Monday, December 28, 2015

A Theological Correction

While no one has said or written anything, the first line in the poem I wrote and posted on Christmas Day has bothered me.  While I delve into trying to write some poetry from time to time, it is not a style of writing with which I am comfortable.  It is an unforgiving and demanding way to write.  Every word has to count.  Every word has to fit.  There is little margin for missing the mark as there is when writing prose.  And then, too, poems are such invitations to a wide range of interpretation.  They are experienced more at a subjective level which is subject to the experience of both the writer and the reader. 

What bothered me was that beginning word, "Pushed from heaven to earth, they say..."   I was so focused on my thoughts about the Word becoming flesh, the Incarnation, that I wrote a word which could surely be misinterpreted.  Using the birthing language was probably not the best way to describe John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us," or that Philippian passage which speaks of Jesus  as One who "emptied Himself...being born in human flesh."  (Phil. 2:7) And, of course, another memorable verse which comes to mind is the one which reads, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..." (John 3:16)  When I chose the word, "pushed," it brought to mind the physical birth of Jesus to Mary, but it might have caused some to think that Jesus was forced into our world, or that it was against His will. 

It was an experience of being reminded to think through what we say about what we believe.  Words are important, not just to poets or would-be ones, but to all of us who seek to share words about what God has done for us through Christ.  Long years ago I remember a person wiser than I was who told me to take what we believe to its logical conclusion and make sure it is something with which we want to live.  For example, it is easy to talk about loving everyone, but then think about all those whom that includes.  So, forgive me for my use of literary license and know that I believe Jesus was not pushed into coming to die for us, but willingly made the choice.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Day

             AMONG US

Pushed from heaven, they say,
But, still from a mother's womb,
A warm dark comfortable place.
From warm womb to cold world,
A world as hard and cold as nails,
He came to live among us.

Before breath, the catch of hands,
Made rough by fresh cut wood,
Unsanded wood, full of splinters.
Unforgiving wood against flesh,
Flesh that reached out to take,
The One who came to live among us.

Shook to breathe, and live
And smell the new smells of earth,
Dung, and dirt, and moldy hay,
And taste the sweat of a father's hand,
The milk of a mother's breast.
The Holy Child, flesh among us.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent XXVI

There is mystery at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh, not the kind of mystery one might think.  There is one sense in which there is nothing there except mystery.  You know, the mystery that goes with God being at work among folks such as us.  No, this mystery is a bit different.  It is the mystery found in something that happened in the manger after the shepherds arrived.  We have all read it a thousand times.  As we go back and read verses 17 and 18 of the second chapter of Luke, we find these words, "When they (the shepherds) saw this (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the manger), they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them."  What is the mystery?  Actually, who is the mystery is the better question.  Who is "all?" 
 
What the Word says as it tells us that "all...were amazed"  is that there were some folks there besides Mary and Joseph.  Who was there that night?  Could it have been some people who lived homeless in the manger where the animals stayed?  Or, maybe it was the workers from the inn, or the workers who took care of the animals used by the guests?  Or, did word get out that a baby had been born outside in the manger and some of the guest came out to see what was happening in the manger?  If one woman got word there was a new baby somewhere, it is likely others knew about it as well.  A newborn does have a way of getting women to talking.

The truth is we are not likely to ever know exactly who was present in the manger that night when God was about such an extraordinary thing.  By now we should be accustomed to such a phenomena.  Think about all those times the people of God have gathered for worship.  There are always the familiar faces, but there are also the faces of the unknown folks who have been led to the place where God was going to do something among His people.  Sometimes they come via some unusual circumstances, but still they find themselves leaving knowing that they were present for a divine reason.  God does things in our world.  He does them among His people.  We never know exactly who they are.  They may be a mystery for us, but for God, they are simply a part of His plan. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Advent XXV

As I reflect on the Christmas story, I find myself wondering about Joseph.  After he is mentioned at the beginning of the story, he all but disappears.  The story of the shepherds is told.  When they leave, Mary is left to do her pondering, but there is no mention of Joseph.  Of course, he has a role.  It is his lineage that took them to Bethlehem at that particular time.  And when we turn to Matthew's gospel, we see him as a protector of his family, but at the end of Luke's rendering of what took place after the birth of Jesus, Joseph is mentioned as being present, but nothing more.  Even though we recognize that Luke is more focused on the event through the eyes of Mary and Matthew tells it through the eyes of Joseph, his lack of reaction at the manger still seems strange.
 
Lest we be too troubled by what we do not know, let us remember what we do know.  Even as Mary was chosen, so was Joseph chosen.  God wanted him to fill the role of being the husband of Mary and the earthly father to His son.  When the angel appeared to Joseph in the dream, Joseph was not told to abandon Mary, but to embrace what God was doing through her.  Joseph was important to the plan of God.  He was an integral part of it.  God would use his lineage and the decree of some pagan government official to orchestrate Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the place of prophecy.  But, more than just this one thing, God chose Joseph to be the male role model for this Son of His.  The influence of Joseph would be one that shaped the boy and the man.
 
Of course, even though Joseph is not mentioned there alongside his pondering wife, we know he is there.  The Word says he is there alongside of her.  Where else would such a man be except in the middle of being where God was calling him to be?  There is, of course, no better place for any of us to be.  In the grand scheme of things, our place may seem to be small, insignificant, and unimportant, but if we know God's hand on our life, we surely know it is of value because it is being used by God to accomplish a plan sometimes seen,  but also sometimes not seen so clearly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent XXIV

By the time those shepherds left her and Joseph alone with their baby named Jesus, Mary must been beyond being bewildered.  For her the journey to that moment started long before the departure from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It was a journey nine months in the making.  It was one that started with the angel Gabriel announcing that God wanted her to be the mother of one to be named Jesus as well as Son of God.  Her first step of the journey to Bethlehem is seen in her words of response, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)
 
We sometimes forget that the mother whose son was worshipped in Bethlehem was hardly out of her own childhood.  She was a very, very young teenage girl.  Had Gabriel visited with a woman of a few more years of life's experiences in her mind and heart, there might have been a Moses like response.  However, with Mary we see youthful abandonment to God which can truly take hold of the belief that with God nothing is impossible.  And even though many of us have grown older and settled into a kind of practical theological foundation that is based more on logic and pragmatism than abandoned faith, we can still remember, with a certain amount of longing, exactly how that kind of spirit feels in our heart and how it propels us into whatever God is saying to us. 
 
It is this young girl whose heart was open to whatever God was doing through her that we see fully experiencing this present moment of that extraordinary night of divine birth.  When the boisterous, loud, and excited shepherds left, the Word says of her response, "But Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart."  (Luke 2:19)  As we draw so very close now to remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus, let there be some pondering in our own act of worship.  More happened in that single moment of the new born Jesus breathing his first gulp of this earth's air than we could ever begin to grasp.  Mary's pondering spirit certainly speaks of this reality for her.  Just maybe pondering is as much an act of worship as singing, and preaching, and praying, and rejoicing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent XXIII

When the dark night sky cleared of the angels and their heavenly voices were replaced by the small sounds of nearby sheep, the shepherds collected their wits, and one said to the others, "Let's go!"  There was no question about where they were going.  Bethlehem.  So off they went doing something good shepherds would never do which was leaving their sheep to tend for themselves.  But, then this night was unlike any other night.  Perhaps, it was the kind of night which caused them to know that their sheep would be tended and kept safe by the God who had sent the angels.
 
When they arrived in Bethlehem, they found the Savior for whom they were looking.  They were men in a hurry, men on a mission, and not even the unknown would hinder them in finding the One about whom the angels spoke.  "They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger."  (Luke 2:16)  While the text says very little about they did when they arrived, it is not hard for this preacher to use a little literary license to read between the lines and be sure that they arrived full of a spirit of adoration and worship.  They told the story of the angels with such fervor and passion that everyone who heard them was amazed and touched deeply in their hearts.  It was a work of God and whenever the works of God are reported mysterious divine transactions take place in the heart.
 
Our worship during these days bears this story telling dimension.  When that story from Luke is read to the congregation, may we be one of those who finds ourselves sitting on the edge of the pew eager to hear once again how God was at work on that dark night long ago to save us from our sins and our own self-centered trivial pursuits.  Worship Him in these days with a spirit of joy and gratitude that causes us to  step into that eternal stream of joy and gratitude first revealed to us by that bunch of dirty shepherds who tended their flock just outside of Bethlehem. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent XXII

Sometimes moments of worship surprise us.  They come out of the blue, slipping into our consciousness without any warning.  One moment we are sitting midst the mundane, minding our own business, and suddenly we find ourselves on holy ground.  It has happened to us as we walked into the evening and there was majesty lighting up the evening sky.  It has happened when a friend spoke a word of hope to us when life seem to be falling into pieces around us.  It has even happened while we were sitting in some pew getting ready to do our routine Sunday business.
 
