The Hamster Wheel

I never understood the hamster wheel.

If I were a hamster, I’d spend all day running around those plastic tube mazes.  I was always fascinated by them.  When I was a kid, I wanted to own a hamster just so I could build one of those hamster mansions with all those tubes and stuff and watch it run around.  My friend Karleen had a couple of hamsters, but they didn’t do much except run on the hamster wheel.  Now the hamster ball, I totally get it.  You might be in a big plastic ball, but at least you’re going somewhere, but the wheel?  I’d be bored to death.  It just goes around and around and around.  Where’s the sense of accomplishment?  Sometimes life seems like a hamster wheel.  We just keep going round and round, but then what?    

God wants more for us than just the “rat race” of life.

God wants us to experience the full richness of his creation.  And that’s why he created the Sabbath.  It’s a time to pause and reflect and gives us the opportunity to draw closer to God.  Whether that is by prayer and meditation, whether that’s in worship, or whether that’s with family and friends, we can feel the love of God reflected in those times.  But do we stop long enough to really enjoy it?  If not, we need to.   God doesn’t offer the Sabbath as an option, God COMMANDS us to observe it.  Even if you’ve never read the Bible, I’m sure you’ve heard of this section of it.  It’s perhaps the most famous, often quoted, often referenced part of the Bible.  That and John 3:16.  This is the Ten Commandments.  And within the Ten Commandments we find God calling us to observe the Sabbath.  Let us read together from Exodus 20:8-11. 

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it Holy.

We don’t take the idea of Sabbath seriously in our culture.

We work 7 days a week.  We are constantly connected to everything and everyone 24/7.  We are figuratively running the hamster wheel of life and we never seem to get off to see what’s around us.  We are checking our email, our apps, and our messages during dinner, at play, even on vacation.  Setting aside a time to explore what God has to offer is something seemingly more and more rare.  Back when we lived in Georgia, you couldn’t buy liquor on Sundays.  To me that was a shock, not that I ever bought any, but Sunday was liquor-free.  When you walked into the store, the alcohol aisle would be blocked off and you couldn’t even get to it.  I thought that was pretty neat.  I was told there was a time when you couldn’t even go to the store.  Literally every place was closed on Sunday in observance of the Sabbath.  Somehow, over time, the idea of Sabbath, like the idea of being closed, slowly disappeared.  But there it is in black and white (or whatever color it is on your app), “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  God included it as part of the Ten Commandments; he thought it was that important.  Even higher up than “no murder,” “no adultery,” and “no stealing.”  It’s hard for us to keep that in perspective, but it was listed before “no murder,” “no adultery,” and “no stealing.”  References to the Sabbath occur all throughout the Bible – both Old and New Testament – and some of those passages are even more severe. Exodus 3 says that those who don’t observe the Sabbath should be put to death!  Rest or die!  Yet, we don’t value the Sabbath.

God built Sabbath into our system. 

We are meant to observe it and when we don’t, our lives are the worse for wear.  We are meant to rest, to give ourselves time to recuperate.  Whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally, we need time to become healthy.  Take sleep for example.  People think they can “power through” and just “catch up” on the weekends, but studies have shown that isn’t how it works for your body or your brain.  It’s what experts call “sleep debt.”[1]  If you’re not getting the sleep your body needs, you keep accumulating that debt unless you find a way to restore the balance and if you don’t it has bad effects for your body – foggy brain, worsened vision, impaired driving, and trouble remembering just to name a few.  Long term it can include obesity, insulin resistance, and even heart disease.  There are penalties for not getting the rest we need. 

In our heads, I think we know that.  It’s getting us to DO something about it that’s tough.

Somehow, I think we’re almost afraid to take the rest we need.  We’ve equated productivity with time spent doing something without realizing the benefits of rest and without recognizing the danger of constant motion WITHOUT rest.  And even when we do realize we need a time for rejuvenation, we are pressured into skipping it either by ourselves or by others.  As one writer put it, we are often applauded for our extra efforts “and rarely rebuked for working too long or hard.”[2]   We often look at rest as a luxury instead of as a necessity and in that we are mistaken.  God built the world with rest in mind.  He wanted us to slow down and take it all in.  To take time to process it all instead of simply going mindlessly from one thing to the next.  To reflect on what has happened before so we can be better prepared for tomorrow.  That includes spending time devoted to Christ.  One of the most inspirational books I read was by Andy Stanley called “Choosing to Cheat.”  In it, Andy wrote we’re always cheating someone of our time.  There is always more work to be done, more things we could do with our families, or more time we could spend in prayer.  There’s always MORE for us to do so we are always cheating somebody.  We have to stop worrying about that and instead worry about what is the right thing for us to do.

If you want one of these delicious chicken biscuits – you won’t get them on Sunday!

It’s not always easy.

And at times it can really be tough to make those decisions, but I think in the long run when we choose to honor God’s commandment, God will look out for us.  Now whether or not you support the politics of his son who currently runs the company, Truett Cathy applied this philosophy of Sabbath to his life and more importantly to his company – Chick-fil-a.  When Truett first started Chick-fil-A (then the Dwarf Grill), he decided to stay closed on Sunday to give his employees and himself the opportunity to rest and worship God even though Sunday has traditionally been the busiest day of the week for restaurants.  People thought he was crazy to give up on such a lucrative money-making day for his business, but he stuck by his decision; he was that firm in his beliefs.  He felt being closed on Sunday said “two important things to people: One, that there must be something special about the way Chick-fil-A people view their spiritual life; and, two, that there must be something special about how Chick-fil-A feels about its people.”[3]  Sticking to his beliefs helped his company grow into one of the top 3 restaurant chains in the United States behind only Starbucks and McDonald’s.[4]  It probably seemed counter-intuitive to a lot of business people, but Truett felt his faith would steer him in the right direction.  When we dare to do the counter-cultural, when we dare to do what’s right instead of what’s profitable, our life is often better for it.  While it worked out monetarily for Truett Cathy, there are more ways to measure profitability than with money.

God is asking you to obey.

Our failure to observe the Sabbath is at least partially our failure to trust in God.  We’ve placed other things over God even though we know God has our best interests at heart.  Even if you regularly come to church, are you fully present when you’re here?  Do you use this time to connect to your faith?  Give yourself this time to recharge, not only physically but spiritually and open yourself up to where God is leading you.  I’ll be taking a form of Sabbath over the next month.  Pastoral ministry is a joy, but also very demanding and I know many pastors who have suffered from burnout, depression, anxiety, and stress because they never took the opportunity to give their bodies and their minds time to heal.  Our church offers and encourages pastors to take a month away once every four years to explore new ideas for ministry and to grow in both our spiritual and educational walk.  Too many pastors fail to take this time away, seeing it as a weakness instead of the strength it is meant to be, but it gives us the opportunity to not only renew and refresh our mind, body, and spirit, but helps us to learn and grow so we can be better and more effective when we return.  I hope during this time away you will keep me and my family in prayer as I will for you.  I also hope you will find Sabbath rest for your own body, mind, and soul.  Take time each week to explore your faith, trust in God, and see how it affects your life.  I’m guessing you might find there is more to life than the hamster wheel and instead a world of wonder awaits. 


[1] www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-can-you-catch-up-on-sleep

[2]www.lifeway.com/pastors/2014/01/23/pastors-and-sabbath-the-importance-of-rest/

[3] www.chick-fil-a.com/media/PDF/closedonsundaypolicy.pdf

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/06/19/chick-fil-a-becomes-third-largest-restaurant-chain-us/

A Rainbow of Rom-Com References – Ted Lasso

My new favorite show is Ted Lasso.

Few shows have been so perfect at just the right time. In the middle of a pandemic with a divided country and racism rampant in the headlines, here comes Ted Lasso to offer us a better way. Ted encourages us to have faith, to “be like a goldfish,” to be curious instead of judgmental, and to believe in communism – “rom-communism;” the idea that everything will work out in the end. “Now, it may not work out like you think it will or how you hope it does, but believe me, it will all work out.” It’s just the prescription our souls need during this troubled time – a show filled with hope and optimism as Ted puts it in the “middle of the dark forest.”

What is “Rom-Communism?”

