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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Waiting to Understand

“Jesus replied, ‘You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.’”
John 13:7 (Common English Bible)

            Recently my wife, daughter, and I enjoyed a late breakfast at Benny’s On the Beach in Lake Worth. After we parked, Grace and Rachael walked directly to the restaurant while I moved toward the parking kiosk to pay. As I waited behind two women, who were together, I overheard a most absurd conversation between them. After one had completed the payment transaction and received her receipt, the other woman remarked, “We need to place the receipt on our car’s dash before going to the beach.” She was answered by her friend, “The receipt says that there is no need to place on the dash.” That was followed by the other, “That has to be wrong! There is no way for the police to know that we have paid.” Undeterred, the other woman began reading the receipt once again, “There is no need…” She was interrupted, “That is simply ridiculous! We are placing the receipt on the dash!” I watched as the two women returned to their car and placed the receipt on the dash.

            I confess to not understanding how the police will know. The spaces are no longer numbered. The parking kiosk simply asks for the license plate number for the payment transaction. But I trusted what I did not understand. I took my receipt, placed it in my wallet, and moved toward the restaurant to join my wife and daughter. Perhaps I will understand later. Nonetheless, I did not demand to understand before following the instructions provided. This is precisely what Jesus is asking the disciples to accept: “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” These words were probably spoken on the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested. Apparent from Jesus’s remark, the disciples are puzzled. They have tried to follow Jesus – and left a great deal behind to do so – and now Jesus is speaking to them about going away. They may have had questions during Jesus’ ministry. But now they are thoroughly unsettled.

            Often we are unsettled. There is much in life that we don’t understand. Present in life are inequalities that are terribly unfair, injustice that appears insurmountable, and cruelty that is incomprehensible. This past week many returned to the safety of their homes from work to learn from the evening news that fifty people are dead in a New Zealand mosque shooting. It is a violence that simply doesn’t make sense. What are we to do in the face of such challenging problems? Jesus acknowledges that we don’t understand. Then, Jesus gives to us a divine promise: “But you will understand later.” Until then, Jesus asks us to trust and wait. The difficulty for many of us is that we don’t like to wait. Telling us that we will understand later seems a feeble thing to say to people who want to understand immediately and have a thoughtful grasp how this world works. Yet, that is precisely the problem – we are a tiny power trying to comprehend what God is doing.

            In a previous meditation I wrote of a Broadway musical my son, Nathanael, and I enjoyed this past December, The Band’s Visit. In that meditation I shared that for the first thirty minutes of the musical I came to the conclusion that I had wasted a rather large sum of money on two expensive tickets. The narrative was slow to develop, held little interest for me, and lacked the sparkle and energy I have come to expect from big budget Broadway musicals. If I were to invite someone to see the musical with me today I would ask of them to give the musical a chance – to wait patiently through the first thirty minutes until the inevitable grasp it will have on their heart. Something happens in the story that unfolds that results in identification with the brokenness of the characters, a longing for good on their behalf, and even prayers sent upward to heaven that they each find some measure of joy. Then the musical concludes. An actress steps to stage center and speaks the final words of the production to each of us, the audience: “Once a band came to town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” It is then your heart shouts, “That’s not true! It is important. It mattered. It mattered very much!” That is because, after a period of time when we didn’t understand, it suddenly was clear. And Jesus said to the disciples, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”


Friday, March 15, 2019

Sabal Palmetto

The following meditation is from Doug Hood's
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ.

“After a whirlwind passes by, the wicked are no more, but the righteous stand firm forever.”
Proverbs 10:25 (Common English Bible)

This official Florida state tree boasts a higher wind resistance than any other palm, according to a research study conducted by Mary Duryea, University of Florida associate dean of research, and reported in an issue of Coastal Living magazine.i Consequently, this is one of the trees most favored by landscapers when planting by the shore. Strong Caribbean winds have little effect upon the Sabal Palmetto. They remain, for the most part, unshakeable in all conditions of weather.

A major theme of Proverbs, and notably of this passage, is that how we choose to live has ultimate consequences. Those who live foolishly are those who have chosen to live according to every desire of their heart. This is a decision to ignore the wisdom of God and God’s direction for living. When the storms of life blow, as they inevitably do for each of us, we are swept away. This is not God’s punishment for ignoring God’s wisdom. Becoming “swept away” by the strong winds that beat against us, from time to time, is the natural consequence of the poor decisions we make. It is no different from the natural consequence of choosing to plant a tree by the shore that has low wind tolerance.