Those shepherds of long ago who were visited by angels no doubt had such an experience of worship.  One moment they were sitting around the fire, telling stories, warming themselves by the heat of the flames and the wine being passed around, and suddenly everything changed.  Heaven dropped in for a visit by way of a angel announcing the birth of a Savior followed by an angelic choral group who sang a glorious song of praise to God.  Their response to what God was doing in their midst was their spontaneous act of worship.  I have always imagined their initial fear parralled the fear of the disciples on the Mt. of Transfiguration.  When they dug themselves out of the  dirt, they went to Bethlehem.  Fear and awe is not such a bad response to God making Himself known. 

It is unfortunate that there is so little fear and awe expressed in our worship.  Perhaps, we have a relationship with God that has become too casual.  He is not our buddy, but our God.  We talk about Him in terms which speak of such familiarity that there is no room for the holiness which is so much a part of His nature.  When we stand in the presence of God, it is not time for backslapping and flippant greetings, but taking off our shoes, and then standing in awe at the majesty of our God who seeks us out to bless.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent XXI

There is something very special about Christmas worship.  Perhaps, the focus is so unique, or maybe it is the scripture around which the worship centers, or just maybe, it is the exceptional music which is a part of the season.  One of my favorite and most used definitions of worship is "our response to what God is doing."  While it may be too simple for some and not theological enough for some, it is one that works for me.  In today's ecclesiastical culture, worship seems to be about entertainment, or doing it with more "shazam!" or being more spectacular than the church down the street.  Worship is a simple thing.  It is our response to what God has done and is doing.

As we find ourselves reading the traditional Christmas narrative in Luke, we certainly see numerous examples of worship.  The first worship moment took place not in the manger, but out in the field where smelly shepherds sat around a fire trying to stay warm.  All of a sudden the sky above them burst open with an angel announcing what God was doing that very night in a nearby village.  And, then hardly had the angelic voice ceased speaking when a host of heavenly angels starting singing and praising God with that familiar anthem, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom He favors." (Luke 2:14)  The first act of worship on that night so different from all other nights was heavenly worship.  There in the presence of those shepherds, heaven raised up its voice in praise to God.

When we really find ourselves caught up in worship, there is always something transcendent about it.  It becomes a moment for us of heaven breaking into earth, of the sacred breaking in the secular, of God being present among humankind.  Too many times we settle for the mundane, or the momentary excitement of some moment of entertainment when God has so much more to offer those who come before Him with nothing more than an eagerness to respond to Him for all the things He has done and continues to do in our midst. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent XX

Have you noticed?  It is getting close to Christmas.  Of course, anyone who listens to anything gets the daily countdown of the number of shopping days until the big day of store closings finally comes.  But, if you are into the Advent thing, and since you are reading this, you may be one of the minority who think about Christmas more as a spiritual experience than a commercial one.  And, if you are into the Advent thing, you know the season is one filled with themes of waiting and anticipation.  How waiting and anticipation is experienced in this day of instant gratification is something which has to be worked out by each one of us in our own way.
 
One of the practical things I have always done as a way of keeping these themes in front of me during Advent is to stay away from the Christmas hymns and the scripture readings about the birth of Jesus as long as I possibly can.  In my observance of Advent, I want to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful"  and "Joy to the World"  for the first time on Christmas Eve or at what is my Christmas worship experience.  Christmas Eve is also the time I want to hear the story from Luke about the journey to Bethlehem, the angels and the shepherds, and the birth of Jesus.  It is a story I relish hearing.  It is one I delay so that I might eagerly listen to it.  While there is not a lot of theological depth being expressed by these practices, it is simply something done to remind me that there is value in waiting with anticipation.

We each figure out things that work for us.  Some have Advent candles in their home.  Some read Advent readings while some (like me) write them.  Some folks participate in weekly Advent studies.  Whatever we do, it is always good to remember that Advent is not really so much a season for doing as a season for being.  Learn to be.  It will be something which can be carried beyond the days of Advent.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent XIX

It is said, and even sung, that grace is amazing.  Indeed, it is.  Grace speaks of the favor of God being granted to the likes of you and me, not because of anything we have done, but because it is God's choice to grant it.  Grace, therefore, is simply understood as the undeserved, the unearned, and the freely given favor of God.  We experience it because God is loving and merciful.  Indeed, amazing!  But, could it not also be said that grace is bewildering?  Surely, anyone one of us who has stood in some broken moment full of sinfulness and received grace instead of condemnation would say that grace can indeed be a bewildering thing.
 
As I reflect on how grace is bewildering, I keep thinking about one of Charles Wesley's great hymns.  Charles Wesley had the famous brother, John Wesley, who is recognized as the Father of Methodism.  John was the preacher, but Charles was the hymn writer.  The hymn which will not go away is entitled, "And Can It Be."  I love to sing it, but even more, I love to be in the midst of a great gathering of God's people as this hymn is lifted toward God.  It is a great hymn to sing, but it was also and continues to be a great hymn of theological teaching.  Read or sing all its verses and nothing more needs to be added to understand what Christ has done for us.  Remember with me, though, just that first verse.  "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior's blood!  Died He for me, who caused His pain!  For me, who Him to death pursued?  Amazing love! How can it be that Thou my God, shoulds't die for me?  Amazing love!  How can it be that Thou, my God, shoulds't die for me?
 
Yes, it is amazing, this grace of God so freely given.  I am once again bewildered by it.  It happens every time I stand in the presence of it and realize that it is being offered to me.  To me.  Of all people, to me.  It is impossible to understand how it can be!  Bewildered again am I.  And, perhaps, you are, too.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent XVIII

Bewildered people stand before perplexing truth and say, "This can't be true."  Surely, this must have been the mindset of those who stood out there on the edge of the wilderness listening to John the Baptist as he gave one illustration after another about the meaning of "bearing fruits of repentance."  (Luke 3:8)  But, then what he said was not just bewildering for those who listened.  It remains the same for us today.
 
For example, we still struggle with generosity to the poor.  We are quite willing to donate old clothes to thrift stores, but none of our donations really deplete our clothes closets.  We often buy a new coat and give the old one away, but when was the last time, we bought a new coat and gave it away, keeping the old one for ourselves?  Actually, it is never a matter of having two coats.  Most us could give one to the needy and have not one but several left in the closet.  To stand before a Biblical call to give so much of what we have to those who have nothing, or at least very little, causes us to think that John the Baptist and Jesus surely must have been speaking metaphorically and not literally.  We are somewhat bewildered by this concept of sacrificial generosity when we practice a generosity that protects our comfort and our logical pragmatic self-seeking sensibilities.
 
Of course, the core issue is not generosity to the poor, but trust in God.  One of the primary reasons we cannot give sacrificially is that we do not trust God to provide our needs.  We talk about God as the One who provides our needs, but we all know that we can really only depend upon ourselves to provide.  Trusting in God to provide is a nice Biblical concept, but it really does mean turning from a way of life where self is at the center to a way of life where God is at the center.  Ah, but then, John's message was about repentance, was it not?


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent XVII

 Bewildered is the word.  At first glance all we see is the passion and the intensity of John the Baptist.  This is understandable.  This preacher from the wilderness is a commanding figure.  He may be roughly clad and offensive to the nose, but no one stands on center stage with a greater sense of presence.  But, what is seen as we allow ourselves to look more closely at the scene there along the banks of the Jordan River is the sheer bewilderment of those people who are listening. Imagine being called a "brood of vipers," (Luke 3:7) when you saw yourself as one of the chosen of God.  "How could he say such a thing?" must have been the bewildered response of many.  But, there were others who felt the same.  Bewildered is what they must have been when they heard John tell them to give up a coat, or to take advantage of no one. 

John the Baptist not only pointed people to the physical presence of Jesus in their midst as he said, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," (John 1:29) but as he spoke to them that day about going beyond what was required in their dealings with others, he pointed them to the spirit of Jesus and the heart of His message.  Before Jesus spoke the words we know as the Sermon on the Mount, John was preaching its prelude out there on the banks of the River.  The people who heard him were surely as bewildered as were those who heard Jesus preach that extraordinary sermon.

