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Reading James Through an American Lens

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A Reading of James 2: 14-17 with a 21st Century,

United States Gun Violence Hermeneutic:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t act on it? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is a victim in a mass shooting, or has had a child shot to death at school, and one of you says to them, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” and you do nothing to oppose the senseless madness of such horrific violence, allowing more madmen to easily acquire weapons of mass destruction, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it doesn’t lead to action, is dead.

Stop Offering Rancid Casseroles as Comfort Food

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An entrenched and growing peeve of mine is the manner in which too many people attempt to trivialize, minimize, and sanitize the great power of death and the terrible mess people can find themselves experiencing in the wake of the death of someone they’ve loved.  “Why, God must have needed another angel in heaven to watch over us,” they say to a parent whose child died after a tragic accident.  “It’s God’s time and God’s plan, and today he’s in a better place,” they say to a wife whose husband died after a prolonged bout of suffering.  It’s both saddening and infuriating to see people who do this as an attempt to offer comfort and support to a grieving survivor.  To hear them talk you’d think they had gotten themselves some sort of crystal ball, through which they can see the blueprint of the universe with such wisdom that they can zero in on that part of the plan that relates to the life and death of people in a particular time and place.  But when you dig down underneath their comments–and believe me, you don’t have to dig much–you find, time and again, someone gleaning some image of heaven from the most superficial and deviant encounters with the Bible and Christian tradition.

Such folks fail to realize that their attempts at “comfort” actually bring an unsettling sort of pain, because the person receiving their platitudes has to now deal with both the death of the loved one and the misguided person in their company, who is spouting the very worst thing to say at the very worst time.  Seriously.  It’s in the exact same ballpark where you find the notion that “he/she deserved to die; he/she had it coming.”  And think about the image of God conveyed in those messages saying, “God must have needed another angel.”  Evidently God reached down from his throne, caused the man driving the SUV to go into a sudden seizure, and sent him into the oncoming traffic lane to hit head-on your son coming home late from his high school jazz band practice.  That is God, the God whose “providence” also inspires the heretical saying, “He doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  That is the God shared in an attempt to comfort this mother who has just had her only child ripped away in a senseless, violent car collision.

When you think about it though, the person saying such a thing really doesn’t have comfort in mind, comfort for the other person, that is.  It’s more about coming up with something that will bring self-comfort, because it’s tough to be in the immediate company of one so wounded by tragic death.  Our senses and sensitivities are drawn into their despair and grief, and before we know it, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves drawn into that grief with the gravitational force of a black hole–unchecked compassion can have such effects.  And this is unbearable for folks whose main hope for their lives is that there is a plan, there is order, THERE IS A REASON FOR EVERYTHING!! THERE MUST BE!!  So in this place of uncertainty, and the fearsome discombobulation that comes with it, too many people find themselves offering a painful platitude as a magic pill so that their own pain might be abated.  Sort of like those folks who once offered sour wine on a sponge to a guy in extreme pain.

Leon_Bonnat_-_The_Crucifixion

“The Crucifixion,” Leon Bonnat

When you dare to go deeper into the Christian faith tradition, you find yourself at the foot of a cross, where the sky is dark, the wind is howling, and the suffering One hanging there cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Most of us are like those 12 fellas Jesus called to follow Him; we’d rather be anywhere but there, at that intersection where death thrusts its jagged blade into the mortal flesh of life.  The place where there is nobody coming to “save the day,”  because death is blotting out the day in an unstoppable way.  Yet this is the place in our faith where we truly find Emmanuel, “God with us.”  We discover that God has become incarnate to do much more than show us how human beings should live, and then die in a gruesome way so that some sense of divine righteousness might be appeased.  Stand near the foot of the cross and see how God has come to endure the pain and isolation of our human death, and to share in the grief that death brings.  It’s remarkable to think that the Almighty Creator of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, could lack for anything.  But our gospel suggests that was exactly the case; that God lacked one thing, the experience of suffering as we suffer, the experience of suffering with us and dying as we die.  And in all these things, the gospel tells us that the God who experiences suffering and death is able to guide us to the place we need to be when called upon to offer support and comfort to people who have been vandalized by death.  We stand with them, like  those few hardy souls who stood at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to suffering and offering the very best we have to offer–our presence, our compassion, our own hearts, that we’ve allowed to be pulled into this grief of our friends, our family, and even those whom we do not know.  We set our words on the shelf, for the most part, because what has happened is beyond the scope of words to frame and explain.   Death is too big for us.  Life is too big for us.  And somewhere, somehow, some way, hopefully, God is.  Strip all the varnish away, and that’s what we’ve got.  That’s what we find when we journey to the foot of the cross.  That’s what we find when we journey into the life of someone who has been clobbered by the fearsome strength of death.  Don’t be afraid to make that journey, to offer the most basic companionship in the midst of utter abandonment and desolation.  And for those who insist on jumping pell-mell into their own warped, twisted and shallow understandings of life, death and God, let them use all their bromides on themselves as suppositories–because that is where such things truly belong.

