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Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

May 19, 2017

This month we’re beginning a new study of Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. In this book Mr. Feiler journeys around the Middle East, talking to believers of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam about the role that Abraham plays in their particular faith tradition. It is an interesting story and a very readable book, and if you can’t join us on Wednesdays at 5:30 for the discussion, I hope you’ll check in here and add your own comments!

I will be blogging each week about our discussion and I hope to hear from some of you as you follow along. If you are not a part of the COF family, you should know that we are a part of the Christian faith tradition. However, our purpose is to learn something about the heritage we have in common with Judaism and Islam, so hopefully we will have some discussion around those faith traditions as well.

We began this week with an overview of the book, a reading of the beginning of the Abraham story found in Genesis (11:26-12:9), and a discussion of what we know about Abraham as we begin. Abraham is first mentioned as Abram in Genesis 11:26: When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Before we get to this point we’ve had the creation story, Adam and Eve in and out of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Right after the Babel story there is a listing of descendants of Noah beginning with Shem, through about 8 generations until we get to Terah, the father of Abram. Besides Shem there is nothing noted about these generational ancestors; there is little know even of Terah except that he lived in Ur and at some point gathered his family and set out for Caanan. Along the way they came to a place called Haran and settled there. Terah’s son Haran had already died before they left Ur, but along with Terah came Abram and Sarai, his wife, as well as Lot, the son of Haran.

Questions:

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about him?

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judiasm, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about the origins and tenets of these three faith traditions?

Our discussion:

Abram and others in this part of the OT* are given ages of hundreds of years. Is this true? Did people really live longer then, or did they reckon time differently?

  • They reckoned time differently– years were shorter
  • This comes out of oral tradition, and a difference of understanding of “age” than what we have today
  • The numbers given as final age were largely symbolic and depended on the status of the individual named.

What do we know about Abraham?

  • His original name was Abram and his wife’s original name was Sarai. At some point God changed their names.
  • Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac
  • He was given to lying; twice lied about Sarai being his sister instead of his wife.
  • Sarah his wife could not have children; thus his first son was Ishmael from Hagar. Ishmael and his descendants split off into a separate line of descendants.
  • Abram was rich.
  • Abram was nomadic.

What do we know about the origins of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (and about them in general?)

  • They are monotheistic religions
  • Christianity began when the apostles began to see themselves as separate from Judaism
  • Islam began when Mohammad had a vision which became the Quran (this is the faith tradition that we all know the least about.)
  • We discussed the idea that oral tradition played a large role in the beginnings of each faith tradition and that eventually things were written down. There are similarities in the stories found in each tradition– much of the wisdom that these three traditions are know for are found in other traditions around the world.
  • All three have a history of “winning” over the others, each tradition believes “we” will win the ultimate battle and become the one true religion (and each already has an element of believing themselves to be the one true religion.)

This study will take about 10 weeks. The book is divided into sections:

  • An introduction, called Home, in which we discover the Rock of Abraham, the beginnings and touchstone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • God of Abraham, which will talk about the birth and call of Abram.
  • Children of Abraham, in which we learn about Ishmael and Isaac and how they factor into the development of the three faith traditions.
  • People of Abraham, with a chapter for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith tradition
  • Blood of Abraham, in which the legacy of Abraham is discovered.

Next week we’ll begin with Home and the questions that led Mr. Feiler to decide to take this journey of discovery of how Abraham fits into each of the three faith traditions.

So what do you think? If you’d like to read along and join the discussion, the book is available in paperback on Amazon or can be downloaded to Kindle. Please share your thoughts below; keep it clean and civil please, comments will be moderated.

*Some Christians call this part of our Bible “Hebrew Scriptures” but to me that isn’t entirely accurate either, so for the purposes of this study OT and NT will refer to the Christian Bible, the Torah will refer to scriptures of Judaism, and the Quran will refer to scriptures of Islam.

 

 

 

 

Religious or Political?

February 15, 2017

I am chagrined to realize I haven’t posted on this blog for quite awhile– since October, in fact. Between then and now quite a bit has happened– not only Advent and Christmas, but also the Presidential election and inauguration and the aftereffects of this transition.

