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Thursday, December 31, 2015

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.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Necessity

“… and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
Luke 2:14 (Common English Bible)

     Some years ago, while I was still in high school, I remember a radio station that made a courageous decision to change their programing. Rather than continuing to compete in a saturated market of pop music, this station moved in a direction never considered by their competitors – what the Harvard School of Business calls, “Blue Water Strategy.” Simply, they would play Christmas music all year long. The idea was that the spirit of Christmas should not be celebrated only once a year. Ultimately, the idea failed. Listeners dwindled, advertising revenue dropped and the station returned to pop music. But that station did make a good point: the spirit of Christmas is not simply holiday amusement; the spirit of Christmas is the basic flour out of which relationships are nourished and communities are held together.

     The spirit of Christmas is a deep and persistent call to peace and good will among all people. Rather than a light-hearted indulgence, the spirit of Christmas is the most valid approach for individuals – and nations – to move toward any real, long-range relationship that honors one another and protects and cares for each other. So, in these few words from Luke’s Gospel, the angels announce, in hymn, this solid principal now made possible in the birth of Jesus. Increasingly, in a world filled with uncertainty and fear, the spirit of Christmas is being recognized as a strong necessity if there is to be any carefree rest for us when the darkness of evening falls. Peace instead of fear; what more glorious words could Christmas bring?

     Today, if there is in our midst anyone who feels that life has little purpose, anyone who has become discouraged by difficulty or lack of opportunity, Luke’s Gospel has a word for them, “Jesus is standing by.” In Jesus’ birth, God demonstrates not only awareness of our plight, God expresses concern. If there is a soul that trembles with fear and dreads to take a step because the world may consume them, the angels announce that there is now cause to anticipate peace; God has drawn near to us on this day, Christmas Day. "Peace and good will" have been unleased in the world. If only small glimpses are seen here and there, it is enough. This spirit of Christmas is an unstoppable force and is moving toward becoming the ruling spirit on earth.

     So, what should we do? Something that is recognized in many places in the world, in many different faith traditions, is to carry some tangible symbol or memento of faith and trust – a tiny cross in the pocket, a medallion in a purse, a lapel pin on clothing or a rosary in a briefcase. These tokens remind the individual of some spiritual value and commitment. I ask you to do something comparable. Locate your Bible and place it in a prominent location in your home or office. Be certain that it is placed in a manner that you will see it each day. Then resolve that once each day you will read a small portion of it and close with this prayer: “Shape me, O God. Shape me, by these words, to be an instrument of your peace, in my family, in my community and where I work. Allow my life today to be a tangible symbol that your peace is advancing in this world, that because of the birth of Jesus, the world is now changing. Amen.”



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Confidence

“But right now, we don’t see everything under their control yet.
However, we do see the one who was made lower in order than the angels
for a little while – it’s Jesus!”
Portions of Hebrews 2:8, 9 (Common English Bible)
     This Christmas season finds us rather bewildered, facing confusion, uncertainty and fear. The world seems dangerously out of control and political leaders have failed to offer a neat formula that can solve our problems or allay our anxiety. We seem a long way from the promise of Isaiah that instruments of war will become farming equipment. But as Christmas draws near, Hebrews reminds us of a man who lived in a world not unlike our own, and yet, carried with him hope and confidence – Jesus Christ. Specifically, Hebrews tells us that we may not yet see everything “under control” but we do see Jesus!

     Harry Emerson Fosdick once commented that in pointing to Jesus, Hebrews does not seek to distract us from realistic facts to a beautiful ideal; Hebrews is simply turning our attention from one set of facts to another fact. Jesus is a fact. He lived and his life left an indelible imprint upon the world. Some may question the nature of Jesus, may question the identity of Jesus as anything more than a mortal, but few question that Jesus lived. Yet, women and men of faith accept Jesus as more; accept, as fact, that Jesus is God’s decisive interruption in history to bring all things “under control”. Jesus is a towering, challenging, revealing fact that casts a whole new outlook on the present groaning of life today.

     In this season of Advent – a season of anticipation – those faithful to the Lordship of Jesus see something tremendous occurring in the midst of the daily news: they see the emergence of a disruptive force that will overcome the wild, uncivilized and uncontrolled powers that tear at the world. In the birth of Jesus, God announces that the forces of darkness now have reason to tremble. No, we do not yet see all things “under control” – far from it – but we do see Jesus! And that means that God is on the move.

