Monday, December 30, 2013

A Most Precious Gift

One of Wendell Berry's character is an old guy named Jayber Crow who shares his life from the perspective of one who has more memory than future.  When I met Jayber Crow in those pages, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit.  As I stand here at the end of one year, awaiting still another one to begin, I am aware that more are behind than are ahead.  My memory is getting longer and my future is getting shorter.   There is nothing morbid about this realization, only recognition of a truth that is as much a part of my life as anything that is past.
And with this perspective, I am learning how precious is the gift of time.  I have wasted more than my share of it.  I have lived in it while thinking only of how I could get from the moment where I was to the moment in which I wanted to be.  Too often I have seen it as a means to an end instead of something to be experienced and enjoyed and embraced for the value it had in the present moment.  Too many times it was something to be exploited in some way for personal gain, and in the process, I failed to understand what a precious gift it was that God was giving me.
Where I grew up, folks always said it was important to keep land if you had it because no more was being made.  It is even more true of this gift of time.  There is only one moment which is defined as the present.  It is the only thing that has any kind of guarantee.  Each one of those present moments which God grants to us is the most precious gift in all of life.  More important than money.  More important than what ego pursuits bring.  It is extremely important.  In verse 10 of the 5th chapter of Ephesians, the Word of God says, "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord."   No better use than this can we make of the time that God chooses to give to us. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Real Picture

Weeks ago when John the Baptist showed up on center stage, everyone wanted to turn off the spotlight and get on to the scene where baby Jesus appears.   However, those who put the Advent lectionary lessons together would not allow him or his hard-to-listen-to message be ignored.  Our anger about his appearance is nothing compared to what was felt on this Sunday after Christmas.  We went anticipating more of the manger story and found ourselves encountering that lectionary lesson about the massacre of innocent children in and around Bethlehem.  It is a story no one really wants to hear or think about anytime, but certainly not when the sounds of angels are still echoing in the air around the child Jesus.  It seemed so out of place.

But, the truth is exactly the opposite.  As surely as the shepherds are part of the story, so is this tragedy.  Life is always a mixture of things good and bad, things that give hope and things that seek to take it away.  Unfortunately, it even happens during the Christmas season.  At worship today someone ask that we pray for a family grieving from the loss of a loved one on Christmas Day.   A few weeks ago I came up on an automobile accident in which a 46 year old man lost his life.  Six days before Christmas when I was seven, my father left home one morning and we were weeping over his death before night.  There is nothing out of place about the story of the massacre of the children.  We might like for life to be filled only with the sweet romantic stories about a child born in a manger, but such is not a true picture of life.

As we finish up these days of Christmas, there are great memories to cherish, but as we look around us we see hurting people whose stories compel us to fall on our knees with broken hearts.  There are the refugee children of Syria.  There are the grieving mourners who will always remember Christmas as a season of loss.  There are those who are out of work, out of money, and out of hope.  There is great joy.  And there is great loss.  It is that way today and every day.  And so we pray about unthinkable situations that are impossible to understand, "Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy." 

Saturday, December 28, 2013


What is a preacher to do after Christmas is past and Sunday stands in the way?  Easter presents an entirely different scenario.  Unlike Christmas,  Easter always comes on Sunday.  On Easter Sunday any preacher worth his or her salt is going to preach on the resurrection of Jesus.  After all, it is the central truth of the gospel story.  And then on the Sunday after Easter, there are great texts to preach.  A preacher can almost preach to Pentecost by going to the Upper Room with the disciples and Thomas, or going down the Emmaus Road, or taking a trip to the beach for breakfast cooked by Jesus.  Each is a great story and lends itself to preaching.
And, then there is Christmas.  Christmas shows up on any day of the week and most preachers tend to give their best Christmas sermons on the Sunday before Christmas, or on Christmas Eve when folks come back to sing the songs and to receive Holy Communion.  By the time Christmas Day comes, preachers are worn out from giving the Bethlehem story their best effort.  But, regardless of it all, the Sunday after Christmas still comes.  One thing a preacher has no shortage of is the next Sunday.  So, what do you do?  What do you preach?  Lectionary preachers have scripture lessons about the men from the east, or the story of the holy family joining refugees on the road to Egypt, or the massacre of the innocent children.  Nothing here is quite as exciting as the post Easter texts.
So, what is a preacher to do?  I could say, "Go to worship in the morning and see," but such would be something less than an answer.  Perhaps, the thing to do afterwards it to remember that one of the greatest stories in the Bible is the story of the Incarnation.  As the angel put it to Joseph, " Him Emmanuel, which means God with us."   Amazing.  God is with us.  God is with us today.  God is with us when we rejoice in the birth of our children.  God is with us in the moments of sorrow when tragedy overwhelms.  God is with on the journey to Egypt, or anywhere else.  God is with us.  Wow!  Looks like there really is something to preach in the morning.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Thumbs Up

Predicting what a child is going to say is like trying to predict the Second Coming.  You just never know what is going to come out next.  Our second grade grandson offered the most memorable quote of Christmas this year.  At a church supper he was asked, "Is Santa coming to your house this year?"  And, then came the word which will be quoted around our place for a long time.  "We are not doing Santa Claus this year.  We are focusing on Jesus."  The man with the question was like anyone of us would be.  He was surprised to the point of being speechless.  Instead of speaking, he simply gave my grandson "two-thumbs up" and walked away. 
Sometimes children point the way forward for us.  Jesus certainly showed an understanding of the simple wisdom and faith of children when He chastised His disciples for trying to push them back into a world where they are not seen or heard.  When it comes to matters of faith, we want to make it far more complicated than it is.  On the other hand, children often see through all the stuff and help us see the real core issue.
Christmas really is a special time of focusing on Jesus.  It is strange that this simple truth gets pushed back into a place where it is hardly visible.  We know it in our head, but somewhere between head and actions, this simple truth about Christmas gets de-railed.   Some who walk with on this journey have figured it out.  They give gifts of themselves to folks in need.  They make sure to touch the lives of the lonely and forgotten.  They are sensitive to the pain some experience during these festive days.  They do unto others in such a way that it seems that gifts of love and compassion are indeed being given to the least and last of our society.  Getting it right is not limited to children.  We can get it, too, and, perhaps, in the process get "two-thumbs up" from Jesus.    

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Just Wondering

"Father God, I can't help but wonder.  I know how it is with us when we peer into the eyes of a newborn child.  I have done that a couple of times and though it was long ago, I still remember the moment.  I wonder, Father, what it was like for You when You peered into that makeshift nursery in Bethlehem long ago.  When we peer into our re-enactments of that birth, there is a sense of awe and wonder.  It is a feel good moment for us.  But, I wonder how it was with You.
You certainly orchestrated quite an event that night.   Mary and Joseph were there because of the way You called them to that moment.  The Shepherds came at the bidding of Your angels and the men from the east followed the Star You set in the heavens.  Ah, there was no surprise in that night for You.  You knew what was happening and had known longer than memory has existed in this world You created.  Still, I wonder if that moment of peering into the manger and seeing the result of Your planned handiwork caused You to catch Your breath.  I wonder if it caused You to marvel at what was there in plain view for You and all the world to see.
What I really wonder, Father God, is if You wept when You saw that child whose spirit must have seemed to You like a reflection of Your own?  Were there tears in Your eyes and pain in Your heart as You looked at Your Son and the path that He would be called to walk?  Was something akin to a broken heart in You as You saw Him and knew that the sins of folks like me made it necessary?  How did You do it Father?  How could You offer Him for me?  I am the one who is a sinner and He was and is the Holy One, the unblemished One.  How could you do it?  I know in this moment that I and others like me are the ones responsible for the broken heart and the tears which must have overwhelmed You when You peered in to see Your Son.  I know.  All I know to say is,  'Father, forgive.  Father, thank You for loving me.  Father, thank You for Your grace.'   Amen." 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Day

