Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More about Prayer

Lately I have spent a lot of time driving and doing other repetitive tasks which leave time for thinking and praying.  It has given me opportunity to practice my spiritual disciplines for Lent.  I have been away from the computer during this time, but was excited when I logged on this morning to find the following post on Patheos from my friend Carl McColman. Rather than try to relay his good words, I encourage you to follow the link and hear directly from Carl.  Meanwhile ... I am on the road again. More when the wheels on the bus stop going round and round.

Carl McColman writes about the Jesus Prayer on Patheos

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bonus Post: This Week's Readings and Questions

Treasure Eternal Promises
Mon – Romans 4:13

13  For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

Tues – Genesis  17:7, 15b, 16

7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you…
15As for your wife Sarai … 16I will bless her, and you will have a son through her. 
I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.

Wed O Lord, Increase My Faith

O Lord, increase my faith.
Strengthen me and confirm me

in thy true faith;
endue me with wisdom, charity,

chastity and patience
in all my adversity.
Sweet Jesu, say Amen.

Thurs – Romans 4:20-21

20No distrust made Abram waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

Fri - Psalm 22:11

11Do not be far from me, [O God] for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Sat – My Life Flows On -- CH #619

Vs 1 -  My Life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation;
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging,
Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

A Week of Questions: M-What do I understand to be the promises from God concerning a covenant with me?  T- What has my experience been with promises?  W- What false promises have disappointed me in the past? Th- Do I trust God? Fri- When I experience trouble, to whom do I turn first for help?    Sat- In the midst of lamentation, what is my song?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Sermon

Lent 1B                                                                                 Rev. Kristine Light Branaman
Febrauary 26, 2012                                                UniPlace Christian Church (Disciples) 
Mark 1:1-11                                                                                                   Champaign, IL   
Psalm 25                                                                                                      Matthew 6:19-21

Treasure God’s Covenant

When I was a child one of the best things about being home sick was knowing that Monty Hall would keep me company.  "Let’s make a deal," he would enthusiastically call from the living room, inviting me to pull up to the TV and throw myself into the wheeling and dealing.  The first costumed contestant would be called out from the studio audience, and it was on.  “Sweet Adeline, (who, by the way, was dressed up like garbage in an extra large Hefty bag) Sweet Adeline, here’s $400 for the ratty tennis shoes on your feet.”  Would now-shoeless Adeline choose to keep the $400, or trade it in for an unknown prize behind the curtain or maybe the hidden contents of a large box brought to her seat by Monty Hall’s assistant?  Let’s Make a Deal was all about choices made and the opportunity to trade up in life, accumulating more treasure:  A Harvest Gold Amana refrigerator, some Avocado colored Teflon cookware, or maybe even a brand new Datsun station wagon.  Or, just as likely, Let’s Make a Deal was about the mistakes we make trading foolishly and ending up with a donkey carrying baskets of toilet paper on his saddle. Choose unwisely and Monty Hall would be sympathetic, but still, treasure traded was treasure forever lost.

As we begin the Lenten season our scripture texts are filled with references to choices made, treasures desired and covenants kept.  Many of us, when we hear the word covenant think of contracts and we are off and running with Monty Hall or coming on down with Bob Barker hoping the price is right for us to strike an advantageous bargain with God.  We are simple-minded when we consider the covenant of God.  Like the Patriarchs of Genesis we would like to wheel and deal with the Almighty and with one another.  Maybe we can outwit a Pharoah like old Abraham telling lies about his wife Sarah, or snooker brother Esau out of his birthright, like Jacob, or wrestle an angel and come away with a blessing and a better name.  The Patriarchs were shrewd negotiators, quick to turn a deal to their own advantage whenever they could.  They did pretty well with God, it seems, why shouldn’t we follow their example?