     Our world today is one where fear seems to grow unchecked and uncertainty enlarges upon our consciousness. But God has come in Jesus to change the whole complexion of the world. What is required is that we open ourselves to Jesus in a manner that he can get at us and live in us so that he shapes our thoughts and behavior. One person of faith after another, opening their hearts and minds to receive the transforming power of God, makes all the difference in the world. That is our Christmas confidence.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Fresh Approach to Prayer

“Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said,
 ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”
Luke 11:1 (Common English Bible)

     In the late 60’s and early 70’s The Newlywed Game was a popular television show. The show would place newly married couples against each other in a series of revealing question rounds that determined how well the spouses knew or did not know each other. There would be two rounds; the wives taken off stage first while the husbands were asked three questions. The wives were then brought back into the studio and asked for their answers to the same three questions. Once the wife gave her answer, the husband revealed the answer he gave – written on a blue card - in her absence. Five points would be awarded to the couple that shared the same answer. The roles were reversed in round two, the wives asked to answer questions about their husbands. The couple that had the highest score at the end of the show won.

     Imagine a similar game that put to the test how well we know God, how well we understand God’s purpose for our lives. I suspect many of us would be embarrassed. Here, in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples came upon Jesus when he was praying. Tremendously moved by what they saw, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. There is no hint in this passage that the disciples witnessed answers to Jesus’ prayers. Results weren’t what caught their imagination. There was something else. Something that went much deeper.

     If we dispense with the notion that prayer is only about answers, that prayer is simply presenting pleas when we are in need, in danger or a crisis, our eyes are cleared to see what the disciples saw when they came upon Jesus at prayer. In Jesus’ prayer the disciples saw a concentration and absorption into a relationship with God of which they had no experience. Jesus’ prayers demonstrated a deliberate and sustained cultivation of a relationship with God that would put Jesus in the winner’s seat of The Newlywed Game. What is clear in this passage is that the disciples wanted the same.

     Perhaps the greatest difficulty with prayer today is that many are simply out of touch with God. Prayer is reduced to instinct rather than habit, to approaching God out of need rather than a regular cultivation of a personal relationship with our creator. And that is our deepest need - to renew our acquaintance with God. Prayers that flow from instinct tend to be self-centered. The prayer of Jesus is God-centered. It is prayer that takes time to cultivate and requires extraordinary perseverance. But once this fresh approach to prayer is mastered don’t be surprised if another approaches you and asks, “Teach me to pray like that.”


Thursday, December 3, 2015

God Will Guide Us

 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. 
Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.”
Proverbs 3:5, 6 (Common English Bible)

     The fall semester of my senior year in college would be in England. Arriving at Gatwick Airport in London, I disembarked the flight, entered the airport and immediately experienced considerable confusion. Standing in a common area, bewildered by the signage, I felt a hand on my shoulder: “This is the direction you want to go,” spoke a friendly voice. The confusion cleared, my path was made clear, and I was on my way. I am a reasonably intelligent person but that was a moment when I desperately needed guidance.

     Anyone honest about his or her own life journey admits moments where guidance is welcomed. It is no mistake that high schools, colleges and universities have “guidance counselors” available to their students. Determining a direction in life is not something to be decided casually. Nor is it a simple matter to discern God’s desire and direction for us as individuals. There are simply moments when we are as bewildered as I was when I stood in Gatwick Airport so many years ago.

     These words from Proverbs provide help. Rather than be intimidated by the vastness of choices and decisions to be made, Proverbs invites us into a relationship with our creator, a relationship that moves from the mind to the heart. There is a critical difference. The mind alone gathers information, orders data and considers several reasonable alternatives. The entire exercise can be accomplished without ever disturbing the heart from its sleep. On the other hand, try building a relationship with a spouse or friend solely on the arrangement of data. It doesn’t work. The heart senses, feels, and longs to know and be known. There is knowledge that is simply unavailable using the mind alone.

     How shall we trust and know God with all our heart? We begin by learning of God as God is revealed in the Bible. We continue by doing God’s will as best as we understand it from our reading. There is no substitution or short cut. Divine guidance only comes to those who daily seek it in the scriptures. We become sensitive to the nudges and promptings of God until one day we sense a hand on our shoulder and a voice that speaks, “This is the direction you want to go.”


Wednesday, November 25, 2015


“I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.”
Habakkuk 3:18

     It is well that our nation has an annual holiday that prompts expressions of gratitude. Expressions of thanksgiving rarely well-up in the hearts of many people. It is not a natural impulse many days. Inhibitions to thankfulness are abundant – war, hunger, poverty, crime and loneliness. Each results in fear and a scramble for basic survival. Our lives are fragmented. So, Thanksgiving Day each November prompts us to spontaneous joy and gratitude.

