Tag Archives | ethics

Looking back across the ocean

fourth sunday of advent

It’s been an interesting time to be an American looking back across the ocean.

Yesterday I left my apartment building with the dog, and one of my neighbors walked over and began speaking to me in a rather animated way. I reminded him – in English – that I am still a beginner with my language study, but he kept going.

Most of my German conversation skills, by the way, have been learned here in the building with neighbors who speak little or no English. With a combination of sign language, smiling, Google translator, and my growing vocabulary, we are now able to communicate surprisingly well, though usually about friendlier topics, like dogs, for example.

“You’re American, right?” my neighbor asked, not in English and not in a friendly manner.

I said, “Ja,” sensing that this was not going to be pleasant.

“New York,” he said. And then he put his hands to his throat in a choking gesture. Finally, he waved his arm dismissively and said, “Better to live in Russia,” before walking away.

The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, the choking death of a man selling single cigarettes in New York, the release of the torture report, together with the former Vice President’s comments that he would “do it again in a minute”  – these news items are all reported here with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

The Swiss are frequently curious about Americans, and they speak proudly of having traveled to the U.S., but they can also be very critical. In fact, they are usually quite critical of American behavior, which in their view never measures up to the ideals we Americans loudly proclaim.

When I sat down to write out my sermon last week, I was tempted, as I am more and more these days, to preach from the headlines. It was Karl Barth – no stranger to Switzerland – who once (allegedly) said that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Then I opened my Bible to Luke 1 and the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and I decided that I only get to preach on this story once each year. I was not going to waste the opportunity. I needed the message of hope and joy as much as anyone.

But even here, even at this time of year, I cannot escape the headlines.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

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When a friend betrays you

lake michigan shore

I should have seen it coming, but that must mean I’m to blame.

And maybe I am, a little.

What I did wrong was to trust someone I should not have trusted, never, not a million years. But I did. I acted in good faith. I sometimes had a queasy feeling as I did it, but I trusted anyway, because that’s what you do, right? You put yourself out there. Relationships require it.

But deep down I knew. I always knew. I should not have trusted this person.

Betrayal is what happens when you act in good faith, become vulnerable, extend yourself for someone else, and then that person turns out not to be a friend after all, not to have your best interests in mind, not to care about you at all, as a matter of fact.

What is it about betrayal that hurts so much? The coldness of it? The calculation? No, I’m convinced that it’s the evil of it.

I woke up this morning thinking about what happened. And not just thinking about it, but being mad about it. After all these months, after fooling myself into thinking that I was finally over it, after working so hard to get on with life, I still feel the hurt of it, the teeth-clenching anger of it.

And I realized of course, as I lay there in the early morning light, that I needed to get rid of it, to let it go.

For my sake, if for no one else’s.

But the truth is, I’m not quite there yet. It’s as though I can’t let go until I acknowledge to myself the sheer awfulness of it, the extent to which this other person betrayed me, all the sorry details of it. I can’t forgive, much less forget, it seems, until I remember every bit of it.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. You can’t get to my age without having been betrayed once or twice. I remember an event from some years ago that felt like a kick to the gut. I felt at the time as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I nearly picked up the phone to call a lawyer. I was sure I had a case. I would sue. That would make things right.

But someone who heard my story, someone who knows me well, said to me, ‘Doug, let it go.’

And I don’t remember anymore how I did it, but I did. It actually happened quickly. I started to breathe again, I put down the phone, I deleted the angry letter I had written. It was over. Finished. I haven’t thought about it in years – not until this latest betrayal, in fact. And then, surprisingly, there it was.

Betrayal and grief have that much in common. Every loss reminds you of every other loss you have ever had. Every betrayal is a reason not to trust anymore, not to be vulnerable, not put yourself out there.

But it’s time to let this one go. It has a kind of power over me, and I’m sick and tired of that, as much as anything. I need to unclench my fists and go on. I want to live. And be free.

And if my faith means nothing else, it means this: Forgiving others as I have been forgiven. And God knows that I have needed forgiveness.

