“I Lack Nothing”

Rev. Donald R. Elly, M.Div.

The first three verses of the 23rd Psalm proclaim the role of a shepherd in the life of those the shepherd (a designation for the King in the ancient world and for God in Judaism). Listen to the first three verses and ponder what you expect from those we elect to govern us. “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.” (CEB)

Aram Bae in his recent devotional on the 23rd Psalm comments that this description of God is the most powerful phrase in the Psalm for him.(1) He writes first in confession that he finds himself “venting a great deal these days as all of us are living together alone with COVID-19.” My venting is really complaining and he provides several examples to which I could relate. “I hate not seeing my people in person; I miss seeing my students at Church; I miss laughing; sharing and eating together. I hate physical distancing. I miss social proximity. I really hate this COVID-19.”

He captures perfectly for me how I am feeling as we deal with all the changes brought about by this Pandemic. But then he made a powerful point that has stayed with me since I read his words and have reflected on my own feelings. Aram writes, “ And yet, here I am, alive and healthy. I call family and friends every day. I zoom, I worship on-line, we have food and water…”I lack nothing because the Lord is our shepherd, we have family, friends, grateful memories of the past, and promise of the present and the future We may experience loss and grief and still there are restful waters and proper paths to carry us through. Yes! We lack nothing, for the good Lord is our shepherd.

Prayer: Lord, you are not my shepherd, but our shepherd. Because of you we are not on our own; we have those with whom to share. Remembering all the resources provided may my complaints be transformed into gratitude because with you we lack nothing. Amen.

4th Sunday of Easter

May 3, 2020. Cycle A

(1)d365 is a daily on-line devotional that follows the Common Lectionary and provides the means to worship God, and deepen faith through the day. I highly recommend it. Just go to App Store on your phone to find it.

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”I Cannot Do This Alone”

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

A colleague, Barrie Tritle, and a United Methodist Pastor, shared that a friend reminded him of a prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled “I cannot Do This Alone”. I feel it is an appropriate prayer for this time in which we are living with the unknowns of the Coronavirus, too appropriate not to share.

It is worth noting that this prayer reflects Bonhoeffer’s witness as a Lutheran Pastor. It reflects a deep faith in the face of a very uncertain future. Barrie’s suggestion in offering this prayer is one I take to heart. “As we live into our Easter Faith in these days of physical distancing… I want you to have it for your prayer time.

“Let us then with Dietrich Bonhoeffer pray: O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you; I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, But with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, But I know the way for me… Restore me to liberty, And enable me to live now that I may answer before you and before (all). Lord, whatever this day may bring, Your name be praised. Amen.

In Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Shane Claiborne shares a bit of history that helps us to appreciate how Bonhoeffer’s prayer speaks to our anxious and uncertain time. He wrote: Dietrich Bonhoeffer studied theology in Germany and the United States and pastored a Church in London before returning to Germany where he founded and taught in a Seminary Community for the Confessing Church which lead resistance to Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone…So the Christian , too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life, but in the thick of foes.” If you wish to read more of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts you might go to Letters and Papers from Prison written while he was in prison before he was killed by Hitler’s order in 1945. May this prayer and Bonhoeffer’s words strengthen our faith and witness in this day.

April 19, 2020 Romans 8: 31-39 2nd Sunday of Eastertide

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Where Two or Three are Gathered

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

In this day when we as Christians are struggling to be the Body of Christ while “physically distancing” to love our neighbors and save ourselves from Covid-19, we are experiencing a huge contradiction. Our faith’s heartbeat is the incarnation embodied in meeting each other as the way God comes alive for us. God’s touch is best expressed in being face to face and meeting together to glorify as we celebrate God’s creative love. Not doing this denies us a major means of expressing and experiencing the Gospel.

On Monday of this week as I was walking Lucky and I observed a startling sight. Three cars were parked in a church parking lot usually jam-packed with cars. The local High School nearby has permission to use it for parking on school days so this sight in itself caught my attention. On each car was a student—two girls and a boy carrying on an antimated conversation while maintaining the required distance for safety.

Thinking about this in relationship to not being able to be the hands-on body of Christ brought a smile to my face and I thought immediately of Jesus’ statement to the disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am with them” (and that includes cars) I admired as well the ingenuity of the teens in finding a way to get their needs for face to face contact met.