     For some, we wonder if it is quite seemly to give thanks for what we have when others have not. It is nice to wish that the world has every reason to be thankful as we. But it is not true. Yet, Jesus provides us with an example. Jesus lived in the midst of poverty. The Palestine of his day was not flowing with sufficient food and basic necessities. There were people who could not pray with thankful hearts. Abundance simply wasn’t a familiar experience in their lives. But this did not stop Jesus from giving thanks before each meal. And it just may be that Jesus’ thankfulness became a plea for others to have the same ground for thankfulness.

    What is remarkable about these words of gratitude from Habakkuk is where they are located. They immediately follow considerable disappointment. “Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep is cut off from the pen, and there is no cattle in the stalls; I will rejoice in the Lord.” Here, there is nothing but stark loss. But Habakkuk gives thanks nonetheless.

     Habakkuk prompts us to trust in the Lord even when there seems to be little reason to do so. Seasons appear in any life when experience seems to deny any reason for gratitude. The crops have failed and livestock appear to be in short supply. But rather than focusing on the immediate, Habakkuk takes a longer view of life. The source of gratitude is not on the present but in the certainty of God’s promises. Habakkuk reminds us that we belong to a God who is at work in history, reconciling all things and securing wholeness; a God who will not rest until we have received deliverance from all that seeks to destroy us.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Distinctive Claims of the Christian Faith

“Pray like this: ‘Our Father, who is in heaven,’”
Matthew 6:9 (Common English Bible)

     The decline of mainline, Protestant Christianity in America is well documented and reported. Fewer people claim identity as Christians today and fewer numbers occupy seats in worship services on Sunday morning. What seems to be increasing is a notion that no religion is supreme or unique and that each one possess much truth. Tolerance has replaced the missional impulse of the church. While no authentic reading of the Bible supports “intolerance” toward other forms of spirituality or faith traditions, it does advance vigorously the distinctive claims of the Christian faith. Perhaps a renewal of the missional vigor of the church requires a recovery of those claims.

     The first of those claims is captured in the first words of The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who is heaven.” Those words capture the truth that God is both otherworldly and is knowable, understandable, and lovable. There is a mystery around the periphery of the Christian faith but at its center is a God who seeks to know us and to be known. The first two chapters of Genesis capture beautifully both attributes of God: Chapter one speaks to the mystery of God – a God who by the sheer authority of the spoken word creates and, chapter two, a God who draws near enough to us as to fill man and woman’s nostrils with God’s very own breath.

     The second claim of the Christian faith is that in the person of Jesus we see God; that in Jesus we see what God is like. We may know God – though limited – by turning to the person of Jesus Christ. In the life and death and victory over death of Jesus, God is revealed not only in words but in a real person. In the person of Jesus we witness a God who forgives those that sin, values those pushed to the margins of society and seek the restoration of broken relationships. The Christian faith is not about a formula. It is about a person that desires a relationship with us.

     Finally, the Christian faith not only points the way to live, the faith gives witness to a promise that God gives power to those who believe that enables us to live as God desires. Moral insight has little value without moral power. The image that comes to mind is that of a two person paddle-boat. Alone, our best efforts results only in moving in circles. But with a second person paddling with us, the paddle-boat moves steadily forward. God joins us in that paddle-boat, God’s strength working alongside our strength, to move toward that life that satisfies. It is that vital union with God that gives new life. And it is that union that results in a growing love for Christ. A vigorous church will be one that recovers again and again these distinctive claims of the Christian faith.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Living With Tension

“Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of it’s own.”
Matthew 6:34 (Common English Bible)

     A more promising title for this meditation might be: Living Without Tension. Yet, that is a promise that is neither realistic nor supported by the Bible. Mark’s Gospel declares that on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus “began to feel despair and was anxious” (Mark 14:33). Amanda Enayati, writing for Success magazine asserts, “The greatest myth is that stress-free living exists at all. In reality the only time you are truly stress-free is when you are dead.”1 Yet, here in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mountain, he seems to suggest that we have the capacity to “stop worrying.”

     Except, Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus teaches that we are to “stop worrying about tomorrow.” There is a considerable difference. It is unlikely that any one of us can simply shut-off any concern or worry. What Jesus offers is the possibility of limiting our worry to one day at a time. As Jesus points out, “Each day has enough trouble of it’s own.”

     What has been observed over and over again by psychologists is that women and men become tired, run-down and discouraged not by the challenges that confront them today. What drains our energy is our frightened concern over what waits for us on the horizon – what we have to do tomorrow, and the day after that. This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare for tomorrow. It simply means that we don’t work ourselves up into an anxious knot and fever of apprehension worrying about tomorrow. Today, teaches Jesus, is enough to be concerned about.

