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Friday, June 15, 2018

Overwhelmed?


“The night before Herod was going to bring Peter’s case forward, Peter was asleep between two soldiers and bound with two chains, with soldiers guarding the prison entrance.”
Acts 12:6 (Common English Bible)

           The late Pittsburgh astronomer, John Brasher, wrote his own epitaph: “I have loved the stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night.” What a beautiful and encouraging thought! As I have pondered those words it seems to me Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, could have written them. As Jesus’ disciple, Peter did not always live in the sunlight. Followers of Jesus rarely do. Peter’s ministry was not always filled with the brightness of success and victory. Peter knew darkness and despair. He knew times of trouble and tragedy. Here, in the twelfth chapter of Acts, we learn that King Herod has begun to make life difficult for the Christian Church. James, John’s brother, is killed with a sword. Then Herod has Peter arrested and placed in prison. Peter’s fate seems as certain as that of James. In Peter’s day – as is today – following Jesus demands considerable courage.

           What is remarkable is how this story unfolds. Chained inside the walls of a prison, with sixteen guards stationed on watch for a single man, Peter simply goes to sleep. At this very moment, the night could not have been darker for Peter. Yet, there is no evidence that Peter was fearful. Peter sleeps. The church of Jesus Christ is now under a most severe persecution and its continued existence seems doubtful. King Herod has found political favor among his constituency by destroying the lives of Christian leaders and – right or wrong – he continues simply because it is popular. The night is very dark for Peter; very dark for the church. Yet, Peter sleeps. But there is more in this story. While Peter sleeps, the church prays. When Peter and the church must have felt overwhelmed, the church holds onto hope.

           That day is not unlike today. On our streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our places of work, the prevailing mood of the day is, overwhelmed. The world today seems to be more complex, more massive, and difficulties more insurmountable than our individual and corporate memory can recall. The magnitude of the problems we face as a nation – particularly gun violence – leaves us exhausted and frightened. Everything now seems to be beyond the power of ordinary people and governments to solve or manage. It is night, and we have become fearful. Confronted with the overwhelming problems of today the question presses, is there hope?  

           In his book, Facing Death, Billy Graham shares a story about Donald Grey Barnhouse, one of America’s leading Bible teachers in the first half of the 20th century. Cancer took Barnhouse’s first wife, leaving him with three children all under twelve. The day of the funeral, Barnhouse and his children were driving to the service when a large truck passed them, casting a noticeable shadow across their car. Turning to his oldest daughter, who was staring sadly out the window, Barnhouse asked, “Tell me sweetheart, would you rather be run over by that truck or its shadow?” Looking curiously at her father, she replied, “By the shadow, I guess. It can’t hurt you.” Speaking to all his children, Barnhouse said, “Your mother has not been overridden by death, but by the shadow of death. That is nothing to fear.” Perhaps, this is a truth that Peter and the church understood. So Peter slept and the church prayed. Their witness strengthens us today.

Joy,

Friday, June 8, 2018

What Voice Shall I Follow?


“Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, ‘I’m here. You called me?’”
1 Samuel 3:6 (Common English Bible)

Here is a startling story of a young boy named Samuel who had trouble sleeping one night because of a voice that spoke to him from the darkness. Most of us know that story – a voice that comes to us in the darkness at that moment when we want nothing more than to sleep. The volume of the voice is usually immense. It is a clamorous tongue that disturbs the mind and stirs physical restlessness as we lay upon the mattress. For some, the voice that speaks addresses our personal finances, most often when our financial resources are running low and our commitments are racing in the opposite direction. For others, the voice reminds us of estranged relationships but offers no solutions for healing. Other voices that bombard the mind’s ear simply wish to generate anger at this or that political party and the absolute stupidity – or cruelty – of this or that policy out of Washington. Solutions rarely show-up in the darkness of the bedroom. Neither does sound sleep.

Here, young Samuel is lying down in the Lord’s temple. We know it is the night hour because fifteen verses later we are informed, “Samuel lay there until morning.” But Samuel will not sleep that night. Before his mind drifts off to restful sleep, Samuel hears a voice. It is the Lord’s voice but Samuel doesn’t know that – not in the beginning. He believes the voice belongs to his mentor, Eli. Three times Samuel hears the voice and three times Samuel disturbs Eli to inquire what it is Eli wants. It is the third time that Eli grows suspicious that this is more than Samuel’s imagination. Nor is Samuel simply hearing the whistle of the wind. Samuel is instructed to make inquiry if he hears the voice again; to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” And the voice does return.

