All children born this night

At dinner I said the blessing. The family was gathered at my daughter’s home for pizza – a pre-birthday tradition for her since the night her mother went into labor after a pizza dinner. If all goes well, the pre-birthday tradition will continue into the next generation. My daughter is scheduled for a C-section in the morning. We are gathered from around the city and country to welcome this new child.

There is energy in the room, excitement, memory, fear. Stories are told of other births. Details are shared about what to expect in the morning. Plans are made for when grandparents should come and where to wait. It’s New York; they will take the subway to the hospital.

Finally all are gathered at the dinner table. We hold hands. I say the blessing. Not just for the food but for all children born this night and for this one child to be born in the morning. May God’s blessing be upon them. Who knows what else I said. I tried to keep it simple.

Now, in the middle of the night, my prayers are more urgent for this one woman, this one child. And yet the phrase from the prayer at dinner haunts me. So many children will be born this night. So many will enter a world whose primal goodness has faded. There will be joy in many places, but also tears. There will be places bright with future, and others dark. There are places where hunger stalks, where violence strikes. Not every child will survive. Not every mother will survive.

And so my prayer for my daughter and her child in this restless night reveals itself to be a prayer for all in childbirth, a prayer for an end to the world’s sorrows, for a dawning of that bright day when no child is unwanted and all are fed. My prayer “for all children born this night” is a prayer for the end of night.

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It’s a cold February evening, the streets made darker by rain as we drive away from my daughter’s home. The family gathering has been joyful, but we are all silently keeping my daughter and the child to come in our hearts and prayers. The prayer “for all children born this night,” the damp cold, and the haunting concern for my daughter and their child makes me think also of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, refugees sent from home by the edicts of kings and emperors who know nothing of the struggle of the vulnerable.

How full of risk is childbirth. How the world would have been changed had Mary’s child not survived the night. And with that thought I wonder what will be lost this night with those children who will not survive. What songs will not be sung, what books will not be written, what knowledge will not be gained, what kindness will not be done, what salvation will not come. The world is lost with every lost child.

How much God risked in the incarnation! How vulnerable God allowed himself to be! How profound the mystery God presses for us to see! Every child is our child. Every mother our daughter.

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I am lost looking into the face of my new grandson. Whatever conversation I began is forgotten as I hold him in my arms. There is only this moment, this single, eternal moment. I hear no noise from the hospital hallway. I do not know whether it is day or night. He sleeps, but he is not made content in my arms; I am made content. His tiny hand holds my finger and tears well. The world is full of tenderness. There is, for this moment, no night.

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“What are you thankful for?”

File:Women at the grave (1420s, Sergiev Posad).jpgMy brother didn’t ask the question “What are your thankful for in this last year?” If he had, I could have spoken about the wonderful connections I have had with old friends, the time spent with family, the great staff I have to work with and some of the high points of the year. I could have spoken about the people I love, including those around the table. But he didn’t ask this question; he asked the more existential question, “What are you thankful for?”

I should have ignored him and answered the other question.

I have a hard time not taking a question literally. Or answering it sincerely.

“What am I thankful for?” It’s a deeply profound question for me. It asks what sustains me, what upholds me, what is the ground that keeps me from falling. It is not a simple question, because I have lost a brother when I was 18 and a daughter when she was 19. I have seen brutal realities. I have walked with people through heart-wrenching tragedies. I have seen too many of the bitter realities of life, stood at too many gravesides, carry too many images of starving children and fleeing refugees, heard too much hate speech, struggled with too many people bound by drugs or poverty. I have lost the simple joys that I was privileged to know as a child: the joy of riding my bike on safe streets and the freedom to go where I wanted. The satisfaction of playing tackle football with friends at Eleanor Park, and the adolescent male satisfaction it gave of physical contact and burning off stress. There was always food at our table though I didn’t like zucchini. And Mom made cookies.

I have known the pleasure of holding infant daughters in my arms, and taking them for hot chocolate and brownies at the Detroit institute of Arts and browsing its galleries. I have experienced the delight of bedtime stories and a stuffed bear puppet named Cuddles in the hands of the girl’s mother, who became the raucous identical twin, Duddles, in my hands. I have seen exquisite beauties of the natural world and heard transcendence fill the air at the Detroit Symphony Hall. I have flown the flags on my car window and cheered with friends for the Detroit Red Wings in their prime. I have sat in the “Big House” with a 110,000 others to watch Michigan Football and, later, to watch proudly as my youngest graduated with honors.

