A Prayer for Our Military: National Day of Prayer 2016

Oh God, our God, you have told us that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. Lord, bless those that take that risky invitation freely and put their life on the line in duty and service to others. Currently, our military faces a landscape that is more complicated and more diverse in threats than ever before. Scattered across the globe, we are engaged in the longest continuous period of conflict in the history of our nation. Separated by hemispheres and oceans, we remember those engaged in operations abroad. Lord, watch over the nearly 4000 troops deployed in Iraq, 300 troops deployed in Syria, and nearly 10,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. Combined with troops deployed and stationed at countless forts, bases, and ports across the world, the need for prayer is never ending and overwhelming and we pray for the peace that will bring them all safely home. For our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Veterans, be their refuge and their stronghold.  

We grieve for the heroes that will not come home and now leave spaces in our hearts and our formations. This Tuesday, we received news that we lost another hero, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charlie Keating IV, in a heroic defense of American combat advisors in Iraq who were pinned down by ISIS militants. We honor his sacrifice and the life he offered freely. However, we’re reminded that our enemies are not only found in the deserts across the world, but in our own backyards. Last year alone, 475 service members took their own lives. This is a staggering loss as we continue to kill ourselves faster than our enemies can. In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayers. The suicide rate for our citizen reserve and guard soldiers rose by over 24% this year and our veterans continue to commit suicide at rates nearly 50% over the national average. This cannot continue. The primary enemy and threat to our military is not extremism or proliferation, it’s apathy, hopelessness, and isolation. These are enemies that we have tolerated for too long and cannot tolerate any more. We can fight these enemies ourselves and the work needs to start today. Let us move with you, God, from prayer to significant action.  

Wherever the mission carries our heroes, Lord, be one in whom they can trust. Be the one who will not abandon them and will not give up on them. Allow them to find refuge in your wings in the midst of battles both external and internal. Do not let them fear the terrors at night and the arrows that fly in the day. Remain right beside them. Across our world and our nation, allow every service member to know the assurance of your promise to them, to hear them, to be with them in whatever hell they find themselves and rescue them. You’ve guaranteed your protection, now please answer their thoughts and their prayers, especially the ones without words. Be with them in troubling times and fill them with old age and stories that through them we might see the testimony and the work of your salvation.

-CH (CPT) S. Arthur Harrison 

Feature photo “Military Carosel Golden Tank” by Daryn Labier 

Shouting Louder Than Rocks

Palm Sunday is the day when all of the stories and the miracles begin to point in one focused, clear, direction, Jesus to Jerusalem, and then Jesus to the cross.  The movement of the story has brought us to the gates of the city of which Jesus will not leave until his ascension.  Roots of the story stretch back decades earlier, as the people yell, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”  We are reminded of the chorus of heavenly angels that escorted Jesus into this world and announced his arrival saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace, goodwill among the people.”  Jesus is arriving to his death with the same purpose that he arrived in this life, to bring peace, salvation and life for us all.

Peace is a funny thing.  As we follow Jesus from the top of his donkey into Jerusalem, peace doesn’t seem to be what he stirs up.  In fact, Jesus begins to agitate a lot of the tension and friction that is already vibrating in the city as soon as he arrives.  The festival of Passover is just around the corner.  The city is filling with pilgrims and vendors and the Romans respond with more Soldiers, more Swords, and more rules.   The faithful and the political are gathering from all over the countryside to worship and remember liberation and God’s deliverance of His people from the hands of an oppressive empire.  Imagine the irony and the tension as the crowds of Jewish faithful celebrate their deliverance while still staring down the point of a Roman short sword.  “Remember, don’t celebrate your freedom, too freely now.”  Jesus doesn’t bring peace into this already heated tension.  His followers steal a donkey, though they insist it’s for a good cause.  His disciples stir up the crowd with revolutionary and bombastic chants.  Even, if we read ahead to the end of the chapter, the first thing Jesus once he arrives in the city is overthrow all the tables and cages in the temple and drive out the money changers.  Peace on earth indeed.