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Bill Benson and the Village Mountain Mission

Dominican Republic1

A little over 12 years ago, after a few years of sailing the Caribbean in retirement, the brother of one of my church members sailed into a small inlet along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

Like many sailors before him, he was looking for some shelter during a storm.  But something happened on that brief visit that changed his life.

Bill Benson had retired from a career with the Boy Scouts of America and was enjoying a well-deserved retirement on his sailboat.  His plan was to keep sailing the Caribbean and to finally spend some time with his wife after years of seven-day work weeks with the Scouts.

(This is the place in the story to tell the old joke about how to make God laugh.  You tell him your plans.)

What happened was that Bill fell in love with the people of the Dominican Republic and – importantly – he saw their need.  The Dominican Republic isn’t as poor as Haiti, which shares the same island, but it’s plenty poor and its educational system is among the worst in the western hemisphere, worse even than Haiti’s.

Bill spent the better part of the next two years riding around the island on a motorcycle, trying to figure out how best to be of help to these people.  Finally – and it’s a good story, but really it’s his to tell – God let him know that two years of research was enough and that it was time for him to get started.

So, Bill founded the Village Mountain Mission. He bought a beautiful piece of land in the Dominican Republic.  He acquired some vehicles.  And he started inviting mission teams from the U.S. to join him in building houses, and starting schools, and providing medical care.

I’ve gone on mission trips just about every year for the last 20 years, usually to places in this country and usually with high school students, but I’ve also gone with church members of all ages to places like Haiti and Peru and the Philippines and (last November) to South Africa.

This one, I have to say, was the toughest yet.  I returned last Tuesday night and have never been so glad to get home.

The work was hard, there was no escape from the heat, and the living conditions were … let’s just say they were primitive.

I don’t like camping.  Never have.  And this was tougher than any camping trip I’ve ever taken.  But Bill wants mission teams who visit the Village Mountain Mission to eat and live the way the people of that island eat and live.

And mostly we did.

But … and every person who has ever gone on a mission trip will tell you this, I returned tired and happy.  I learned something – about myself, about the Dominican Republic, and about what God is doing in the world.

I had the privilege of riding in the front seat with Bill Benson several times during the week we were there, and so I had an opportunity to see up close what a 70-something man looks and sounds like when he gives up retirement to follow God’s call in his life.

To be honest with you, I have never pictured my own retirement like that, like Bill’s.

And then I came home and read the scripture reading I had chosen to preach about tomorrow, Jesus’ parable about the “rich fool.”  Jesus of course doesn’t tell us that the rich fool was retired – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything in all of scripture about retirement – but I couldn’t help reading this little parable as a story – and maybe a warning – about retirement.

Jesus’ parable is a story about someone who has accumulated a great deal over the course of his life, someone who has been very responsible with his property, and someone who should probably feel good about all that he has.  And nowhere, it’s important to note, does Jesus criticize the man for having worked hard and done well.

And yet, Jesus is not at all flattering.  As Jesus tells the story, God is displeased with the man – not for his hard work, and not for his wealth, but for his attitude, his unwillingness to notice anyone around him.  He’s all caught up in himself.  And God uses the word “fool” to describe him, a word that in biblical terms is, well, rather harsh.

I serve a church with plenty of retired people – and with plenty of people who are at least contemplating retirement.  I don’t usually go out of my way to step on toes, but I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll talk about Bill and I’ll ask a few questions about retirement.

Like, what is it exactly that God asks of us?

(Photo credit: This photo was taken by a member of our mission team.  Thanks, Anna.  Remarkably, if you face one direction, you see sugary sand, palm trees, and that wonderful blue Caribbean water.  If you look the other way, you see abject poverty and thatched-roofed huts.  All week long, as we built a house for a family in the village of Cambiaso, the contrast was jarring.)

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The golden age of television

woman watching TV

Watch much TV?

The expected answer to that question of course is no, because as we all know too much TV watching is bad for you.

But have you noticed how much good TV there is lately?  Have you noticed that we’ve entered a sort of golden age of television?  I mean, some recent TV programming is really, really good – and is even making Hollywood look really, really bad.

