Saturday, December 31, 2011
If the years go by any faster, as some folks even older than I am say they do, I will surely start having dizzy spells. What used to crawl along like a turtle never destined to arrive anywhere now moves with such speed that it seems that life is suspended from a zip line. However, every now and then, a date comes along which slows things down just a bit and there is an opportunity to stand still for just a span of a second between here and there. Such is the blessing of this day, December 31, 2011. A year is soon to end and another reving up to start, but first there is this moment.
I remember a guy somewhere along the way who when asked, "How are you?" he would always reply, "Better than I deserve." Such is how life has been. To look back is to be thankful to God for a life that is good. Family, friends, a place to live, good health, too much to eat, and never being bored with a day of retirement are certainly a few of the good things God has graciously put in my life. And in this last year, He has also put still another sacred place to serve and to preach.
There was a time at one of my appointments when I spent some time fussing at God in my prayers about where I had been sent by the Bishop. Like those ancient Hebrews who learned the art of whining and complaining, I remember telling God, "I deserve a better place than this." And as I was going on telling Him where I should have been, that Voice I have learned to recognize said, "You don't deserve any place." Once again, He was right. No matter where I was sent to serve and to preach, it was better than I deserved.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Watching him leave causes me to think of the church more as "The Community of the Broken" instead of "The Community of Believers." It has always grieved me to see folks leaving because the brokenness becomes unbearable. It still does. I remember two men who almost came to blows at a church softball league game and they were on the same team. They both stayed, but it always seemed strained between them. And two others at a different place exchanged such sharp words that each one made sure the other was not in the same group going to the Table for communion. Sounds strange, but sadly, true. Of course, most folks don't stay. They leave and carry their unresolved stuff and broken hearts to another place.
To watch still another one go because of the brokenness brings its own dark cloud of helplessness. We naturally want to separate ourselves from the brokenness around us, particularly, when it makes itself known in a place where community is supposed to be modeled. The church is a spiritual community with Christ as its head, but the church some seek is, unfortunately, the church of heaven, not the church of earth. The church of earth is as flawed as I am. Maybe, even as flawed as you are. Put us all together with all our brokenness and only the grace of God enables us to catch glimpses of the kingdom being worked out on earth.
I find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis', Screwtape Letters. In that small volume Lewis enables us to see that the sacred space we call the church is a battleground where evil constantly seeks to gain a foothold in the human heart. Maybe there really is a reason to pray that line of the Jabez prayer which says, "Keep evil away." Or, maybe Jesus had it right when He taught us to pray, saying, "Deliver us from evil."
Thursday, December 22, 2011
It has finally arrived. The last day of the Advent season has come and with it, Christmas Eve. Tonight's worship will take us to the manger where we shall behold the holy scene which fills us with such awe and wonder. At last we shall have a glorious moment of being so immersed and overwhelmed by the music that it will seem we are in some faraway field where the angel of the Lord announced the heavenly news of a Savior being born in Bethlehem. We will hear that ancient exciting story read from Luke's gospel, but only after we have also heard the dreadful somber word of Genesis 3 telling us we are sinners.
On a glorious night such as Christmas Eve, it has always seemed out of place to be reading about Adam and Eve and their awful choice. Yet, the two readings are so connected and so important for our ears and hearts to hear. Celebrating the birth of a Savior is impossible unless we understand we are sinners. If we are not sinners, there is nothing to celebrate except the memory of a wise spiritual leader. But, the truth is we, like that Garden of Eden couple, have made wrong choices which have separated us from any possibility of being in the presence of a holy God. We are sinners and we would be hopelessly undone were it not for this child about whom the angel said, "...to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior." (Luke 2:11)
I saw a guy on a street corner today holding a large cross as a silent witness to those of us who hurriedly passed by on our last minute shopping spree. In bold white letters he had written on the crossbeam, "Trust Jesus." My first thought about this John the Baptist kinda guy was that he had the wrong symbol, but then there is no need to worship the child in the wooden trough if we do not realize He was born to die on a wooden cross for each one of us. Only as we see it all can we kneel in Bethlehem with the awe and wonder of those ancient shepherds.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
It is almost time for the visitors to show up in the story. Luke tells us about shepherds visiting Jesus shortly after His birth and Matthew reports the somewhat later arrival of Wise Men from the East. John mentions neither in his nine word nativity announcement, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us." (John 1:14) Mark says nothing about any of it, figuring that everyone knew what happened. But, still those shepherds and Wise Men are about to make their annual trek to Bethlehem. And even though Bible accuracy would never permit them to stand alongside of each other in any nativity scene, their absence would somehow tarnish a tradition that was long ago poured in cement, accurate or not!
Even though they likely appeared in Bethlehem at different times, the smelly shepherds and the regal Wise Men both belong there with the newborn Son of God. When Joseph heard the angel in the dream saying, "...you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins," he would have naturally assumed that "His people" were Jews and only Jews. His culture would have allowed no other explanation. Yet, from the beginning it is clear that the lowest rungs of society (shepherds) and non-Jewish people (wise men from the east) would be welcomed and included in the saving ministry of Jesus.
There is more good news from Bethlehem than can be absorbed in a lifetime of remembering the story. But, certainly, one thing not to be missed is the birth announcement which says that all are welcome. Social and economic status as well as other discriminating markers are not to counted as factors to keep folks away. There is room for everyone of us at Bethlehem and Golgotha.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
'Tis the season to think, to reflect, to meditate on Emmanuel. Matthew's gospel lifts up the name and makes us understand that the meaning of the word is "God with us." Sometimes we are tempted to wonder if it is true. When life seems to be crumbling into broken pieces around us, it is easy to start thinking that God is not actually as present as the Christmas story would indicate. And sometimes, even in those difficult moments when we question His presence, honesty requires us to wonder if somehow we missed Him along the way.
I remember one particular morning when I was serving the Perry Church. It was a morning filled with discouragement. I went to the office that day sure that God was nowhere in the picture. I hardly noticed the people in the office since I was walking in this dark cloud. However, one five year old called my name, ran toward me with outstretched arms so I, black cloud and all, knelt on one knee to receive her hug. Later in the morning on the way to the hospital in Macon I was fussing at God, complaining, telling Him how little He cared. It was there in the car south of Macon that God spoke with such clarity that I knew it was His voice. Do you know what He said?
He said, "I gave you a hug this morning." And, I missed it. I thought it was just a hug from a child.
Is that not how it is with us many times? We wallow in our cloud of discouragement and walk in our situations of impossible circumstances without seeing how God is leading us along and sometimes, even giving us hugs along the way.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
One of the songs of the Advent season is "Emmanuel, Emmanuel." It is an easy to sing chorus with a powerful message. For years I have made a practice of including this song in the order of worship to be used each of the four Sundays in Advent. If someone does not know it, my hope is that it might get rooted in their heart before the season ends. The words of the song are: "Emmanuel, Emmanuel, his name is called Emmanuel. God with us, revealed in us, his name is called Emmanuel."
The "God with us" name first appears in Isaiah 7:14. The gospel writer, Matthew, goes back to that verse and offers the interpretation for his rendering of the Christmas story. There are many names which can be given to the One born long ago in Bethlehem. In Isaiah 9 he is referred to as "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." In other places we hear titles such as "The Good Shepherd, Light of the World, Lord, and Savior. " Still, the name Emmanuel carries with it an important, powerful, and much needed word for our day. "God with us." Jesus is the One whose birth and life announces, "God with us."
Certainly, this is a good word for our day. Despite all the talk of social networking, so many experience such loneliness. It has often been said that the loneliest place in the world is a crowd and many are discovering that their retreat to the Internet puts them in a similar place. The good news is that we are never alone. Even those who refuse to acknowledge the divine presence in the world live in the world He has created and in that world not a single one of us lives outside the love and grace of the God who sent His son to Bethlehem to let us know "God with us." Always.
While Matthew does not actually say it was Gabriel, surely he must have been the unnamed angel who showed up in Joseph's dream life. Obviously, he was an angel on a mission. First, he appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist telling him that not even old age would keep him and his wife, Elizabeth, from having a son. And then he shows up a few months later in Nazareth to tell the virgin Mary that she will bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit. As an angel on the prowl, it only makes sense to figure he is the one who said the convincing word to Joseph as he was trying to sort out the unbelievable news about Mary's pregnancy.