When we look beyond Jerusalem to the entire scope of Jesus’ life, not much has changed in terms of peace.  Jesus is still stirring up trouble and people are still trying to kill him for it.  Whether it’s one king or another, one religious authority or another, peace seems so elusive for this king that was supposedly going to change the world.  However, one small thing is different.  Maybe not the kings, guards, walls, and politics, but something significant and powerful.  The voices of the people are different.  The voices that are singing Jesus’ arrival are different.  They have taken up the song that the angels used to sing about Jesus.  What the shepherds were told about Jesus by angels is now the testimony of crowds of followers as Jesus rides into the city.  Here is the prince of peace, here is the king who has brought peace, (maybe not to the kingdom), but to my life.  Jesus is surrounded by a whole multitude of disciples that have learned from him, followed him, told stories about him, and they sing about him because their lives have peace.  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”

As we spend time with Jesus, our voice changes.  As we experience the peace and love of God that we were once told about for the first time, our way of seeing the world and experiencing peace is forever changed.  We are like the crowds that gather around Jesus, where he was once announced by angels, he is now announced by sinners, broken people, sick people, depressed people, who have for a moment experienced exactly who Jesus said he was and now can’t help but tell the story and the good news of what God has done for us.  The angels song is now the people’s song.  They become so loud and so disruptive that the Pharisees tell Jesus to calm them and he says, “if they were silent, the stones would still cry out.”

We are the voice of what God has done in the world.  Speaking not only of how God has changed something within us, but that even now when we could be facing the worst week of our lives, we are the ones with the voice and the purpose to declare that we are at peace because we are free even in the face of circumstances that demand otherwise.  The empire has no power over us anymore.

As the season of Lent draws to a close, we are at the gate of the city of Jerusalem, a city that kills the prophets, and we still have a voice of hope.  We are the broken and bent ones who surround Jesus as he nears the city and declare that peace and hope have comes into the world.  We announce the arrival and the freedom of God, even when it’s hard to feel free.  What has God done for you?  What is your story that you declare with the way you lives your life.  What is worth waving your palm and laying down your coat?  What is your story of when God set you free?  Maybe it’s still unfolding and you’re willing to walk a ways to see where this road ends up.  I believe a walk with God ends in peace and hope and that’s a gift and story worth sharing.  Tell someone this week about how far you’ve come.  Share your story this week with a friend, a spouse, or a child and tell them that there’s hope in life even in the midst of chaos and violence.  If we don’t do it, the rocks will have to do it for us and surely we can shout louder than a rock.

Dirty Fingerprints

This past Ash Wednesday was the third time that I’ve had the chance as a pastor to impose ashes onto the foreheads of believers who desired their first steps into the season of Lent to be steps of repentance and preparation.  When I was in their shoes, I remember standing in line and wondering why I was doing this,  and not even really being clear on why it was being done to me.  It seemed sacred and important.  I couldn’t explain it if someone asked, but I felt that I was a part of something significant when it was being done.  Even looking around afterward and seeing all the dirty finger smudges across so many foreheads felt sacred in some way.

Now that I’m standing with the bowl and the dirty finger making the smudges, I don’t know if I have a better explanation.  Look around and see.  We’re part of something bigger than ourselves.  We’re part of a story that goes back to disciples and apostles who are now dust, and there will be others who receive smudges on their foreheads long after we ourselves are dust.  We are dust and to dust we shall return.  Repent and believe.

I had the pleasure of taking some ashes to a home bound member before the service in the evening and impose ashes upon her forehead.  As I ground the dry dark ash between my thumb and index finger, I managed to create a dark enough layer that served to impose the sign of the cross beautifully across her forehead.  It remained stained to my fingers as I packed up my kit and I was careful not to touch anything as I left her perfectly clean home.  Between the drive from her home to the office, I forgot that my fingers were covered in dark ash and I began to leave dark fingerprints like a trail of breadcrumbs across doorknobs, walls, light switches, and sheets of paper as I went.  And it wasn’t until I was reviewing my bulletin for the evening that I realized I was leaving fingerprints on whatever I touched.

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My first inclination was to brush them off, wipe them away, and clean what I had marked.  But as I sat staring at that sheet of smudged and dirty paper, I realized how it was almost as if some invisible detective had stumbled across my soul and with his fingerprint brush and fine powder, brought into focus and reality the fingerprints of God which are daily impressed from and rubbed off onto others through my day.  God’s fingerprints would be dirty.  They would be inconvenient.  They would cause us to want to wipe them away.  They are marks of a life well lived, a life that knows what it means to be separated in the mud from God and for God to reach down in the dirt to breathe into us and speak to us yet again.  These were marks that reminded me that I had shared a sacred moment with someone today and neither one of us could be the same anymore.  We rubbed off on each other and carried marks that would rub off onto the rest of the world saying, we are new creations and we have the dirty fingerprints to prove it.