I’m not talking about sit coms produced by the networks with their canned laughter and predictable plotlines.  And I’m certainly not talking about reality TV shows starring the Kardashians, or the Osbournes, or someone named Bethenny Frankel (who in the world is she and why should I care?).  I’m talking about TV programming that’s ambitious, challenging, and thoughtful.

Has anyone else seen Game of Thrones?  Oh my goodness!  Yes, the first few episodes contained some gratuitous sex and was definitely not suitable for family viewing, but the overall product is stunningly beautiful.  I was never a huge fan of The Sopranos, but it was good, ground-breaking TV.  Big Love, the story of a Mormon family in Utah, has been a personal favorite (I will never think of polygamy in the same way again).  Deadwood, set in the western frontier town, is no longer being made, but it was good while it lasted.  And the new TV series from Netflix, Game of Cards, is can’t-stop-watching good.  Who would have thought that we’d ever see Kevin Spacey in a TV series?

And with this incomplete list, I probably missed one or two of your favorites.  Walking Dead, for example.  (Can someone tell me why zombies are suddenly so popular?).  And maybe Dexter (which I like because it’s shot in Miami, though it’s admittedly gruesome).  And certainly Downton Abbey.  (I admit that I wanted to watch Downton Abbey this year instead of the Super Bowl.)  The son of a church member is involved in the production of Boardwalk Empire (and has an Emmy for his work), so I’d better mention that show too.

Look, this is dangerous territory for a pastor to wander into, and I want to make myself clear.  Very little of this programming is suitable for children or families.  Beyond that, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about any of these programs.  Even Big Love, which is about a Mormon family, mostly doesn’t touch religious themes.

What I like is that a formerly despised medium (television) is now attempting to deal with larger questions and themes – and frequently in such beautiful ways.  Art (and I never thought I’d refer to TV programming as art) exists to provoke and challenge us.  It exists to inspire and renew us.  It exists to ask questions we may never have thought to ask.

Painting, sculpture, opera, film, photography, and – it almost hurts to admit this – television can enrich our lives in many and surprising ways.  Art entertains, yes, but it does so much more.  I suppose it can even be dangerous and subversive.  It can turn our worlds upside down.

If you’re watching – and from all the Downton Abbey talk around me, I’ll assume that you’re watching at least a little – I hope you’ll start asking good questions like “what is this writer/actor/director trying to tell me about life?” and “is that what I believe?”

I never thought I’d live to see the day, but maybe it’s time for a Sunday school class at my church on “How to Watch TV.”

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My two cents about Lance

Livestrong clip art

Lance Armstrong is not the first athlete who ever cheated.  And I’m pretty sure he won’t be the last.  To be honest about it, I don’t even feel especially let down by his behavior.  The more I learn about him, the less surprised I am by what he did.  We should have seen it coming.

I didn’t feel especially let down by all of the baseball players who used steroids to cheat – Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens – even though I’ve been a lifelong baseball fan.

Athletes act badly so often that, really, who can be surprised anymore?  What’s more surprising in the athletic world is when an athlete turns out to be decent and generous and principled.

I can’t say I’m all that surprised either when a Washington politician is caught cheating (or otherwise acting badly).  Like athletes, they act badly so often that the scandals are titillating (for a day or two) but not surprising.

I do feel a little let down when one of them is caught, however, and that’s because I want them to be better than they often are.  But I’m almost never surprised.  Bill Clinton?  We should have seen that one coming too.

I have to say that I feel quite a bit more let down when I hear that religious leaders have cheated.  Mostly, that’s because I am one.  I want people in my line of work to have the highest moral standards, and generally speaking I believe they do.

And I have done my best to live my own life with integrity, and though I’m hardly perfect – please, no email inquiries – I believe those of us who tell others how to live ought to be held to a higher standard.  I can’t say I like it, and I wish it weren’t so, but I think it’s true.

Several years ago one of my mentors confessed to “inappropriate behavior” and resigned his position.  It was a widely reported scandal.  And at the time I remember having a strange mixture of feelings.  I was let down, yes, and terribly disappointed, but the feeling was stronger than that.

