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Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Remember that I'm in Prison" (Colossians 4:18 CEB)

“Remember that I’m in prison.”
Colossians 4:18 (Common English Bible)

     Paul signs his name to this letter to the Colossians, “Remember that I’m in prison.” This may be nothing more than an explanation.  As he moves his writing instrument across the sheet, his writing looks cramped and awkward. Paul wants his readers to remember that his poor handwriting is the result of his wrists now bound in chains. But how suggestive that short apology is! How often in our own exercise of responsibility do we plea difficulties?  We all move through the day with difficulties.

     To begin with, there is the limitations of our health. Advanced age may limit mobility. Heart disease, stroke or diabetes may present agonies that remain with us for a lifetime. Chronic weaknesses make each day difficult. Even the most vigorous of us have limits: demands of work and responsibility to the needs of loved ones bring many sleepless nights.  Limits of physical health or emotional stamina can feel as though we have been bound in chains.
     Then there is the limitation of opportunity. There are those who have prepared well for a life of meaningful work.  Time, money and considerable mental application has been poured into a college or graduate degree only to graduate – perhaps with honors – and discover a difficult job market. Resumes are sent out and interviews are scheduled but they wait. The waiting begins to feel like a prison cell.

     There is also the limitation of ability. The Bible makes no secret – or apology – that to some have been given five talents, to another two and to another one. Clearly the one-talent individual can never embark on a five-talent enterprise. Similarly, the five-talent person eventually understands that to those who have been given much, much is expected of them. Ambition that is unreasonable can result in the shackles of resentment.  

     These limitations, and many more unmentioned, present a constant problem: what are Christians to do with them? Let us be sure that these limitations are as real as the chains that constrain the wrists of Paul.  And however they present themselves, we must accept them in the present moment and look to how God intends to be purposeful in our lives.

     Paul provides guidance. There is absent the sounds of complaining from the prison cell of Paul.  Those who visit Paul do not hear self-pity. He had urgently wanted to go to Spain. Paul was convinced that ministry in Spain was God’s call to him. Yet, Paul is fettered in a prison cell. But rather than speak of what he is limited from, Paul speaks of what he is limited to; Paul uses his chains to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Roman guards who watch over him day after day.  

     Additionally, Paul writes letters. His wrists may be in chains but Paul engages in a ministry of writing letters of instruction and encouragement to struggling churches.  Paul longed to preach the Gospel he loved in Spain. Yet, no number of sermons delivered in Spain could ever have given the Church of Jesus Christ the far-reaching treasure it now enjoys than the four letters Paul wrote while in prison – the letters of Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon. It is difficult to imagine that had Paul been permitted to preach in Spain, the church today would have been any stronger than the ministry it received, and receives today, from these prison letters.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Preparing for Unexpected Challenges

“Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment.”
Matthew 10:19 (Common English Bible)

     Jesus is here speaking to fishermen who live a quiet, inconspicuous life along the Sea of Galilee. They work hard and keep their head low. Political tensions may swirl around them but they don’t engage. They prefer to remain out of any conversation that stirs discontent. Imagine, then, the panic that must have come when Jesus begins speaking to them about when they will be handed-over to the authorities. In our day, the best of us go limp and weak at the mere suggestion that we may be required to appear in court. Now, Jesus speaks to these humble, hard working men that they will appear before kings and governors to answer for their new found journey of faith. It will be no easy experience!

     Mingled with awkwardness and the grip of fear stirs the inevitable question, “What shall we say in court?” Anxiety becomes worry. Worry becomes mental and spiritual disorder and eventual paralysis. The disciples now contemplate an emergency; what Jesus speaks of as inevitable. A crisis now looms on the horizon for men who had once hoped to remain invisible to the world. They must now prepare to speak on a very visible platform.

     Our own life may be one that is moving along a level, regular road without any visible road hazards. Suddenly the character of the road changes and we are confronted with some great or unusual task. An unexpected illness presses for immediate lifestyle changes or financial circumstances become significantly more challenging. Anxiety moves into our homes. What shall we do?

     The first step in all wise preparations for emergencies, suggests Jesus, is to cultivate the strength of stillness. “Don’t worry,” Jesus tells the disciples. Worry always signifies the absence of stillness, the calmness of spirit which is the very heart of strength. If we are to obtain the strength of stillness we must practice the art of noticing God in the present moment. Jesus promises the disciples that words will be given to them. What Jesus is reminding them is that God is present and aware of the challenge that has been placed before them. God will not leave them empty. As we increase our capacity for stillness so does our capacity to notice God’s presence. That is the best preparation for any of life’s unexpected surprises.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Watch Out for What is Better for Others

“Instead of each person watching out for their own good,
watch out for what is better for others.”
Philippians 2:4 (Common English Bible)

     Here is a warning against the perils of self-centeredness. These few words are an invitation to creative imagination – to look at life through the windows of another. Those of one political party would do well to consider the perspective of another, the conservative follower of Christ would experience treasure in an exploration of the faith of a liberal and vice versa. The Apostle Paul calls the faith community to place aside the microscope that provide close inspection of self and learn the use of the telescope for the discovery and observation of others. In the exercise of a wider vision, new insights and discoveries of our common humanity will present themselves in the eye and heart. It is then that we begin to realize the immensely complex and varied life in which we share. Simple ideologies betray the richness of the human capacity to imagine bold experiments in how we might live together.

