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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Struggle to Believe

“I have faith; help my lack of faith!”
Mark 9:24 (Common English Bible)

     Many who sincerely want to believe in God find believing to be difficult. Faith rarely comes easily. The only way it does come is when we accept where we are on our faith journey and go on from there. Longing to be someplace else along the journey accomplishes nothing, apart from frustration.

     At the beginning of a new year we cannot say I wish I was fifteen pounds less before beginning a New Year’s resolution of a healthier lifestyle. Eating better, exercising more and getting more rest must begin where you are. That is what the unidentified man in this story from Mark’s Gospel teaches us; we must begin where we are, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” He begins from where he is. Within him is a mixture of belief and unbelief. He owns that when he speaks to Jesus.

     Each day we may know a little more of God. We can never know all of God. But instead of being occupied with what we don’t know we can say, “help me with my unbelief.” The man in our story approaches Jesus with both belief and unbelief. Rather than dwelling upon what he doesn’t know - or being troubled by what he doesn’t understand - he seeks Jesus’ help. There is present enough faith to seek more of Jesus. This is a more helpful approach to faith than those who claim they will not believe until they understand fully.

     The Christian faith is not established upon right beliefs, right doctrine, or on how much someone believes. The Christian faith is personal, centered upon the person of Jesus. Here, this man in Mark’s story instructs us that often we approach faith incorrectly. Rather than trying to understand all the mystery that is God, this man seeks out the person of Jesus; he seeks a relationship. To concentrate on what you don’t understand will destroy whatever faith you have. Accepting God’s love in the person of Jesus and making your love for him tangible in each day of life results in a faith that will grow from more to more.

Joy,

Friday, December 19, 2014

I Will Follow You

“I will follow you, Lord, but first…”
Luke 9:61 (Common English Bible)

      There are great powers at work in the world today and each one seeks to lay claim to our hopes, dreams, and desires. One originates in the early pages of the Bible, the power of mistrust sown by Satan into the hearts of Adam and Eve. This is a power that generates fear that we are alone and defenseless. Permitted to claim the hearts of women and men, this power happily stirs selfishness and meanness. People mobilize resources to protect themselves from harm and from thief.  Scarcity of the good things of life is feared crushing generosity.

     Another is seen in those religious leaders who are determined to foist upon anyone and everyone their own particular view of living obediently and righteously. We meet them in the pages of the Bible as the Pharisees and Sadducees. Today they are experienced in the fist and sword of religious extremists around the world. Infidel, meaning unbeliever, is the favored description given to those who refuse to believe as they believe. Its use is more than a descriptor of one who doesn’t believe; often it is used to declare hatred.   

     A third power may be called an invitation; the invitation that comes down from heaven. This power also lays constant claim upon men and women. Yet, unlike the first two mentioned above, this power does not manipulate or coerce. It is embodied in a person, the person of Jesus and moves toward us with empathy, concern and love. It does not impose but always calls to us to a place where our burdens may be shouldered by almighty God. It is a power that seeks not to control but to give release from the struggles of guilt, shame and despair. True, it is a power that demands all we are and have, not for God’s sake but, rather, to set us free from the weight of concern and worry. This power calls us to find our ultimate treasure in living for something greater than us.

     Jesus issues the invitation. It is an invitation to follow him and trust in his care and love. Each day the invitation is fresh and waits our response. If the answer is, “but first…” it may be that we are held captive to another power. Such an answer is to offer only a fraction of our devotion. It is an indication that our life is off-center and there is soul work to be done. Christ never seeks only a part of us – or a delay to give ourselves completely. Christ’s invitation is a call to a passion, an enthusiasm, and a consuming zeal that directs all of our energy and desires to live in such a way the world calls us mad. But it is a call that leads to an experience of such love that our lives are changed and we discover all our fears and worry has been scattered.

Joy,

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Paul's Response

Paul responded, “Whether it is a short or a long time, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today will become like me, except for these chains.”
Acts 26:29 (Common English Bible)

     The apostle Paul is in chains. He is a prisoner, arrested for preaching Christ. Now he stands before King Herod Agrippa II, perhaps the most ruthless king since Herod the Great. Paul is on display, really. The Roman governor, Festus is playing host to the King for a state dinner. The two of them are talking and Festus mentions to King Agrippa that he has in custody a rather interesting prisoner. So Agrippa says, “I want to hear the man myself.” Paul, brought from his prison cell, stands before the political leadership of the day, people of considerable power. Some would see this as a frightening moment. Paul sees a congregation, and true to his calling, preaches Jesus Christ.

      This is a most extraordinary moment in the history of the church. Where others would see the majestic robes of governors and kings, the gleaming jewels, and the power of “the Establishment” Paul saw human beings. More, Paul saw potential disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather than an experience of awe or of intimidation, Paul’s eyes observed opportunity. So Paul preaches.

      Careful attention to this story teaches the church several important lessons for our own ministry of sharing the Gospel. First, Paul is a careful observer of his context; he has an eye for his audience. So he didn’t launch into a presentation of the Gospel right away. He didn’t blurt out his testimony without regard for who he was speaking to. Nor did he forget that he was a prisoner, brought to stand before the authorities in his chains. So he begins with the due respect for the governor and King. He offers a complement to the King, “You understand well all the Jewish customs and controversies.” Yet, before the governor and King could brace themselves, Paul launches into the story of his encounter with Jesus and his subsequent faith. 

      The second lesson Paul offers here is that anyone – absolutely anyone without exception - is a potential disciple of Jesus! Does the church believe that today? A close attention to the conversation of many in the church today reveals the prevailing attitude that only a fraction of those living around us can be considered potential members of the Church of Christ. Many are simply “written-off” because they are the wrong demographic or “not our type.” Paul’s witness calls the modern church to end this club mentality and recognize that Christ’s invitation is to all people.

     Hope for a fresh vitality in the church is found in this one chapter from the Book of Acts. That vitality begins with a renewed and personal loyalty to the person of Jesus Christ. By some act of will, each person must say in the depth of their hearts “My Lord and my God.” This confession, deeply felt, results in the compulsion to communicate that confession to others. Such a compulsion does not discriminate. The confession is offered without hesitation. The process of a compelling witness begins, and continues with a personal and positive response to Jesus’ love, power and presence. Vitality will accept nothing less.

Joy,    

Friday, December 5, 2014

On the Road

“Commit your way to the Lord!”
Psalm 37:5 (Common English Bible)

     Perhaps there is no more familiar image in the Bible than the image of the road. We encounter it everywhere. From end to end in the Bible our life is compared to a journey – a journey that is rarely direct or easy. Along any journey circumstances change often requiring a change in how we move toward our destination.

     The people of Israel leave their captivity in Egypt and travel toward their own land. But fearing that difficulties along the journey would result in the people becoming fearful and turning back, God leads the people not by the shorter route but in a roundabout way of the Reed Sea desert (Exodus 13:17, 18).

     After the magi have honored the new born baby, Jesus, they return to their own country “by another route” having been warned in a dream (Matthew 2:12).

     Saul, on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians who are living there encounters Christ and not only experience a conversion to the Christian faith but his name is changed to Paul (Acts 9).

