Saturday, February 26, 2005

God so loved the world

I have come to appreciate the "flow" in the stories in John we are reading for Lent.

The first Sunday, we read of a big celebration where Jesus does a 'sign.'

The next week, a seeker comes to Jesus saying, "We know that only someone who comes from God can do the signs you do, but what are they about?"

Well, says Jesus, they are demonstrations of God's love - for God so loved the world . . .

and then John shows us how that Love is revealed:

Jesus encounters a woman, an outsider, an enemy and offers her God's love through unconditional acceptance and an offer to drink from the living waters . . .
and if Lent is a time of discipleship, then we have
a chance to offer unconditional love to all the outsiders,
all the enemies, all the unloveable people around us,
and within us, by sharing our portion of the living water.

Jesus meets a man who has been blind since birth and doesn't care about the reasons, theological or medical, he just provides the healing the man needs . . .
and if Lent is a time of discipleship, then we have
a chance to set aside all our theological, political,
economic, whatever reasons for why a person
is sick, or in poverty, or addicted, or suffering
from whatever blings them, including our own
blindness, by sharing the healing power and gifts
God has given us.

Jesus goes to the home of dear friends, whose brother has died. He grieves with them, weeps with them, shares their pain. And then he offers them the gift of new life brought out of nothingness (as Paul reminded us recently) . . .
and if Lent is a time of discipleship, then we have
a chance to share in the loss, the grief, the pain
of those around us and of our world, and help them
to discover the new life God is creating in the midst
of their loss.

God so loved the world that God's only Son was sent . . .

. . . God continues to love the world by sending God's children to bear this good news.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Everyday Encounters

Have you ever been walking at night and met a neighbor, so you stopped and chatted awhile? Or been at a park with your kids or grandkids and struck up a conversation with another adult?Perhaps you've recently visited a friend who was in the hospital. And we know the experience of going to the funeral of someone we loved dearly.

These are all rather every day, run-of-the-mill encounters we have in life, aren't they? So common, so ordinary that most of us probably don't think to look around to see if God is there in these encounters.

But the Gospel readings during this season of Lent tell about encounters that Jesus has with ordinary people, in everyday circumstances. A bible student comes to him one evening with some questions that have popped into his mind. On a hot day, with a parched throat, he asks a woman for a drink of water. He talks with a man blind from birth. He goes to the home of Mary and Martha, who are grieving over the death of their brother, Lazarus.

And there, in these ordinary moments, in these chance meetings, in these everyday encounters, God is present in Jesus Christ:
- challenging the wisdom of a learned man;
- inviting a woman to a new life;
- helping a man born blind to see;
- helping the grief-stricken sisters to realize that God
is more powerful than death; that God's love
calls forth life from the grave.

Maybe one of the "disciplines" we should practice for the rest of this Lenten season is to pay more attention to our chance encounters, our everyday conversations.

So, next time you are in the store and chatting with a friend, look to see if Jesus is over in the next aisle, eavesdropping. When your child asks you for a snack upon returning home from school, be sure to listen carefully to see who is making the request. When a sibling calls at night in the middle of your favorite show, pay attention to their questions, not the commercials.

After all, it might just be God, seeking to engage you in the midst of your ordinary, everyday life; just as Nicodemus, Photini (the woman at the well), the man born blind, and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were met by Jesus in all their ordinary lives.

(c) Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Tough Happiness

Read Psalm 25

There are some folks who maintain that, when I preach, I talk too much about how "tough it is to be a Christian." Their premise, apparently, is that by doing so, I am implying that Christians cannot be happy. I guess for me it is not an either-or situation, rather a both-and circumstance.

It is tough to be a Christian in today's culture. In a culture that emphasizes individual growth, wealth, and success, we are asked to focus less on ourselves and more on God, who has given us everything we have. In a society where youth and vitality are the reigning icons, we are called to sacrifice our time, our energy, our very selves in service to others. In a world built on instant messaging, we are asked to take the time to listen to the other person; in a time of 30-second sound bites, we are encouraged to spend time in silence; in a time when TV shows and movies get louder and louder, we strain for that still, small voice of God.

