But Wait, There’s Myrrh!

One of the most satisfying things I have done in the nearly three years since my husband and I got married has been teaching my stepson the art of punnery. Yes, that’s a word, at least it is in the Urban Dictionary and I’m going with it.

I will not soon forget a couple of Christmases ago when instead of saying, “But wait, there’s more” my stepson said “But wait, there’s myrrh”. (Think Magi and their gifts.) We all had a good laugh at that one. He will still say it occasionally, but it is definitely more frequent the closer we get to Christmas.

Of course in this instance myrrh is a stand-in for more. But wait, there’s more! This exclamation was heard from the pitch person on more than one old-school infomercial. They are enthusiastically selling you their product and just when you think the deal can’t get any better – Hello! – the deal gets much better. Well, okay, maybe not much better, but they do add something to the deal. It’s often that you will get two sets of the product for the (inflated) price of one, or they add a bonus to it (my favorite was the bamboo steamer which was frequently added when you bought a set of Ginsu knives.) The point is, just about the time you think they are finished you find out that they are not finished. There’s more.

One of today’s lectionary verses is from the book of Lamentations. A lament is a passionate expression of sorrow or grief. Some of us have lost the art of lamenting in our lives, partly because there are people around us who don’t want to hear laments. Rarely, if ever. They want the rest of us to keep our sorrow and grief to ourselves so they don’t have to deal with it, usually because they don’t know how to deal with it.

Sometimes it helps to lament, at least privately if not publicly. It helps to acknowledge and release those feelings of sorrow and grief, and sometimes fear, and sometimes even despair. As someone who struggles with chronic depression I can attest to the value of lament. But I also confess that I try to keep my public lamentation to a minimum. Even supportive people get tired of it, and one of my fears is that they will get tired of me. I’m truly not asking for affirmation or reassurance or helpful suggestions here. I’m just stating what it’s like for me. You might have a different perspective or experience.

Lamentations 3:55 relates, “I called on thy name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit;” This person is clearly in a bad place. It’s possible they were in an actual pit, but much more likely that it is a metaphorical pit. It is the feeling of being down, deep down, in a place from which escape is difficult if not impossible.

But, as you can see from the semicolon at the end of the verse, there’s more. There’s more to verse. There’s more to the chapter. There’s more to the Bible. There’s more to life.

Sometimes life is hard, really hard. Some of us experience that hardness more often and more deeply than others, but everybody experiences some of it. It’s good to have the reminder that even when we are in a literal or metaphorical pit, it doesn’t end there.

Some things in life we can control, other things in life we cannot control. Personally I rarely have as much control as I want over my life, but as I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser) I find that I am more comfortable with less control. Most days. Some days not. Today is one of those days when I am not comfortable. I am fearful. And resentful. I want to scream at God, “Hey! I’m here! Listen to me! Help me! I don’t want to feel this way! I don’t want my life to be like this!”

The thing is, my life is good. Really good. I have everything I need for today. I have God, even if I am screaming as though God is hard of hearing. I have people I love and people who love me. But the reality is that sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough. This verse, and verses like it, reminds me that it doesn’t end here.

God hears our cries, but that doesn’t mean relief is instantaneous. Sometimes we just have to be still and wait. Or keep working and wait. Or listen and wait. Or focus on something else and wait.

One thing is sure. It doesn’t end there.

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*Chung Chung*

This title is my written representation of the sound made throughout the television show “Law and Order”. I think it is supposed to represent the gavel of justice banging on the bench, or maybe jail cells clanging shut. I’m not sure, but it’s an unmistakable sound if you have ever seen the show.

For real fans of the show, the following words are unmistakable, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

Oh boy, here we go. Stories of the criminal justice system! Golly, when I see that written down it doesn’t look exciting or entertaining at all, and yet it was, and for me still is. I am positive I have seen every single episode of the original show and most of the episodes multiple times. I love it. And it has taught me quite a bit about the criminal justice system.

