Sunday, July 11, 2021

How Can I Find My Way Home?

Here is my wife Beth's devotion for our church to complement today's sermon. 


Devotion for July 11, 2021

By Beth Stroble

How can I find my way home?

This question, voiced by Simba (in the song “Endless Night”) at a defining moment in the Lion King story, expresses sorrow for the loss of his father Mufasa’s guidance.  Recalling Mufasa’s words about the Great Ones of the past always looking down on them, he yearns for his father’s presence through a sign—even a word that gives hope for the future, a marker for the way home.

Home, of course, has many meanings—an actual residence, a town, or community of our growing up years—at its most literal. Home can be one place or many. As one who has lived many places, I typically think of home as “where you hang your hat.” But to truly feel that a place is home evokes John Denver’s words, “Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong. . .” Simba recognizes that carefree cavorting with Timon and Pumbaa is not where he belongs and feels called to return to his rightful home.  Can he anchor himself once more in his father’s love and care for him and bridge the connection Simba feels has been broken?

The parallels to the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15: 11-32 are striking. While the circumstances that prompt the younger son to claim his inheritance and leave his father’s home are not Simba’s, we know that his “trip to a land far away” does not go well.  “There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living” (verse 13). Just as Simba is reduced to eating bugs with a warthog and a meerkat, the prodigal son hires himself out to feed pigs, yearning to eat as well as they do.  In the Common English Bible translation, we learn that these circumstances prompt the son to “come to his senses” (17).  The NRSV translation describes this moment of insight as the time when the son “comes to himself.” Finding his way home depends upon his recognition of his need for his father’s love and care, a birthright he believes he has squandered and no longer deserves.

In both cases, the fathers’ love has remained constant and was never lost by these two sons. Simba’s father appears to him as an image in the water, encouraging him to come to himself as king. When the prodigal son’s father sees him coming at a long distance, he runs to him with open arms, expressing joy and compassion in his return. The son who was dead has come to life. “He was lost and is found!” (24) Simba and the prodigal son find their way home, the place where they belong.

These stories of being lost and found matter.  Each of us may have stories of times when we lost our way and strayed from our true and best selves for any number of reasons. Blessed are we when these stories also include the joyous welcome and love of friends and family when we have found our way!

What we know is that our heavenly Father always welcomes us home.  We never lose God’s love and grace, and God constantly intervenes in our lives to bring us home. As Jesus explains to his disciples, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me, but I will raise it up at the last day” (John 6:38-39). We are those he was sent to claim and to raise up.  We are the sheep of his pasture.  We are the lost coin. We are the prodigal son. We may stray from the kingdom, but the kingdom is never lost to us because of the grace, love and care of our Father. All we need do is come to ourselves as children of God, those who have been redeemed by Christ Jesus, and cared for by the Holy Spirit.

We were lost and now are found. Hallelujah. Amen.


Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Retelling Stories

A devotion written for our church for this past Sunday.


Retelling Stories

Deuteronomy 26:1-10

Paul Stroble

Have you seen Hamilton? We’ve seen it twice: live at the Fox, and again on Disney+. The musical premiered Off-Broadway in February 2015 and on Broadway a few months later in August. Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton and became inspired to write the show.

The musical’s story begins as Hamilton reflects on his difficult early life. He had been born in the Caribbean, of unmarried parents, and suffered misfortunes as he grew and eventually struggled to succeed. The musical introduces us to the many figures in Hamilton’s life and traces his journey as a significant Founding Father. Of course, Hamilton is later assassinated by Vice President Aaron Burr. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton survives Alexander by fifty years and devotes her life to the care of orphans.

The musical Hamilton draws from music like hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul. Much of the story is told in rap. The musical casts black and Latino actors in many of the roles. Miranda himself is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent. He plays Hamilton himself.

Miranda writes, “This is a story about American then, told by American now, and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” Another writer notes that “the founders really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today.” So, Miranda retells the story of Alexander Hamilton and transforms it for our contemporary time, with its racial and ethnic diversity and ongoing struggles concerning immigration and social justice.

One of the things that fascinates me about the Bible, is that it does what Hamilton does! There are places where Bible passages reinterpret and retell other passages. For instance, Deuteronomy retells the story of Israel and reiterates God’s laws, giving a theological perspective that helps Israel get ready for the future in the Land. 1 and 2 Chronicles retells the story of Israel’s monarchy, previously told in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, but this time emphasizing the responsibility for Israel’s future to each generation of Bible readers. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 surveys the biblical history, in order to confront the religious leaders: the Prophets were often opposed by their communities, and so was Jesus in Stephen’s own time.

The book of Hebrews has several passages where Old Testament practices and stories are retold—often without what we would call historical accuracy—to make important theological points about Jesus. In important ways, the salvation of Jesus is a retelling of the story of the Exodus and the Mosaic covenant.

I’m taking a lot of devotional space, but I wanted to emphasize that the Bible itself gives us permission to study, apply, and reread its passages for contemporary situations. A “strict constructionist” approach to the Bible isn’t necessary or recommended. We always retell the Bible passages for new circumstances.

Our Deuteronomy passage is another example. It contains a wonderful confession of faith. “A wandering Aramean was my father” (verse 5). It is very interesting that the Bible refers to Jacob in this way. Abraham, his grandfather, was originally from the land of Aram, as was Jacob’s mother Rebecca. But since Abraham came to be called a Hebrew (Gen. 14), the text could’ve identified Jacob as a Hebrew, as well. Instead, it focuses upon his origins—where his family originally came from! It also focuses upon his vulnerability. He is a wanderer. He spends many years in an insecure situation, struggling with an uncertain future.