But does this mean we cannot be happy? I don't think that's the case. Look at the lined face of Mother Theresa - have you seen a more contented picture than this one of a woman who spent her whole life serving the poor and rejected of the world? Look at the laughter in the eyes of Henri Nouwen and see the joy of one who committed his every moment to being fully present to God and to everyone he met. Remember what Paul says about being able to rejoice in the worst of circumstances, not because of a false sense of happiness, but out of that deep understanding that God is with the lonely and the afflicted, that God's love is constant and enduring, that the troubles of our hearts are relieved when they are placed in God's heart.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Evangelist of the Well

Read John 4:27-42

So, this woman at the well has an encounter with the Living Water, and goes back to her hometown and tells everyone about it. And we are told that many believed in Jesus because of this unnamed woman's witness.

And, if the legends about her are true, a lot more people than in just her hometown heard her testimony! One of the key figures of the Johannine community, she supposedly took the name Photini ("the enlightened one") when she was baptized. And, like many other women in the gospels, she contributes to the spread of Christianity throughout the world.

According to the Orthodox tradition, Photini and her five sisters and two sons (all of whom were baptized with her), traveled on missionary journeys which eventually led them to Rome. Emperor Nero ordered her to be arrested, but before the soldiers could act, she appeared before him boldly declaring she had come to teach him "to believe in Christ." As might be expected, Photini and the others suffered torture and abuse at Nero's orders.

Thinking that other women might persuade her to deny God, Nero sent his daughter, Domnina, to speak to Photini and her sisters. However, Domnina and her 100 slave girls were converted and baptized as a result of the witness and words of Photini. Once again, Nero ordered unspeakable tortures. When all else failed, he had all of Photini's sisters and sons beheaded, leaving her to survive alone. She eventually died, having received a vision of God appearing before her, making the sign of the cross three times over her.

In sermons from the Greek Orthodox tradition in the 4th-14th centuries, Photini is compared to the male apostles and disciples, often surpassing them. She is referred to as both an evangelist and an apostle. The nameless woman who met Christ at Jacob's well spent her remaining days inviting others to drink from the Living Waters.

For countless generations, Orthodox Christians have prayed to St. Photini, whose day is February 26th:
Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One,
from Christ the Savior you drank the water of salvation.
With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,
pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, February 19, 2005


Read Deuteronomy 11 18-28

This morning, on the TV news broadcast, there was a segment about a young, 8-month-pregnant woman, who had sold advertising "space" on her swollen belly. And if that is not strange enough, someone was willing to pay $8,000+ to purchase those 'rights.' And apparently, this is small potatoes. Someone else "leased" their forehead for advertising for a month and racked up $37,000 in fees.

So, I am wondering - should I advertise space on my preaching robe? After all, professional athletes have all sorts of advertising on their uniforms...just try to see what color a NASCAR driver's outfit is with all the logos sewed on. Think of the funds I could raise for the annual budget, for mission, for youth work, for vacations!

How do we let folks today know that we are believers, that we seek to be faithful in accepting Jesus' invitation to follow him? One can tell by looking at a person if they are an Orthodox Jew by noticing the tefillim, the boxes wrapped around one's arm or forehead. These boxes contain the Shema, the great teaching: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone..." These are words that Jews are commanded to teach to their children and to bind them as a 'sign' of their faith in God.

Certainly, we can wear crosses to show our faith; but now that crosses have become chic jewelry, how would people know why we are wearing one? We can certainly put bumper stickers on our cars, but in the race track we call our roads, who has time to read them. We can put signs in our yards, but do our neighbors know whether or not we live the words on those signs? And we can teach words to our kids, a lot of words about God, about discipleship, about love - but is the Word planted deep within us?

If we are truly practicing justice, we won't need to advertise. If we really believe that all people are God's children, and are to be treated with love, respect, and honor, we won't need to put that on the bumper of our car; if we sincerely seek to deny ourselves and offer ourselves in service to others, people will know about it. If God's Word is indeed planted in our heart and soul, the words we speak will reflect that.

We don't need to advertise what we believe, or whose we are - we just have to live it.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Clue by Four

A friend of mind used to keep a "Clue by Four" in his office. That's a board which could be used (figuratively speaking) on people when they just didn't seem to get the gist of a conversation or an issue. We have joked over the years about the folks we would like to use the Clue by Four on (including ourselves!).