This is precisely the point that Samuel makes a rather dramatic shift from simply jumping from his bed at the sound of a voice to careful listening. Samuel restrains his natural impulse to a quick response and practices alert and intentional discernment of the content of the voice that speaks. There is much all of us can learn from this simple act – pausing long enough to sincerely listen to the voice we hear, particularly if that voice is unsettling to us. What would happen in our nation if Republicans and Democrats where to exercise restrain from the vitriolic impulse they have for one another? Imagine the surprise if Evangelicals and liberals in the Christian church ever truly listened to one another. What might any of us discover in the darkness of the night if we calmly listened to all that unsettles us – personal finances, relationship difficulties, or concern for the health of those we love – and then, rather uncommonly, invited another voice to the conversation, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

At any moment of the day or night there are voices that clamor for our attention. Some voices long for an impulsive response from us, usually a response that multiplies anger and hurt and fears among those we know and love. Perhaps a voice asks from us indignation and puerile criticism of another point of view. The only contribution that voice makes is increased brokenness in an already broken world. Do not trust these voices. But Samuel’s story shows us another way. Eli counsels Samuel to “listen” rather than “jump” at the sound of the voice. If we listen, and listen with humility and civility and respect, what we will discover is that the voices that clamor for an impulsive response will scatter and one will remain. It will be the loveliest voice of all. It will be a voice that asks patience and love. Trust that voice. Ponder it. Respond to it. It will be then that you have in your heart neither doubt nor fear.

Joy,

Friday, May 25, 2018

Space Cowboy


“I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, 
blessing and curse before you. Now choose life - so that you and your descendants will live – 
by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him.”
Deuteronomy 30:19, 20a (Common English Bible)

           Occasionally I hear a song on the radio that is so raw, direct, and reflective that it grasps my heart and simply will not let go. Kacey Musgraves’ song, Space Cowboy, is the most recent addition to that canon of songs. Only two weeks ago did I hear this beautiful and haunting song on the radio and found that I was bound – heart, soul, and mind – by its lyrics. It simply would not let me go and I had not the slightest clue why. The basic narrative of the song is about finally letting go of a dying relationship and the deep sorrow that follows. Though heartbreak is deeply and powerfully infused in the lyrics, that narrative is not my narrative. In a few weeks I will celebrate thirty-one years of marriage and I have never stopped adoring my wife and finding imaginative ways of expressing my love for her.

           What was inevitable for me was the decision to download this song onto my IPhone and listen to it again and again, not understanding the inescapable hold it had on my imagination. This morning, during my morning run – and listening to this song again and again on the “repeat” mode – the mist of confusion scattered and with piercing clarity heard what my subconscious had heard all along: Musgraves’ words have become God’s word to me, “You look out the window while I look at you.” Several weeks ago I turned fifty-eight, and that birthday gave me pause to ponder just how much of my life has been frittered away looking “out the window,” longing for something more.

 It is difficult to appreciate and value a blessing you are standing right in the middle of when your gaze is out the window, wanting something else. And the whole time my focus is out that window, God’s focus is right on me, longing that I not let go of God’s claim on me; not letting go of God’s deep love for me. It is true that in my baptism I attached myself to God’s redemptive work in the world. But fundamentally, God demands less of me than what God desires to give me. But God’s gifts are inextricably bound to “obeying his voice, and by clinging to him.” Yet, God will not “close the gate” and “fence me in.” God sets before each of us the choice to “cling” to a deeply satisfying relationship with God or to pursue whatever it is we see out the window. 

Rarely do I watch the video of songs I enjoy. Nancy Fine, my colleague in ministry, suggested to me this morning that I watch this video. The final scene is the clincher for me: as the lyrics repeat, “You can have your space, cowboy. I ain’t gonna fence you in. Go on, ride away in your Silverado” the young cowboy in question rides away. Musgraves is bathed in the soft light of the remaining light of dusk while dark clouds appear and close-in all around the one who chooses to leave. The implication is clear: what is “out the window” lacks the beauty of what is left behind. Here, in these words from Deuteronomy, God already knows that and pleas with us, “Choose life, choose me, choose us.”