     Means of travel along the road is different today than in biblical days but what remains the same is the unexpected. Illnesses, loss of a spouse or close friend, career change or any number of unplanned circumstances position themselves along the journey each demanding a change of course. Life is filled with complexity and progress becomes slow. We are not surprised that Israel might have become discouraged on the road to God’s Promised Land. Obstacles along the way can do that.

     But pay attention to the “road stories” in the Bible. Though the pace and direction of the journey had to be adjusted according to each unique circumstances God always remained on the road with God’s people. Those who trust in the Lord never travel alone. The ability to adjust to changing circumstances and obstacles is vital to moving forward successfully. It is committing our way to the Lord and trusting in God that holds us steady until we have arrived at our destination.

Joy,

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

God's Whisper

“Look here! Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong.
If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now
by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments,
his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive,
 and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
Deuteronomy 30:15, 16 (Common English Bible)

     The beaches of Palm Beach County are some of the most densely nested by sea turtles in the United States. Sea turtles can be found in our waters year round, but in the spring and summer, large numbers of adults populate our beaches for laying eggs. Nesting generally begins in early March, usually leatherback turtles, with loggerheads arriving in significant numbers in May. Nesting continues into August and early September with hatchings of small sea turtles continuing through late October. 

     This is a familiar ritual for south Florida residents and tourist to our area. The female sea turtle crawls ashore during the cover of night to dig a nest, deposit her eggs, cover the nest and return to the water. It is this time that the female is out of the water that she is timid and vulnerable and can easily be frighten if disturbed causing her to abort the nesting process. One to three hours is required to lay approximately 110 ping pong ball-sized eggs. Trained staff and volunteers monitor our beaches each morning during sea turtle nesting season, identifying the nests and marking their location with yellow tape. Florida law protects the sea turtle - touching and disturbing nesting sea turtles is not permitted, including their hatchlings, and their nest.

     The laws that protect sea turtles exist for one reason – to preserve life. Many varieties of sea turtles are endangered. Demand for sea turtle meat, eggs, as well as loss of habitat, commercial fishing, and pollution of the seas have contributed to their decline. Artificial lighting along our beaches is also a contributing factor. When babies emerge from the eggs they instinctively move in the brightest direction. Nature provides the moonlight to call the baby turtles out to sea where they live their entire life. When artificial lighting along the beach is brighter than the moon, the sea turtles are drawn onto road surfaces where they are killed by cars.

     In this teaching from Deuteronomy we learn the one reason for God’s laws – to preserve our life. The most common assumption that is made is that disobedience to God’s laws results in God’s anger and punishment. That is not true. Simply, God’s laws are to us what the moonlight is to baby turtles: God knows which direction results in life and which direction results in death. God’s laws call us to live in such a way that the natural result is life. Ignoring these laws results in a natural consequence similar to what can happen when baby turtles go in the wrong direction and enter a busy road.  Freedom to choose our direction in life is a gift from God. Yet, that doesn’t stop God from whispering in our ears, choose life.

Joy,

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Don't Be Afraid

“Don’t be afraid,” Elisha said, “because there are more of us than there are of them.”
2 Kings 6:16 (Common English Bible)

     This week, the world was startled to learn that two Palestinians, armed with a gun, knives and axes, burst into a Jerusalem synagogue and murdered three rabbis and a fourth man during their morning prayer.  This outrageous act represents the kind of extremism that continues to destabilize the efforts toward peace and security for all of the Middle East. Yet, the world must never lose sight that for the majority of Palestinians and Israelis, peace is desired, prayed for and sought. As with any other people, those who make the Middle East their home wish simply to raise their families knowing they’re safe and secure. The difficulty is that these horrific acts, when they occur again and again, have the capacity diminish hope and shape a mood of pessimism and cynical expectations.

     Into the midst of this pessimism and cynical expectations the church has a word from the Lord, “Don’t be afraid.” Morale is the church’s business. As God’s people, the church must apply herself to the daunting task of reshaping our communities and unifying the public mood with an atmosphere that is hopeful. Never must the church permit people to wallow in dire despair or give free reign to expectations of disaster and experience of hopelessness and fear. Against the compulsion to panic the church is called to present another viewpoint, that of certainty and conviction in the active presence and work of God in the world.

     The world, in all of its brokenness, fear and anxiety, needs a theology of hope. Reservoirs of moral strength, genuine love and extravagant forgiveness is the gift the church received from the cross of Christ and it is the same gift that we are to distribute to every nation, to every people. It is at the very moment that terrible things happen that the church is surely called to instill again and again its confidence in the power of goodness, a goodness that springs forth from faith in God.  For only from this position of spiritual strength can people escape from utter despair and become caught up in compassion toward one another.

     If we are indeed God’s people, we are to play a part, however small, in bridging divisions and healing hurts. Perhaps our own contribution may be as simple as exercising civility, in speech and behavior, with those with whom we find disagreement. Rhetoric in our nation has become considerably more intense than most of us can ever remember. Our work, as God’s people, is now to cool our nation’s rhetoric and get on with building confidence once again in the immense spiritual strength that is available in God’s promise that “there are more of us than there are of them.”

Joy, 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The One Who Comforts Us

“He’s the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God.”
2 Corinthians 1:4 (Common English Bible)

     Captured in these words is one of the great secrets of life; if we are to help others effectively we must recall how God has helped us. Forgetfulness in the one direction breeds selfishness in the other. It is a keen sense of God’s mercy and comfort in our own lives that fills our hearts with the desire to share that same mercy and comfort to others. Through memory our own mercy and comfort is endowed with wise and intelligent sight.

     This truth suggests that where mercy and comfort is lacking in the heart there remains soul work to do. Selfishness – and lack of mercy - is often the manifestation of someone wounded by selfishness and uncaring behavior. Emotional defenses are built, the result being that the broad stream of comfort and expression of concern neither flow into or out of the heart. What is required is fresh attention to God; attention to the promises of God in scripture and prayer that the eyes of the heart may once again discern the active presence and work of God in the present. Remembering what the Lord has done for us teaches us what we ought to do for others. More, clarity of memory results in the compulsion to participate in God’s ministry of grace.

     How will you participate in this great avalanche of comfort and mercy today? What attitudes will you change or action will you take or prayer will you pray this week as you seek to love God and neighbor more deeply?  Who do you know that needs your words of comfort or demonstration of caring concern? The apostle Paul, the author of these words, asks that you first remember what God has done for you. It is then that God’s comfort and care will be multiplied by your response.

Joy,



Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Most Important Commandment

“’Which commandment is the most important of all?’
 Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen!
Our God is one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart,
 with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself.’”
 Mark 12:28b-31 (Common English Bible)

     The question, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” is telling, even indicting. The question discloses the human heart that continually seeks, with considerable eagerness, to advance in personal stature by right belief and acts of piety. It is a question that is less concerned for another. The concern is for self and doing all that is necessary to be held in high esteem by others. So, what is sought is an understanding of the rank and priority of scale of God’s laws. With this knowledge is the ability to focus behavior for maximum value in the sight of God – it is the striving for self-righteousness. Are we to do this first or the other?

     Of course, this isn’t the only place we see this condition of the human heart. Jesus addresses this on multiple occasions, most notability in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (verse 1).” Such behavior – or condition of the heart – misses the aim of God’s story. What God desires is “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”  Striving to please God by demonstrations of piety is devoid of any semblance of humility.