Well, yesterday, God smacked me up side of the head with a Clue by Four.

It had been a long week of dealing with bureaucrats and forms for getting Teddy into the developmental center, in addition to all the "normal" stuff related to ministry. I had given a Lenten talk at a local retirement center at lunchtime, and when I got back, I shut myself in my office to try to catch up on all those things that refuse to be caught.

Then came the knock on the door.

I opened it, rather abruptly, and a young couple was standing outside my office. Usual story: we need to talk with you, do you have a few minutes, the usual handful of what looked like a collection of papers from bill collectors. I started to brush them off with the usual spiel of "we don't keep any cash here at the church, I can refer you to a group that can help you, yada, yada, yada."

That's when God caught me up side of the head.

"Look, said the man with pain in his voice, "we were hoping to find someone who would just take a few minutes to listen."

I talk a lot about hospitality, about practicing it as a spiritual discipline, about welcoming God and others and creation into our lives, about living out Benedict's dictum to welcome all people as if they are Christ . . . and given the chance yesterday, I put on my most inhospitable face.

So, I rubbed my face, and listened, and learned.

They, too, had been fighting bureaucrats all week; they, too, were worried about their kids; they, too, were exhausted from work. They were a brother and sister of mine, and for a brief moment, I didn't recognize them for who they were. But they had seen me for who I was tempted to become, and reached out to pull that mask off and welcome me as if I were Christ.

Yesterday, God smacked me up side of the head with a Clue by Four. And, as the line goes, I said, "Thanks. I needed that."

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Thin Place

I gave a talk at one of the local retirement centers today. They are having a five-week Lenten series for their residents. I was asked to talk about 'pilgrimage' and to show my slides from my renewal time of several years ago. It went well, and was enjoyable, and I was pleased to talk to several of the residents wh0 had been to Iona, Lindisfarne, and even Taize, and were eager to share their experiences (and wishes that they could return) at those special places.

For me, it made me homesick! I was reminded, once again, of how special those few months were, and my longing to return. And while I certainly know that if I did return, that I would not be able to recreate the feelings and experiences of my first visit, the new ones would be just as special, just as powerful, just as healing as the first time.

But it also struck me how easy it was to let the lifestyle I had during that time, and the disciplines I was able to practice, slip through my soul. Of course, I can justify that happening by the mere fact that I was not "working" during those three months, that I was on renewal and re-energizing myself, and circumstances are different now. Here, in the real world of work and stress, it just isn't possible to do those things.

Really? How hard is it to set aside 2-3 periods during the day for silence, for worship, for prayer, for spiritual reading, for prayer walks, for myself? It's not as if I don't have those times (maybe not every day, but on a lot of them) available to me now. I manage to eat 3 times a day (or more!) to keep my body sustained - why not my soul? And I seem to be able to catch TV a couple of times a day to keep my mind informed - why not my spirit? And, after all, even though I was at all those marvelous places, it was not as if someone was "forcing" me to do all those renewal things. I made conscious choices to go to the worship, the prayer, the study, the silent opportunities.

So, was it the difference in physical settings, or was it that I was focusing on those things that could bring me rest, bring me solace, bring me closer to God - instead of focusing on those things that bring me stress, that distract me from God, that cause me to feel burned out?

The rest, the renewal, the 'thin place' I am seeking is really deep within me, if only I am willing to travel there and spend some time.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Night Watchman

Read John 3:1-16

He comes in the night. We don't know the exact time, but it doesn't really matter. He comes in the night. Perhaps it is caution. After all, with his position of power and authority, and the animosity of his fellow Pharisees towards Jesus, it wouldn't do Nicodemus any good to be seen in the company of this upstart. Or it could be custom. Rabbinical tradition says that nighttime, when it is quiet and one can be undisturbed, is the best time to study the law. So, maybe Nicodemus wants a quiet, uninterrupted chat with Jesus.

But he comes in the night, with his questions, with his needs, with his soul, to Christ.

And each of us, like John of the Cross, has known the dark night of the soul. We have woken up with the terrors of eternity interrupting our sleep, wondering if what we have believed all of our lives is true. We have slept on those uncomfortable 'parents' couchs' in our child's hospital room as she recovers from surgery, or he receives a chemotherapy treatment. We have gotten those middle-0f-the-night telephone calls which never bring good news into our lives.