What the angel did was to challenge Joseph to make the harder choice. The easy choice would have been separating himself from Mary. The easy choice would have been allowing his ego to dictate his actions. The easy choice would have been choosing a way other than the way God had chosen for him. The angel said, "...take Mary as your wife..." (Matthew 1:20), but it would have been easier to simply walk away from her.
If we allow the scenario to be a model for us,we have no choice but to understand that God often challenges us to lay aside the easy way for the hard way. Walking by the guy in need of a hand-out is easier than offering a helping hand. Forgetting spiritual disciplines is easier than practicing them. Harboring ill will is easier than forgiving. Had Joseph said, "No," instead of "Yes," his story would have been radically different. Such is true for us as well.
When the angel Gabriel told Mary the extraordinary news about her part in the birth of Jesus, it must have seemed to him like "Same song, same verse." Her response was, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34) Only six months earlier he had heard about the same words from Zechariah who was told that his past-the-child-bearing-age wife was going to give birth to a son. When told the unbelievable news, Zechariah had said, "How will I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years." (Luke 1:18)
The Christmas season has a way of causing us to believe that impossible sounding things are possible. Too many times we want to define what God can do by insisting that His activity be inside the boundaries established by such words as logical, practical, and common sense. We are more comfortable with a God who works within the perimeters we have established as acceptable. Of course, such a God is also one we can control.
Have you ever wondered what might happen if we actually asked God to work in those areas of our life that we have put aside as impossible? Most of us have prayed about certain needs only to come to a place of giving up, deciding that God is either not listening, or not going to act. Maybe the remaining days of Advent would be an opportune time for holding up before God some of our impossible stuff. Do so in faith, remembering how Gabriel said to Mary, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)
Finally, he is gone. Most of us are glad. John the Baptist does not make a good first impression with all that talk about something being so wrong with us that only radical change will make any difference. And if we do keep him around awhile, we find ourselves growing weary of the smell of locust on his breath and the look of his beard matted with honey. For two Sundays now the writers of the lectionary have imposed his unwanted presence upon us, but enough is enough.
This fourth and last Sunday of the Advent season brings new characters into view. They are the ones we have been anticipating. At last we see Mary as she struggles with the good news, Joseph as he wrestles with his ego, Zachariah and Elizabeth as they deal with a surprising unplanned pregnancy, and the angel Gabriel flitting about on one mission and then another. It all gives to us the assurance that the Star will soon be seen over Bethlehem and that Shepherds and Wise Men will soon begin their journeys. This Sunday marks entrance into exciting time. It has been worth the wait.
So, use these days to bask in the glory of the story. This story of Jesus being born among us is truly a great story, full of human struggle and divine intervention. It is a story worth reading not once, but several times. Read it again...and again. Each day read it. Read it slowly. Read it aloud to slow yourself down. Let is soak into your soul again so that the much anticipated worship an celebration of this next weekend will indeed be like gushing streams of water in a hot and dry desert.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Even though set in the midst of the story which takes us to Bethlehem, the birth of John the Baptist has its own drama. If you could ignore the content and just count the verses pertaining to John and the verses pertaining to Jesus in the first chapter of Luke, the first time reader might wonder about the main character of the story. One of the places where the John drama reaches it high point is in the 76th verse of that first chapter of Luke. Filled with the Spirit and speaking prophetically, Zechariah, the father of John, speaks of his first born, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people..." It is clear from the story that this father knew his son belonged to the Lord.
Over the years I have watched other fathers and mothers as they gave their children to the Lord. Such is the essence of what we are doing as we bring them up in a world where faith in Christ is supremely important. Sometimes those children end up taking that faith so seriously that it puts them in some kind of full time ministry as adults. I have watched more than one set of parents immersing their sons and daughters in such a life of faith within the church and wondered if they realized they were not rearing children to be like other children. Instead of becoming community power brokers, their children were more likely to become Christ's servants. Not every Mom and Dad really wants their child to wear the mantle of a servant instead of the prestige of the professional money maker in the community.
Zechariah knew his son. He knew His God. He knew the two would be inseparable and he became a partner in what God wanted to do in the life of one he so longed to have in his own life. Turning loose of those we love the most is a hard thing to do. Ask any parent. Ask the Father who watched His Son be born midst the smell of an animal's stall.
The guide to daily Advent scripture readings I am using includes not only gospel and epistle readings, but readings from the prophets and the Psalms. It has been interesting to read passages I would not normally read during the Advent season. One of those passages is Psalms 146:5-10. Listen to some of the words in this passage. "One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed..."
Like the ancient Hebrew who told of the mighty acts of God by telling the stories of how He interacted with His people, so do we. Especially during these days do we find ourselves remembering and reading and telling the story of the Bethlehem event. It is a story we have heard from the generations before us and we have already been a part of those believers who make sure it is passed on to the generations which follow us. It is a story stored in our hearts and in only a few days, we will hear it sounded once again in the air around us.
One of the reasons I look forward to the Christmas worship each year is the opportunity to read the story again. Last year I could only read it to myself. This year I once again have a people who will gather with me to hear it read one more time. I can almost hear it in the air, "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus...(Luke 2:1) Almost,...almost,...but, not yet.
Monday, December 12, 2011
We sometimes forget he said it, but Jesus remembered. Not only did he remember, but He remembered it in the presence of His disciples during their last moments together before He ascended into heaven. Interesting. The words of John the Baptist from the Jordan River launch the public ministry of Jesus and shortly before He disappears into the clouds, He brings John the Baptist back on center stage one more time.
What we often forget was not only remembered by Jesus, but by each one of the gospel writers (even John). As each of them tell the story of John's ministry at the Jordan River, they remember John saying, "I baptize you with water...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Luke 3:16) One of the daily readings for the third week in Advent opens the Scripture to the first chapter of the book of Acts. In that section of the Word, we hear the about-to-ascend-into-heaven Jesus saying, "This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." (Acts 1:5)
To be honest, I was caught by surprise. I had not expected an Advent reading that would take me to the image of disciples being baptized by the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, there it is. I suppose it is a reminder that if Mary could be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit for divine purposes, it should not surprise us that God would desire to do the same for us. Could it possibly be that the preparation of Advent is making our hearts a desirable place for the Spirit to be at work? Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
If John the Baptist is the one who keeps saying to us, "Get ready," it only makes sense to wonder what we should be doing. As Luke tells the story, it was a question asked when John was walking around preaching, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight." (Luke 3:4). After listening to the Baptizer there were those who started asking, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:10-14).
"What should we do?" is not a bad question. Actually, if we are serious about making our hearts ready for the Christ-event, it is a question that makes sense. When asked, John's answers seem rather surprising. Something which really smacked of being super spiritual would be the expected response; however, the Baptizer takes us in exactly the opposite direction with his mundane and common sense answers. To one who asked, John said, "Give some of what you have to those who have nothing." To another, he said, "Be sure to do what is right." And to those who had some power over others, he said, "Treat others with respect."
Wow! What should we do? Maybe reading the Bible all day is not the answer. Maybe writing a daily Advent reflection for a blog is not the answer. Maybe it does not even have anything to do with attending all those special worship services which fill the church calendar during December. Maybe it is just about doing the right thing and living in the right way with those around us. Who would have thought it?
Friday, December 9, 2011
The 9th chapter of Isaiah is remembered because it has within words that have been sung more times than anyone could ever count. We have all heard choirs singing, "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace..." Reading the words causes us to hear that magnificent chorus in our hearts. But, this particular chapter of Isaiah is about more than just music during the Christmas season. It is about hope.
The Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon. The sun still rose over them each day, but the land in which they dwelled was a strange land filled with strange words and strange people. Jerusalem was home and it was far away. No one really had any expectation of seeing the land of Abraham again. In this setting Isaiah speaks for God, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them has light shined...For a child has been for us, a son given to us." (Isaiah 9:2, 6) It is the language of hope. Light has penetrated the darkness. A child has been born. Something new is beginning to happen. Look and see.