But the covenant our God actually has in mind, at least according to the Psalmists and Prophets of the Old Testament, is not a contract where each party shrewdly pursues advantages.  It is not a game where personal power and prosperity are the goal, not a business deal where the lowest cost is negotiated with the highest payout to the purchaser. We have been confused, I suppose, because covenants are typically sealed with an offering.  Foodstuffs and livestock are brought to an altar, the sacrifice is made, stones are piled as reminder of a covenant kept, and we remember that there was a cost involved.  The mistake we make is construing this to mean that God can be bought off.  We confuse the worshipful practice of bringing our offering with paying our dues; we mistake the act of presenting tokens of love for a process of purchasing affection.  In our confusion, we prostitute the very altar of God.  God wants children whose hearts are filled with love and gratitude and who express that love in their overflowing generosity.  God does not desire a sanctuary full of shrewd customers ready to purchase religious services at rock bottom prices.

I remember when my oldest 3 children were small and it seemed half of my life was spent driving the van with my back to them, listening to their pleas for one thing or another and trying to seize any opportunity to teach them about the treasure that matters while we were all locked in a vehicle together.  One day Matthew was whiney and demanding, complaining about not getting what he felt he deserved and listing my failures to meet his needs as he saw them.  He then went on to list several new things he wanted … a toy he had seen on television, a drive thru meal from his favorite restaurant, a trip to a pizza parlor with a ball pit, the list seemed endless. Recognizing the teachable moment I launched in to a sermon, “Matthew, you have spent the last twenty minutes telling me how much you dislike me and naming all the things you want but don’t have.  You have blamed me for every unhappy feeling you have and now you expect me to be motivated to go buy you more things and take you fun places? You don’t seem to remember any of the things I’ve done for you just today and last night, much less this year, or come to think of it, every day since the day you were born!  Before you ask for one more thing, maybe you should sit quietly, and stop to think about everything you already have, and all your parents do to care for you.  Before you decide to ask for something, stop and think, and show a little more gratitude.”

(Sidenote here:  There is a magnet on my refrigerator at home, a gift from my oldest daughter,
which reads,“My mother doesn’t just take us on guilt trips, she runs the travel agency”)

In any case, the sermon struck some kind of chord.  Complete silence enveloped the van as I drove toward home (without driving through McDonalds).  The silence lasted about five minutes and was finally broken when a soft, sweet little voice eventually spoke.  It was Lara, 3½  years old, who had been strapped into her car seat and staring out the window through most of the ride. Typically, she had said little during the drive, as her 2 older siblings usually dominated conversations.  Here, in the long silence, she finally found her voice.  “Mommy,” she said, “I love you.  You’re pretty.  I like the peas and hot dogs you put in the macaroni last night.  You're such a good cook. Thank you for this shirt with the rainbow on it.”      (Pause.)       “Can I have a pony?”

God help us.  The poet proclaims in Psalm 25: “Make me to know your ways, teach me your paths… do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”  The Psalmist is on to something important here.  What we need to ask God to remember is not our own good deeds or any little gifty we brought to God along the way.  We need to ask God to remember God’s own steadfast love, God’s own goodness.  That is our only hope.

The Gospel of Mark, which we have heard so much from already this year, actually begins with the passage which was just today finally brought to us in worship.  Mark begins by heralding Jesus’ ministry on earth with the scene of his baptism.  A lot of sermons have been written raising the question of why the sinless son of God needed to be baptized in the first place. It’s an interesting question …but one for another day.  For today, I want us to pay attention to the action and words which accompany Jesus’ baptism.  Mark says the heavens were ripped open as Jesus emerged from the water.  It is exactly the same verb that Mark will use at the end of this Lenten season when Jesus is crucified and we hear that the curtain in the Temple was ripped in two.  In both cases Mark is making a vital point: a barrier we could never penetrate on our own (the barrier between self-centered, grasping, plotting, insecure, fearful humankind and our steadfast, loving, generous Heavenly Parent) is torn asunder when Jesus submits himself to John in the Jordon and seals the covenant which launches his earthly ministry. A friend of mine, Dr. Stan Saunders says,

“Jesus’ baptism marks for him the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one … made clear as soon as he arises from the Jordan and sees the heavens themselves being torn apart. The image is both violent and hope-filled… God is doing the ripping.. [a high apocalyptic moment] when the boundaries between earth and heaven are disordered and dissolved.”