One of the favorite songs of Hamilton is “My Shot.” Hamilton sings, “Hey yo, I'm just like my country/I'm young, scrappy and hungry/And I'm not throwin' away my shot.” Of course, the phrase means to step up and do something while you have the chance. Pastor Linda points out how our Deuteronomy scripture enjoins the Israelites to be a blessing to others. Remembering their background with humility and gratitude, they can always “take their shot” by providing for others, doing good deeds, and worshiping God in faithfulness.

We Gentile Christians can do the same! Like the cast of Hamilton, we’re part of an old story that didn’t originally include people of our ethnic and national origins. But we have a “shot” every day to be faithful to the Lord, to serve him, and to do good in society. Like both Alexander and Elizabeth, we can look around and see ways where we can be influential for good.

Prayer: Dear Lord, open our hearts and eyes and minds to ways to serve you eagerly and gratefully in the world. Help our hearts to feel compassion for the immigrant, the homeless, and all who live in uncertainty. Amen.

(After I wrote this, I thought of the musical 1776, which I saw at the Little Theatre in Sullivan, IL in the 1970s. It is another kind of retelling of early America: the congressional proceedings that led to the vote for independence. It was an upbeat, often bawdy story well-timed for the national Bicentennial, with John Adams badgering the delegates to do the right thing.) 


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Opera Theatre of St Louis

We've enjoyed each season of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis since we moved to St. Louis in 2009. The current season consists of four one-act operas, performed outdoors because of the pandemic. 

Sunday, we enjoyed "Highway 1, U.S.A." by African American composer William Grant Still. I enjoy his music but had never heard this one, which is reviewed by the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/arts/music/william-grant-still-opera-st-louis.html

Last night, we enjoyed "La Voix Humaine," reviewed here: https://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/reviews/one-woman-brings-cast-of-unseen-characters-to-life-in-otsls-la-voix-humaine/article_49b6139b-134a-5813-83c7-6a8562f83265.html  What an amazing drama, with only one cast member!  


Mona Lisa's Birthday

Italian noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo, member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, was born on this day in 1479! Her husband commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint her portrait, which became kinda famous.... There was a big crowd to see it at the Louvre when we were there two years ago. Apparently (before the pandemic, anyway), there always is.




A Lark Ascending

 Ralph Vaughan Williams' piece, "A Lark Ascending" premiered in its familiar version (solo violin and orchestra) 100 years ago yesterday (June 14, 1921). It was performed by the dedicatee, Marie Hall (1884-1956), on this occasion and also the premiere with violin and piano in December 1920. The piece frequently appears at the top or the near top of polls of listeners' favorite classical music. It has certainly blessed and sustained me over the years!  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOWN5fQnzGk


Dear Evan Hansen. A Devotion

A devotion for our church for June 6, 2021. Our pastor is doing a summer sermon series around popular musicals.  

The musical Dear Evan Hansen opened on Broadway in 2016 and was later nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning six. A film adaptation is scheduled to premiere later this year. 

The plot reminds me of several movies and other stories, where the hero makes a big mistake and, as a consequence, must make amends in order to find redemption. Evan Hansen is a teenager with serious social anxiety. His therapist recommends that he write letters to himself to describe what will be good about his life that day. His mother also suggests that Evan have people sign the cast on his arm; he had broken his arm falling out of a tree. Evan has a crush on Zoe Murphy. Evan tries to befriend Zoe’s brother Connor. Connor finds one of Evans’ letters in a printer, reads it, and becomes angry at Evan for mentioning Zoe. Unfortunately, Connor has the letter when he (Connor) died by suicide a few days later. When the Murphy family talk to Evan about Connor, Evan makes up a story that he and Connor were close. The tale has unintended consequences, and Evan must make amends. Later, it is revealed that Evan himself had attempted suicide; the fall from the tree had not been an accident but rather an attempt to take his own life. As Pastor Linda pointed out in her message Sunday, most of the people in the story are lost in their own way. 

A couple devotions ago, I wrote about my own struggles with high functioning depression. I have never been so sad as to consider suicide, but I’ve been low enough—especially when I was young—to know what a person might be feeling before taking such a tragic action. 

When depression gets that bad, you know the obvious—suicide will result in death—but you’re so confused and lost that you just want the pain to stop. The prospect of stopping the pain blinds you to the finality of the act. You also may be so confused, that you think people will be relieved that you’re gone—rather than devastated. 

Since this is Pride Month, it’s worth noting teen suicide rates among LGBTQ youth are higher than the general population, and even higher in families with parents who identify as Christian.  

Our scriptures are classics of God’s great love. Jesus tells the parable of the shepherd who makes the effort to find the one lost sheep out of his 100 sheep. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” 

He also tells the parable of the woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins. Of course, she will make the effort to find the coin. “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I don’t want to imply that people who are depressed and suicidal are “sinners.” Of course, we’re all sinners; something is amiss in each of our lives. Rather, I want to highlight the deep love and anxious care that God takes toward people who are struggling—whatever may be the source of the struggle. When I was young—and today, too—I found these stories so comforting. They gave me a sense of value for my own life! God never, ever gives up on us. 

Jesus is particularly concerned about people who are lost in life. Jesus also directs these lessons toward anyone who are unfeeling toward those who are struggling. We should never let a veneer of respectability hide our own lostness and harden our hearts toward others. 

This week, check out the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illinois (https://nami.org). Also, make yourself aware of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available 24/7 (1-800-273-8255). Their website is https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org  Think about the issues of mental health and depression, not only for your own benefit, but in case you may need to help someone close to you!  

For your prayer this week: think about aspects of your own life where you feel the most vulnerable and confused. Pray about ways that God helps you in those aspects.