayer.

The next one surprised me: “Have Faith”.  The one after that said, “I Forgive.”  Amazed, I pulled another and gasped.  It said, “Died 4 U”.  People were leaving with tears in their eyes now.  I had to wipe a few away myself.  In later days people would tell me it was the most moving Ash Wednesday they could remember.  Believe me, I gave God all the credit.

As the last person left the sanctuary, I looked down in the bag.  One heart left.  Bracing, I pulled it out.  It said “Dust 2 Dust”.

Indeed.  Wiping the candy dust from my hands, I sank down into the pew and began my own Lenten journey.  I tried to quiet my mind, but the thought wouldn’t leave me…

If God could make Valentines Day into a meaningful observance of Ash Wednesday,

What might God do with April Fool’s Day and Easter?

Have a good week,

Mitch

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My Way

Frank Sinatra My way

“Alexa, play the Frank Sinatra station.”

Alexa’s my Amazon speaker-thingy.  You just tell it what you want to hear, and it provides the soundtrack for your life! This morning, I felt like some old standards.  This is what I got:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

Listening, I thought to myself, “this is such a good song.  An old classic.  Well written, and ole Blue Eyes really knows how to belt it out.”

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

The words to the song, I just looked them up, were written by Paul Anka.  But the philosophy of life clearly belongs to that of the Chairman of the Board.

But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way

The song is about a man, near the end of his life, looking back with pride. Every time life got tough, he made his own uncompromising decisions.  He did it “My Way”.

For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

It was at this point that I decided to write this devotion.  Did you notice that this song is seriously missing something? There’s no leaning on God.  No leaning on others.  There’s no collaboration, no love.  There’s only a man standing tall.

And you know what?  That’s not enough.

I know lots of people who have graduated from the Frank Sinatra school of hard knocks.  They learned to keep their own interests front and center.  They learned not to trust others or accept much help.  They learned to be strong and determined and single-minded.  They aim to be King of the Hill, A-Number One, and they aim to do it “My Way”. But they don’t learn to trust in God’s way, and that means missing out on the greatest experience of life.

It’s a tricky thing, putting your faith in God’s hands, especially when the world keeps telling you to go it alone.  Even long-term Christians can struggle with this.

I went hunting for “my way” quotes from scripture.  Here are 4 that I found from the Psalms:

It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.  –Psalm 18:32

I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. –Psalm 119:59

You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. –Psalm 139:3

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way.   –Psalm 142:3

Apparently there’s room for both “My Way” and God’s Way.   That balance between God’s sovereignty and Human agency is a mysterious one — humans have been asking about that theological question since day one.  I’m apt to think that we can be strong people of integrity who are guided in our steps, hearts, and minds by a loving God.  We can have it both ways.

When I get to the point in my life when I say, “And now the end is near…” I hope I sing a very different song about my life.  One filled with lots of harmony and inspiration and love, one that reminds me that if I keep God in my life…

I’ll never walk alone.

Have a great week,

Mitch

 

 

Your Word for 2018: THEOLOGY

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Your Word for 2018: THEOLOGY

Well, it could be.

I know several folks who choose a word as their theme for each year.  I’ve done it myself.  One year my word was “Discipline”.  I know others who’ve chosen words like  “Happiness” or “Deliberateness”.  It’s kind of a nice substitute to the seldom-kept New Year’s Resolution.

May I suggest the word THEOLOGY as your word for this next year?  I think I’m going to make it mine.  It’s probably not the first word that might occur to you as an underlying theme for your life for the next 360+ days, but here’s why I think it should be:

1. WE NEED SMARTER CHRISTIANS.

I swear I’m not impugning your Christian IQ!  But as I’ve looked around this year, I’ve seen instance after instance of Christians who either don’t know what they believe, or why they believe it.  People claim deep seeded values and practices based on their faith, but they don’t have the understanding that goes with it!  Theology is the deliberate work of understanding God, God’s people, and God’s creation.

2.  WE NEED A ROAD MAP FOR OUR ROAD MAP.

To be effective in ministry, we’ve got to know where we should be going and what we should be doing.  That’s what the Bible is for, right?  Absolutely, but there is so much history, translation, literary criticism, and deep symbolism involved that we need a road map to help us read our road map.  Theology helps us understand the Bible with more clarity, depth and meaning.

3.  WE NEED AN INFORMED ETHIC.

Christians, at our worst, spout values and morals with little thought to the ethical system behind them.  Jesus taught an ethic of service, acceptance, obedience, and action that calls for deeper refection than many of us give.  The more we study God, the stronger a foundation we have to launch our work in the world.

4.  WE NEED MYSTERY.

I think the worst Christians are know-it-alls.  As if every question has been answered, and every shadow has been illuminated. Not so!  The greatest theologians in history published volumes and volumes of their systematic theologies, but that did not mean they’ve “solved” theology.  There’s always more to understand about God.  There are theological concepts, problems, and approaches that you and I have never pondered.  These mysteries give a robustness to our faith, and challenge us as believers!

5.  WE NEED THEOLOGY IN OUR DEVOTION.

After writing these devotions for some fifteen + years, I look back at my writings and see too many of them summed up with a simple “God is Love” punchline.  While I suppose my faith could be summarized in those three words, there is so much more to say.  To that end, I plan to engage a deeper level of theology in my work going forward.  I want to share more study of this learning, direction, ethic, and mystery in my life and my work. 