     God’s desire is not for sacrifices and human scrambling for an esteemed position among God’s people. Instead, God’s pleasure is dwelling with humanity and abiding together as God leads us into a deeper understanding and embrace of love – love for God and love for neighbor. More, God is more than a participant in this covenantal community; God is the prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant. The resurrection of Jesus marks the end of self-righteousness.

     Jesus’ answer to the question, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” is a call to unshackle ourselves from a faith that values right belief and outwards acts of piety over transformed hearts, lives, and communities. God’s concern is about life together, not one’s personal stature. Anything else marginalizes the central message and objective of Jesus – the call to right relationships – and imprisons once again the human heart in ceaseless striving to earn favor with God. Walk in love, teaches Jesus, and in this walk the truth of God’s Kingdom will have its finest witness.

Joy,

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Unbroken Communion

“If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. 
Therefore whether we live or die, we belong to God.” 
Romans 14:8 (Common English Bible)

     For many of us our religious life is a bundle of shreds and patches. There is an unmistakable change in our spirit and attitude when we move from our private devotions to the common affairs of the day. We leave something behind when we leave our time of solitude with God. We do not meet all of life in the presence of the unseen. The result is a faith that appears stitched-up so many times that we are embarrassed.

     Here, in this sentence from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Church, we are urged to clothe ourselves in another garment – to approach all of life in a conscious and all-controlling communion with God. This is a call to live in such a manner that when we pass from one thing to another, from one time of day to another, there is no change of atmosphere. It is to clothe ourselves with the conscious and intentional recognition that all of life is lived before God, that all of life is consecrated ground.

     God seeks unbroken communion with each of us. What that looks like is to face every moment of life, every matter that requires our attention, in the fellowship of an unseen friend. Everything is to be viewed in the light of God’s presence. It is this unfailing sense of God’s presence that makes life a continual Holy Space.

     “Burning bush” moments are those that are aflame with an unmistakable presence of God. Naturally, this expression is taken from the Old Testament when Moses was confronted by God in a bush that was engulfed in flames but not destroyed. Often they are welcomed moments by people of faith. Such moments provide confidence that we do not tread the complexities and difficulties of life alone. They are moments when God shows-up and by that holy presence, we are strengthened. Yet, the entire forest of our lives is not aflame with the glory of the Lord. Paul’s invitation here in Romans is to live every moment in ceaseless worship and experience the whole world as God’s Holy Temple.

Joy,   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Puzzle of Prayer

“We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers.”
1 Thessalonians 1:2 (Common English Bible)

     It is not unusual for someone to ask me, “Please pray for me.” Often my response is an invitation to immediate prayer. My desire is to take the request for prayer seriously. By praying with the person immediately, I wish to say that I care deeply about them and that I appreciate their confidence in the power of prayer. Recently, however, I have begun to question, “Just what do they expect from this prayer?” “Do they really believe my prayer to do any good?”

      Naturally, the Bible has much to say about prayer. What is often unrealized is just how frequently the mention of prayer in the Bible is one of complaint. The palmists, the prophets, Job and the apostle Paul often questioned the value of prayer, sometimes rather bluntly! Listen to a portion of Psalm 88, “But I cry out to you, Lord! My prayer meets you first thing in the morning! Why do you reject my very being, Lord? Why do you hide your face from me (verse 13, 14)?” It is clear that today’s church is not the first to question the usefulness of prayer.

      It is important – and helpful – to note, however, that in each complaint that is uttered there is present a fervent belief that something can be expected from prayer. Prayer is never given up on in the Bible, never dismissed as not of any use. What makes each of those who wrestle with prayer people of amazing stature is their absolute confidence in the power of prayer – power to disrupt at any moment the ordinary with the extraordinary. Without reserve or embarrassment each character in the Bible shared in the same compulsion to pray.

     I will freely share that I have no idea how prayer works. The question itself may be foolish simply because it strives to understand God. And someone once wisely declared that if we can ever grasp God then we must go looking for another God. Any God we can understand with our finite minds is simply too small to save us. What I am confident of is that God was very active in the drama recorded in the Bible and continues to be just as involved in the unfolding drama of life today. And God invites us, repeatedly, to seek the inflowing of God’s grace through regular prayer. Refusal to pray – even when prayer was questioned –simply was not an option for the people of faith in the Bible.

Joy,

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Silent Word

“Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.”
Luke 24:19 (Common English Bible)

     I was told this week that a member of the church I have served for better than two years somehow has the notion that the regular reading of the Bible isn’t important. They do read each day a devotional provided by the church and that devotional does have a sentence of scripture provided prior to each meditation – much like the one you are reading now. But that is all.  The Bible remains a closed book in their home. It is unimaginable that this person listens to me each week and concludes that reading the Bible is unimportant.

     The words you are reading now are human words. The words of the devotional mentioned above are human words. Certainly, I hope that these words are helpful in directing people to the one, Holy Word that is the Bible. It is my prayer that my words here each week provide some deeper insight and understanding to God’s Word. Yet, I submit, my words – or any human words – are not an adequate substitute for God’s Word recorded in the Bible. Only the Bible is capable of communicating “the silent word.”

     “The silent word” that I speak of here is that unspoken word that is heard in the heart. It is that word spoken by the Holy Spirit to convey the reality of God with an imagination and force that human words are incapable. It is a word that has uncommon resonance with the particulars of our daily life: the myriad little and large decisions that press for our attention each day. God certainly uses the stumbling human words of women and men to help convey the silent word of God’s kingdom. But it is God’s Word in the Bible that has a unique power to bring the silent word to life in our hearts. It is a word that ultimately silences our chatter and confronts us with the living word that is Christ.

     In this sentence of scripture from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is presented as a prophet that is powerful in deeds and words. The mighty deeds and the mighty words Jesus spoke were inseparable.  With considerable force, Luke seeks to be clear that Jesus’ words were not less important than Jesus’ deeds. When a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus for healing, his first act was the spoken word, “Your sins are forgiven.” Luke wants us to understand that when God’s Word is spoken - or read - the silent word finds lodgment in the human heart.  Sooner or later, that silent word accomplishes what no human word can, it conforms us to the image of Christ.

Joy,

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Cure for Care

“Don’t get upset over evildoers”
Psalm 37:1

     Here is a simple word of wisdom, “Don’t get upset over evildoers.” There are numerous reasons this counsel is wise; becoming upset rarely helps the situation, it often becomes a hindrance to what we truly desire and can lead us to a place of weakness rather than strength. Worse, becoming upset may lead to jealousy. Frequently, the climax of jealousy is behavior that is equal to the evildoer. What begins as a disturbed emotion finishes in behavior that is evil.

     Fortunately, the Psalms recognize that this is easier said than done. Rather than abandoning us to figure out how to appropriate this counsel into our daily lives, the Psalms offer a pathway. First, trust in the Lord and do what is right. The word here translated as “trust” is found elsewhere in the Old Testament as “careless.” Literally, then, we are directed to, “Be careless in the Lord.” Instead of carrying the burden of care – the care about what evildoers do – we are asked to let care be absent! God is powerfully at work in the world. When evildoers appear to have a favored position in the world they have not escaped God’s notice. Let the care, or burden about the evildoers behavior be God’s.

