Online Resources for Prayer

During my sermon on Sunday I mentioned I’d put together online and app resources for praying.  Here’s the list of things I’ve found (and some I’ve personally used) to make the most of your time and technology.

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Pray As You Go — A daily audio prayer with scripture site. Recommended for those beginning with prayer.

Mission of St. Clare App  — The Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer based on their popular website.

Common Prayer App— Put out by the New Monastic movement, a wonderful, rich and easy to use resource

Daily Office App — An app to purchase, but finally a great resource for the BCP  Daily Office.

Meditation Time App— Different sounds and calming images to help you not worry about the time when you pray or spend time in silence meditating on scripture or God.

Prune— A meditative game that allows you to “Cultivate what matters. Cut away the rest.”

When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.

Fred Rogers

A Rabbi, a Priest and the Son of an Imam Walk into a Mosque

That's it—no joke

I began my seminary studies on September 4, 2001.  One week later the World Trade Center Towers fell.

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Since I attended classes in New Haven, CT many of my more experienced colleagues went down to serve as chaplains. Melissa taught classes at a high school at a nearby town not many people had heard of at that time—Sandy Hook, CT—and many students had relatives or family members that had been in New York that day.

I remember a general sense of gathering together and facing this together as a nation at that time.  Gatherings for prayer took place frequently.  Signs of support appeared in yards.  And then one day, I drove behind an SUV which had a duct-tape message on the back window.

Nuke ’em!

Photo Credit: Photosightfaces via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Photosightfaces via Compfight cc

Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.

Marianne Williamson

The Fast God Desires

An Ash Wednesday Sermon

A Lenten Sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12.

The Almighty One in the book of the Prophet Isaiah asks: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”    These are hard words on a day when we gather together to have ashes placed on our foreheads in an act of our own humility.  We gather midweek at church to begin a holy Lent, with maybe some hope of getting a little extra credit, and already God is begging the question, “Why are you here?”

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The Lord continues: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  What God says to us, the ones assembled on this holy day, is that we shouldn’t worry about extra credit or appearing to be holier than the ones not here with us.  That if we truly want to understand the desires of God, we should fast from those things in us that cast down the lowly and harm the poor.  We should look more closely at our own lives and the sin that makes us turn a blind eye to the ones in need.  We should question those in power who create systems of injustice that perpetuate the status of the poor and the ones living in poverty.

And in one fell swoop the Word of the Lord shifts Ash Wednesday from being about us to being about others.  Humility isn’t really humility if we do things we hope will show others how humble we are.  “Beware of practicing your piety before other in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

According to measures put together by the USDA some 767,000 people in Massachusetts faced what is known as “food insecurity” during 2013, including more than 87,000 right here in Worcester County. “Food insecurity refers to a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.  Food insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.”  Nationwide there are more than 48 million people living in food insecure households, with 15.3 million of those being children.

We have a collection of prayers that we use at meal times in our house that we purchased from Forward Movement.  The prayers can be propped up so they can be said by all.  One of my favorites is this: “Lord, feed the hungry.  And for those of us who have plenty, may we hunger for you.  Amen.”  I love its brevity and clarity to be sure, but I’m also taken by its clarion call to do something more.  I know that I am the Lord’s hands and feet, and that the answer to my prayer—the feeding of the hungry—can happen through me if I truly hunger for God.  It can happen if I recognize the plenty I already have.  If I choose the right kind of fast.

Four years ago some of us read together Chris Seay’s book A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor.  It’s a daily devotion for Lent that reflects on how for many of us our lives are shaped by food, what we’re in the mood for, whether we need to cut back on carbs, or how we turn to food for comfort.  Most of the poor in our world do not have this luxury.  Chris invites us to make food choices reflecting the poor during the 40 days of Lent.  Perhaps eating food similar to the family of a child we sponsor through a relief organization, or making do on the amount families get through SNAP and other programs.  He encourages his readers both fast and, one day a week, to feast with joy in order to recognize the abundance of God’s kingdom, and allowing for the rhythm of Lent with Sundays always marked as a feast day as we remember Jesus’ resurrection.

With all this in mind, I’ve personally decided to forgo lunch and any snacks from breakfast until dinner during Lent, and intentionally making those meals generally simpler—oatmeal and fruit in the morning, and soups and bread in the evening.  I’m doing this to remember the food insecure among us—the parents who choose not to eat so they can give more of the little food they have to their children—and to live into that prayer that I may hunger for God.  This sort of thing is not easy for me—many of you know I love to cook and eat food in general—and I’m not telling you this to make myself look good or somehow holier because I don’t think that at all really.  I just want to hunger for God; to take on the fast that God desires.  To share bread and shelter and clothes with those who might need it.  To give away the money I won’t be spending on lunches to an organization feeding the ones truly in need.  To not only pray for change to happen but to become more involved and work toward that change myself, all the while relying on God for sustenance.    