How about you?  No matter what Word you pick (or don’t pick) for 2018, you can choose to be resolute in your journey to know God, God’s people, and God’s creation. 

Remember, the only qualification for being a Theologian… 

is being a Curious Christian.

Have a great week,

Mitch

(If you’re interested in a place to start, here’s a bit of United Methodist theology:  A Few Methodist Basics)

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Fur All The Saints

Charlie

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason  I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. –Ephesians 1:15-16

A saint is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness or closeness to God.  –Wikipedia

It’s my devotion. So if I want to use All Saints Day to venerate my dearly departed doggie, I’m gonna do it.

Not that this won’t be met with some controversy, I’m sure.  The debate over whether animals have souls has gone on for centuries.  People are adamant on both sides.  Even Catholic Popes have weighed in differently down through the ages.

Most recently, in 2014, Pope Frances made the claim that animals go to heaven.  It made international press–too bad everybody was quoting somebody else by mistake.  We don’t actually know what the Pope’s thoughts on pets in the afterlife are.  I wonder if he ever had a dog?

My dog, Charlie, left this Earth yesterday, early afternoon.  My wife and I don’t have kids, so Charlie was the third member of our family.  We’ve had many tears as we’ve watched his cancer get the best of him.  Saying goodbye to someone you love is so hard.

I’ll be honest–if you were to call into question the existence of a soul in Charlie, my wife would probably beat you up.  So I don’t recommend that, at least not this week.  For us, and millions of pet owners, the answer is obvious.  The spark of creation, the capacity for love points to an unmistakable soul.  Something God-given and eternal.  Charlie has a soul.

Now, I’m gonna take it one step further.  Can a dog be a Saint?

We have several definitions of “Saint” that we use in the church.  They can differ from one denomination to the next, but here’s what we talk about in my church.  A Saint is:

  1. Someone who has impacted the lives of others in a profound and loving way.
  2. A member of the congregation, living or dead.
  3. Anyone whom we have loved and lost.

Those are pretty roomy definitions, and designed to be that way.

The Catholic Church goes further:  A saint (lower case) is anyone in heaven.  A Saint (upper case) is someone “who has been formally canonized that is, officially and authoritatively declared a saint, by the Church as holder of the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and is therefore believed to be in Heaven by the grace of God” (Wikipedia)

I think Charlie would have to have performed a couple miracles (and be human) in order to be considered for canonization, (we’re talking Mother Theresa material), so maybe not the extra fancy description of Saint.  But, looking at #1 up there, I’m gonna say he counts in my book.

For 12 years he followed/shepherded us everywhere we went.  He cuddled, played tug, and seemed to know when we needed an extra dose of affection.  He was incredibly smart–we counted well more than a dozen words or phrases he understood completely.  He ran with Jan for years around Wyandotte County Lake, protecting her.  He traveled around the country with us.  And on the rare occasion when Jan and I would raise our voices, he would come and sit right between us.

I could go on, and probably never convince some that Charlie is being deserving of Sainthood.  That’s okay.  I suppose you’ll have to take my word for it —  That dog taught me more about love, service and commitment then most humans ever will.

So, if you’re not a pet owner, consider becoming one!

And if you are a pet owner — I give you permission (which you don’t need) to call your special pets Saints, too.   I figure, if the paw fits, wear it.

I believe we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and not all of them walk on two legs.

But hey, when you turn your eyes to God, you can go ahead and discern that for yourself.

After all…

It’s your devotion.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Are you ready for bed?

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“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” –Ephesians 4:26b

Great line of scripture. I wonder: What if the whole world did this?  We could all be mad at each other during the day, hurling rocks and insults and such, but as soon as the sun sets…we’re cool as cucumbers.

The human race would have somehow learned to let go of their anger each night, and instead, we’d all gather in the streets, reconciling with our enemies, dancing in the joy of release.

I wonder–come morning, would we pick up where we let off?  Hurtful remarks over Raisin Bran? Nations at war with nations?  Facebook posts pointing fingers every which way?  Can you say, “Outrage du jour?”

Or would a night of peace change our minds?  Would conflict seem less palatable in the light of the day?  Once you have seen your adversary in the gentle moonlight, would it be harder to hate them under sunny skies?

Maybe anger would just fizzle away.  We’d learn we just didn’t need it.  We wouldn’t need the road rage, the jealous fits, the political diatribes.  We might need to hold on to a little righteous anger, just for those times when gross injustice warrants it. But even the anger we might tend to direct at ourselves would lose its power.

Now, I’m sure there would be quite a lot of resistance if I were to suggest that anger can be eliminated from the human makeup.  These emotions come from the more primitive parts of our brains, and they’re hard wired into us.  We will likely have to face anger again and again. However, it really is possible for us to reduce the grip anger has on us.

Prayer.  Meditation.  A good therapist.  A long walk.  Medication, even.  These are just a few things humans do that reduces anger.  Want more examples?  Journaling.  Breathing. Creativity.  Forgiveness.  Listening.  Sharing.  Serving.  A long, hot shower (my personal favorite), and yes, counting to 10.

The anger some folks carry is a very heavy weight.  Maybe not something you can fully “deal with” between brushing your teeth and putting your slippers on. But as you get ready for bed tonight, remember that God offers a plethora of ways to help at least lighten your load of anger.  Try some of them.

And if your new bedtime ritual works, and the peace of Christ comes upon you, you may even feel the urge to run out into the street, to celebrate.

God willing,

the rest of us will be there too.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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