The Problem Is Bigger Than A Name

The school board in Staunton, VA recently voted 4-2 in favor of changing the name of the high school (Robert E. Lee) after a long and very public community debate. Frustrations about the name were certainly present while I lived in the community and I once dared to address the controversy from the pulpit…

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

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And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

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We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

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Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove ALL the prejudice and ALL the racism and ALL the judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

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From Diapers to Diplomas

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

graduation-sunday

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that true terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country. It’s a great quote, and one often used this time of year during graduation speeches. In fact, ten years ago, it was used by one of my friends at the beginning of her address during my graduation from High School: True terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country.

Time can be terrifying. We, as human beings, are deeply rooted in time and when it feels like its going too fast, it leaves us shaking. It shakes us because we can wake up and wonder where it all went. I feel like I just graduated from High School; I can still remember the uncomfortable polyester graduation gown that created a frightening amount of static electricity. I can still picture the girls wearing too high high heels and attempting to walk across the stage without toppling over, and I can still remember the beginning of the speech and how true those words are.

We change all the time. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. We’re born, we grow in size and knowledge, we move, we develop, we transform, we graduate from preschool to kindergarten, and then all the sudden we graduate from high school, and then with the blink of an eye our generation is running the country.

Things change, our lives change, our situations change, and when they do, it feels like the earth shakes under our feet.

Upon graduating from preschool we move on to Kindergarten. After a number of years with the same classmates and the familiarity of one school and one program, we have to move on to a new location, with longer hours, with a whole new set of expectations. I can still faintly remember my first day in kindergarten and wondering where to sit, and if anyone was going to sit with me. And the change that takes place for the parents is even more severe!

During the final months of Preschool here at St. John’s, we ask the parents to wait in the parking lot so that the children can get used to walking to their own classroom by themselves. This is one way of preparing them for Kindergarten. And honestly, on that first day, the children bound up and down the hallway without a care in the world, and it is the parents in the parking lot who are undergoing an existential crisis.

I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of fathers, and mothers nervously pacing back and forth while their children enter into a new realm of being. I imagine they felt like the world was shaking under their feet and they needed something solid to hold on to.

After graduating from high school we go off to college and enter a whole new strange world. We often pack our belongings and start living with a stranger and won’t be home until the first break at Thanksgiving. For the student it is a time of great excitement and opportunity, whereas for the parents it can be downright terrifying. Will they be okay? Will they get enough food to eat? Are they going to be able to make new friends? Who is going to wake them up for class in the morning? Who is going to do their laundry? It shakes the parents to their core to watch their beloved child go from diapers to diploma in a blink of an eye.

Every graduation leads to a time of change and fear; Preschool to Elementary School, High School to College, Singleness to Marriage, Health to Death. We enter these periods of unknown, and that’s what makes us really afraid.

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When these changes occurs, when we graduate from one thing to another, we often respond in one of two ways; they either push us closer to God, or farther away.

A young couple has a baby and once the new domestic rhythm is established they realize they have no idea what it means to raise a child to be a decent human being so they start going to church it hopes of answers and direction. Or a recent graduate enters a university and is invited to a worship service filled with people who genuinely care about her well-being and she discovers who she is and whose she is. Or a recent widower listens while the church proclaims his deceased wife’s promised resurrection during the funeral and it gives him the strength to discover God’s love in church.

But change can also push us away. We convince ourselves that we can raise a child without the help of a larger community, we believe there is no place for the church in our lives while we are in college, or we grow cynical toward the words proclaimed when someone we love dies.

The church is bold to proclaim the words of the psalmist, the enduring truth, that even though the earth should change, even though the mountains shake and the seas tremble, even though kindergarten can be overwhelming (for children and parents), though the unknown of college stands like an undefined horizon, even though people die and we grieve till the end of our days, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. This city cannot be moved, because God dwells in the city forever.

God is the solid rock upon which we can stand when the world shakes underneath our feet. When we are filled with sorrow and doubt, God is the source of joy and light. While people push us to and fro with differing opinions, God speaks the truth in love. As we receive our identities in the hurtful comments of friends and foes, God tells us that we are beloved.

There is a great comfort that comes in knowledge that even though our lives will change, God will stay the same. That is the great story of scripture; God remains steadfast even when we fall away. In the wilderness journey of Exodus, while the people chose to worship idols and other gods, the Lord remained with them. After David fell into the clutches of sin, God was with him. After the exile, God called the people back to their homes and back to lives of faithfulness. Even after delivering Jesus Christ to the cross to die, God’s arms remained open to all of God’s children.

God stays the same.

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A few months ago I asked one of our youth who just graduated from high school to share what kind of difference St. John’s has made in her life. Danielle was baptized in this sanctuary, was enrolled in our preschool, and has been in worship nearly every Sunday for 18 years. That kind of commitment to the church shaped her into the remarkably wonderful young woman she is today, and it gives me hope for the role of the church in all of our lives.