At least that’s the way Ted puts it in one of the best episodes of Season Two so far, “Rainbow.” There have been other odes to romantic comedies in previous episodes, the most striking perhaps was the scene stolen from Love, Actually where Mark comes to Juliet’s door with cue cards to express his unrequited love for her. This time round, Phoebe, along with her Uncle Roy Kent and Keeley come up to Secret Santa Bernard’s house for a little visit. But this episode is chock full of comedy references including, but not limited to When Harry Met Sally, Jerry Macguire, Notting Hill, The Princess Bride, and Love, Actually.

Here are the ones I found. I would love to know from you what I missed. There are lots of rom-com tropes you could attribute to pretty much any film in that genre so these are just the ones that are pretty blatant.

Rebecca on Bantr: So reminiscent of You’ve Got Mail, a Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan film (referenced by Ted in the review room with the players) where two people are having a romantic correspondence via email without realizing they already have a relationship in person. But who is it she is having a relationship with? It’s hinted that it’s Ted himself! In an earlier Season 2 episode, Ted even mentions how cool it would be to find his true love on the app. I hope it is.

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

Ted and Roy at the Kebab Place: “I’ll have what he’s having.” So obviously a direct reference to When Harry Met Sally

Ted and Roy walking down the street: There’s a rapid fire of iconic rom-com quote variants here. When Harry Met Sally – “I’m sorry Roy, but I came here tonight ’cause when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life coaching with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start ASAP.” Jerry Macguire – “You complete our team.” Notting Hill – “I’m also just a coach, standing in front of a boy, asking him if…” (Ted doesn’t finish but you can bet he was going to say something like “he’ll coach with me”). The Princess Bride – “As you wish.” Even the scene is reminiscent of Harry and Sally walking down the tree lined street together.

The scene is different, but still reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally

Older couple in the stands: Again, another When Harry Met Sally reference just like the vignettes that break up scene changes in the movie. But this is a two-fer because they directly reference Titanic also.

Roy leaving the Sports Saturday set: Sleepless in Seattle comes to mind for me when Meg Ryan looks out and sees the Empire State Building and realizes she is about to let a chance at true love pass her by so she leaves her boyfriend and says “I have to go,” just like Roy tells Jeff.

Roy running to Nelson Point: A mix of maybe every rom-com ever? When Harry Met Sally – when Harry runs to find Sally; Notting Hill – when William takes multiple transportation to make it to Anna’s press conference

Higgins waiting for Mrs. Higgins: Another Love, Actually reference. Even the camera filter is the same as the one they used at the airport to show people reuniting

Roy and Ted on the pitch: “You had me at ‘coach.'” – Jerry Macguire. Enough said.

“You had me at ‘coach.'”

Are You There God? It’s Me, Craig

Eyes open or eyes closed?

When you pray, if you pray, do you do it with your eyes open or closed? I think most people’s gut reaction is to say with our eyes closed.  But there are times you might pray with your eyes open.  Like when you’re driving.  I think if I’m praying while driving, it honors God a lot more to do it with my eyes open than closed.  A friend and fellow pastor asked me this question one day and it took me off guard.  Was there a right way to pray?  I guess I had taken it for granted there were certain “rules” about prayer, but were those assumptions right?  I don’t know what inspired him to ask, but he told me he always prayed with his eyes open and wondered what the rest of us did.  Up until then, I had never heard of that before.  Like I said, there were occasions when I WOULD pray with my eyes open, like while driving a car, but overall I just assumed most people prayed with their eyes closed.  I wish I had asked him why he did it that way.  I imagine because when we’re talking to someone it would be considered impolite not to look at them.  It makes them feel as if we don’t care.  There was a study done of patient complaints at a large hospital and they found this exact result. They said, “9 out of 10 letters included mention of poor doctor-patient eye contact; a failure which was generally interpreted as ‘lack of caring.’”[1] Plus, eye contact “produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection” and those who seek eye contact are “judged to be more believable, confident, and competent.”[2]  After all, prayer is simply conversation with God.  Prayer is simply conversation with God. 

Safety tip: Don’t close your eyes if you pray while driving!

But it IS God.

I mean, as much as we want to believe Jesus is our friend, we’re still talking about the creator of the universe.  Sometimes I think averting our eyes has more to do with respect and/or the overwhelming nature of God than anything else.  Remember when Moses wanted to look upon God?  He asked God to show him his glory and God said, “Okay, but I’m going to shield you with my hand until I pass by and then you can look at me from behind because no one can look upon me face-to-face and live.”  God wasn’t threatening Moses, he was looking out for him.  God is just so far beyond our comprehension that to stare at God directly would drive the average person insane.  When I try to think of an apt analogy, I think about the book of Revelation, probably the scariest, weirdest and at the same time most hopeful book in the Bible.  It’s got all of these bizarre images of the sun being blacked out and Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth and just tons of unbelievable pictures that John writes down.  But John was doing his best to interpret what he was seeing the best way he could.  The reality of God is so far beyond human comprehension this is the best we could do.  So whether you pray with your eyes open or your eyes shut is really a matter of perspective and choice. 

How do you like to pray? Your posture is not as important as your heart.

The same goes for your posture.

The way you position your body doesn’t really matter.  In fact, the Bible doesn’t advocate for one way or another.  Daniel, the guy who literally got thrown to the lions, used to get down on his knees three times a day to pray and give thanks to God (Daniel 6:10) whereas according to Mark (Mark 11), Jesus refers to people standing up to pray.  And Jesus himself lay flat down on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray (Matthew 26:39).  None are said to be more effective or more “right” than the others.  And what should you do with your hands?  Do you interlock your fingers or do you pray with your palms facing one another and your fingers touching?  Maybe you pray with your hands raised to God or you lie them flat on the ground.  When I was a kid, I used to think about those things and I wondered if maybe because my head was bent down when I prayed and my head was usually pointed toward my hands that my brain waves were being channeled from my hands straight up to Heaven.  Like an antenna for God. 

So is there a right way to pray?

There is.  But it’s probably not what you think when you first hear this question.  If you would open your Bible or your Bible app to Matthew 6 beginning with verse 9.   Matthew 6:9.  This is what we most often refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer” but I’ve also heard it called the “Our Father” which is always baffling to me.  Not the “Our Father Prayer” but the “Our Father” as if everyone should know already what that is (side note: danger of church-y words used to show how “in” we are).  So even before we start praying we have differences.  But when you read this prayer, you might notice differences from the way you’ve heard it before or how you were taught.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

Notice something?

This prayer and the one from Luke are different.  The one in Luke is shorter.  It doesn’t say “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as it does here in verse 10.  And in verse 12 we ask God to forgive our debts and we forgive our debtors, but in Luke we ask God to forgive our sins. Luke’s version doesn’t mention at all deliverance from evil.  So did Luke leave a bunch of stuff out?  And what about the line, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen?”  How come neither of them say it?  It turns out that last line of The Lord’s Prayer is called a doxology, like churches often sing after the offering.[3]  A doxology is simply a short verse of praise to God to sort of wrap up the prayer.  It’s a good way to remind ourselves who is truly the focus of our prayer – God.  And it was common for prayers to end with a doxology.  It happens in the Bible quite often.[4]  But if Jesus didn’t say it, then does that mean we shouldn’t?

The Lord’s Prayer wasn’t meant to be a script but a rubric

The problem with The Lord’s Prayer is Jesus didn’t mean for it to be a script.

He didn’t literally mean there was only one script we should use to pray to God.  Can you imagine how boring that would be for him?  Sure we say it every week, but when we read examples of Jesus’ prayers to God, they don’t sound like this at all. Jesus prayed when he raised Lazarus.  Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus prayed on the cross. [5]  And each one of these prayers was vastly different from the others and all of them were different than what he taught us to say in this passage.  That’s because Jesus was giving us a rubric for how to say a prayer, not what the prayer should actually be.  The Lord’s Prayer is a rubric for prayer, and not the exact words that a prayer should be.  Stephen Miller, in his book The Jesus of the Bible writes something quite prolific.  He wrote, “What’s troubling to some Christians today is that Jesus’ example of what prayer should be – a conversation with God – has become an example of what prayer should not be: mindless repetition.”[6] Jesus’ example of what prayer should be – a conversation with God – has become an example of what prayer should not be: mindless repetition.  How many times have you said The Lord’s Prayer without giving it a second thought?  How many of you were pressured or forced to remember it to pass a test or to feel like you fit in? Don’t get me wrong.  The Lord’s Prayer is extremely important, but more for what it can teach us than for exactly what it says.