 

 

 

Barna: Youth Leaving Church After High School is a RECENT Trend

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So says the Barna Group, in its report, “Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts.”     What some have decided is a normative part of transitioning to adulthood is actually a myth, the Barna Group says.  Instead, they trace this trend of youth leaving church to become prodigals, exiles or nomads back to the Boomer Generation:

Evidence exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s….Today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.

Why the Boomers?  I’ve had a few thoughts on this. 

Another issue Barna addresses is the explosion in communications technology and its widespread availability.   As was the case in the Reformation, people have discovered that they’re able to bypass established channels of communication with new, internet based, wireless technology.  On the big-ticket issues and news of the day people can now  engage in two-way communication rather than remain the recipients of one-way communication.  Also resembling the Reformation is the widespread awareness that institutions have become so corrupted that they no longer behave in ways that reflect the best interests of the citizenry, whether it be a branch of government, a financial institution, an established media channel for news, or an institutional incarnation of church.   Combine these two trends and you quickly realize that the Church can’t continue to stake out the same old ground.  The Church can’t continue to operate under the assumption that people will come to the building and want to join the group there, trusting that this is the best way of finding some higher spiritual truth.   Nor can the Church assume that youth are destined to leave after high school, or that they won’t find any meaningful spiritual growth after they do.

Blessings Received in this Interim Transition Time

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I’m nearing the conclusion of an interim ministry at a Denver church that began only a couple of months ago.   It’s a short one, as interim ministries go, but it’s been one that has blessed me in some unexpected ways.    This is a medium sized congregation worshiping around 200-250 on Sunday, counting both services.  The first service is more of a traditional service, though upbeat in the music and liturgy selected.  The second service is what I describe as contemporary liturgical, with a band and vocalists leading the singing.   There is a healthy mix of young and old coming to worship together every Sunday and there is also a healthy representation of people who have varying social outlooks, from liberal to conservative.  This is unique in my experience, where churches have tended to gravitate toward a like-minded, conservative mindset.

The most striking feature of congregational life here is the obvious commitment to young people and the actions that the church takes to bring that commitment to life.    How does that show itself, you ask?  To me the most powerful display comes during Holy Communion, where children come forward with adults to the altar, where the outstretched hands of  the 82-year-old wait alongside the outstretched hands of the 2-year-old.    It’s one thing to talk about the importance of sacramental identity in the lives of the baptized, it’s another thing to see that identity lived out like this, Sunday after Sunday.   Speaking of baptism, the tradition here is to invite children to gather along with the baptismal group around the font, and so they come to sit on the floor and watch as a new brother or sister is welcomed into the family of God in Christ.

There is also a children’s sermon at each service, and there are times when Sunday School craft tables are moved into the main hallway so that the kids are visibly in the mix of church activity.  They need to do this sometimes to get some needed extra space, and they’re not necessarily thinking about the significance of kids making Noah’s ark decorations adjacent to adults in fellowship conversations.   But it is significant and speaks to an unconscious competence in making sure that children know they are a valued part of the church community–and that the adult community knows this as well.

At yesterday morning’s early Sunday service, a bell choir provided special music, and I remember it as having one or two young people ringing bells with the group.  The difference in worship styles between early and second service is truly life-giving.   I come out of the first service feeling full, because I’ve participated in rich worship rooted solidly in our Lutheran tradition.  I come out of the second service with a good spirit-buzz; the band plays the “Now the Feast and Celebration” with a strong back beat and some solid guitar licks.