Think how this might work for the local Church to increase the attendance at Sunday worship—cars could now be part of the attendance count; however, the gain might be destroyed in the increase in pollution of our environment. I was grateful for the chance to think about the humor in the image and identify what I miss most because of this current existential crisis and threat to our world—we cannot for the moment meet face to face. And that is what those dealing with grief and loss after the death of a loved one call a “secondary “ loss. Secondary it may be, but it none the less real and powerful.

Prayer: Thank you God that technology through Zoom and other means have made face to face contact possible. May we find as we go through this time of real suffering in relationship deprevation just how valuable your gift of human contact is. Amen.

April 1, 2020 Matthew 18: 15-20

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Out of the Depths

Donald R. Elly, M.Div.

The 130th Psalm speaks to me and in the Psalmist’s words I find comfort and direction for the circumstances for all of us struggling with fear at the global pandemic of COVID-19 as it sweeps us into depths we have not faced before. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!”

The Psalmist is overwhelmed with some circumstances that have left him or her feeling that Lord ‘s is not able to hear the need, or has stopped hearing the pleas for salvation, for some sign that a life preserver is on the way. While the circumstances are never identified beyond “iniquities”, there is the definite feeling that despair is present because of actions that cannot be changed—except by the Lord.

For me the Psalm speaks to the fear, frustration and helplessness of coping with COVID-19. Turning over in my mind the failures of the Federal Government to deal with the first signs of this new virus that showed up in the world as early as December 2019, January 2020, and to map out a plan of response to match the spread of this disease and stop its transmission, I feel that my Federal Government stopped hearing the voices and supplications that might have given us ways to cope.

So what now? Again the Psalmist provides an action plan we are literally living out to cope and care for each other. What timely words as the Psalmist writes, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in the Lord’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. ”Isn’t waiting and watching for the Lord one way to frame our staying inside and maintaining physical distancing so that guided by the Lord we care for one another and hope.

Prayer: O USA waiting as a way of loving is a way that God has given me a means to express compassion and hope. In the psalmist’s direction I hear the possibility of redemption. Amen.

March 29, 2020 Cycle A 5th Sunday of Lent

Ezek. 37:1-14 *Palm 130. Romans 8:6-11. John 11; 1-45

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Caught by Goodness and Mercy

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

We maybe a society tending toward biblical illiteracy; however, there are few of the older generation that cannot remember the 23rd Psalm in the King James Version, John 3:16 or the Lord’s Prayer. Even the person suffering from dementia who can no longer remember the names or faces of loved ones can recall these scriptures. Which scriptures are your favorites and why? The 23rdPsalm, the 1st verse, is my favorite, especially the translation of it in the Jerusalem Bible which reads, “With Yahweh (the Lord) as my shepherd there is nothing I lack.” As I heard those words in a stressful time between jobs, it was as if I heard the Psalmist say, “You have God, you have everything you need to live, find a job and be safe.” That verse saw me through a summer of unemployment until I found the most fulfilling job that fit my skills and enabled me to grow in faith. My soul was restored and I experienced God’s guidance along the paths of life that grows deeper with each year.

As I have lived with God as my shepherd I have experienced strength in times of testing, which is what temptation means, and I am truly grateful for God’s presence in the tough times. This is the second gift of the Psalmist’s faith. The Psalmist concludes with these words, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” That sounds so passive, but the word pursue in Hebrew means to the Psalmist that Goodness and Mercy pursue you and me as a foxhound would pursue a fox—relentlessly.

We cannot escape God. For some this sounds horrible. But is being caught by relentless good and care. The Lord is not a spectator watching us from a distance, but the Creator who is always seeking us out and wanting nothing more from us than that we receive the gift of God’s presence and all the Goodness and Mercy that come with it. The Psalmist is direct. If you want to lack nothing, accept that the Lord wants to feed, protect and guide—even in the rough times. Trust that and Goodness and Mercy will not only pursue you—that will catch you and you will never be without the strength the Lord can provide.