The Lord’s Prayer helps us to focus on God.

It’s too easy to just come to God with a laundry list of things.  God isn’t someone who responds to “honey do” lists.  Instead Jesus is trying to get us to focus on God and fulfilling God’s will.  To help us understand how much we rely on God and not to take God for granted.  The first part of the prayer is all about lifting praise and glory to God.  “Hallowed be thy name / Thy kingdom come, they will be done.” We’re lifting up glory to God and hoping our actions and our words move us toward fulfilling God’s will.  And then we move into the asking part.  But I think if you read it carefully, you’ll see that it’s not so much asking, as reminding us whom we need to rely on.  “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Forgive us our trespasses,” sounds like we’re demanding God do something for us.  “Hey, God! Give me some bread!”  But really these are subtle reminders that God is in charge.  Only God can forgive sins.  Only God created the animals and plants we rely on for food.  Then we are reminded how much we need to forgive others as God has forgiven us.  And finally we ask God to, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” because without God’s help, we will delve right into our own selfish and sinful ways.  All of it, the entirety of the prayer is to remind us that it is by the grace and love of God that we are who we are. 

Prayer is more about attitude than aptitude.

Prayer is more about attitude than aptitude.  It isn’t about the exact words you use.  It’s about communicating with God from the heart.  It isn’t about the way your body is positioned.  It’s about approaching God with gratitude and trust. Too often in our conversations with God, we do all the talking.  Maybe we should listen more.  When I was young, my parents encouraged me to read.  They even let me read Judy Blume books.  I read the “boy” books like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge.  But they also let me read stuff like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  I didn’t know reading that book was considered a “girl” book.  I just liked her stories.  More importantly, it was the first time I read a book about a kid who prayed.  It meant a lot to me.  We could talk all day long about the theology of the book, but it was my first introduction to a God who listened and cared about what I had to say.  A God who was patient as we tried to figure out what role God played in our lives.  And a God who just wants us to come back and talk with him.  Is there a right way to pray?  Yes, but it’s not about form or function.  The right way to pray is to do it often and from the heart.  The rest will come in time. 


[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2014/08/21/facinating-facts-about-eye-contact/#1dbc512b518b

[2] Ibid

[3] Interesting article on the doxology from this website which corroborated other accounts I found about it: https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/DOXOLOG.HTM

[4] https://www.gotquestions.org/doxology.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayers_of_Jesus

[6] Stephen Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, (Barbour Publishing, OH), 2009, p. 176.

Genie in a Bottle

What would your three wishes be?

If tomorrow you found a genie in a bottle and they granted you three wishes to come true, what would your three wishes be?  Now, as anyone knows who has seen Disney’s Aladdin, you can’t wish for more wishes.  So barring that, take a moment and imagine what you’d wish for.  I’ve vacillated between asking for things that help humanity like “world peace” and things of a more personal nature like a trillion dollars.  I don’t know how long world peace would last, but it would be pretty nice.  And with a trillion dollars I could end world hunger AND have enough left over for a nice house and a car.  At least that was my thinking back when I was 10.

When it comes to prayer, we sometimes have a 10-year old theology.

Do you treat God like a genie in a bottle?  Do you pray when you need something and then wait for it to happen?  We think there’s something wrong when things don’t go our way.  In fact, we get pretty upset about it because we treat God as if we only had three wishes.  We pretty much ignore God unless we need something huge as if we’re saving him for the really important stuff.  Miraculous healing.  Getting that job we’ve been hoping for.  Fixing our relationships.  The big stuff we feel we can’t do on our own.  We don’t come to God with silly things like being a better spouse or guidance on being a good parent.  We can take care of that ourselves.  Just go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book on it.  We don’t need God for those things.  So when we come to God with our big requests, we kind of expect him to answer.  After all, isn’t that what he’s there for? 

Do you have enough faith for a Ferrari?

Some people take this to an extreme.

I had a friend who believed God would give you ANYTHING you wanted if you just had enough faith.  Seriously.  Anything.  I questioned her about this and asked, “So if I wanted a Ferrari, God would just give it to me?  Like POOF, here’s a Ferrari?”  And in all seriousness she said yes.  That if I had enough faith and just prayed over and over and over again for a Ferrari then God would give me a Ferrari.  I must not have prayed hard enough.  Or had enough faith because I still don’t have a Ferrari.  Not that I want one now.  The insurance alone wouldn’t be worth it.  But I must have done something wrong since that prayer never came to pass.  In her mind, God’s ability to grant wishes wasn’t limited by number or size.  It was all based on your faith.  If you didn’t have enough, you didn’t get it. 

These are just a couple of the bad examples of prayer theology out there in the world today.

And the Bible doesn’t do a lot to clear those things up.  Not unless you spend time actually studying it. Sometimes I cringe when I read certain passages like the one from Luke (Luke 11:5-8).  It seems as if Jesus himself is saying that if you pester God long enough, he’ll eventually give you anything you want.  Forget about love, God responds best to “shameless audacity!”  Right?  Isn’t that what it’s saying?  But that isn’t what it’s saying.  Jesus is trying to tell us to put our trust in God.  We should be bold in our prayers instead of timid.[1] We should pray with persistence not because God will give in, but because our persistence is evidence of our trust in God.  I know it seems like a cop out, but God doesn’t always answer our prayers in our time or in our way.  But God is not bothered by our persistence.  The other message Luke offers us is when we pray in our need especially in our need to help others or to act in ways that honor God, God will respond.  Again, it may not be in the way we want or expect, but God is honored by the focus and meaning of our prayer.  You notice in Jesus’ example it wasn’t about a guy praying to get a Ferrari.  It was about a neighbor wanting to offer hospitality to a friend who has just returned on a journey.  Now you can question why that friend came to your door in the middle of the night in the first place, but probably because that friend is also in need.  And that changes the dynamic of the story.  If you are knocking on God’s door to do God’s will, God will respond.  If you’re bugging God for your own selfish ends, you’ll probably get a different response.  Take a look at this passage from our reading today. 

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Prayer is about the heart.

Prayer is not about “what.”  Prayer is about “why.”  Prayer is not about “what,” it is about “why.”  Look what Jesus tells his disciples, “…for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  He doesn’t require you to pray to transmit your needs.  He already knows them!  Prayer is about something different.  Prayer is about your earnestness to be in relation with God.  Prayer is about trusting in God.  It doesn’t matter what words you use or how many words you can cram into one sentence.  Do you remember the story about the tax collector and the Pharisee who both go to the temple and pray?  And the Pharisee goes on and on about what a good follower he is and he demeans the tax collector right in front of him.  And the tax collector has a very simple, short prayer.  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  That was it.  And that was the prayer God was hoping for.  Humble, sincere, trusting.  Humble, sincere, trusting.  That’s what matters to God. 

The most effective prayers I’ve ever offered were like this.

The most effective prayers in my life came not from my desire for something, but from my humility, sincerity, and willingness to trust in God.  And I actually did this once as Jesus described. I actually went into my room, closed the door, and just laid there on the floor in prayer.  We were living in Georgia and my District Superintendent just called me to let me know that he had found a place for me to serve.  The church I was at, Roswell UMC, was downsizing staff and as the newest member I was first on the list.  So my DS was looking for a place for me to go and found a church in Covington, GA.  Covington was about 2 hours away from our home and more with traffic and in Atlanta there is always traffic.  Plus, they had a parsonage so we’d have to live in town and Cassie would have had to commute to work, meaning she would have to leave the house at about 5am each morning and return about 8pm each night every day.  And at the time our girls were very young.  Covington is also racially divided and I have to be honest I was a little worried about that.  I was also worried a bit about the schools.  It just seemed to be the wrong fit for our family and for the gifts and talents God had given me. So I prayed about it.  I literally went into my closet (my closet was actually big enough for me to lay down inside of it), closed the door, and just prayed.  I didn’t offer God a wish list.  Instead I just said, “God, I can’t believe this is the place you want me to serve.  It just doesn’t seem to be where my gifts would best be used, but if this is your will, I’ll make it work.  But if it’s not, then please open a door and I will step through it.”  After praying like that for a while, I got up and went into my office where I was working on some paperwork and in less than an hour I got an email from Rev. Mariellen Yoshino asking how I was doing.  We had met at one of the Japanese Clergy Caucus meetings and she had recently been appointed to be the DS out here in our Cal-Nevada Conference.  So I told her about my situation and that I was praying about it and almost immediately I got a response asking me to hold on for a while.  About an hour later, I got a phone call from my DS saying that an amazing opportunity opened up in California and the Bishop has given permission for me to talk to the DS out there about it.  He even said, “You know Craig, you don’t have to accept the position since it is out of conference, but we can’t offer you anything like this.”  After I got off the phone with him, I talked to Rev. Mariellen who said she’d like me to come out to California and meet with a church she had in mind.  So I did.  Up until that point where I had laid down in prayer and just turned it over to God, everything had been going wrong.  There was even more to the story than just that, but nothing seemed to be going our way.  Then in one swift movement, suddenly new opportunities blossomed right in front of us.  To me it was an answered prayer in the most profound and stunning way. 