     Second, enjoy the Lord. What is spoken of here is a deep and abiding relationship with God that is similar to a rich, joy-filled relationship with a spouse. Those who set about with ardent purpose to discover that kind of relationship with God have little inclination to fret much about the behavior of evildoers. Yet, the majority of those who confess faith in God remain content with the occasional crumb that falls from the Lord’s Table; the sporadic attendance in worship, a prayer here and there and perhaps reaching for the Bible when our lives are disturbed. As with a spouse, this neglect of a relationship rarely leads to anything that truly satisfies. Let us be ambitious for a deeper relationship with the Lord – one where our experience is marked unmistakably with joy.

     Third, commit your way to the Lord. Any purpose, any ambition, any decision that must be made, Psalms invites us to commit it all to the Lord. Not merely when the way becomes difficult and we lose direction. From the beginning of each day we are asked to commit our thoughts, speech and decisions to God. God declares in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, that, “I am the Alpha” – the beginning. God likes to be there in the beginning of all that we do. The promise of the Bible is that with this kind of solidarity with God we receive a peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace that disarms worry and angst about what evildoers may be doing.

     Finally, be still before the Lord and wait for him. Having done all this, and with sincere purpose of heart and mind, trusting in the Lord, enjoying the Lord and committing your way to the Lord, the Psalms asks that we now just rest – to simply be still. This may be the most difficult for many of us. Waiting isn’t something that comes easily. Yet, integral to faith is the knowledge that life isn’t something to face alone, apart from God. Just as an effective leader hands off responsibility to others we are asked to refer some of life’s concerns to God.  This pathway, found in the first seven verses of this Psalm, is the cure for becoming upset with those who do evil.

Joy,        

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What Holds Us Together

“Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Galatians 6:2 (Common English Bible)

     We live today in a period of considerable religious upheaval. It is not the first time in our nation’s history. I doubt it will be the last. Entire congregations are now separating from denominations for another that more closely aligns with their particular theology and reading of the Bible. People are leaving particular churches and moving to others that are either more conservative or more liberal. Apparently they have made the decision that they cannot worship with those who may hear something else from the Lord. What is unfortunate in all this division is the failure to grasp that our common beliefs and our common challenge of declining church participation – and our common experience of God’s grace – is infinitely more important than the matters that divide us.

      Reversing the unfortunate decisions of separation may not be realistic however deeply we may cherish the idea of one visible and united Body of Christ. Rather large theological hurdles have been put into place. Yet, this sentence from Galatians does speak of an immediate summons to all Christian people to seek from God a common strength to confront a world that is rapidly discarding the most basic beliefs of our common confession. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. Therefore all Christians must exist for one another, in the apostle’s words, “Carry each other’s burdens.” Only by this will the larger church, “fulfill the law of Christ.”

     What is the law of Christ? Nothing could be plainer: “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) Here is Christ’s summons to slam the door on all recrimination and jealousy and bitterness toward one another and live for and not against one another. This present religious turmoil and spiritual angst demands it. With declining interest in the church now at a national scale, we simply cannot indulge in petty infighting and rivalry.

     This is not a request that the church abandon theological discussion and debate. Such conversation advances a robust faith. Each of us must speak our convictions as we discern God’s whisper. Yet, such convictions must be tempered with humility, the humility that acknowledges that there remains more truth to be heard by the church. Without ignoring our differences, the church must strive for a new spirit of understanding, sympathy and return to a deep spiritual communion with our Lord, the Head of the Church. Such a recovery of humility and civil discourse may prove to be a formidable force for bringing calm to the present spiritual storm. More, a distressed and confused generation may once again catch a glimpse of heaven and say together, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, and in his Son, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.”

Joy,

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Go To Church?

“All things are possible for the one who has faith.”
Mark 9:23 (Common English Bible)

     Why go to church? This is a question that is increasingly asked today. Decades ago there was a promise that as technology continued to advance, lifestyles would find increased time for leisure and rest. Technology has advanced – and continues at a blazing speed no one ever anticipated – but our lives have become more difficult, more stressed and terribly deficient of rest. Meaningful participation in church is simply “one more thing” in an already crowded life. Indeed, one may ask, why go to church?

     The best answer is that church will provide what is most urgently needed today, faith and hope and love. People are weary. With weariness comes fear and apprehension. Difficulties and problems result in many who live defeated lives. Meaningful participation in church and the practical application of the Christian faith has an enormous capacity to lighten our burdens, soothe our anxieties and order our lives. Those who go to church regularly discover a life that is better than they ever imagined. The reason, simply, is that through a pattern of living that applies the Christian faith, Christ takes-up residence in our lives.

     Many are not aware of this simple truth that Christ will come into their lives, into their hearts and into their minds if they simply ask him to. The answer for much that disturbs the human heart and mind today is simply the indwelling Christ. I have personally discovered Christ’s power to transform the individual by renewing confidence and hope in the future regardless of the present circumstances. Christ will guide us in the solution of our problems, whatever they may be.

     What do I mean by practical Christianity? I mean the opposite of intellectual consent to the teachings of Jesus. I mean that right belief does not change a life. Satan believes correctly in the promises of Jesus Christ. He is still the devil! What I mean by practical Christianity is living purposefully and intentionally into a relationship with the living Christ. No life will be changed, nor will they ever have victory and power, unless they find Christ personally. Such a fruitful relationship is begun – and nourished regularly – by going to church.

Joy,

Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Needs God?

“But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof.
Just say the word and my servant will be healed.’”
 Matthew 8:8 (Common English Bible)

     Living without God is not a recent invention. From the beginning of history women and men have heard the whisper, “Who needs God?” It was there in the third chapter of Genesis when Satan – having taken the form of a snake – asked the question of the woman, Eve. The question has disturbed every person since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden. How many of us can honestly confess to a desperate need for God? How real a factor is the thought of God in the common moments of each day?

     It is my experience that for many people, God resides in the peripheral rather than occupying a central place in their lives. If our felt need for God becomes only occasional we learn, moment by moment and day by day, to live without God. Eventually, it isn’t a big step to live entirely without any thought of God. Many who have moved to this place may reject having someone identifying them as an atheist but, in truth, God is no longer real. David H. C. Read once shared that some people in his New York City congregation have confessed that having missed worship and prayer for extended months, life went on much as usual. The question presses, “Who needs God?”

     Perhaps the real question in play is, “What is important to us?” If we decide in our hearts that material success, the acquiring of wealth and comfort, is to be our supreme goal, then God may be irrelevant: we don’t need God. Make no mistake; there is nothing at all wrong with success – even financial success. It is a question of what is most important. Do we seek to be caught-up in something bigger than ourselves; to be fully engaged with the purposes of God or do we ultimately live for ourselves? If we are totally dedicated to material success, asserts David H. C. Read, then we don’t need God. We have one.

     Here in Matthew’s Gospel a centurion realizes a need for God. One of his servants is desperately ill and there is nothing that the centurion’s wealth, position and power can do for the servant. The centurion realizes that he is without the resources that are required. The centurion approaches Jesus and asks for a word of grace, a word that would do for the servant what the centurion is incapable of doing. When the centurion declares to Jesus, “Lord, I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof,” it is a declaration that the centurion has been living without God. Now he has awakened to the need that has been there all the time. The centurion needs God. And at that very moment the servant was made well.