By now the tree is starting to look a bit old and worn.  The brightly wrapped packages have turned into a pile of opened treasures and another pile of trash.  The Bible has closed on the story of that couple of long ago who tended to the baby Jesus.  And, even though the Christmas season actually stretches forward for twelve days, most folks have closed the song book on the Christmas hymns.  The echoes of "O Come, All ye Faithful"  and "Joy to the World"  do indeed lay heavy in the air, but it will be a year before they truly reverberate through sanctuaries and our hearts again.
Perhaps, it is as it must be.  Like an arriving train, Christmas has been much watched for and then, suddenly, it is upon us and gone.  However, the one thing which remains with us is the reality that the One whose birth we celebrate still lives among us.  Through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, He was born in Bethlehem long ago.  And through what seems like an even more mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, the presence of the Christ continues to linger and live in our hearts.  What a miracle is this Incarnation event!  Its implications and repercussions are not only mind boggling, but life changing.
A song which has been much on my heart in these late days of Advent is a song that certainly is appropriate to sing on Christmas Day, or any day.  Written by Harry Clarke, it goes like this:  "Into my heart, into my heart,  Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.  Come in today, come in to stay,  Come into my heart, Lord Jesus."   It is one I have known since boyhood days.  Maybe you remember it, too.  It is a great song of renewing the invitation for Jesus to abide in our hearts.  As I have already said, I have been singing it a lot lately and I invite you to join me.  Let us use these twelve days of Christmas to invite Him anew and afresh in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent XXIV

Most of the nativity scenes we see put up before Christmas have all the characters standing except for one.  The last character to arrive in the contemporary manger scene portrayals is the main character.  The last one to arrive is traditionally placed in the scene on Christmas Eve.  Jesus. The child.  The One whose purpose was to save you and me and everyone else from their sin.  The One whose purpose was to change the world.  Jesus.  How strange it is that above all the names we know, His name is the name we are least likely to use in the normal conversations of our day.  We carry around pictures of our children and grandchildren and are quick to show them and talk about them.  There was a time when I carried a glossy business card size picture of Jesus in my wallet, but I seldom showed it to anyone like I did other pictures. 
We are strange creatures, are we not?   This One whose birth we remember in worship filled with carols, stories, and communion is made over like cake and ice cream this day; yet, given leftover treatment the rest of the time.  What we known in the inner core of our being is that there is no one like Him.  Without Him we are not fit to be in loving relationships with the most precious ones of our lives.  He is the One who has given us love and who has taught us how to strive forward in the loving relationships we hold so dear.  Without Him we would sell out our life to some trivial pursuit of life which grants temporary satisfaction, but gives no eternal peace and joy.  He is the One who believes in us and pushes us forward when everyone else is ready to let us go.
There are no end of things we can say about this Jesus, this child of the manger who was born long ago in Bethlehem to save us.  We can read the Christmas story once again from the gospel of Luke.  It is a great day for hearing those ancient and powerful words.  We can lift up voices with others in worship as we sing, "O, Come, All ye Faithful."   And, perhaps, we can simply sit somewhere quietly to say two distinct words.  One is ""Thank You, Jesus."   And the other?   "Yes, Jesus, Yes...once again come into my heart."

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent XXIII

If you look at any traditional portrayal of the nativity, live or otherwise, you will see the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the three kings.  Of course, this commonly accepted tradition flies in the face of the Christian calendar which marks the arrival of the three kings twelve days after Christmas on a day known as Epiphany.  And placing the shepherds and the wise men alongside each other also represents a choice to ignore scripture which suggests that the men from the east came when Jesus was around two years of age. (Matthew 2:13-18)  Still, putting them there at the same time makes for a fuller nativity scene and it gives more children a part in such an important Christian re-enactment.
So, forgive me for including these wise men (who may have been more or less than three) in my Advent meditations focusing on the nativity.  They were following the great star, but still they went to Jerusalem and the seat of political power in the region for guidance.  Did the nights suddenly become cloudy causing confusion for these wise men?  Or, perhaps, they assumed a king could only be born in such a city as Jerusalem.  An even greater mystery occurs while they were visitors in the city.  The Jewish leaders consulted by Herod knew the birth was to take place, but none of them are ever seen in our nativity scene.  Why none were curious enough to go check it out is a mystery.

What is not a mystery is the fact that the early visitors of Jesus were Jews and Gentiles.  They were the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich.  The shepherds brought no gifts.  The wise men brought extravagant gifts which no doubt provided sustenance for the Holy Family during the years of exile.  It is clear from the very beginning that Jesus came not for some, but for all.  He was born in Bethlehem as Savior for those shepherds, those wise men, you, me, and everyone else, too.   

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent XXII

The Bible is filled with stories of transcendent moments where heavenly glory breaks in upon the earthly domain.  Moses and Mt. Sinai certainly is one such moment.  Isaiah's vision in the Temple is still another.  Peter, James, and John had one on the Mt. of Transfiguration.  But, to remember such Biblical stories without remembering those shepherds who were watching their flocks by night out there on the edge of Bethlehem is to miss one of the more exciting ones described in the New Testament.  It is amazing to think about.  Shepherds were not exactly on top of the social totem pole.  Hanging around sheep all the time gave them a certain odor which sophisticated city dwellers found quite offensive. 
However, on the night Jesus was born, all of heaven was focused on that lonely place where only shepherds walked.  It starts out with a single angel and ends up with a host of them singing praise to God.  The one unsurprising element of the story is the terror of those shepherds.  When all the heavenly fireworks started, they were probably trying to dig a whole in the earth to hide! And, when all the singing and praising angels had gone, imagine the silence that must have filled the night as those watchers of sheep pulled themselves back into what they knew as reality.  When one of them finally dared to break the silence with words, it was, "Bethlehem.  Let's go to Bethlehem."  And as the scripture says, they went with haste.  They went in hurry.
They saw Mary and Joseph.  They saw the child.  They told those wide-eyed parents how it was that they came to that place.  And when they left, the Word says, "The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them."  (Luke 2:20)  No surprise with that response.  What else is there to do when God in all His glory breaks in upon our mortal human existence with His presence?  What we know from remembering those moments is that there is nothing else to do!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent XXI

If anyone was told they could have a "do-over," I have always figured that Bethlehem innkeeper would run to the front of the line.  Every year when Mary and Joseph are chosen, and then the angels, the shepherds, and the men from the east, someone gets chosen for those unforgettable lines. "No room!  There is no room in the inn!"  Of course, the Christmas plays always give the innkeeper credit for offering the hay filled stall, but who is really to say such is how it happened?  The Scripture really does not answer that question for us.

Unfortunately, life does not work that way.   Golfers have mulligans.  Baseball players get three strikes.  Football teams have four downs.  Sometimes teachers have been known to give the same test over for students in need of mercy.  In the game of life, there are no "do-overs."  One shot is it.  The prodigal son got grace, but he could not "do-over" what he had done.  Consequences still remained.  As scary as it sounds, we usually have only one shot at getting it right the first time.  The innkeeper at Bethlehem missed it.

Most of us who have any kind of history with experience can look back to a moment we would like to "do-over."  Those are the moments of remembering bad choices.  Those are the moments of regret and even guilt.  They  may even be moments of remembering the pain we caused someone.  We do not have the past to live over, but we do have the present to live right and well.  With God's help, we can live it so that there is no need for "do-overs."  When we make that choice, our present starts overshadowing our past.  Ask Joseph.  His first reaction was not the one of faith, but fear.  We remember him because of the one of faith.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent XX

I was chasing an angel when I found it.  Anyone who reads the Christmas narrative in Luke's gospel runs into Gabriel.  In the first chapter the angel identifies himself by saying, "I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news."  Of course, he was speaking to Zechariah, telling him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear them a son whose name would be John.  This is the same angel who later appears to Mary announcing to her that she will give birth to Jesus.  And while the Word does not tell us the name of the angel who appears to Joseph in his dream, or the name of the angel who shows up in the field with the shepherds, I have always figured that since he had been seen in the vicinity for sure on a couple of occasions, Gabriel must be the unnamed angel of these stories as well. 

As I chased this angel around the Christmas story, I wondered where else he might have shown up in the scripture.  I chased him back to Old Testament times where he breaks in upon the prayer of Daniel.  It was there that I found it.  I went back and read the prayer being prayed by Daniel just before Gabriel showed up.  The prayer begins back in the first few verses of the 9th chapter, but the part of it which got my attention came in verses 18 and 19.  It is worth reading slowly.  "We do not present our supplication before You on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of Your great mercies.  O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, listen and act and do not delay!  For Your own sake, O my God, because Your city and Your people bear Your name!"  It is also worth praying.