It is the season for experiencing bewilderment.  If we make it to the day we celebrate the Christ-event without sensing it, maybe we will end up missing it completely.  Surely, these are the days for us to stand like those folks of long ago, amazed and bewildered at what God is doing in our midst.  Be open to the mystery.  Be looking for what God is doing.  Anticipate God's bewildering presence and His bewildering Word.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent XVI

The problem with the way so many of us do religion is that we make the practice of religion our duty.  John the Baptist is not exactly the kind of guy we would expect to point us in a different direction.  There is something about him that makes us envision a fundamental Bible-thumping fire and brimstone preacher who sees nothing but your black and white duty to live right before God.  But, as we hear him preaching, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance," he takes us somewhere else. 

Fruit speaks of something that is produced in a natural way.  Fruit is not the result of a plan.  It has nothing to do with determination or duty.  Like the fruit of the Spirit, fruits worthy of repentance come from a changed heart that is now facing in a different direction and, therefore, expresses itself in a way that previously would have been perceived as unnatural.  While it is always true that divine grace is the first step in any transaction of change in the human heart, it is also true that the first step for any of us is the step of choosing to face toward God in such a way that the Holy Spirit finds a heart that is now pliable and changeable.  As we bear fruits of repentance, we do so with the knowledge that it is more about the Spirit at work within us than our making something different happen ourselves.

The fruits of repentance are, therefore, not something we seek, but something we experience as the result of grace at work on a changed heart.  We bear them not because we plan to do so, or because we ought to do so, but because God finally has something with which to work.  When kindness and compassion and self-sacrifice begin to be seen in our life, it will not be because we have accomplished our duty, but because our life has been abandoned to God. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent XV

Those who are ready for baby Jesus in the manger to take center stage because it is December and Christmas Day is in December are surely frustrated if they allow themselves to be guided by the Advent lectionary passages.  The first Sunday of Advent focuses on Jesus coming again and the next two highlight the ministry of John the Baptist.  On this the third Sunday in Advent we are still listening to John. But, something has changed.  Instead of simply hearing him as he hollers, "Repent!" we hear him sounding a different message.  Sounding more like a teacher than a prophet, he preaches to the crowd, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  (Luke 3:8) 

What does it mean to bear fruits worthy of repentance?  Surely, one of the first things we are caused to understand is that declaring we have changed is only the first step.  And, if it is the only change, then we have stopped short.  James wrote in his letter to the church, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."  (James 2:13)  John the Baptist would agree.  Repentance is not just a thing of the heart, but it is also something which expresses itself in the way life is lived with others.  Resting on spiritual laurels is not an option.  Neither is ignoring the needs of those around us.  If someone needs a coat or food, they can no longer be ignored.  If we truly bear the fruits of repentance, we cannot live oblivious to our brother and sister's need.  If our heart is changed, it will manifest itself in our actions.

There is, therefore, a practical side to this repentance business.  Repentance is not about some level of spirituality that makes us good for nothing on the earth, but something that enables us to bring a bit of heaven to the worst places and into the most difficult of relationships.  Repentance changes the heart and the changed heart changes the world. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent XIV

It must take an unusual man to perceive that God is at work in his life and that the work is a fulfillment of a prophecy spoken hundreds of years earlier.  Or, perhaps, John the Baptist was just being faithful to what God was asking him to do without any awareness that he was fulfilling prophecy.  Maybe it was the gift of human hindsight and Spirit inspiration which caused the gospel writers to note that He was the one who was to "prepare the way of the Lord."  Regardless of which way we go, it is still obvious that John the Baptist was useful to God.
 
As we hear the man from the Jordan calling people to repentance, he is calling people to live as those who are going to be useful to God.  Some years ago now I read John Irving's novel, "Cider House Rules."  While it was a novel addressing the issues around abortion, it was also a story with an undergirding theme.  The theme was "Be useful."  God's will is for us to be useful for Kingdom work, but that is something which is impossible if are faced toward serving personal ego instead of facing toward God's purposes for our life.
 
Repentance aligns our life with that purpose.  It is a turning point which moves our life in a different direction.  It is about more than just turning from one thing that we name as sin to not doing it anymore, but a turning that orients our life to the reason our Creator brought us into being.  It is not always an easy choice for many of us to make, but once it is made, life is suddenly lived differently.  We become those who make a difference.  We become those who are useful to God.  And, as we begin to experience this life with God, we also discover that repentance is only a first step which opens a door built by grace and mercy. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent XIII

A dire strait, indeed, it is that calls out to heaven, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner."  'Tis a strait so dire that naught can bring deliverance but the Holy Son of God whose lips uttered from that terrible wooden cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  There on that cross, forgiveness offered, yet, still not forgiveness received.  There is a world of difference.  It is the difference between wholeness and brokenness, life and death, heaven and hell. As necessary as breath is this divine forgiveness offered by the Dying Holy One on that hill where the evil one prematurely claimed victory,

Only the heart broken by hopelessness cries out, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner."  When such cry is heard in heaven by divine ears and heart, it is never a cry from the pages of ritual.  It is the cry of the desperate heart.  When the words of repentance are truly thrown out to heaven, forgiveness offered becomes forgiveness received.  It is a mysterious divine transaction that transforms sinful broken humankind like you and me into the saints of God fit to dwell in the Kingdom and its heavenly spaces.

There is no cause for delay.  The hours are slipping by toward that moment when the hours are no more.  As precious as life is, it becomes a wasted thing when lived simply to gratify the ego within us instead of as something to serve the eternal purposes of the Creator who gives the gift. Grace and mercy opens the door.   Repentance is that first painful honest step which ushers us inside where the air is filled with forgiveness.  Be bold.  Enter now.  Breathe deeply. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent XII

Repentance is a radical thing because it mean accountability and being personal responsible for messing up and both cut against the grain of human nature.  When confronted by God in the Garden, Adam said, "the woman made me do it,"  and the woman said, "the devil made me do it."  Not much accountability being modeled in that early encounter, but then what we do see is the stuff of which human nature is made. No one likes to say, "It's my fault.  I messed up.  I am wrong."  And so, in the story of beginnings, we see something of the issue that is at the core of this repentance business.

There can be no repentance without being accountable for our own actions and accepting personal responsibility for them as well.  It is strange that we have such a problem with this in our relationship with God.  There is nothing we say, He does not hear.  There is nothing we do, He does not see.  There is no motive expressed by actions that He does not understand.  As the Word reminds us, He knows us better than we know ourselves.  Surely, none of us really thinks we can trick God, or pull the wool over His eyes, or put up some fa├žade through which He cannot see!

What only makes sense is honesty before the Holy One who knows us so completely.  To have a repentant heart is to be honest with God about who we are as well as our real intentions for the future He is holding out to us.  What seems like such a logical thing for us to do somehow becomes such a frightening possibility.  But, in the long run, it is the only thing which really makes any sense.  It is in actuality the only way forward out of the mess we make of our lives. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Advent XI

When John the Baptist preached repentance out there at the Jordan River, he was calling people to make a choice.   The call to make a choice is a note which sounds throughout the written Word.  Joshua gathered the Hebrew people at Shechem and called out to them, "...choose this day whom you will serve..."  (Joshua 25:15)  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters..." (Matthew 6:24)  In another place, He said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves..." (Luke 9:23)  And to a would-be-disciple, Jesus said, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."  (Luke 9:62)
 
To choose is a Biblical mandate and nowhere is this mandate to make a choice heard more clearly than in the word repentance.  Rightly understood and embraced, it is a word that speaks of choosing a different direction in life.  Without God we are living in what John Bunyan called "The City of Destruction."  With God we are headed toward the heavenly city, or as Bunyan sometimes wrote, "The City."  Another way of expressing the choice inherent within repentance is to confess that before repentance our life is turned away from God and toward self and after repentance it is turned away from self and toward God.  When we rightly hear the message of repentance proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament, we come to understand that this is the radical choice with which we are confronted. 
 