Anger was in the mix, but so was fear.

I remember thinking that if he was capable of doing what he did, then most people – in similar circumstances – might be as well.  I’ve long since gotten over the anger.  And though he doesn’t need my forgiveness, I’ve forgiven him anyway.  But I still have the fear.

And that may be why I feel just a tiny bit more grace when I read about a scandal.  I know that “but for the grace of God” that scandal could involve me.

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Professional ethics

church drawing


When I became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, I agreed to the terms of my departure.

It’s surprising, but true.

When I leave, or announce my retirement, or otherwise decide to stop being pastor here (which is hard to imagine on a beautiful December day I spent sailing on Biscayne Bay), I made promises about my behavior after I leave.

For example, I won’t be coming back to officiate at weddings, baptisms, and funerals.  Ever.  It won’t happen.  In fact, I promised to leave and not set foot on the campus for a minimum of two years. I signed my name.

This is hard for church members to understand, I know, but to keep coming back I make things harder for my successor.  In other words, as long as I keep playing the role as pastor, even though I’m officially gone, I create confusion in the minds of the members.  So, in those cases, it’s my responsibility to say, “I can no longer be your pastor; I can be your friend in the years to come, but I can’t be your pastor.”

I can’t tell you how hard this has been in the years following my departure from other congregations I have served.

When I left, I cried.  I grieved terribly. Leaving churches I loved has been the hardest work I have ever done.  I experienced loss in those situations as profound as any death.  I loved the people I served, and when they called in the years that followed, I wanted to respond as I always had.

But if I did, I would have created problems for my successor.  If I were to act as pastor, even in limited ways, after my departure, I would have created obstacles as my successor tried to initiate a new relationship.

Susan and I attended a retirement seminar last June for “mid- to late-career clergy,” and at one point in the seminar, after talking about the need to leave the community we once served, the leader asked us to stand, and with hands over our hearts he asked us to repeat, “I am not an exception.”

With sadness, I did.

Pastors have a very difficult time saying good-bye.  Pastors, trust me on this, have a very difficult time saying good-bye.  And the responsibility for healthy departures – I hate this! – must always fall on the departing pastor.

So, the next time a pastor says, “I would love to come back, but can’t,” that pastor is exercising the very highest standards of professional ethics.

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October is Pastor Appreciation Month

Only one month?

Seriously, this month is Pastor Appreciation Month. And church members all over the country are … well, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what they’re doing.

Ever since the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy and urged honor “for those who labor in preaching and teaching,” church members have looked for ways to say thank you to their pastors.

A quick Google search revealed that it was actually Focus on the Family in 1994 that set the whole Pastor Appreciation Month thing in motion.  That organization claimed it was appropriate to honor pastors “and their families” all year long, but they decided to set aside one month each year for “a special tangible tribute.”

I don’t think that the “tangible tribute” was ever specified, but I certainly have ideas, in case you’re looking for some.

When I was serving a church in New Jersey a long, long time ago, one of my close clergy friends was the pastor of the black Baptist church in town.  Our friendship was an eye-opener to me.  I had grown up in a culture that thought its pastors should be poor.  A sack of potatoes left at the back door was about the only “tangible tribute” church members might imagine – and that was often in lieu of salary.

My pastor-friend Ron might have received the occasional sack of potatoes, but he received a great deal more. He drove a large Lincoln, he wore a dazzling Rolex watch, and he always seemed to have on a shiny, new suit.  He told me that every year on the anniversary of his ordination his congregation would buy him a new suit – and a new dress for his wife.

I was driving an old, rusting Toyota at the time, so I mentioned all of this to my elders one night at a Session meeting, but nothing ever came of it.  I came to realize that in some African American churches members want their pastor to look good, to have everything the members themselves aspire to.  When he looked good, they looked good.

At the Presbyterian Church across town, I was expected to make do with what I had and be grateful for it.  And I was.  Most of the time.

What I’ve learned – over the last 32 years of ordained ministry – is that my work is appreciated a great deal more often than the work of most of my members.  Along the way, churches have celebrated my marriage, the births of my children, the publication of my books, the beginnings and endings of my pastorates, and many other special times in my life.  Beyond that I regularly receive touching and heart-felt notes from church members about sermons I preach and other things I do.