What I found there in the book of Daniel was a wonderful...a powerful...Advent prayer.  Already I have put it to memory so that I can carry it with me through these remaining days of Advent.  I am grateful my angel chase brought me to this prayer prayed long ago by Daniel.  It is obvious God heard the prayer and responded to it which is still what God desires to do with our prayers today.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent XIX

When it comes to giving an award for being nothing short of being truly amazing, you have to hand it over to Mary.   If the angel Gabriel shows up at my place, there is no way I am going to be doing anything except pulling the covers over my head, hoping that shaking in fear is not a sound which can be heard.  When I was a kid and woke up scared in the middle of the night, under the covers I would go.  How Mary did what she did is really something to behold.  This young girl had some kind of extraordinary courage and faith!
Aside from the visit of the angel, what she heard was something totally unimaginable.  Impossible is what she thought.  But, once Gabriel explained how it was going to be, we see a Mary who is not only open to what God is about to do, but claims it as His plan and purpose. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."   No doubt she found out quickly that her parents, her friends, and even her husband to be found her experience with the angel and her surprising pregnancy to be outside the boundaries of anything believable.  Those must have been very  lonely and difficult days for this young girl who had lived without any kind of comparable conflict in her life.

And even though we have heard the story at least once for every year we have lived, it is still a story that speaks of the incredible.  Actually, it is not just a story for a story is something that entertains, but a record of how God chose to act in the world and in our lives to express His love for us.  For many of us it is quite a challenge to really consider the fact that we need Someone outside of ourselves to save us from the sin which is such a part of our lives.  As in the case of Mary, it takes both courage to face up to who we really are and extraordinary faith to trust the Holy One of the manger to deliver through His loving life and saving death.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent XVIII

When the manger scene characters start showing up, we find ourselves encountering folks like you and me who worked through some incredible challenges to their faith.  The challenge Joseph faced is different from Mary, the shepherds, or the men from the east in that his story starts out with a human witness instead of some supernatural experience.  Mary had Gabriel, the shepherds had the heavenly host, and the men from the east had a great star.  All Joseph had was the word of the woman he planned to marry.  She told him this unlikely story about being pregnant that she expected him to believe.  No angels were singing in that moment; instead, there must have a heaving chest, a dry mouth, and a flipping of everything inside his body.  No moment of disappointment could have been greater.
So, Joseph's story as we read it in Matthew's gospel has a different starting point.  Certainly, his dream life was invaded by an angel of the Lord, but only after he had decided that he and Mary had no future together.  When he went to sleep, it was not with an intention to marry her, but to end what had been so full of promise and hope. What has always been obvious about Joseph is that he shows what happens when a man is in touch with his inner self, is unafraid to listen to that voice even though it goes against conventional and practical wisdom, and is able recognize the work of God.  When we see where Joseph ends up, we see a model of faith that has few parallels in all of scripture.  Here is certainly a man who chose not to act on the basis of his fears, but on the basis of his faith.
Anyone who sees the manger and fails to see that there is a huge amount of faith under its shelter has not really seen all that there is to see.  In that place there are more than animals and a romantic story, but the presence of a life and death faith that persisted until the plan of God was fully accomplished.  Oh, for that kind of faith in our hearts and in our church!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent XVII

For a person who plays such a prominent role in the story of Jesus, John the Baptist spends very little time on the Biblical stage.  As we read Matthew's gospel we first encounter him as he preaches and baptizes at the Jordan River.  There he is identified as the one who fulfills the Isaiah prophecy.  He is the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  Jesus shows up and is baptized.  The next mention of John comes midway through the 4th chapter where the Word simply announces, "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee."  Surprisingly, the arrest of John is treated almost like a sidebar to the story.  Chapters 9 and 11 tell of John's disciples coming to Jesus with questions and much later just before the feeding of the 5000, we are told of the execution of the Bapitzer.  As we read Matthew, very little is offered to us about this one so praised by Jesus.

It has always seemed a bit strange that Jesus shows no more anxiety about John's situation than he does.  He handles it in what seems to us be a rather matter of fact manner.  However, no doubt there was more concern in His heart than the gospel writers indicate.  We do know that the news of John's execution sent Jesus out in search of a lonely place, but there He encountered thousands in need so He seems to put His need for grief work aside to care for them.  Surely, it must have pained Jesus to know of the tragic death of this man with whom He had grown up.  Their stories were intertwined from the very beginning.

But, Jesus knew, too, the cost of obedience to God.  John lost his life because He was faithful to the ministry entrusted to him.  Jesus also knew John would not be the last to suffer for reasons of faithful obedience.  He would go that way Himself.  It sorrowed Jesus to know of the suffering and death of this lifelong friend.  It must also sorrow Him when we experience such because of our faith, but it must give Him joy that we, along with others, allow our faith to prevail in our living and dying.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent XVI (Isaiah 35:1-10)

Lord, this Word of Yours is truly amazing.  It makes me remember that moment when You told the Pharisees that if the people were silent, the stones would shout out.  Reading this Word  makes me want to shout out, raise my hands in the air, and dance...and all at the same time!  Lord, I want to add my voice to the voices of the wilderness and the desert in the rejoicing and the singing.  You indeed are full of majesty and glory!  Midst the joyous sounds of all creation praising You and giving glory to You, O Lord, please give Your ear to hear the praise which is springing from a heart that is filled with the wonder of all that You have brought into being.
Make my voice louder, Father.  Make my praise deeper.  Make the joy coming forth from within even more complete.  May my hands never tire from being raised in praise and adoration to You and may my knees never ache when bent before You.  O Father God, grant me the blessing of hearing the angels of heaven shout and declare, "Here is Your God!...He will come and save you!"   Overwhelm me with Your holy presence, Father, even more than I am overwhelmed in this present moment.  For the blessing of seeing Your glory and knowing Your majesty, my heart is filled beyond measure with praise and thanksgiving.
Thank You, Father God, for the assuring promise that You intend to bring blessings of wholeness to me and to others like me in need of Your touch.  Thank You, Holy Father, for the promise of life giving waters breaking forth in ways that can only be described as the miraculous evidences of Your power.  Oh, my soul is beyond the power of human praise as I consider the works of Your hand and heart.  Thank You for the blessings of joy and gladness and singing and choosing to claim me as Your own.  All praise to You, Almighty and Holy God!  All praise to You.  Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent XV

As strange as it seems to us and as much as we might like to change it, once again Advent scriptures put John the Baptist on center stage.  We listen to the secular voices telling us how many shopping days are left before Christmas and we sense this spiritual panic rising up in us.  We want to be faithful to the spirit of the Advent season.  We want to be patient in this season of waiting.  But, the days are running out.  Christmas is nearer than it has been all year and getting nearer every moment and we wonder if it is not about time for baby Jesus to make an appearance.
We cannot help but wonder about the church fathers long centuries ago who created this season of readings and rituals that keep us looking at John the Baptist when all we want to see is Jesus in the manger.  Of course,  John is the official announcer when it comes to Jesus appearing.  The gospel writer John (John 1:6-9, 19-28) tells us that the Baptizer was sent from God.  There was purpose in both his birth and in his mission.  This man of the wilderness certainly understood his place in the divine scheme for when asked who he was, he spoke of himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.  When asked who he was, he said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord." 

Even as the people of Jesus' day needed this voice calling for personal change, so do we.  No one should ever consider coming into the presence of the Holy One sent from God without spending time getting ready.  The "getting ready" is not about what to wear as it might be for some important person, but about what is in our heart.  Looking at the source of all desires and seeking divine help so that inward change might result in a more obedient lifestyle is what John the Baptist calls us to do to get ready for Jesus.  It is important that we hear and heed.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent XIV

We know the Advent season is a season which calls us to practice the discipline of waiting.  But, the waiting called for in the Word is not a passive thing.  Most of us would like for it to be because passive waiting requires less of us than the spiritual waiting that is both intentional and purposeful.  When Peter wrote to the early church (II Peter 3:8-15), he reminded them that the Lord delays in acting not because He is slow, but because He wants us to have time to take repentance seriously.  The fact that God has not acted to bring our human existence to an end is not about Him being slow, but about Him being merciful and patient.
We are told how to live in this waiting time in our life.  Peter writes, "...while you are waiting for these things...' and then he goes on to offer a very practical word for us.  One of the things to be sought is a heart filled with peace.  The antithesis is a heart filled with anxiety and worry.  A heart not filled with worry is a heart that has learned to trust.  Secondly, he calls us to live without the contaminating power of sin in our life.  The only way such happens is for us to take seriously the issue of honest confession and repentant spirit.  And finally, as we read we find a reminder that while we wait, we should understand that it is all about God wanting us to make the most of the time given to us.