I mostly avoid directly commenting about politics on this blog in the spirit of keeping religion and state seperate (though I have been accused of “spewing liberal lies” in my sermons– you can read them and judge for yourself here). However, I happened upon an article today about Charleston SC public schools which opened by pointing how difficult it is to completely separate politics from other aspects of our lives (in that case, public education.) The same thing is true, I think, about politics and religion; in fact it was theologian Karl Barth who was widely credited with saying preachers should write their sermons with the “Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

For tax purposes, preachers are forbidden from publicly and from the pulpit endorsing candidates for public office. I think this is a good rule and one that I follow. We aren’t forbidden as far as I know, however, from pointing out when the policies of our elected officials are dangerous or damaging to the country or its citizens. When that happens it becomes an issue of justice as much as politics, and justice issues are a preacher’s bread and butter (so to speak.) This is where Barth’s quote comes in.

You see, preaching about Biblical issues without talking about current events leads to sermons that are quite hollow. Yes, it is good for congregation members to hear that they are loved by God and live under grace and forgiveness; but there comes a moment when we have to ask what that means. Preaching salvation only seems dangerous to me because it can lead to a very self-satisfied, self-centered faith, a faith that in the comfort of our own safety forgets about the injustices all around us– injustices such as racial inequality, homelessness, and poverty. These are very kinds of things that the prophets speak against in the Old Testament and Jesus challenges in the New Testament.

Take, for example, this week’s lectionary passage from Leviticus, a book not only of the Old Testament but part of the Torah (the first five books of Jewish scripture.) Leviticus 19:9-10 says 9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. In these verses God speaks directly to the problems of hunger and poverty by instructing the people to leave grain and grapes on the edges of the field and on the ground so that the needy can come behind them and gather what they need to eat. It is a way of making sure that they are provided for– a method not too different than our SNAP program here in the United States. SNAP is the program that used to be known as “food stamps”– an allowance for the poor and needy that can be used for food and necessities. SNAP is paid for by our taxes, and I’m glad to offer this support because I have no farmland for the poor to use for gleaning as most of us do not; in this way the poor can “glean” from my tax dollars.

Another example of resistance to injustice is found in the Beatitudes of Jesus, where we read “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the poor in spirit. In Jesus’ world it isn’t the powerful who will receive blessings but the powerless– and if that’s not a political statement, I don’t know what is! In the kingdom of God injustice will be ended, and the poor, the meek, the hungry, all of those who face oppression and injustice today will be satisfied. The single mom who has to choose between paying the rent and feeding her child will be lifted up out of her suffering; the homeless man will have a safe, warm and dry place to live.

As a preacher of the word of God I cannot ignore these teachings; neither can I not pass them on to my congregation. God loves us, yes! But as the people of God we have a responsibility to care for the ones in our midst who cannot care for themselves. Is that Biblical? Yes. But it’s also political.

 

 

 

 

 

When Did Civility, Tolerance and Respect Become Bad?

October 19, 2016

This morning a Facebook post from a good friend caught my attention. It was a series of pictures of her oldest, who runs cross-country track events and recently won a race. What I appreciated was the message that went along with the pictures: “This kid keeps winning his cross-country races but what makes me prouder is that he waits and congratulates each person across the finish line.”

In a country obsessed with winning and being the best this image stands out to me. In a country embroiled in a very ugly and contentious presidential race, this practice of congratulating others for making it across the finish line stands out to me. In a time when it is acceptable and even applauded to call our opponents names like “loser” and “deplorables” this stands out to me.

Perhaps other elections have been this ugly and stooped so low. I don’t remember any in my lifetime in which the rancor has been so public (however, I know from history that there have been plenty of ugly races.) But the glee with which the civility of our public discourse has been eroded is disturbing, and we should all be embarrassed by the tenor and tone of debate that has occurred.

I won’t rehash what has been said. That isn’t my purpose here. But I am concerned for what happens after the election is over. Will we all be able to move on with our lives? Will we ever be able to recover from the lines that have been crossed and the particular brand hostility and viciousness that have polluted this election cycle?

Some of us are hurt and angry, afraid that we are being left behind. Some of us are hurt and angry that the American Dream that they have been promised seems to have disappeared. Fear and anger go hand in hand, and if not addressed can be deadly.