The words which accompany this tearing asunder of the heavens are simply these: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

I’m guessing Jesus didn’t look up to the sky and ask for a pony after that.

“Teach me your ways, O Lord, show me your paths.”  It is no coincidence that early Christians called the life of discipleship The Way.  It is not in adhering to a set of beliefs, or performing a series of rituals, or contributing a prescribed amount of material resources to the cause that we become Disciples of Christ.  It is in following the Way shown to us by the Son of God, in whom the Spirit was pleased to dwell in its fullness as he arose from the waters of baptism.  The life he showed us is the life God called beloved and proclaimed pleasing in God’s sight.

In the coming weeks we will continue to consider what kind of treasure we might “trade up” for in life.  I’ll tell you straight, Sweet Adeline was all about that Harvest Gold refrigerator.  When I showed my 13 year old son Lucas a You Tube clip of that deal, he just laughed to think anyone ever wanted that stuff.  “What an ugly refrigerator,” he mocked.  It’s amazing how different the treasures we choose can look just a few decades down the road. Just imagine what they’ll be saying about our granite countertops and stainless steel appliances in 2035!

Jesus taught that the treasure which matters most is the kind that rust and moths cannot consume and thieves cannot break in and steal.  One such treasure is this holy covenant which is a loving relationship with God, based not on what we can get through our wheeling and dealing in prayer or by trying to buy God’s affection, but based on those moments of wonder when we consider the love outpoured for us already.  “The friendship of the Lord is for those who stand in awe before God, and God makes God’s covenant known to them.”

May we all be such friends of God.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Week Wrap-Up

Consider this a bonus post.  Several readers have asked for a digital version of the devotional guide I wrote for use at UniPlace this Lent.  I don't really have one ... but I have an IPhone.  :-)

The photos inserted here will give you glimpses of the guide and the inserted text includes all the readings for this first (shortened) week.

Treasure God’s Covenant
Wed - Psalm 25:11-14

11 For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.

12 Who are they that fear the Lord? He will teach them the way that they should choose.

13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.

14 The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.

Thurs - Psalm 25:4-7

4Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

5Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

6Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Fri - Psalm 122:6

6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

Sat – O Love That Will Not Let Me Go Chalice Hymnal # 540

Vs 3  O Joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain,
that morn shall tearless be.

A Week of Questions: W-What do I treasure? What does prosperity look like to me? If the clue to what holds my heart is the place where my mind first wanders when it is at rest … where is my treasure? Th- Am I a friend of God who is teachable? Fri- How might I express my trust in the steadfast love of God who makes a covenant with me? Do I feel secure in God? Sat - What brings my tears? What brings me joy?

Abraham Joshua Heschel
The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice--cheating in business, exploitation of the poor--is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world .

Final Question of the Week:  As I seek to treasure God's covenant, am I as passionate as the prophets about God's call for justice and integrity, or have I become complacent about the daily delinquency of social dynamics? 

I Already Have This One

I am old enough to remember the inherent disappointment in opening a box of Cracker Jacks only to discover the prize inside was exactly the same as one found in a previous box.  My children, I know, experienced the same emotion when the toy in their Happy Meal was identical to one already received.  The common exclamation: "But .... I already HAVE this one!"

This was exactly my response twice this week when I opened my daily chocolate to see again the same message: "Take a deep breath & exhale"  Really?  Again?  Why not, "Be the first one on the dance floor," or "Somewhere someone is thinking of you" or "Your smile is your best accessory."  I already have this one.