What falls out when I shake a Christian cliché?

“When God closes a door, He opens another.”  This is one of my readily available Christian sayings when I’m in a tough spot, dead end, or beating my head against a door.  I’m more nostalgically attached to it than anything, I suppose.  So, I want to play with it for a minute.  I want to untie it from my baggage and my high school years and see what happens when I take the screws out and take the cover off.  What am I implying when I say it and post it with inspirational photos on status updates and feeds?  I am saying that God cares about me.  I am saying that God has a plan for me.  I am saying that when bad things happen, or when nothing happens, I believe that I should keep pushing and searching for the abundant life that God has for me to love God, love my neighbors, and love myself.  These are admirable faith statements and I think I could stand upon just about any of those for a good amount of time if needed or pressed; however, if I shake this statement around a little bit more, some other implications and loose parts that I don’t know what to do with that fall out onto my proverbial table.

  • I’m saying that God closes doors on me. Whether these are doors that need to be closed or doors that might hurt me or cause me to stray from God, I am saying that God is responsible somewhat for my decisions and my ability to choose the direction and events of my life.
  • I’m implying a distance from God. Much like a stranger God who wishes to measure my reactions and test my behaviors, it seems to be more of an evaluative process than a relationship of intimate spiritual connection.
  • It outlines a linear journey through a series of single doors that we walk through until the end. In reality, I imagine there are countless doors that I have never tried let alone eliminated as faithful options.  I only try the doors that I want to open.  God never opened the door for me to become a professional athlete, a mechanic, or a pharmacy tech.  But, I never tried those doors.
  • It suggests that a closed door is a door I should give up on.

Through these smaller and maybe non-intentional statements, I might begin to define success in life by the doors that are open to me and the doors that I can walk through.  I may  begin to define faithfulness and God’s will by whether something succeeds or not– whether I am able to successfully walk through and seize an opportunity or if it blows up in my face or shuts me out becomes an effective measure of discipleship and faithfulness.  These are my own personal assumptions and concerns, but they worry me.  They worry me, because I am not sure that’s the message and kingdom of God that Jesus was trying to tell me about.

In fact, when Jesus sent the twelve disciples out in the gospel of Matthew, he sent them out across the region and he gave them instructions, “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.  As you enter the house, greet it.  If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  If anyone will not welcome you or listen to you words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”  As I read that in light of our message, the disciples were instructed to carry the message of the Kingdom of God whether someone slammed the door in their faces or not.  Jesus didn’t promise them any open doors, but he did promise them that they would be fed, clothed, and provided for regardless of the state of the door in which they found themselves knocking or leaving.  They weren’t evaluated or cared for by the number of doors they successfully navigated; rather, on their willingness to faithfully carry the news and  promise of the kingdom of God to each and every door that they came across.

Also, let’s be honest, some doors in life are hard to open.  The inability to accept that a door or a way is closed off is a strong lesson to learn.  Jesus told a parable about a neighbor who woke up his nearest neighbor at midnight to borrow some food to feed a friend who just dropped by to visit.  The sleeping neighbor did not want to get out of bed to help and readily supplied a convincing list of reasons to not get out of bed.  You can imagine in what tone of voice or what other choice words this neighbor might have shouted through the door at such an hour.  However, Jesus’ lesson at the end of this parable is funny, “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  In a sense, if this was you, “The neighbor wasn’t willing to get up and get you what you needed just because you’re a friend, but trust me, keep banging on his door and don’t let him sleep, you’ll eventually get the things that you need.”  He ends his lesson with the iconic words, “Ask, and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  Some doors that start off locked just take a little more pounding, knocking, and kicking than others

I look at the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis as the shining example of the phrase, “When God closes a door, He opens another.”  As the favored and somewhat spoiled son of Jacob, Joseph soon found himself literally at the bottom of a pit with his brothers arguing over whether they were going to kill him or sell him into slavery and just say that they killed him.  Through a variety of situations and scandals, Joseph experiences his fair share of doors opening up for him through hard work and divine blessing only to find them shut in his face and seemingly needing to start all over again from square one, working his way from the pit of a hole or dungeon to the position of top administrator and civic official in all of Egypt, subject to only Pharaoh.  Maybe there is more to the story and lesson than Joseph experiencing faithful living through God closing doors and opening others.  What if we measured faithfulness through transformation instead?  How much of a change did he experience from the little pampered spoiled kid that didn’t want to get his clothes dirty and didn’t even know where to find his brothers when they went out in the fields to work to a man responsible for caring for every person in the greatest known kingdom of his day?  Maybe the greater miracle is not that he got to rule and exercise authority and direction over the entire land of Egypt.  Maybe the greater miracle was that this young man, through a life of devastating circumstances, through the fair and unfair situations that he found himself, began to walk in such a way that it didn’t matter what doors opened or closed in front of him, he transformed from a man focused on his own comfort and position to a man devoted to serving and fulfilling the needs of more than just his family and those around him, but an entire kingdom.