In his daily devotions last week, Father Richard Rohr calls us to picture ourselves before the crucified Jesus, and recognize that he became all of the things that we fear: nakedness, exposure, vulnerability and failure.  All of that anger we feel because we are afraid is exposed in Jesus on the cross. All of the disappointment we feel because we feel left behind is exposed in Jesus on the cross.  Like a great wound, when anger, disappointment and fear are exposed they can be dealt with and allowed to heal. We find that we no longer need to lash out in anger and we no longer need to fear the other, the future, our finitude because it no longer controls us.

To return to my thoughts about this election season and the damage it is doing to us individually and as a nation, a line in a Washington Post article caught my attention today as well: There are certain qualities of heart and mind that allow for self-government — civility, tolerance and mutual respect. I am afraid that we are losing these qualities because instead of being encouraged to heal ourselves of our anger and fear we are being encouraged to wallow in it and to lash out– which may satisfy for awhile but in the long term will only do more damage to ourselves and our country as a whole.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak out against injustice. Injustice must never be tolerated. But if we lose our ability to speak the truth in love, with respect, with tolerance and with civility we risk losing the very basis of our society. And that, my friends, would be a terrible blow not only for us but for the whole world.

 

 

 

A Walk to Remember

April 8, 2016

32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

DSCN3537 A walk can be good for the soul. A walk in the woods especially. When I am feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated by life and all that I have going on, I head for a wooded trail and walk awhile, which I find clears my head and reenergizes me. One of my new favorite trails is at Doe Run Lake park near Covington and Independence KY, which travels the perimeter of the lake. It isn’t “wilderness” like the Great Smoky Mountains national park is, but it is the next best thing. Just enough up and down to feel I’ve had some exercise, just enough quiet to quiet my mind.

The walk to Emmaus might have had a similar effect on Cleopas and the other disciple. It was the day that they had discovered the reality of Jesus’ body being missing from the tomb, and with everything going on it must have seemed like a good idea to hit the road. Maybe they were going home. Maybe they were going to share the news with other disciples who weren’t in Jerusalem. Maybe they just needed to clear their minds, find a way to recharge their spirits after all that had happened.Whatever the reason, there they were, on the road to Emmaus.

As they walk a stranger approaches and asks what they are talking about. They sadly tell the tale: their leader and teacher, Jesus, had been put to death three days earlier; they had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel, but it seemed that that was not to be. And now they had heard he had risen from death and they were just not sure what to make of this story.

While they were walking they didn’t expect to see Jesus. They didn’t know him when they did see him, at least not at first. But they opened up to this sympathetic stranger about all that had happened, sharing their sorrow and confusion with him. Then grief turns to joy as they break bread with Jesus and realize it had been him all along. in their joy they rush back to Jerusalem, their steps more sure, their mood not somber, but excited. It was a walk to remember, full of joy, astonishment, excitement and hope. Hope for a new future, hope that their dreams weren’t dead because Jesus wasn’t dead, but alive.

In times of discouragement, disappointment and grief we might not expect to see Jesus either. And yet, if we pay attention, we might see him anyway– in the face of a stranger who asks if we’re ok; in the face of a loved one who hugs us and lets us cry without trying to fix us; in the quiet solitude of a wooded trail where we can speak quietly or loudly with God, sharing our sorrow as the psalmists so often did. We feel his love, we feel his comfort. We know we’re not alone and we realize that hope and joy await us in our grief process. We see that new life is possible.

 

5 Reasons to Go to Church

January 18, 2016

Over the years as I have been involved with church and religion, the question has continued coming up, “Why should I go to church?”

Most of the time the question is followed by “I can worship God just as well at home.” Or sometimes “Church doesn’t do anything for me.” Or even, I don’t like the music, the children are loud, or the preacher’s sermons put me to sleep! These days it seems that more and more people are using these or other excuses for not going to church or being involved in a religious community.

But there are good reasons to go to church, even today. And so I have put together what I see as the top 5 reasons to go to or to be involved with church.

5. Discipline  Not discipline as in “punishment” but discipline as in “practice” or “mastery.” We go to church because it helps us to know what it means to be human, to learn how to be compassionate people in the world, and to have opportunities to practice being compassionate human beings in the world. It is possible to learn and do this on your own, I suppose, but it’s easier when we practice among people who can hold us accountable. Better yet, do both– have private devotionals and group study, to maximize your learning power!