Joy,    

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eyes of Faith

They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know?”
How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
John 6:42 (Common English Bible)

     It rarely occurs to us that the ordinary can be a door through which heaven opens to earth. If something comes from heaven it must come in an unusual way, through some mysterious and unfamiliar channel. Heaven and earth are not usually viewed as being in communication. Certainly the Old Testament does witness to God’s use of prophets to speak. But ordinarily heaven and earth stand quite apart. God and humanity live two distinct and different lives.

     This was the thinking that caused some to question the authority of Jesus, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know?” How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” This is “Bible-speak” for ordinary; Jesus was born to ordinary people just as we all were. Yet, Jesus declares he has come down from heaven. It simply doesn’t follow that the familiar can be heavenly, the ordinary the activity of the divine. And it is this thinking today that diminishes our own expectation of the sacred in the midst of our ordinary lives. We do not expect a divine encounter in our ordinary existence.

     Jesus believed that heaven and earth were in constant communication. God is always in touch and intervening in the lives of God’s children. What is necessary for us are eyes of faith, eyes that see the portals of heaven open wide and that God is continually coming into our ordinary lives, transforming them into the extraordinary. Jesus says as much when he responds to Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ Lordship that this confession of faith was not Peter’s only, but God’s witness through him, “no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you.” (Matthew 16:17)

     Here, in this passage, we are invited to look once more for the possibility of the sacred in the ordinariness of life. Familiarity, if it doesn’t breed contempt, at least removes the surprise.  If we can account for something we at once conclude that God has nothing to do with it.  God is kept as a last resort for events otherwise inexplicable. Yet, here in John’s Gospel, we are reminded that through the common life of Joseph and Mary, God did break forth into the world.

Joy, 

Friday, September 5, 2014

When Faith is Difficult

“We can’t find goodness anywhere.”
Psalm 4:6 (Common English Bible)

      If there remains anyone who argues that the Bible isn’t relevant for today they have demonstrated that they haven’t paid attention to the Bible – not close attention anyway. Is there anything more timeless than the agonizing cry, “We can’t find goodness anywhere?”  Each morning our minds are disturbed by the growing threat of the militant Islamic group, ISIS, the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Beneath these attention getting headlines is the less mentioned but continuing concern of the growing wealth gap in our country and the millions in our nation who struggle daily to simply have enough. There are no snappy answers to the painful question of human struggle.

     It is well that the Bible does not offer a quick and pre-fabricated answer to this despairing cry. And it is best for us to refrain from such a temptation. First, we are not free to indulge in any cynical or dismissal attitudes such as, “Well, that’s life,” or, “Bad things just happen.” As followers of Jesus we are baptized into the common confession that our lives are in the hands of God, and that this God is a God of love. Second, we don’t occupy some place between God and the struggle of humanity. Not one of us has some special insight into the mysterious work of God in the midst of our common difficulty. Each of us must sweat it out with everyone else.

     What remains is a prayer: “Lord, show us once more the light of your face.”  This is the prayer of the Psalmist and nothing new can be added. The prayer is the same today as it was yesterday, fresh and urgent. It is as new as the earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay Area a few days ago and the agony that kept someone awake last night. It is new when we utter it personally, today. No devotional, not one inspirational book can answer the plea, the emotional depth of that prayer.

      On our knees we pray. If we listen in the silences between our words the Holy Spirit reminds us that God was never absent in the horrors of human life in the Bible – nor will God be absent today. On the Via Dolorosa – the way of the cross – in Jerusalem, God was very present in the heart of human misery giving, giving and giving himself, so that after this there would be no fear, no despair and no doubt of God’s love. The cry, “We can’t find goodness anywhere,” still sounds in the streets of our communities. We live with it and we hear it echo in our souls. But the Spirit helps us recall the suffering of Christ – a suffering accepted out of Christ’s love for us. It is a love that will work for the good of all those who love him.

Joy,   

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Perilous Postponement

“I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to those in my house.”
Luke 9:61 (Common English Bible)

     Here is someone who experienced an impulse of faith, an impulse that disclosed the beauty of following Jesus as Lord. Perhaps it was something in the words Jesus spoke. Perhaps it was something about the manner and spirit of Jesus that was captivating. Or perhaps it was the evidence that there was something extraordinary about the quality of life experienced by others following Jesus. Whatever the cause, here is someone who’s conscience and heart was aroused such that they experienced an impulse which urged an immediate decision to follow Jesus. But, obedience to the impulse is delayed, “but first let me say goodbye to those in my house.”

     Jesus says, “No.” It is unacceptable to Jesus that an impulse to follow may be delayed by anything, even if it is simply to say goodbye to loved ones. Does that appear harsh? Doesn’t it seem inconsiderate, even severe, that Jesus rejects this reasonable request to say goodbye? It may seem so. Yet, is it harsh for someone to grab a child quickly – and with considerable force – and draw them away from a car traveling in the child’s path? Or would this be viewed as an act of love? The emphasis of Jesus’ response is love.

     Our Lord knows that postponement meant the very real possibility of destruction, that if obedience to a sacred impulse to follow Jesus is deferred to another time there may be no impulse to obey. Isn’t it a common experience that at one moment we may experience a deep craving for something, like ice cream, and at another moment it is gone? And so underneath Jesus’ rebuke is the awful concern that a sacred impulse delayed is a sacred impulse lost.

     If an impulse promises more value to life than a scoop of ice cream then it must be converted into action immediately. There must be no period of delay or resting. If a life-giving impulse is not converted into immediate action there is no achievement. The only way to keep such an impulse sweet is to change it into an act immediately. It is then that it’s gracious influence is experienced into eternity.

     Jesus is offering life, life in following Him. An impulse to accept this invitation in the present moment may be lost in the next. It is perilous to wait. Such a postponement may result in the destruction of our life with God. “Follow Me” must not be answered with, “I will follow You” but with, “I will follow You now.”

Joy,



           

           

           

           

           




Thursday, August 21, 2014

What Is Faith?

“Faith is the reality of what we hope for,
the proof of what we don’t see.”
Hebrews 11:1 (Common English Bible)

     I am often surprised how few people really understand the notion of faith. Frequently I hear someone seeking to comfort another by saying, “You need to have faith.” Or, perhaps, I hear someone ask, “Do you have faith?” But this kind of talk about faith isn’t in our Bible. The Bible never speaks of faith as something that we get. Faith simply isn’t our doing.

     Look again at what Paul says about faith here in Hebrews, “Faith is the reality of what we hope for.” This isn’t wishful thinking or a striving to get something that we don’t possess. We don’t possess faith; we are possessed by it.

     Faith is a pure gift from God. Often the “faith” difficulty isn’t that we don’t possess it but that a relationship with God has been so neglected that the gift is no longer noticed. Take love as an example. When we are “in love” with another we don’t seek to obtain love or ask for an assurance, we simply know that it is there by the quality of the relationship. We are “possessed” by the love of another. Similarly, Hebrews teaches us that it is in the quality of a relationship with God that we are “possessed” by faith. It is an unmistakable reality. Just as the knowledge of someone’s love for us is often intangible, so the knowledge of God’s good desire for us is often intangible.

