“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 8 March 2015)
There are so many spots in my life that are marked with the sign of the cross.
Let me share with y’all what some of them are about:
When she first saw me in the uniform of an Army Chaplain my mother started crying. Yes, of course there was this whole “my son is a Soldier” thing but what disturbed her most was the cross on my chest. The love of God and a combat uniform do not naturally go together. The Army Chaplain Branch Cross is one of five insignia besides the Jewish tabloids, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel of life and the Hindu ”Om” syllable. They tell Soldiers where their Chaplains are coming from not where they are taking them. Luckily my mom understands that the love of God is greater than all religious distinctions and Christ has called me to be a servant to all.
Whenever our family has moved we have posted a cross over our front-door. You may call it a talisman or good luck charm. I think of it as a blessing of our home and everybody who lives and visits in it. A symbol of Christ’s presence. Maybe not so much through the symbol of the cross itself but very much so by the spirit which we strive to live. The crosses we have used over our doorposts over the years have always been very modest you may even say tiny. That way they have also been great reminders of humility. I wish the cross were used that way more often. Around Houston highways crosses are being abused as symbols of power and dominance towering up to 200 feet tall. The “emblem of suffering and shame” should not be used as a phallic symbol that strives to be bigger and stronger than everybody else.
The roadside crosses that I respect are the ones that remind us of our mortality. After the deadly crash of a loved one family and friends sometimes try to keep the memory alive at the scene of death – with a cross and candles or flowers. By that not only do they support their own grief process but they also help others in a similar situation. Driving past such a memorial site can work like a support group: I am not alone in my mourning. And on a pragmatic note it warns all motorists: A deadly crash happened here. This spot may require more attention and lower speeds. The cross gets that across more powerfully to me than any speed limit sign could.
In the parish hall at St. John’s United Church of Christ we have close to one hundred crosses on the wall. No, this is not bragging by numbers. This is a sign of diversity. Not two are the same. They are kids crafts, cowboy scenes, crucifixes, clothespins, artsy, rustic, kitsch and ancient, you name it, we got it. The blessing here is in the variety of the multitude. There is not the one correct cross. Our journeys are all different, our approaches to Jesus’ suffering and the season of Lent are all different. What is your cross style?
It’s a great thing to be in a covenant with God. Over thousands of years biblical authors have painted the most wonderful pictures of what that means: blessing, wealth, love, health, peace, power, forgiveness, eternal life, whatever you may hope for in heaven and on earth, it has probably been spelled out as part of God’s covenant with us somewhere. Like when God promised to Abram:
“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
(Genesis 17:7 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 1 March 2015)
Sunday’s Watchword adds an important twist though: God’s covenant is not only with you in the present generation but also “your offspring after you throughout their generations”. That is a challenge because it means that it is our responsibility to preserve the blessings that God provided us with for future generations. And we have to look at this in all aspects of our lives. All to often grown-ups say: “Children are the future” where in reality that is a distraction from our responsibility today. There are also passages where curses are handed down from generation to generation: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,” (Exodus 20:5)
How can we live here today and make sure that our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their children inherit a world that is full of more blessings than ours has ever been? What can we do to preserve our social programs in a way that they are funded for generations to come? Are we making sure that we don’t leave our kids with generational debt that they need to pay on our behalf? Do we leave behind a world that is fun to live in with a sea to swim in, woods and fields to play in, air to breath and water to drink? Do we create a thriving church that inspires generation after generation? God’s covenant is for all generations. We need to keep our end of the bargain.
I grew up in a largely Catholic area in Germany. Cologne Cathedral has served the area since the 4th century. So as the Reformation came around in the 16th century Protestants needed to be different. We have gone along with the carnival season from November 11th to Ash Wednesday because we like a good mardi gras celebration with parades and floats and a lot of partying. But then when Ash Wednesday comes around you can still tell Catholics from Protestants because overwhelmingly we will stay away from that fasting thing.