And so, we come in the night to Jesus, with our faith shaken, our questions unanswered, our fears draped over our shoulders, our mortality slipping through our fingers. We, too, believe that Jesus can do the things scripture, and others, tell us he does only if he comes from God. But it is our unbelief in our faith, our doubts about our commitment, our questions about our relationship with God which bring us to him, in the stillness of the night.

And so we talk, or weep, or fall silent - hoping for a word that will comfort, a touch that will heal, a silence that will speak to our hearts, a presence that will sit by our bedside until we fall asleep. We come in the night, because that is when it seems we need Jesus the most. We come, because we know he will be there, waiting for us, willing to listen, unwilling to judge, patient and kind through every moment of our soul's long night. We come, because God in Christ has promised to stay awake, and watch, and never sleep.

At the Abbey of Gethsemane, the last service of the day is Compline. It prepares the monks and guests for bed, as well as being a rehearsal of what will happen to all of us one day. If going to sleep anbd waking in the morning is an 'enactment' of our death and resurrection, Compline remindes us of those promises made to us by God, and the trust we can place in those promises.

And when the singing and praying are done, the monks and guests line up and go forward to be sprinkled with holy water, to remind us of our baptism in Christ, and the promise that if we have been baptized in him, we will surely be raised in him.

And then, in the night, we go to our beds to sleep in the peace of Christ and to awaken, born again as God's children.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Another Clue

Read John 2:13-22

Every politician has said it, "Give me a broom and send me to (the capital, the schools, the prisons, the diocese, the denomination) and I will clean house!" And, if truth be known, most of us have wanted to do the same thing at one time or another (especially if we are parents of teenagers with messy rooms!).

In this story, Jesus does exactly this - he takes a "broom" (a whip) and drives out all the animals and their sellers, the money-changers, the peddlers. And we stand and applaud him, because he is going to not only drive all these folks and their wares out of the church, but he is going to take the church back to the good ol' days when things were clean, neat, simple.

However, it appears that what John is doing with this story is not giving us a return to the past story, but another clue or two about the mystery of Jesus that he is unraveling in his gospel.

Note when this event takes place - it was almost time for the Passover. The great, High Holy day of the liberation of the people of God from slavery in Egypt. This is the moment Jesus chooses to cleanse the Temple. And he does so, according to John, to give new meaning to this event. A new liberation is about to take place, a new slavery is about to be cast off, a new Day (the third day) is about to dawn. Remember, John has already pronounced Jesus to be the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Now, the Lamb is ready to lead the people of God - all of God's people - into the promised land of the kingdom where death and sin have no power.

Certainly, Jesus views the Temple and its cultic rituals, its buying and selling, its rampant materialism as corrupt. More importantly, a new Temple is being built before the eyes of the people, not out of stone and mortar, with marble and gold in-lay. But out of flesh that will be scourged and blood that will be spilled at the cross. A Temple not built by the hands of humans, but a Temple carved out of the dust of creation, filled with the transforming breath of the Spirit, and the place, the true place, where God's glory resides - in the One proclaimed as God's very own Beloved.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, February 14, 2005

A Good Mystery

Read John 2:1-12

Most folks know that the Gospel of John is just a little bit different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. While they tell the story about Jesus, John wants to know what it is that enables Jesus to do the things he does, how it is that he is so different from other people. The other gospel writers focus on the man Jesus, John wants to understand the mystery of Jesus.

And in trying to understand, and explain, that mystery to us, John gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses of Jesus' ministry, he lets us in on conversations that appear to be private, he interprets as well as records the events which involve Jesus. And like any good mystery, John plants clues for us - images, words, hints, people - that will help pull everything together by the end of the gospel.

While John tells no birth narrative about Jesus, he does mention his mother. In the story we read today, Jesus begins his public ministry at a celebration - a wedding. Because they are part of the community, Jesus and his disciples are invited to attend. And at this very public event, surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors, Jesus performs what we call a miracle. He transforms water into wine. And his mother, Mary, is there, as one of the guests. But more importantly, she is the first believer ("do whatever he tells you"). Jesus begins his ministry with the trust, the support, the belief of his mother. And at the end of his ministry, when he is dying on the cross, he will look down and see his mother - still with him, still believing, still trusting.