     What are we to do? All that Jesus had to say about living is fixed firmly on belief and trust in God. God is in our future – we are not left to it alone. The night of Jesus’ arrest was filled with tension and worry. But do not fail to notice what Jesus does with it all. Jesus prays. Jesus claims the presence and concern of a living God that restored his energy and brought healing. What Jesus asks is that we do the same. Do our best today and leave the rest to God. This is a truth that we can accept because it comes from Christ. It is first and last the secret of victorious living.


1 Amanda Enayati, “Dissecting Stress.” Success.  December 2015, pages 48-51.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Struggle For Power

“Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.’
Mark 10:44, 45 (Common English Bible)

     Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, have a favor to ask of their Lord; when he came into his Kingdom they asked for the best seats in the house. Remarkably, there is present no sense of embarrassment. The request is impudent, presumptuous and, undeniably, selfish. Yet, the request is true to human nature as it is revealed throughout every generation. Seeking position, power and recognition is a well-established value that seems hardwired into the human psyche. So here it is seen even among Jesus’ disciples – the desire to leverage an opportunity to serve inflated egos and personal ambition. Personal fitness for what they ask isn’t a consideration.

     This love of power and desire for notice is one of the most insatiable of all human urges. It is also a moral problem that is wrestled with throughout the pages of our Bible. Look at Jesus’ response to James and John who jostled to obtain it: “Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all.” What a reversal of current standards! For Jesus, no one can be truly great whose life is not viewed in terms of service to another. Our highest self is achieved only through humility and assuming the posture of servant. It is recognizing any position of authority as an opportunity for advancing the common good. What Jesus offers is a life redeemed from pettiness and crudeness.

     Naturally, this new understanding of power and position requires some imagination. A world view that shifts from domination by a few over the many must give way to another – one where the world’s foundation is spiritual and the knowledge that might is powerless to establish anything that lasts. Ultimately, this is God’s world and God settles nothing by might and sheer power.  Our destiny is in something deeper and more enduring than power. We see what that is in his cross. Jesus demonstrates that genuine power is one that changes people from the inside out. Love overcomes hate, gentleness depletes the energy of force and people become more responsive to one another, building trust and partnerships.

     I do wonder from time to time how the disciples’ responded to this teaching. It is not a popular lens to view life nor one most people would want. Jesus is free of pride and arrogance because he recognizes his dependence upon God. And in our best moments we know that if we lived as Jesus – with submission to God – the world would be an infinitely better place.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Our Compulsion to Complain

The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
Exodus 16:2, 8b (Common English Bible)

“Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.’”
Ephesians 2:10 (Common English Bible)

     Among my natural gifts is the compulsion to complain. I am not alone. Each church I have served has included similarly endowed people. The compulsion to complain is a very familiar tendency that appears on the stage of life. It may seem to have a relatively small role in the unfolding drama of our life but it has the capacity to derail the whole play. Complaining can empty our reserves of energy and diminish the ability to see how God may be moving and directing our lives.

     Moses had something to say about complaining. Through Moses’ obedience to God, he led the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness – a journey that would culminate in receiving God’s “promised land” that they would call home. But the time in the wilderness would be difficult. Difficulty resulted in complaint. They grumbled that there wasn’t enough food. They complained that there wasn’t enough water. The days were hot and the nights too cold. After Moses had heard enough he declared, “Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.” That is because it is God that is calling the people forward into a different future. And sometimes our future requires the preparation of a wilderness.

      Because of their complaining their promised future was at risk. Their great vision of freedom and joy was slipping away. More, their memory of slavery was not correctly remembered. They would mumble among themselves how much better it was in Egypt. Nothing was in focus – their future or their past. Now that is insight for a complainer to consider! Complain about the weather if you must. Whine about the rising cost of medical care if you need to vent. But complain about obstacles before you, difficulties and challenges that confront you and problems and sorrows that trouble your heart and Moses tells us that your complaint is against the Lord.

      How does one change? Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is helpful: change your focus! Rather than dwelling on what is wrong in our world consider how God might use you to better it. We were “created in Christ Jesus to do good things.” We were created not to belittle the world with all its difficulties, we were created to better it. Take Paul’s word and make it a great experiment for your life. Each morning pledge that you will not complain. Rather, ask how I might make this a better world for others. When you are confronted with personal hurts and difficulties ask, how might I learn and grow from this; how might God be using this to prepare me for a future I cannot now see? Then review yourself at the day’s close. How did you do? Obedience to Paul’s words here in Ephesians, consistently applied each day, will have the effect of diminishing the compulsion to complain.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Motivated By a Vision

“One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.”
Mark 12:42 (Common English Bible)

     Catherine was a woman whose faith moved mountains. A member of a small church I served many years ago, Catherine lived modestly on a meager social security check. The only other financial stream she had came from housesitting people’s pets while they traveled. She had little, and nothing about how she dressed and lived suggested otherwise. Yet, to know Catherine was to experience a living parable of God’s grace and generosity. Her life was motivated by a vision that neither poverty nor inadequacy could quench. It was a vision that she could be used to change lives.