But, John the Baptist was not really into theological reflection.  He was calling people like you and me to action.  He was calling the people of his day and the people of our day to realize that we are either turned toward God or we are not.  There is no middle ground.  There is no comfortable position of compromise.  If we think there is such a place, then we need to get in the front of the line for we have some repentance business to do.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Advent X

Language can be a tricky thing.  We often use it in a way to twist the meaning.  We talk about fasting to lose weight.  In our culture fasting is dieting.  The truth is fasting does not equal dieting.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline, not a weight loss program.  And then, we talk about making love and having sex as if the two are always the same.  Again, here are two terms which are not synonymous.  One speaks of a physical act while the other speaks of a sharing at a far deeper level.  Finally, in these early days of Advent we hear the Word of God talking about repentance.  Our culture speaks of repentance as being sorry.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Being sorry gives us an excuse to do the same unacceptable thing the next time we want to do it.  Repentance provides no such luxury.
 
When we repent, we turn away from something.  As the scripture uses the term, it is in reference to turning away from some sin in our life.  In some places the figurative language of "taking off" and "putting on" is used which also enables us to think about the kind of change inherent within the Biblical message of repentance.  When John the Baptist used the word, he was talking about a radical change of the heart.  The people of his day were those who figured keeping religious law was going to make them right with God.  His preaching out there at the Jordan River was a call to put that idea aside and embrace something new which God was doing even as they were being baptized.
 
What God was doing in those moments when John was preaching was bringing His Son, Jesus, on stage into human history.  While He had been walking the paths of the earth for some thirty years, He had done so in a kind of obscurity.  When He walked into the waters of the river, He was no longer living under the radar.  He was in those moments putting Himself in a position to be seen, and more importantly, believed by a people who were embracing a different belief system.  Some things have not changed.  The message of repentance is still one we need to embrace in this day.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent IX

Back in the days of preaching at the Vidalia United Methodist Church, I had a sound technician who often told me, "If you're saying something I want them to hear, I turn you up.  If you say something I don't want to hear, I turn you down."  Even though it is not quite so easy to tune out the messages we do not want to hear, we have become masters at picking and choosing the messages we do want to hear.  Call it IFM (Internal Filtering Mechanism), or anything else you choose, but at least let us recognize we all have one installed at birth.
 
Usually, we are good with messages about love and mercy.  But, when we hear the Biblical prophet prototype named John preaching at his listeners and us about repentance, we have a way of tuning out the message.  We tune it out because taking it seriously first of all requires that we admit something is wrong with us.  For the unbeliever repentance requires life cannot be lived rightly without it being focused on Jesus.  And for the believer, it requires admitting that the life we are living before God is not really something which is pleasing to Him.  For both believer and unbeliever, repentance means an admission which declares, "My life is a mess!"
 
Repentance is an important and necessary step in God's plan for us to get out of and beyond the mess we have made of our life.  Any movement in our life toward a change which will take it in a different direction must begin with us.  We have to take responsibility for the mess we have made.  We also have to take responsibility for taking the first step away from where we are to where God wants us to be.  No one can take it for us.  True repentance takes us to a changed mindset, a changed heart, and a changed lifestyle, but no one can take the first step for any of us. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent VIII

Even those who have done the Advent liturgy for years somehow are jolted by the appearance of John the Baptist.  Perhaps, this jolting speaks of how much the secular society around us has impacted the way we do things in December.  It rushes us toward Santa Claus, decorating, and gift buying.  With everything around us pushing us toward the Christmas tree, it seems strange to entertain scripture passages which focus not on the Christmas narrative, but on this wild character who appears on center stage to do God's bidding.  His message of readiness is far different from the dominant one heard from every direction.  His message is a message of heart readiness.
 
John the Baptist made the bank of the Jordan River his pulpit.  He used river water for holy purposes.  His physical appearance brought to mind the Hebrews prophets and his message was one no one really wanted to hear.  As folks gathered to hear him, they heard this message about repentance.  They heard him preach about the need for personal inner change.  They heard him declare that only a radical change of the heart would be an appropriate response to God who was getting ready to do something new and radical and life changing.  As he preached about all of these things, he pointed people who listened to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who would provide a final solution to the sin problem of humankind.
 
If we read the story of John's ministry there at the Jordan, it would seem that folks flocked to hear him preach.  As they went into the water for baptism, it surely seemed that they had truly heard.  These are days for us to be listening to what God is saying to us.  As we read these passages about the one who prepared the way, we are confronted with our own need for the change of repentance.  But, then who is really hearing it?  Who is really listening?  Who is ready to respond?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent VII

When the Holy Spirit is allowed to do His work in our heart and a spirit of patience begins to be genuinely and spontaneously expressed through our living, one thing which will surely be noted is a greater degree of contentment with a slower life.  What slows down will not necessarily be the pace of our going and coming although such could happen, but a deeper sensitivity to the present in our life.  A patient spirit helps us to pay attention to the people who are around us, to the circumstances which envelope us, and the things in front of us.  A patient spirit does not have to hurry.  It gives us time to smell the roses, or to be able to experience more fully what is going on in the right now moment of our life.
 
Slowing down is not a bad thing.  Most of us know we hurry too much for such little reasons.  I watched a guy in the car behind me pass on a yellow line only to pull off the road to his house about a mile up the road.  But, then even as it seemed like a dumb thing to do, I have done my share of them, too.  The truth is we only have one life to live.  We only have one opportunity to be useful to God.  We only have one life to play with and love the significant people in our life.   Patience causes these things to happen because it enables us to be a person who is paying attention to the moment.
 
Impatience robs us of the present moment.  It always does.  It tells us something in the future is more important and it is a lie.  It simply is one of those popular untruths that we unfortunately buy.  One of the things we certainly do not want to miss is a present moment experience of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said it was here, now, in the midst of us.  If living at a slower more patient pace will help us experience this blessing of Christ, then apply the brakes and enjoy the day instead of just enduring it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Advent VI

Patience acknowledges and accepts the reality that we are not in charge.  Once again, we are not in charge.  Not a single one of us is really in charge even though from time to time, we convince ourselves otherwise.  Think about it.  When we start drumming our fingers impatiently on the steering wheel while waiting for a red light to turn green, the traffic engineer is in charge.  When we find ourselves sitting impatiently in a doctor's office, the doctor is in charge.  When we keep looking impatiently at our watch wondering when the sermon is going to end, the preacher is in charge.  Not being able to accept the reality that we are not in charge has caused a lot of impatience to surface in our lives.
 
Not even our faith in Christ gives us a pass.  We whine, complain, and nag God in our prayers because we are not in charge.  We think we should be, but we are not.  Impatience declares we know better, better even than God.  However, once we understand and accept the fact that someone is in charge and it is not us, life moves into a different gear. 
 
What is said about love not seeking its own way (I Corinthians 13) is also true of patience.  It does not seek its own way.  It enables us to live at peace knowing that life does not center around any one of us, but around God.  Patience gives us a view of the plan of God and assures us that each one of is a part of it.  God is always present doing those things which bring about His will and accomplish good in this world around us and the amazing thing is that He chooses to partner with us.  But, still it is His plan, His purposes, not ours.  They always trump ours.  Patience enables us to relax  in such a world.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent V

Not all the Biblical heroes modeled patience.  Abraham became impatient with God who promised him many descendants.  Twenty-five years passed between promise and conception and during those years, Abraham took matters into his own hands.  Aaron who was Moses' right hand guy became impatient while Moses was on the mountain and consented to the people who wanted a God substitute.  The disciples of Jesus were often on another page when it came to slowing down and taking care of people around them.  Their impatience with people and their needs stood in sharp contrast to Jesus who never allowed Himself to get in a tailspin because plans were being disrupted.
 
It is easy for us to join the ranks of those who have been impatient with God and what He was doing.  Who among us has not at some time acted as if we knew better than God what would be best for ourself or another?  Who among us has not berated God for taking so much time to act?  The early texts for Advent remind us that Christ who has come is coming.  It also cautions us about not living in a constant of readiness.  The truth is we seldom take this Word seriously.  We cannot quite get hold of the idea that the delay of God is purposeful.  Since it does not seem none of this is relevant, we run off after whatever it is that is important.  We are too impatient with Him if He is not going to do whatever it is that He is going to do today.
 
What is often forgotten is that patience is about trust.  Patience does not need to tend to its own needs, because it is confident that God is going to do this as He has promised.  The fact of delay is irrelevant.  The relevant thing is that He can be trusted to relate to us according to His Word.  Patience gives us the freedom to live in confidence despite the fact that nothing is really in our control.  Patience enables us to trust in God to act in our lives even though what we see ahead of us is anything but clear. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Advent IV

Imagine for a moment there is a piece of fruit in your hand.  Not just any piece of fruit, but one that is large, unblemished, and inviting to eat.  Imagine that as you bite into that luscious tasty piece of fruit that your taste buds are suddenly overwhelmed with the crisp taste of an apple, the softness of a peach, the juiciness of an orange, the unique flavor of a banana, the tartness of a blackberry, and the surprising taste of a handful of blueberries.  Imagine that one bite delivered all those different taste and even more.  One piece of fruit and an amazing variety of flavors and textures.