To reflect and meditate on these Words is to realize that the waiting of Advent, the waiting for that final encounter with Christ, is not a passive thing, but something which requires much spiritual work. It is hard work.  It means painful honesty about who we are, how far we have to go, and the urgency of the moment.  There is no time for delay.  If we fail to understand the importance of this work of the heart, it may well be that we shall never find ourselves truly ready for that final encounter with the One who has the authority to welcome one of those who have been faithful.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent XIII

When we hurry in our reading of the Word, we are likely to miss out on the blessing of the bigger picture.  Hurried reading tends to be done within the constraints of a certain amount of time, or according to a pre-determined number of verses.  While such reading may fulfill our sense of duty and while reading something is better than reading nothing, there is so much more to be gained by taking the time to read the larger context.  No where is this as true as it is in reading that Advent lesson from Matthew which speaks of the coming of Christ. (Matthew 24:29-39)
A closer look causes us to see that the rest of chapter 24 and all of chapter 25 are all connected together.  The first verse speak of the Son of Man appearing in the heavens accompanied by angels sounding trumpets.  The imagery is overwhelming to our senses.  The Scripture speaks of this moment with a call for us to live as those who are wide awake, prepared, and eagerly looking forward to His coming.  What follows that lesson only serves to underscore the theme set forth by Matthew.  The Parable of the Unfaithful Slave tells us to be in a right relationship with others while we wait.  The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids points up the importance of being ready.  The Parable of the Talents calls us to faithful living during the time the Master is away.  And the final section about the Judgment of the Nations lets us know that waiting is not a passive activity, but one that requires compassionate care for those who suffer.

Christ is coming.  This is the announcement of Advent.  And, what do we do as we wait?  If we read carefully the larger section of material which Matthew writes, we are taken to a place of understanding what it means to live right in the interim between His appearance in Bethlehem and His appearance in the clouds.  With Matthew devoting so much space to this issue, there can be no doubt that it is an important one for us.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent XII

The view of the world described in the 11th chapter of Isaiah is indeed earthshaking.  Actually, it describes a world turned upside down.  The vision of Isaiah seen by each of us as we read the words of the passage is unthinkable.  Unspeakable.  Unbelievable.  It is something which does not belong to this world; yet, this world is its setting.  What a world Isaiah describes as he speaks of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard living with the kid, the calf and the lion together being led by a little child, the cow and the bear grazing and their young playing, and the nursing  child playing without fear over the den of a poisonous snake.  His world is a world empty of predator and prey, threats and danger, and filled with the knowledge of the Lord. 
At first glance we might think that this world envisioned by the prophet speaks of a futuristic radical restructuring of the created order.  But, maybe it is not the future which he is seeing, but a radical return to the intended order of creation established and set forth for all humanity to see in that Genesis story of the Garden.  Certainly, the Garden story is about the wrong choice of humanity, about our unwillingness to live in our God intended place in the pecking order, and the terrible consequences of such a choice.  But, it also enables us to see the order of God before it was tainted by our own disobedience.
The story of the Scripture can be understood as God's story of bringing humanity back into the intended order.  From the mercy first offered to the sinning couple of the Garden, to the mercy offered from the mercy seat to those stiff-neck Hebrews, to the mercy afforded to all of us through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it is all about what God has been doing and is doing to bring us back home where we were created to live.  When we began to understand this radical act of God, we are able to start seeing our need for the radical response set forth by the Word as it calls us to repent for the Kingdom of God is near...even here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent XI

Repentance, the real kind called for by John the Baptist, means radical change.  There is nothing easy about it.  It goes way beyond feeling regret, or being sorry, or suffering with uncomfortable consequences.  Confession may open the door to repentance, but if nothing follows it which speaks of a lifestyle change, it is just mere words.  And mere words, not even the churchy religious sounding words are enough if left to stand alone.  Too many have been the times when we have asked God to forgive us knowing that nothing was going to be any different tomorrow if faced with the same choice of right or wrong.  Such does not speak of repentance.  Instead, it describes someone who must think God is a gullible fool. 
Only when confession is followed by a lived out lifestyle choice which reflects real change can we begin to talk about repentance.  Being sorry for a bad choice is a good thing only when we have no intention of doing it again.  For John the Baptist, repentance was serious business.   The reason for it was to make ready for the One sent from the Father.  Perhaps, we fail to grasp that side of what John was preaching.  The reason for the change had to do with being in the presence of the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world. 

If Advent is about anything, it is about making ourselves ready for the One who is coming.  We live out our days always sure that tomorrow is going to come with all the things of today when in reality there will come a day named tomorrow which will cause us to see our whole existence in light of the expectations of God.  And on that day of His coming,  or that day of our death, His expectations will be the only thing which really matters.  John the Baptist understood that we can never stand on that day without true repentance.   What was true then is true now.  Repentance is urgent business. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent X

Some folks have described the Apostle Paul as cantankerous, opinionated, and so single minded he was obnoxious.   Certainly, he was never once to mince words when the spiritual health of the church was threatened by heresy speakers, church politicians, or troublemakers.  But, as the letter to the church at Philippi is read, it is easy to describe Paul as an encourager, a compassionate leader, and man of prayer.  The first eleven verses of that letter comprise one of the epistle lectionary passages for this time of the Advent season and it is there that we see this portrait of the man who took the Great Commission seriously.
Paul writes this letter from prison.  He is anticipating execution or release.  At the point of the letter, he voices some uncertainty; yet, appears to expect deliverance and a continued presence among the believers of the newly established churches.  But, what is truly amazing is the attitude of joy and thanksgiving expressed by the Apostle.  Most of us would respond to his uncertain circumstances with anxiety and worry.  Instead, he writes to the church assuring the Philippians of his constant prayers for them.  His heart only desires that they will continue in the faith and allow God to complete the work He began in them at their salvation.  His prayers are focused not on himself, but upon the faithful who have shared life with him.

When squeezed between uncertainty over what might come and present circumstances, the example of Paul clearly points the way forward for us.  Worrying over any and everything only results in more and more of life being taken from us.  Paul's attitude of joy and gratitude comes not from stoic human determination, but from a life which can only be described as "in Christ."  No doubt keeping that relationship with Christ strong will result in our living in a place far different than the place worry creates.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent IX

All four gospel writers tell us about John the Baptist.  While none of us doubt his prominent place in the work of God, few of us would volunteer to trade places.  While I have complained to God about some of the places He has put me--at times saying I deserved better and other times lamenting the presence of so many contentious people--no place compares to John's preaching assignment.  His sanctuary was a dusty windblown wilderness and his baptismal place was a river.   Being obedient to his call meant calling the religious pillars of his day a brood of vipers and constantly preaching a message which told his listeners they were sinners in need of radical change.  No family stood behind him.   No clergy colleagues surrounded him.  No preaching awards or popularity prizes were given to him.  In the end, his faithfulness cost him his head.
No one, this preacher included, would choose the ministry road chosen by John.  The truth is we have gotten far too comfortable with our parsonages, compensation packages, pensions, robes, and positions of prominence.  Preaching like John the Baptist is not something we would ever consider doing.  We enjoy our popularity among parishioners and fear too much the damage it might do to our career track when the Bishop pronounced us un-appointable.  Feeding the ecclesiastical machinery with a ton of paperwork is a more suitable and much safer work than using John the Baptist as a ministry role model.
In this second week of Advent when John the Baptist texts abound, it would be appropriate for most us who preach the gospel to begin our message with, "Woe is me, I am lost..."  (Isaiah 6:5)  Before preaching that message about the need of people to repent in order to prepare for the One who is to come, it may well be that we preachers have some repenting to do.  Perhaps, the fact that such never really occurs to us speaks to the seriousness of the heart problem.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent VIII

On the first Sunday of Advent, Jesus shows up in the clouds.  "We Shall Behold Him"  is our theme song. On the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist shows up wading in the Jordan River out on the edge of the wilderness.  "Down by the Riverside" is what we sing. The lectionary lessons take us on quite a journey.  One week we are being overpowered with glory and the next week we are standing knee deep in baptismal water and neck deep in our need for repentance.  While today's gospel lesson is centered on Matthew 3, one of the Old Testament lessons carried over from yesterday  (Isaiah 63:16-64:8) lifts up how easy it is for us to find someone to blame other than ourselves for the things which speak of disobedience in our lives. 