It is a message every generation longs to hear. Common to every generation of people are those experiences which seem to overcome optimism and take away hope. Those moments come in a host of different ways. We are all touched by them. We have all been ready to succumb to the darkness. Isaiah's words remind us that darkness is not permanent. Not even the deep darkness imposed upon us by our own wrong choices can stand against the light of God's grace and mercy made known to us through the Christ who was born in our midst. Thanks be to God for the hope He has planted in our hearts.
The image put forth by the Baptizer in John's gospel is one which overshadows the trivial things which most often captivate our attention in these day of December. When John speaks of Jesus as "the Lamb of God," our thoughts immediately go to a deeper place than the secular voices take us. Even before we see baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by the adoring nativity crowd, we are caused to see Him as One who has come to die. However, his death is not a normal death, but one which has life giving power for each one of us who in faith says, "Yes" to what He has done for us.
To meditate on "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world," (John 1:29) brings to mind an older contemporary song and a piece of ancient liturgy. The song which just keeps going over and over in my mind is the one which says, "Behold the Lamb, Behold the Lamb, Slain from the foundations of the world, for sinners crucified, oh, holy sacrifice, Behold the Lamb of God, Behold the Lamb." It is a simple song, but it contains a world of truth. And, then, the piece of liturgy remembered comes from the ritual of Holy Communion. They are words repeated in such a way as to remind us of Simon Peter. As you read these words, allow yourself the freedom to say them aloud. "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace."
Whenever we truly allow ourselves to meditate on the image of the Lamb of God, we find ourselves in a place where confession, and adoration, and worship springs forth from our heart. It is a good place to enter into and stay during these days of Advent.
While most folks would say one Sunday of John the Baptist is more than enough, for some reasons those who created the ordered scripture lesssons for the lectionary's Advent season decided the Baptizer should show up a second Sunday. So, still he prowls around spewing his message about repentance. However, this week he causes us to become even more focused on Jesus as he speaks of Him as "the Lamb of God." (John 1:29)
It is a word of identification that carries us back to the Old Testament. As we are called to behold the Lamb of God, our minds race back to the story of the scapegoat, the one who carrried the sins of the people out of the camp. We are reminded of the lamb slain in place of Isaac. But, surely, the story which most often comes to mind is the way the blood of the slain lamb provided a means of deliverance for the Hebrew people that last night they lived as slaves in Egypt.
Even before the ministry of Jesus begins, John the Baptist is speaking a word which identifies Jesus as the One who will be another sacrifice with saving power. However, this time it will be different. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the difference as he wrote, 'but when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, 'he sat down at the right hand of God.'" (Hebrews 10:12) Another sacrifice will not be needed. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God whom we know as Jesus was all that will ever be needed. The problem of human sin has been handled once and for all. John the Baptist points us not to the fragrant smell of fresh hay in a manger, but to the smell of divine death which provides for us what we can never provide for ourselves. Life.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Shadow dwellers. Some people are shadow dwellers. They do not live in the sun, nor do they seek such a place. They are content to serve in the shadows where there is little praise. And quite often, the shade in which they stand is caused by the person standing next to them. When we think of shadow dwellers, we think of Aaron who stood in the shadow of Moses. Sometimes they are spouses such as Sarah, the wife of Abraham, or Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of course, John the Baptist was a shadow dweller. This one who identified himself as a voice crying in the wilderness said, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
The world around us is full of shadow dwellers. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of one, but most of the time they serve without being seen. Certainly, they serve without the applause and attention received by somone standing close by. Years ago while in Vidalia, I preached a revival in Wrens (about ninety minutes away). The plan was to drive back and to each day. Ike, a layperson at Vidalia said, " "I'll drive you each night so you will be fresher to preach," and he did. A shadow dweller. At Richmond Hill, John often sat out of sight on the steps leading to the chancel area and prayed for me while I was leading worship and preaching. He was another shadow dweller.
We do not always see them right away. But, then, such is the nature of serving God as a shadow dweller. One thing is certain. The ministry of those who stand in the spotlight is empowered by the shadow dwellers and always diminished when they are absent. If we look carefully, all of us are likely to see a shadow dweller standing alongside of us.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
The Old Testament lectionary lessons for these days are so powerful, so rich, so full of images. While the gospel lessons have us focused in the present moment on John the Baptist, it is Isaiah 40:3 which lets know he is not an afterthought, but a part of the plan which God was working out through the generations of history. Looking back the gospel writers saw the divine connection between what God was doing in the prophet Isaiah's day and what He was doing in their own day. Reading passages like Isaiah 11:1-10, Isaiah 40:1-11, Isaiah 43:1-21, and Isaiah 62 can only enrich our lives and provide us assurance that God is, indeed, the One who is in charge.
Seeing the connection between what was and what happened only solidifies our understanding of the way God works in the same moments in our lives. Even as John the Baptist was no afterthought, but a planned part of the divine unfolding of history, so it is true that we, too, are created for purposeful living. Sometimes we are tempted to think that the unfolding of our own personal history is surely outside of the realm of divine concern, but the texts of these Advent days give us every reason to see and hope differently.
We are not alone. He has promised to be with us. The rivers of difficulty will not overwhelm us. He will bring us through. When there is no place to go and no one cares, He is our refuge and helper. When we need a Word to carry us forward, His speaking will somehow sound through the silence. When we read the Isaiah texts and let them soak into our soul, we begin to understand the way they relate to a specific moment in history and our own as well.
Already I have noticed it. Both in the world and in the sanctuary. We are not even one week into December and the Christmas songs are filling the noisy space of department stores. And, from a smattering of received church bulletins, it seems the songs of Christmas made their way into the sanctuary this past Sunday. Songs like "Joy to the World," "Angels from the Realms of Glory," and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" are already being sung. In the early days of Advent, I have always enjoyed other songs. "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" are a couple of must sing hymns during these days. "Emmanuel, Emmanuel" is another one.
John the Baptist's message can loosely be translated to be: "Get ready. Something is about to happen, but it has not happened yet." Viewed in this way, it is the message that calls us to live in a state of anticipation. In our culture of having everything now, it is hard to get folks to buy into the benefits of delay for the purpose of anticipation. One way to move in that direction is to intentionally deny ourselves the music we might want to sing, or to withhold the Christmas hymns until Christmas. When "O Come, O Come All Ye Faithful" is withheld and sung for the first time on Christmas Eve, it becomes such a powerful experience of joy that it brings tears to the eyes and such a tightness to the throat that singing is for a moment impossible.
Such a discipline of withholding can enable us to get in touch with the spirit of Advent. Make no mistake. To do so is to live with tension. But, then, maybe part of the tension comes from the fact that we are aware that something is about to happen, but it has not yet happened."
Sunday, December 4, 2011
How it all got started and who was first is a matter of speculation, but what is certain is the fact that John the Baptist was baptizing folks at the Jordan River and crowds of folks showed up. He must have been a curiosity since few people would have been drawn out there to his place in the wilderness by the message he was preaching. Mark and other gospel writers say, "John the baptizer appeared (was baptizing) in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4) What John was doing must have been of God for people are not normally attracted to someone preaching about repentance.
Repentance is no easy word. It is a word which speaks of a radical response. The meaning of repentance is not captured by wishing something had been done differently, or by merely expressing sorrow for some deed. To say,"I'm sorry," is a long way from what the Bible means as it talks about repentance. To repent involves turning completely from some act or action which is inconsistent with how Jesus taught us to live.
Our sinful actions and attitudes may be justifiable and defendable, but if they amount to something Jesus would not do were He present, then they represent something from which we are called to turn. Repentance means my unkindness is to be replaced with kindness; my judgmental spirit with mercy; my holding to a grudge with unconditional forgiveness. The work of repentance is hard work. Not everyone who gives lip service to it really wants to do it.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
I was really introduced to John the Baptist some years ago by a preacher friend named Russ Elkins. He was a part of a preaching peer group with which I also claimed membership. Once a week we would gather, one of us would preach for the others, and then we would spend some time offering some friendly, but constructive suggestions. Of all the peer groups of which I have been a part over the years of ministry, this one is remembered as one the best. Prior to Russ' sermon dealing with the early Advent text about John the Baptist, I had read about him, but never really met him.