Now with the image of such a piece of fruit in your hand, go to Galatians 5:22 and read what the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write.  "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control."  Note first of all, he wrote of one fruit, not fruits.  Too many times we preachers have talked about this passage and erroneously spoken of fruits of the Spirit.  In a similar way we have often heard someone say, "Now in the book of Revelations, even though the name of the Biblical book is "Revelation"...well, actually, "The Revelation."  But, the point is, there is one fruit of the Spirit.  To receive it is to receive a gift from God that shapes our inner being in many different ways, but each single way is interdependent upon the others.  For example, surely we can see that love generates patience as does kindness or gentleness or self-control.

As we abandon our life to God, the Holy Spirit is enabled to do for us things that we could never do. We may be able to make ourselves successful in the eyes of whoever it is we want to evaluate us, but we can never make ourselves loving and patient for such is a work of God.  Anyone who doubts the truth of such only needs to watch the unguarded, unexpected moments in our daily life when what is in our heart is naturally expressed through an action not previously considered or planned. 

 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent III

The mood of Advent is one of waiting.  Waiting is not what we do very easily.  We are much too impatient to wait on something as significant as Christmas, or as insignificant as a traffic light changing from red to green.  Patience we do not do very well.  It would seem that it would be something which we could master, but just when it seems that we have it well in hand, something happens which blows it for us.  The problem is our patience is never measured or tested in a planned manner.  If our spontaneous natural reaction to a particular situation where patience is tested is not one of patience then whatever is natural is going to come forth as an expression of what is really inside of us.
 
When the Apostle Paul speaks of patience in that "fruit of the Spirit" passage, he is declaring that being patient is not something we do, but something that the Spirit of God enables us to do.  When our hearts are under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit instead of our self-seeking, self-serving ego we are able to respond differently.  Sometimes in life our pursuit of one thing results in finding something unexpected.  A search for patience may prove to be a fruitless exercise.  Patience is not so much an end in itself as a product of a life that is rightly oriented toward God, others, and the soul within us.

In these early days of Advent with its focus on how God has acted through the coming of Christ and how He is about to act through the future coming of His Son, we can focus our attention on making our hearts ready for whatever it is that God desires to do in us and through us.  As we look toward God with a "do whatever You choose...make me useful in whatever way You choose," we may come to a deeper awareness of how our heart is being shaped by the Holy Spirit producing the fruit of the Spirit in us...even the illusive thing we call patience.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent II

Living with an attitude of patience has never been an easy thing for most of us.  There are no warning signs which tell us that our patience is about to be measured.  On the road we travel there are signs warning us that a snake like curve, or a steep hill, or a railroad crossing is ahead.  There is time to prepare.  But, in the journey of daily living, there are no warning signs to tell us danger or difficulty lies ahead.  Instead, the moment of testing is suddenly and unexpectedly hard upon us.  There is no time to ready ourselves.  The only moment is the moment of reacting or responding. 
 
I remember one foolish fellow full of youthful enthusiasm for Christ who said he prayed for temptation to come so that he might grow stronger more quickly in his faith.  About all I knew to do was to point him toward the wisdom of Jesus expressed in that prayer He taught His disciples to pray.  In the same manner, it may be dangerous to pray for patience.  Who among us wants the kind of things to come in our life which will measure our patience?  Who among us wants to have the opportunity to be patient if it means dealing with difficulty and delay?
 
Patience is not developed in us by practice.  If wanting to be more patient made us patient people, most of us would be much further along the road of being in control.  As we read the Scripture it is interesting that patience is listed in that section Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit.  "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience..."  (Galatians 5:22)  If we take this Word seriously, we find ourselves coming to a place of understanding that patience in us is not so much about will power and human determination as it is about abandoning ourselves completely to God so that He can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent I

As we begin this Advent season, one of the first words which can be heard in the air is, "Be Patient."  It is not wonder that this particular season of the liturgical calendar has such a reputation for making us uncomfortable.  Colossians 3:12 tells us, "...clothe yourself...with patience..,"  but the truth is, we do not wear it very well.  It does not seem to fit our mindset, our lifestyle, the way we are moving through our life.  Just to hear a call to live with patience raises our anxiety level in an uncontrollable way.
 
The antithesis of patience is, of course, impatience.  Perhaps, we are more acquainted with the latter instead of the former.  Impatience is what drives too many of us.  Impatience is ego driven.  It declares that nothing is more important that what I want when I want it which is now and not later.  Impatience does not take into account the needs of others, or even the larger good of the community.  Impatience is that expression of ourselves which it makes it clear that it is all about me.  It can even turn into a narcissistic self-righteousness which excludes the possibility that another expression of faith might have some value or merit.  If someone sees the world differently than we do, we have not time or use for them in our lives.
 
As we struggle in the human realm with this issue, so do we struggle in our spiritual lives.  Being patient with God to act has never been an easy thing.  Our lack of patience with God often causes  us to take matters in our own hands and to do things our way as did Abraham with Hagar.  These early Advent days remind us of the certainty of the plan of God.  It reaches before us and far out there after us.  Life is much less complicated and less stressful if we live within its unfolding nature instead of trying to push it along a little faster. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent 2015

To be honest is to admit I am not sure I really want to do this again.  For the past three years, I have written daily Advent reflections.  Since Advent is a liturgical season of some length, the reasons for abstaining this year are obvious.  First of all, it is a lot of work that I really do not have to do.  No one is standing over me saying that this thing must be done.  It is more like I am signing up and volunteering when no one is asking.  Secondly, having done this for three years, there is a part of me that wonders about my ability to be fresh with my thoughts and not simply re-stating something written in a previous year.  And then, thirdly, no one is really sitting out there wondering if I am going to do this thing again.  If I don't, no one is going to send a note expressing deep regret that I have provided nothing for them to read.

Again, honesty requires admitting that if I do this thing again, it is not because of someone or something out there.  It has to do with an inner issue which is the issue of obedience.  Being retired from active ministry which centered around serving a local church does not mean that the call of God experienced so long ago is no longer something which has any bearing on my life.  This call of God heard first as a high school senior did not have a certain number of years attached to it.  Instead, to say "Yes" meant offering not years, but a life.  So, since I am still around, still breathing, still being  blessed by this wonderful freely given grace of God, I remain as one who lives within that call.

The call I heard did not have within it something like, "Would you like to do this...?" but more "Follow me and I will provide the details later."  So, it is not really a question of my wanting to do this thing again, but more of sensing in my spirit that He wants me to do it again.  Fleshing out a call to ministry is a life time endeavor and sometimes it simply means sitting down and writing out a blog post to offer to God to use in whatever way He might choose. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

One More Birthday

Those of us are who getting a little older may not view our birthday with the same enthusiasm and excitement we did when we were sitting in front of a birthday cake with candles which could be counted on fingers.  Having to use a calculator to do the figuring seems to take away some of the fun! While the Bible does not mention anyone's birthday, it does in the beginning pages make a big deal about the number of years people lived.  Adam lived 930 years; Methuselah created the longevity record with 969 years; Joseph, on the other hand, lived a mere 110 before he was put in a coffin in Egypt to await transport hundreds of years later back to the Promised Land.  As the Biblical story progressed, numbering years became less important, but in the beginning it was certainly something noteworthy.

Our fascination with celebrating birthdays is certainly noteworthy.  Children would agree as they count the number of presents, but as adults, they become noteworthy as we count the number of years. Whenever I start thinking about my three score plus years, I immediately remember some good friends whose years were far fewer.  Some things in life I am yet to understand.  Another thing that happens in the moment of counting years is giving thanks for the grace of God which has made it possible, and as I do, I come to another one of those things I do not understand.  Since every year, like every day, is a gift from God, each one is certainly noteworthy and something for which to be extremely grateful.