     This understanding of faith is one that provides confidence that come what may, God is with us. Gone is wishful thinking. The faith spoken of here becomes our proof that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. We don’t know the future but we know who holds the future. And that frees us from fear of the unknown.

Joy,


Friday, August 15, 2014

Hope for a Splintered Church

“All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body.
And you have been filled by Him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”
Colossians 2:9, 10 (Common English Bible)

     Every serious Christian today, aware of the struggle for building authentic disciples of Jesus in the present generation, must be troubled by the spectacle of a splintered church. Anyone well acquainted with the teaching of Jesus knows that the present divisions of the church are not His will. The prayer of our Lord in John’s Gospel is, “that they may all be one – so that the world may believe that you have sent Me.” The Apostle Paul advances the same in his first letter to the Corinthian Church, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement that there be no divisions among you.” Divisions simply distract the church from its primary purpose of mobilizing people for the mission of Christ.

     The theological divisions of the church are troubling. If we are concerned about this situation, as we ought to be, how is the church to proceed? The Apostle Paul suggests here, in these two sentences, that we seek our separated sisters and brothers not in the valleys of the doctrines that divide but on the mountaintop of a common confession that “All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body.” Affirming with renewed vigor this common confession can heal the theological divides that plague the church. It is living into the conviction that good Christians sometimes disagree but are held together in one confession that Jesus is Lord.

     Naturally, this is accomplished when we silence the questioning of our sisters and brothers as to the sincerity of their faith. Such questioning only exacerbates the hurtful divisions. What is better is reclaiming our theological center that professes that the Church in every age needs continual reforming by the spirit of the living Christ. It is being deeply persuaded that there is still more truth to be revealed. From this juncture we may discover that our theological debates, which can often be fierce, can be transformed into a conversation where each of us strives to really hear one another, and hear another point of view.   

     Faith is not assenting to a set of propositions, or following a religious code. Faith is trusting Christ with our lives, as we would trust a friend with our most precious possession. Any hope for a splintered church will not be by abandoning our deepest convictions, nor an apathetic tolerance of another point of view. Rather our hope will be found in a firmer grasp that in Christ, and Christ alone, will our differences be reconciled. As we pursue a deeper intimacy with one another – in the midst of our differences – the church may well arrive at a deeper intimacy with God.

Joy,

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Before the Darkness Falls

“As long as you have the light, 
believe in the light so that you might become people whose lives are determined by the light.”
John 12:36 (Common English Bible)

     “As long as you have the light.” Jesus urges those who follow Him to take advantage of the light while it is present. The brilliance of the light is not constant; the illumination that provides clarity comes in intervals in the midst of grey moments and the dark nights of life. In the moments of light we have a glimpse of God’s presence and the certainty of God’s power and work. These are the moments when God’s Kingdom is traced with vivid colors and God’s purposes seem clear. In these moments Jesus asks that we believe – or live into – the light so that our lives are changed. The light does not always remain. So take advantage of the moment when the light shines.

      Recently my wife and I spent a few days of vacation on Sanibel Island. The first night I was restless. When the bedside clock shared with me that it was now midnight and sleep still was far away I left the bed for a walk on the beach. After nearly a half-hour of walking, clouds rolled over the moon and the well-lit beach became very dark. In the darkness I could not find my way to the path that led back to the hotel. For a moment I considered the possibility that I would remain on the beach until morning light and Grace would come looking for me. It was not a preferable situation nor was it a frightening one. I felt safe on this resort beach.

     I sat on the beach prepared to wait out the dark of the night. After about twenty minutes the clouds moved past the moon and the shore was lit-up once again. Not only was the beach once again visible in the moon-light but also evident was the movement across the sky of more clouds that would again hide the moon. In the few minutes I had the light, I quickly sought-out the path that would take me back to my room. I took advantage of the light while it was present.

     As it is in the realm of nature so it is with the soul. We have moments in our walk with Jesus where the brilliance of our faith cast a certain light upon the path before us. Each step is a deliberate one; a confident one. We are privileged to have the way before us clear. We have the light! In these moments our faith is given a glimpse into the mysterious work of God in our lives. These are the moments that Jesus urges us to direct our lives according to God’s purposes for us. For the light will not always remain and darkness will once again prevail.

       We never know when a concealing cloud cover will hide God from us. Sickness, estrangement from loved ones, betrayal by a friend or financial difficulties all move into our lives from time to time. Each of them has the capacity to envelope our lives in darkness. Jesus asks that we direct our way while there is light – “believe in the light.” The light gives opportunity to direct our bearings, and by this find our way through our ever changing days, particularly after the darkness has come.     

Joy,

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Uneasy Worship

“I know your works. Look! I have set in front of you an open door that no one can shut.
You have so little power, and yet you have kept my word and haven’t denied my name.”
Revelation 3:8 (Common English Bible)

     Increasingly today people go to church when their lives are uneasy and other resources for restoring calm and order have been exhausted. What they seek from church is a healing balm; they look to be soothed with inspirational music and drugged with holy words that promise security. This romanticized notion of church must be confronted with the facts. Church was never intended to be a stable, smug and conventional purveyor of religious sedatives. The prophet Amos corrects this polished impression of God’s gathered people, “Doom to those resting comfortably in Zion! (Amos 6:1a)

     If the church is called to be uneasy, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is doing something right. There is a deep divide in the present leadership of the church over the Palestinian and Israeli conflict and the question of divesture from companies that are abetting Israeli violation of Palestinians’ human rights. The recent Authoritative Interpretation concerning marriage is viewed as not only an act of dishonesty but as unfaithful to the Church’s own polity while others celebrate the correction of injustice toward persons marginalized by the church. Absent is the stability and assurance many seek within the walls of our sanctuaries.

     The author of Revelation is well acquainted with uneasy worship. Church as an amiable and undisturbed place of comfort is unknown to John. Present is a deep and pervasive uneasiness. It is in the midst of this angst that God speaks a word to John, “Look! I have set in front of you an open door that no one can shut.” God’s people must now decide. They can withdraw from the present discomfort of the church and seek some physical or mental drug to relieve the distress or accept the challenge to new life and hope; to walk through the open door at the invitation of our Lord.

     Acceptance of the Lord’s invitation must begin with a new commitment to spiritual formation. If our shared worship and ministry is to be a springboard for a revival of faith and a renewal of the church, we must place our parched lips once more to the springs of spiritual power that flows from a growing relationship with Jesus. It will be the renewal of what the church only occasionally now calls “piety” that will give rise to a new dynamic for engagement in the secular world. The future of the church depends upon the renewal of faith in the living and active Christ and an uneasy worship that recognizes that the kingdoms of this world are in conflict with the Kingdom of our Lord. God sets before the church an open door that welcomes us to a deeper understanding of God’s will and a greater reception of God’s grace. Moving through that door will demand honestly facing the present uneasiness of the church and the trust that God’s Word is true; that what God opens before us can never be shut.