     Paul’s words have a particular freshness and relevance in the Christian Church today. Fellowships of Christians are separated from one another by barriers and divisions. With no windows opening out into wider fellowship, producing expanded understandings, faith can only supply a stunted spirituality. Each fellowship has a particular treasure and a peculiar defect. The strength of the one Christian Church in the world – the church catholic – is the shared treasure of each unique fellowship holding solidarity with one another. In the shared fellowship and common witness to the Lordship of Jesus each peculiar defect is walled-in and limited. The promise of such fellowship is a richly textured, full-bodied maturity in Christ.

     The wonderful preacher, J. H. Jowett once shared that no one can lift his own powers out of comparative babyhood by the strength of their own original resources. As plants are raised into strength, and symmetry, and beauty by surrounding them on every side with the fellowship of sky, cloud and nutrient-rich soil so our faith experiences strength and beauty by communion on every side with the views and perspectives that differ from our own. We are called then, suggests Jowett, to the ministry of imagination – to humility in our own understandings and openness to the reason of others.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Learn From Me

“Learn from Me.”
Portion of Matthew 11:29 (Common English Bible)

     I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land. Colleagues in ministry have spoken of how this holy pilgrimage changed their life in deeply profound ways. I accepted their words as sincere. Yet, I had no capacity to understand. Such a trip seemed out of reach for me. Now, through the gracious and generous gift of one family in this congregation, my wife, Grace, and I have returned from Israel. In the span of eight days we followed the way of our Lord along the shore of Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes, entered the gates of Old Jerusalem and walked the Via Dolorosa – the path taken by Jesus with a cross on His back. The impact of that experience is still emerging. I anticipate it will continue to present surprises – in thought and emotion – for some time.

     There are two impressions, in particular, that have pressed against my heart from this sacred pilgrimage: the sense of memory that remains in locations known to our Lord, and the recognition that the Lord has moved on. Both bear the capacity to impress a deeper reflection upon personal discipleship; the personal quest to acquire the Lord’s thought, to carry on the Lord’s spirit, to participate in the Lord’s vision of a new world and to embody that vision in our own lives. The abundant wealth of such a robust discipleship requires attention to three words of our Lord, “Learn from Me.”

     Today, people of many different nations make the journey to Israel for just this purpose, to learn more of Jesus. Though motives for the journey may be expressed differently, all come because of a basic curiosity. And curiosity is always the pursuit of information, of deeper understanding.  They have come to learn of Jesus, to learn from Him. Someone once remarked that the secret of learning is to ask much, to remember much and to teach much. This provides a helpful pathway for our own discipleship. It is a fruitful approach to successful learning in the school of Jesus.  

     Each disciple of Jesus must devise their own curriculum to learn from Jesus. But let no one assume that they are alone in the labor of learning. Standing in a footprint of Jesus along the shore of Galilee or walking along the way of the cross may stir remembrances of our Lord and inspire the heart to know more of Him but none of us are alone in this labor to be students of Jesus. The absence of Jesus embodied in flesh in each sacred location reminds us that He has now come in spirit as a great helper in the sacred work of discipleship. That, perhaps, is one of the glories of the ministry Jesus Christ. While we seek to learn of Jesus, He is at work within us in a manner that the beauty of the Lord grows upon our vision.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Expecting God in Sacred Pilgrimages

“Be still, and know that I am God!”
Psalms 46:10 (New Revised Standard Version)

     We have difficulty with stillness. Even spiritual pilgrimages tend to be planned in a manner that maximizes every opportunity in a brief period of time. The tireless pursuit of sacred locations can result in missing the sacred One who gives meaning to the locations we gather. Rest is regarded as indolence and relaxation as waste – waste of opportunity and waste of resources. The unfortunate result is the dawn of the season of mental exhaustion that stretches a long shadow as a bitter winter. The result is the same, little evidence of life. Movement from one place to another is marked by unhealthy speed and weariness. And the peril is that we do not realize the intensity when we are in it.

     When we are in the midst of a large city we do not realize how noisy the engine that drives it has been until we withdraw to a place outside of the city. We are not conscious of the roar and haste of life until we turn aside into a place of calm and quiet. The large number of people of the city, the flurry of activity and the roar and haste of life acts upon us like an opiate; draws our whole being, mind and body, into the relentless energy of the city until we are unconscious that we are distracted. This is the mesmeric influence in which some spiritual pilgrims move. The outside activity becomes obtrusive and the inside of things – the things of the heart and soul – become dim. The danger is that we miss the One we seek; we miss God.

     Perhaps that is why God speaks so clearly here, “Be still, and know that I am God!” The garden of our soul must be cared for, as the gardens of our homes, if beauty is to be found. The beauty of God is not found in the haste to gather every sacred place. The beauty of God is found in stillness. It is a beauty that stretches in large and broad fullness, embracing our whole being. It is a beauty that fills the ancient and sacred places with new life.

      The purpose of any spiritual pilgrimage is to connect with the sacred. Yet, unless the movement and gathering and experiencing all that each sacred location has to offer is brought under the discipline of rest, stillness and reflection all that will be found is evidence of spiritual energy that once was. God’s desire is that the eyes not see only what was once present in these locations. God desires that in stillness and quiet meditation we see clearly and strongly the very presence of life in the present moment. With careful planning and considerable haste we may gather a large treasury of sacred places on our spiritual pilgrimage. But here in this text, the Psalmist calls upon the soul to contemplate the manifold glory of God. That requires that we be still.