While "how many" may be noteworthy, "how well" seems far more important.  How well have I lived out this gift given to me by my heavenly Father?  How well have I cared for those entrusted to me?  How well have I loved those easy to love and those who seem to want to do nothing but make loving them difficult?  How well have I lived?  These birthdays we count are opportunities to make another mark on the longevity pole, but more importantly, they give us the opportunity to reflect on the years past in a way that can enable us to be more focused on living well in the ones still to come.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Morning With Oswald

I read my first devotional from "My Utmost for His Highest"  47 years ago.  I remember my introduction to this book by Oswald Chambers at a time when I was searching for a lost faith.   Many a college student gets afflicted with thinking that he knows more than he really knows and I had a double dose of it.  Oswald Chambers was one of those influences which helped me get my faith back on track and my heart re-oriented.  For all these decades, he has been a constant companion who has spoken to my heart about abandonment to God and challenged me to reach toward spiritual heights I never would have thought to seek.
 
This morning I was spending a few minutes with Oswald when I ran into something read dozens of times, but today, it was like new.  Anyone who journeys in faith has had such moments.  If you were in some other devotional reading today, allow me the joy of sharing a word from my morning with Oswald.  "The great dominant note is not the needs of men, but the command of Jesus...We forget that the one great reason  underneath  all missionary enterprise is not first the elevation of the people, nor the education of the people, nor their needs; but first and foremost the command of Jesus Christ--'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.' "  It is a word which challenged me, and perhaps others who read these words today, to give thought to the reason for a life of service.  I remember well in the beginning a sense of being swept away by an awareness of human need around me.  Chambers reminded me this morning that had I been gripped by nothing else, I would have burned out and given up long ago.
 
I suppose it is a backward way to come to a place of thanksgiving, but my journey of faith has seldom taken me to a place of insight without some travel through confusion.  Jesus warned against doing the right thing with the wrong motivation as did the Apostle Paul when he wrote those Spirit inspired words about the gift of love. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)  In my morning with Oswald I was once again reminded to look inward at my heart.  Nothing is more important than Who is there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Table Encounters

"Chasing Francis"  by Ian Morgan Cron is more than just a good piece of fiction.  It describes one man's journey of faith in such a way that it begins to feel like our own journey.  Or, at least such was my reaction to this story of lost and found faith.  While there were many pages which caused me to lay the book aside for a moment of quiet personal reflection, none so affected me as those pages which spoke of powerful Table encounters.  One image was of a man who laid himself on the floor of the church after receiving the sacrament.  Another was of an old man who was carried to the Table by his sons.  And finally, there was the scene of one sobbing at the rail and praying over and over, "Thank You, thank You, thank You." 
 
As I remember a lifetime of Table Gatherings, I am amazed that anyone could encounter God at such moments.  The tradition of which I am a part has not always been intentional about creating a spiritual environment conducive to divine encounter.  It has been far more intentional about being expedient and efficient in time management.  In many places the kneeling at the altar has been replaced by a pause in the pace in the coming and going and the receiving of the open hands has been replaced by a grab and go mentality.  And, the role of priest at the Table has been replaced by the administrative presider who participates as a spectator instead of a servant.
 
Some would say these things speak of what must be done when crowds at churches get large.  But, I wonder.  Where is the room for divine encounters?  Where is the place for lingering and responding?  Where is the time for people to realize that Jesus is in the room?  When the church worships by the clock something is going to be lost.  What is lost could be an earth rocking, soul shaking sense of the presence of Jesus. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Must Be More...

Reading the Bible is like taking a trip down a road never before traveled.  Oh, it does not matter that a passage has been read a hundred times and studied until the ink is all but worn off the page.  We can go to just such a place on the page and all of a sudden it is like we are at a place never before seen.  Amazing, is it not?  While it truly is amazing, it is also an example of how the Holy Spirit can move into our heart, sometimes on a collision course with the way we think things ought to be, and sometimes gently merging into the stream of our experiences.  Those who cannot understand that the Word is alive and powerful are surely those who have never allowed themselves the experience of being abandoned beneath its life giving waters.
 
I came to one of those moments of being surprised by the familiar a few days ago while reading in the New Testament book known as Hebrews.  Any real student of Hebrews knows what is going to be found in the 11th chapter of that writing.  It is like a roll call of the faithful.  When I came to the sixth verse, I found myself with these words, "And without faith it is impossible to please God.."  Flip that verse around and it says a very simple word:  "What pleases God is our faith."  Most of us live as if there is something else which would please Him more.  Maybe it is our gifts, or our sacrifices, or our worked out rational theological understanding.  To simply say that faith is what pleases God sounds too simple.
 
While we say, "Surely, there must be something more,"  God says, " Faith is what pleases Me."  I am reminded of some prophets who told some folks they had it wrong as they tried to please God.  And I am reminded of the way Jesus had a way of boiling down what people made complicated into something as simple as loving God and one another.  Maybe our pre-occupation with making simple things complicated speaks more to our need to be in control and our fear of what it might mean if we turn lose and live life on the simple terms of the gospel. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Change

On a recent journey across several states, I could not help but notice how different the church landscape is from those days when I first walked in its doors.   In the places where I grew up, churches usually bore the name of some denomination and were identified by a geographical name.  Churches were named according to a town or neighborhood. or maybe, proximity to a creek or a road.  Later as a pastor I moved into a city where the Saints had it.  In the United Methodist denomination alone there were churches named: St. John, St. Mark, St. Andrew, St. Luke, and St. Paul.  It certainly would appear to be a holy circle!
 
What I noticed on my recent journey was the absence of this naming which might be considered more traditional.  Some might say archaic.  Nonetheless, one thing noticed was the absence of any denominational affiliation on the signs.  Maybe some had none, but more likely, it was intentionally not highlighted for the community to see.  Some think such provides a better atmosphere for getting people to come.  But, it was really the names which stood out.  I saw churches bearing such names as:  The Well, The Bright Spot, The Pointe,  Fellowship, and The Door.  It would seem the rationale is that being a member of The Bright Spot sounds more attractive to the world than First United Methodist.
 
I sometimes wonder if any of this reflects in any way upon the health and life of the church.  Probably not.  Maybe all these words are simply a lament about an ecclesiastical world that is rapidly changing.  Certainly, what we see on the outside could be seen as a reflection of  the new and different ways technology is being used for the gospel on the inside.  Much about the church has changed in these sixty years I have been a part of it.  But, the change which concerns me most is not so visible.  It is the one which speaks of the way that the church has become more and more attentive to common consensus instead of the sacred Word as it seeks to find its way forward.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Jesus in the Lobby

Toward the end of a recent month long stay in a Houston, Texas hotel, I decided on a foot journey across the two story high walk-way to the Houston Methodist Hospital.  What I really had in mind was checking out the cafeteria.  All the places which had been providing our culinary fare had gone from good to average to "can't eat there one more time."  When such a state of mind is reached, even a hospital cafeteria holds out hope.  On my hunt for something to feed my stomach, I unexpectedly found something which fed my soul. 

What I saw in the lobby of the Houston Methodist Hospital was a larger-than-life statue of Jesus standing before a woman who was kneeling at His feet.  The sight stopped me in my tracks.  It took my breath away.  It caused a tightening in my throat and brought tears to my eyes.  While all the world hurried on by doing its business, I stood there transfixed and suddenly full of a spirit of adoration and worship.  I later learned both the name of the artist and the name of the piece of art, but in that moment of epiphany like worship, I knew the statue was about Jesus reaching out to heal a woman.  But, it was more than just religious art.  There in the busy hospital lobby, it became a spiritual visualization of the prayer that was consuming my heart. 

What some might proclaim as coincidence and what others might say was a "projection of my own needs on an inanimate object" was actually one of those moments in the long history of God when He makes Himself known in a totally unexpected and surprising way.  How that image of Jesus and the woman got there in that hospital lobby was interesting to learn, but the way it was used by God to turn my despair into hope in a faith restoring kind of way was both powerful and unforgettable.  As I reflect on that single moment, I cannot help but wonder if that Chinese sculptor ever thinks about the number of folks like me who have seen his visual creation of Jesus and been stopped in their tracks and held in God's care.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Righteous Man

Seeing a particularly difficult stretch ahead, I found myself asking some folks to pray.   I did not just throw out a blanket request, but instead started thinking about people I knew who took praying seriously.  A truism I have embraced over the years guided me:  "If you want someone to teach you how to hunt rabbits, find someone with fur in their teeth."   So, I asked the people I knew who had callouses on their knees, who knew prayer to be more than ritual, who believed in its power, and who not only talked about it, but gave strong witness to practicing it. 
 