A poor landscaping choice, when selecting a tree to plant near the shore, is the Washington Fan Palm. This tree scores low on wind-resistance. The selection of this tree to plant near the sea indicates that no care was given to the decision or that the conventional wisdom for landscaping was ignored. The inevitable result, during a tropical storm, is that this tree is likely to be uprooted and swept away. The landscaping will be, as Proverbs states it, “no more.” It is simply a natural consequence of a poor landscaping decision.

Proverbs announces that God has rigged the universe for righteousness – that is, life that is built upon wisdom shall, “stand firm forever.” God’s ways are not simply a preference that God has for our lives. God understands what makes life work, and what makes life fail. God’s wisdom, shared generously in the scriptures, is simply a gracious invitation to live wisely, that we may endure the storms that come in every life. And when the strong Caribbean winds of hardship and difficulty blow across our path, we will stand firm. That is because our life has been planted on the enduring foundation of God’s wisdom.


iMarisa Spyker, “5 Trees to Plant by the Sea: What works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to planting trees by the shore,” Coastal Living, March, 2013.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Religious Dropouts

“At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.”
John 6:66 (Common English Bible)

            It is now fairly common knowledge that Christian churches across the United States are experiencing decline – decline in membership, decline in worship attendance, and decline in financial support. Diminishing interest in the church has resulted, in many congregations, a shift from full-time pastoral leadership to part-time, reduced opportunities for spiritual nurture and growth, and a smaller impact in the local community. As congregations grow smaller they are faced with difficult decisions such as merging with other churches or closing their doors permanently. Causes for the decline of the Christian Church across our nation has been studied and solutions have been scarce.

            What has received less attention is a phenomenon I will call the “religious dropouts.” These are the people who are regularly present in services of worship, engaged in personal spiritual growth, and participate in the church’s mission to feed the hungry, house the homeless and care for the broken.  Vibrant and robust churches are built upon their dedication to Jesus and Jesus’ work through the local congregation. It is not difficult to see that the church is stronger for such people. Then, they simply aren’t present anymore. The place they once occupied in worship is empty. It is a phenomenon that dates back to the earthly ministry of Jesus: “many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.”

            The primary reason for the “religious dropout” remains the same from Jesus’ day until ours: frustration and disappointment. There is present in every faith community people who turn to religion for some things the Christian faith never promised to provide. They expect in religion a kind of magical solution to their problems, anxieties, and illnesses and it hasn’t worked out. Some expect that faithfulness to the church will protect them from job loss, marriage discord, and safety from the violence in the world. Others look to the church to shelter their children from everything that is unpleasant and distasteful in the dominant culture. When they fail to receive what they were looking for, they cool to religion and simply dropout.

            After many who followed Jesus turned away, Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” It is a good question for each one of us to ask. People who come to our churches expecting only to “get something” or find easy solutions will be frustrated and disappointed. Somehow they have missed that Jesus was betrayed, beaten, and crucified. As William Willimon once commented, why do the followers of Jesus expect to get off any better? What is required is a return to the promise that the faith has always made available: In Jesus Christ, God walks with us through the storms, difficulties, and struggles of life, strengthening us along the way. Life will take us to the depths. When we arrive, Jesus will be there. We are not alone.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

From Why to Where

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son, 
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 
Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” 
Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. 
This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 
(John 9:1-3)

     On December 26, 2004, the third largest earthquake ever recorded struck the west coast of northern Sumatra, rocking the fault-lines with the power of over 1,500 atomic bombs, vibrating the entire planet by one centimeter. The cataclysmic shockwaves birthed a series of apocalyptic tsunamis that reached upwards of 100-feet high. Due to the relative historical scarcity of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, the surrounding coastal communities had no practical tsunami warning systems, guaranteeing local populations were unaware of their impending doom while the waters rushed their way. Almost a quarter million in fourteen different countries were killed, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. A global humanitarian relief effort was swiftly organized, with food, medicine, and over $14 billion in international aid distributed to survivors and first responders. When the waters finally receded and the destruction cleared away, millions were left with a simple question: why? How, in a just, sane universe, could this happen?

     In the January 8, 2005 issue of The Los Angeles Times, reporters Teresa Watanabe and Larry B. Stammer published an article that examined the different theological responses to the 2004 tsunamis from the major world religions. Their findings revealed stark differences in how mankind’s great faith traditions grappled not just with tragedy, but with the theodical implications of disaster. Buddhists, according to a former Sri Lankan ambassador, believe in the doctrine of karmic law, not random chance, implying that the casualties received their just reward for the sins of their past or current lives while the survivors benefitted from their past or current goodnesses. According to a prominent Hindu faith leader in southern California, Hindus also believe in karma, but their belief in god(s) implies the intercession of a divine will: the god(s) sent the tsunamis to punish the afflicted communities’ bad karma. Meanwhile, a Wiccan high priestess in Wisconsin explained that earthquake and tsunamis were the result of “Mother Nature stretching—she had a kink in her back and stretched.”