It didn't take long, though, before I remembered an overused but helpful sermon illustration that has made its way into my preaching in the past.  A young seminarian tries out for his first pulpit in a small Kentucky church.  He preaches an outstanding first sermon on the text "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  The sermon is fiery, passionate, direct and full of biblical quotations on the importance of giving generously to the work of the Lord. He is hired on the spot and the small town is buzzing with excitement about the outstanding new preacher.  On his second Sunday attendance is up and the congregation sits expectantly waiting for the sermon.  When the time comes, the seminarian preaches EXACTLY the same sermon from the week before.  As they shake hands with him at the door the congregation is polite but puzzled, whispering to one another, "he probably had a busy week at school, next week he'll have a new topic."  But the next week rolls around and then another one after that, and now the congregation has heard the same (finely polished) sermon four times.  Finally the board chair takes the young man aside and says, "That is a truly fine sermon you wrote about generosity in giving.  Truly fine.  But we're all wondering when you are going to give us a different sermon.  You know, everyone has already heard this one now."  The seminarian responds, "Well I've checked with the treasurer each Monday and I'm still waiting for word this one is being put into practice before I burden ya'll with even more to do."

Ok.  I get it.  Breathe.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Music in the Air

One of the many things I love about my office at Uniplace Christian Church is the live music which plays almost all day every day just outside my door.  Several outstanding musicians, including Samir Golescu, Delre' Smith and Richard Hertel regularly rehearse and/or teach students in our sanctuary and Knight Hall.  Our very accomplished choral conductor, Leonard Rumery, rehearses our chancel choir each week and perfect-pitched Sarah Scott illicits songs of Jubilee from a happy assemblage of glad-to-be-musicians.  Whether the sounds are of flute duets, piano solos, organ recitals, soaring vocal arias, riffs from acoustic guitars or even the occasional kazoo choir, there is almost always music in the air at Uniplace Christian Church. What a gift!

This week I was blessed to hear Leonard rehearsing the chancel choir as they prepared to sing for us this Sunday "O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem."  The link above is the Wells College Choir performing that piece, not our choir at Uniplace, but I don't have any way to share with you exactly what it is I was blessed to listen to from my office.  (O wait a minute, yes I do.  Come worship with us at10 am this Sunday!)  Our choir's interpretation of the piece (and peace!) is rich in emotion and gorgeous harmonies.  The repetitive lyrics of the anthem remind me of my breath prayer practice for Lent.  What would it mean for me to sincerely pray for the peace of Jerusalem?  For peace in other places of seemingly endless conflict?  For peace in my own life where conflict seems unavoidable and unending?

As we prepare for Sunday worship, may we all be singing, praying, breathing .... prayers for peace.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Breathe In, Breathe Out

I decided this Lent that God doesn't hate chocolate -- especially not chocolate that is fair trade and organically grown.  Or chocolate that comes pre-wrapped in reasonably sized portions complete with encouraging messages.  So I didn't even try to give up chocolate this year.  Instead, I decided to discipline myself just enough to limit my daily intake to one section of a fair trade bar purchased at church, or one piece of a beautifully wrapped bite of dark chocolate retrieved from my freezer.  As disciplines go, it's not mortification of the flesh, but hey, it's a start.

On Ash Wednesday I retrieved my treat from the freezer to find this message: take a deep breath & exhale.  I didn't even know Dove chocolate makers knew about breath prayers, but somebody seems to be on to me. 

You see, my REAL Lenten discipline this year is the one I already communicated to the congregation in a pastoral letter sent last Saturday.  I promised that each morning when I read the scripture or hymn text from our daily devotional guide I would choose a phrase to use as my breath prayer for that day.  A breath prayer is a simple exercise of taking a deep breath as you recite the first half of a short repetitive prayer and exhaling as you finish the thought.  A common example is, "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy."  My breath prayer for Ash Wednesday was "Teach me the way .... that I should choose." The context of the prayer is Psalm 25, one of our devotional texts this week:
Wed - Psalm 25:11-14
11 For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
12 Who are they that fear the Lord? He will teach them the way that they should choose.
13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.
14 The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.

Today the practice continues with a new breath prayer: "Teach me your paths, lead me in truth."  It is drawn again from Psalm 25 as part of today's reading:
Thurs - Psalm 25:4-7
4Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
5Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

As I continue breathing in and breathing out, it is today's devotional question that remains with me: "Am I a friend of God who is teachable?"   It's time again: take a deep breath and exhale.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Treasure These Things ...