One of the persons I asked was a church member of my first appointment and who has stuck with me as a friend for over forty years.  His witness and his praying has strengthened me in an immeasurable way over the years of our journey together.  Years ago this early riser told me of his morning conversations with God while he walked around his place before going to work.  Even before I knew it, he was calling my name and my wife's name in his early morning meetings with God.  Recently, he told me again,  "Every morning I pray for you."  In a conversation shared not too many days ago, he spoke of that James passage about the power of the prayers of a righteous man and then added, "...however, I am not so sure I am a righteous man."  I told my friend not to worry.  When the Bible uses the term righteous, it is not in reference to some super spiritual giant, but one who lives in a right relationship with God and those around him. 
 
As I told him my understanding of Biblical righteousness, I assured him he had always been pointed in that direction.  When he responded by saying, "Jesus did say the most important thing was loving God and loving your neighbor," I sensed that the assurance I sought to offer him had found a receptive place in his heart.  I have always believed that James had it right when he wrote, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." (James 5:16)  I will always be thankful for this life long friend and the other righteous people who prayed simply because I asked. 


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Ministry in the Air

I have experienced it twice in recent days.  It brought back a memory of long years ago of a vacation trip which took us to Norfolk, Va.  Coming out of a store in the market area of the city, we immediately heard the sounds of a bagpipe playing "Amazing Grace."  It was one of those totally unexpected moments which provided a powerful midday blessing.  Curiosity led me to discover that it was a guy who often took his lunch hour to play from an upper level of a parking garage.  It was wonderful and certainly memorable the way his gift of music floated out over that part of the city causing people to look upward in more ways than one.
 
More recently it was a violin and a piano.  Walking through a busy hospital waiting room which emptied sufferers into clinics, treatment areas, and hospital rooms, I became aware of someone playing a violin.  It was a young Asian American girl sitting there in that busy room providing a moment for people to pause and breathe and be renewed.  It always amazes me that music has the ability to touch the heart in ways that words only struggle to do.  And, then, in another place very much like the first, there was a middle aged man playing the piano.  As the music drifted across the lobby of that hospital, I found myself being made aware of the way God breaks in upon us in surprising and unexpected ways.  Even though it may seem at times that He must surely be elsewhere, all of a sudden there is that reminder of His presence.  And, of course, when I looked his way and saw the cross and flame emblem, a symbol of the spiritual community which has nurtured me all my life, I was even more blessed and reminded that where ever I go, God is there before me.
 
I have always told church musicians that they bring more blessing than they would ever realize.  What is offered by them in the context of worship is not just filler for the preacher, but a means of ministry that God uses in amazing ways.  As a preacher I know that some will sleep through even my best efforts and that others will be blessed by what seems to me to be me preaching at my worst.  But, always it is about what God is doing.  It is no different with those who provide this musical ministry in the air.  Some may walk by and never hear, but, ah, there are those who hear not just with their ears, but with their hearts. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Unexplainable and Mysterious

Surely, even the most devout have lived through seasons where prayer was questioned almost as much as it was practiced.  While I do not put myself in the category of the "most devout," I have been one who has practiced this spiritual discipline for a life time.  And, honesty requires that I confess to my share of questions which some may say speak of doubt or little faith, but I rather think they speak of a heart that searches for more of God in my life.
 
As a younger man I prayed for those who asked, but seldom did I ask for the prayers of others.  Then, I thought I could handle anything; now, I know the foolishness of those years.  It finally came to me that if the Apostle Paul would ask the people of the church to pray for him, it would be a good practice for me as well.  Still, there are questions.  How does the prayer of one person in one place touch the life of another in another place?  If a few praying is enough, why do I feel better with "the more?"  Is God going to bless less than He otherwise would do if people do not pray?  When do you stop praying prayers that seem unheard?  Is just praying, "thy will be done" all that is really necessary?
 
Even though I have not figured it all out, I still pray.  I trust God and I trust the process of prayer.  I drive a car and I do not understand fully how it works.  I sit in an airplane and despite my high school physics teacher's persistent teaching, I still do not understand.  A lack of understanding does not keep me home.  Neither does it keep me off my knees and from believing that prayer speaks of a powerful relationship between each one of us and God that unleashed holy power in an unexplainable and mysterious way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Looking and Seeing

As Barbara Brown Taylor explores her own personal darkness in her book, crawls down into the deep recesses of an underground cave, and then experiences the world of the blind, I began to realize how easy it is to look but not really see.  As she writes about the difference in her book, "Learning to Walk in the Dark," she describes how looking  at a wooden table is different than taking the time to see it.  To look is to see it as oak or pine and one that seats eight. But, to see is to close the eyes and experience its surface with fingers that reveal nicks, wax spots, texture, grain, and even spots once damaged and now repaired.  Taking time to see means paying attention in a way our hurried looking does not.  In the same manner, we look and say, "It's a tree!" without seeing the vine creeping up its trunk, or the holes of drilling woodpeckers, or the diseased leaves, or the scurrying bugs hurrying from one place to another. We look, but do not always see.  We are not really paying attention to what are our eyes behold.

Surely, the Kingdom of God belong to those who are not only looking for it, but who have eyes to see.  Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as something near, something at hand, something within you, but we seldom see or experience it in such a way.  From time to time as we are in the presence of some act of grace filled with kindness, or when we hear of an extraordinary act of forgiveness, we might say, "Ah, there...there is the Kingdom of God,"  but mostly we just look and do not see.  If paying attention is a pre-requisite for seeing what is mostly missed, most of us must confess to a seeing that speaks more of acknowledgement than real recognition.

If the Kingdom of God is really in our midst as Jesus tells us it is, we can only wonder if we are really paying attention to the way it can be experienced, felt, smelled, and breathed.  The Kingdom of God is a spiritual dimension present midst the present physical dimension so easily seen.  God obviously uses the physical as a means of revealing the spiritual, but we must pay attention if we are to really see.  Otherwise, we will surely continue walking in the darkness known by men and women like us who have eyes and hearts to see, but move through life as those who are blind.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Where to Look

Some might say the world in which Jesus walked was a simpler, less complex, slower world.  Perhaps, such thoughts give us a self-made license to focus on the external instead of the internal as we think about how we live.  Certainly, His world of the first century was different in many respects, but the very same issues which confront us in our day were present in His even though given life in different ways.  As I walk in corridors of great suffering, places where people are dealing with the issue of life and death, coping with a body ravaged by disease, and struggling with all manner of uncertainty, I find myself wondering what Jesus would do if He walked into such a place.  Would He walk from one to the other, or would He stop at the front door and cry out like He cried out at the tomb of Lazarus saying, "All of you, be healed and made whole!"

When I go to the gospels for some sense of knowing, I am made aware that His normal mode of care was one person at a time.  There are some instances of group healings taking place, but they are few.  Mark tells us early on about village people gathering after the Sabbath for Jesus to touch their sick.  Luke tells us about ten lepers who showed up before Jesus.  Indeed, at that moment Jesus stood in the midst of a suffering community.  But, the Word does not ever even hint that Jesus sought out leper communities, or community sickbeds, or funerals where some tragedy took away life far too early.  One at a time seems to be more the approach to human suffering which speaks of Him.

Maybe the question is not the real question.  As I walk in the corridors of great suffering, I have to believe He is actually present.  Otherwise, the gospel I embrace makes no sense.  Perhaps, the real question to be asked is the one which causes me to open my eyes to the way I see His heart being expressed as one sufferer cares for another. And, of course, the sufferers are not just the ones with bodies ravaged by illness, but all of us who live with our own scars and pain.  Even me. In my search for Jesus in a place where suffering seems to prevail, is it not true that I must look first in my own heart? While He is not limited by being us, being in us is surely one of the ways He has chosen to make Himself and His compassion present in those difficult places in our world and His. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Place of Suffering

The world is full of suffering we seldom see.  Young women should be pushing strollers, not walkers. Babies should be crying for milk, not because of pain.  People should be dreaming dreams of days to come, not just hoping there will be a few more.  There are places around us filled wall-to-wall with those who know suffering, pain, and uncertainty as their daily companions.  The most of us hurry by behind the very thin illusion that such will never touch us.  And when we are forced to see and face the real reality in which we live, we want to close our eyes, look the other way, or at least escape back into our world of comfort and ease.
 