And the clue John gives us is not the miracle that Jesus performs, but the statement that it is a 'sign'. It seems that John could care less whether or not Jesus can change water into wine, or recognize that a woman he is talking to by a well is living with a man, or that a fellow sitting under a tree comes from a certain town. What matters is that all these things are signs (clues) that point to Jesus. They are events, and conversations, and experiences that allow us to see Jesus for who he truly is - God's Word that has been embodied in human flesh.

Just as God once spoke creation into being, now God will speak salvation into existence, in the One who speaks compassion to those despised by the religious, in the One who is willing to be brother to every woman and man who have no family, in the One who shines light into the lives who visit him in the shadows of morning, in the One who prays for release in a garden and goes to a cross to deliver us from sin, in the One who solves the mystery of death by giving us life.

Prayer: Too often, Speaking God, we don't have a clue as to what you are doing in our world, or in our lives. Yet, you leave hints and signs all around us: in the laughter of children, in the wisdom of our grandparents, in the beauty of creation. Help us to be open to the mystery of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, February 13, 2005

What Are You Proud Of?

As I walk Cocoa, the Wonder Dog, I notice the signs in the yards. "We Have an Honor Student at ABC School!" Sometimes you see similar stickers on car bumpers or in the back windows. Folks are obviously proud, as they should be, of the work of their child/ren.

But I have never seen a sign in a yard, on a car, or anywhere else that says, "We Have a Child who Practices Justice."

Isn't it interesting the things we are proud about? Our homes, our cars, our children, our communities, our countries, our clothes - we all have that list that we carry around and pull out and show to folks if they are interested.

Yet, according to Jeremiah 9:23-24, God takes delight in righteousness, in justice, and in love that is constant and enduring. And if we are to boast about anything, it should be about the simple fact that we know the things which delight God, and understand that when we do those things, when we practice those things, when we model those things, then we do indeed have something to be proud of.

Homes and cars and clothes and all the trappings of our lives are wonderful, but those simple acts of kindness, those daily ways we show people we love them, the courage to speak out on behalf of the marginalized, the willingness to do right no matter the cost - those are the things that shape our lives and the lives of all of God's children.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, February 12, 2005

A New Discipline

During this season of Lent, a lot of folks will be attempting to give up things. The usual cast of 'characters' includes smoking, chocolate, sugared drinks. Other people will be attempting to do something new, to focus on a spiritual discipline they have not tried before, or perhaps let slip out of their lives of faith.

Perhaps you are attempting to read scripture in a very intentional way which allows you to be open to what God's Word says to you. The ancient practice of lectio divina is useful as one reads a brief passage slowly and thoughtfully, taking note of a particular word or phrase that speaks to your spirit, and then spending time reflecting on it, praying it, and living it out.

Others are seeking to practice the ancient discipline of hospitality. While this certainly means opening one's home to strangers, it can also mean opening one's heart to family and friends with whom you have become estranged; opening your frazzled spirit to God's serenity; opening your eyes to the beauty of God's creation and the opportunity you have to embrace it and welcome it as a precious gift, not a usable commodity.

Perhaps you are willing to practice the difficult discipline of fasting. While one must always be careful in trying this, many people have found it to be a way to cleanse one's body, one's soul, one's emotions of all the toxins which fill us to overflowing. Some will fast from a favorite food, some will fast one meal a day, some will fast one day a week (and perhaps give the money they would have spent on food to a food bank). I like to fast on Maundy Thursday and break that fast with the Lord's Supper that night.

According to the letter to Titus (3:1-15) in the New Testament, there might be a practice we could all adopt during this season, and beyond. While not an ancient spiritual discipline, perhaps it could become a modern one. And that is to show every courtesy to everyone (vs. 2). Imagine what a wonderful gift this might be to our world that is beset by rudeness, road rage, and bitter talk about each other.

Think how it might change someone if you were courteous toward them, rather than challenging them because their politics, or beliefs, are different from yours. Think how it might improve another's life, if you smile and say 'hello' when they glare at you in a store. Think about all the stupid controversies, dissensions, and quarrels that fill our lives in our churches, our families, our communities, our world when we could do so much better by being gentle towards one another, by refusing to engage in demonizing those who disagree with us, by being ready to do good things for others.

