Religious Spirits

Religious Spirits
by Joni
"In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, 'Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are -- the Holy One of God!' 'Be quiet!' Jesus said sternly..."
Luke 4:33-35
Once when I visited an old, large cathedral, a choir was practicing at the front of the sanctuary. Beautiful music echoed everywhere. Even though I was in the back near the narthex, I could tell they were singing a hymn in Latin. I recognized the tune as one of my favorite hymns, "All Creatures of Our God and King." There weren't many people around, so I began singing along. A church worker approached and in no uncertain terms told me I was being a disturbance. I looked around at the high arches and lovely stained-glass windows, the tables of candles and statues -- wasn't this a place to praise God?
I'm not about to pass judgment on any cleric at that cathedral. But I have to admit, the church felt "religious," a grand display of formality and ritualism. I was reminded of today's verse. Evil spirits -- that is, religious spirits -- feel very at home in some churches and synagogues. They feel very comfortable in church buildings, or even congregations, where the focus is on rituals and traditions, rather than the vibrant life of the Spirit of Christ.
That particular church building was not the only place in which I've sung impromptu praises to God. There were great cathedrals in Europe, as well as in Notre Dame (the cornerstone for this cathedral was laid in 1163). Should you ever visit one of these church buildings in cities around the world, softly fill it with prayers and hymns. Let's remind those old arched ceilings that they were built for the glory of God.
Father God, thank You that Your Word has been preached from ancient pulpits over 2000 years. I pray against every religious spirit that wars against the Spirit of life.

Psalm 111
I trudged at midnight to one of our nation's most expensive outhouses. A destination for day-hikers and a pause for climbers, Camp Muir perches at 10,188 feet on the shoulder of Washington State's 14,410 feet Mt. Rainier. Head aching with altitude, clothes layered thick against mid-July wind-chill, I looked over miles of moonlit wilderness and up to the looming peak. I knew: "We aren't supposed to BE HERE! This place is not meant for us." Yet I praise the God of the mountain, covenant thunder of Sinai, impassive ice of Rainier. I love that even a "small" mountain brings me to my knees. I know this truth: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
We praise you, God, for your gracious and merciful works, your faithful protection and provision: "Holy and awesome is your name!" Show us your power and your love, that we might fear and love you above all. Amen.
Psalm 111 (NRSV)
1 Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
The people were frightened, so God stepped back. God's face and form on the mountain seemed too deadly, so God would send someone like Moses to tell God's people who they were and how to live. Because words matter.
Centuries pass. And now God declares a man named Jesus "Son" and commands the hearers, "Listen to him." But surprisingly this Jesus steps outside even the bounds of Moses and the prophets to speak and enact a new understanding of God's love for foreigners, lepers and criminals. He is killed in part because some think he is falsely representing God--because words, especially words about God and people matter. On this day, we need to keep open to the words that God speaks to us.
God of Truth, let your words matter most, and let our words honor you. We are your priests and prophets now: speaking the Word of Christ, enacting your out-of-bounds grace and truth. Amen.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (NRSV)
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
16 This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die."
17 Then the Lord replied to me: "They are right in what they have said.
18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.
19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.
20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak--that prophet shall die."

“Reflection on Psalm 96”

"Reflection on Psalm 96"

How can we believe
That trees even burned can sing
Praise and trust in You?

Only ancient ones
Sing to the Lord a new song
When Justice has fled.

Their hope makes me weep.
Dare I let their trust in you
Lift up my own heart?

Banish gods of fear.
Help me hear the earth rejoice.
And heal me with Love
So I too sing Love.

This poem by my good friend Ruah Bull captures so beautifully what I've been trying to address this week around the invitation to trust. It is part of our collective reflection on those who lost so much in the fires of northern California and now also the thousands in southern California going through the same devastation as I write this devotion.

Redwoods especially, but also oak trees, have the capacity to withstand the repeated fires that have been part of this area for millennia. Sometimes ancient redwoods become hollowed out by repeated fires and yet continue to thrive through the decades and centuries. They stand as monuments to perseverance and hope, as already with the rains of early December, the burned hills are beginning to turn green with new growth.

I look around at those who seem to be able to hang on in the midst of disaster--and trust. Like the redwoods "their hope makes me weep." And yet that is the promise of the scriptures' witnesses to God's presence and work in their lives. Whatever is happening in our lives God promises somehow to bring new life. Not the old life. Not the same life we've known, but something new and worth living for. It's always a risk to trust. But whatever life brings, this week's witnesses have invited us to ask that God "heal me with Love so I too sing Love." And then we too can be a source of hope for those daring to hope--and trust.

Loving, healing, life giving God, may we be so filled with hope and trust, even like those ancient redwoods. Amen.


“You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore,”

"You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore," ELW 817

The text for today's hymn cannot be published due to copyright limitations. We apologize for the inconvenience.

I love this hymn with its reminder of this week's story of Jesus calling the fishermen away from their nets to follow after him--so much so that shortly before I retired I received word through the congregational grape vine that there was someone who would run screaming from church if we ever sang it again.

But the words of this hymn seem so beautifully to echo this week's thoughts about trust: "you have come...only asking me to follow;" "you know what I will for working;" "you need my hands, my exhaustion...a love that's willing to go on loving;" and finally, "Sweet Lord, you have looked into my with you I will seek other seas." Perhaps like me you long for that kind of trust that would truly let me park the current boat in which I ride on the beach and follow without question. And yet, what does that trust look like, feel like, act like? It is not something we conjure up from within. It is not a lump of something we can implant. Usually it's something we grow into, feeling our way along day by day and trusting that Jesus is using us even as we live in the uncertainty of where he is calling us.

Jesus, open our eyes and ears and hearts and minds so we can know what you want of us. Amen.


Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20
Several years ago, at an Ignatian retreat, we were encouraged to use our imaginations to enter into the biblical narrative. The reading included the scene of Jesus walking along a road talking with his disciples and others. Soon my imagining seemed to take on a life of its own and I was literally following Jesus along a hot, dusty and crowded road in Galilee. Suddenly Jesus turned and looked back at me, beckoned me to come up and walk alongside him and at one point even put his arm around my shoulders.
But then unexpectedly he prodded me to walk in front of him and sort of pushed me out to walk ahead. The sense of the gesture was to say, "OK, now you go. I'll be right here, but you take the risk and responsibility for doing what needs to be done." I can still remember the uncertainty and exhilaration of moving into that new way of following. The "imagining" ended there, but left me with the awareness that following also includes being sent and encouraged to trust and risk that Jesus knows what he is doing by setting me free to lead.
Lord, I am amazed how much you trust us to be your followers and to use our creativity, energy, wisdom, knowledge and experience to be the ones to carry out your work of bringing the gospel that the Reign of God is at hand. Amen.
Mark 1:14-20 (NRSV)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen.
17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people."
18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.
20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20
When I was a boy growing up a couple blocks away from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, I would drop everything else for the chance to go fishing, even when it meant sitting on a hard seat in our old green row boat. I suppose when fishing is one's livelihood--like for Simon, Andrew, James and John--it felt different. So when Jesus came along and said "follow me and I will make you become fishers of people" there was some appeal. Perhaps you too have wondered what went through their minds as they heard that invitation? Were they chomping at the bit and ready for a change? But the gospel writer isn't interested in their feelings, only that they responded immediately.
I've also wondered what it would take to get me to suddenly abandon my current life and follow someone on a new and unknown journey? I think I'd want a trial run, a probationary period during which both I and the one calling me could evaluate my suitability for the job. Even being retired with fewer responsibilities, what would it take to trust someone enough to follow? The question still haunts me at times and I wonder, what if...
Lord, keep us open to whatever new thing you might call us to do. Fill us with trust to follow wherever you lead. And to recognize your leading each day. Amen.
Mark 1:14-20 (NRSV)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen.
17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people."
18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.
20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

I Corinthians 7:27-31

I Corinthians 7:27-31
One of the catch phrases in AA is "Fake it till you make it." I suppose that's one way of saying the "live as though" that Paul is talking about in I Corinthians. It takes a lot of trust to live "as though" God will forgive the old you and support you along the journey and enable you to create a new future. I suspect Paul was not inviting the Corinthians to irresponsibility or to ignore reality, but to make the things of God a focusing priority--to live "as though" we belong to God alone.
What if we started with just a few minutes a day living "as though" only the things of God mattered? What if we then increased that time each day and gradually carved out a longer and longer time lived "as though" we were alone with God, "as though" we grieved for nothing or rejoiced over nothing and "as though" we owned/possessed nothing and had no responsibilities to attend to---if we were for that time simply available to that God? To trust that in doing so God would make use of us in the way that best accomplished God's purposes. Do I trust God enough to "fake it till I make it" and grow into what Paul calls an "undivided devotion to the Lord?"
Lord Jesus, so fill us with trust in you that we can live "as though" the anxieties of life no longer consume us and we can live immersed in your presence--at least in this moment. Amen.
I Corinthians 7:27-31 (NRSV)
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.
28 But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.
29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,
30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions,
31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Psalm 62:5-12

Psalm 62:5-12
I'm writing these devotions just a few weeks after the catastrophic fires in Sonoma and Napa counties in which our community of Petaluma was largely spared from the fire but now is surrounded by overwhelming devastation. Many around us have lost jobs, schools, homes, transportation and even lives. Now they're working through the labyrinth of loss, grief, despair, displacement, insurance, assistance, planning, permitting, rebuilding, etc. So there is tension in the reading of this psalm that holds out the unique and powerful trustworthiness of God. If God is to be trusted, why am I standing here in the midst of these ashes? "Why have you forsaken me?" seems to be an acceptable question.
And yet, even in this moment of devastation the psalmist speaks: "For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is FROM God...I shall not be shaken...Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us." Where else to turn? Who else to trust? What other source of hope? What other strength? In spite of standing in the midst of the ashes, in spite of feeling forsaken, we pour out our hearts with all their pain and questions and doubts to a God who promises to hold us and restore us.
Thank you inscrutable God for letting us doubt and question and live in the tension of unfulfilled promises even as we reach out to lean on you and trust in the presence of your love and strength. Amen
Psalm 62:5-12 (NRSV)
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Selah)
9 Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.

Jonah 3:1-5,10

Jonah 3:1-5,10

As I write these devotions in early December, I am so aware that the world may look very different by the time you read them in mid-January. So it is all the more important to me that the general theme of trust runs through this week's readings.

We start with Jonah who exhibits a rather bizarre take on trust. Precisely because he trusts that God is gracious and forgiving, he resists God's instructions to go to the great enemy city of Nineveh to proclaim a call to repentance to a people who, in Jonah's mind, deserve no mercy. And sure enough, Nineveh repents and God forgives. This causes Jonah to despair because God was merciful in spite of Jonah's best efforts to avoid what he feared.

Can you think of anyone you hope God will never forgive? If you can't, I will gladly share my list with you. When we trust God to be just, merciful, forgiving and loving, we are compelled to repent of our own lack of those things and align our will and hope for our enemies and antagonists with God's. It is at the heart of our trust in a God, who is not like us, and thereby offers reason to hope for a future of healing and peace.

Forgiving, loving, merciful God, forgive us and transform us into forgiving, loving, merciful and trusting followers both for our own sake and for those we would have you judge and punish. Amen.

Jonah 3:1-5,10 (NRSV)

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,
2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.
4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth...
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.