There have been other moments like that, too.

Times when I was humble enough to know I knew nothing.  Times when I was actually able to lay down my fears and anxieties at God’s feet and trust in his judgment.  Only in those moments was I really open to his movement.  Only then did I hear God speak into my life in such a profound way.  And I can tell you for sure that in each instance I did not know what to expect.  God’s answer was completely different than what I would have picked for myself.  And yet each answer was amazing.  I don’t know how God will answer your prayers.  I don’t know that you’ll even know when he does.  I am sure there are many instances where God has impacted my life and at least for the moment I haven’t realized it.  But I do know God is not a genie in a bottle waiting to answer your every need.  I know God doesn’t base his answer to prayer on how hard you pray or how often you pray or how persistent you pray.  I know God doesn’t promise to give you everything you want, but instead will be there for you in your need.  So I encourage you to pray strongly and boldly and with your full trust in God.  And know that God is listening.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/9-persistent-friend-luke-115-13

Does Prayer Work?

Does prayer work?

If you ask around you’re sure to get a variety of answers and not all of them consistent, logical, or with sound theology behind it.  Whether or not prayer works often is in the eye of the beholder.  The devout follower will undoubtedly tell you that prayer works.  The skeptic will tell you they aren’t sure.  And the unbeliever will tell you prayer is a fairy tale people tell themselves to feel better about living in a random and meaningless world.  Science doesn’t help much here either.  For as many studies that prove the benefits of prayer there are those that show they don’t matter at all and there was even one study where the subjects did worse when they knew they were the object of people’s prayers.[1] All of these results might seem confusing and lead us to conclude… absolutely nothing.  It’s hard to know if prayer works when we get inconsistent answers.  At least from our point of view.  And perhaps that’s the real problem.  We don’t know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer.  The problem isn’t so much if prayer works as it is how do we measure the effectiveness of prayer.  Dr. Candy Brown from Indiana University in Bloomington wrote that most researchers study prayer as they would any other phenomenon.  They set up studies, they do double-blind trials, they set up a control group and an experimental group, and then they compare results.[2]  But maybe that’s part of the problem right there.  Maybe you can’t measure the effects of prayer simply by doing blind trials.  As Brown noted, “…when people actually pray for healing, they usually get up close to someone they know, touch the person and empathize with their sufferings… Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only — or even the best — way to gauge the effects of this kind of prayer practice.”[3]

Laying on of hands during prayer remains a powerful means of praying

We might also wonder, “How long should we give God to respond?”

How long is long enough to say that a prayer didn’t work?  The problem with testing God in this way is we expect God to keep to our timetable.  Sometimes that works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But can we accurately gauge the success or failure of our prayers based on that alone?  There’s a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers” that speaks to this point in particular.  In that song, Garth points out that in his youth he kept praying and praying for God to help him get into a relationship with a girl in school that he liked.  But God didn’t answer that prayer.  At least not in the way he wanted.  But it ended up because he wasn’t in a relationship at the time, he met the woman who would one day become his wife who he loved more than anything.  How different might his life been if God had indeed granted that one prayer.  He sums it up in the chorus, “Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.  Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”  We’re going to read about one of those unanswered prayers in our reading today. 

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” – Matthew 26:36-46

Next to the Lord’s Prayer, this is probably the most famous prayer in the Bible.

Jesus, in the moments before he is arrested and taken away, goes off into the garden at Gethsemane to pray to God.  He tells God how overwhelmed he is with sorrow and he asks God if he can avoid what he is being asked to do.  He knows what’s coming.  He knows he is about to be put to death on a cross.  He knows how painful and horrible that death is.  And he begs God to let him off the hook.  But God doesn’t do it.  God doesn’t take away Jesus’ pain.  God doesn’t save Jesus from a death most would consider cruel and evil.  Instead, God lets it happen.  If it were anyone other than Jesus, I think we would be upset about it.  We would think of all people in the world, God should have saved Jesus.  After all, Jesus is blameless, without sin, and a miracle worker.  Of all the people ever born on Earth, Jesus had the closest direct pipeline to God.  And yet, God didn’t even save him.  Why wouldn’t God answer this one prayer for Jesus?  The thing is God answered many of Jesus’ prayers.  Pretty much all of them except this one.  He healed the man born blind, he fed the 5000, he healed the centurion’s son, he healed the man who was lowered through the roof of the house, he turned water into wine, and he even brought back Lazarus from the dead.  And that’s the short list.  But this one prayer God did not answer.  We know why because we are at the other end of history, but at the time Jesus was mocked for God’s inaction.  They ridiculed him.  Dared him to save himself.  Put a crown of thorns on his head and a sign above him saying “King of the Jews.”  If there was ever any evidence that prayer didn’t work, this was it!  Except that God had something else in mind.

Praying for our confirmands – corporate or individual prayer doesn’t matter; God loves to hear from you.

We know the end of this story.

We know Christ died for us.  But at that time it must have been hard to swallow.  Look at Peter.  He denied even knowing Jesus.  Hardly any of the apostles came to watch him being crucified.  Jesus was left alone by almost everyone.  But we know how the story ends.  We know Christ rose from the dead.  We know because of his willingness to trust in the Lord, we have been forgiven for our sins.  And we know God had something greater in mind than what we could possibly imagine.  We have such a limited idea of who God is that we judge him based on our criteria.  And if God fails to live up to our expectations, we tend to think he must not care, or he must not have heard, or he must not exist.  But God operates on a whole different level than we do.  The concepts of time and space are not the same for him as they are for us.  And a being who lives in a reality so different from ours cannot and should not be judged by our standards.  And this is where trust comes in.  We need to trust God hears our prayers.  Our prayers are not falling on deaf ears, but on the ears of someone who loves us intensely.  And just because we don’t get the response we’re looking for doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. 

God answers prayers.

Why he answers some and not others, I don’t really know.  I don’t know if he actually doesn’t answer them or if we’re just not looking for the right response.  It could be God answers every prayer in his own time, in his own way.  Some prayers seem to get an immediate response and some never even seem to get a number in the queue.  Sometimes it takes years to see a prayer get answered, even decades. I am still struck by the story of a man I was able to baptize much later in his life.  I believe he was in his 60s or late 50s.  Either way, God caught up to him and struck him in a powerful way.  He told me that pretty much his entire adult life his mother had been praying for him to come to know God, to be baptized and accept Jesus in his heart.  And for decades that prayer went unanswered.  Finally, he came around and only about a week or two after he was baptized, she passed away.  He hadn’t been baptized just to please his mom’s dying wish because her death was unexpected.  She was older to be sure, but had no indication she was close to passing on.  It was hard for me to hear this story and not think she was holding on just long enough to make sure her son was alright before letting go. 

Does prayer work?

It does.  Scientists may not be able to prove a direct correlation between prayer and healing but they can’t disprove it either.  Again maybe we have a far too limiting way of looking at prayer.  When we pray for healing that healing can occur spiritually or emotionally instead of just physically.  So when we attempt to measure the effectiveness of prayer, maybe we’re looking in the wrong place.  Maybe instead of the body we should be looking for healing of the heart or the mind.  Maybe the healing that takes place isn’t in the person but the people around them.  God’s idea of healing might just very well be different than ours.  Or perhaps the problem is judging God by measuring what we want to see.  Is it only healing if God meets X, Y, and Z criteria?  Or could healing happen in different ways and in different times?  If the apostles had their way, Jesus wouldn’t have died in the first place.  But it was because he died we know Christ today.  They just couldn’t see it that way at the time.  Maybe our vision is too narrow. 