This is what she had to say:

“Since I was born, I have been coming to St. John’s UMC. It has always been there for me. Even when I was a small child, and unable to truly comprehend the grace of God, I still had a strong and living faith because of the church. As I grew up, I made many friendships at St. John’s that mean a great deal to me. And honestly, “friendship” doesn’t even do justice to what it has really been like. I grew up with these people, and they took the time to raise me in the faith. Without this church I never would have found God and the power of God’s word. I am blessed because I have a church that loved me the way God calls us to love. Moreover, this church has helped me not only find God, but find myself as well. No matter where I might end up in the future, I will always cherish the memories, family, spiritual growth, and prosperity that I experienced at St. John’s.”

I believe Danielle was able to craft those words because of God working through you. Danielle feels blessed because this church loves her the same way God calls all of us to love: without judgment or assumption, without malice or prejudice. From diapers to diploma, you and the other great saints of this church have nurtured her. You have shown her what it means for God to be our strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble.

When someone from the church died she could have fallen to the temptation of fear and trembling. But you showed up for the funerals, you rejoiced in the promise of salvation, you embodied the hope we have in the Lord who is with us.

When she moved from school to school, while life changed around her each and every day, this place was like the river whose streams mad glad the city of God. Here in this church she learned about the God of creation who brought forth order out of chaos, who called Abraham into a covenanted relationship, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, who called prophets and priests to bring the people back, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, who died on a cross, who was raised three days later.

Throughout Danielle’s life this church has said every Sunday, “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” Her eyes have been opened to the way God moves in the world, she found her identity as a child of God; she experienced God’s magnificent power and might.

Change can be a terrifying thing. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is our refuge and strength. Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, therefore we will not fear even though our lives change. This church’s work propels a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Through our worship and our work, through our prayers and our presence, through our faith and our fellowship, we remember that God is in the midst of our lives. God will help when a new day dawns. The nation might be in an uproar, kingdoms will totter, but the Lord of hosts is with us.

So come, behold the works of the Lord. God makes wars cease, and peace reign. God makes the weak mighty, and brings down the principalities. God breaks the bonds of slavery, and opens up the doors to freedom. God brings hope to the poor and calls upon the wealthy to serve. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Be still and know that God is with us. From diapers to diplomas and even to death, God is with us. Amen.

Stranger In A Strange Land – Sermon on Ezekiel 17.22-24

Ezekiel 17.22-24

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

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During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I grew up in a family that believed in sitting together for dinner every night. I was raised in a church that took the baptismal vows seriously and helped me pursue my vision of ministry. I had friends that supported my belief systems, and wanted me to be happy. I was strongly rooted in my home, and when I left I felt like I was wandering around without a map.

In the beginning, college was completely unlike home. Instead of eating with my family, I was lucky to eat a meal in the dining hall with anyone. Instead of a supportive church, I tried out a number of campus ministries that made it clear that if I wasn’t converting my heathen classmates I had no business being a part of their group. Instead of friends that loved me, I had surface level connections that were based on a system of consumerism more than genuine friendship.

The things I had grown to love (the comforts, the familiarity, and the rhythms) were gone and I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Imagine, if you can, the prophet Ezekiel sitting by the river among the exiles. They had been taken from their homeland, uprooted, and planted in a new place. Families were separated, homes were lost, and they no longer knew how to worship their Lord. But the Lord continued to call prophets to proclaim the truth, even in the midst of the unknown.

Ezekiel, a prophet to the exiles, declared what the Lord had said. The Lord will take a branch from the full top of a cedar tree and will set it apart. Then the Lord will break off one of the most tender pieces of the young twigs and plant in on a high and grand mountain. The Lord will plant this piece so that it would produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble tree unlike any other. Under it, in the protection of its shade, every kind of bird will live and find comfort.

All the rest of the trees will know what the Lord has done. Because the Lord brings low the high tree, and makes the low tree grow. The Lord dries up the green tree, and helps the dry tree flourish. The Lord has spoken, and he will do it.

The message is beautiful and hopeful. The poetic language of God’s creation helps us to imagine a mighty cedar giving life and shade to all who are in need. We can almost smell the scent of the cedar wafting through the air as we hear the words. We are reminded of God’s great power in upsetting normal expectations.

But when we remember who the words were for, when we remember the exiles in captivity, the passage becomes all the more powerful.

The remaining faithful had been carried off into captivity in Babylon. Their suffering was great and their questions were many. “Why has the Lord abandoned us?” “When will we return to the great city of Jerusalem?” “Where is the Lord in the midst of our suffering?”

The foundations of their religion were laid waste by a rampaging army. Those who survived would have witnessed the destruction of the temple, they would have smelled the burnt scrolls in the air, they would have heard the screams of fear and suffering.