Russ introduced him to me as the kind of guy you would not want your daughter to bring home saying, "Daddy, this is the one." Matter of fact, as Russ portrayed the Baptizer, he would not be welcome in most of our churches. Dressed in camel hair clothing and with locust on his breath, smelling him would likely happen before seeing him. Of course, that voice which loudly sounded the message about repentance would like be a prelude to sight or smell.
As the one called to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, he preached this message of repentance which at its core declared that something radical had to happen to assure readiness. In John's day, it was baptism. Jews were not baptized. They were already God's people. Only non-Jews who wished to become Jews were required to submit themselves to the water cleansing. So, when a Jew stepped into the Jordan, it represented a radical act. It makes us wonder a bit about our own preparation for the celebration of the coming of Jesus. Would it be characterized as mundane, or radical?
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Few of us who call ourselves preachers would choose to be identified as "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness." (Mark 1:3) Such may be descriptive of the preaching of John the Baptist, but we would rather he not be our model. As we read the gospel record about the Baptizer, we see him as a single solitary voice proclaiming a message no one really wants to hear. His preaching was so radical and different, there were no others who might be thought of as homilectical kinsmen.
Those of us who preach are often guilty of wanting our preaching efforts to be liked. The temptation is to choose being liked over preaching with such truth that it is painful and difficult to hear. When John preached his message of repentance that declared something wrong which needed straightening out, he was not concerned about the consequences. He even looked at the religious power brokers of his day and called them "a brood of vipers!" His preaching was offensive, or as we say in rural South Georgia, "It stepped on some toes!" It finally cost him his head.
Unlike John, we often search for another way. In our system, the church is our employer and not pleasing our employer can result in not being employed, or at the very least, working under difficult circumstances. It may be understandable why we might hear ourselves wondering how a part of a sermon might be too strong or offensive and then choosing not to preach it, but in these early days of Advent with John the Baptist prowling about, you cannot help but think about what he would say about us if we chose comfort over faithful forthrightness.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Perhaps, the first real surprise of Advent is John the Baptist. No one expects to see him striding into the sanctuary during this season of the year; yet, the traditional text for the second Sunday in Advent brings him into the spotlight and on center stage. What most folks are looking for is Jesus in the manger and to their surprise and dismay, in walks this obnoxious character to whom Mark introduces us in the first few verses of his gospel. And, let their be no mistake. John the Baptist is a character. He comes striding onto the stage of history wearing smelly clothing made of camel hide and with breath that reeks of locust and honey. When we get over the shock of his appearance, we are even more offended by his message. At a moment when folks are starting to say, "Merry Christmas," John is hollering, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 3:2)
The scripture identifies this messenger of repentance as the "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight." (Mark 1:3) There is this fanatical and radical singularity about John the Baptist. Those first century folks saw it and, certainly, we do. Despite the current environment of a struggling economy, most people are more interested in hearing the many secular voices which promise that things will eventually get better than the one voice which tells us that something is so fundamentally wrong with each one of us that only radical change will save us.
What really makes John the Baptist so offensive is not his out-of-style attire or his bad breath, but the way he says that there is something wrong with each of us. Dealing with it is what is involved in getting ready for Christmas, not buying more gifts.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
"Ripley's Believe It or Not" is an amazing collection of things too bizarre and unusual to believe and accept as true. Yet, all those things recorded are included in the listing as something which is verifiably true even though "impossible" sounds like a better adjective. Those of us who read the Bible know about impossible sounding things. And, in that Word we are introduced to the author of impossible things. When Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would as a virgin bear a child, she was told by the angel, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)
Another place where we find ourselves in a Ripley moment comes in the first chapter of the book of Acts as men in white robes appear to the disciples while they are watching Jesus disappear in the clouds above them. Verse 11 of that chapter says, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." Those angelic beings bring us headlong into a believe it or not moment.
It is not surprising that this part of the gospel story is viewed with such skepticism by the current followers of Jesus. Our culture demands that everything add up, make sense, and be logical. The message about the return of Jesus is not regarded as credible by many because of a world view which gives the individual permission to believe only those things which can be proven in the science lab or the school of hard knocks. But, these men in white robes do not seemed concerned with offering proof of what they were saying. The disciples who heard them could believe it or not. Such was their choice. And ours.
Each year the clergy members of the Annual Conference gather to hear a report of the Conference Board of Ministry. It includes several listings which provide some order to what might otherwise be a rather confusing and careless look at the clergy membership available for appointment by the Bishop to the church. There is also that moment when the Bishop asks each of the District Superintendents to speak a word about the character of those clergy members of their respective districts. The usual response to the Bishop's historical question is some variation of "Bishop, the men and women under appointment in my District are blameless in life and faithful in service." Some may hear the exchange with a measure of smugness, but I suspect more cringe just a bit at being put in the category of blameless.
The Apostle Paul talked about followers of Jesus being blameless. In I Corinthians 1:8, he wrote, "...so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." And then over in I Thessalonians 3:13 he is back at it again as he wrote to the church, "And may He so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints." It must have been a source of great encouragement to those early Christians to know that someone like Paul was praying that they would be able to stand blameless before Jesus when He returned.
However, the truth of the matter is that none of us would dare have such a hope were it not for what has been done for us through Jesus on the cross. To be seen as blameless on that day will only mean that a great work of redemption has been completed for us, enabling us to know a forgiveness we would, otherwise, never know and a oneness with God that we always recognize as being undeserved. Thanks be to God for that grace and mercy which will cause Him to see us on that day as one of the blameless ones.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Advent calls us to the discipline of waiting with anticipation. But, it is not just about sitting somewhere with a passive mindset. The Apostle Paul makes it plain that we do not live passive spiritual lives. In the last three verses of the 13th chapter of Romans, he reminds us, "the night is far gone, the day is near." Of course, he is not talking about night turning into day as it does each morning. He is, instead, reminding us that the time for the Lord's return draws nearer with the passing of each day. Thus, as those who follow Jesus, we are the interim people. We are those who know without a doubt that His return is certain and, therefore, we wait with anticipation. How we should wait is very clear as we allow ourselves to read the Word in that section of scripture. Because "the night is far gone, the day is near," we are to "lay aside the works of darkness...to put on the armor of light...to live honorably as in the day." Instead of sitting on our hands, the Word calls us to embrace a positive, intentional, and faithful lifestyle which allows the fruit of the Spirit to be expressed through our living. Nothing passive is being communicated here. So, as we wait, we are to live in faithfulness to God which takes us back to the ninth and tenth verses of that same chapter. In those words we are reminded of commandments which keep us rightly related to those around us and then there is that final word of summation which says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Surely, nothing would please God more than for us to use these days of Advent waiting as a time for doing the heart work reconciliation requires
As I read the gospel lessons for the first Sunday in Advent, particularly Luke 21:25-36, a song more contemporary than traditional comes to mind. Since I prefer the traditional music, I am always a bit surprised that "We Shall Behold Him" begins to go around inside my head. Of course, it is verse 27 of the Lukan text which does it as it says, "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." More than once have I gone to a Minister of Music and asked that someone sing this song on the first Sunday of Advent.
"We shall behold Him...face to face...in all of His glory..." Were it not for Advent, the theme sounded by the song and message proclaimed by the text would never be heard in the church. The one thing the church seeks to avoid in our day is to seem other worldly and to focus on the theme, "Christ is coming" appears to put the church in just such a place. But, then, maybe more than appearing other worldly is the fear of coming to terms with the fact of final accountability to the Christ who will come into our midst as Lord and King.
We live in a culture which judges people and places value on people according to what has been accumulated. We are so vested in this culture that it is truly frightening to find ourselves coming face to face with the reality that embracing such a value system turns our life into a wasted trip. When we behold Him, the things we hold in our hands will not be seen as having more value than the things of the heart. What a surprise awaits so many!