Also, maybe our definition of “works” is too narrow.

Science definitely proves there are benefits to prayer.  Prayer has been shown to improve self-control, to make you nicer, to help you be more forgiving, to increase your trust, and offset the negative effects of stress.[4]  Pretty awesome benefits.  I would think that anything that give you more self-control, makes you nicer, more forgiving, trusting, and less stressed out definitely “works!” I want you to give prayer a chance.  If you don’t already pray regularly, try doing so.  Pray every day even if it’s just a little bit each day.  Don’t worry about saying the “right” prayer.  If you haven’t prayed much, believe me I think God will be happy with incremental steps.  But just pray.  And don’t go looking for monumental results right off the bat.  If they happen, great!  But if not, remember that doesn’t mean God isn’t listening.  Maybe we just need better ears to hear.  And if you do pray regularly, try spending at least as much time listening as asking.  Sometimes God works in the silence far better than in the noise.  But more prayer is something we could all benefit from.  Does prayer bringing healing to a person every time, the way we want it to, when we want it to?  No.  Does prayer guarantee bad things won’t happen to you?  No.  But does prayer work?  Most definitely, yes.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/candy-gunther-brown-phd/testing-prayer-science-of-healing_b_1299915.html

[3] Ibid

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201406/5-scientifically-supported-benefits-prayer

Born This Way

“Beatrice Zinker always did her best thinking upside down.”

What a great way to start a book.  I knew I was in for a treat.  As part of my Disney Nerds website, I get the chance to review a lot of books, and this one caught my eye when I read the title: Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker.  Somehow it was going to be good.  First-time author Shelley Johannes wrote an endearing story about a girl who was “different.” She dresses different, she acts different, she even eats her dessert first.  Of course, her favorite dessert is pineapple upside-down cake (one of mine, too)!  But what makes Beatrice fun and unique is she EMBRACES her difference. She doesn’t have any angst about being herself.  Despite peer pressure, she doesn’t try to be someone she isn’t.  Even when she is criticized or misunderstood, she is always true to herself and instead turns these scenarios into opportunities to connect to people in new ways.

Sketches of Beatrice Zinker

We could use a little of Beatrice inside all of us.

I remember as a young kid in elementary school, standing in line for recess when some boy came up and taunted me with that horrible rhyme, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”  I don’t know why, but I cried.  Even though there’s no more reason to be ashamed of my Japanese heritage, it hurts to be singled out.  It’s tough to stay true to yourself when people in your community – whether that’s school or work or church – belittle, make fun of, and otherwise denigrate you simply for being who you are.   I’ve been made fun of for being fat, for wearing glasses, for laughing funny (interestingly you should NEVER make fun of someone’s laugh – it’s not something they can help).  I’m sure you’ve been made fun of, too.  What I love about Shelley’s book is not just that Beatrice remains true to herself, but Shelley recognizes it isn’t always easy to do.  Shelley doesn’t paint some Pollyanna picture of Beatrice’s life where everything works out perfectly.  She shows the struggle Beatrice goes through in trying to find out how to do it.  Which only makes Beatrice that much more of a hero! 

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War..L to R: Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and War Machine/James Rhodey (Don Cheadle)…Photo Credit: Film Frame..© Marvel 2016

It’s probably why the story of Gideon is one of my favorites in the Bible.

The Bible is full of stories about people, like Beatrice, who don’t fit the mold of what we would consider “normal.”  Jesus himself didn’t live up to expectations.  Everyone thought the savior of the Israeli people would be a mighty warrior like Captain America or Iron Man or the Hulk, a capable leader who would defeat all those who would stand up to God’s chosen people.  But instead God sent a Jewish carpenter who gave up his own life rather than take the life of another.  He rode in on a donkey instead of a horse.  He talked about the value of women and children when no one else gave them a thought.  But God was doing that all the time, breaking the mold of our expectations, taking people who are “different” and making them into shining examples of the very best of who we are capable of being.  Gideon is one of those people.  Let’s share together in his story, a different kind of guy who God believed in. 

11 The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

15 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

16 The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” (Judges 6:11-16)

We worry a lot about “optics” these days.

We’re so worried about how things look, sometimes we fail to see what God has always known – it’s what’s inside that counts.  It’s your heart.  It’s your compassion, your thoughtfulness, your faith that matters the most.  Not whether you look the part. Look at Gideon.  Gideon was anything but the perfect leader.  If God was looking for a commander to protect the people of Israel, even Gideon thought God was crazy.  Verse 15 has to be my favorite.  “Pardon me, my lord, but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”  But God tells him, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand.”  That line is so powerful and key.  “Go in the strength you have…”  God isn’t calling on Gideon to be someone he’s not.  He’s calling on him to be the person God created him to be.  And that is enough. 

Sometimes it can be a challenge to embrace your differences.

But it’s those very differences that set you apart.  “Go in the strength you have…”  Such powerful words, but also encouraging.  They tell us that we are enough in God’s eyes.  We have gifts of our own to contribute.  Shelley told me that it was a quote from director and writer Joss Whedon that inspired her to chase her dreams.  He said, “Whatever makes you weird is probably your greatest asset.” She thought to herself, her “weirdness” was her creativity!  Her love of writing and drawing is what might very well be her greatest asset. All her life she loved writing and drawing, but she wasn’t sure if those things had value. Her creativity felt like a flaw instead of something to be celebrated. Certainly nothing you could make into a career, but she realized perhaps it was not the flaw she had imagined, but instead her gift and her strength. She told me, “I had to come to grips with that.  My brain was intuitive.  I thought intuitively, not chronologically.  I wasn’t ‘wrong.’ My brain was just different.”  Shelley wanted to share that celebration of differences with every child to encourage them to embrace their differences, too.  And that’s how Beatrice Zinker was born.

Author and artist, Shelley Johannes

Shelley’s story reminds me of my own life.

When I was a kid, I talked a lot.  If you asked my family today, I think they’d say things haven’t changed.  My voice was always loud and booming.  My parents could hear me from virtually anywhere in the house.  I remember one time we went to the doctor and my mom even asked if there was anything they could do to curb my talking and I’ll never forget Dr. Thom told her that talking was a sign of intelligence.  My mom probably thought if that was true then I must be a certified genius!  All the time growing up, people would tell me my voice carried or that I was too loud and I became pretty self-conscious about it.  But that was good because I learned how to control it and keep it “normal” when I needed to and allow it free reign when it was warranted.  Still, I always wondered what someone could do with a loud voice and a penchant for talking.  Then I started doing this.  Instead of being “too loud” people told me from the beginning that they loved my voice.  They liked that it carried, that I was easy to hear, and it felt like for the first time this thing that made me stand out did so in a way that was a real blessing. 

We try so hard to be “normal.”

But what is “normal” anyway?  I’ve found we’re all “different” in some way and the trick is to turn those differences into something useful, to find out how being “weird” might be your greatest asset.  God wants you to use your gifts in your own unique way.  Not to shy away from them, but to find out how they can build us up as a community and give us the chance to be the best version of YOU that God created you to be.  If we truly believe God created us in his image (not literally in his image or we would all look like clones, but in his character), then you have to believe you have gifts God meant for you to use to make this world a better, more loving place.  We are not mistakes but instead we are opportunities to contribute to the world around us.  Kids are not encouraged often enough to be the best version of themselves, but instead the best version of what the world expects.  We celebrate when children do things the world labels as valuable instead of the gifts and personality they already have.  That impacts our whole lives.  If you have kids or grandkids, help celebrate not who you think they should be but who they are.  Encourage them to seek out their own gifts and how that might make a lasting contribution to their lives and the world around them.  And I want to encourage you to do the same for yourselves.  At every age and every stage our gifts grow and change. Where and who we are when we are 20 is far different from where we are supposed to be when we are 40 or 60 or 100.  So pray about it and seek out what makes you different NOW and see how God might want you to use that to be your best self.  “Go in the strength you have,” and know that is enough for God. 

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Ignorance isn’t bliss.