Joy,

Friday, May 18, 2018

God's Purpose. God's Call. God's Power


 “…so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. 
Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend.”
Isaiah 55:11 (Common English Bible)

           Reading the Bible, with a fresh and alert mind, impacts and stirs the reader in extraordinary and often unanticipated ways. Because the printed words belong to a real, present, and active God, the words are used imaginatively and purposefully, in a tailored fashion, for each individual reader. Reading the Bible is never a solo activity. God, in the Holy Spirit, is always present, accomplishing a purposeful work in the mind and heart of the individual who comes expectant to experience something new. When the mind is dull and expects little from reading the Bible, this dynamic and amazing power is absent. In my own engagement with the Bible each morning, I experience three reoccurring themes.

           First, the Bible reveals the purposefulness of God. Perhaps in no other place in scripture is this more clearly and directly presented than in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, verses 1-3: God promises to bless Abraham. But, with penetrating clarity, this blessing is ultimately for the purpose of blessing all of humanity. A blessing to all people, of all nations, is the bottom line of God’s promise to Abraham. God’s unfolding purpose may be too vast and, at times, imperceptible, to be grasped this side of the grave, but, at least, we are assured by the Bible that the world has been delivered from meaninglessness. With this knowledge, we can live quietly and confidently, trusting the care of the future to God.

           Second, the Bible reveals God’s call upon each person. Assuming a robust theological posture, the Apostle Paul declares in Ephesians 2:10 that we were, “…created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” Candidly, Paul corrects the notion that followers of Jesus Christ are to participate, here and there, in good work. No; good work, or doing good things, is to be our way of life. It is all part of God’s divine activity that our own lives be caught-up in the one grand purpose that God is continually unfolding in the world. Each person’s life is made integral to God’s resolve to gather the nations under the Lordship of his son, Jesus Christ.

           Third, the Bible reveals God’s power. God is not defeated. With panoramic vision, Paul captures the human condition in Romans 8: “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, we are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter. But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.” (Verses 35-37 CEB) Contrary to appearances, difficulties, hardships, and death will not defeat God and those who belong to God. Struggle will certainly manifest itself in every life. But at the end we will discover that our life has been guided and loved, and that disaster is over-ruled. More, we will find that nothing of value is lost.

Joy,

Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting Started With Jesus


“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice
is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock.”
Matthew 7:24 (Common English Bible)

           How does a person start to be a Christian? For many in the church, it is a startling question. It is startling because so little thought has been given to the question. Christianity has been reduced to joining a church, worshipping on Sunday morning when convenient, faithfully completing a financial pledge card once a year, and an occasional appearance at a congregational dinner. The notion that there is anything more escapes them. What also escapes such people is any vital relationship with Jesus Christ. And  a vital relationship with Jesus will remain absent until behind every conventional practice of faith a person goes directly to Jesus, listens to the teachings of Jesus, and puts those teachings into practice in their own life. A person gets started with being a Christian by endeavoring to live as Christ lived.

           Simply, being a Christian is something to be done. Christianity is not consent to a particular theological creed, belonging to a church that self-identifies as Christian, or practicing a set of rituals. Christianity is doing what Christ does. In every account of Jesus calling particular men to be his disciples something is absent; what is absent is a requirement of a theological education, or a seminar on the basics of the faith, or a new member class. The only thing that Jesus asks is, “Will you follow me?” We will never understand everything that the church teaches. And there may be some teachings that we understand but we simply cannot believe. Jesus doesn’t ask for either. Yesterday, and today, Jesus asks one thing: “Will you follow me?”

           In the second place, though we begin where we are – with little understanding of Jesus or no understanding of Jesus – we do not remain where we are. Following Jesus is a continuous journey of listening to all that Jesus teaches and appropriating what is understood into the daily practice of life. As this is done, each week, each month, and each year brings clearer insight and a deeper assurance of Christ’s presence and strength for our lives. Faith matures as the season changes from spring, to summer, to fall, to winter, and finally back to spring with all the new growth each new spring brings. As we pay increasing attention to Jesus, learn more from him, and think harder how to walk as Jesus walked, we make progress toward a more confident faith.

           Getting started with Jesus is not difficult. Remaining on the walk will be one of the most difficult challenges of life. That is because of all the distractions and temptations to walk a different path, a path that promises quicker satisfactions and pleasures. But what God already knows – and what many of us discover by our own experience – is that every other path ends with disappointment and loss. But strength is available to those who wish to remain on the path of Jesus. That strength is found in the daily reading of the Bible, regular prayer, and the use of helpful devotional material prepared by trusted followers of Jesus Christ. By these resources our confidence in God, in Jesus Christ, and the available help of the Holy Spirit grows upon us.

