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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Finding Calm in the Tumult


“Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, 
it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints.”
1 Corinthians 13:4,5 (Common English Bible)

An annual childhood tradition that comes to mind, whenever I read this passage of scripture, is the Atlanta Boat Show. Naturally, as is true with boat shows today, this was an opportunity for manufacturers to exhibit new boats and related products and advance boating as a recreational pursuit. The entire, weeklong event was designed to be attractive to all ages, particularly families with young children. Plastic toy boats and other brightly colored toys were plentiful, all free in the sixties and early seventies, to ensure that children would not become bored as vendors sought to seduce the parents into making a major purchase. Inexpensive and tasty food was plentiful and various recreational activities ensured that this annual event was one not to be missed. My brother, Wayne and I marked our calendars each year for this event.

The one activity Wayne and I looked forward to the most was trout fishing. A rather large, artificial pond was placed inside the exhibit center filled with hungry trout. If you have ever experienced an Alaskan wild salmon run from June through September, you get the picture. You could not drop a fishing line without hitting a trout. And that was the point. For a nominal fee, children could trout fish with a virtual guarantee of a successful catch. That is precisely why this passage from 1 Corinthians reminds me of the Atlanta Boat Show – or specifically, trout fishing at that event; the passage is rich with wisdom and truth. Drop a line anywhere in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians and you are going to catch something.

There is present today, in our nation, political disagreements that have risen to an unhealthy state – one where the strains and tensions easily throw us into emotional turmoil and which are inevitably fatal to our peace of mind. Each of us is easily upset and friendships, once seemly located on solid ground, seem fragile. Quite simply, we all seem to have become irritable. How, in this trying political climate, can we recover our emotional poise? Is it possible to recover a sense of personal calm in the present tumult? Located in this passage is our pathway. Here, we are asked to change the conversation, to recall our baptism that is placed squarely in the love of Jesus Christ. Politically, we may disagree. Yet, in our baptism we find common ground in the Lordship of Jesus – a Lordship that calls us to withdraw from the noise and tension of daily life and focus our energies on acts of worship and prayer.

The phrase, “it isn’t irritable”, is not offered as a command. It is identified as the natural consequence of turning our hearts and mind and will to Jesus, surrendering all our desires to knowing Jesus and providing our life as a channel for Jesus’ love to flow into all our relationships. Angst and anger in the present political climate of our country is the result of living in a miserably restricted area surrounded only by our own feelings of what is right and protecting our own interest. The natural result is irritability when others disagree – when others live in a different, but equally miserable, restricted area. 1 Corinthians 13 asks that we prevent our world from becoming small by cleaving to Christ, by focusing our thoughts on the deep center of our baptism – the love of Jesus. As we move to that deep center God will restore calm in the midst of tumult.

Joy,





Friday, October 5, 2018

Our Failure With Prayer


“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, 
Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”
Mark 1:35 (Common English Bible)

            A little boy once explained to his minister that he didn’t say his prayers every night because “some nights I don’t want anything.” Many of us are like that little boy. Our view of prayer is a limited one, reduced to asking God for something. Certainly, Jesus invited us to take our request to God in prayer. But that is not all Jesus taught – or demonstrated in his own life – about the subject of prayer. The consequence of an inadequate understanding of prayer is felt in our own lack of spiritual power. We are troubled by doubt, by fear, and by a sense of weakness to make any real difference in a world of brokenness and need. We miss much of the strength God would provide us through a more expansive understanding – and practice – of prayer.

            In this teaching from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had just finished a hard, demanding day meeting the needs of numerous people. Another awaited him. How could Jesus be ready for it? The answer is right here in this one sentence of scripture; “Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” Conspicuously absent is any record of the content of Jesus’ prayer. In other prayers that Jesus offered, we are told the substance of the prayer. Perhaps the most familiar prayer is the one Jesus offered the night he was betrayed by Judas, arrested, and placed on trial during the night. It is a prayer that is familiar because we have offered it so often ourselves: “Take this suffering from me.” But here, in this account of Jesus at prayer, we are not allowed in on the conversation. All we know is that Jesus got up early in the morning to be alone with God.

            This little verse teaches more about prayer than most realize. Rather than distract us with the actual dialog between Jesus and God, we are left only with the fact that it was important to Jesus to be alone with God. Before another day of ministry, before another day of addressing the great need of the world, Jesus addressed his own need to be alone with God. Regular time alone with God was the source of Jesus’ incredible spiritual power. Here, Jesus teaches us that prayer is more than our formal presentation to God of our various needs. Prayer is a demonstration of a life that is lived with God. Our failure with prayer is that we have reduced prayer to asking rather than understanding that prayer is a real and vital relationship with the divine.