“When God closes a door, he opens another.”  There is nothing wrong or hurtful in saying it, but I believe it’s an incomplete picture of God and who God is calling each of us to be.  Our lives are not measured by the amount of doors that we successfully walk through and the amount of doors that we find in the dark, but by persistence for the very heart of God and a deep love for our neighbor and who God has made us to be.  For that, there are no closed doors, there are no windows to squeeze through, and no guessing on what doors lead to the right job or the right relationship.  I can’t imagine God was with Joseph because God needed Joseph on top of the world, and I can’t believe God’s with us because God needs us to walk through the right doors at the right moment.  God is with us because God promised he would be with us guiding us, comforting us, counseling us, reminding us, and loving us in front of every door that we find ourselves regardless of what’s on the other side.

 

Messy Work

I remember cleaning my room when I was a little tot.  What it really amounted to was clearing toys and clothes off the floor and hiding them under the bed, under the covers, in the closet, and stuck in drawers.  My dad used to say that I spent twice as much energy and time hiding my messes rather than cleaning them up.  If I couldn’t see the mess and if I could convince my parents that the mess was gone, everyone was happy and I could move on with my day to bigger and better things.  As I’ve gotten older, I learned that messes don’t usually go away when you can’t see them.  Usually, they even get a little worse.  Food left out spoils and rots, bills left in piles and stacks slip into collection, and struggling relationships dissolve and crumble.  If we turn our eyes away from messes, we seem to have a childish hope that they’ll just go away.  It’s one of the few areas that our cultural really embraces a child-like faith.  “If I don’t see it, it can’t exist.”

Unfortunately, our culture seems have adopted a similar faith in people experiencing need.    Homeless communities are routinely bulldozed and fire-hosed to make room for more developments and infrastructure.  Large shopping centers are placed in front of housing projects and communities in heavy poverty to raise the aesthetic value of townships to tourists and those passing through on highways and interstates.  Years ago, businesses in parts of inner Los Angeles came up with the solution to install sprinklers on their roofs to discourage homeless from collecting outside of their doors on the sidewalk.  Before the city council banned the practice, business owners would say that they only turned them on when they felt in danger, or when too many people where gathering outside, or when it started to smell bad, or when someone was sleeping, or whenever basically, they felt like it.  Eventually the practice was banned because public sidewalks are in fact public and  it’s bad press when you wash people into the gutter.  At what point is hiding the problem of poverty and homelessness and trying to wash it down the street and into the dark corners of our cities and towns going to make the problem going away?

And what’s so terrible is I understand.  I get it.  I was raised with the myth of social mobility and ideas like, ‘God only helps those who help themselves.”  I know what is going through people’s minds.  I know why businesses don’t like people who are dirty and smelly sitting outside their doors.  This culture has taught me from a very early age that there’s something wrong with you if you’re sitting there.  There’s something wrong with you if you’re not successful.  You’ve done something wrong.  You didn’t work hard enough.  You didn’t fight long enough.  You didn’t pull your bootstraps hard enough.  If you hear something enough times, you’re bound to believe at least parts of it.  Internalization works both ways though.  There are those in our culture that believe some people are messes and are not worth our attention, and there are those in our culture that feel they’re a mess and not worth any attention.  Now that’s heartbreaking.  Now that’s darkness.  That is the dirt under our carpets, the toys in our closet, and the dirty clothes under the bed.

So how do we change it?  We quit looking away.  We start telling stories.  We start making some friends outside of those who look like us and live like us.  We might learn some names, and hear some stories.  I think that this is a first-step.  This is accountability to God and ourselves that we will never leave anyone behind, that God still cares, that the systems that we have built with our own hands will never be good enough, but that God is good enough to provide deep, lasting, and contagious care for all creation.