And think about how the simple act of being more courteous to everyone might change you. And isn't that what discipline is all about?

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, February 11, 2005

February 11, 2005

Read John 1:35-42

Why wasn't he invited to the party? Wy wasn't he chosen to be one of the inner circle? Why wasn't John the Baptist called to follow Jesus?

After all, they had grown up together in the same extended family, John being born just a few months before Jesus. When his family went to Jerusalem for the yearly pilgrimage, surely they stayed with Zecheriah and Elizabether, and the two cousins must have spent hours together playing and roaming the streets of the Holy City. Maybe they even shared dreams of what they wanted to do and be when they grew up (now those would have been conversations worth eavesdropping on!).

And John was the one to whom Jesus went when he was ready to begin his public ministry. All the gospels tell us that, all of them tell us that John is the one who baptizes his cousin and bears witness to the power of the water and of the Holy Spirit.

Yet, when he had the chance and could have followed Jesus, he stayed behind, sending his own young followers after the one whose sandals John had probably tightened many times when they were little, but now felt he was not worthy to loosen. Why?

Maybe it was because he and Jesus knew each other too well. After all, the two brothers I have who are also ministers and I probably would not work well as pastors in the same church. There are friends of mine that I would love to work with, but the knowledge we have on one another might get in the way of effective partnerships.

Or maybe, maybe John did what he had been doing all of his life - being a mentor for his younger cousin. Modeling for Jesus what it menat to be obedient to God, even when God asked one to go against the traditions and teachings of one's religion. Modeling for Jesus what it meant to follow where God leads, even when everyone else, including family, thought you had become unbalanced. Modeling for Jesus what it might cost to be faithful to God's call, even the cost of one's life.

Prayer: Holy One of Baptizers, we thank you for those who have modeled, and continue to model, for us the life of faithfulness, of obedience, of denial of self, of costly discipleship. Give us the strength to be mentors to others who look to us to find the way to you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, February 10, 2005


Read Psalm 27

Last night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we sang the Taize song,
"Wait for the Lord."

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near,
wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart.

As usual, the words and tune stuck in my brain for the rest of the night.

Which is good, because I needed those words, and that music, on this day which had finally come near, as we waited at the probate court for the hearing concerning Teddy's new placement. We waited, and waited, and waited - not for the Lord, but for the creaky wheels of bureaucracy to turn. And if you think waiting is hard for you, imagine what it is like to be Teddy, with limited cognition and understanding, yet fully aware that whatever was going on, impacted on him and his life.

And so we waited, and watched the various families and groupings that moved in and out of the hearing room. Some kids were surrounded by a crowd of family and friends who were there to lend support. Others looked forlornly down the hallway wondering if anyone, other than the case manager and the public defender, would be there with them.

We waited, and it finally came to be our turn. And we filed into the hearing, Teddy not sure what was to take place (but taking notice of the officers of the court with their weapons showing); parents struggling to be strong and have courageous hearts; caregivers, psychologists, attorneys. And tagging along behind was that great cloud of witnesses who have wept, prayed, watched, supported, waited, and encouraged us through all the years, through all the pain and heartache, from all those places throughout the world.

And then, in that strange and sad place, I saw it - the goodness of the Lord. I saw it in the court appointed attorney who treated Teddy as more than just a case to check off his daytimer, but as a unique person whom he might represent for only a few minutes, but would do so as if Teddy was his own son. I saw the goodness of the Lord in Alan, Teddy's friend (and service provider for the last five years) when he broke down in tears telling the court about wanting to find the best place for Teddy to be Teddy. And I saw it, as I always do, in Teddy's face, as his raw, elemental trust in every person in that room brightened a cold, snowy day.

The Lord is Teddy's light and Teddy's salvation;
the Lord is Teddy's stronghold in life:
so, how can I be afraid?

I will wait, and watch, and take heart.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

When I Saw Them Last

Read Psalm 42

When I last saw them, they were fresh and green, alive in the hands of the children as they paraded down the center aisle of the church, reminding us of that grand celebration which welcomed Jesus into the Holy City. The palm branches were visible reminders of that brief moment of joyous hope in the journey of Jesus and his friends, before every dream turned to ashes.