Of course, repentance is a both misunderstood and unpopular.  It is largely misunderstood by those who live on the edge of religious jargon and unpopular among those of the church who have heard too many times that being sorry does not cut it.  As John the Baptist preached about repentance, he was calling those who heard him to change, but also to take personal responsibility for the things that were wrong in their lives.  What we know is that there can be no real personal change until accountability is embraced and most of the time, we are looking away from ourselves for a reason for our wrongdoing.  However, the reason for our making wrong choices is never out there in someone else or in some inanimate object, but in our own heart.

Repentance is, therefore, a word for the heart.  Repentance means radical re-orientation of our lives.  Those who repent cease facing toward self and seeking self's gratification, and instead, live facing  God and seeking His pleasure as the primary goal of life.  It is a hard thing that John required of those who would get ready for the One sent by God and it remains so today. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Advent VII

She was homeless, but not nameless.  There was nothing invisible about her.  Each day she could be seen walking through downtown pushing a grocery store shopping cart that was filled up over the top.  Half the year she spent with us in Perry; the other half she spent with folks in Tifton.  Since there was only one of her and many of us, she became the "official homeless person" who received more than cursory attention from the comfortable ones of the community.  One morning the custodian came into the office saying that she had broken into the building and spent the night in the warmer fellowship hall of the church.  When asked, she replied, "If ya'll hadn't left the door unlocked, I couldn't come in, so it's not my fault, but yours that I spent the night in here."

As I read one of the Old Testament lessons for early Advent (Isaiah 63:16-64:8), I remembered the words of repentance spoke long years ago in that church kitchen.  At first glance it might seem that the passage contains words of repentance on the part of the exiled Hebrews, but a closer read reveals a spirit not so different from the spirit of Adam in the Garden of Eden or us in our moments of accountability.  The Hebrews cry out to God, "...because You hid Yourself we one calls on Your name...because You have hidden Your face from us..."  As Adam blamed Eve, the exiled Hebrews blamed God.

It is what we do best.  When confronted by the reality of our own disobedience, we hunt someone else to blame.  We blame our parents who failed us.  We blame our friends who let us down.  We blame the tough circumstances of our life.  We even blame God who could have made things happen differently.  We want to do everything but say, "Lord, I am sinner.  It is me who has sinned.  I messed up.  Please, Lord, have mercy."    As Advent calls us to get ready for the One who is coming, nothing takes the place of honesty.  And, nothing will take the place of His mercy.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent VI (Isaiah 2:1-5)

Father God, I long for that hope You sought to give to your people when exiled in Babylon.  You told them overwhelming circumstances can change.  You told them they would once again know Your glory and majesty as in days of old.  You told them that they were not forgotten.  You told them You still had plans and purposes for them.  Though enduring hopelessness, You gave them reason to hope for a new day.  Father, I need to hear those Words anew in my life.  I need the hope only You can give.

Open my eyes to see.  Open my ears to hear.  Open my heart to know.  And, it is not just me.  There are so many like me who need a dose of Your hope in their lives.  Help me to look up from the places where I search for peace and purpose and divine presence so that I might see Your majesty and glory as did Isaiah in the Temple. What is found where I spend so much time looking is nothing that has the power to bless me with an overwhelming hope.  I know it is found only in Your presence.  Give me that blessing of seeing You high and lifted up for there is the hope needed for today's living.

But, it is not just about me.  I pray, too, Father, for this troubled world.  How it must grieve Your heart to see how we are living.  Nations fight nations and folks like me struggle to live in right relationships with others.  How I long for the day when battlefields will no longer give birth to orphans and widows.  I pray for that day when war and strife and brokenness exist only as a memory.  I pray for that day when caring for the earth will be more important than possessing it.  I pray for that day when more and more people will heed Your teachings and will walk in Your ways.  I pray these things, Father, because Your Word gives me hope that one day Your Kingdom will truly prevail over all that now seeks to undermine it.  Come quickly.  Amen.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent V

Even as Biblical repentance is something far deeper and far more profound than casually saying, "I'm sorry, " so is Advent's call to get ready something much different than the trivial stuff we associate with it.  Saying "I'm sorry" when we have no intentions of doing differently is a waste of time by Kingdom standards.  Doing a lot of outward stuff such as lighting Advent Candles, attending worship, making Chrismons, writing daily Advent meditations, or reading them will only cause us to miss the mark of the Advent call if some serious heart work does not accompany what we are doing.  Advent's invitation to get ready is something which can only be described as radical.
Certainly, the epistle lesson for the first Sunday of Advent (Romans 13:11-14) takes us to the place of embracing radical change.  As is the case with these early Advent lessons, a sense of urgency is underscored.  We read phrases like, " is now the moment for you to wake from sleep...the night is far gone, the day is near."  And what takes us to the place where we see that getting ready for the One who is coming is no game of trivial pursuits are those words, "...lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light," and "...put on the Lord Jesus Christ."  What we hear in these Words is a call to do radical heart work.
Waking up, then, is about seeing how we invest too much of our time in things Jesus would never even give a glance.  Living with a sense of urgency does not turn us into a one dimensional person, but a person who lives knowing that every moment, every relationship, every opportunity is a precious gift given from the Father in Heaven.  The Biblical "laying aside and putting on" speaks of a daily decision to tend to the matters of this earth as Christ would tend to them if they were His.   

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Advent IV (Romans 13:11-14)

Father God, I wish You did not know me so well.  I am too much like those disciples who slept while Your Son agonized in prayer.  I miss out on a lot of what You are about in the world and around me because I spend all my energy dong other things.  Lesser stuff.  Things that really don't count for much.  And so like now, I am tired, worn out and here too much for duty and not enough for reasons of "want to."  Time really is getting by.  I know it in my head, but Father God, I am still not living like one who has figured it out.
I really do need You.  You want to see signs of radical change in me and I keep on being content with just getting by.  To read this Word about "putting on the armor of light," and "putting on the Lord Jesus Christ" causes me to see my faith as pitiful instead of radical.  If I am ever going to wake up to how urgent the present moment really is, I am going to need You to help me.  In the past, all I have done is move forward a bit and fall back a lot.
Father God, I do want to be a follower who pleases You.  Forgive me for making room in my heart for thoughts and acts of disobedience.  Forgive me for living with an accommodating attitude toward the sin I know is present.  Forgive me, Father, and fill my heart anew with Your Spirit for the work You are about all around me.  Make me one of those who sees the urgency of the moment and helps other to see the heart of Your Son.  In His name I ask it.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent III

Advent is a season of waiting.  Of course, waiting is not the favorite pastime of anyone.  We abhor it.  Waiting is a waste of time.   Folks attempt to diminish the emotional anguish experienced by a period of waiting by getting out all those hand e-devices, but when it is all said and done, it is still waiting.  We wait at the stoplight.  We wait in the doctor's office.  We wait in the checkout outline.  But, no matter where we wait, we seldom do any of it gracefully.  Outwardly we do it, but inwardly we are pushing forward, trying to hurry everyone and everything so our time of waiting is limited.  It is a terrible burden we bear!
So, here is this season on the Christian calendar which not only calls us to enter into a time of waiting, but also invites us to embrace it.  The waiting of Advent is not a passive thing.  To wait in the spirit of Advent does not mean to sit idle, fiddling thumbs, watching the clock, and doing nothing. Neither is the waiting of Advent to be filled with things which keep us from experiencing the waiting.  The gospel lesson (Matthew 24:36-44) reminds us that our entertaining and time killing obsession with the mundane pursuits of life is a poor substitute for the kind of waiting which actually makes us ready for what God is holding out in our future.  Some of the Noah crowd tried life that way and found it to be lacking. 
No, the waiting of Advent is actually a purposeful waiting.  At some point we will all stand in the presence of Jesus, the Lord and King of all creation.  This moment will come at our death or upon His return to the earth.   We can know the certainty of that encounter, but not the time.  It will come to us like an unexpected surprise.  Becoming ready for that moment is what the waiting of this life is all about.  See the span of our years as a waiting period for this final moment and suddenly life is viewed and lived differently. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent II (Matthew 24:36-66)