No, I’m not naive enough to think that every little thing that happens on “Law and Order” is completely realistic or accurate, but a lot of it is. I have learned some very helpful tips. For example, I know I have the right to remain silent, and that I am entitled to have a lawyer present when I do talk, and that if I can’t afford a lawyer one will be appointed for me. I know that just because you are absolutely innocent doesn’t mean that you can’t get arrested, charged, and even convicted of a crime.

Sometimes when we know we are not guilty, there still isn’t a strong defense or us. Sometimes we don’t understand exactly what it is we are charged with or what the law will allow and won’t allow. Sometimes even having a lawyer isn’t enough to save us. Perhaps most important of all, the defendant who acts as their own attorney has a fool for a client. Get a lawyer!

The defendant (who was Job) said in Job 13:18, “Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated.” Job felt he was completely innocent, but is anyone truly completely innocent? Innocent of a crime as defined by law perhaps, but without any sin or mistake? No. Job was convinced that in the end he would win and all suspicion of him would be erased, but in truth he didn’t even understand what the trail was about or what the prosecution and the defense were actually up to.

Job thought he would win on his own merit. Life rarely, perhaps never, works like that. Only God is a sure thing and even then not necessarily in the way we think. God’s justice looks quite a bit different from human justice. God’s justice is about giving people what they need instead of what they deserve. Thus ends the second lesson in theology from a Reformed perspective.

P.S. I miss Lenny Briscoe.

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I am giving a short workshop for a local congregation after worship this Sunday, Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday. The title Passion comes from the suffering and death of Jesus during Holy Week (the week before Easter) and it begins this Sunday with the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Spoiler alert: So the story starts off on a high note with a parade featuring palm branches but ends with Jesus dead in a borrowed tomb.

It’s fairly easy to see where the title Palm Sunday comes from, but why passion? A passion is a strong, barely controllable emotion, so intense that it can actually make you suffer. Sometimes we suffer with difficult and harsh emotions, but even a pleasurable emotion can make us suffer. Remember when John Mellencamp sang about love that hurt so good? Sometimes that suffering comes from the fatigue of living something so intense. Sometimes the suffering is physical and sometimes mental or emotional.

Jesus suffered physical pain those last couple of days of his life, but he suffered more than that. He suffered betrayal, being mocked, and being tried and convicted and sentenced to a humiliating and public death. His passion was for us. Yes, I do mean that his suffering was for us, but I also mean that he loved humanity so much that he was willing to go through all this. I’m not saying he wanted to go through it. He did, after all, ask God to take this cup from him, but he didn’t run away or resist arrest.

Passion Sunday makes me think about what my own passions are. What do I feel so strongly, so intensely that I actually suffer for it? I believe that God has called us together to be the church in order to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I feel this intensely. I have experienced the power of God’s Spirit as it acts among the people of the church and those whose lives they touch. I have experienced it in my life and I want to share that with others.

But even when we truly believe in God’s power in the world, and even when we have experienced that power ourselves, it is often difficult to know specifically what God wants us to do, and where to do it, and how to go about it. That knowledge requires discernment.

Discernment simply means a perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. It’s a way to figure out what God’s will is and how we might participate in it. That’s what we will be discussing and practicing this Sunday, this Passion Sunday.

In Philippians 1:9-11, Paul writes to the church, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

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Shake, Rattle, and Roll

This morning I was checking out my “On This Day” Facebook posts, you know, reminders of things you posted on this day in past years. I enjoy checking these out and remembering what I thought was funny or thought-provoking or otherwise noteworthy in the years I’ve been on Facebook. Today I reread a post from 2014 that was written by Ben Irwin titled “Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing.” It was a great article and I enjoyed it all over again.

Sometimes Christians like to take a verse or two from the Bible and proclaim it one of their favorites and maybe even use it as a motto. The problem comes when some of these verses taken by themselves and out of the context of the passage as a whole or even the Bible as a whole. These verses sometimes mean something altogether different from the out of context interpretation.

I’ll give you one of his examples. Luke 11:9 “‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.'” There are those who think this means that whatever you ask God for, you will get.