     Each year, that congregation collected food and prepared large gift baskets for under-resourced families in the community. Each basket would have a medium-sized turkey, fresh vegetables, assorted canned foods, and breads and a dessert. Each year, Catherine participated by baking a loaf of bread to be included in one of the baskets. It was all she could afford. It was enough. During my six years of ministry in that church, nearly 100 people told me that Catherine’s witness of generosity resulted in their own.  My best estimate is that the additional generosity approached $5,000, making those six loaves of bread become nearly $5,000 to feed empty stomachs. In my way of seeing the world that is a huge mountain Catherine moved.

     Examine this faith. Can yours compare to Catherine’s, a faith that drives you to be generous, particularly when you may have little to offer? What sort of faith is this that would make Catherine bake a loaf of bread to feed another family on Thanksgiving? I asked her and her answer was the best sermon I have ever heard on God’s grace. She giggled and said that so many people have a fear of running out. But God’s mercies are new every day and so is God’s capacity to meet our daily needs. Catherine’s loaf of bread was an expression of gratitude. More, she answered, she is part of God’s work force helping God keep God’s promise to provide for someone else.

     This one sentence from Mark’s Gospel could be about Catherine. This poor widow trusted in God. The result was a determination - in the face of all evidence to the contrary - to contribute something of significance to advance God’s work. Despite the poverty of the offering, she was motivated by a vision. It was a vision that she could be used to make a difference in the life of another. And Jesus noticed.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Overcommitted Lives

“Your servant got busy doing this and that, and the prisoner disappeared.”
1 Kings 20:40 (Common English Bible)

     Early in my ministry, I served a congregation that had enormous challenges. The former pastor had been removed from ministry, the congregation had suffered a plateau in membership, and the financial health was strained. Much was required to return the ministry of that church back to good health. I poured myself into the mission and ministry of that congregation as the new pastor. I attended every committee meeting, taught a Sunday School class as well as provided most of the preaching and sought to meet all the pastoral care needs of the church. My heart was in the right place; my practice of ministry was seriously flawed. I exhausted myself. The result would be that the quality of my preaching, administrative leadership and pastoral care was diminished. I failed the church from over commitment.

     Here is a story in the Old Testament of someone who was asked to do one job well – guarding a prisoner. For a while the man did just that, he stood watch over the prisoner in his charge. He did nothing else. And the prisoner remained a prisoner. Yet, he thought he could do more, that he could “do this and that” to help Israel be victorious in battle. The unfortunate result is that the one thing Israel required of him wasn’t done. He permitted himself to be overcommitted and failed.

     The character and tempo of modern-day living is captured in my story and the biblical story. We seem always on the move, operating on a tight schedule, all the while an anxious eye on the clock. Rarely are such people trying to demonstrate their worth to others. More often they are simply committed to the mission of their organization and seek to advance it forward. The pace of life grows swifter, the pressure becomes greater and eventually, we discover why God rested on the seventh day after creation. A balance of work and rest sustains us. And any organization is advanced by each of us doing a few things well and equipping others to share in the work.

     There are people who are not turning out their best work because they are so “busy doing this and that.” A popular expression that is in use today is that they have “too much on their plate.” Such people fail to practice discrimination of the important verses the secondary with the ill-fated consequence of doing little well. Perspective is lost and the prisoner – any force that is determined to diminish our work – escapes.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Secret of Spiritual Power

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
Isaiah 40:31 (Common English Bible)

     A woman stepped into my office today. With tears and considerable emotion, she asked that I pray for the world. She mentioned nothing specific. She didn’t need to. Another shooting this week on a college campus that left ten people dead. An accidental bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan killed twenty-two people. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing terrorism, seeking news homes throughout Europe and the United States. These stories drain our strength and cause us to need renewed power.

     In the time that Isaiah wrote these words, his people also faced despair. Threatened by domination by a mighty foreign power, Isaiah’s people needed all the encouragement and strength that a genuine faith in God could bring. So do we. Just as the natural rhythm of life demands nourishing food, exercise and rest for the body, the same condition applies to our souls. Spiritual energies are rapidly depleted by the crises, suffering and fear that consumes our attention. Replenishing that spiritual energy is urgently needed. So Isaiah reminds his people – and us – that our sufficiency is of God. We remain weak unless we derive strength from God.