            Mark has one additional insight on the wisdom of prayer before we leave this story. Moving the narrative quickly along, we are told that Simon and the other disciples tracked Jesus down, told Jesus that other people, with their various needs, have gathered looking for Jesus, and that Jesus surprises the disciples by announcing that he is going in the other direction. What is apparent is that time alone with God in prayer supplied Jesus with more than spiritual power. Prayer infused Jesus with fresh clarity and focus upon God’s intention for Jesus. Jesus was now to go to the nearby villages so that he may preach there also. “That’s why I’ve come,” Jesus declared. It is easy to respond to the “asks” of those around us, people asking us to meet their needs. It is the greater wisdom to discern God’s intention for us, in prayer, and to respond faithfully. 

Joy,

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What We Might Be


“But in the days to come…”
Micah 4:1 (Common English Bible)

            Some years ago I was sharing lunch with my mother in Irving, Texas. A woman seated at a nearby table looked at me, grabbed a notepad from her purse, and approached me, “May I have your autograph?” I inquired of her who she thought I was. She named a football player with the New York Giants and, apparently, she was a huge fan. Naturally, I politely told her my name and that I was a Presbyterian pastor serving a congregation right there in Irving. She refused to believe me. With anger and frustration all mingled together in one burst of emotion, she answered, “If you don’t want to give autographs, say so!” and returned to her meal.  She saw something in me that I was not – and never will be. And, I fear, I have cost a Giants player one of his fans.

            God does something similar. God doesn’t mistaken our identity, as the woman in Irving, but God does see in us something so much more than is presently true. With a forward-looking eye, God sees what we might become.  Think of a teacher that goes into a classroom, a class of girls and boys. The teacher lifts his or her eyes away from the present to see women and men. The best teachers understand that, in a sense, they are architects and builders of the people those children will become. It is the teacher’s vision of “what might be” that directs every moment spent with the children. The vision is active in the present, shaping, and molding, and encouraging children to something more.  Yet, for the future to be claimed, each child must be a willing participant in the process of learning. In Jesus Christ, God shares God’s vision for what we might become. It is a work completed by the Holy Spirit as we willingly participate by paying attention to God.

            Our encouragement comes from the rich examples in the Old and New Testament – examples of God’s uncommon work in common people. Moses had a speech impediment but would stand before a king and demand that the people of Israel be set free from their bondage in Egypt. David, a shepherd boy tending sheep, would defeat a Philistine giant, Goliath, rescuing Israel from an enemy. Simon, a name that means hearer,  or one who simply hears, would have his name changed by Jesus to Peter, a rock, upon which Jesus would build his church. And a woman of sin – an outcast child of the city – would be addressed by Jesus as “daughter” and spoken to as if she had already entered the future as an heir to God’s promises. Each story nudges us to come to our present, filled with difficulties and struggle, with a vision of the future, a glimpse of what might be.

            Here, in this brief passage, the prophet Micah lifts his eyes away from the present to the days that are to come. By holding clearly before him God’s promise of more, Micah finds refreshment in the present difficulty. Without the joyful anticipation of something more to come, without the conviction that the God who worked uncommonly in common people in the past continues the same today, Micah would lose his capacity to hold-on, and the spirit of striving would go out of his work. Our vision of the future always determines the behavior and attitudes that we bring to the present. Our dominant thought and hope regulates how we go about our responsibilities today. It is wise to ask what vision pulls us forward? What future do we have in mind? What do we see as the possible consummation of our present work? It is not enough to know what we are doing today. We must draw so close to God that we capture a glimpse of what we are working for – for a glimpse of what we might be.

Joy,

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Human Touch


“Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do want to. Be clean.’”
Mark 1:41 (Common English Bible)

A provocative cartoon has recently circulated on social media that depicts an elderly woman arriving for worship. She approaches “her” seat in the sanctuary, touches a young man seated with his family on the shoulder and says, “I understand you are newcomers. Welcome. So glad you’re here. Oh, by the way, you’re in my pew.” The cartoon is unsettling for those who have worshiped regularly for some time. We have seen it. For some, it was their shoulder that was touched. Any sincerity of welcome dissipates when the woman makes it all about her – and her one desire to have her seat returned. It is an all too common narrative, placing oneself before others.

Here, in this unfolding drama in Mark’s Gospel, a leper thrusts himself into this narrative – a me first approach to life – and asks if Jesus would write another narrative, one that places others before self: “If you want, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40b) What must the leper have felt? All he desired is a cure for his skin disease. Because of his disease he was an outcast. When he was outdoors, he was feared and shunned by everyone. Whenever he came within close proximity of others he was required to cover his face with a cloth and cry, “unclean,” so that no one came closer to him and risked infection. It was self-imposed isolation – or isolation required by religious law, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

There is good news in this story. Jesus ignored the conventional taboo of remaining at a distance from such people, went right up to him, touched him and released love and healing into the man. Jesus’ gesture was instinctive, gracious, and spontaneous. It was the natural expression of someone who lived in an alternative narrative that placed others first. It was of no concern to Jesus what others may think of him. The result was that the man’s isolation was dismantled and health restored. I imagine that every time this man told his story – and Mark tells us that he “started talking freely and spreading the news” – he would bring the story to a climax by saying, “He touched me!”