I hold in me all these joys and all these sorrows. Friends who have lost children and weddings full of goodness. So don’t ask me what I am thankful for. I can’t answer that question at the dining room table on Thanksgiving. It’s not simple. I am grateful I could weep with John and Janice in the agony of their daughter’s death, but I am not grateful for the tears. I am grateful for the bonds of family, but not the sorrows that forged them.

Ask me what I am thankful for and you will get something like I said last night: I am grateful that Christ is risen. It will sound corny. It will not provide any emotional satisfaction to those around the table who want to hear we are grateful for family and the love that binds us. But it is the truth that sustains me. God has vindicated Jesus. God has declared Jesus true. God has affirmed that goodness shall prevail in a world with too much ugliness. God had promised that joy not sorrows shall be our final truth.

So next time ask me a simpler question, about the special joys of this last year, because my answer to that bigger life question will sound odd and out of place.

But it is my answer.

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Image:,_Sergiev_Posad).jpg Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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I wish I knew him

I wanted to write about my brother, today, on the anniversary of his death. Unfortunately all my first attempts were about grief rather than Ken. As much as he meant to me, I didn’t really know him. He was just shy of 23 when he died; I was just 18. There are memories from growing up together. In many ways, he was the most important person in my life. But our chance to know each other was cut short when he was suddenly struck down by a brain aneurysm. There would be no exploring of hopes and dreams, no sharing of memories, no reflection on the events of our growing up, no sharing of sorrows or joys, no true adult relationship.

So I don’t know who he was. Not like I wish. And my attempts to write about him end up being about me and my grief, bits and pieces of my memories.

I can’t even tell his story very well. I have seen pictures of him speaking to the woman selling eels in the fish market of Copenhagen. He was about four, I guess. I heard stories that he picked up enough Danish to translate for my mother when someone came to the door. My earliest memory concerns some kids cleverly inciting a chase and pulling a rope taught across an asphalt driveway to send someone sprawling. It must have been Ken who got hurt. I think I remember seeing a butterfly bandage underneath a chin. I was maybe four, but Ken would have eight or nine. He would remember. That act of cruelty affected me. How did it shape Ken? What does he remember about the day mom had to have our dog, Fritz, put to sleep? Was he there? How did that shape him? I just remember sitting in the living room and everyone being sad.

How was he shaped by our life together, Ken, Mom and I? What did he remember when our stepfather came into the picture? What did he think? What did he feel? I learned later in life that the woman I remembered in the bright green dress at the wedding wasn’t my mother but my aunt. What did he remember of that day? What did he think of this change in our life?

Who were his friends growing up? How long was he a boy scout? Was he always a leader or just that day when they met at our house? When did he meet his friend Bill? How did they talk Mom into letting them go on a ship to Hawaii? How did that adventure shape him? Which of the stories he told me were pulling my leg and which were real?

What did church mean to him? Did he serve as an acolyte as I did? Is it true that Pastor Farness suggested St. Olaf College? How did college shape him? I know that he had an impact there: many faculty and staff came down from Minnesota to attend his burial in Des Moines.

Why did he decide to go by his first name, Erik, when he went to college?

What was he thinking about the draft? What happened to him in boot camp? Who had he become? Who did he hope to become? In the letter he wrote me as I began college – that arrived after his aneurysm – he said that he had found his faith again. What did that mean? What did it mean to him?

Nearly every memory of him is of a kind, thoughtful, responsible person who people looked to as a leader. He seemed both wise and good. But I have a memory of him dancing with delight on a Swiss(?) hillside with a bottle of wine in one hand and a big loaf of bread in the other as we were about to have a picnic. I would like to have known more about his joy. I would like to have known more about his passions. I would like to have known more.

So there it is. I remember my brother and miss him. And I profoundly miss the chance to truly know him.

Ken and I with our father’s mother at their farm


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The times in which we live…

Thoughts on the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and the enduring Word of God

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Fragment of a 13th century B.C. mural from Orchomenos

I am haunted by the series of events known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse. In the 12th century bce the great ancient cultures of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Cyprus, the Hittites in what is now northwest Turkey, the Egyptian New Kingdom, along with civilizations in Babylon, Syria and the Levant all collapsed. A world bound together by the critical natural resource of tin from Afghanistan, and united in trade and political friendships, came apart. Cultures that had lasted 500 years disappeared. Climate change, crop failures, migrations, civil unrest, natural disasters, failed political leadership, and a collapse of international trade converge into an ancient “dark ages”. I am haunted because I see so many echoes of that ancient period in our own.