     How do God’s people claim this strength? “Hope in the Lord,” writes Isaiah. The “hope” Isaiah speaks of is not wishful thinking or “hoping for the best.” Here is Isaiah’s call to “trust unfailingly in God.” It is a call to “hold onto God” with expectant dependence. A constant reliance on God, meditating on God’s words and promises in the Bible, generates spiritual power and makes each of us alert for God’s intention to use us mightily for God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Isaiah asks that we attach ourselves to God as a child clings to a parent.

     As in the day of Isaiah, it still takes time to be holy; to be a people set apart for God’s purposes in a world shaken by fear. Schedule time each day for reading the Bible and prayer, for reading devotional literature that awakens the senses to new understandings, and do not neglect moments to simply be still and contemplate God’s love. These things, along with weekly worship in a community of faith, gives release to the inflow of God’s power that renews strength, restores hope, and lifts hearts as on the wings of eagles.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Complete in Christ

“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)

     John Leith, author and teacher of Reformed Theology, once commented to me that the single greatest threat to the church is amnesia – the church forgetting that she is complete in Christ. That comment was made to me nearly thirty years ago! With clarity and uncommon wisdom, Leith removed the clutter of the thousand reasons given for the decline of the church in the United States. Since his death, the church has continued on its downward trajectory, both in membership and worship attendance. If we are concerned about this current state of the church, as we ought to be, what should we be doing about it?

     The apostle Paul offers insight in these few sentences: “And you have been filled by him.” Any vessel, any person, any heart that “is full” lacks for nothing; it is full. Paul teaches here that we have been filled with Christ – that Christ alone is sufficient for all our needs. Nothing more needs to be added. Every book in the New Testament announces this truth yet the church today often fails to offer it with authority and in a compelling manner. When people, whose emotional resources have been depleted, approach the church, it seems rare that the individual is directed to Christ and Christ alone. Physical needs may be addressed – which Jesus affirms is important – but asking them to lean into the arms of Christ is absent.

     Once this truth is reclaimed – that we need nothing more than Christ to satisfy a heart that is desperate – it follows that we will draw our inspiration for daily life from his life. Guidance for our decisions, the pattern for our behavior and the manner in which we love one another will flow organically from our communion with Christ. As Christ continues to occupy our thoughts and heart, we become agents by which Christ’s continued presence and ministry is experienced in the world. Christ changes us as good mentors change for the positive those under their supervision.

     What does this lesson from Paul mean for the church? What is primary, I believe, is that the church cannot offer what it lacks. I speak of a deep conviction that the testimony of the Bible is sure; that Christ can be trusted and with that trust comes spiritual power that is palpable. We begin with ourselves. We begin to fully recognize once again the Kingship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, to read the Bible and actually do what we are instructed to do – to live as we understand Christ calling us to live. One life changed is infectious. It can change the church.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Is Belief In A Personal God Possible?

“Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 6:9 (Common English Bible)

     For many, the most challenging part of faith is belief in a personal God. Membership in a local church usually requires “a profession of faith.” Often, this is little more than mental consent that there is a God. That same consent to God’s existence usually assumes that the individual intends to place themselves under God’s authority. Yet, what is often present in that “profession” is a sincere desire to know God personally, to experience a relationship with God in such a manner that in those hours of deepest need, we may personally address God and feel that we are heard and cared for. Harry Emerson Fosdick is helpful here, “No one achieves a vital, personal, Christian experience without a profound sense of need.”[i] But the question presses, is belief in a personal God possible?

     One difficulty for experiencing a personal God today is the tendency of impersonal thinking and living. Anything sensory is found to be inferior to reason and intelligence. During my ministry in Texas a number of years ago, one individual criticized my preaching as too personal, too emotional. He was a medical doctor and sought sermons that would stretch his thinking, not move his heart. He was suspicious of preaching that stirred the emotions. To think of God in personal terms, he argued, was unsophisticated. I suspect that the Sunday morning pews are filled with people who are in agreement.

     But look at what Jesus does here for his disciples: Jesus takes the qualities of human parenting as a clue to understanding God; asks that we address God as father. God is not an impersonal force that moves through the universe. God is a living being that knows us, loves us and has a divine desire for our lives. Jesus draws from what is the best in our hearts to show us its higher ideal in God. Certainly, it is true that God has given us minds and expects that we should be growing in knowledge. But we cannot pursue God and fully know God without the heart. One of the basic convictions of our Christian faith is that the universe is directed by a loving purpose.