Have you tried that? Have you asked God for something and then didn’t get it? Irwin’s point is that you have to understand that Jesus said this right after teaching the disciples (at their request) how to pray and what to ask for. Jesus responded by teaching them what has become known as The Lord’s Payer. Then he said, if you ask (for this) it will be given to you.

In other words, if you ask for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, it will be given you. If you ask for just enough bread for today, it will be given. If you ask for forgiveness as we also forgive others, it will be given you. It’s not the same thing as asking for whatever ever you want and God will give it to you. God is not, after all, Santa Claus.

But people have been doing this sort of thing since the books of the Bible were first written. We think we know what the Bible says, or what it means, but sometimes we are way off base.

One days some Sadducees came and they were asking Jesus about some minute part of the law and how it would pan out under an incredibly specific circumstance. It was a tricky question, and they more than likely thought they would trick Jesus into saying something they could discredit. But Jesus gave them an entirely different answer than they were expecting, something much deeper and broader than they really wanted. In fact, he told them they were way off base, wrong actually, and that the question itself wasn’t even correct. Then Matthew 22:33 tells us “And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.”

The crowd was astounded for a couple of reasons. They were not used to hearing any small town rabbi argue that the Sadducees were wrong about the law. Also, what Jesus was telling them was a whole different take, not just on the specifics of the law, but the implications of the law in their own daily lives. They had never before thought about the law the way Jesus talked about it. They were not sure that Jesus was correct.

It’s often quite disturbing to hear a whole new take on the law, and that is what Jesus gave them. It probably shook them up, rattled their nerves, and rolled them into a whole new perspective, or inspired them to run back and hide in what they thought they knew before.

I am constantly surprised by new perspectives. Yes, I dismiss some of them. But others shake me up, rattle my nerves, and roll me into a new perspective.

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Were You Raised in a Barn?

As a child before I understood the concept of idioms, I remember hearing adults asking if someone had been raised in a barn. I remember thining, What an odd question. What they were really saying was that this person behaved as if they were a barnyard animal. Sometimes I would hear a similar question: Were you raised by wolves? Apparently this was even worse because what they meant was that this person behaved as if they were brought up by wild animals without any benefit of civilization. At least the barnyard animals were domesticated and there were actual human beings around. Anyway, neither is meant as a compliment.

Some people like to judge others, or maybe it would be more accurate to say they like to compare others and usually they themselves wind up on or near the top of the hierarchy that results. There is always someone who isn’t as couth as they are – couth of course meaning cultured, well-mannered, and refined.

For many years Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt were considered the experts on etiquette. Etiquette is the principles on which manners and acceptable social behavior are built. People would turn to the books these women wrote with questions about manners. Sometimes people were making sure they were doing things correctly. Sometimes they were trying to see just how wrong someone else was.

One thing most so-called experts on manners agree on is that it is not good manners to tell people exactly what gift you would like to receive, and it is worse manners to tell people to just give you money. When my husband and I got married we asked that people not give us wedding gifts, but if they really felt they wanted to get us something they could make a donation in honor of us to a charity we mentioned or to the charity of their choice. I guess there are those who would not consider that very couth of us. Well, the times they are a changing.

It’s not that we don’t like gifts. Gifts are wonderful. We just didn’t need a lot of the stuff that most people give as wedding gifts, the kinds of gifts you give a couple when they are just starting out. Although we were just starting out as a family, neither of us was just starting out as an adult on our own. We already had household stuff. On the other hand, we didn’t want to deny anyone the joy of giving, and that’s why we suggested that people made a donation in our honor to some organization doing good works. Many people did make donations in our honor and we are still grateful for their generosity.

All of that to say, that a gift is freely given without expectation of receiving something in return.
It is not something you exchange with someone. When there is an expectation of receiving something in return it is a purchase or a trade. There is no such thing as a free gift with purchase. Anything given that requires a purchase is a premium, not a gift. Any gift that isn’t free, isn’t a gift.