It’s been a surprising time of blessing for me to serve as pastor there while their pastor is on sabbatical leave.  When I say blessing, I think I also mean healing.  I’d not considered the ways in which I’d been knocked around and down in my earlier experiences.

I’ve had what can best be described as positive mirror images to some unhealthy, negative experiences that came my way practically from the moment I came out of the seminary chute and into my first call.   They’ve affirmed that the church can be a healthy, vibrant place and also that I can be a healthy, vibrant pastor.

My preaching is getting better; and I’m enjoying it again, from the preparation phase all the way to the delivery on Sunday.   Bible studies are as fun as they’ve ever been, and the folks who come are well-read, curious and insightful in their own right.  Our studies have become collaborative journeys involving the whole group, by far my favorite way to do it.

Back to preaching.  I think I’m growing in the ability to proclaim grace in the framework of law and gospel, and do it in ways that respect and honor the diversity of folks gathered for worship.     I’m also becoming more spontaneous and this has helped me shape the message in different ways so that the early risers hear something a little different from the second service folks.

At the moment, I don’t know what’s next for me after this interim ends at the end of the month.   It’s easy to allow that uncertainty to grab hold of me in negative and fearful ways.  So I focus on the blessings at hand and the blessings in hand.  And in faith, I go forward into whatever God might offer me next.

A Clashing of Powers, A Parable About Two Sons and A Vineyard

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Here’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary gospel text along with thoughts it inspired.   Maybe, just maybe, there’s a community of faith out there somewhere that would appreciate hearing a message based on my preliminary  impressions.  My inner cynic tells me it’s doubtful such a place exists; another small voice tells me to hang in there and have faith.  We’ll see.

Matthew 21:23–32 (NRSV)

(Mk 11:27–33; Lk 20:1–8)

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The question remains, “What exactly is the vineyard?” Bundled into that question is another, “What exactly WAS the vineyard?” Jesus tells a story about about a father, two sons, and a vineyard that needs attention. To folks in the audience, the vineyard would resonate on several levels. One, it’s a dominant symbol of the agricultural economy. Lots and lots of folks make a living in the vineyard. Two, it’s a symbol and metaphor used by their prophets, especially around the time of the conquest of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian exile and the return from exile. Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” lays it out plainly:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

righteousness, but heard a cry!          Is 51: v. 8

The parable of the two sons, the dad and the vineyard is told in the context of the Jerusalem Temple, one of the great marvels of the ancient world. If God Almighty had a mailbox on earth, it was there.

The story is told in the midst of an audience that had been steeped in the religious/social/political/economic cultural traditions that basically held that God had chosen this particular group of people to be first among all the ethnic peoples of the world, had given them this geography as sacred geography, and had called them to be a light for the nations. Ummm, do we find similarly held assumptions in our time and place?

Isn’t our geography seen as the land that has been given by God to God’s chosen people, who are of a particular ethnicity and religion? (The Patriot’s Bible, anyone?)

When Jesus uses the vineyard touchstone to make his point, he is certainly calling on the prophetic understandings of justice and injustice that are wrapped in the vineyard metaphor.  And he was speaking to a nation and within a nation about how the prevailing powers and authorities had become opposed to the new power and authority–and righteousness–he came to reveal.  For 2000 years, Jesus has continued the revelation, shocking and pissing off those whose power and status quo are threatened, to the extent that they find ways to crucify him again and again.   But the power of the resurrection keeps overcoming those powers, again and again.  His word to the chief priests and elders packs the same wallop today as it did back then, as does the word of the prophet Isaiah to a nation and people that lost its way.

Don’t believe me?

What happens if you read the Isaiah passage outside the Georgia state execution chamber immediately after Troy Davis is killed by the state? What happens if you read this passage at the Wall St. sit-in? What happens if you read this passage alongside a poster-sized photo of the children executed by U.S. soldiers during a house raid in Iraq?

Who are the chief priests and elders of our culture? Likewise, who would be the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and what exactly is it that makes them first in the kingdom of God?

And finally, what exactly is the Kingdom of Heaven and how might we find the wiring that connects all these questions to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?

We can do a nice little 8-minute piece on the vineyard and the kingdom focusing on the church and its need to replenish a food pantry or provide coats for a coat drive. We can preach a nice, tidy little piece on the importance of repentance (metanoia) and how piety can often get in the way of growing in authentic faith.