Lord, I find myself wondering.  What will it really be like on that day when I am at last face-to-face with You?  Actually, face-to-face is not how I envision it.  Me face down on the ground pleading for mercy is how I see it.  I wonder if Your eyes will see me as one ready for what will be the most important moment of my existence?  On this side we sometimes glibly say, "I am ready to meet my Maker," but, Lord, I wonder if such thinking will carry over to that first meeting on the other side.  I doubt it.
Even now, Lord, as I consider this Word before me and contemplate either You coming in Your glory, or my death, I know there will be nothing in my earthly life to which I can point You that has the power to gain me entrance into Your heavenly glory.  Lord, I am first of all a sinner--one who has fallen short of Your expectations more times than I could ever possibly count.  You have always been more than gracious in forgiving me again and again and again, but still....I must confess my need for it again tomorrow.  I have not figured it out after all these years.  I know what to do and how to live, but still I mess up too much.  Lord, I know I am sinner and I know I will always be in need of Your mercy.
Maybe, Lord, being ready for that unexpected but certain moment is not about what I have done, sermons I have preached, money I have given, good deeds I have left behind, or prayers prayed.  Could it just be that staying hungry for your mercy is what will finally make me ready?  I am not looking for a license to sin again, Lord.  I know the error of going down that road, but could it be that living and dying as a mercy seeker is enough in the end?  Lord Jesus, hear my prayer.  Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent I

Hope is one of those words thrown about in the early days of the Advent season.  One of the lessons read on the first Sunday comes from the first few verses of the second chapter of Isaiah.  It is a word which not only speaks to the exiled Hebrews about their return to Jerusalem, but it also speaks about a revelation of the Kingdom of God that will exceed anyone's expectations.    They are in Babylon feeling worthless and lost only to hear the prophet speak a strong word of hope concerning their future.  Jerusalem will be restored.  It will be seen by the world as the dwelling place of God.  Its glory will be restored.  And, more importantly, a time of peace, prosperity, and divine blessing  will be ushered into reality.
No one would have dared hope for so much.  They might have hoped that their children would see Jerusalem again.  Maybe some even dared to hope they might see it once again with their own eyes, but surely, no one hoped for much more.  Anything else would have seemed to them as something impossible.  Their memories of the homeland were filled with images of ruin and destruction and disruption of all their sacred traditions.  Those things could never be changed.
Yet, through Isaiah, this ancient man of God, they were called to a hope far greater than those fueled  by memories of reality.  Surely, it was hard for them, as it is for us, to have that kind of hope.  Many of us live in a world of dashed dreams, broken promises, and deep heart wounds which seem to defy healing.  The One who dared the broken Hebrews to hope calls us to the same hope.  It is not foolishness to live with hope instead of despair.  The hope we are called to embrace is not one based on circumstances, but on the God who has this vision of a future greater than our expectations.   Even now He seeks to move us into it.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 2013

For some weeks Advent has been lurking just below the liturgical horizon.  Unseen; yet, coming with certainty.  It always does this time of the year and as it comes, it brings with it this bag of things that simply do not seem to fit together.  It is the season of square pegs and round holes.  It is the season of Jesus who is coming in the clouds and Jesus who came in the cradle of Bethlehem.  It is the season of John the Baptist hollering, "Repent!" and angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest"  The problem is that few want to do Advent.  Most want to get on to Christmas.  And when the season of Advent simply will not go away, the impatient ones do everything which they can do to push it aside to make room for Christmas things.
It goes without saying that Advent is a season of tension for the church.  The church of this current age is no different than the people who sit in its pews or the preachers who preach from its pulpits.  Like its people, the church has difficulty with waiting and anticipation.  The church of our day is too much about the now.  If people who come to the church are not fed and entertained with what they want, they might leave and not come back so the church acquiesces to the secular clamor for the smackings of Christmas even at the expense of the powerful liturgy and scripture of Advent. 
It is a shame for so much gets lost in shuffling Advent out and Christmas in.  One of the things that Advent does so well is to prepare the church and its believing community for the celebration of the Christ-event in Bethlehem.  The Advent call to wait with anticipation and to prepare with repentance truly puts the heart in a position to receive the blessings of the "God with us" One.   While some divine blessings are poured out upon us simply because God chooses to do so, it is also true that a heart readied is a heart more likely to experience with an overwhelming fullness the joy of true spiritual blessings.  As the heart is readied in Advent, so is it blessed in Christmas.      

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Road Ahead

When Wendell Berry wrote "Jayber Crow,"  he described Jayber as a man with more memory than future.  Retirement has a way of bringing a person to such a place.  The road going to looking back is much longer than the road to looking ahead.  But, being older does not just bring one to the down side of the hill.  Some say there is some wisdom which comes with living longer.  I remember one wise older man who told me when I was still in my middle year, "When you get to be my age and you bend over to tie your shoes, you always check to see if there is anything else which needs doing while you're down there."  I remember his wisdom often now that the middle years are part of my memory.
But, as the years race on by, I have also discovered a deeper awareness of gratitude.  The days seem to be filled with things which have been taken for granted, but are now reasons for thanksgiving.  Simple things like putting two feet on the floor and walking, or sitting down to a table filled with more food than I need, or spending time with people you love are just a few of things which come to mind on this day of thanksgiving.  Many of us know that being thankful is not the spontaneous response we make to all the things going on around us.  The Apostle Paul seemed to have learned how to be thankful in any and all circumstances, but most of us stop a bit short of such a mark.
Yet, it is one of those things worthy of our best effort.  It is one of those things for which we should even pray.  If we are not quite at the point of being able to live with gratitude in all our circumstances, maybe a prayerful plea asking God to bless us with such a gift is a good starting point for change.  Those who live without gratitude end up getting robbed of everything except worry and dissatisfaction with life.  Those who face life with a grateful heart find and experience a peace which brings forth a deep flowing sense of contentment that is not troubled by the whatevers of life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sycamore Tree Leaves

Here I am a shade past retirement age playing out on the edge of the hayfield with a three year old grandson.  We played a game I have never played, not even in my own childhood.  As the sycamore leaves were blown away from their lofty home in the tree to their resting place on the ground, we tried to catch them before they completed their circling windy journey.  My young grandson thought it was a terrific game.  He ran and laughed and collapsed to the ground with joy as he captured these elusive falling leaves so big he could hide his face behind them.  He might forget that moment, but not me.  It was a moment of wonder and joy and laughter for which I give thanks to the Creator of the boy and the sycamore tree.
As I run into these moments of wonder, I find myself confessing that I have surely missed too many of them as I raced through working years trying to get ahead.  I have accumulated a lot of stuff, but I have learned that most of it borders on being unnecessary.  I wish that I had accumulated more sycamore tree moments in my storehouse of memories.  I am learning that such memories rate as being more precious than the possessions.  Maybe that is why old people have grandchildren.  They help us remember and experience once again some of the important stuff of life.

Certainly, the Scripture does not call us to forsake work and pursue play.  Actually, it speaks strong words about the value of work and caring for family.  It tells us, too, to live as those who are making the most of the time.  (Ephesians 5:16)  Making the most of the time is not just about the hours spent in work.  It also directs us to investing hours in being in the presence of God, making sure there is time for worship, and even being open to the joy and wonder of a three year old chasing falling sycamore leaves.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Tattoo Man

When he handed me my change from across the counter, dark bold ink from his left forearm shouted out, "John 3:16."   It got my attention.  Then I saw the cross etched in ink just above it.  Without really searching for it, I also saw on his other arm another Biblical reference.  The right arm read, "Psalms 23."   I wondered what was under his shirt.  The Beatitudes?  I Corinthians 13?    Maybe a picture of Jesus?  Had the convenience store not been so  busy and I had not been in a hurry to make a dentist appointment, I would have spent some time talking to the Tattoo Man.  As it was, I left with my questions and thinking about "Parker's Back."

"Parker's Back"  is a short story by Flannery O'Connor.  I used her stories so much in preaching while in Vidalia that a couple gave me a volume collection of her stories.   The Tattoo Man encounter caused me to dig Flannery out of the box of stored books and read about Parker once again.  O.E. Parker had tattoos over every part of his body except for the middle of his back.  The story begins with him courting a self-righteous sin sniffing woman whom he should not have married and ends with her chasing him out of the house with a broom.  Between those two moments, he runs his tractor into a single tree in the middle of the field.  He is thrown from the tractor and looks up to see the tree ablaze and his shoes off his feet and on the ground.  It is a life changing religious experience for Parker who then walks barefoot to town to get a tattoo of Christ on the middle of his back.  While Obadiah Elihue Parker is sure this tattoo will please his wife, Sarah Ruth, instead she screams, "Idolatry!" beats the picture of Jesus until it is battered and bleeding, and drives her husband out of the house.