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
When the early church was in its infancy stage during those early years after Pentecost, its members lived with the expectation that Jesus would be returning any day. Certainly, He would be returning before those witnesses to His earthly presence had died. Some suggest this is the rationale for the "selling of possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:45) What became obvious to the early church was the fact that Jesus was not coming quite as soon as they had first expected.
However, such a realization did not change their confidence that what was delayed was still certain. Jesus would come. They became those who waited. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Christians he acknowledged this as he wrote, "...you wait for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Cor. 1:7b-8)
The church is still waiting. The delay has now stretched over a span of time those early believers would have found to inconceivable. As we wait, the temptation is to take for granted the coming of tomorrow. As Advent calls us to be ready, we are reminded the delay gives us time to ready ourselves by acts of compassion, by ministries of mercy, by embracing repentance, and by striving to be reconciled to those where relationships are broken.
After fourteen years of studying the Bible, William Miller became convinced that Christ would be returning to the earth on April 3, 1843. The Millerite Movement came into existence as a result of his ministry. As people bought into what he was preaching, they sold possessions which were not going to be needed. On the appointed day, groups put on white robes, climbed high places, and waited to see Jesus in the clouds. Others went to graveyards to ascend with departed loved ones. And, in Philadelphia, some society folks went out to the edge of town to avoid going with the common riff-raff of the city. Of course, nothing happened. William Miller did some more figuring, but after two more prophesied dates were set and passed, the Millerite Movement lost much of its momentum.
Miller had it right that Christ would return. The gospel writer Luke enables us to hear Jesus saying, "Then they will see the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and great glory." (Luke 21:27) Miller got that part right. What he missed was a Word of Jesus found in Mark. "But, about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:32) Miller's mistake was the mistake of human arrogance which causes us to think we can know what only God knows.
Of course, Miller was not the first, nor has he been the last to make such a monumental error. The scripture is clear that the "when" of the coming of Christ is unknown and can never be known by anyone of us. But, it does not change the reality that there will come a dawn unlike any others in that it will usher in the moment in history when the book will be closed on human history as we know it. In the meantime Advent calls us to live today as if the sun has dawned on the day of His coming.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
It is always interesting that Advent begins with a focus on things yet to come instead of what has already happened. For those who have their eyes on Christmas, such is not the expectation. These Christmas watchers say that since Advent ushers in Christmas, the focus should be on the Christ who has come and not the Christ who is coming. As far as the world is concerned, things seem out of kilter when the church starts reading those gospel texts like Matthew 24:36-44 or Mark 13:32-37, or Luke 21:25-36.
Even though the message of those texts is not a Word secular society wants to hear, the Church continues to proclaim, "Christ is coming!" It is a futuristic reality. Only the day and the hour is uncertain. What is not uncertain is that the One who has come as a baby in Bethlehem will come again as King of Kings. When He came in Bethlehem, He came as the powerless one. No one is more powerless than an infant child. When He comes again, He will come as the One with all power. No one is more powerful than the resurrected Jesus.
The readings for these early Advent days call us to live in the present moment with the knowledge that He who has come is coming and it could be today. It goes without saying that constantly living with such an expectation will impact the living we do in the present moment as nothing else could ever do. It is no wonder the gospel writers tell us to "Stay awake," and to "Be ready." If it is true that He is coming, nothing else makes any sense.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Advent is the church's answer to those who protest the commercialization of Christmas and are always saying, "Let's put Christ back into Christmas." When Advent is properly observed, it enables us to spiritually prepare ourselves to celebrate the Christ-event without getting caught up in what the secular community says must be done in order to get ready for December 25. However, the truth is the spiritual community is so tuned into the secular voices of the season that Advent becomes more like pre-Christmas hype than a time where things like anticipation and expectation are allowed to grow in our hearts.
Anyone who enjoys a good sunrise at the beach knows that the experience is about more than just seeing that big yellow ball pop up on the ocean. Sunrise watchers arrive early. Sometimes they sit in darkness. Always they watch and marvel at the way the promise of light is offered through the changing colors at the distant place where sky meets water. These early morning watchers are constantly thinking things like, "It won't be long now," or "It's coming!" The experience of waiting is so powerful that the moment of actual sunrise is almost anti-climatic.
When we do Advent right, it is much the same, but even more powerful than the experience of sunrise watchers. Advent watchers are a patient bunch. They look forward to the waiting and expectation. They understand and accept the tension created by those who cannot do Advent because they have to do the secular version of Christmas. They sit on the edge of their seats thinking, "It won't be long now. He's coming." They have learned that December is not so much about hurrying around filled with stress, but a time of quiet waiting which only fuels our hunger for Jesus.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
As one who has been preaching for a long time, I have learned that folks often grab a word or two, maybe a phrase, and occasionally, a thought to take with them out of the sanctuary. Usually, it was not what I thought was a great arrangement of words, but a simple thought that spoke to their circumstances. Such should not really be a surprise when I remember that my own spiritual journey has been influenced and shaped by simple words and thoughts heard along the way.
I remember Clark Pafford, who pastored the church where I did my first stint as a summer youth worker. Numerous times he told me, "The success of your ministry is determined by what happens when you leave." As I moved from one ministry place to another, I always found myself being reminded of his insight. He was also the man who told me, "Preach to empty pews before preaching to filled ones," a practice observed over a lifetime of preaching. And when Bishop Cannon came to Talbotton to preach, he did so for about forty-five minutes, but all I took away was the phrase, "Life is fragile." I have breathed and spoken those words more times than I can count. Finally, I remember Dr. Brokhoff, my preaching professor at Candler, who kept saying over and over, "Preach the text." When I failed in preaching by talking too much about what I thought, it was not because I had not been told what to do!
All of us carry simple thoughts and phrases with us that have had shaping power on our journey of faith. I wonder what you have heard. I wonder how your life has been shaped and directed. If you have a minute, click on comment, and share one of your "words for the journey."
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
In the early 90's while serving the Vidalia Church, I led my first Disciple group. With the exception of one or two years, I started a Disciple Bible Study group every September. Every time I finished one, it seemed like the best one. And when I did the last one at the Richmond Hill Church before retirement, I thought again, "This one is the very best one." In many ways, it really was an extraordinary experience with some disciples who God brought together for those nine months.
After that group was done, I wrote in the back of a devotional book some lessons I learned from those people and the community they, along with the Spirit, brought into being. I learned that when there is real community in the church 1) there is immersion in the Word; 2) people pray for each other, and 3) and believers are bound together by mutually agreed upon accountability. I learned from the faith journey of those folks that community is not forced, legislated, or structured by a planning committee, but something created when these elements are present.
For almost four decades I preached about it, planned for it, and bought into programs of the larger church which promised it. No matter what I did, creating community always seemed to be one of those much-sought-after goals that remained too elusive to capture. And, then they did it before my very eyes. Those folks God brought together for a holy experiment created community and lived it in a way that still leaves me wondering why I could not have understood sooner.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
While I read contemporary authors, I must confess that I am partial to reading what might be considered the "oldie goldies" of spiritual writings. Or, maybe they should be called vintage writings. What I know is that I am drawn toward the writings and the stories of those who lived, worked, and wrote in other centuries. Spiritual giants like John Wesley, George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, Oswald Chambers, and E.M. Bounds seem to have so much to say to my spiritual journey. The fact that their writings are still read by today's believers speaks volumes about what they have written.
Another such writer is Andrew Murray. Murray's dates are 1828-1917. He pastored in South Africa and when he retired at age 78, he entered into an intense season of writing. A compilation of some of his writings is bound together under the title, Andrew Murray on Prayer. On one of the pages of this volume, he speaks of intercessory prayer in an unusual manner: "God regards intercession as the highest expression of His people's readiness to receive and to yield themselves wholly to the working of His almighty power." The common teachings about such prayer often take us in a different direction, one that centers more on getting God to do something we think He needs to do.