But will it mean a heckuva lot when Monday comes and life keeps going down the same destructive path?

Maybe, just maybe, the tax collectors and prostitutes in our time are those folks who wouldn’t call themselves at all religious, maybe not even very spiritual. But they’re standing outside the execution chamber and they’re sitting in on Wall St., and they’re burning the midnight oil developing just alternatives to the injustices that bear down on and crush more and more people everyday. Perhaps it’s the gay teen who tragically committed suicide because he just couldn’t take the destructive bullying anymore.

Maybe these are first, like the first son in the parable, or a bit like those surprised sheep we find in the apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25.

What’s the vineyard? What’s the kingdom? Who’s first? Who deserves Jesus’ bitch-slap, like the one he laid on those chief priests and elders?

A Message to Religious Leaders From An Outsider

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   “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  –Jesus, speaking in the Temple during the last week of his life, according to Matthew 23:23-24.

Reflection:

Some time ago I was in conversation with a pastor who heaped a bunch of us other pastors together as “social justice pastors” and did so in a not-so-subtly dismissive way.  From this pastor’s perspective, the social justice bunch had missed the true mark and not focused in on the core message of grace that defines our denomination.  Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising to the SJP’s that they find themselves struggling with their vocations  in the church. It was too bad, yet also implicitly deserved.

It seems to me that Jesus is saying you can’t parse grace in ways that leave justice–and it’s key component , mercy–on the sidelines of “proper theology.”  The systems that do so are systems that inevitably result in a few folks pleasuring themselves while ignoring the needs of the many.

And right now, the needs of the many are growing exponentially huge.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week: “Your Kingdom Come”

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  When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

‘Tell the daughter of Zion,  Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’  The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’    Matthew 21:1-11

Your kingdom come, we pray.   We pray this often.  Sometimes we think about it when we pray it; other times we just say the words.  But every time we pray it, we pray to God,  “God, we ask and hope that your rule and your power come—into our world, into each of our lives.”   Today’s time of worship is like so many worship times, when much of our worship is dedicated to this petition, “your kingdom come” and dedicated to a lot of the propositions that come along with that petition.   There’s the proposition and the hope that God’s kingdom will come in ways that bring good, meaningful and lasting changes in our lives and in our world.   We know that we live in a time when there is a lot of wounding that is being inflicted; wounding of our planet, wounding of people caught up in war and wounding of people caught up in poverty.  There is a woundedness that we find even in our own lives and in our relationships with one another.  Yet we’re also aware,  deep down,  that life is also an extremely beautiful proposition, that the Creation we’re part of, is powerfully beautiful.  We thrive in that beauty, whether it’s the majestic summit reached by climbing a mountain peak, or the majestic summit reached by an orchestra and choir joining together to carry an audience on the ascent of Handel’s Messiah.

There’s the striking beauty of a Colorado mountain sunset, and there’s the equally striking beauty found in the face of a baby smiling up at you.   We strive for beauty, for peace, for justice, for joy, for happiness, for light in all its rainbow colors.  But we’re also caught in an existence where these things are too often in short supply.  The color and joy of our Christmas celebrations soon give way to the reality that there’s a dead tree in the living room that needs to be taken down and taken out to the curb because it has become a fire hazard.   The beautiful newborn baby resting peacefully in the hospital maternity ward may soon be sent home with parents who can’t seem to solve their own problems.  The child will be raised in a society that can’t seem to solve its problems, no matter how hard it tries, and no matter how hard it tries to deny them.  If we do this…. if we achieve this…. if we change this…. if we locate the problem, isolate it and resolve it….then we’ll be fine.  One of the best days seen by people in my parents’ generation was the day the United States dropped the second of two atomic bombs on Japan.  That day and that bomb brought a quick end to the Second World War, and for a while it seemed that the people of the world would be headed in a much better direction once they rebuilt from the ravages of that war.   Yet we entered this new century with a few additional wars under our belts; the beginning of the new millennium became indelibly marked by the airplanes-turned-to-bombs that were dropped on us.