Some folks just don't fit inside our narrow believer stereotypes.  As I saw The Tattoo Man, I realized this about myself.  Parker and Sarah Ruth reminded me as well.  Just as not everyone comes to faith in Christ the same way, not everyone expresses and lives out that faith in the same way.  Having or not having a John 3:16 tattoo does not make me, or someone else, more or less a believer.  Like the Word says, it is always a matter of the heart. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

For All the Saints

Some songs find their way to the forefront only once a year.  On Easter it is "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."  On Christmas it is "O Come, All Ye Faithful."  Today is All Saints Sunday in many churches and who can imagine such a worship service without the singing of "For All the Saints?"   It is one of those powerful, stirring, soul touching  pieces of music that simply turns an ordinary moment into something extraordinary.  There is nothing like a great crowd of earthly witnesses to Jesus Christ gathered to sing this great hymn of faith which cracks open the door of heaven giving us a glimpse of the eternal. 
It is amazing that the lyrics to the hymn are almost 150 years old.  An Anglican Bishop named William W. How wrote them in 1864 as a processional hymn.  In 1906 Ralph Vaughan Williams put the words to a new tune and since then "For All the Saints" has been sung by his music.  It is hardly likely that anything you and I might write will be remembered 150 years after we write it, but this particular piece of music was given life by the Holy Spirit and has been a blessing to the church for all that time.  Amazing.

For the first time in years I missed singing it with the people of resurrection faith on this day.  I was a guest preacher on a special event Sunday at a local church and the theme of the day carried us in another direction.  But, I sang it anyway.  I sang it in my spirit early this morning in the quietness of our home.  I have sung it loudly as I moved midst the outdoor places of this day.  And whenever I sang it, I remembered by name some of those saints who are now a part of that great cloud of heavenly witnesses. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rolled Up and Squeezed Out

I ran out of toothpaste about a week ago.  I also kept forgetting to buy another tube.  But, I did not stop brushing.  Instead, I rolled and squeezed that tube, finding out with amazement, that what I was going to throw away still had a lot of that blue stuff inside.  By the time I remembered and purchased the brand new tube of paste, the old one had been rolled and squeezed until there was nothing coming out.  However, before tossing it, I wondered how much paste might be found inside if I cut open the tube and peeled it back to reveal the insides.
Before anyone decides retirement has finally gotten to me, let me continue.  Here is the thing.  If that tube had food inside, I would have thrown it away before the final week of rolling and squeezing. I would have thrown away food.   But, if I was truly hungry, not sure of what is going to be eaten at the next meal, I never would have thrown it away before cutting it open and peeling it back so I could scrape all the food residue off the inside of the container.  Surely, there is a lot of difference in the way those of us in the "throw it away" culture live and those who constantly live in the "scrape the inside clean" culture.  It is hard for me to imagine the world of the hungry, but the ugly, used, squeezed, and rolled up tube of toothpaste spoke to me about the desperation of some people.

No matter how we cut it, to be able to use the internet puts us in the world of the affluent.  There is no way to say we do not have enough when we stand alongside the world's hungry.  And, there is no getting away from the Word from God which says, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?"  (I John 3:17)  For those of us who say we belong to Jesus, the question is never, "Do I have enough to give?" but "Why am I keeping so much for myself?"

Monday, October 21, 2013


Where it came from I do not know.  One moment I was here and then I had gone back nearly sixty years to a time when I was a boy running in and around church pews and hearing my Mother calling out to me not to run in church.  Her concern was not about my safety, but about my being disrespectful and irreverent in the house of the Lord.  Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong with children being children in the sanctuary, but what she was teaching was a lesson about how to treat sacred spaces in this secular world.  Long before I could understand, I learned that there was something special about the sanctuary.  Since it was a place set aside to meet God, it was a place for a reverent spirit. 
It is strange how the mind brings old memories to mind.  And, it is always surprising the way God can move us from a childhood lesson to a powerful spiritual experience.  As I stood there remembering my Mother's teaching, I saw these two tall sycamore trees across the now brown hay field on the edge of the tree line.  I am not the first to see them.  Many generations have watched them stretch toward the sky and sun.  Two red breasted hawks had led my eyes to those trees and as I stood there looking, they were perched in the upper branches.  Suddenly, the field and tree line became a sanctuary and God was meeting me in that morning mist.  A sense of reverence filled the moment and my heart.
Is such not the way we are to live?  Are we not to live with reverence for all that is around us and a part of us each day?  Is not God seeking to meet us in the things deemed so ordinary?  Reverence is not just a response for the sanctuary.  Instead, it speaks of the right response for our daily living.  Each day is a precious gift and is meant to be handled with reverent gratitude.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Trusting the Unseen One

While I was sitting uncomfortably in that Southwestern jet a few days ago at 42,000 feet in the air, it occurred to me that I had not even seen the pilot.  The cockpit door was shut when I entered the plane and so it stayed.  So, there I was trusting someone with my life I had never even seen.  I knew he, or she, had to be there.  The plane did take off.  It was taking me from one place to another.  From time to time the plane would slightly bank to one side as it made a turn.  Someone in the cockpit had to be the one responsible.  And then, to provide some reassurance that someone really was there, a voice came over the speaker telling us to buckle our seat belts, to warn us of some impending turbulence, and to announce our descent and arrival in 22 minutes.  Still, I never saw the pilot.  But, as I sat there lightly in my seat, doing my part to keep it in the air, I decided it was a matter of trusting this pilot I had not seen to get me there.
As all this stuff was flying through my mind, I thought about the One who I really trusted to get me where I was going.  Already I had seen evidence that others around me trusted Him as well.   A seat mate across the aisle sat with hands folded in front of her face as the plane was leaving the ground.  And, another young woman crossed herself as the plane dropped sharply in the turbulent air.  They, too, were expressing trust in the One in whom I was trusting.  The Holy One I trust is not one I have ever seen.  I am convinced He is there because I have seen too many evidences of His activity in directing the course of my life.  My eyes may not have seen Him, but my ears have heard His voice.  And, like  John Bunyan told us in  "Pilgrim"s Progress,"  He is taking us from where we were without Him on a journey that continues to bring us closer and closer to our eternal home.
It makes no sense to figure that someone other than the pilot was in charge of that airplane.  Seeing him was not necessary for me trust him with my life.  It is no different with the heavenly Father.  These mortal eyes have not seen His presence, only signs and evidences of it, but nothing makes more sense than to trust Him to keep me safe as the journey continues toward its destination.

Little Brother

This past week as I was sitting in a Southwestern Airlines jet at 40,000 feet, I thought of "Little Brother".  While I cannot remember exactly how he got his nickname, "Little Brother," I do know there was nothing little about the man.  He was tall and likely got the basketball coach's eye during high school.  The nickname might have started out as a family thing, but by the time I made it to Talbotton to be his pastor, it was the name that everyone used.  He had a birth certificate name, but if it had been used, few would have known it.  Why did this man from the past suddenly come to mind at 40,000 feet?  "Little Brother" had a small airplane which he flew from a grass strip near his house and he gave me my very first airplane ride.  It was unforgettable to see my house and town from the vantage point he provided.
My past is littered with people like "Little Brother."   Doretha baked us a rum fruitcake which had so much rum in it that it was intoxicating just to smell it.  Charlie cooked a turkey for the church supper and forgot to clean out the insides first.  John, an air traffic control guy, sang "Cornerstone" and to this day, I can hear that rich deep voice resonating through the sanctuary.  C.M. wanted the choir to sing "Dixie" after a stirring choir rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  Mrs. Essie provided us a garden spot and gave up her subscription to "The Wesleyan Christian Advocate" in order to give to a mission fund. 
Of course, my past is no different than anyone's.  All of us have memorable people in it whose lives were lived midst the ordinary.  Yet, these ordinary folks touched our lives in memorable ways and from time to time, remembering, calling their names, and giving thanks to God for them and the many others just like them seems like the only right thing to do.   And, who knows?  Some day after the sun has set on our life, someone may remember some ordinary act of kindness we offered, count it extraordinary, and give thanks to God for us. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Stopping Places