However, Murray takes us to a different place. Intercessory prayer is not really so high on the agenda listings of most churches. And aside from noting before God our listing of the sick, it is probably not so high on our personal spiritual agendas. Perhaps, Andrew Murray opens a new window for us to see the reason the church of our day so often muddles around in the mundane. Maybe we are not ready for anything more.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I watched her the other day at Lowes as she moved along in the line ahead of me. While there are not as many now as there used to be, she actually did look older than I am. White haired and a bit frail looking, she was pushing a cart with a couple big bags of garden soil. I wondered how she was going to get her purchase in the car, but lost track of the thought as the clerk started tallying my purchase. Actually, I figured one of the Lowes guys hanging out there in the garden shop would be helping her. When I pushed away from the counter, I looked up and saw her opening her trunk and no helper was in sight. I pushed my stuff to the side and without really thinking went out to where she was pondering what to do. "Let me help you," I offered. She seem happy to have the help and asked, "Do you work for Lowes?" Again, without really thinking about it, I quickly said a kind of out-of-character thing, "No, I work for the Lord." "Well," she said, "He is a good One to work for!"
He is and I do. Even though retirement has changed the way I work for Him, I realize that He has not thrown me away as having no value. Like everyone else who has professed faith in His Son and been touched by those holy waters, I remain on the list of those in active service. A lot of things may change in our lives as we move from one season to another, but God remains the same and He continues to work out His Kingdom plans through us.
Circumstances may change. The nature of the work may change. Our bodies may change. But, He remains the unchangeable One who looks at us and says, "That one is mine." As the woman in the parking lot said, "He is a good One to work for!"
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
In the absence of our regular organist, she came to play the piano for us at morning worship. She has come before and when she does she never gets away without offering a solo as well. This past Sunday was no exception. Unable to find a second microphone, I have learned to take the pulpit mic and walk to the piano with the long chord trailing behind me. There is more than enough to reach. She plays the piano and sings. I stand beside her holding the microphone in front of her to sing. I am grateful my hand is still steady.
This past Sunday as I stood there trying not to call attention to myself, I was captivated by watching her hands move across the keyboard. Effortlessly they seem to move. Confidently they moved from one key to another. Guided not by eyes, but by years of training, they provided the music of ministry. As I watched these fingers moving, I thought of them belonging not to the musician, but to the student. Long years ago those hands moved tentatively and fearfully learning scales, chords, and the location of sounds. Then they were likely the hands of a child trying to please a music teacher or a parent.
Surely, she never thought back then that they would one day be used to please God. What a journey! Such is the place where I heard God speaking this past Sunday in worship. She provided the music and, I, the music stand. It is always good to have a part when God is at work.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
I wonder what God had in mind when He created gnats. I know they were useful to God at one point in the Biblical story. The 8th chapter of Exodus tells us the third plague visited against Pharaoh and Egypt was gnats. It was the first plague the magicians of Egypt could not duplicate. The story tells us that Aaron struck the dust of the earth and the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt. Visioning gnats being like the dust of the earth is not hard for those of us live in "Gnat Country."
It would seem to me that after God used those gnats against Pharaoh, He could have just eliminated the whole swarm of them from the earth while He had so many together. From where I wave my arms in the air, it seems He missed a great opportunity. Of course, I only know of two kinds of gnats firsthand. One kind is called no-see-ums because you do not see them. You only feel them when they bite and then scratch for a month. The other kind which I deal with on a daily basis are the black gnats that swarm, cling, refuse to leave, and make clothing look like it is sprinkled with black pepper.
Even though I did a little online research about gnats, I still wonder what God had in mind when He created them. If anyone has had any experience with these small critters of creation and has an idea or two, I would love to hear it. Perhaps, it would make my waving and blowing a more tolerable moment.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
As long as I can remember, there has always been a trash day when the sanitation trucks would pick up the household garbage from the curb. Now, there is no trash day. There are no sanitation trucks making weekly pick-ups. Instead, at least once a week, we take our trash to the nearby recycling center which is just a fancy name for a garbage dump. Four big bins are perched there to receive whatever it is that folks like us have to throw away.
Today as I was throwing a week's trash from the garbage cans on the trailer, a chair in the trash bin caught my attention. It was broken, worn out, and was in the right place, but it caused me to take a second look at the mound of garbage in front of me. What struck me was the number of plastic bags and cardboard boxes filled with throw away stuff. The news the previous evening showed cardboard boxes broken down and being used for walls, making a virtual cardboard community in Haiti. The same news interviewed a victim of East Africa's drought and famine in his refugee home made of plastic sacks.
In that moment at the dump, I did not see trash, but building materials for the world's poorest. We truly are a throw away society. What we throw away would be hoarded and used by the newest community of refugees. Our conversations about giving always seem to center on how much we give. It would be a far more enlightening and, perhaps, more productive conversation to center on how much we are keeping for ourselves. When we walk the road old Dives walked (Luke 16:19-31), we may not hear the question, "How much did you give?" but "How much did you keep for yourself?"
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Watching the news reports and seeing the pictures is heartbreaking. When the faces of the soon-to-die are seen on the television, my first reaction is to change the channel. There is a part of me that does not want to watch. Yet, I know that removing the faces from the screen will not take away the images which have been placed in my mind and heart. I know of nothing to compare to the suffering and despair seen on the faces of these Somalian refugees who have fled from drought and oppression only to huddle with hopelessness in Kenya's overrun refugee camps.
Sometimes I think an even greater tragedy than their suffering is the indifference of so many to their plight. For days and weeks we have been possessed with watching politicians play their power games. We have breathed a collective sigh of relief that a professional football strike has been averted so that the millionaires can become multi millionaries and we can continue to be entertained on Sunday afternoons. The frontpage news is about such trivial stuff compared to the small columns on page four tellling about the life and death struggle going on in East Africa.
Jesus was a part of a refugee family. As an infant, he was taken from the land of his birth to Eqypt as they fled oppressive rule. As He sees the long line of refugees stretching across the dry earthen landscape, He surely remembers and suffers with them. If the heart of the Divine can be broken, such tragedies among the poorest must surely break His heart. And, if it is not broken by their suffering, most assuredly it is by the indifference of the affluent.
Friday, July 29, 2011
It is a devotional word which has been read for several years, but this year it seemed to linger around long after the pages had been turned to other readings. It is something attributed to Gandhi and it speaks of the sacred nature of common things.If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water, Or stir up the fire with the bellows Or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our book-keeping table, Or, burnt by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of rice-field, Or standing by the smelter's furnace we do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery, the world will never be saved.
It brings to mind Brother Lawrence in his kitchen. But, it also serves to bring into focus the truth that if God is not experienced in the present moment midst the ordinary, it is doubtful we have truly encountered Him midst the sacred surroundings of sanctuary. It is never one or the other. Such we know in our head, yet, a change of context, or a change of scenery, can drive it home with such power that it truly sounds like a Word from the Spirit.
Monday, July 4, 2011
As I stood in line, I saw it up ahead. It was a cross. Actually, it was a tattoo. Inked on her back just below the place where neck meets shoulders, it seemed like such an unlikely place to see a cross. It immediately made me think of Parker, one of Flannery O'Connor's characters in the short story, Parker's Back. I remembered why Parker had his tattoo of the head of Christ on his back. I wondered why this woman wanted a cross on her back. Was it a way to witness to those behind her? Was it her way of identifying herself as a cross bearing Christian, or was it a whim? Why would someone permanently put a cross on their body in a place which they could not see? I could have asked, but somehow, it did not seem like appropriate conversation with a total stranger.
So, I just wondered. Still do. And, I wonder, too, why we wear the cross in the way we do. While I never wore any "cross jewelry," many folks do. However, when I wear a clergy robe, I sometimes wear a stole adorned with a cross. As I reflect, I am made aware that we often wear the cross without really thinking about what it means and why we wear it. Like a cross necklace, maybe it was just about my "Sunday outfit." I know the cross is on the robe and on the stole, but I really do not give much thought to it.
O'Connor's character put the tattoo on his back because of a burning bush kind of experience. Maybe the woman had the cross inked on her back for the same reason. However, too many likely wear or see the cross without giving it any real thought. One thing is certain when we read the Scripture. God gave it a great deal of thought.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Devotional words sometimes last for longer than a single day. I find myself still reflecting over something Oswald Chambers wrote for the June 26 entry in My Utmost for His Highest. It is not a new idea. Neither did it represent some moment of epiphany. Instead, it is just a simple word which has stuck around long after the calendar took me to other readings. The devotional begins with the words, "The grace you had yesterday will not do for today. Grace is the overflowing favour of God; you can always reckon it is there to draw upon."