When people use the phrase “ignorance is bliss” there’s an implication that life is simpler or better when we don’t know everything, but the truth is ignorance isn’t bliss.  Instead ignorance allows us to justify our prejudice and convince us we are not complicit in the injustice happening around us.  Many of us lived under the fiction that we lived in a post-racial society until events last year showed us how far we had to go.  Even those of us who knew there were problems were awakened to the reality the situation was worse than we understood.  The Black Lives Matter movement did more than open our eyes to what was happening to Black people. It made us examine our prejudice and hatred that had systemically bled into so many different aspects of our lives.  Other people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, non-cisgender persons are finally being heard…by some.  While many of us are undergoing a spiritual awakening to how deep these problems are part of society, there are those who deny what is staring them in the face.  They are ignorant to the world around them, but that ignorance isn’t bliss.  It’s dangerous. 

The Black Lives Matter movement helped to open our eyes to the systemic racism underlying much of our society

The movement against critical race theory is an example of that ignorance.

Critical race theory is the study of the intersection between law and race and while theorists don’t always share the same beliefs about the origins or dynamics of race and society, they basically believe that “racism and disparate racial outcomes are the result of complex, changing and often subtle social and institutional dynamics rather than explicit and intentional prejudices on the part of individuals.”[1]  In other words, solving the dilemma of racism isn’t as simple as telling racist people to stop being racist, but racism is ingrained in our society in multi-faceted ways that don’t have an easy solution.  Critical race theory is an attempt to delve deeper into these problems and come up with ways to eradicate racism in our society and while it applies to issues of race, these same principles can relate to tons of other issues we are grappling with as well – gender identity, sexual orientation, religious freedom, etc.  Yet those who argue against critical race theory claim it is divisive, that it is teaching our children to “hate themselves” (by the way that only refers to white children).  Commentator Megyn Kelly even equated the teaching of critical race theory to child abuse.[2] Six states (all Republican led) have passed legislation banning or curtailing the teaching of anything to do with systemic racism.  Other states like Florida, Georgia, and Utah have banned CRT-related discussions.[3] And a newly proposed law in Pennsylvania would ban DISCUSSING ANY racist or sexist concept in public schools.[4]  What happened to living in the land of the free and the home of the brave?  That doesn’t sound either free or brave to me.  When did it become against the law to even TALK about racism or sexism in America?  Is this coming from the same people who claim to be victims of “cancel culture?” 

We can’t solve a problem if we can’t see it to begin with (art by AldrineRowdyruff)

Here’s the thing: How can we SOLVE the problem when we can’t even ACKNOWLEDGE the problem?

To say there isn’t racism in America is like saying there isn’t fire in a burning building.  The death of George Floyd and the response it created in America is only one of many examples of racism rearing its ugly head.  The recent attacks against elderly Asians right here in the Bay is another.  There have been hate crimes against people of color since the end of the Civil War and it hasn’t ended.  If we can’t even recognize the problems that are staring us in the face, how can we end them?  We need to stop being ignorant.  Willful ignorance is complicity.  No matter how uncomfortable of a truth it may be to face, we need to own up to the problems and concentrate on fixing it.  Perhaps we should listen to the words of Solomon who wrote this introduction to the book of Proverbs. 

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
    for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
    doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
(from Proverbs 1:1-7)

Solomon is big on wisdom.

Some say he was the wisest man in the Bible and certainly God gifted him with it.  But listen to these words and really hear what he is saying.  “Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  Solomon wrote these verses to give us wisdom, instruction, and understanding; to help us in doing what is right; to help guide our children; to add to our learning and to help in discernment; to better understand proverbs and parables we may not otherwise understand.  But he warns “fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  When I read this, I feel like Solomon is warning us about the dangers of ignorance.  He’s challenging us to always seek out wisdom, to discern the truth for ourselves, and to not be satisfied with what we know.  Wisdom helps us to be fair and just, to be prudent, to be discerning, and understanding.  But when we reject the wisdom and instruction of others, we show ourselves to be foolish – sometimes with harmful consequences.

Ignorance is one of our greatest enemies.

Ignorance is one of our greatest enemies.  We are so quick to accept what we want to believe instead of searching for what is true.  We should never be satisfied with what we know.  We should always strive to increase our knowledge.  By doing so, we draw closer to God because we have a deeper understanding of the world in which we live and which God created.  We find out new things all the time.  Just think of the volumes of ideas in your lifetime alone which have changed.  Think of the number of things that were said to be impossible but now are commonplace.  And when you think of those things, imagine how much we didn’t yet know.  When we are challenged with new thoughts and new ideas, it isn’t enough to say “that’s how it’s always been.”  For one, it’s probably not true.  For another, that doesn’t mean it’s right.  Remember our talk the first month I was here?  The seven last words of a church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.”  We’ve never done it that way before.  Before we dismiss something out of hand, we should spend time searching ourselves first to see if our own prejudices and preconceptions are hindering our ability to see things correctly.  And then we should pray.

Paul McCartney in concert with Ringo Starr and Ron Wood in 2018 (from YouTube)

Because the other part of Solomon’s advice has to do with God.

The fear of God is the BEGINNING of wisdom.  In this case, “fear” means “reverence.”  It doesn’t mean we should be afraid of God.  This is the kind of true awe that you might have standing in the presence of someone great.  Imagine meeting someone who is the very best in their field, someone you admire.  If it was basketball, that might be LeBron James; or music, it might be Beyonce; or cello, Yo-Yo Ma.  For me, it might be someone like Paul McCartney.  Being able to talk to someone with that level of brilliance in their field would be jaw-dropping.  So now multiply that feeling by a thousand and that is the kind of awe you might have standing in the presence of God. That’s what Solomon means when he writes the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  When we realize God is the creator of all things, it changes our perception.  It changes how we look at things.  And it opens up our eyes to the truth God is constantly trying to reveal to us.  But it all starts with God. 

Now I know not everyone reading this will believe in God.

Or maybe if you’re reading this you have doubts about God or about your faith in him.  That’s okay.  That obviously doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does believing in God automatically open your eyes to your own ignorance.  There are millions of people out in the world who call themselves Christians who fail to see God in the proper light.  As Isaiah said (Isaiah 29:13), “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  But I’ll tell you this.  Take the God challenge.  If you are having doubts or you don’t believe, but you’re willing to take the chance, put God first.  Start trying to look at life as if God WERE in charge, as if there was something greater than ourselves who loves not only you but everyone in the entire world.  Think about Jesus as being a person so filled with love for you that he gave his life for you and see if that doesn’t open your world to new ways of thinking.  And if you do call yourselves a believer, then spend time in prayer and ask God to show you the parts of yourself that need work, because we all have them. 

From the film Rising Sun Sean Connery’s character says, “Fix the problem, not the blame”

All of these thoughts came about because of a story I remembered the other day.

At one of the churches I served, an elderly gentleman and I were talking about the Bible and he told me he was too old to learn anything new from it.  I was disappointed he ever thought that.  This was a man who was truly in tune with God in so many ways.  He was wise and he was generous.  Perhaps he didn’t mean it the way it came out because he certainly had a Godly spirit, but I hope none of us ever thinks the journey of knowledge is over for whatever reason.  We will not be able to solve the problems that are plaguing our society, our church, and ourselves unless we are willing to face them.  It’s not about casting blame.  As Sean Connery’s character said in the film Rising Sun, “Fix the problem, not the blame.”  It’s simply that if we fail to recognize there is a problem we can’t begin to work toward a solution.  The insurrection on January 6th DID happen.  There IS racism in America.  The church IS shrinking in both influence and size.  And we as individuals still have things to work on – no matter our age.  Challenge yourself everyday.  Work to make yourself a better person.  And never for a second believe God is done with you in any way.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory

[2] https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/megyn-kelly-compares-critical-race-182643147.html

[3] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/07/02/why-are-states-banning-critical-race-theory/

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/30/racism-academic-discussions-pennsylvania-law/

Craig’s Kitchen: Chicken Enchilada Casserole

Quick, simple, and easy to make in about an hour!