March 22, 2020​​​​​​         4thSunday in Lent

1st Sam. 16:1-13 *Psalm 23 Romans 8:28-39 John 9:1-41

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Turning to Prayer

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

Implied in Mark’s story of the frantic father with the demon-possessed son is the failure of the disciples to listen to and trust God. I, like many others have always assumed that when Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain to experience the transfiguration that the disciples sat around twiddling their thumbs. Not so. Those left at the foot of the mountain continued the work Jesus started.

Could it be that Mark has put before us several teaching moments when the implications of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah are unfolded? This failure followed the first teaching moment we call the transfiguration where Jesus is revealed to Peter, James and John as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets—not the replacement of them. The message Mark delivers is to listen to Jesus, the One who completes the Law and Prophets.

The second teaching experience is that without prayer—listening to and trusting God’s living Word, Jesus, our human efforts will end in failure. When do you pray? It has taken me a long time to learn and often as a last resort, that praying –listening for Jesus’ voice is the best instrument/guidance we, as disciples have been given for dealing with whatever life throws at us. Too often I think of prayer only after I have failed or am at my wits end trying to figure out how to solve the problems that confront me as a human being.

The third teaching moment in this passage comes when the frantic father, after describing the history of his son’s demon-possession, immediately acknowledges his lack of trust, but asks Jesus to complete what is lacking. What courage is demonstrated: “If you can do anything?” says the Father. Jesus says, “All things are possible for the one who has faith.” At that the Father immediately cries out, “I have faith (trust); help my lack of faith (trust).” The Father’s faith was enough when combined with trust in Jesus and the impossible can happen even today. Help me to remember to pray first and then act on what Jesus tells me to do.

March 15, 2020 The Third Sunday of Lent

1Kings 19:1-21. Psalm 46:1-10

Romans 5:1-5. *Mark 9:2-23 (1)

(1) Used the Common English Bible translation and also the Message by Eugene Peterson as sources of understanding.

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A Prayer for Every Journey

Donald R. Elly, M.Div.

James Limburg identifies the 121st Psalm as one for sojourners, those who are traveling from place to place but not yet home. He puts his finger on one of the most important functions of this psalm. It could be prayed or sung as one begins any trip be it short, just across town or around the world. He also suggests that this psalm is a farewell liturgy where the one about to set out on any journey raises the anxiety we all feel as we begin a trip, “I will lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” Acknowledging the anxiety felt as one undertakes a trip, the next comment is truly as affirmation of faith, “My help comes from the Lord who made the heaven and earth.” In a time of dealing with the fear of Coronavirus, and the limits of what we control the central affirmation of the psalmist is true. Seeking God’s guidance and strength to keep us calm. We will need to learn new ways to express God’s love. Developing & sharing our God given sense of humor will be needed

The One who provides God’s comfort to the traveler unfolds in verses 3 though 8 some of the results of trusting God, the creator. Not only will God not allow you to stumble and fall, but most important God is protector from those forces that could harm you—sun, moon and fatigue. Evil, while a threat, will not take your life and God who made you is watching over your going out and coming in and that care is eternal (ongoing and everlasting) Thank you God, depending upon you for well being I know you will not let me down.

March 8, 2020​​​    Cycle A​​              2nd Sunday of Lent

Gen. 12:1-4a *Psalm 121 Rom. 4:1-5,13-17 John 3:1-17

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Following the Spirit’s Lead

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

The temptation of Jesus is a very familiar passage, so much so that we think we know what its message is. Occurring after Jesus’ baptism reveals Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son. The wilderness experience is a reminder that chaos and darkness can defeat the light.

In Matthew we read, “Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the test by fasting forty days and forty nights.” 1 Matthew seems to consider Jesus’ circumstance an intentional confrontation with evil. The temptation by the devil appears to be a presentation on coping with evil. Who for Matthew is the focus of instruction? The disciples, the earliest believers who are dealing with the pressures of leaving their childhood faith to follow Jesus, and confronting the pressures of the Roman Empire who saw them as a threat to peace.

First, what is God trying to teach us about following the Holy Spirit’s leadership? It’s helpful here to remember Job’s testing by the devil where God allows it because he trusts Job not to crack under the pressure of the test. I believe that God, having affirmed Jesus, has the same trust that he will not fail this test—God does not abandon Jesus and we need to remember this truth when we too face tests that temper our faith and make is stronger.