As I say, I am probably remembered more times and in more thoughtful ways than most of the members of my church.  I am aware that many businesses do not recognize their employees – and hardly remember to say good-bye when they leave.

So, the truth is, I feel blessed.  And some days I feel blessed beyond measure.  If you come to my office I’ll show you a ceramic bowl on my shelf which contains all of the thank-you notes I’ve received in the last three years.

My bowl runneth over.

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Not Compatible with Christianity

A couple of years ago, after nearly 35 years of running, I decided to try another form of exercise, to give my joints, which are still in remarkably good shape, an occasional break from pounding the pavement around town.

So, on a whim, I walked into a yoga studio early one Monday morning.

And not just any yoga studio.  I happened to walk into a studio that practices hot yoga (with temperatures set between 95 and 105 degrees).  I had never experienced anything quite like it.  I’ve run marathons, and many, many races of shorter distances, but have never felt pushed physically the way I felt pushed in this one 90-minute class.

I liked it so much that I went back.

In my excitement, I even told a couple of people about my discovery.  And that was probably my mistake.  One person, with a disapproving tone in her voice, said, “You’re doing what?”

Later she forwarded to me an article she had read titled, “Is Christianity Compatible with Yoga?”  I am familiar with the author, and I am aware that he takes strong positions regarding perceived threats to the Christian faith.  (Remember Rob Bell?  This author preached a sermon after Bell’s God Wins book was published that I thought was one of the biggest takedowns of a fellow preacher I had ever heard.  He pulls no punches.)

As you can guess, the article about yoga was clear and unambiguous.  Christians, he wrote, should stay out of yoga studios.  Period.  To venture inside is to put your salvation in jeopardy.  Yoga, simply put, is not just another form of exercise; it’s a religion, one that’s very different from – in fact, antithetical to – Christianity.

So, not being one to shrug off a challenge from a brother in the faith, I decided to do a little reading myself and discovered that the “Is Christianity Compatible with X?” formula is a fairly common question for Christians to ask.

I found lots of interesting articles including, “Is Christianity Compatible with Freemasonry?” (apparently not) and “Is Christianity Compatible with Capitalism?” (depends on who’s asking the question) and “Is Christianity Compatible with Being a Goth?” (who cares?)

At that point I started to think of other questions I would like to see explored – such as, “Is Professional Football compatible with Christianity?”  (A game based on aggression and physical violence, often resulting in long-term physical and emotional consequences for its participants, certainly needs a second look, though I admit that I’m a fan and don’t want to push the argument.)

Or, better yet, what about boxing?  How is that compatible with Christian faith?

But back to yoga.  What am I supposed to do?  And what are the other church members who have unrolled their mats next to mine supposed to do?

Here’s what I’m thinking: we live in a morally complicated world.  Nearly everything we do – for business, exercise, or pleasure – raises at least a question or two.   Should I participate in that sport?  Should I shop in that store? Should I do business with that person?  Should I pay $10 to see that movie?

And not to minimize, I believe people who are sincere in their faith should actively think about these questions.  To live faithfully often means to live carefully, thoughtfully, sensitively.

I listen to my yoga instructors at the end of the class thank me “for sharing my energy” with them.  I don’t really know what that means.  I shared a great deal of my sweat, but my energy?  A lot of what I hear, frankly, sounds like drivel.

Am I about to be pulled away from my faith and absorbed by a new and heretical one?  I don’t think so.  Still, I wonder about it.  Just as I wonder about freemasonry, capitalism, professional football, and boxing.  I’ve never been tempted to become Goth.

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David and Bathsheba

I’m preaching about David and Bathsheba on Sunday.  So are a lot of other preachers around the world.  That’s because 2 Samuel 11 is the Old Testament reading this week in something called the Revised Common Lectionary (explaining what that is would require at least another blogpost), and many preachers around the world use the lectionary to guide them in selecting scripture on which to base their sermons each week.