     Moments confront each of us that demand more than a mere belief in the existence of God. They are moments of such great personal need that more study - more knowledge about God - fails to satisfy. A calm strength in the midst of life’s storms is possible only as God is known personally. The Christian lives not by a higher knowledge of God. The Christian lives by faith, by prayer, by love and communion with God. When the soul cries out for a personal God, Jesus shows us the way. It is so simple we doubt its power. Get down on your knees, patiently silence all the voices in your mind, and then say, “Our Father, who is in Heaven.”


[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, Riverside Sermons (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 168.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Responsible Exercise of Faith

“Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those who were selling and 
buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the
chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It’s written, My house will be called
a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.’”
Matthew 21:12-13 (Common English Bible)

            Recently, a presidential candidate was critical of the pope’s comments on climate change. The candidate asserts that science should be left in the hands of scientists and that the pope should focus on theology and morality. What is comical about his remarks is that, as a Roman Catholic himself, he fails to grasp that caring for creation and climate change is within the realm of theology and morality. The Christian tradition is built upon God’s first vocation for us to be gardeners that protect, care for and sustain God’s good creation.

            Certainly, there isn’t consensus on the topic of climate change nor do I pretend to resolve that issue here. What is clear from this scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is that nothing is outside of the realm of God’s concern – climate change, business and economics, and personal morality – and that the church is called to speak on every issue that impacts God’s creation and how we treat one another. It simply cannot be ignored that in this passage, Jesus “concerns himself” with business and commerce.

            There is no getting away with the fact that much of what harms our earth and creates economic disparity among people is permitted because God’s people have never placed the inequity of it all on their conscience. It is fashionable to be tolerant, some may say. While many would agree that tolerance is a virtue it should never be confused with apathy or indifference, which is vice. There are evils in this world that demand for God’s people to speak, “These things should not be!”

            The responsible exercise of the Christian faith calls for men and women to make it their business to care for God’s earth and to create a community where people experience a political and economic climate that is humane and just, sound and wholesome. Because people differ on how that might be done – thus different political parties – our behavior toward one another must be exercised with civility and humility. Nonetheless, the world that God intends requires people who are sensitive in conscience, discerning of God’s movement and militant in action.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Isn't It Enough To Be Decent?

“God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown,
measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.”
Ephesians 4:13b (Common English Bible)

     My daughter, Rachael has recently received a promotion from Holland America Cruise Lines. After eight weeks as a ship photographer, Rachael was selected to receive special training by world-renown portrait photographer, Joe Craig, for Black Label Studio work. No longer will Rachael walk the common spaces of the ship, photographing the guests of the cruise line. She will now occupy a studio aboard the ship and accept appointments. More importantly, the standard of excellence for her photography has been significantly raised. Her work will be measured by the standard of Joe Craig who has spent a career building his product image.

     The cost of her work has also risen – as much as four times the cost of the product she originally created for Holland America guests. A quick glance at passengers’ reviews online, shows wide dissatisfaction with the increased price structure. Yet, for every critical review – every single one at my review of posted comments – surprise and delight is expressed at the unusually high quality of the product. “Outstanding,” “We were smitten” and “Far and away better than anything I have seen before” are customary comments.

     In matters of faith, many today are asking the question, ”Isn’t it enough to be decent?” Increasingly, people have little interest in the Bible, the church or worship. They declare that “right” behavior is what really matters. One difficulty with this argument is that the standard for this “right” behavior isn’t identified. More, few are prepared to acknowledge that their vague sense of what is “right” draws heavily upon inherited spiritual capital. They never wrestle with the question, “How long will decency last if the Christian faith continues to decline?”

     The larger question is, “What pulls us forward in this life?” Do we settle for the common photograph available for a modest price or will our standard be higher? We all strive for something. Here, in Ephesians, we learn that God’s desire is that our standard for moral behavior and values be nothing less than the standard of Christ. In photography parlance, God invites us to nothing less than a Black Label Studio portrait for our life. Isn’t it enough to be decent? No, it is not enough. And the practice of our faith is what will take us into God’s studio. The result will be a life “far and away better than anyone could have imagined.”


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Experiencing A Real and Vivid Faith

“Taste and see how good the Lord is! The one who takes refuge in him is truly happy!”

Psalm 34:8 (Common English Bible)

     There are large numbers of people who have never experienced faith as a matter of the heart – a stirring of the emotions. They have a good mind, a strong character, and possess a genuine love for God.  Yet, their faith is lived as a mental consent to the teachings of the Bible, the Church, and others who are respected and admired. What they lack – and may long for – is a genuine, personal encounter with the living God, a personal engagement with the holy.