We are accustomed to such being true in our life. When we finish the day, we do not put water in jugs for tomorrow because we are sure it will be there tomorrow to draw upon. And besides its availability, strange things happen to water when it just sits around day after day. Neither is the grace of God something to be hoarded for tomorrow. There is no need. It will be there tomorrow.
What Chambers pushes us toward us is daily intimacy with God. Of course, God's grace is not dependent upon our response to Him, but we do know that without a daily walk with God we are likely to miss out on the blessings of grace being poured out in our lives. The Word keeps telling us over and over that we need not worry about having today what we need for tomorrow. Therefore, tomorrow's grace surely abounds for all of us who have hearts open to receive it.
Friday, July 1, 2011
I have remembered the words for over 45 years. I spoke them again last Sunday at a gathering at the Rocky Ford Church. Joe Bridges, a District Superintendent, said them while preaching a Quarterly Conference worship service at the Alamo Church. I was not quite 18 years of age. "If you see a need, know you can do something about that need, and do nothing, you may be neglecting the call of God on your life." By the time I got through processing those words on that particular evening, I knew I was hearing a call to preach. To be honest is to confess I did not like what I was sensing in my heart even though I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what I was hearing.
Most all of us can remember some life shaping words spoken over our life at some unexpected moment. They may not have sent us into the ministry, or to a mission field, but they, nonetheless, had shaping and defining power. Sometimes our life is shaped by our acceptance of the words and sometimes, it is shaped by our refusal to acknowledge that a word is indeed from God. When heard, these life shaping words can be a crossroad kind of moment where there are two roads to be taken.
I wonder what words you remember in such a way. What are the words which have had power over your past as it was being turned into your future? If remembering stirs some regret, it is good to know God may still be waiting with patience for us to acknowledge that He has spoken a Word over us which still requires some action of obedience.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Long years ago a pastor friend moved from here to there. He went from a neighboring church in Columbus to one in Texas. From time to time we would connect, but, perhaps, there have been more connecting in the last few years. Recently, Jim shared with me that he was doing a one minute breakaway on a local rock station in Houston. For those who missed the daily inspirational thought, there was an internet subscription. I became a subscriber and after reading a few, I'm glad I did.
I have listed Jim Jackson's blog, "Jim's Daily Awakenings" on my short list of blogs to visit. I invite you to visit the site. Since each entry is designed for a minute, it will not take long, but the thoughts shared will stay with you for a much longer time. Jim is a lover of Jesus and an encourager. You will sense this as you read what he writes.
There are so many ways to be a blessing to others. New ways are opening up to us all every day. How important it is that we stay in touch with the Christ who has changed us into something new so that we miss not a single one of those unfolding opportunities.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
It was noon and the church parking lot was mostly full. However, it was today, Thursday, and not Sunday. Had it been Sunday I would have known what was happening. Since it was Thursday, I had to ask and when I did, I discovered the church was having a meeting to pray for rain. If I had known I would have slipped in to add my prayers to theirs instead of continuing on my way.
While some might smile at the naivete of those simple country folks, they model a serious attitude toward drought and prayer. Immediately, our memory of scripture takes us to weather related prayers. Elijah is, perhaps, the first rainmaker who comes to mind. While the written story does not tell us, Noah was likely praying for rain as he was building that boat with the ridicule of neighbors raining down upon him. Of course, Jonah saw more than his share of stormy rain and water. And, then there is Jesus. He walked on the water with storm raging around Him and spoke clear weather into existence.
Today was not the first time a group of those who belonged to God gathered to pray for rain. Neither will it be the last. Tonight as I hear approaching thunder and see flashes of lightning in the distance, I hear myself praying that God will bring the rain closer and soak the dry earth that is all around me.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Anyone who knows much about my preaching preparation knows it has always included preaching to empty pews. No, not on Sunday morning. Certainly, there were those Sunday mornings when more pews were empty than filled, but the reference to "empty pew preaching" has to do with Saturday night. Preaching is a form of verbal communication and it always seemed important to me to finish my preaching preparation by preaching the sermon several times to empty pews.
Retirement has put me in a different world. As I go to the Rocky Ford Church each Sunday, I find myself once again in a preaching ministry. Since the church is ten miles away from our home, going up to do practice preaching is a bit difficult. Some kind folks might say that after 39 years of preaching, I could let the practice go, but they would be wrong. For me it is still important for more reasons than I have room to enumerate here. So, in lieu of a sanctuary, I go out of the house to a pecan shaded place between our blueberry patch and the garden. Using a black wrought iron table as a pulpit, I preach my sermon to any of God's creatures that might pause to listen.
This new place I use to practice my preaching is a different kind of sanctuary. In the brick and mortar ones where I practised my preaching, I was always aware of the symbols and signs of the holy all around me. What I have discovered in this new place is that it, too, is filled with signs of the holy. Indeed. They abound!
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
No matter where we are, Easter is still Easter. In my last few preaching appointments, Easter was a day of overflowing crowds as 700 to 800 folks showed up to worship. This past Sunday at Rocky Ford United Methodist Church a larger than average crowd showed up, but it was still much smaller than recent memories of Easter crowds. But, it still felt like Easter. It was an exciting moment of worship that was full of joy and celebration.
What I had experienced in other places on Resurrection Sunday was experienced again last Sunday. Once again it was good to hear the Easter greeting, "Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!" The singing of those Easter hymns seemed a little stronger, more heart felt. The Biblical readings for the day hung in the air filling the place with power. Once more this preacher sensed the passion that accompanies preaching on such a glorious day. I know it can be done, but it is hard to mess up Easter. There is a power and presence peculiar to this day of worship which remains unparalled.
An added bonus was the blessing of "getting it." Back in January I posted a blog entitled "Stuck." It was a word sharing my struggle at figuring out why I was stuck with the first three verses of the book of Ezekiel. I wrote, "Over and over I find myself reading these few words with a feeling that I have not gotten it yet." I am now free to move on. When I left Easter worship this past Sunday morning, I almost immediately thought about these Words from Ezekiel and heard myself saying, "I got it!"
Saturday, April 23, 2011
For the past thirty-nine years I have had a place to preach on Easter Sunday. When I retired, I figured that "preaching streak' would end. No preacher I know invites someone to preach for them on Easter Sunday. To do so might be cause for the Bishop to question the preacher's call to preach. However, life has strange twists and turns and once again I find myself with the opportunity to preach on Easter Sunday. When asked back in February to fill in for a couple of months, one of the first thoughts I had was that it would give me one more Easter Sunday to preach. Tomorrow at Rocky Ford United Methodist I will be preaching Easter sermon No. 40.
Over the years I have done a number of things with the preaching on Easter. There were times when I really failed to preach the message. One thing learned over the years is that trying to be cute with some catchy thought on Easter is pointless. People do not come to Easter morning worship because they need to be entertained. Entertainment is everywhere we turn in our world. What brings them to Easter morning worship is the message of the resurrection and to focus on any other theme is to waste the preaching opportunity and their time as well.
So, tomorrow I have one more time to preach that marvellous life changing message that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that He desires for us to share that same victory when this life of ours on this earth comes to an end. This is the message people come to hear. It is the only message worth preaching on a day which C.S. Lewis said, "causes the foundations of hell to tremble." May it be so where we all are on this Easter Sunday, 2011.
Monday, April 18, 2011
The world is full of messages for those who are watching and listening. Some are blaring into our ears in such a way it is impossible to ignore them. Others are so subtle we hardly realize we have allowed the message to slip past the barriers declaring right and wrong. Some are on bumpers of vehicles and some are on the portable message signs which stand in front of so many businesses. On a recent trip into Savannah, there was this message which said, "A clear conscience is a sign of a bad memory." It was an invitation to make light of a conscience which might actually steer someone away from entering the lounge and game room under the sign.