Luther refers to “good government” in his description of all that is included in our prayer for “daily bread”. Paying attention to ancient history and the world of the Biblical writings makes me mindful that things can go terribly wrong for the human community. There is a moment in Israel when a woman beseeches the king for justice during a time of famine. Her complaint is that she and her companion agreed they would first eat her child and then the other’s, but the mother of the second child reneged and hid her son. (2 Kings 6:24-30). It’s not one of the stories we read to children. It is one of the stories that reminds us of the sorrows of the world

File:Elephant or Hippopotamus Tooth Warrior Head Wearing Boar Tusk Helmets (3404330867).jpg

From a Mycenaean Chamber Tomb on the Acropolis, 14th-13th century

The news is troubling. Enwrapped in political rivalry, we are not mindful of the common good. We do not remember that things can go horribly wrong. Selfish decisions can have terrible consequences. Bombs and guns are not abstract things to those who taste their bitterness. Lies have real and lasting consequence. Fear and greed corrode the social fabric. When parents argue, the children fight. When parents are out of control, the children are out of control and the sorrows of one family can end in harm to others. The painful lessons of Israel’s history are the painful lessons in all of history: when greed, pride and corruption rule, terrible sorrows follow.

But there is another thing about the Late Bronze Age Collapse that matters to us. This was the time when Israel was brought out from Egypt. This was the time when God formed a people at Sinai and bound them with a covenant in which God taught them the way of mercy and faithfulness to one another. This was the time when the words were spoken that formed the foundation for the prophets who were yet to come. From those dark days the Biblical vision of justice and mercy percolates through history.

We haven’t done a good job at living up to that profound Biblical vision. We have a tendency to twist and adapt the words to suit our needs and fancies. We focus on minor details and miss the grand vision. As Jesus said: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

But the vision remains. It plucks and prods us towards mercy. It pushes us towards kindness and faithfulness. It haunts us with stories like the Good Samaritan that challenge us to act like a neighbor towards all people. It calls us to generosity. It shows us the wounded hands and side of Jesus and tells us to love one another. It declares that the Lord is our shepherd and that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, setting before us both promise and example. It reveals the living embodiment of all God’s Word on his knees with a basin of water and a towel and calls us to do likewise. It speaks of a bread from heaven that brings God’s true and imperishable life and breathes upon us a new and holy spirit.

So we wrestle with the news and whatever fearful portents we see there. But whether the days ahead are dark or bright, the Word of God abides. It rumbles and sometimes roars through history. It plucks up and throws down kingdoms (Jeremiah 1:10). It lifts up the fallen and carries the weak. It manifests itself in him who said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” (John 15:5) and summons us to abide in him.

File:Abu Simbel Temple May 30 2007.jpg

Abu Simbel Temple of Ramesses II, 13th Century BCE


The Lion Gate at Mycenae, ca. 1250

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Image 1: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By Sharon Mollerus [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 3: By Than217 at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 4: By Andreas Trepte [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, from Wikimedia Commons

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Of books and burnings

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14597, Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung.jpg

A reminder of the anniversary of the Nazi book burning has been popping up on my calendar since May. I didn’t want to let it go by without notice. We should not forget the burning of bodies began with the burning of books.

Among those consigned to the ashes in this “Action against the Un-German Spirit” are these:

Victor Hugo
John Dos Passos
Ernest Hemingway
Helen Keller
Jack London
Upton Sinclair
Joseph Conrad
Aldous Huxley
D.H. Lawrence
H.G. Wells
James Joyce
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Vladimir Nabokov
Leo Tolstoy

Maybe we don’t care about the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky. Maybe Kafka is a little too Kafkaesque for our taste, and Freud too Freud.   But into the fire went the work of Erich Maria Remarque whose profound novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, spoke so eloquently about the horrors of war.

An appeal to a fervent nationalism doesn’t want people to be reminded of the horrors of war, so into the fire it must go. And writers who are critical of the government must go. And those who are not like us (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and others in the case of Nazi Germany) – they too must go.

When we incite the chanting of huge crowds and parade out flags the size of football fields, room for reflection, critique and questions must be silenced as unpatriotic. Into the fire the books must go. Into the fire the ideas must go. Into the fire the speakers must go.

In religious terms this is the difference between cult and church. Cult doesn’t allow any other information but what the cult leader allows. Church may have an orthodoxy, but it welcomes dialogue. What is truly church is always trying to articulate its teaching more clearly, not just shouting down the questions. It listens. It engages. It questions. It pays attention to scholarship. It reflects on research. Cult isolates; church engages. Cult divides; church connects. Cult consolidates power; church disperses it. Cult lives to be served; church lives to serve.