And my prayer for you is that whatever you may be feeling called to give up or take on this Lent, that you do it for no other reason than wanting to draw closer to God.  That your devotion or fasting or alms-giving would show your desire to hunger after God and to walk more closely with Jesus in the days ahead.  When we do these things, Isaiah tells us, “Then the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”  May it be so for each of us these 40 days.  May we have all our needs satisfied by the Almighty.  Amen.

3 Snatches of Light in the Darkness

Darkness permeates are time both atmospherically—the sun sets earlier each night for a couple more weeks—and ideologically. Terror attacks, racial profiling, xenophobia have flooded the news cycles recently. Rather than talk about this darkness (yet again) I wanted to share messages of the light with my congregation this week. This sermon comes is based on Luke 1:67-80.

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When I was a kid we used to play the game of who could be the quietest the longest.  As every parent can guess, my mom would be the one to suggest the game on long road trips or even short jaunts to the store as we drove in our station wagon.  My sister or a friend in the car would make goofy faces at one another to try to make each other utter some sound first.  My tactic was to look out the window until someone else caved.  We’d last a long time, at least two or three minutes, and would play a couple of rounds more.  All told there might have been 5 minutes of silence—it was golden for some in the car, I suspect.

A good nine months of silence was endured by Zechariah.  He happened to be a priest and, as Luke tells us, he happened to be the one selected by lot to make the offering of incense in the sanctuary of the Lord one day. As he went in to the sanctuary by himself, the rest of the assembly gathered outside waiting for him.  In the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared.  “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the angel proclaimed, “for your prayers have been heard!” The angel went on to say, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Hope in the Dark Night

Photo Credit: Thad Ligon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thad Ligon via Compfight cc

I’ve learned that all of us face dark times. I wish that weren’t the case; why wish anyone to have to experience difficulties in life? In my role as a priest, I hear the stories and sometimes have the honor of walking with people through their dark nights. These words are for them and for the others who fear they have been abandoned by God.

A sermon based on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”  These words of Job tear at our souls.  Here he is desolate and alone, fearing he has been forgotten by God.  We hear these words echoed in the cry from the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Both are in what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.”  And neither of them wants to be there in that seemingly God-forsaken place.  Afraid and alone and overwhelmed.

When a Homeless Person Came to Church

Photo Credit: Lani Peterson, 2015 (c)

Tom at St. Mark’s. Photo Credit: Lani Peterson, 2015 (c)

The parish I serve, St. Mark’s in Southborough, was founded in 1860 by a local business man Joseph Burnett.  Joseph gave land and money to build our church building in 1862 with one stipulation: it had to be free to all without regard to wealth, color or station in life. Some businesses that are local sometimes use advertising flags to get customers from pavement traffic. In other words, if you wanted to worship with us you were welcome.

Yesterday we had two special guests worshipping with us. Lani Peterson of the City Mission Society of Boston came to talk about the BostonWarm program, our open plate offering recipient of the month (we give all undesignated money that comes in the plate to a worthy organization). But rather than just sharing about the program, Lani thought it would be best if an actual recipient shared about the impact. So we met Tom.

BostonWarm began due to the bridge leading to Long Island in Boston Harbor was closed amidst safety concerns. This led to the closure of a 500 bed shelter for the homeless and a more than 200 bed facility for those wanting to get sober. The most urgent need according to those impacted was a warm, safe place to go during the day. Two churches opened up their doors for this purpose through BostonWarm.

And Tom benefited.

During our announcement time, Tom stood in front of our assembled congregations talking about his normal day. Getting up between 4:30 and 5 to pack up his things and move on before someone forced him off the bench or from the location on which he had bedded down for the night.  How he must carry 80 lbs of stuff—all his earthly belongings—with him wherever he goes, even the things he might only need once a week. He and other homeless folks can’t be in one place too long without being told they have to keep moving, that they don’t belong and aren’t wanted.

Tom looked out over the people gathered and said, “I can’t go to a mall and sit on the chairs provided there. You could, of course. You could go and sit all day if you’d like.  If I sit for more than a couple of minutes, I’ll be told to leave because of how I look.” He then explained how the program gave him a chance to get in out of the cold, to be treated with dignity and respect. He could talk about issues of the day—like the problems with the local transit due to all the snow—and also leave his things in a locked portable storage locker.  “I’m not told that I’m not wanted or welcomed,” he told us. “I can come in and get warm and have coffee and maybe a peanut butter sandwich. What more could I need?”