Every good sermon has a stopping place.  Some of those who listen to those of us who preach often say that most sermons have several good stopping places.  What the pew sitters are saying is that we preachers have trouble bringing our sermons to a conclusion.  We tend to just keep going on and on and on and on.   I must be as guilty as the next preacher.  When my children hear me preach, it no longer surprises me to hear one of them say, "Daddy, you came to several good stopping places!"  Of course, what they are also saying is that I went right on through them without even a pause!
These stopping places that are missed are not hard to see.  It is a moment in the midst of the sermon when the message has been nailed with such clarity a blind man can see.  It is that moment when the congregation slips to the edge of the pew and collective declares, "I get it."  It is that moment when the people are ready to respond if only given the opportunity.  Sometimes the right stopping place is not evident in the study where the sermon is prayed out and written.  Sometimes it only becomes apparent in the passion of the preaching.  Too often we preachers are so married to what has been prepared that we lose sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit is at work trying to do the final editing work as we stand there in the pulpit. 
When the Holy Spirit is editing, it is best to leave the scraps on the pulpit instead of plowing ahead to preach the unnecessary anyway.  We pray for the Spirit to be at work during the preparation of preaching as well as in the process of the preaching.  Therefore, changes should not surprise us.  Neither should we be afraid to embrace them.  What we think is a great ending for a sermon may turn out to be anti-climatic if the Spirit has watched us race by the stop sign He has thrown up for us to see and obey.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Give Me Thy Heart"

She was only a few notes into the prelude when I found myself silently singing.  It was a surprising moment, but then, such are to be expected in worship.  The song I had not heard since forever ago.  Honestly, I cannot remember the last time, but I do remember that it was one I grew up singing in church as a boy.  She played and I sang under my breath.  No one heard me as I sat there in the pulpit chair singing this song from the past.  " 'Give me thy heart,' says the Father above.  No gift so precious to Him as our love.  Softly He whispers, 'Wherever thou art.'  Gratefully trust Me and give Me thy heart.  Give me thy heart, give me thy heart.  Hear the soft whisper wherever thou art.  From this dark world, He would draw thee apart.  Softly, so tenderly, give me thy heart."
Such moments of remembrance and blessing happen often enough that I should not be surprised, but always I am.  It is amazing to me that a song from so far back in my past could be remembered so quickly.  The mind and heart is an amazing thing.  Somewhere along the way, I sang that song so much it became embedded deep in my spirit to be recalled with such clarity at an unexpected moment.  My experience is nothing special.  Each of us have had such experiences when God brings to mind some word or song to bless us again and again.
All of this makes a strong case for exposing our children to the great songs of faith.  They, too, might benefit some day from something that soaks into their spirit even though they are unaware it is happening.  And, it also speaks to the value of memorizing sections of scripture.  Who knows when some Word of God may be needed in our faith journey?  Who knows when some unexpected moment will bring to mind a piece of God's Word which will get us through a difficult and impossible set of circumstances?  Like you, I am grateful for what is stored away already for possible recall in the future and, perhaps, we all could be more intentional about letting God's Word settle in our hearts in the present moment.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

'Tis the Season

As noted in the previous blog, " 'Tis the season for church budgets."  While some churches do get along fine without one, the general consensus is that one is as necessary as the Bible.  Maybe even more necessary some would say.   Certainly, its value increases as it is seen as a financial guideline for going forward instead of a piece of holy writ that must be taken literally.  Unfortunately, it can become a point of contention among different groups who have their own agendas to push.  Pushing God's agenda, or vision, is always a better thing.

Figuring out God's vision never seems to be an easy thing for the church.  Whenever some expert comes into the church to give direction to a visioning process, the end result is often what might be called "vision by consensus."  Armed with statistics about past performance, projections about future growth, and a listing of needs which might be met, leaders gather and determine the vision of God for the community of faith.  "Vision by consensus."   The whole process seems miles, maybe even light years, away from God's record of putting His vision out there for His people in holy scripture.  It often ends up being more about us than about God.

The problem with "vision by consensus" is that it is usually too manageable.  It is something within our ability to get done.  When God casts forth His vision, it always requires a huge amount of faith for His vision is greater than our resources and energies.  Moving toward His vision will always require a new kind of radical dependency on Him because a vision from God is always going to be beyond our means.  Unlike "vision by consensus" God's vision will not be possible without a radical faith that embraces God as the only One who can make it happen.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Ugly Secret

This is the season for church budgets.  A few churches operate without them,  but most churches give them "Holy Writ" status.   When prepared and adopted, these church budgets become the grand directive for the life of the church.  Outsiders might think top billing would belong to the Bible, but the real insiders know it is that document prepared with calculators, spread sheets, financial campaign reports, and enough graphs and charts to choke several elephants.  No large successful church would dare to operate without one and most smaller churches consider having one to be a sign that it has moved up into "Big Boy" status.
However, there is an ugly secret to be told about church budgets.  The secret is that it is a flawed process which creates them. What makes it flawed is the way the sacred community allows its work to be shaped by secular influences.   In most churches a budget is prepared and then monitored through the year by a Finance Committee.  This committee is usually filled with church members who are bankers, accountants, financial consultants, and small business owners.  When someone with such credentials joins the church, they are seen as "shoo-ins" for the Finance Committee.  And so, from the very beginning this important committee gets filled with good knowledgeable folks who have a profit/loss mentality.   In this financial world of the church, gifts are spoken of as income while ministries are regarded as expenses.
One of the really strange things about the church is the way it seems to take such delight in adopting secular practices into its mode of operation.  Suddenly the church is no longer the Body of Christ in the world, but a small business to be managed by a CEO Pastor and its governing board.  Market place business practices and staying in the black become more important than God's vision for His Church.  After all, God's vision for the church will likely require re-structuring the financial priorities which nurture the institutional church at the expense of the spiritual community.  Most Finance Committees are too invested in caring for the needs of the institution to allow such radical change.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Fearful Thing

One thing which scares the gathered church is silence.  There is not much of a Quaker spirit in most contemporary Protestant churches.  Noise is preferred over silence.  There are those moments when we give lip service to the value of silence, but it is so perfunctory that it ends up being a meaningless moment hardly taken seriously by anyone.  It happens when the preacher or worship leader begins a congregational prayer by inviting everyone to enter into silent prayer as a prelude to the verbal praying about to come forth from the chancel area.  Sometime instead of praying silently, put a timer on the length of time allowed for the silent prayer.  Never is it really much time for praying.
In a recently read book entitled "Why Jesus?" by Ravi Zacharias, he writes, "The Church has forgotten the teachings of quietness, solitude, and meditation that are a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage and provide great strength to the soul.  We have moved from silence to noise.  We have moved from reflection to fast-moving programs.  We have moved from quietness to the inability to remain focused on a thought for even a moment, so that the next item on the program has to begin as soon as the previous one has finished.  There is no time in our services anymore for quietness and contemplation."
What that timer will reveal is that people are often invited to silence, but never really given permission to engage it.  The assumption from the one inviting the congregation to pray silently is that there is a switch which turns prayer on and off.  No one is allowed time to transition from where they are to where they are being invited to go.  And, of course, the prayer is arbitrarily ended or interrupted after 30 seconds by the sounds of public praying.  Is it really true that the church is so afraid of enough silence to actually allow its people to pray when gathered?  Maybe it is too fearful a thing.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Baptism Day

The conversation took place a few days ago in the local farm supply store.  Actually, it was last Friday which was the Friday before the Labor Day weekend.  A sign on the counter announced the store closing on Saturday at 1:00 pm.  I commented to the proprietor and his wife, "Looks like you have a nice long weekend planned."  She turned and said, "Me and my son are getting baptized tomorrow afternoon."  As we talked, they told me of their Primitive Baptist Church and its pattern of Saturday baptisms.  "I wanted to be baptized at the river, but there is too much water, so we are going to be using Mill Creek Pond not far from the church."  It was a special moment of listening and sharing in the sense of excitement and anticipation being felt by this woman who talked about her upcoming baptism.
Baptizing folks is one of the things the church does right.  Now it may be true that there are some along the way who are baptized for the wrong reasons, but it also true that it can be a powerful spiritual moment in a believer's life.  One of my first baptisms was an elderly man who became bed ridden and was baptized at home.  A number of the men in his Sunday School class accompanied me and became the witnessing and celebrating church there in his room.  And I remember others who on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday came to the altar for baptism on a Sunday they were expecting to be just like any other Sunday.  Those Sundays always made me aware that preachers need to spend more time inviting folks to come to the baptismal waters.  When invited, people come.  They come because of the way God is at work in their hearts.  The lack of frequent invitations only hinders the work of the Spirit.
Of course, no one needs baptismal water to seal the covenant God has initiated with us.  Neither is it a stamp on the ticket to glory.  It is a moment of submission.  It is a moment of declaring Jesus is the Saving One who is desperately needed.  In our United Methodist tradition, it is a moment of kneeling and bowing.  It is a sacred moment of grace marking.  It is a moment unlike any other moment in our life.  The woman in the farm supply store had it right.  It is a moment to anticipate and something to tell others.