Joy, 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

God's Victory in Life's Disasters

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God?
You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it,
 in order to save the lives of many people, just as He’s doing today.”
Genesis 50:19, 20 (Common English Bible)

     Joseph is a man with a large life, a great soul. Never does he dip below God’s highest desires for him. Always a man of considerable dignity, Joseph is humble in service, in a prison or in a palace. His life unfolds as any life does, in circumstances that are both tragic and blessed. His greatness is untarnished, even after years of unjust imprisonment. And in the national crisis that shakes Egypt and brings alarm to the people – a famine of biblical proportions – Joseph seizes the situation with uncommon wisdom and saves the country. He shines in the stiffest test of a great person, the management of prosperity. It is his management here that emphasizes Joseph’s sterling quality and offers a glimpse of the face of God.

     Those qualities that distinguished Joseph are tested at an early age. Joseph incurs the jealously of his older brothers. Desiring that Joseph is removed from the family forever, the brothers sell him into slavery. Now, because of the famine, the older brothers stand before their younger brother once again, this time within Joseph’s power. They come from desperation, cringing, hoping for gracious treatment. Joseph is now on a world’s stage – at least throughout the Egyptian empire. People are watching. More important, God is watching. Joseph’s response to the brothers who once sold him as a slave would be the biggest test of what he is made of. The brothers cared little for Joseph’s welfare when he was young. Now the brother’s welfare was in Joseph’s hands.

     Joseph answers his brother’s plea, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as He’s doing today.” Only the greatest of women and men can confess to those who have wronged them that the injury has turned out to an advantage. Joseph rises to such a stature. Joseph’s response is suggestive of two motives for such a grand and expansive heart; two things that help Joseph to forgive.

     First is that Joseph is able to see that God is at work upon those who injured him. “Am I God?” It is as though Joseph is saying that the work of retribution is none of Joseph’s business. It is a dangerous position of heart for anyone to think they are the instrument for God’s justice. There are matters to large for us to assess, turns of the heart of which we are unaware. God always works beyond our understanding in the hearts of others including the hearts of those who have wronged us. Joseph understands this. More, Joseph sees that his brothers are different, that they have changed from the early days when they sold their younger brother as a slave.

     Second, forgiveness is made easy for Joseph because he has the clarity of insight to see how God has handled the wrongs he had suffered. God has taken the evil Joseph’s brother intended and turned it into a blessing for the nation of Egypt. The cruelty Joseph endured did not loom large in his mind, thoughts of revenge occupying his life. The wrong inflicted upon Joseph became the impetuous for a chain of events that would result in his being named Prime Minister of Egypt. God worked ceaselessly and mysteriously to savage the wrong and build a structure of a mighty purpose for Joseph and for the world. Joseph’s clarity of God’s hand in his life, his gratitude and worship of God, swept all bitterness clean out of his life. Joseph’s disaster has given way to God’s victory. Such is the result of wreckage that is placed into the giant grip of God.

Joy,

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cool Christianity

“They told him, ‘Jesus the Nazarene is passing by.’
The blind man shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy.’”
Luke 18:37, 38 (Common English Bible)

     There is a cool, casual note in this familiar story asserts David H. C. Read. Jesus is passing by. He is interrupted by the beggar’s cry. Jesus turns to the beggar, and to the astonishment of everyone asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The question seems utterly ridiculous. Those who are blind rarely blend into a crowd. Blindness is a physical condition that is fairly apparent to anyone paying attention. Here, this man who is blind asks that Jesus show some mercy for him. Yet, Jesus asks what it is that the man wants. Jesus sounds like a young child, adsorbed in a hand-held electronic game only half-listening. Present is the desire to rip the game from the child’s hands and demand that they pay attention when they are being spoken to.

     Our difficulty with this story is how casual Jesus is. Jesus didn’t approach the blind man and offer help. Jesus doesn’t even seem to have noticed the blind man. The story tells us that Jesus was simply passing by. Had the blind man not called-out to Jesus we are left to assume that Jesus would have simply kept walking. What are we to do with a Savior that apparently walks right past such obvious need?

     Perhaps the reason many find this story so troubling, says Read, is that it challenges the prevailing assumption that Jesus has come to help us; that the Christian Church exists for nothing more than to meet the perceived needs of others. What if our assumptions about Jesus and the Church are wrong? What if it is Jesus’ intention here to challenge – and correct – our entire understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ mission?

     Any rethinking with regard to what Jesus is about must take seriously that Jesus did feed the hungry, friend the friendless and heal the sick. Even in this story, Jesus does restore sight to the man who asks for mercy, albeit after the man asks. The mission of the Church is to participate with Jesus in what He did and continues to do today.  So it follows that the Church’s role is to help wherever there is human need. But to follow Jesus authentically demands that we pay attention to the “how” question; the manner in which Jesus cares for human need.

     A careful reading of Jesus’ ministry results in a rather surprising discovery, Jesus comes within reach of human need, but He doesn’t intrude. Absent in Jesus’ ministry is intrusion, or pushing, or arrogance. Jesus comes to meet us in our need but always waits for our movement toward Him. It is important to recall that image of Jesus in the Book of Revelation where He stands at the door and knocks. Notice, Jesus doesn’t intrude by opening the door uninvited. What is meant by “Cool Christianity” is that the way of Christ is always loving concern that prays, that is present and ready to act – but never intrudes.

Joy,

     An adaptation of a longer sermon by David H. C. Read, former pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City, by the same title.



Friday, July 11, 2014

Living Water

“But whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again.”
John 4:14a (Common English Bible)

     What a bold claim! “Whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty again.” The question presses, does Jesus mean just what He says? Is this a figure of speech that is to be held loosely or is this an absolute truth we can stake our lives on? Jesus is claiming to provide something necessary for life; something we can’t do without.

     What Jesus is promising here is to annihilate our thirst of the soul, a thirst which is now the source of so much anxiety and pain. Pause to grasp the significance of this claim. Jesus is making the claim to have the power to appease all that causes us to be unsettled. Jesus removes the threat of forces and circumstances that diminish life.

    What is the thirst of the soul? Is it not a thirst for assurance; the assurance that the fears which trouble the heart and fears which occupy the mind will not defeat us? We are familiar with these fears. They accelerate the pulse and stir a tossing restlessness in the night. Some may state the condition more urgently, an experience of panic and dread. Jesus promises to annihilate the dread and remove the threat. Jesus gives assurance.

     Jesus is the fountain that is never depleted. Rivers have their seasons of drought. Springs run dry. Other resources fail us. They lack the ability to sustain us consistently. Their uncertainty aggravates the very thirst they profess to relieve. Jesus announces that He is the eternal spring; the living water. It will be in Him that our souls find rest and contentment and abiding peace.

Joy,

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ministry of Imagination

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.
He came to Jesus at night and said to Him,
‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher who has come from God,
for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with Him.’”
John 3:1, 2 (Common English Bible)

     Nicodemus calls the church to a ministry of imagination. A Pharisee, Nicodemus departs from the narrow, walled-in sectarian views of his colleagues and comes to Jesus in sympathetic inquiry. Perhaps Nicodemus is weary of the wooden, cramping and belittling understanding of the Bible that limits fellowship with others of another point of view. Perhaps Nicodemus fears that barriers of thought and divisions in the fellowship of faith can produce nothing higher than spiritual dwarfs. Perhaps Nicodemus simply wishes for a more expansive and imaginative faith and believes that Jesus can offer the necessary nutriment. For whatever reason, Nicodemus comes to Jesus.