The roads Jesus walked was littered with the broken and suffering people. There were times when the whole and the well ones tried to keep the hurting ones away from Jesus, out of His presence and theirs.  But, He would have none of it. No place He was going was more pressing than the needs of the suffering ones.  He cared enough to care for the broken bodies and the sin-ridden souls.  Surely, the only reason He could live out in the real world where people struggle and suffer was because of His intimate spiritual connection with the Father.  He viewed the world not just through the eyes of mortal men, but through the eyes of God, the Father in heaven.
 
Today my world of ease and well being is being assaulted by the presence of the broken and suffering community which has existed all my life, but until now, has been pushed into those places where it seemed to be invisible.  There is some callous insensitivity for which I need repent and ask forgiveness.  And as I do, I will pray, too, for those souls around me whose hope is that Jesus will pass by to touch them with strength, hope, and healing for the journey ahead of them.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Limb

Pecan trees dominate the landscape around our house.  This means that the late fall is spent picking up pecans off the ground and getting them to market.  But, the thing for which I really wish from time to time is a "limb market."  A year round chore is picking up limbs on the ground.  Some are big, but most are of the smaller variety.  If only all those trailer loads of limbs and broken branches could be sold, but alas, such is not going to happen.  Reality around here is never being able to walk around without seeing a limb which needs to be picked up.  Work.
 
However, something I recently read from "An Altar in the World" has changed my perspective.  In a section of the book about seeing ordinary things as things to bless, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "Start with something like a stick.  Even a stick lying on the ground will do.  The first thing you do is to pay attention to it.  Did you make the stick?  No, you did not.  The stick has its own story...Is it on the ground because it is old or because it suffered mishap?  Has it been lying there a long time or did it just land?...If you look at the stick long enough, you are bound to begin making it a character in your own story...What purpose did this stick serve?  Did a bird sit on it?  Did it bear leaves that sheltered the ground from the hottest summer heat?  At the very least, it participated in the deep mystery of drawing water from the ground, defying the law of gravity to deliver moisture to its leaves...This is no less than an artery of a tree that you are holding in your hand...Put it back where you found it and it will turn back into earth again.  Dust to dust and ashes to ashes."
 
I can no longer walk around and see a limb on the ground and not see myself.  As surely as the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind me of my mortality, so do all these limbs on the ground.  I walk about changed.  I walk about blessing these limbs and thanking God for the way I am reminded each day to live today as if tomorrow might not be. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Holy Spots


Recently, I found myself approaching a small town in west Georgia called Geneva.  Miles before the city limit sign, I started anticipating being in a particular place in that town.  Geneva is not a big place.  In fact, if you blink once or twice while going from one side of it to the other, you just might miss it entirely.  A few stores, a few more houses, a post office, and a lot of dreams and hopes that died are about all that is left.

So, what was there to anticipate?  Years ago there was a Methodist Church on its main road.  I used to see it often when I lived in a nearby town.  But, like other places housed in buildings in Geneva, it closed.  The last sermon was preached and the people scattered.  After a few years the building was sold and moved to another location where it serves another purpose.  In subsequent years of passing by that spot, I always looked that way.  What I usually saw was a vacant spot grown up in weeds.  Uncared for was the only way to describe the holy spot.  My recent trip revealed that it was still a empty space, but someone had cleaned it up.

I found myself wondering all sorts of things as I journeyed on past it.  Did the new owner cut the weeds, or was it done by the some act of the town council?  Why does the ground remain vacant?  Do people still look that way as I did and remember a Methodist Church?  Can space made holy ever really be un-holy even though it becomes empty or filled with activities that speak of evil instead of good?  Are the prayers of the people of that abandoned and disappeared church still being worked out in the Kingdom of God?  Is it not still present and alive in that community through the faithful living of some of those who sat in its pews and knelt at its altar?  Could it be true that churches can live long years after the church building disappears?  And, just maybe....for an eternity.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Table Talk


She sat down at a table next to ours in a local eatery.  She joined two women who were mostly finished with their soup and salad.  The volume of the next-to-our-table conversation made it impossible to ignore.  The late arrival quickly announced she was not eating.  "I'm fasting," was her first comment.  "Why?" she was asked by her two eating companions.  "I need to lose a few pounds," was the answer.  And for the next ten minutes, the one fasting basked in accolades like, "You don't look like you need to lose weight," or, "I wish I could be so disciplined.  The one not eating food was sure enjoying eating all the praise!

It is not unusual for folks to use the Biblical word, "fasting" when "dieting" would be a better choice.  The young woman who spoke was not trying to promote some theological controversy; she was simply speaking the language of today's secular culture.  Still, this preacher's ears were rebelling at what was being proclaimed.  The Bible is clear that fasting is not about weight control, but about management of the soul. It is not a physical discipline, but a spiritual one.  And since Jesus' words in Matthew's gospel instruct fasting to be done in secret with assurances that the Father in heaven who see what is done in secret will reward, those who talk about their "fasting' in such a way as to receive the accolades of their listeners have received all the rewards they are going to receive. 

At its core fasting is a spiritual discipline which results in spiritual blessings.  It is something of ourselves being offered to God.  A few pounds may well be lost as an indirect result of fasting, but the important thing which can really be lost is the unbearable weight of an ego that has claimed too great a hold on our living.  Fasting puts us into that relationship with God where such transforming inner soul work can be done, not by us, but by the Father in heaven.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Retirement Ruminating

Back in those pre-retirement days, I spent much of my time working near a sanctuary and I often used it as place of meditating on the Word.  Now, the sanctuary is no longer a door away.  Instead there is a cow pasture just out the front door so when I contemplate a passage of scripture as I did back in the sanctuary days, I call it ruminating instead of meditating.  Cows ruminate.  I have learned a lot about their ways by watching.  Cows ruminate, or chew their cud.  They swallow their food, bring it up, and chew on it while they sit down.  Interesting. 
 
Today I have been ruminating, or chewing on a passage of scripture from which I plan to preach tomorrow. While I usually preach on one of the gospel resurrection accounts, tomorrow I am going to focus on I Corinthians 15.  Those who are Biblical students will immediately remember the chapter as one of the great chapters on resurrection.  What has struck me today has been a little aside Word which seems to hang out in my mind.  As Paul writes about what Christ did for us through His life, death, and resurrection, he twice uses the phrase, "in accordance with the scriptures."  While my sermon is going to go in a different direction, all day I have chewing on that twice used phrase.
 
What Jesus did was in accordance with the sacred Word.  As I have chewed on it today, I have found myself thinking often about a life lived in accordance with the sacred Word.  First, in order to live our life in accordance with the scripture, we must read the Word.  Not casually, but seriously.  And, as we do it, we need to lay aside some of the aids to understanding for a bit so that the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to do some teaching before our mind and heart gets cluttered with something someone else thinks about a passage.  What a novel idea.  Living life in accordance with the Scripture. Ruminate.  Chew on it awhile.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Final Sojourner

In the beginning it seemed like a journey from the Mt. of Transfiguration to Jerusalem.  Along the way the destination changed.  Instead of a journey to Jerusalem, it became a journey to the cross, and then finally, a journey to death.  Early on we may not have thought of the journey ending in death, but Jesus surely did.  So many lives intersected with His on the  journey.  Some stayed for almost all of it.  Some were on that road with Him but for a fleeting moment. 
 
According to Luke the last one who sojourned with Jesus to death was the centurion.  While it is true he is mentioned only after Jesus has breathed His last breath, his presence afterwards pre-supposes his presence before.  The centurion was a witness to it all.  He heard the mocking.  He saw the suffering.  He heard the last words of Jesus and watched Him die.  What Luke wrote about the response of the centurion to the death of Jesus is a word of witness.  The Word says, "When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, 'Certainly this man was innocent.' "  (Luke 23:47)  Both Matthew and Mark record him saying, "Truly this man was the Son of God."  Regardless of the version, it is surprising that the last word of witness comes not from a disciple, but from one like the centurion.  Something powerful and mysterious took place on the hill that day and it was not missed by the man of Rome.

Too many times we are the ones who really miss what happened that Friday long ago.  The church hardly gives it notice as it moves from Palm Sunday to Easter.  And when something is offered on Good Friday to focus the attention of the world on the cross, it is often downplayed with a public invitation which speaks of a "brief service" or something attached to a meal to entice participation.  There is no argument with the Apostle Paul about the resurrection being the central truth of the gospel, but without crucifixion there is no resurrection.  At the cross we behold the power of God's love, the mystery of redemption, and the source of our hope for a forgiveness that enables us to live without constantly having to look behind us.  Let us pray today that we, like the centurion, have some moment of being so overcome by it all that we join him in praising God.