Jesus wrote a different narrative in this encounter with human need. Entering swiftly and readily into the midst of people’s joy and sorrows, Jesus provided the world with an alternative way to live. Rather than keeping people at arm’s length, perhaps justifying this response that their misery is their fault or the result of poor choices, Jesus welcomed people with warmth and affection – particularly those who had great need. Whenever Jesus confronted misery, illness, and loneliness, his heart grew larger. Jesus asks those who would follow him to do the same. Today we have conquered distance and now travel the world with considerable ease. What remains, Jesus teaches, is that we close the distance we have between one another.

Joy,

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Struggle to Doubt


“I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own, that we’re not able to direct our paths.’
Jeremiah 10:23 (Common English Bible)

My earliest memory of doubting God was as a young child. I received as a birthday gift a beautiful, leather-bound Bible. I had graduated from a children’s Bible to a “real” Bible that was a joy to hold in my hand – the rich, supple, black leather with a genuine silk bookmark attached in the binding. The elegant pages were gilded with gold and the absence of pictures was, for me, the mark of a mature Bible. Continually, my brother, Wayne, and I heard from our parents that God’s strength was their strength for daily living. Accepting my parents’ faith as my own did not require any intentional decision from me. My belief in God was more organic, as I believe is true for most children living in a Christian home. Belief was a natural part of life – a life wrapped in demonstrations of trust in a loving God by parents who, for the most part, were happy. God was spoken of as a powerful force that has, in Jesus Christ, intruded our lives with powerful love and care.

Then, one evening my parents came home with a puppy – a collie. Until he was housebroken, the puppy would be kept in a large cardboard box during the night. Even now I wonder if portable, home kennels were available in the late sixties. If they were available, why did we settle for a cardboard box? None-the-less, the cardboard box proved to be a poor choice during the first night. The new addition to our family tipped over the box and had a delightful romp of the house. And, as any dog owner knows, puppies love to chew. That night, the chew toy of choice was my new, leather bound Bible. I was devastated. More, I experienced doubt in the existence of an all-powerful God. Certainly, if God was real, God would have protected God’s Holy Word to us from being consumed by a puppy! Everything my parents had built their life on seemed to be crumbling.

Yet, my first round with the experience of doubt in God quickly became a struggle. My parents’ faith remained unshaken. More, my father – a layperson – began taking me with him as he visited members of the church, members experiencing devastating loss of one kind or another, to read scripture to them, and pray with them, and love them. Even as a child – or because I was a child – I could clearly see hope returning in their eyes. Something greater than my father’s presence and spoken words was happening in each home we visited. I had no answer to why God would allow a mere puppy to feast on God’s beautifully bound word. But God kept showing-up in my parents’ life and the lives of those they loved in the name of Jesus Christ. I remained angry for longer than I should have about that chewed Bible. But doubting God became a burdensome struggle.

Thoughtful people today are pondering the significance of what is happening across the world. Time-honored political alliances are crumbling, terrorist organizations are multiplying, and the threat of nuclear war is once again disturbing our hopes for peace. Faith in God is now being asked to do some heavy-lifting. An increasing number of people now look at the appalling amount of evil in the world and question how such things can be reconciled with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah has something of value to add to this conundrum: “I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own, that we’re not able to direct our paths.” Simply, we are not in charge. We may have certain expectations of how God should be at work in the world, like preventing puppies from making a chew-toy out of a leather Bible, but that is not ours to direct. God was God before us, is God now, and will be God tomorrow. So, it becomes a matter of where we direct our focus. Direct your gaze toward all the evil, and hurt, and destruction in the world, and doubt wells-up. Direct your gaze upon the eyes of those who are loved by Christians, in the midst of difficulties, and doubt struggles.

Joy,

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I Don't Remember Me (Before You)


“These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.”
Philippians 3:7 (Common English Bible)

           TJ and John Osborne, brothers, grew up playing music together in Deale, Maryland. Following their move to Nashville they joined together as a vocal duo to become Brothers Osborne. Their most recent album, Port Saint Joe includes a rather nostalgic track, I Don’t Remember Me (Before You). Widely considered one of the deepest tracks on the album, the song speaks to the man who can’t remember – or maybe doesn’t want to remember – what his life was like before he met the love of his life: “I heard I was a wild one. I feel like a child, son. But I really don’t recall.” And a few lines later, “I’ve seen pictures. And I’ve heard stories ‘bout the boy I used to be. But I don’t remember me.” The song is a bold declaration that once he fell in love with another he wanted to grow up and change his ways for the better. Now, looking back, he is unable to recognize the man he was before.