Too many recipes SAY that’s the case, but this one really is. It’s also more like assembling a robot than actual cooking. You’ll see what I mean. This tasty dish is simple but delicious and can easily feed a family of three. To make more, just double the recipe and use a 9″x12″ casserole dish instead. The key is to use quality ingredients. You can make this on the cheap but you pretty much get out what you put in. When I cook it, it tastes quite yummy with a nice blend between sauce, corn tortilla, gooey cheese, and hearty chicken to fill your stomach.

Quality ingredients always make for a better taste

Ingredients

  • 1 pre-cooked whole roasted chicken
  • 6 corn tortillas
  • 8oz Monterey Jack cheese
  • 2 8oz packets of Frontera Red Chile Enchilada Sauce or Green Chile Enchilada Sauce

Equipment

  • Cutting board
  • 8″x8″ casserole dish
  • Cheese grater
  • Bowl wide enough to dip corn tortillas in

Directions

  1. Shred your chicken into manageable strips.
  2. Grate your cheese using medium sized holes. Set aside.
  3. Pour enough sauce to cover the bottom of the casserole dish.
  4. Pour the rest of the sauce into a bowl for dipping
  5. Take each individual corn tortilla and dip it in the sauce. Make sure both sides are lightly covered. Put it on the cutting board.
  6. Put a generous amount of chicken and cheese inside remembering you are filling up 6 enchiladas
  7. Roll up the enchilada and place it in the dish, seam side down.
  8. Repeat steps 4-7 until the dish is full!
  9. Pour the rest of the sauce left in the bowl over the enchiladas evenly so it’s nicely coated.
  10. Add the rest of the cheese to the tops of each enchilada generously.
  11. Bake in a 350 degree oven (or toaster oven) for abut 30 minutes or until the cheese is nice and melted
This was from my first attempt back in 2016 – they still look pretty much the same!
Director’s Cut Commentary
  • Chicken! – I usually get a pre-cooked whole roasted chicken from Whole Foods because I love that they use Mary’s air-chilled chicken and because they taste great. Typically I get the classic roasted because I don’t want the lemon or bbq flavors competing in the dish. You can be adventurous and cook up your own chicken though! I love making fajita chicken and it would work great in this recipe so be adventurous.
  • 6 Corn tortillas – This ingredient is the KEY to me. Get a good one. Not the kind that will fall apart as you roll it, but one that has some durability. Also, you want one that TASTES good. So many corn tortillas are bland and unfulfilling. If possible, get some homemade corn tortillas. Many local restaurants will make them so grab them if you can.
  • 8oz block of your favorite cheese (or cheeses) – We love both pepper jack and cheddar. Typically, you’d go with Monterey Jack cheese so if you want to go the traditional route, that’s the best way. But here again you can mix it up. Experiment with what you like. Jack cheese is nice and mild with a tiny tang to it which pairs well with the sauce (whether you use red or green). Cheddar is more of a red sauce pairing. It’s bite goes well with the flavors of the red sauce. And if you’re going the cheddar route, make sure to use sharp cheddar rather than mild.
  • 2 Packets of Frontera Red Chile Enchilada Sauce – I’ve tried different ones, and like this one the best. Their Green Chile Enchilada Sauce is also great. You can get it from Whole Foods, Amazon, or your local grocery store. If you want to make your own, go for it! But if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to sacrifice quality, this one is the one I use. However, go with what your taste buds crave! Lots of Mexican restaurants sell their sauces, too or you can find sauces at your local grocer that are often homemade.

I shred the chicken into manageable strips to make it easy for the person who is eating it to cut through the enchilada with just a fork or at most a butter knife, and also so the sauce and cheese mix in during cooking more effectively, spreading around that awesome goodness. For the cheese, I like using the medium holes to give it more PUNCH! No need for the fine delicacy of the tiny holes. Also, please don’t buy pre-shredded cheese. While it’s edible, freshly grated cheese tastes way better. Plus, the pre-shredded cheese is coated with something so it won’t stick to each other but that fine coating messes up the flavor profile when cooking (at least it does to me). And I found that pouring sauce on the bottom just to lightly coat it makes it not only taste better, but helps prevent it from becoming sticky.

You are DONE! See how easy that was? And so delicious. This recipe is like building a robot because you’re basically assembling the parts and making something great out of the pieces. You CAN cook each individual part and I’m sure it would taste even more delicious, but sometimes you don’t have a week to cook the chicken, make fresh tortillas, milk the cow and turn it into cheese, and create your own sauce. I hope you’ll enjoy this favorite of mine! You can also add other stuff like green ortega chiles (again, I use the stuff out of a can for convenience because I like them cooked already) or top it with tomatoes, your favorite salsa, etc. Go nuts!

Craig’s Kitchen: Chocolate Chip Pan Cookies

The smell of these alone will make your saliva glands start to flow!

The rich, chocolate goodness melts in your mouth. The brown sugar batter dances around on the tip of your tongue. And as you bite into each cookie, the buttery flavor swirls around and you can feel each morsel of chocolate explode. Overall, it’s a dynamite cookie! Kind of like a brownie (or a blondie if you’re familiar with those) it has a more pillow-like feel and is much thicker and softer than the average chocolate chip cookie. This was another favorite from my days as a child. My mom introduced me to this heaven-sent bite and since then I’ve worked on adding my own little touches to it. I’ve also included a gluten-free version which tastes great. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have!

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour (if doing this gluten-free use gluten-free flour)
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup softened, unsalted butter plus 1 tbsp butter
  • 3/8 cup bakers granulated sugar
  • 3/8 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 6 oz chocolate chip morsels

Equipment:

  • 8″ x 8″ glass baking pan
  • Two mixing bowls
  • Wire rack (if you have one)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Into the first mixing bowl mix together the flour, baking soda, and salt
  3. In the second mixing bowl, mix together the softened butter, both types of sugar, and vanilla extract
  4. Add in the egg, beating the mixture until well combined
  5. Mix in the dry ingredients from the other bowl about 1/3rd at a time, incorporating it fully before adding the next amount
  6. Once combined, add the chocolate chips (at this stage, if you choose to add nuts this is when you would do it) mixing until well incorporated throughout the dough
  7. Coat bottom and sides of pan with butter
  8. Spread dough evenly from edge to edge and place in oven
  9. Cook for approximately 25 minutes or when top springs back and turns golden
  10. Remove and let cool on a wire rack for about 15-20 minutes (unless you can’t wait anymore and need to dig in)

Director’s Commentary

Ingredients – as always, what you put into it usually determines what you get out.

Flour – If you’re making this gluten-free, there is no better flour than Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 Gluten-Free Baking Flour. It’s literally 1-to-1 unlike some substitute flours. And it tastes really good. It comes out slightly drier than regular all-purpose flour, but still darn good! I’ve tried other gluten-free flours and they just don’t come out as tasty or as simple.

Sugar – For sugar, you can use regular granulated sugar, but I’ve found that C&H Baker’s Sugar is the best! Now, I don’t use it for everything, but for baking it’s great because of how tiny the sugar crystals are. When cooking, they dissolve so easily it has a more even flavor. I don’t know if scientifically that’s true, but I do know it tastes better.

Chocolate Chips – And of course, it matters which chocolate chips you use is of VITAL importance. While you can’t go wrong with the original – Nestle’s – the best for our family is a local baker, Guittard’s Extra Dark Chocolate Chips. These 63% dark chocolate morsels are SO heavenly. I believe Nestle’s Semi-Sweet is 57%, but the extra dark adds more depth of flavor and a better contrast to the lovely brown sugar.

That’s pretty much it. When you bake it, just make sure the dough springs back before you take it out to cool. Once you start the cooling process that’s pretty much it. By “spring back” if you touch it and there’s no resistance at all, it’s too mushy beneath and you need to let it cook some more. I know the edges will look more cooked than the middle – because it is. But there’s only so much you can do. If you want to double the recipe, just bake it in a 9″ x 12″ glass casserole pan. Oh, and “softened” butter really does work better than “melted” butter – believe me I’ve done that before. I usually put the butter in a microwave safe bowl for about 30-45 seconds and once the middle starts caving in, that’s soft enough. If it’s all liquid, it loses something in the mix and doesn’t quite hold up as well. Plus, the chocolate chips seem to collapse to the bottom of the pan. You will love this cookie no matter what, though. I hope it puts a smile on your face like it does for mine every time!

How Chocolate Chip Cookies Can Save the Church

Chocolate chip cookies are my favorite!