By this point in the week I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the David and Bathsheba story, and I’m pretty sure I understand what’s going on.  It’s a sad and tawdry tale.

Much of what I read this week I already knew, which is often the case when I preach about familiar portions of scripture.  But I did come across a couple of new insights.

One is that the sexual encounter with Bathsheba is often portrayed as a romantic interlude – in other words, consensual – when in reality the story suggests something very different.  David sent for her, slept with her, and then sent her back home.

This is not the language of romance.  It’s the language of power.

It’s true that David marries Bathsheba after having her husband murdered, but the circumstances surrounding their first meeting do not sound like a fairytale romance. Instead, the David we meet in this story is bored and full of himself. I’m thinking that maybe God should have allowed him to build the Temple, as he wanted, because without a project like that David has way too much time on his hands.

Maybe my original understanding of this story was shaped by influences other than the actual words of scripture.  For example, the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, staring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, certainly made the relationship seem beautiful and sensual, as sensual as films in that era were allowed to be.

The story, as the Bible tells it, however, suggests something very different.  I’ll need a day or two to process this new information.

The other new insight into this story comes from Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and writer.  In his wonderful book about the David story, Leap Over A Wall, Peterson argues that David will forever be linked with two names – Goliath and Bathsheba.

Though these two are different in so many ways, they are nevertheless similar, says Peterson, in that each one was something of a test for David.  They reveal David’s heart.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about David and Goliath, and I lifted up David’s courage as a model for us.  I suggested that we too aim higher, work harder, and trust God more.  In this other story David is calculating and cruel. So, what’s the message?

That we should copy the behavior we see earlier in David’s life and avoid the sad mess that his life becomes later on?  Sure, but I’m guessing there’s more here.  I’m starting to see that David was powerful in both stories, but in the story of Bathsheba that use of power was distorted.  It was used for David’s own gratification.  It was abused, used casually, thoughtlessly.

This is the exciting part of the week for me, as I squeeze as much of the spiritual wisdom as I can out of the words of scripture.  I know I’ll get there.  I (almost) always do.

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A pastor’s response

Our country has once again had one of those weeks. It was bloody and terrible and senseless, and it’s all of those things every time it happens.

We wake up and turn on the news, and there it is.  We see people running away in fear.  We see people being loaded into ambulances.  We see family members, huddled together and waiting for news, hoping against hope that their son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, is not among the victims.

It happens at Army bases, in schools and universities, in post offices, in shopping malls, and now in theaters.  No place, it seems, is safe.

Over the last few months, several church members have been engaged in a conversation about security measures we should probably take here … in this church, in a place of worship. That’s a conversation I never wanted to have.

Look, I have no political axe to grind here.  I don’t think these are occasions to score points on one side or another.

But I’m sad.  And I’m terrified.  And I happen to believe that there’s a spiritual side to all of this.  I hope you won’t be surprised to know that.

When politicians rush out to microphones to make their statements in the aftermath of one of these tragedies, they typically use the language of faith.  They mention prayer.  They call us to reflect on the things that really matter.

And even though those words sometimes seem a little too calculated, I have to agree. This is a time to use the language of faith. This is a time to pray.  This is a time to reflect on the things that really matter.

When we reach within and try to find those spiritual resources – and this is a pastor’s worry for his congregation – my worry is that we won’t find much, or that we won’t find enough.

So, my promise to you is to work harder – harder than ever – to focus on those things…to cultivate the spiritual resources we will need to face times like these.

There will be more, sorry to say.  This latest one is just that – only the most recent. There will be others.

And so, all of us – this is my challenge to you – need to find ways to think about what happened.  We need to make sure our spiritual resources are up to the job.  I’m talking about not giving in to anger or cynicism or despair.

I’m talking about finding ways to have hope, to live with hope, to live with confidence about the future.

That’s a tall order!  I know that. But I think that’s what it means to be people of faith. If we don’t believe that we are in the hands of a loving God, then we will eventually give in to the cynicism of our culture.

I don’t want to do that.  And I suspect you don’t either.  So, let’s find another way. The way of hope, the way of life, the way of Jesus, who once said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

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