Of course, the scripture does not equate a clear conscience with a bad memory. Instead, it equates it with living in a right relationship with God. When the Apostle Paul stood before the council condemning him, he declared, "Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God." (Acts 23:1) And later, Peter would write to the church and say, "Keep your conscience clear..." (I Peter 3:16). For Paul and Peter a clear conscience was about living in a right way before God. It was important for them to be able to look back with no memory of bad choices, only right living.
Surely, that thing we call "conscience" seeks to steer us toward the same kind of life choices made by the Apostles. A clear conscience is not a thing which is actually impossible to possess as the message board would suggest. The Word of God declares a different thing. It is possible to live with a clear conscience, knowing that we are living in a right relationship with God and our brothers and sisters. The Hebrews called it righteous living and so we are we all called and empowered to live.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Those who know me, know that I do re-reads like some folks do re-runs on television. It is my belief that reading a book once is no reason not to read it again. Some novels by favorite authors have been read six, seven, or more times. While I thinned my library harshly upon retirement, one book I kept because I knew it would be read again was John Eldredge's Walking With God.
Very simply it is a book about prayer. The underlying theme of the whole book is: "An intimate, conversational walk with God is available." When the book is taken seriously, it shatters the shell of contentment we often construct around our prayer life. According to Eldredge, an intimate prayer life requires work done on our knees, time measured not in moments but in big chunks, and the willingness to replace routine patterns of prayer with risk and experimentation. He taps that desire in us to want more in our prayer life and then challenges us to go after it.
But, perhaps, one of the most prayer changing things he teaches is the art of asking. No one taught us in seminary to ask God what to pray about in a pastoral prayer, or how to pray for someone who comes with a need which seems so obvious. Like many others I have learned the art of depending on my own insights and impressions instead of stopping and asking, "God, how do you want me to pray here?" But, I am also beginning to learn that asking can take us to amazing places in our praying.
Monday, February 7, 2011
Today I led worship and preached ten miles up the road at the Rocky Ford UMC. As I anticipated this morning I knew I would need my Bible and my Hymnal. Both were still packed in moving boxes. While I have had a Bible available for reading, it is not the one I had been using as a preaching companion for some years now. So, Saturday afternoon I started my search. I went through all the boxes and found neither of the sought after books. I started telling myself they were gone, lost and never to be found. A second search was more thorough and more fruitful. I found both my pulpit Bible and my Hymnal side by side at the bottom of one of the boxes. Being at the bottom meant that they were the first ones packed which spoke a quiet word about their importance to me.
The two books have been worship companions for at least the last seven years. The Hymnal was given to me as a parting gift by the staff at the Perry Church. The Bible was bought as a replacement for one so worn out, it would fall apart if carried into the pulpit. While the Hymnal has pages that have been doused by baptismal water, the Bible bears its markings as well. Most of those marking are notes, underlinings, arrows, and brackets. When my memory fails about the chapter and verse of a certain Word, I often am able to find it by remembering its location on the page and the markings which lift it up.
Over the years of preaching, I have always had a Bible that was used exclusively for preaching. Picking it up reminded me that something important was before me. Picking it up reminded me that the task was to speak in such a way that the written Word became the spoken Word. It was good to put my Bible and my Hymnal to good use this morning. I pray that I was as well.
Friday, February 4, 2011
It was about sunset today when I heard them coming. I peered through the gray sky in the direction of the loud honking noise until I saw them. As I watched, these Canadian Geese came directly toward me in a perfect V-formation over our farm toward our neighbor's pond. They were no more than a hundred feet above me as they came soaring by. For some reason, as they drew overhead they ceased their honking. I looked up, was amazed at how close they were, and thought it better to look down in case something unwanted came dropping from the air. Better to be hit on the top of the head than in a mouth opened in awe and amazement! As I looked down for a moment, I heard something I had never heard. It was perfectly quiet. In that silence I heard the sound of fifty wings moving up and down through the air. It was an indescribable, gentle, soft, rushing sound. It was a moment of sheer wonder!
In our world filled with constant noise, it is not always quiet enough to hear. I had always missed the sound of wings moving through the air because other sounds and noises were too overwhelming. Surely, living in a world that is not quiet enough keeps us from experiencing "the sheer sound of silence" (I Kings 19:12). Such was how the prophet Elijah experienced the holy presence of God.
There are those moments of quietness which slip up on all of us, but most of the time it is necessary to be intentional about creating them, or moving into them as they are shaped for us by God. Allowing the demanding noises to captivate our attention only means missing some of the important stuff God has for us. If we truly want to hear the voice of God and know the wonder of His presence in our lives, it must be quiet enough to hear.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
This past Sunday morning included the usual appointment. Susie is our German Shorthair Pointer. Each morning I let her out of the pen, pour a bowl full of dry dog food, and stand around somewhere nearby while she eats. My presence seems to help her stay focused on eating instead of running off after some scent in the air. As I stood there I watched her scrounging around on the ground for a few pieces of food that missed the bowl. I thought, "Dumb dog! You have a bowl full of food and you're eating a few pieces off the ground!"
It was then that the Sunday morning Word came. I heard it somewhere between my head and my heart. It was not spoken loudly, but it was spoken clearly. It came so quickly behind my words that it surprised me. The Word? "You're just like that. You have a bowl full of the abundant life in front of you and you insist on going after lesser things." The suddenness of it spoke volumes of its source. It was one of those moments which seem to knock me back a step or two.
When such Words are spoken in the inner place of our spirit, there is always a moment of decision. Sometimes I want to explain it away by declaring that it somehow originated with me. Sometimes I know from whence it came and want to ignore it. But, the only real choice, the one that calls for confession and obedience, is spoken of with the old adage, "If the shoe fits, wear it."
Thursday, January 27, 2011
When I arrived at the Blakely UMC in Blakely, Ga. for my second summer of youth ministry in that church, a new pastor was waiting. As he started his preaching ministry, it seemed that he preached only stewardship sermons. I thought it odd. He explained by telling me a story of a preacher who went to a new church and preached the very same sermon again and again and again. Finally, someone asked if he had another sermon. As the story goes the preacher said, "When you act like you have heard the first one, I will preach another!"
Recently, I have been reading the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. Actually, I should say I have been trying to read it. There are times when it seems that the Spirit directs us to certain parts of the Word and this has been one such time. My problem in reading it has not been in figuring out all the visions of this prophet. To be honest is to admit I have gotten no further than the first three verses. While I have heard some of what I sense to be the Word of Lord for my life in this passage, I still find no freedom to move on to what follows. Over and over I find myself reading these few Words with a feeling that I have not gotten it yet.
There are things about it which seem rather obvious, but I continue to be led back to it in a way that tells me there is still something more. So, I stay in place, reading and praying and waiting. Maybe I will end up discovering it is not the book of Ezekiel to which I have been led, but to those first three verses which appear to be nothing than the introduction of the prophet.
Monday, January 17, 2011
Bible trivia experts will have no trouble identifying Jubal. He is Jabal's brother. Genesis 4:21 also tells us that Jubal is the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. I interpret that to mean Jubal is the ancestor of all the church musicians of today who lead and enable the rest of us to worship. I have always been grateful to have members of Jubal's tribe in the churches which have been a part of my worship history. Sometimes they are paid staff and sometimes they are simply volunteers with music in their hearts. Sometimes they enhance what is happening in worship and sometimes they are its savior.
It happened where I worshipped as the musician shared a bit about her personal faith journey and then began to sing a song I had not heard in years. She sang, "O how I love him, how I adore Him. He's my breath, He's my sunshine, He's my all in all. The Great Creator became my salvation, and all God's fullness dwelleth in Him." The title of the song is "Down From His Glory." If I had been the preacher for the day, I would have had the congregation sing the chorus with her when she finished. I used to do that when I just had to sing a song I had heard!
Both her testimony and her music blessed me and everyone else present. I wonder sometimes if these musicians who grace us with their music realize the blessings imparted to us as the Spirit works through them. I am always grateful for the offerings they bring to worship. On those Sundays when I knew I bombed out as a preacher, I was extremely grateful for those who lifted us into the Father's presence with their ministry of music. Today, or yesterday morning, I was grateful for this blessing of God's presence brought into the room by this musician who did what she did not because she was paid, but because she was being faithful to God.