For me that changed somewhat when we moved to Utah. In a community where 93% of the population are Mormon the liturgical roots of our tradition helped me to retain and strengthen my identity. My UCC congregation worked regularly with the Episcopal Church across the street to keep ourselves rooted in the desert. And I got my Catholic fix out of our joint Ash Wednesday services. Now in Rosenberg, Texas, at St. John’s UCC we have our own Ash Wednesday service – no Episcopal priest to impose the Ashes but it will be my turn tomorrow. That to me is a double-edged sword since the most disturbing thing about Catholicism for me is the role of the priesthood. The guy imposing the ashes seems so removed from the sinners who receive it. That just feels so wrong since our tradition puts a big emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. So I am very excited that I get to juggle that tension tomorrow.
The good news is that the whole ash thing at its core uses a scriptural foundation that fits well into the Protestant spirit:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)
God is quoted saying that to Adam and Eve after the scene with the forbidden fruit. Basically they are reminded of their limitations. That applies to all of us who were born to a human mother: Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Priests, All Believers, oh yes, we are all sinners alike!
Going back and remembering presidents past is a good thing: It keeps us rooted. We do that within our families all the time: Remember the hero that grandpa was, take grandma’s sacrifice as an example. But also: Don’t be a drunk like auntie Paige or a playboy like uncle Bob. We remember presidents for their greatest and their worst hours:
George Washington as the founder of the nation and first president will obviously get a lot of credit for all he did. And when we worship heroes like that we tend to overlook their human weaknesses: George Washington was known to complain that his pay was not sufficient to cover the expenses of his household and at times he even had to pay expenses out of pocket. His $25,000 in 1789 equal $650,000 in today’s dollars after inflation. Since 2001 presidents have only made $400,000. Looks like the father of the nation did not have his personal budget under control.
Many stories that we tell about ourselves tie us to heroes of the past: How we grow up to imitate all the great things our parents have done for us or how we start a family tradition totally opposite of our upbringing. We have to connect to the past one way or the other. The same thing is true for Jesus. The Gospels would not just have him show up and do his preaching-teaching-healing thing. They have to explain his authority, to give him a rightful place in the life and faith of God’s people. That’s what Transfiguration Sunday is all about:
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-8)
Jesus is nobody unless he has the authority of a prophet like Moses. No presidential candidate can make it to the White House without tipping their hat to one who has gone before them. None of us can live happy lives without an understanding of how our family tradition and history have affected us for better and worse. None of us are perfect, ancestors and presidents included.
This was only the second time that Houston had revived its observation of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity holding an ecumenical prayer service. Last year’s was at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. This year we celebrated at Lakewood Church. The theme was prepared in Brazil and focused around John 4:7 where Jesus said to the woman at the well: “Give me to drink”.
As a symbol of unity pastors from various denominations and churches poured water into one fountain that unites us all. From the Baptist Preacher to the Cardinal of the Roman Catholic church we all brought a vessel to pour our own traditions into this event. I brought my Army canteen representing all the families that have suffered through wars over decades. One of the ushers at Lakewood Church saw that and shared his Vietnam story with me.
Since Lakewood was the host church this year music was mostly their style with many people in the audience waving there hands like they do in concerts. One great performance artist after another took the stage. Lakewood’s drama team did a fantastic job bringing the scene between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well to life.
The sermon was given by Mike Rinehart, the Lutheran bishop in Houston. In his thoughtful reflections he laid out a seven-point plan for the unity of the church in Houston:
1. Galatians 3:28
2. Make love your aim.
3. Humility. Have this mind among you…
4. Pray for unity
5. Work for unity
6. Serve together
7. Stop bickering
You can read the entire sermon on his blog.
The United Church of Christ was officially represented by Houston Association Minister Joshua Lawrence and myself as a member of the planning committee. Our denominational motto “That they may all be one” was quoted over and over again throughout the service. We understand that this kind of work is worth all our effort. Please plan to join us next year as well.
I was charged with an intercessory prayer for freedom of expression which you can read on my blog.
Rev. Lawrence said this benediction for the service:
“May Jesus Christ, the living water, be behind you to protect you, before you to guide you, by your side to accompany you, within you to console you, above you to bless you.”