4. Learning about ourselves and others– and God  At church we have opportunities to study and discuss theological and spiritual works with other people who are interested in theology and spirituality too. Many people in congregations have a wealth of knowledge to share or a thirst for the kind of knowledge you have. Learning is more enjoyable and easier when done with others, and it gives us a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. Also, during prayer time we hear what our neighbors are facing– the job loss, the divorce, the sickness– and are able to offer our support and share our struggles and receive support. Bible studies and sermons help us learn about God working in the world, and hearing the stories of how our ancestors in the faith encountered God we also learn to understand our encounters with God.

3. We are moved outside of our comfort zone  Just the act of going to church may cause you to step outside of the normal, everyday routine you’re used to. Getting involved in Bible study or mission activities or fellowship groups can shake things up for you, help you see the world in new ways, change your way of thinking about the world and the human beings around you.

2. Good food abounds!  I’ve never been to a church that didn’t have good food and good cooks. From potluck dinners to ice cream socials church people know how to share the best of their culinary ability. Congregations might make food the focus of their ministry, hosting a weekly or monthly dinner that the whole neighborhood or community is invited to. By sharing our food we share ourselves, growing in faith as we go.

1. Good people abound as well!  Yes, there may be drama in church and yes, sometimes people aren’t as nice and compassionate and loving as we might like. From outside of the church we might see them as hypocrites; but from inside the church we realize that they’re good people who struggle sometimes, just like everyone else. When we spend time with someone on a mission trip, at dinner before choir, in a Bible study we come to know them, sometimes better than we know our own families. They might even come to feel like family. We see where we have things in common. And we might see God working in their lives, helping them to become better people– and helping us to become better people too!

Sure, it’s easy to not go to church, easier than it was in the mid-20th century when going to church was just what you did. It’s easy to stay at home on Sunday morning, or go to the lake or to a ball game; it’s easy to point fingers at people who go to church but who seem so unpleasant sometimes. It’s easy to let the world convince us that it doesn’t matter it we don’t go to church. Still, I encourage you to go, and see just what we might find good about going to church.

Walking through Darkness to the Light

December 23, 2015

The following is a reprint of an e-votion I wrote several years ago.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of great darkness—on them light has shined.                                                                Isaiah 9:2

 

At it’s best, the holiday season can be a happy time, a joyful time, a time of wonder and magic. Christmas is a time of celebration, a time when we remember the birth of the Christ child and how his presence changed the world forever. Christmas is also a time for giving to others, to the special people in our lives; we buy presents and bake cookies and generally do things for other people to honor them and show our love for them. It’s a great time to go caroling with friends, to visit people we haven’t seen for awhile, to go to parties and gatherings, and in general have a merry old time.

But for some people the holidays are not so merry. For some people the holidays are a reminder of what they’ve lost:   a loved one, a friend, a spouse. The tragedy of loss may have happened long ago, or it may be recent—I think of the families of the hikers who are lost on Mt. Hood—but the pain the same. For some people the financial stress of gift giving sucks the fun right out of the season. Everywhere they look they are encouraged to buy, buy, buy! and they end up doing so—even if they can’t afford it. And there are other people who don’t know why Christmas is celebrated, but only know the Santa part, who are missing out on the real source of joy that we as Christians feel. For these people and many others, the holidays may seem like a dark time, a time of sadness and stress rather than happiness and joy.

We all walk in darkness from time to time; but somehow if we’re walking in darkness at this time of the year, when it seems like all of the people around us are ridiculously happy and merry, it can be even tougher. It’s no wonder that suicide rates rise at this time of year, that domestic violence rates go up, that alcoholism and drug abuse rates rise. But there is hope. Hope is the reason that people find joy in the Christmas season—hope for the future, for our future and the future of all who suffer—hope that came to us in the form of the baby Jesus and who lives in each of us even now, 2000 years later. For those who are suffering or lonely, Christ teaches us to pray for them and visit them, to give of ourselves to them. If we are the sad ones, we may find that visiting others who need us will bring the hope and joy to our hearts that we’re missing. And if people are walking in darkness because they haven’t heard the Christmas story, Christ sends us out to them to tell the story of our experience with the good news of Jesus Christ—so that they too may have the hope and joy that comes through him.