     The response from the Abrahamic faiths were different. When asked, a prominent rabbi teaching at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles responded that such disasters were a “natural consequence of God’s decision to make a finite world.” But this begs the question of why, if God deliberately created a finite world, he couldn’t design one without physical and natural laws that periodically drown a quarter million innocent people. Meanwhile, according to the leader of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, mankind is called not to ask “why” but “what now”: “We should take it as a test from God to see how human beings respond.” It’s this last interpretation that perhaps comes closest to the Christian theological outlook, finding the idea of God’s causing the tsunamis a non-issue. As Baptist minister Douglas McConnell explained to Watanabe and Stammer, “believing that God deliberately caused the [tsunamis] is a difficult leap for those who believe God was revealed in the compassionate Jesus.”

     We see this belief here in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus’ disciples ask him if the suffering of a man blind since birth was karmic punishment for his family’s sins. Notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t just reply in the negative, he rejects their premise that mankind’s suffering is ordained. Jesus changes the question, instead saying that what matters now is that in his presence, the mighty works of God might be displayed. Just as Jesus rejected their premise, this text invites us to change our question from why there is suffering to the location of Christ in the midst of said suffering. The answer can always be found in the midst of the church’s response to devastation: the donating of money, the sharing of shelter, the giving of food and medicine. It’s in the healing of the world that we come closer to Christ. We have no time for wondering why.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Faith in Prayer

The following is from Doug Hood's book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ

“Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously
and not to be discouraged.”
Luke 18:1 (Common English Bible)

     I believe in prayer. I believe that prayer is the most important fact in the life of anyone who determines to follow Jesus. The trouble with prayer is not belief in the practice – it is what is expected from the practice. For many, prayer is practiced as some sort of holy magic. Pray correctly and with enough faith and the desired result arrives every time. Unanswered prayer is simply the result of praying incorrectly or with insufficient faith. This belief is troubling if not downright harmful to a person of faith. In this sentence from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that we are to “pray continuously.” Rather than suggesting yet another formula for prayer – pray continuously - I believe our Lord is inviting us to discover at least two ways that prayer is effective.

     On one level, prayer opens the one who is praying to a relationship with God. Meaningful relationships are not built by one or two sentences that are shaped into a request, not with God or anyone else. “Continuous prayer” is the cultivation of a regular conversation with God. This is the kind of conversation found naturally between two people who care for one another. Whether we are angry or thankful, whether we are sharing from a broken heart or celebrating, we share continuously with those whom we love. Such conversations draw us closer to one another. It is that closeness with us that God desires.

     A second level involves the one for whom we pray. By our prayers that person is not alone. Continuous prayer keeps them in the fellowship of our thoughts and in our hearts. A community of faith is created which liberates them from walking a difficult path unaccompanied by someone who cares. Encouragement and strength bubbles forth when we know that there is someone who is “pulling for us.” Creating community among people of faith is one result of continuous prayer.

     Faith in prayer does not exclude expectations of the miraculous. God is still in the miracle business. But we are guilty of a grievous error when we reduce prayer to “getting what we want.” That makes God a dispenser of religious goods and services while we continue to build the life we want apart from God’s claim upon us. Christian prayer is always undergirded by a conviction that God is reconciling us to God’s self for the purposes of being used by God for God’s ongoing work in the world. “Continuous prayer” is an affirmation that our life is not ours to do as we wish. We belong to God and it is for God that we live.


Friday, February 15, 2019

The Plain and Simple Gospel

“’Come, follow me,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you how to fish for people.’”
Matthew 4:19 (Common English Bible)

            We are all living a deeply entangled, complex life. As complexity increases, so does our exhaustion. We run faster, master complex planning calendars that were designed to make life less cumbersome, and come to the end of many days feeling that we have been defeated. Present is a growing nostalgia for a simpler world – a desire for a plainer, clearer path forward. This general desire includes the spiritual realm. The hope is that the church would provide a rediscovery of God, a reclaiming of God’s strength for daily living, and direction for a larger purpose for which we may attach our lives. Unfortunately, what many find are cumbersome requirements for membership and multiple invitations to serve on committees that multiply our exhaustion. With church participation we discover that there are now more oars in the water that requires our attention.