I’m not sure if Tom is the first homeless person to worship at St. Mark’s, but I do know he’s the first who came and was given a microphone to tell his story. I know for certain he’s the first homeless person I’ve had over for a meal at my home even though the Bible is pretty clear I should be doing that regularly. Tom reminded us all that he’s just another human being on this journey of life needing companionship and conversation like any of us.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Tom again, or what he’ll be doing tonight when the temperature once again falls below zero. But I do know this: he reminded me of the power found in Joseph Burnett’s words. All of us are God’s children regardless of the ways we label people in our world. All are welcome into God’s loving embrace. And I know that on a snowy Sunday morning for a few hours a group of parishioners got to know an intriguing and caring man who just happened to no longer have a place to call home. He became Tom to us, a beloved child of God. And I suspect that would make Joseph Burnett proud.

Trust the Slow Work of God

Photo Credit: *Kicki* via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: *Kicki* via Compfightcc

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

When Third World Children Become Pawns

Our sponsored child and her mother.

Our sponsored child and her mother.

This past Monday, World Vision, a Christian relief organization, issued a statement that they had revised their employment policies and would now begin to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.  Richard Stearns, World Vision’s President, stated, “Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.”  He went on to say, “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”

World Vision struck out to find middle ground recognizing that faithful Christians are not in agreement on this issue, and that as a Christian organization they wanted to reflect that diversity within the Christian community.

The last few days have seen a flurry of responses. More progressive Christians applauding the decision, more conservative denouncing it. Folks like Franklin Graham and other Evangelicals issued statements claiming World Vision had clearly turned their backs on biblical faith. Reports emerged of more than 2000 sponsorships of needy children had been pulled.  Rachel Held Evans and others online encouraged new people to step forward to fill the gap. In short, a fire storm was taking place.

Yesterday, World Vision changed their minds.

My family sponsors two children through World Vision, a boy in Swaziland and a girl in Burundi. We get letters from them and we send them postcards and small gifts throughout the year. Each Christmas we send a larger donation, $100, to help them get something they desperately need. This past month we got a reply from the young girl telling us how grateful she was and explaining how she and her mother bought many things including a dress outfit for church, metal sheets for their roof, some soap, basic food supplies and a goat.  We got a picture of her standing near all these things.  $100 goes a long way in the poorest country of the world.

I couldn’t imagine ever pulling my sponsorship of her over any issue I had with World Vision. And that’s the thing I just can’t get over in the midst of the last few days.  2000 children and their communities lost sponsorship and a connection with a family here in the US due to this issue.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s announcement, people on Rachel Held Evan’s blog said things like, “As a gay Christian, while I cannot help but feel betrayed by World Vision’s sudden reversal, I won’t take my sponsorship away. I made a commitment to a young boy, and I want to honor that.” There were many of these responses.

I’m not naive enough to think that only conservative Christians would pull sponsorships and only progressive ones would honor the commitments.  I suspect that there will be some who feel betrayed in this week’s change and then change back who will cancel new sponsorships (although they more than likely haven’t even finalized the paperwork), but I get caught by that number of 2000 kids losing sponsorship.

All too often I hear evangelical Christians proclaim to “hate the sin and love the sinner” as the answer to tough issues. But this week many didn’t show any love at all. Kids in the Third World became pawns to be played in this issue, even though certainly they had done nothing wrong. Many conservatives claimed that they would switch to another relief organization, but still the particular child they sponsored would be left in the lurch.

In the end it comes down to whether you understand faith as incarnational or not. For many evangelicals it’s about right belief.  Either you are right or wrong (although issues they focus on shift as time goes on—see women’s ordination and divorce). Many believe this is the last great defining issue on biblical authority and if it falls, so too will fall the foundation on which they stand.

But to me it really is about how to live faith in real flesh and blood.  Pulling money from a child in Burundi goes against the biblical injunction to care for widows and orphans as the only way to gauge pure religion (James 1:27). The policy change came about certainly because of real Christian people who wanted to work at World Vision (or currently work there) and are married to another person of their same gender. Dismissing both the children and those employees refuses to see them as God’s children, as valuable to God.

Biblical faith isn’t about policies, it’s about relationships. Jesus came and lived among us. He got to know us. He had deep compassion. What this week showed deeply is that for many Christians it’s all about being right regardless of anything else. In the biblical narrative, Jesus had a tendency to denounce people like that. When sinners came in to do acts of compassion—like the woman who washed his feet—he praised her for it.

This week exposed a deep truth: we still have much to learn from Jesus.