If you are lonely or suffering and in need of prayer and fellowship, I encourage you go to a Christmas Eve service. Or visit a neighbor. Or call someone. Or write to me and I’ll pray for you. Let’s light up Christmas by giving of ourselves and giving Christ to others.

God of miracles, I look to your love at this time to bring the joy and love to my heart, and to give me hope for the future. Help me to share this hope and joy with others so that they may move out of the darkness and into the light. Amen.  

Advent: Season of Hope, Peace, and Joy

December 15, 2015

hope peace joyWe are well into the season of Advent– only one Sunday between us and the special event we wait for. Advent, in the church world, is a season of waiting and watching for Christ to come in his many forms. We watch for the baby in the manger, we watch for the Christ who will come again. We look behind to the prophets of old who foretold the birth of the Messiah, and we look ahead to the life, death, and ministry of Jesus.

For the first Sunday of Advent we celebrate Hope. Hope is an expectation and desire that something will happen. It is the thing that keeps us going; hope makes us stand up and raise our heads. As Andy Dufresne wrote to Red in The Shawshank Redemption“hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The Psalmist writes, “Our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” We hope in the one who created the universe out of nothing, who made the sky and seas, the earth and all that is in it. Our Advent hope is for the one who is and was and is to come– the Messiah, the deliverer, who will heal our brokenness with compassion and grace. This year’s gospel passage for this Sunday features John the Baptizer, pointing the way to Jesus the Christ, and the hope that comes with him.

For the second Sunday of Advent we celebrate Peace.  Peace can be understood as a time of quiet and tranquility, free from disturbance. It is a time without war, without strife, a time of harmony between social groups. In this year’s gospel for this Sunday John calls us to live peacefully with each other– not in so many words, but through actions: be kind and share what you have with anyone who has less; don’t cheat anyone; and don’t steal from others but be satisfied with what is yours.

In these times of seemingly endless war and conflict it is especially important that we look to Jesus the Christ as the Prince of Peace, and that we follow his way in seeking that peace. The ministry of Jesus was one of healing, of comforting, of loving– especially to the poor, the oppressed, those who had demons or other illnesses. Jesus opened the eyes of the blind and awakened the people around him to their own self-worth, bringing peace to their lives– and ours.

The third Sunday of Advent is Joy Sunday. Joy is a state of pleasure, delight or happiness– though being joyful doesn’t mean being happy all the time! To me, joy is more of a state of being, rather than an emotion. Joy can be fleeting, as when you receive a piece of good news; or can be longer lasting, as when you have an encounter with God or the Spirit. These mountaintop experiences can bring us a joy that stays with us always.

We see joy in this year’s gospel passage for this Sunday, which is the song of Mary. Mary sings of a God who will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. This is good news and a cause for joy for anyone who suffers at the hand of oppression!

Hope, peace, and joy all abound during the Advent season. Hope for a special Christmas with family and friends, peace on Christmas Eve when the children are asleep and the presents are wrapped, joy in the knowledge that this season is about the giving of ourselves to others.

These are all wonderful parts of Advent, but this coming week is the best of all– a more excellent way. I can’t wait!

 

Loving the Refugees

November 20, 2015

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome… who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.   You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.   -Deuteronomy 10:17-19

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”    -Luke 10:36-37

 

The rhetoric of the Republican Presidential contestants (whoops! candidates) is disturbing.

The vote of Congress yesterday is disturbing.

The willingness of our leaders to yield to fear is disturbing, and the willingness of our leaders to fear-monger their constituents is very disturbing.

We insist that we are a Christian nation. But it seems we’re only Christian when it’s convenient.

Thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing for their lives. Fleeing a war which has upended their lives. Courageously stepping into new lives in countries far from their homeland.

We sit here in America, in our big safe houses, with our guns at the ready. And we’re the ones cowering in fear.

But let’s forget that. Let’s forget that most of us live in very safe places, places that never see war or violence. Most of us will never know the heartache of knowing the home you love, the place you grew up, has been destroyed. Most of us will never know the heartache of knowing you can never, truly never go home again. Because there is no home to go to.