            How can we return to a simpler time? Jesus is instructive. Notice that Jesus does not invite people to register for a six-week new member class. Jesus does not make committee assignments. Jesus does not examine doctrinal purity or demand conformity to creedal statements. Jesus quite simply asks that we follow him. To follow Jesus is to share life with Jesus in the fullest sense: to go where he goes, to listen to what he taught, and to participate in practices and disciplines that were important to him. An invitation to follow is the suggestion that there is something of value to be found. Naturally, to accept such an invitation begins with an acknowledgement that the present life isn’t working anymore. Unless we really believe that another approach to life is required, we will continue trying to make the present one work.

            The one other thing that Jesus asks is a posture of humility, a desire to learn, and willingness to participate in Jesus’ work: “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” All the work of Jesus is about one thing – looking for those who have wandered far from God and bringing them back home to the Father. As with any great work, there are multiple functions that must be accomplished. None of us are asked – or equipped – to do them all. Some of us are to be teachers, some will show hospitality, and others will be administrators, caregivers, and evangelists. Others will provide care and comfort to the broken. The various jobs to be done are many. But one goal remains: “to fish for people” that they may return to God. Jesus will show us the way.

            None of this suggests that boards and committees are without value to Jesus. Leadership boards must be populated with those who have demonstrated the capacity to respond to the promptings of God, to show people where Jesus is moving and call them to follow. Committees provide a responsible means for organizing a great work force for accomplishing all that Jesus seeks to do in a particular community. But, in this over complicated world, the church must not add unnecessary complexity to the simple call of Jesus to follow him and to participate with him in his grand redemptive purposes: a cup of cold water to the thirsty, a helping hand on the roadside, an encouraging word softly spoken. These are all within our reach. Nor are we called to carry the whole world on our backs. Our chief function is to point to the one who does, Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel, plain and simple.


Friday, February 8, 2019

Who Is Jesus Christ?

“Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 
‘Who do people say the Human One is?’”
Matthew 16:13 (Common English Bible)

            One of the great weaknesses of our spiritual life is the inadequacy of our concept of Jesus Christ. By any standard of measure, Jesus Christ is the most important person who ever lived. Persons of another faith or persons of no faith must grant the veracity of that fact. Each December Christmas is celebrated – or ignored – around the world as the birthday of Jesus. Rarely, if at all, does Christmas come and go unnoticed. For much of the world, the season of Christmas is an economic engine that drives employment, strengthens commerce, and builds financial portfolios. Understanding the person of Christ or belief in him is often of secondary importance. What seems to be of primary importance are the Christmas parties and shopping before the day of Christmas and the exhaustion and debt that follows. Even at this level of engagement, Christ seems to be the great divide of people’s lives – anticipation prior to his birth and fatigue following.

For people of the Christian faith, the question of Jesus’ identity is most urgent for a vibrant religious experience. Some questions are not very important. That great preacher of another generation, Harry Emerson Fosdick is absolutely correct that few Christians concern themselves with the fate of the Jebusites in the Old Testament. Questions of the extraordinary length of life for some biblical characters may provide interesting debate or stir wonder but are really of little importance in the struggle to live faithful lives today. But the question Christ asks, “Who do people say the Human One is?” is important. To simply ignore the question – or not wrestle with it deeply – is to give an answer. It is an answer that something else matters more in your life than Jesus. The question is a dividing line. Either Jesus is acknowledged as central to a life-giving faith or Jesus is dismissed.

One answer to the question that is helpful is “Teacher.” This is a place of common agreement – Jesus was a teacher. Jesus did teach. He taught about the character of God, the nature of men and women, our struggle against pain and brokenness, and our responsibilities to one another. The Bible tells us that Jesus taught in small groups and to thousands. Jesus taught in the plains, upon mountains, and by the Sea of Galilee. He spoke plainly and he spoke in parables. Some of what he taught demonstrated uncommon insight and other lessons he shared had been heard before from other teachers. Though some said he was a gifted teacher, Jesus simply took his place in history among other gifted teachers. But, if Jesus had been a teacher and no more, it is quite reasonable to suspect that there would be no New Testament today or a church. To answer that Jesus was a teacher is inadequate.

A vibrant faith demands a deeper answer to the question, “Who do people say the Human One is?” That answer is provided by the Resurrection – Jesus Christ is the “Living Lord.” All of the New Testament points to the Resurrection or comments on how the course of human history has been altered by it. Those who wish to reduce the person of Jesus to “a good man” or “a gifted teacher” must toss out a good deal of the New Testament. It is the power of the Resurrection and the continuing presence of the risen Christ today that gives power to the Christian faith. We may not be able to explain this event, nor fully grasp its’ claim upon us, but we cannot escape that at the center of our faith is the declaration that Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. Death was no match for Jesus. This is the basic faith of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. And the risen Christ, as yesterday, calls each one of us to follow him. As we follow Jesus – however imperfectly – in the struggles of our own lives it is then that we learn more and more who he is.