The new home of Babylon brought subjection, and powerlessness. The people were small in number, weak in strength, and limited in faith.

They were strangers in a strange land.

Yet, in all of the great stories from scripture, a small people, of little account and worth, are the ones chosen by God to do something incredible. Though insignificant by the world’s standards, they were extraordinary in the eyes of God.

In the midst of the unknown, while their fear was real and palpable, Ezekiel shared this tender message from the Lord. I, the Lord your God, am the one who turns things upside down. I will have the final say about what it going on in your lives. You see the powers around you and you believe they have prevailed, but I will make things new, I will plant the seed that gives shade to the tired, strength to the weak, and life to the dead.

Today we are celebrating our graduates, those who have mastered their present set of educational expectations and are moving on to new horizons.

We have graduates from high school that will be entering the new area of the university. We have graduates with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that will be entering the new area of the so-called “working world.”

In a few minutes they will stand before the congregation and we will pray for God’s blessing on them in all that they do. But before we send them off, we need to help open their eyes to the truth.

Soon, and very soon, you will feel like strangers in a strange land. No matter how confident you feel taking the next steps in your life, there will be things that happen that shake the very foundation of what you know and believe. You will encounter new and strange ideas. You will miss your friends, and your family, and hopefully your church.

Moments will come that you will ask the same kinds of questions that the exiles did in Babylon: “Why has the Lord abandoned me?” “When will things get back to normal?” “Where is God in the midst of all this?

So, this message from the Lord through Ezekiel is meant for you as much as it was meant for them. God’s message of love and presence and growth is directed to you in a time of new beginnings and uncertainty. Whether you are about to start at a new school or a new job, let these words be comforting and full of life.

The Lord God almighty took a sprig, a tiny and powerless little thing, and planted him in a place called Bethlehem. He grew up as the son of a carpenter and was ignored by most people until he started to give shade to all the birds of the air, when he started inviting the multitudes into the kingdom of God. Through his words and actions Jesus Christ gave hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. Through him the people began to know and experience the love of God and the world was turned upside down.

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Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? The Lord will plant a new tree… just like the sower who goes into the field… just like a tiny mustard seed become the greatest of all the plants. The Lord will make high the low tree and make low the high tree… just like the first shall be last and the last shall be first… just like the poor being welcomed into the kingdom of God and the religious elite were left scratching their heads.

This kind of inversion has been part of God’s great cosmic plan all along and we are still being swept up in it. The Lord calls on the strangers in a strange land to give hope for the world. The Lord uses the weak and least of these to show how the great tree of life in Jesus Christ gives shade and comfort to all of God’s children.

To those who are about to embark on something new: take heart and know that the Lord is with you. Even when you feel lost and alone, you are not. We, the gathered people, are praying for you and will continue to so long as we have life. But more importantly the Lord has faith in you to do incredible things, to help continually turn the world upside down.

To those who remain: look upon these graduates with hope. Because just as the Lord planted Jesus Christ to be a source of hope, the Lord is about to do the same thing with all of them. He will scatter them like seeds in the earth, he will nurture them through the power of his Spirit, and they will stretch out their arms to the world and will be a source of light in the darkness. Wherever they are planted, they will bear fruit for the world.

During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to cry out to the Lord like one of the lost exiles in Babylon. I felt abandoned, I felt alone, and I felt afraid. Weeks passed and nothing changed, my relationships started to suffer, and I started putting in the minimal amount of effort necessary in my classes. But it was also when I really learned how to pray.

I didn’t read about it in some book about faith, but I read about it in the book of faith. I looked for the times that Jesus prayed. It helped put things in perspective about what I was going through. It didn’t change my circumstances, but it changed me.

Because true prayer is not about asking God to fix something. True prayer is the gutsy willingness to let God be God in your life. So I gave it over, I prayed less like myself and more like Jesus, I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life instead of for my life to get better. But it did.

When we really pray, its not important what we say, but that we let God have time to speak. Prayer is far more about listening than it is about speaking. Prayer is not listing what we want, but a risk of being exposed to what God wants.

Prayer really changes things, and sometimes what prayer changes is us.

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So, whether we are about to embark on a new experience in a new place or we are still spreading our roots here in Staunton; whether we are confident in our faith, or filled to the brim with doubt; whether we feel surrounded by discipled witnesses, or feel completely alone. We are all strangers in a strange land.

As Christians we are called to see the world through the resurrection which means we will never feel comfortable where we are. We love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We offer a tenth of our income and pray for the weak. We listen for the Lord and lift up the meek. Being Christian is about living in the tension between what the world explains and what the Lord proclaims.

But with prayer, by taking time to be holy, we start to see the world turned upside down, we experience the beauty of God’s kingdom, and we find rest in the shade of God’s great cedar tree: Jesus Christ. So let us pray:

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Amen.