Some would say that keeping Syrian refugees out of our country is the smart thing to do, that to do otherwise is to invite terrorism into our safe haven. But Christ doesn’t call us to do the safe thing.

“You were strangers in the land of Egypt” God says to the Israelites, and to us. Therefore we must love the stranger in our midst; even more we must welcome the stranger into our midst. Welcome them as the Egyptians welcomed the family of Joseph. Care for them, share your grain with them. Offer them clothing. Love them as God has loved them. Be a neighbor to them by showing mercy, binding their wounds, providing them shelter.

Nowhere does Christ say to turn from danger. Instead he says that following him will be dangerous. So if America is truly a Christian nation, we must not turn from danger, but expect it, face it, accept it.

The problem is, many of us have our own brand of Christianity that is worried chiefly about “my salvation” and being in God’s favor. It is taken as a sign of God’s favor if we’re wealthy, powerful, successful. If we achieve these things, we must be good. And if we don’t achieve these things, we must be bad or sinful. And so, we can’t risk losing what we have because we’d lose proof that God loves us, that we’re in God’s good graces. We become afraid.

Afraid enough to deny access to the freedoms we enjoy to a group of refugees. Afraid enough to consider requiring Muslims to carry a religious ID card. Afraid enough to forget our call to show mercy to strangers, to welcome, feed and clothe them. To love them. As Paul writes,

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers , and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Consider the more excellent way that Paul proposes. And then consider how we must treat those fleeing from danger as well as those already in our midst who are different. Consider also what God, Christ and Spirit have to say about the strangers in our midst and being a neighbor to those in trouble.

Be not afraid, for the God of love is with us.

 

Being Present in Prayer

November 2, 2015

Anytime I’m in a discussion about prayer, it seems like I hear the same thing: “I can’t concentrate, my mind wanders, I can’t focus long enough, and so I just don’t feel a connection to God.”  It’s a common refrain, and many times I have offered different methods or patterns of praying, because having a deep prayer life can enrich our faith lives. People seem to like the idea that they can “learn” to pray; even the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray after they had seen how his prayers connected him with God. And it’s true, you can learn methods of prayer or different types of prayer. But if we want a deeper connection with God, how do we make that happen? Or can we?

Last week I read an article by On Being blogger Susan Salzburg called “Simple But Not Easy: The Right Effort of Beginning Again.” Ms. Salzburg is a Buddhist and teaches meditation; she has practiced meditation for years and studied under a Burmese master named Sayadaw U Pandita. She told a story in the blog I read about going to study with this master and having the assignment of meeting with him 6 days a week to discuss her meditation experiences with him. She diligently meditated each day, making notes and trying to remember how her sessions had gone. But every time she met with U Pandita and described her experiences with him, he always replied, “It is like that in the beginning.”

This article reminded me of how many Christians feel about prayer– as if we should just be able to sit down and pray, and connect with God with little effort. Or that it’s ok to be a beginner– in the beginning; but like our productivity-oriented society, we want to have something to show for our efforts; we want to feel as if something has been accomplished or achieved. In a similar way we talk about “growing” in discipleship or our spirituality– as if discipleship or spirituality is something that can be measured or weighed. And if we’re unable to focus on who or what we’re supposed to be praying about we feel we’ve failed; if we don’t see a measurable answer to our prayer or solution to our problem, we think God isn’t there, doesn’t hear us, or doesn’t care.

But maybe, like Ms. Salzburg, we can learn that it isn’t progress that we need, it’s presence. Being present in the moment whether we’re praying or working or exercising. Listening and watching and waiting for God in our everyday lives so that when we do sit down to pray we’re already clued into the rhythms of God’s world instead of letting the human world distract us. As Ms. Salzburg said, If we make a commitment to living in the present moment, we are always “at the beginning” of whatever it is we are doing, constantly presented with thoughts, judgments, observations, and/or sensations that interrupt up us amidst our daily activities. The challenge is in the choice to accept these things and simply “begin” again, returning to the present moment, or to grip tightly to some idea of what we should be doing and flood ourselves with judgment in the process. In the same way, when in our prayers we try to focus on God and we lose concentration, we can bring ourselves back to the present and begin again. We begin to worry less about “accomplishing” something with our prayers and more focused on being in the presence of God. Which to me, is the very essence of what it means to pray.