Secondly, following the lead of the Holy Spirit reveals the resources available to us, who, like Jesus, trust God. What are the resources Jesus uses to pass this testing by the devil? First there is the Hebrew bible (the Torah) that Jesus uses to counter the devil’s pressure and stay faithful. Secondly there is the Holy Spirit that never leaves Jesus, and reminding him of the promise of his Baptism. The presence of Angels (always a sign of God’s presence) who show up to minister to Jesus as this test concludes. The testing taking place in the Wilderness is a vivid reminder for both Jews and Christians that while the wilderness may be a place of chaos, darkness and sin, it is also a place where God is at work.

March 1, 2020. Cycle A. The First Sunday of Lent

Book of Job; Psalm 32; Rom. 5:12-19, 8:28-39; *Matt. 4:1-11

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Transfiguration—from Rabbi to Messiah

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

The word “Suddenly” appears two times in this story of change and faith development that we label the transfiguration. The first time is when Jesus is transfigured before the three disciples who see him talking to Moses and Elijah. Matthew makes clear that the tension between the law as guidelines for living life and the prophet’s call for justice is resolved.

The second use of “Suddenly” is when Peter, the disciple who represents all of us, wants to mark this vision of Jesus, Moses and Elijah by building markers to identify what happened here. Peter’s wanting to do something is so human. The action has been interpreted several ways. Peter may want to mark where this vision happened to remember and maybe even return to recapture it.

Others see Peter’s memorials as a way to institutionalize change, tame God and cope with his fear of being changed himself. Jesus took the three up the mountain with him because he saw in their response to him the hope that his message of God’s reign breaking in would continue. “Suddenly” a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” These words make clear that God is present.

These same exact words were spoken at Jesus’ Baptism. The disciples are overcome with fear—to be in the presence of God is to die. Jesus, not as teacher but Messiah, responds to their plight by doing two things for them. Jesus came up and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus’ words and touch provide just what they need as they deal with the changes the Good News brings.

And I love the ending. “And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” This story is for us. Jesus as the Christ continues to be with us touching us and giving us the words to cope with constant change. Prayer: Jesus, as we do what you say may we find our faith energized and be your hopeful people for our day. Amen.

February 23, 2020 Cycle A Transfiguration Sunday

Exod. 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2nd Peter1:16-21 *Matthew 17:1-9

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Make Things Right, Then Worship

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

The priority of Jesus is revealing the Kingdom of Heaven as envisioned by the Law and described by the prophets. What is radical about this priority is that it is God’s and to be accomplished by Jesus working with the disciples.  

We don’t often think about it but the instructions of Jesus here in Matthew 5-7 are what God now hopes will be accomplished by us. The reality of the Kingdom of Heaven is made evident not just what we do—worship, doing good deeds, and alms giving, but in how we treat each other in our congregation and community. We are to be living beatitudes in who we are.

Both the Message and the Common English Bible proclaim that having healthy relationships with each other-“Loving God and neighbor as self” – is the most powerful witness we can make to be Christians.  “Do not commit murder” is one of the ten commandments, but for Jesus the root of murder is anger. Anger is displayed in how we talk with one another, and a failure to respect each other equally as valued children of God.  Living in rightness with the ethics of Jesus’ beatitudes curtails anger that alienated us from each other. Making things right must happen before we can come before God empty enough to receive God’s blessing and pass it along in love of neighbor.

Perhaps Jesus has in mind the promise of Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people.”  Making things right does not wait for our brother or sister to come to us, but because of God’s openness to us in Jesus, we reach out proactively because healing and wholeness in the Body of Christ is the primary value that expresses the love of God.  This makes the existence of the Kingdom of Heaven not just a possibility but a reality.  

Since I am the only person I can, with God’s help, control I begin with me to demonstrate the Kingdom of Heaven is possible.  It is a small thing but it change the world. The benefit is freedom from the weight  of shame, worry, guilt and I can rejoice with God that in this moment the Kingdom of Heaven has come to earth. 

February 16, 2020    Cycle A            6th Sunday of Epiphany

Deut. 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1st Cor. 3:1-9; *Matthew 5: 21-37

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