Friday, July 20, 2018

Sinners Like Me

I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not have a church.  The first church was mostly a Sunday School on an Air Force Base and the last one was a small church attended by only a few.  In between there was one which proudly pointed to a historical marker and another one so new it still had the new church smell.  Some were surrounded by cemeteries and others by bustling neighborhoods.  Each of them were different; yet, all of them were the same. 
 
And while I have been in many of those churches as the chief spiritual leader entrusted with the care of the souls who worshipped there, I know that each one had a shaping role in my own life.  In the beginning the church provided a place to learn about God and the heaven where my father had gone.  It cared for my soul on a perilous journey that went from doubt and skepticism to outright rebellion and stubborn self-sufficiency.  It graced my life with baptism, ordination, the sacred words of marriage, spiritual nurture, and a place to serve the Christ who called me to a life time of preaching the gospel.
 
Though I have served the church almost all my life, the scales have never measured equal.  What I received from it always weighs heavier than what I able to give.  There is a debt I can never repay.  There is a love for the church that has only grown with the passing of the years.  It troubles me when the church that I have known and loved is troubled.   Some of its trouble is its own doing as it has sought to be all things to all people when the reality is that the church can only be the church when "I believe in Jesus" is its creed and the Word of God is its cornerstone.  I pray that the church will continue to be the presence of Jesus in the world that has saving and shaping power for sinners like me who are still to come. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Replacements

When I arrived at the St. John Church way back in the early dark ages, it was going through a rough time.  The church was in turmoil and more people were leaving than coming.  While I do not remember the names of so many of those folks anymore, I do remember the moment when one family made the difficult decision to leave.  Most of us thought it was the death knell of the church.  We did not see how the church could survive without them.  But, it did and after a time started growing.  Something learned during those difficult days was the reality that God provides leadership for His church.  Others came and their coming was more important than the departure of a few.
 
Call it replacement theology if it seems right to do so.  Over the years at other places I saw some folks leave who I wish would have stayed, but I had learned not to fret because God would send replacements.  Certainly, any Methodist preacher should know this to be true.  Not a single one of the churches I served and left died after I moved.  Each one kept right on going with the new leadership which came as I departed.  Leaders are not indispensable.  They may be important to the spiritual life of the church, but no one is beyond being replaced.
 
Still, I wonder how Elijah felt when the Lord said to him, "...you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah as prophet in your place."  (I  Kings 19:16)  He had just ascended to the heights of leadership on Mt Carmel as he overcame the 450 prophets of Baal and announced an end to a three year drought.  No one would question that He was a man of God.  Hardly had the rain stopped and God was talking about a replacement.  Like you and me, Elijah had an important role to play in the plan of God, but the plan was then and is always bigger than anyone of us.  It requires what we can do as well as what those who follow us can do.  Long after we are gone from the earth, the plan of God will continue to go forward and we will look back from eternity thankful to have had a part.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Amazing Thing

After the fire and after the pouring rain, Elijah should have felt like he was invincible.  But, what follows that mountain top moment is truly one of the amazing moments described in the whole of Scripture.  What Elijah did on the mountain may have sent King Ahab scurrying off in fear and trembling, but his wife, Jezebel, was full of fight and fury.  "Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying, 'So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.' " (I Kings 19:2)  Of course, she was saying that Elijah should consider himself as dead as those prophets of Baal that were killed after the fire fell on the mountain.
 
What was Elijah's response? "Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life..." (I Kings 19:3)  Now some would simply dismiss the moment by saying that Elijah understood the fury of a woman.  A word from this woman seemed more fearful than facing the 450 prophets of Baal!  Regardless of how the moment is viewed, it is simply amazing that Elijah would run away in fear.  He had just done a mighty deed and now he is running like a frightened rabbit.
 
Most of us are familiar with those kinds of moments.  We know that God is all powerful and that He had done life changing things in our lives and in the lives of those around us, yet, we are constantly running in fear because we listen to some of the negative voices around us that tell us God cannot do what He has declared in His Word He will do.  We often think that unbelief is the opposite of fear, but the opposite of faith is fear.  Fear is what happens when we suddenly decide God is no trustworthy and dependable.  Faith is living with a belief that God is as dependable on the mountain as He is in the valley.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Firemaker

The fire which lit the altar, consuming the bull, the wood, the stones, and the dry dust did not start out as a smoldering fire that Elijah had to fan to keep burning.  There was no time for smoke to gather in the air.  From whence the fire came is part of the mystery which is set forth there on the mountain.  The text says, "Then the fire of the Lord fell..." (I Kings 18:38) so right away we know the Lord lit the fire and apparently it came from above to the ground.  The sky was clear taking away the possibility of a random lightning strike.  It was such a hot and powerful fire that it "...licked up the water that was in the trench." 
 
There were no skeptics that day on Mt Carmel.  "When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces, and said, 'The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.' " (I Kings 18:39)  No one can blame any of those who had been watching when they suddenly tried to hide themselves in the hard ground of a mountain top.  To stand in the presence of the Almighty God is a frightening moment.  Such is how the Hebrews experienced it when God came down to Mt. Sinai and such is how the ancestors of those wanderers experienced it as well.
 