As I think of all the history that has unfolded since VJ Day in 1945;  as I think about the history that we’ve lived out since 9-11; as I think about the different ways our lives are framed by light and shadow; and as I ponder our overall condition as human beings who can both plant and poison; I find myself zeroing in on scenes in my own life that seem to best sum up our situation.   There’s the scene in the hospital birth room in Austin, just before 5 o’clock in the morning, and I’m staring at the miracle that is my newborn daughter; in that moment I can already feel my life changing through the power of this immense love I felt for her, a love I didn’t know I had.  This new life was a life that had come from me and through me, and that new life was to be treasured and nurtured.  That experience led me to a greater awareness that other children are special treasures and that each of us is a valued person and that we’re all part of a larger human family.  Since that hospital room moment when I looked upon the pink little face of my newborn daughter, I’ve wondered about the feelings that God experiences for everything and everyone given birth in the Creation.  But there is a shadow side too.  I’ve also wondered about the ways in which I’ve de-valued people through my own biases and insecurities, whether I knew it or not.

Another scene took place in a small town at the home of a member of the church I was pastoring.  We were talking about the events of the day, and he updated me on recent events surrounding one of the town’s children who had grown up and moved away, and then had recently come back to town as a grown up to attend her mother’s funeral.  The daughter had come back to her mother’s home, and in settling her affairs, decided that she really liked that little town and would like to keep the house as her own, and settle down to make a life.  There was just one hitch.  It seemed this woman had moved out to California and had struck up a relationship with another woman, and she had brought her partner along with her.  Well, he said, it took about six weeks before they put the house on the market and moved back to California, where that sort of lifestyle is permitted.  She found out that we just don’t tolerate things like that around here, he said, rocking back in his recliner.  And he said it with a certain degree of what I’d call community pride.

The next scene is at a large funeral home in Milwaukee.   It was the day of the funeral for a 94-year-old woman who had died after a long illness.  Her body had been prepared for the ceremony and placed in an expensive casket, opened for viewing.  Everyone came to look upon the person they knew as Grammy for one last time.  The body had been dressed and made up so well that Grammy looked like she was just taking a nap.  The track lights over the coffin had a flesh-colored tint, enhancing the effect.

But finally the service was over, the casket was closed over the body and then wheeled out to the hearse, with the family processing behind.  And that’s when a little 6-year-old  girl, her stuffed animal in tow, was overcome by the powerful forces at work that day.   Why did they close the box on Grammy?  Where are they taking her?  When is she coming back?  A couple of the adults stopped to kneel down and do their best to console this little girl who was just beginning to experience the traumatic separation that only death can bring.

That brings us to the scene that played out some 2000 years ago, on the other side of the world; the somewhat bizarre scene of the itinerant preacher and teacher from Galilee riding into Jerusalem to begin Passover week.  He rode into a powder keg of expectations that a Messiah would soon come to rescue the Judeans from the yoke of Roman occupation.  The hope for an apocalyptic battle between good and evil was so thick you could almost cut it with an assassin’s knife.  Hosanna!  Save us!  Unleash the heavenly hosts and nuke the Romans!  And drop one on the Egyptians while you’re at it!    Bring us the kingdom, Jesus, and bring it soon!

They probably didn’t know it, but their prayers had been answered, just not with the answers they expected.  The one foretold by the prophets had indeed arrived and was approaching the nexus of power—religious, political and economic– found in the Jewish temple and in the Roman Governor’s palace.

We remember that as Jesus entered Jerusalem, so also lambs were being brought in by the hundreds for the ritual Passover meal coming later that week.  We remember that Jesus didn’t come as the warrior son of David, attempting to reclaim the throne with sword and chariot.  Instead he fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, who foretold a king who would come to bring peace into the world and to banish the war-horse.   In a way he also was fulfilling his own prophecy, given in the Beatitudes at the outset of his ministry: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.   Jesus did ride into Jerusalem as a conqueror, but it would take a while for people to see the victory he won and the true oppressors he defeated.  As I think about it, here we are some 2 millennia later and we’re still looking through a darkened glass, unable to fully realize the victory Jesus won against the destructive forces at work in our world and in our lives. The Gospel played out in Holy Week once again reveals the battle engaged by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to set us free to be the people God created us to become.    Your kingdom come, we pray.  And yes, it does come.  In humility and love, it comes.  Often it comes in ways as surprising as the sight of an intenerate country preacher riding a little donkey up the road to Jerusalem.  As we move through Holy week might we take time to consider the surprising, peaceful and just ways God continues to bring in the kingdom we pray for, the kingdom ruled by the little donkey’s rider.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.