Joy,

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Missing Factor In Our Faith


“This has happened because of the Lord; it is astounding in our sight!”
Psalm 118:23 (Common English Bible)

           Many who occupy a seat in Sunday’s worship have a reduced faith. They have given intellectual consent to the Christian ideas that they have received, either from their family, a loved one, or the persuasive witness of another. Perhaps they concur that the Christian church is a useful, necessary institution for the general well being of a community and should be supported. Some may vigorously advance the argument that the world would be a better place if more people embraced basic Christian values. Yet, many of these same people would be immensely surprised if they ever caught God doing anything. The God of their faith is one who sits in heaven and does nothing. Expectancy of God actually moving and working powerfully in the world is the missing factor of their faith.

           Not so with the writer of these few words from the Psalms. Doubtless, this writer believes that God acts in the world. What we know is that something happened, that God seems to be the only explanation, and that it was astounding. No longer is God a mere object of belief, God is someone to be experienced; experienced as a force operative in the world. We are not told what happened. What we do know is that it changed this persons’ whole complexion of faith. This vital sense of the reality of God – and God’s activity in the world – presents a striking contrast with much of the faith that is common today.

           Some years ago a popular television program, The A-Team, developed a fictional narrative of four Vietnam vets, framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Each weekly episode featured an elaborate – an unlikely – collaboration of the four helping the innocent while on the run from the military. Following the always heroic and successful effort of the four to correct an injustice, Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of the team, would lean back with a lit cigar, smile, and say, “I love it when a plan comes together!” That must have been the experience of the Psalmist when something always believed in suddenly works. There was a present difficulty, and God showed-up!

           Of course, astounding things are supposed to happen. We are not alone in the world, watched over by a disinterested God seated in heaven. Whatever else God may be, the Bible is clear that God is a spiritual force waiting to be released through the lives of those who believe, who are expectant of God’s activity, and are daily aligning their lives with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Perhaps nothing is more profoundly absurd than the Christian who professes belief in a great God but fails to expect astounding results from that belief. The Psalmist experience can be our own. It begins with expectant prayer, eyes wide-open for the astounding things God will do with us and through us.

Joy,


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Taking Jesus Seriously


“When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘
Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!’”
Luke 5:8 (Common English Bible)

             Recently, I began working with a personal trainer after nearly five years of absence from a gym. Stepping into the gym I saw muscle tone where I lacked muscle tone. I saw the absence of fat where I had much. Here were women and men, of all ages, in nearly perfect physical form, radiant, confident, full of energy. I nearly turned and walked out the door. The comparison of these Olympian-like gods and goddesses to my aging, late 50’s body disheartened me. Each person in the gym that morning disturbed me. I did not belong to this community. I cannot rise to that. Instinctively, I wanted to escape their company.

             Luke’s Gospel tells us that this was precisely Simon Peter’s response when it dawned upon his consciousness who Jesus was, “…he (Peter) fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!’” Peter had come to know Jesus, welcomed Jesus as a guest in his home, and was welcomed by Jesus into discipleship. But, it was after Peter began to see the kind of person Jesus was, and the astonishing work Jesus did, that Peter realized – in both a stark and unsettlingly manner – that Peter stood in extraordinary company. Peter wasn’t simply in the presence of a god-like individual. Peter was in the presence of God!

             Simon Peter was right - right to understand so clearly and profoundly that satisfied admiration, adoration, and worship are insufficient in the reality of the divine presence of God. From the depths of Peter’s whole being was released a cry, “Leave me, Lord.” The divine presence disturbed Peter. He did not belong on that scale of life. Peter could not rise to that. Instinctively, Peter looked for an escape. Peter took Jesus seriously.

             Many people have pretty much reduced their Christianity to an admiration of Jesus. Such a response is easy, and natural. Yet, that is all the Christianity they have – admiration. But that is not enough. To truly grasp the divine presence is unsettling. It is to become aware of just how far we are from that measure of life. And, unable to rise, we seek an escape. After approximately seven sessions with my personal trainer, Bill, he asked me to perform a chin-up. I could not. Not one. Again, I wanted to escape. And then Bill spoke, “I’ll get you there.” And it was enough to remain, struggling to become more. Jesus did the same for Peter, “Don’t be afraid.” It was Jesus promising Peter, “I’ll get you there!” That day, Peter left everything and followed Jesus.

Joy,