You know what the biggest group of Americans say they DON’T do on any given Sunday?
– Be in church or watch football!
According to the January PRRI/RNS Religious News Survey most people forgo both of these Sunday activities. Now, as a pastor I am a regular at church but I must admit that I do not make time to watch afternoon TV except for the Super Bowl. So here it goes: The big game is coming up and I will be joining the minority elite by going to church at 10 and streaming the game later in the day.
But there were a couple more stunning results in that survey when it comes to football and faith:
1. Americans are split in half over the question as to whether God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. Let me take sides here: No, God does not reward actions! Being a person of faith does not make your life any easier: Remember Job! If anything, faith makes your life more challenging. Because bad stuff happens to good people and as a person of faith you have to work that out with your image of God. Health and success as a reward? Job says: Hell no! All I got was pain and misery for nothing! Maybe signing multi-million dollar contracts can boost your success. Maybe exercising for a living can make you healthier. But please, don’t blame God for your good fortune.
2. One in four Americans say that God plays a role in determining which team wins the Super Bowl. Again, let me join the minority elite. Of course, God can do all things! Not a thing happens in the world that God couldn’t prevent. I am one of four! Every Sunday we sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands!” And yes, that includes the football and the scoreboard, he’s got the Patriots and the Seahawks, he’s got the whole world in his hands. “We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords”, states the Barmen Declaration. God Almighty rules over time and space so of course the result of a sporting event is within God’s reach.
BUT: Sometimes people have a tendency to forget that God is the Ultimate Free Agent. We can’t tell God what to do. We cannot predict a Super Bowl Winner by turning our praying ear toward God. Because the ruler of heaven and earth has been very clear as to who is in charge. Which ever team you will be rooting for on Sunday, America will most likely be split down the middle again and half of us will be utterly disappointed. The recommended prayer for that prospect is: “He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’”
On Friday, January 23, 2015, I will be part of the 2nd Annual Ecumenical Prayer Service for Christian Unity. This year it is hosted by Lakewood Church. You are now part of the lucky who can already read my prayer today. But still: Please make time to join us on Friday at 7pm.
I am free to do this hand sign right here, right now.
Being a demonstrator in Thailand such an act of defiance will get you arrested.
Military dictatorships are afraid of movies that promote freedom of expression.
When The Interview came online I couldn’t resist but watch it and it really turns out to be hilariously offensive. Do you have to love it? – No! Is it important to have that kind of artistic expression out there? – You bet! Or as Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it in the mouth of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
As we gather this week to work toward Christian unity let us join our voices in prayer for freedom of expression:
Holy One: Your Word called the world into being. Your Word became flesh among us. When you express yourself in all your awesome and holy freedom everything changes. A voice like thunder, the loving whisper of a mother – a word can affect so much and you have freely spoken to all your people through the ages.
When Jesus came to the Samaritan woman at the well your Word was expanded to include even those Samaritans which have never been any good. Ultimately gentiles from all around the world were called into your beloved community. Like an author publishing a book you have set your Holy Word free.
You want our words to be free also:
when we laugh at ourselves for our shortsightedness,
when we poke fun at each other for our denominational oddities,
when caricature educates and enlightens the political public.
You call us to stand for freedom of expression: With Charlie Hebdo, with protesters in Thailand, with our Christian brothers and sisters in Brazil and all around the world. It takes loud people with radical symbols that keep on yelling: “Let my people go!” Holy One, hear our supplications that we can express so freely. Amen.
Last weekend they announced the concert lineup for the Rodeo Houston. Brad Paisley is going to perform. That is big for Mirjam and I for we really admire his work. On Saturday the tickets will go on sale and you have to pre-register and wait for an hour in an online waiting room before even being considered for the privilege to fork over your money. Can you tell it’s our first year at Rodeo Houston? – Very exciting times.