     A large faith, a full-grown faith, must borrow from others. The genius of maturity is the recognition that a wider vision of this life demands the stimulus of thought found in another’s wealth. No one discovers adequate nourishment for their own development within the poverty of self-centeredness and narrow-mindedness. If we are to exercise ourselves in the wider vision of imagination – as does Nicodemus – we must listen sympathetically to understandings not our own. Otherwise we exist only in an echo chamber, our thought never growing, never expanding. It is well documented that even Shakespeare fetched his water of inspiration from the wells of other great thinkers and writers.

     J. H. Jowett reflects that one’s life, thinking and theology will remain comparatively dormant unless it is breathed upon by the bracing influence of fellowship of thought that is beyond our own. Communion with viewpoints on every side, viewpoints to both the left and right of our own grasp of the Bible and the world of thought, lifts our powers for imagination. It is in a grand and inquisitive imagination that our faith discovers strength and grand proportions. It is where we acknowledge that Jesus is more than anyone can ever fully grasp.

     It would be well if persons of faith were to exercise the same imaginative curiosity of Nicodemus. A sincere recognition of another’s position, appreciation for another’s point of view and discovery of another’s purpose and aim in faith strengthens the fellowship of church. Rather than “leaving the table” when disagreements of faith arise perhaps it would be a richer and more spacious church if we recall that largest common denominator that has always held the people of faith together, the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Joy,

Friday, June 27, 2014

Faith and Wit

“But she knelt before Him and said, ‘Lord, help me.’”
Mathew 15:25 (Common English Bible)

     From images in children’s Bibles to the great paintings of masters the world has had fashioned for us a singular picture of Jesus – one who is gentle to children, merciful to the sinner and helpful to all in urgent need. The figure of Jesus stands in sharp contrast to a harsh and indifferent world that takes little notice of the poor, hurting and marginalized. God has noticed a desperate world and responded with a gentle lamb in which there is no hatred or deceit. That is the Savior we want, that is the Savior we get. At least, that is what most depictions of Jesus convey.

     Then the careful reader of Matthew’s Gospel stumbles upon this passage. It is like hitting an unnoticed speed bump and the effect is the same; it is jarring. A woman comes to Jesus with an appeal. She uses simple speech, simple words that every one of us knows: “Help me.” They are the words that spring to the lips of anyone in deep trouble and have exhausted all normal resources for help. “Help me.” That is all she has to say. And we nod in agreement that it is enough. What does Jesus answer? He flings to her harsh words, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” It is as though some malevolent person broke into our Bibles in the cover of the night and sought to tarnish the reputation of our Lord.

     The woman is not defeated by His words. She does not shrivel-up in embarrassment and hurt and retreat. Quick as a flash she matches His rebuke with her own sharp barb, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” In one singular comment the woman does two things: she acknowledges that Jesus is also her Lord and Master and that, if she be nothing more than a dog in Jesus’ eyes even dogs receive something. As the wonderful preacher, David H. C. Reed once commented, the woman has more than faith. She has wit. Jesus has met His match.


     Jesus surrenders, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” Ah, here is the Lord that we want! So why did Jesus initially refuse the woman? The strongest clue is found in how this Gospel ends: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19 Common English Bible) The woman is a Canaanite. She is a non-Jew. More, the Jewish people despised the Canaanites. And they had no intention of sharing anything with them, including their God and God’s blessings. Jesus’ refusal to the woman produced what the Jews needed to hear; Jesus has not come for only the nation of Israel. Jesus has come for the world. That day, Jesus invited – by His refusal to her – a woman into the pulpit to declare God’s truth.          

Joy, 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What to Do With Failure

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us,
since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.”
Hebrews 12:1 (Common English Bible)

    The best treatment of failure I have ever read is Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success by John Maxwell. It may be one of the most important books I have read in my twenty-seven years of ministry. I am familiar with failure. In fact, my first course of study for ministry – New Testament Greek – ended in failure. I gave considerable effort to my studies, studying late into the night several times a week and memorizing hundreds of Greek words. But with all the effort I could summon, I simply could not master the language. I did eventually pass this course requirement after working with a tutor and four years later I completed my theology degree. A glance at my academic transcript will show that I did well with my graduate studies – except for one letter grade of “F” that can never be removed.

     It is very likely that you have fallen short somewhere in your life. Failure may be one of the most shared experiences that bind us together. Celebrities on the screen and the stage, larger than life athletes and political leaders speak to the common experience of failure. Watch any Olympic Games and every success by one athlete is tempered with the devastating failure of another. Abraham Lincoln lost nearly every political race he entered until he won the presidency of the United States. There seems to be no shortage of failure.

     What are we to do with failure? According to John Maxwell, the difference between average people and those who achieve great success is their perception of and response to failure. Either we are utterly defeated by failure or we gather the pieces of our disappointment and look carefully at them to learn how to move forward. I have found Maxwell’s advice to sustain me through many professional and personal challenges and disappointments.

     The Apostle Paul also has a word for failure – stay in the race! Life is strenuous and the course laid-out before us can be difficult. Most of us will fall down. Yet, Paul inspires every one of us to get back in the race by pointing to those who have gone before us, have completed the course and now cheer us on. The “great cloud of witnesses” Paul speaks of are more than people who can give applause, they are people who offer their own lives as evidence that the course can be completed. Their lives serve as a template for how to prepare for the race, how to spiritually care for ourselves and maintain strength during the race and inspiration to complete the journey well. Failure may be a common experience but our response to failure can be an uncommon determination to join those who have gone before us.

Joy,

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Becoming a Confident Witness

“So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate.”
Ephesians 6:14 (Common English Bible)

     There are some people who never take a stand. I am thinking of a cartoon of a pastor sitting with his church board. Prominent in the board room is a chart that shows a steady decline in worship attendance over several months. The room is filled with discouragement, no one more discouraged than the pastor. One board member speaks: “Perhaps, pastor, it would help if you stopped concluding each sermon with the comment, ‘But then, what do I know?’”  Many are those who live each day by loose opinions rather than fixed convictions. But the pastor should not be one of them!

     Here, the Apostle Paul is speaking of considerable forces and powers that seek to diminish Christ’s witness and work in the world. Rather than dodging the difficulties they present, Paul urges a magnificent facing of those powers: “So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate.” The spiritual forces of evil are to be resisted as a soldier stands before an enemy, employing all means to stop their advance. The church is engaged in a cosmic conflict and the armor for battle can be nothing short of God’s truth and justice.

     It is important to understand that when Paul wrote these words soldiers wore a belt around the waist to hold loose garments tight to the body and to allow quick movement. Our “belt” in this spiritual conflict is “truth.” Paul speaks of the truth that is God’s Word, not some sentiment or emotion. Neither sentiment nor emotion has the capacity of strength necessary to face the church’s enemy. Each of us must face the opponent with “the belt of truth around our waist.”

     The difficulty is that no one can stand in the power of God’s truth when little time has been given to become acquainted with this truth. There is simply no substitute for the regular and disciplined study of the Bible. As a solider must properly prepare for battle, if victory is to be achieved the Christian must prepare by learning and applying God’s Word each day. As God’s Word takes-up residence in our lives the “belt of truth” is fastened around our waist, our character is forged and we become an unbridled force for the cause of Christ.

Joy,