           A similar tune plays in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi, the Book of Philippians. The letter is Paul’s declaration of his love for Jesus Christ. Near the middle of this letter Paul recalls the man he used to be before Christ: a man of considerable stature in the Jewish faith, garnering wide respect from others for his faithful, and rigid, observance of the Jewish law – a Pharisee par excellence! More, Paul confesses to being somewhat of a braggart, “With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” (Verse 3:6b) Unlike the man in the Brothers Osborne track, Paul remembers his former self with great clarity. But then everything changed for Paul. He fell in love with Jesus. Now Paul looks back upon who he was before Jesus entered his life and determines that he was a foolish man – a man that valued the wrong things. What Paul once regarded as assets are now written off as a loss.

           It is important for Paul to share with his readers his credentials before becoming a follower of Jesus. His resume sparkles and he dares anyone to present credentials that are more impressive. Paul doesn’t embrace Jesus as someone who had nothing – or nothing to lose. Through the optics of what the world regards as of great value, Paul had it all. Paul had built an enviable life and reputation. Paul held “assets” that other people only dreamed of having. In possession of all anyone could have wanted Paul is invited into a relationship with Jesus. Now Paul has discovered the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. What he once considered assets no longer has any value. Paul’s point could not be clearer. The reader is in possession of nothing that is of more value than knowing Jesus.

           Brothers Osborne song begins with the question, “Did I stop and watch the sunset fade? What gave me life and took my breath away?” These are questions that diminishes the value of a life lived before falling in love. TJ and John Osborne advance that very point later in the song, “Was my heart beatin’ in my chest? Was I even alive?” Paul confesses to as much in his letter to the Church in Philippi, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.” (Verse 3:9) Before Christ, all Paul thought he possessed had been simply an illusion. Now Paul sings another tune, “I’ve heard stories ‘bout the boy I used to be. But that was before you, before you.”

Joy,

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Hearing God


“Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”
Acts 16:10 (Common English Bible)

           In the movie, Bruce Almighty, Bruce (Jim Carey) is a reporter who made a fool of himself on a local news network, lost his job, was attacked on the street, and had an emotional blow-up with his girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston). His world is falling apart. Bruce takes a midnight ride to clear his head and begins a pleading conversation with God, “Okay, God, you want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what’s going on. What should I do? Give me a signal.” If we are honest, it is a conversation each of us have had with God at some juncture in our life. Life presses in on us, detours replace a steady movement forward, and discouragement draws close. C. S. Lewis once remarked that if the devil was allowed to choose only one tool to overtake a woman or a man it would be the power to discourage people.

           In our teaching from the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul is having a Bruce Almighty experience. Paul and his companions have laid-out a straight path to Bithynia to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally, anyone would think that God would have blessed the noble intentions to have the Gospel proclaimed in Bithynia – or anywhere for that matter. Yet, as Paul, and those traveling with him, approached Bithynia, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them enter. They were forced to take a detour instead. Their best intentions interrupted, they went down to Troas rather than enter Bithynia. One might imagine Paul taking a midnight ride to clear his head and having a pleading conversation with God: “Okay God, I’m doing this for you! Tell me what’s going on. What should I do?”

           The Bible is silent here. We are not told what Paul’s thoughts are or if there is a conversation with God. Perhaps that is intentional. No one can speak and listen at the same time – not effectively anyway. It just may be that the absence of any conversation between Paul and God is what the Bible wants us to notice. Paul isn’t speaking to God – or railing against God – because Paul is listening for God. We are simply told that Paul goes to Troas when his plans are interrupted. Then, during the night, Paul receives a vision of a man from Macedonia, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Had Paul been railing against God, as Bruce Almighty railed against God, he would have missed the vision. No one sees clearly or hears plainly when they are complaining. Paul demonstrates the spiritual value of silence, stillness, and listening for God.

           As Bruce Almighty vents his rage against God, a glowing road construction sign, directly in front of him, flashes: “Caution Ahead.” But Bruce doesn’t notice. “I need your guidance, Lord,” he begs, “please send me a sign.” Immediately a large road-crew truck pulls in front of him. The back of the truck is filled with street signs in plain view: “Stop.” “Dead End.” “Wrong Way.” “Do Not Enter.” Yet, Bruce is oblivious to every sign. Bruce continues to plea with God, “Lord, I need a miracle. I’m desperate. I need your help, Lord.” Failure to pay attention to what is right before him, Bruce loses control of his car, spins off the road, and rams into a lamp post. Bruce jumps from his mangled car and continues to rail against God, never noticing that God was answering Bruce with every construction sign. The difficulty for Bruce, it becomes apparent, is that he never learned the value of silence, stillness, and listening for God.

Joy,