For anyone that knows me, that’s probably not really a big surprise.  Homemade are the best!  There’s something about the love and care that goes into a cookie from home that you can’t get from a machine.  Probably my favorite kind of chocolate chip cookie is based on the Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Pan Cookies.  It’s sort of like a blondie and a chocolate chip cookie combined into one.  Yum.  These were the chocolate chip cookies of my youth.  My mom would make them on very rare occasions, and they tasted so good out of the oven, they would melt in your mouth! I love the taste of brown sugar and butter with the hot melting chocolate chips as it just oozes across your taste buds especially when it’s followed by a nice cold glass of milk.  The best.  But have you ever thought about what goes INTO a chocolate chip cookie?  I never really did.  Sugar, brown sugar, flour, salt, baking powder, vanilla extract, eggs, and of course chocolate chips.  Pretty much what you’d expect, right?  A lot of the same basic ingredients you find in most baking recipes.  But did you know crystallized sugar originally came from India?  It was discovered about the 5th century.  Today Brazil is the biggest exporter of sugar.  The story is similar for the vanilla bean which is used for the vanilla extract.  Originally found only in Mexico, the Totonac people of the Mazatlan valley were the first to cultivate it.  But after a 12-year old slave by the name of Edmond Albius discovered how to hand-pollinate the plant, the vanilla industry thrived and today most vanilla is produced in Madagascar.  The chocolate chip cookie itself is a 20th century invention of Ruth Graves Wakefield of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.  She was the one who blended in chunks of chocolate into a cookie back in 1937 to make one of my favorite desserts today.  The chocolate chip itself wasn’t created until 1941 when chocolate companies decided to package chocolate into baking morsels.  Before that people would have to break apart the chocolate into chunks on their own.  And the famous Nestle Toll House Cookies were named after the place of their birth in Massachusetts.  So each time I bite into one of my favorite homemade chocolate chip cookies, I have to thank the people of India, Brazil, Mexico, Madagascar, and Ruth Graves Wakefield of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.[1]

The famous Craig’s Kitchen Chocolate Chip Pan Cookies!

All of that to say that life is far more complex than the narrow window we view it through.

To describe a chocolate chip cookie I only expanded upon three of the ingredients and already had to credit five completely different civilizations across history.  Who knows who else we would include if we traced the history of flour or baking powder or brown sugar?  I can generally give credit to God and the chicken for eggs, but who first thought to combine it with flour to make dough?  In our attempt to simplify the world into manageable nuggets of information that we can remember, we often forget the complexity that makes up God’s brilliant design.  We forget about the diverse nature of the world and how each part was created by God and contributes in its own way to a far more complex world than we can understand. 

Our passage from the Bible today illustrates the rich diversity of God’s creation.

As you probably know, Genesis is about the beginning of all creation and the writer gives us a glimpse into the work God has done.  Prior to our selection, God has already been creating tons of different stuff.  He’s created the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, and the water and the sky.  The basics.  Then God creates gets into even more complex stuff – land, vegetation, and time.  Think about that.  God CREATED time.  Next, he created the stars and the sun and the moon, but so far, no other life on the Earth other than plants.  And then this is where we come in. 

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

 24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

Diversity in creation is meaningful if not always obvious

We sort of take creation for granted don’t we?

I mean we have birds and fish and whales and if you believe in evolution dinosaurs which are very cool and lions and cows and all of these other kinds of animals.  Just tons of different animals populating the Earth, and this is BEFORE human beings even come into the picture.  But have you ever asked yourself why?  Not why did God create these things before humans although that’s a great question, but why did God create them at all?  Why did God create waters teeming with living creatures?  For me, I would have been happy with just the fish pretty much.  Really, why create jellyfish?  Whales are fun to watch, but what purpose do they serve?  And sharks.  God could have left out sharks.  Other than making for good documentaries and a couple of mediocre movies of people who didn’t think to get out of the water, do sharks serve a purpose?  And yet God created all of them.  “God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.’ …God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.  And God saw that it was good.”  Do you ever think that maybe, just maybe, God created this vast abundance not just so we can have a great variety of menu choices at our favorite restaurant, but because they serve a purpose on this planet of ours? 

Dory and Marlin – fearful of the jellyfish! (From Pixar’s Finding Nemo)

Take for example the jellyfish.[2]

Like I said before, you might wonder why God would create jellyfish?  They have a sting that at its most severe can cause death to humans and other wildlife and they have also been known to cause other kinds of problems as well.  Did you know back in 1999, they were responsible for a cascading blackout in the Philippines?  And back in 2008 they caused the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo to shut down for two days?  But jellyfish have their upside as well.  They are considered a culinary delicacy in many Asian countries.  More than just a food source, jellyfish are also harvested for their collagen, which is used to help treat rheumatoid arthritis.  On the surface, jellyfish seem pretty useless or even deadly, but they have other purposes as well.   Some of which we know about and probably some of which we don’t.  Which is to say God creates this huge diversity of beings for a reason and that given the chance to learn about them and learn FROM them we can discover some amazing things.  But we have to open to the possibility that 1.) we don’t know everything and 2.) sometimes the value in one of God’s creations, while not apparent at first, may yield amazing results.

A recent study on church congregations revealed how important diversity is to God’s purpose.

Baylor University just released its findings after doing research on churches over a twenty-year period and came to the conclusion that racially diverse churches had higher attendance on average than their largely all-white counterparts.  These findings contradict some long-held beliefs in what has been referred to as “the homogenous unit principle” – “the idea that churches flourish if they stick to people of the same race and class.”[3]  Believe it or not, this isn’t just a theory held onto by scholars and scientists but by many folks sitting in the pews.  The number of times I’ve heard people saying the same exact thing – that our best outreach strategy is to reach out to “people like us” – would probably surprise you.  Most of these people would never think of this as being racist, but being practical.  But consider this.  That kind of thinking is what justified holding women back from positions in leadership.  Claiming to “hire the best person regardless of gender” was often an excuse for not including women in leadership, but as studies have shown, companies with more women on their board of directors tend to be more successful and profitable than their counterparts.[4]  We have to overcome our fears and our prejudices to embrace the rich diversity of God’s creation.  It’s not only the right thing to do (which should be enough) but is also the route that will lead us to helping others come to faith in Christ.

Diversity is something God is great at.

Look at our earlier reading today.  I love the image Paul uses in this passage from 1 Corinthians that we are all parts of one body and no matter how we behave or what we think about one another, it doesn’t take away from the fact we really are connected in God’s great creation.  He writes in verse 15, “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body….But in fact (verse 18) God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”  We are all different.  We all come from different backgrounds with different life experiences, but instead of generalizing or discounting them, we should embrace those differences.  I said “embrace” not whole-heartedly love, because the truth is sometimes we won’t even like the differences.  But we CAN learn from them.  We can learn more about others and more about ourselves and when we do that we can better understand why God saw it was good when he created us and this world we live in.  We can realize even if we are a hand and the other person is a foot, they may have something to contribute even if we don’t understand what that contribution is.  Are there some people who contribute nothing to the world?  I don’t know.  Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t.  It’s easy to think of the extremes when contemplating these types of philosophical questions – Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan.  We may not know the answer to that, but we do know God loves us all and we have inherent value in God’s eyes.  Let us embrace the ways God made us different, and realize we are still one in Christ.  Let us love the uniqueness of each person for God created you and loves you and sees in you what nobody else can see – all the potential of your full self.  None of us are “normal.”  We’re all weird in our own, wonderful way.  And that’s the way God made us.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] Research for this section was done by referencing Wikipedia for “sugar,” “vanilla,” and “chocolate chip.”

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jellyfish

[3] https://www.umnews.org/en/news/racial-diversity-linked-to-church-growth?mkt_tok=MDc4LUpYUS02NDMAAAF8V8jHdEHFMt6nzBMNx5VfAmLVmNqiPxhxTkkKUI9G8TpZvVNLaMqnlYen_2D1W2GbxxYd9wn5XD3Jr4dKNHzZ-UAtoSPeV5ktRBKmiUeprpz23g

[4] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/ecpe/why-diversity-matters-women-on-boards-of-directors/#:~:text=The%20business%20benefits%20of%20having%20women%20on%20a,runs%2C%20makes%20decisions%2C%20and%20ultimately%2C%20on%20its%20success.