The God we talk about today is the same powerful, fire breathing, earth moving God, but we have domesticated Him so that He is not like the roaring lion, but the house kitty cat.  Our trendy theology which turns God into a friendly fellow who is anxious to hang around us is such a mockery.  God is not our buddy.  He never has been and never will be.  He does not exist to serve us.  We were created to serve Him.  We are not His equal.  The Hebrews on Mt. Carmel had it right when they declared, "The Lord indeed is God..."  It is a truth worth some serious reflection. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Lord's Bidding

Sometimes God tells us to do things that really do not make a whole lot of sense.  Remember Jesus' trip to Bethany after Lazarus died.  Jesus got the word to come before His friend died, but He delayed going and, therefore, arrived after Lazarus had been in the tomb four days.  (John 17:11)  The disciples must have murmured, "What's the point in going?"  And, then there is old Elijah up on Mt. Carmel confronting the 450 prophets of Baal and King Ahab.  Apparently, he went up the mountain with four large jars of water and enough extra water to fill them up two more times.  What brings us to this conclusion is I Kings 18:36 where we hear him praying to the Lord, "...O Lord...let it be known...that  I have done all these things at your bidding...."
 
When Elijah showed up on the mountain, he brought a lot of stuff with him.  He already knew what the Lord wanted him to do and he went prepared to do it.  To the average person, it was an unlikely thing to do, but Elijah knew it was the Lord's bidding and nothing else mattered.   Unfortunately, we are prone to act first and ask about God's bidding later.  It is not surprising that some of the things we do in His name do not work out like we figure they should.  It may be more about us than Him.
 
It is always important to seek and know the Lord's bidding in our life.  Without knowing we may do some good things, but their effectiveness is somehow diminished by the seeds of our own willfulness that we plant with the deed.  If we are really serious about doing the work of God in the places where He has put us, we must spend enough time with Him to know and understand His bidding.  To act according to His bidding may not bring the spectacular results experienced by Elijah on the mountain, but we will end the day with the joy of being a faithful and obedient servant. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Stuck on Mt. Carmel

I seem to be stuck up on Mt. Carmel with Elijah and Ahab.  It was not really my plan when I turned to the Elijah narrative, but instead of making a quick visit and departure, I find myself still stumbling around trying to figure out stuff.  The biggest bothersome thing has been those four jars of water filled and poured out three times around the altar prepared by the prophet.  It still seems like an excessive amount of water in the midst of a three year drought.  Surely, it was a lot of water poured out in the trench around the altar.  The text does not seem to imply something like a pint jar, but a clay or stone vessel that held a lot of water.
 
What causes me to think a lot of water is that New Testament story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.  The stone water jars brought into play that day held twenty or thirty gallons. (John 2:6)  Since a gallon of water weighs about eight pounds, someone did some heavy lifting there on the mountain.  If the jars Elijah used there on the mountain were the large variety, the prophet had to have some help.  As I started seeing folks around Elijah pitching in to help pour the water, it made me think about the stuff of miracles.  One thing we often forget about miracles is that they often require a community.

Now, God can certainly do alone the things we might deem to be miracles, but what we often see as we look closely is that He brings in folks like the water pourers on the mountain, the little boy with the bread and fish, and the people gathered to pray on Pentecost.  I also think of some church food kitchens that feed hundreds each week, a mission ministry that digs deep wells in Africa, and people covenanting to pray for someone sick.  All of these point to a partnership between God and a community.  Such a partnership is a miracle in the making. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Water Questions

While I received my degree from Candler School of Theology, I started seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary.  One of my Asbury professors was Dr. Robert Traina, author of a book entitled "Methodical Bible Study."  His class was my first serious study of the Bible.  What he taught us to do was to read the Bible with a notebook in which we were to write down questions as we read.  No question was too insignificant.  We were not supposed to answer the questions.  Our instructions were to write them.  His class became a way of life for me.  I do not write page after page of questions anymore, but I do hear them going off in my head as I read.
 
Perhaps, this is why I found myself stumbling all over Mt Carmel when I was reading about Elijah.  I am still trying to figure out those four jars of water that were filled three times and poured out around the altar prepared by the prophet.  I did notice that he used twelve stones to build the altar which was one stone for each tribe of Israel so I figured the same symbolism applied to those four jars of water filled three times.  The big question is from whence came the water.  Surely, there was not a stream flowing off the top of the mountain.  Such would have been too convenient.  Maybe Elijah brought the jars and God mysteriously provided the water like He did the meal and the oil for the widow of Zarephath.
 
There is probably some Biblical scholar who has this stuff all figured out, but it seem logical for me to simply say that one who seeks to figure God out is going to make a fool of himself.  God has a way of doing what He intends to do.  Sometimes He uses us to get His work done.  If we are uncooperative, He will find someone else.  And, He will do it His way.  I have been too hard headed at times as I tried to convince God I knew a better way.  Sometimes what He does makes sense and sometimes it is pure holy mystery.  I have learned to live with both.