Now, almost a year later, I find them on the top of the shelf in the chancel closet in the back of the sanctuary. They have lain there all these months, forgotten, drying out, curling at the edges, turning brittle to the touch. The palm branches are visible reminders of the days and months which have passed since that happy parade, days filled with celebration and joy, certainly, but also days of arid faith, days of being forgotten by our friends, days of once vibrant lives turning brittle.

Perhaps that is why the words of the psalmist resonate so much with us. We know what it is like to thirst for God. Our lives are so parched by living in the desert of loneliness and grief, our throats and lips cannot speak God's name. We are so starved for relationships with people who would cherish and care for us, we turn to God for assurance that we will find such a family. We place our trust in leaders and institutions which only disappoint us, that our only hope is found in God.

So, as I burn those branches today, in preparation of our Ash Wednesday service, I will try to remember. I will try to remember when God wiped up my tears and used them in the waters of baptism. I will try to remember the songs God sang to me in the dark nights of the soul. I will try to remember how God has healed all the wounds of my heart which threatened to destroy me.

And I will hope in God.

Prayer: We have come full cirlce, God of every moment, and once again prepare ourselves for that journey when Jesus models for us faithful obedience. Help us to remember that his hope was all in you, and you did not desert him, disappoint him, or forget him. Be with us in our journey, that we might become as hopeful and faithful as our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Read Psalm 146

This coming Sunday is Transfiguration of the Lord in the church's calendar. It is one of those gospel stories that is familiar to a lot of folks (because it is read every year), but also perplexes folks because they are not sure what it means. That's okay; like other such Sundays, most preachers are just as perplexed and uncertain. And if you really want to see a perplexed pastor, ask to have the Trinity explained!

In addition to the transfiguration story, this is also the first Sunday of the month, so in the church I am blessed to serve, we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion (or at least, celebrating as much as the "frozen chosen" usually do). And, as we have done for quite a while, we will begin the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving with the usual "The Lord be with you" spoken by me, and "the Lord also be with you" spoken by the congregation.

And, as we speak these familiar words, some folks will wonder, "Why in the world do we do this?" They wonder (in this church and others) why the preacher just can't pray "off the cuff," and not involve them in their pewed comfort. They wonder (in this church and others) if this doesn't smack a little bit of Roman Catholicism, and that a Protestant worship service is becoming a mass.

It's easy to say it is a liturgical tradition; it is easy to say it is one of the great participatory prayers of the church; it is easy to say that this prayer may just go all the way back to the earliest church services, and maybe even to a Jewish prayer predating Jesus; it is easy to say that it is part of our Book of Common Worship; it is easy to say that by doing so we show our solidarity with churches throughout the world who speak the same words, in a pentecostal outpouring of tongues. It is easiest to say that the words are reminders of God's steadfast presence with us.

But as easy as the words are to speak, how hard they are to believe and live out!

The Lord is with me? I am struggling with crushing disappointment. Every dream I had has become a nightmare; every gain I have made has turned into a loss; every step I have taken forward has thrown me backwards.

The Lord is with me? Every time I go to work, I wonder: is this the day; is this when the supervisor will call me into the office and hand me an envelope with my severance pay in it, telling me what a great job I have done and it is nothing personal, it's just the way business is, all the while not looking me in the eye.

The Lord is with me? My family is back in my home country, while I try to learn a new language, find a new skill, walk my way through a new culture, find support and encouragement for my struggles, search for a church that will accept me as a sister in Christ, not a stranger.

Yes! the Psalmist says resoundingly. In the moments when you have lost everything, only to discover that God has found you - the Lord is with you! In those people who are willing to reach out and help you up when you stumble in life - the Lord is with you! In your hunger for a true friend and in your thirst for those who accept you for who you are - the Lord is with you! At the Table God has prepared, at the desk piled high with monotony, in the neighborhood of locked doors and windows, at the stores piled high with temptation - the Lord is with you!

Isn't that something to remember, to celebrate, to give thanks for!

The Lord is with you! Amen.

(c) 2005 Thom M. Shuman