In the letter to the Ephesians 2: 8 we are told, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Our salvation comes to us as a result of grace. We receive grace by means of faith. None of this happens because of anything we do. It all happens because God does it. It is a gift of God. It is freely given. God doesn’t require anything in return, although there are appropriate responses such as gratitude. This ends today’s lesson in theology from a Reformed perspective.

It’s a little ironic that this lesson in the etiquette of grace comes to us as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who, while not necessarily raised in a barn was traditionally understood to be born in a barn. Maybe we need to rethink this whole couth business.

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Where You Lead, I Will Follow

Oh how I loved that song by Carole King that was released from her album Tapestry in 1971, “Where you lead, I will follow, anywhere…” I will follow anywhere. Except, even back then I resisted singing “Anywhere that you tell me to.” Tell me? Uh, no way. Try asking me and you’ll get a better response. I would actually sing it with the word ask inserted where the original was tell.

Even as a 15-year-old, I wasn’t about to let any man tell where I should go or what I should do. Ask is one thing. Tell is quite another.

In Psalm 143:10 this person asks God to “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.” One of the great things about Psalm 143 is that God doesn’t tell this person what to do or where to go. Instead they ask God to teach them, and what God teaches is how to do God’s will. If God truly is my God than I will want to know and understand what God’s will is and just how to do it.

They also ask God to let the good spirit lead them on a level path, an easy path, a path without pot holes or chasms that must be bridged, a path without stumbling blocks, a path that isn’t difficult or at a steep incline or descent.

That’s the path for me. The easy path. Unfortunately, the path on which the spirit of God leads us is often a difficult path. It can be so overgrown that we can’t see more than a couple of feet ahead of us. It can cause us to run out of of breath or need something to lean on or a rail to hold onto – both for guidance and for support.

No, God’s path is not always an easy one, but if we genuinely wish for God to teach us to do God’s will, then we will take the path we get and make the best of it. Perhaps we will even work to make that path more level so that the next person does have it a little easier.

God, where you lead I will follow. Anywhere. Give me the strength and the courage and the foresight to make those choices over and over again. Amen

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Stay With Me

This afternoon I was trying to remember the lyrics of a song called “Stay With Me” and so I Googled it. Google came up with 7 songs for me. Not 7 versions of the same song, 7 different songs. Apparently the concept of begging someone to stay, often against you better judgment or even best interest, is quite common.

I begged a friend to stay with me one night. I was scared half to death. I wasn’t a kid either. I had a dream the night before that so vivid and so terrifying that I really couldn’t tell if it was a dream or some horrifying memory. My friend came over to my house to talk me down and it helped a little, but I just knew I would never be able to fall asleep all alone in the house that night. So she stayed in the guest room and lo and behold I did get to sleep. I felt pretty much the same way the next day, but she refused to stay the night again even though I’m sure I begged. I had to face my fear and learn to sleep alone.

Life can be such a scary business. We are afraid of all kinds of things that probably aren’t ever going to happen or going to hurt us. We are also afraid of things that could easily happen and easily hurt us. But for me, the worst are those things that I never saw coming. Maybe I should have seen them coming, but I didn’t.

Death can be like that. Deep down we know that we are all going to die someday and so is everyone we know and love. It’s part of what it means to be human. No one lives forever, but facing death can be one of the hardest things to endure in life.

The 11th chapter of the Gospel of John is the story of the death of Lazarus and how Jesus arrived too late to keep him from dying, but then called Lazarus out of the tomb after he had been in there for four days. John 11:44 tells us, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.'”

When he died, Lazarus had been bound up like a mummy and sealed into a tomb. When Jesus called him to come out into the land of the living, he obeyed and stumbled out of the tomb still bound with strips of cloth. Then Jesus told the bystanders to turn Lazarus loose.

When someone leaves us, often our first instinct is to hold on to them, to keep them with us, to beg them to stay, to refuse to let them go. When they have left, we have little recourse but to go on living without them. Our only choice is to follow them into death, either figuratively or literally.

Jesus did not send people to follow Lazarus into the tomb. He called Lazarus out among the living and told them to let Lazarus go. Life will never be the same, but it will go on.

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