When those who govern are no longer interested in service, no longer open to dialogue, no longer concerned about facts – when it seeks and serves power – then bad things happen to the powerless. Then we burn books. And after the books, we burn people. They are sinners, after all. They are not like us. They are not our neighbors. They are not even fully human.

Christians should not play with matches. Nor should we stand quietly by when others are setting fires.

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Oh, the books of Albert Einstein were also burned.

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Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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A table in the dark

There is something haunting, lovely and deeply true about this photograph. Taken late at night the day after Easter, when all have gone home and the building and campus are still, here stands this solemn, peaceful testimony to the promise of Easter. In the darkness of the world is a table of life.

Bombs are falling, corruption spreading, refugees fleeing war and danger and being sent home.

2Hear my prayer, O God;
….give ear to the words of my mouth.
3For the insolent have risen against me,
….the ruthless seek my life. (Psalm 54:2-3)

12 Many bulls encircle me,
….strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
….like a ravening and roaring lion. (Psalm 22:12-13)

16 Dogs are all around me;
….a company of evildoers encircles me.
…. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
….They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
….and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:16-18)

3 The wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
….those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
….under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts,
….“You will not call us to account”? (Psalm 10:3, 7, 13)

2 Look, the wicked bend the bow,
….they have fitted their arrow to the string,
….to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
3 If the foundations are destroyed,
….what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:2-3)

4 I lie down among lions
….that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
….their tongues sharp swords. (Psalm 57:4)

8 On every side the wicked prowl,
….as vileness is exalted among humankind. (Psalm 12:8)

Yet here stands a table in the dark, beckoning us to dine, calling us to new life.

7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
….All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8They feast on the abundance of your house,
….and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9For with you is the fountain of life;
….in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:7-9)

3 O send out your light and your truth;
….let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
….and to your dwelling. (Psalm 43:3)

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
….who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. (Psalm 89:15)

11 Light dawns for the righteous,
….and joy for the upright in heart. (Psalm 97:11)

28 It is you who light my lamp;
….the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. (Psalm 18:28)

The light shines in the darkness,
….and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5)

Here stands a table in the dark, beckoning us to dine, calling us to new life.

Here stands a table inviting the world to peace.

Believe in the light while you have the light,
….so you may become children of light. (John 12:36)

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Photo: dkbonde

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Startled by a priceless promise

Seventeen years ago today, about this time of the early morning, my daughter Anna was killed. Our daughter. Megan’s sister. Dorothy’s granddaughter. PK and Gloria’s granddaughter. Paul and Kathy’s niece. Christopher and Clara, Andrew, Amanda and Melissa’s cousin. The twins were tiny infants, but Kathy came with them anyway. John and Luan moved out of their home so that my family could stay together through the funeral. Paul and Christopher came almost immediately and stayed with me those first days. I deeply appreciated their presence in the house, especially Christopher’s hugs. Can he really be 19 now? The age Anna was? It is hard to comprehend how much time has passed. Life since them has often felt like driving through the tule fog near Sacramento. You can’t judge time and distance.

Anna wasn’t taken just from the family. She was taken from the world. She touched so many lives. And this crime touched so many lives. It also stole the lives of the friends with her in her car. All their families remember this day – and their cousins and neighbors and friends and friends’ friends. The shock wave ripples through time and space.

Sometime, today, I will have to write a sermon for tomorrow. Life goes on. I will have to wash dishes, too. I should go to the grocery store, but I know I won’t. I should pay bills, but I won’t do that either. I will call Mom and Dad and Megan because they will remember the day. I hope to watch the Michigan basketball game. Life goes on. But it will be hard to focus on any of those things. There has been a strange concoction of low-grade anger, despair and grief brewing since Monday.  Thoughts about the day the phone call came will keep rising up to remind me that the incomprehensible happened. And I will think about all those others whose lives have been stolen, whose lives are threatened, whose lives are saddened.   There are so many in the parish who have also lost children, or grandchildren, or parents, or lovers, or friends.  So many in the world.  We can fight death, but we can’t defeat it.

We have been talking about baptism this Lenten season. It keeps taking me back to that moment 37 years ago when I held Anna in my hands as she was baptized. She had been asleep as I held her out over the font. When the pastor poured the water over her head, she woke with eyes wide – but not a stir or peep. Just the startle of receiving a priceless promise. I remember thinking in that moment that she wasn’t mine; she belonged to God. God had entrusted her into my care, but she was God’s.

I will never say that God took her; Brandon took her life. But she never belonged to me; she belonged to God. She still does. The promise abides. As hard as it is for me to wrap my head around that promise, I will trust it. Her song has not perished. Her dance is not done. He laugh is not silenced. Neither are her compassion, her courage, her wisdom, or her love forgotten.