Preaching my way through Lent over the course of three decades, I realize that I have been drawn every year to the same lectionary text to begin the season. It always starts with Psalm 51 whether the seasonal theme is "Create in Me a Clean Heart" or "A New and Right Spirit" or "My Sin Is Ever Before Me." The raw emotion of Psalm 51 has always drawn me in and opened up the possibility of a penitent season.  But Psalm 51 is not the only lection presented for the first week of Lent.  There are other possibilities.

Somehow, I overlooked the Matthew text: 6:19-21, which appears on Ash Wednesday in all three years of the lectionary cycle.  Why?  Instead of using this text in connection with the Lenten season, we have trotted it out each fall in service of stewardship sermons aimed at meeting a church budget.  "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  All these years I missed the connection so obvious to the saints who paired them as readings for Ash Wednesday.  "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ..." "my sin is ever before me..." "lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven..." "put within me a new and right spirit.." "for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also..." "create in me a clean heart."   Lent is about more than acknowledging sin, it is about discerning where our hearts are, what we treasure, and whether our investments are piled in a trove where thieves may break in and steal or moth and rust consume.

So this year our Lenten theme is "Treasure These Things."  We have prepared our own devotional guides which focus on the lections, hymns and anthems for each Sunday of these 6 weeks. We will explore what is worth treasuring in our storehouses and what is not.  Tonight as I impose ashes on foreheads under the evening light of our rose window at UniPlace, I will say to each worshiper and to myself, "from dust you have come, to dust you will return. Treasure what is holy."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Entering the Bright Sadness

The Russian Orthodox writer Fr Alexander Schmemann describes the nature of our Lenten pilgrimage as ‘bright sadness’. Because I am drawn by the reference to light, this has become my favorite image for Lent.  The term also fits so well with the artistic beauty of religious icons, which are central to the devotional practices of our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters.  A 'bright sadness' well describes both the imagery of iconography and the atmosphere that suffuses the Lenten experience.

Throughout Lent we fast, pray and practice devotions as a means to breathe in this atmosphere of bright sadness. Schmemann wrote in his Great Lent: Journey to Pascha
Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed “bright,” that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access – a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and the superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having, in the words of Dostoevsky, touched “another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust.
Ash Wednesday we receive both the mark of sadness — the cross in ash on our foreheads — and the mark of brightness — the great joy of being received at the table of our Lord. Even as we acknowledge brokeness, pain, sin, death and betrayal we celebrate the transforming power of God who illuminates every experience with the radiance of divine love.  My prayer is that we will all be touched by the light of Christ which brings peace, joy, and an inexpressible trust.

Click the link below to hear a final alleluia from the Serbian Orthodox liturgy before we enter into Lent.  At UniPlace, the children helped during children's sermon this Sunday to "put away the alleluia"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What can be seen through a Rose Window?

I am intrigued by the prominence of Rose Windows in Gothic churches.  The church I serve now, University Place Christian Church in Champaign, Illinois is built in the Gothic style and includes a pretty rose window high atop the west wall of the sanctuary.  According to what I have read, the window's origin in church architecture can be traced back to the oculus in Roman arthitecture (think of the stunning oculus in the roof of the Pantheon).  This got me to thinking about eyes, reflected light needed for vision, and the phrase, "the eye is the window to the soul."  What can one see more clearly through rose colored glass, do you suppose? And who is looking? Which way?

Want to read up on the origins of Rose Windows in churches? Click here:

 Ubi amor, ibi oculus ...

If you're really listening
If you're awake to

the poignant
beauty of the world,
your heart breaks regularly.
In fact, your heart
is made to break,
it's purpose is to burst open

again and again
so that it can hold
evermore wonder.
Andrew Harvey
Indian-born Author, Scholar and Mystic

The soul can split
the sky in two
and let the face of God
shine through. 

~Edna St. Vincent Millay