Guest Blogger– Jeff Carter, “Enough”

September 18, 2015

I can’t take it anymore… I thought I could make it through the next year plus of political posturing and be able to stay silent, but I realize not only that I cannot, but that I should not.

There is an evil wind blowing in this country right now, abetted by the 24 hour/7 day a week media frenzy. We have prominent political figures railing against “immigrants” and blaming “the other” for all of society’s ills. They claim that if only we can “kick them out” or “build a wall” everything will be perfect and we can “make America great again”. Obviously, there are multiple problems with this attitude… For one, even if you are from a Native American tribe, you are the ancestor of an immigrant. And if you are from European stock, your family tree has only recently planted roots on this continent, often after pushing out the people that were here before. Secondly, this is not a new strategy. Dictators and demagogues have used anger against “the other” throughout history to gain and keep power. Most notably in the 20th Century, by the Nazis in Germany. They blamed the Jews for the Fatherland being held down and for the dilution of the pure Aryan race. For them, the “Final Solution” was the answer “Kick them out, take them away. We don’t care what you do with them, just get rid of them and our society will be perfect again”.

Now the target for the demagogues in our political arena are brown skinned, primarily Latin, people from Mexico and Central/South America. Once again, according to the blowhards, “If only we can get them out and keep them out our society will be perfect again. I mean after all they are mostly criminals and rapists, the dregs of their home countries.” Unfortunately, it seems that there are large numbers of our fellow citizens who either actively or tacitly agree with this sentiment. Which brings me back to why I feel the need to speak out. Those of us who have known, worked with, and care about our brothers and sisters who come from other countries and cultures must not stand idly by and allow these misrepresentations and outright lies to go unchallenged.

Several years ago I was laid off from my job in the Atlanta, Georgia area. After several weeks of unsuccessfully looking for a job in my field, and finding it nearly impossible to support a family on state unemployment benefits, I got a job with a large landscaping company. I worked there for two years and stereotypically, many of my fellow employees were recent immigrants from Mexico, and Central and South America. I didn’t know their legal status, but some of the things I overheard during the work days led me to believe that not all of them had proper documentation. If you don’t know, landscaping is a low paying, backbreaking business. All day you are lifting, carrying, shoveling, walking, climbing, and driving. You get very few breaks and have to work in all kinds of weather for barely over minimum wage. During my time working there I came to know, and become good friends with many of my co-workers. My experience confirmed that people are people. There are good and bad in every group, however, the majority of the people I worked with were very hard working, with a generous and caring nature. We shared our toil, our food, and our life stories. The stories they told of their home countries and the often tangled journeys they had survived to get here, has often made me wonder… How bad would life have to be before I would leave my family, travel hundreds (if not thousands) of miles, to a country where I would live in a strange culture and not be able to speak or read the language? Then after fighting to get there I would be in constant fear of having my papers questioned, or missing a legal deadline, or in some other way making a mistake that would get me arrested and deported.

Now when I hear politicians decrying “free loading immigrants” I think of Anselma, who was a gourmet chef and had worked at a tourist resort in Cancun and was now planting flowers in the hot sun; of Jose who was always so happy and so proud of his new U.S. citizenship, but who came to work every day in tattered boots because he couldn’t afford new ones; and of all the others with their stories of dangers faced, families far away, and constant fears of making a misstep. When I hear this wind blowing, I weep and then I get really angry. I think, “These are real people you are talking about. Have you met them? Do you know how scared they are every day? Do you know how hard they work for so little money? Do you not realize that if you were able to make your words reality that much of the American economy would grind to a halt?”

That is why I cannot and should not stay silent, nor should you. Since we are a county of immigrants we must defend “the other” we must make America great again. Not by building walls or passing more restrictive laws, but by returning to the ideal of “Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to breathe free”. We must welcome the other, bring them into our society, work with them, learn from them, associate with them, and love them. Then, and only then, can we truly call America “great”. For that is when we will return to being “That beacon of freedom shining on the hill”.

Jeff Carter is a geologist working for a small consulting firm doing environmental investigation and clean up. He is also husband to Rev. Sharon and father of two grown children and currently lives in Kentucky, even though he continues to cheer for the Tennessee Volunteers.