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In this one child

File:Stoneangel.JPGWhat do we say when lovely people end up with terrible news. A nine-year-old grandchild of the congregation has just been diagnosed with an aggressive leukemia. I could play with the metaphor of a body endangered by a malfunction of its immune system, producing such volume of immature cells that it crowds out the ability of the healthy immune cells. I hope that is a transparent metaphor for our national body politic. But who cares when a child is so dangerously sick.

I tried to listen to the news this morning, but I just wanted everyone to shut up. Too much screeching. Yes, these things are important. But here is a sick child. Here are fearful parents and grandparents. Here are fearful and helpless friends.

Reasonable people could solve the problems of weapons and trade and young people brought to this country as children, here now illegally through no fault of their own. If people would stop ranting and posturing they could solve such problems. Here is a sick child. This is a true problem.

This is a problem where most of us can do nothing but offer our prayers. The doctors have work to do. I am sure some of them pray, too, but they have work to do. They have to bring the best of reason and compassion to bear on this problem for the sake of this child.

And so we, the anxious congregation, turn to God in prayer. We ask the family what we can do, knowing there is not much to offer but our love and support.

And we will pray. We will ask God to bring healing to body and spirit. We will ask God to uphold the family with courage and hope. We will ask God to guide the doctors with their best skill and insight. And we will wait in that strange land that knows of an eternal promise, yet wants to see its fruits today, here, in this one child.

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Image: By M62 (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Let the words of my mouth
….and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
….my rock and my redeemer.
…………………Psalm 19:14

It is difficult to refrain from speaking about the current political realities in our country. It’s troubling to see how easily we have been led down paths of division, anger and absolutism. What once passed as something of a national consensus on civility has deteriorated badly. And now we find that bots and Russian agents have had a hand in fostering the ill will that seems to infect everything. We don’t tolerate ambiguity. We don’t agree on facts. We are children of passion rather than faith and reason.

And Christians have played a role – or, at least, a great number of people and institutions bearing the name of Christ have played a role in the increasing polarization of society.

The media, too, is complicit. Last Sunday (2/18/18), Fox News ran a headline on my news feed: “North Carolina mom begins serving jail sentence for baptizing daughter.” It’s the kind of headline that feeds the narrative that Christians are being persecuted in this country. But if you read the article you discover that this woman was jailed for violating a court order. A judge had granted custody of the child to the father, including authority over decisions like baptism, and the woman refused to follow it.

What does it mean for us to “Sow light” and “Scatter mercy”? It means, at the very least, that we renounce the use of words as weapons. Words are meant to connect not divide. Words are meant to build the ties that bind us. There is a reason that couples falling in love spent the whole night talking. And even where we disagree with one another, words allow us to find some resolution other than beating each other over the head with a club.

God’s first word called forth light. The words that follow called forth a beautiful and harmonious world. God’s first words to humanity were words of blessing. And humanity’s first words named the creatures of the earth. Names are about relationships.

Words are remarkably powerful instruments. With them we crossed seas, journeyed to the moon, built bridges, discovered penicillin, and sang Bach’s B Minor Mass. With them we also set the stage for the murder of six million Jews and the Trail of Tears. It is our responsibility to use words for good not ill, to heal not wound, to connect not divide.

It’s cheap and easy to use words to divide. We know how a harsh word can slice through us. It is almost instinctive to respond in kind. Mother taught me that “sticks and stone may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” She was wrong. I appreciate, now, the lesson in toughening up against ordinary childhood tauntings, but that doesn’t obviate the fact that words have great power. And, as words capture so well: with great power comes great responsibility.

It seems to me we are at a point where, oddly enough, patriots and Christians should find themselves on common ground.

It seems to me that it is our patriotic duty as citizens to resist foreign efforts to destabilize our country and, on that account, we should renounce divisive words and refuse to entertain them. Even more, as citizens of the reign of God, as participants of the new creation born of water and the word, we should refuse to use words to divide. We should heed the truth expressed so succinctly in James 1:26: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

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“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21)

“The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (James 3:5)

“Those who desire life
….and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
….and their lips from speaking deceit;
let them turn away from evil and do good;
….let them seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
….and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:10-12)  

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (I John 3:18)

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Ash Wednesday begins the journey

(My apologies to those who follow our multiple sites.  This was also posted at Watching for the Morning (that speaks about upcoming Sundays or worship) and Holy Seasons (that provides daily verses and reflections in Lent and Advent)

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and overconsumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

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