I need to share this this week for two reasons:
a) I don’t want you to miss your opportunity to get your tickets. Think of this as a public service announcement or a friendly reminder.
b) Next Monday is Martin Luther King Junior Day. And it is so easy and pleasant to remind ourselves of great thoughts from the past: “I have a dream”. But who is brave enough to tell a story of racial injustice that has happened in your own backyard? Well, Brad Paisley is one of those people who dare to share in his song “Welcome to the future”:
From this musical excursion let’s go to the cold hard facts of demographics. According to solid projections there will be fewer blacks and hispanics in Fort Bend County in five years. Whites are the only ethnical group with substantial growth:
Did you have a spontaneous gut reaction to those numbers?
What do those feelings tell you about race relations in America 2015?
When I drop off the kids at school in the morning I drive past two churches that could not be more different: One has a full fledged sanctuary with educational buildings attached. The second rents a store front in a failing strip mall. And I must admit I am partial. I have a hard time envisioning church life in a store front. I know the church is first and foremost the body of Christ, second the congregation and the people it is comprised of and only in the third place the church is the church building. But in my little thinking all three go hand in hand. I need a sense of sanctuary to connect me to the ancient roots of our faith. I need the sound of the organ to lift up my spirit beyond what I can hear on the radio every day. I need ancient canticles, time-tested rituals and historic places. No, I am not against change. The church has always evolved: From a radical preacher healer whose gang of twelve was persecuted and prosecuted to the established religion of the greatest empire the world has ever known. The house church has been the go to style of worship from the beginning and still has its merits in a variety of settings. But this week’s watchword is a nice reminder that God wants a nice place:
“Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.”
(Psalm 29:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 11 January 2015)
It makes sense to invest into the church building and put on a new roof. It makes sense to upgrade the Hymnals. It makes sense to tune all the pianos scattered around the buildings. It makes sense to change the paraments and restock candles and tapers. For worship we use things and words and gestures that are not necessarily part of everyday life. They are special, they are set apart, they are holy. I would not want an elaborate candelabrum at home but it serves its purpose in the sanctuary. Are all those bells and whistles really necessary? It depends! Do they prepare our hearts and minds to listen to the still speaking God? That is my litmus test. Tradition only makes sense as long as it accomplishes its mission to make straight the paths of our God.
All this tells you more about me than it tells you about the nature of the church. I hunger for the connection to the ancient roots of our faith and since you all have chosen to worship in this place in this style it is safe to assume that some of my reflections resonate with something inside of you. But how about the storefront worshipers? Their faith journey is just as sacred and valid. God does not need a traditional setting to reach hearts and minds. It just may be the case that people there do not need the deep roots of faith but are better at enjoying the moment and facing the challenges of the here and now. Maybe I envy them after all for being able to live life without the constant reminders that keep me rooted.
Around Christmas time Christians start bashing Santa Claus and get apprehensive if not aggressive against the good old Saint because he is presumably not part of the “real reason for the season”.
In many ways Christians are called to be Saints. Like here by the Apostle Paul:
“May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:23 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 14 December 2014)
Santa is what Christmas is all about. Just keep in mind how we got him in the first place:
1. Santa Claus is named after St. Nicholas of Myra, the historic 4th-century Christian Saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, part of modern-day Turkey). He is the patron saint for children and the stockings we have on our mantles are derived from the boots that children in Europe get stuffed with little presents on St. Nick’s day, December 6th. Just they put them outside the front door so the original St. Nicholas does not have to invade homes. That’s what he looked like:
2. Father Frost is the Slavic personification of winter. He gave our current Santa his fluffy coat and heavy stature. He has all the warmth cold Russian winters lack and he brought presents to Russian children while Stalinism did not allow for St. Nicholas to make a religious appearance. Now the Russian church is having to wrestle with the fact that people have merged St. Nicholas and Father Frost in their hearts and minds. His coat for the most part was pictured green:
3. Even though there have been earlier attempts to bring a red version of this newly merged Turkish-Russian winter-spirit Saint to America, it took the marketing power of Coca Cola to ultimately give our modern day Saint his red coat and bring him fully into the center of American Christmas culture.
That’s what Christmas is all about:
1. A Saint helping poor little children
2. A resilient spirit keeping hope alive in hostile winters
3. A blending of different cultures and traditions that makes the holidays bright for everyone whether they call them Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa or just Holidays.
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