     Some time ago, I was sharing breakfast with a friend and we were discussing the story from Genesis where Jacob wrestled with God throughout the night. “When the man (God) saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25)” My friend uttered impulsively – and sincerely – “I would be happy to walk with a limp to have had that kind of experience with God!”

     A rare opportunity presented itself years ago for my wife and I to be present in the studio during the taping of Good Morning America. Emeril Lagasse was a guest of the show that particular morning. Sam Champion asked me to accompany him as Emeril demonstrated the preparation of a holiday dessert. At the conclusion of the demonstration, Emeril invited Champion to “taste” what they had created together. Sam Champion did and the look on Champion’s face pleased Emeril. What happened next was unexpected. Champion grabbed another fork, cut another “taste” from the dessert and held it to my mouth: “Doug, you have got to taste this!” I had two choices – the studio camera now on me as a national audience watched. I could demand that Champion prove to me it was as good as he seemed to think before I opened my mouth or I could simply “taste” and see for myself. Naturally, I did the latter. My conclusion concurred with Champion’s. It was perhaps the best dessert I had ever tasted.

     Robert J. McCracken has observed that the experience of faith occurs in a similar manner, “It begins as an experiment and ends as an experience.”1 McCracken says that too often faith is not lived authentically – an earnest effort each day to have our lives shaped by the teachings of Jesus. What remains is a faith that receives intellectual consent and lives in argument of what the Bible really teaches. A substitution is required. Substitute the practice of faith for argument and, in time, both a religious experience and conviction will be yours. Christ has pledged that it will be so.

1 Robert J. McCracken, Questions People Ask: Sermons Preached in Riverside Church, New York City (Harper & brother

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Knowing God's Will

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence.
Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6 (Common English Bible)

     How can we know God’s will? It is a real question for many people. The world is so vast, with billions of people on it, that it is occasionally incomprehensible to fathom God takes notice of us much less has a divine purpose for our life. Yet, the faith we encounter in the Bible is that all human affairs are under divine direction – that God has a design for the world and that each one is an integral part of that design. We do not live by chance or fate. Our lives are under the guiding hand of God. Sometimes that guidance is clear and unmistakable. More often, that guidance is reduced to a still, small whisper and listening is difficult. The question remains, how can we know God’s will?

     Absent dramatic intervention – which was and remains one means God communicates God’s guidance – people must develop an eye for the quiet succession of apparently natural events that unfold.  Listening is also important. The unexpected impulses, sudden promptings and uncommon challenges that confront us all, hold the possibility of God’s direction of our steps. Paying attention to everyday situations can awaken us to God’s presence and activity in our lives. We shall recognize God in the little things each day – and follow – if we are in touch with God. As exercise strengthens the body and proper diet sustains energy, so the spiritual faculty within us expands through regular prayer and meditation on the Bible.

     Immersion in a community of faith is also important. King David listened to Nathan, the disciples honed one another’s application of Jesus’s teaching and the apostle Paul was instructed in the faith by Ananias. Personal discernment of ordinary events in our lives is important but there are times when it is wise to listen for God’s guidance through another. Particularly those people who have developed an uncommon capacity to see God in the ordinary, they can enlarge our vision and sharpen our understanding. They see our lives from a different angle and can offer a dispassionate take on where God may be actively leading us.

     What remains is the hardest – surrendering our lives to God’s will. Prayers are more often, “This is what I would like you to do, Lord,” rather than, “What would you have me to do?” What we really seek is divine approval of what we desire. The words of Gardner Taylor are wise, “It is hard for us to realize that on this uneven journey there are directions, right choices that we cannot know because we are not God.”1 Perhaps the greatest challenge of the Christian faith is learning that we only have two choices in life – a choice of masters. Either we will remain in charge of our own lives or we surrender ourselves to God and trust in God with all our heart. It is in confidence of the latter that the author of Proverbs wrote.


1 Edward L. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor, Volume 2 (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 24.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Scramble for Success

“An argument broke out among the disciples
over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest.”

Luke 22:24 (Common English Bible)
     Little has changed in the human condition from the day of Jesus’ ministry on earth to our day – in every walk of life people seem to be playing the status-seeking game. It is seen in their homes, their furniture, and the car they drive. It is noticed in the clubs they join and the company they keep. Many surround themselves with symbols of their preferred place in the social order. Advertisements advance this endless scramble for position in social rank. Luxury items carefully placed on optimal pages of newspapers and magazines with one aim – promotion of ostentation and snobbery. Success is measured by the stuff we acquire, greatness measured by our position in the company and community.    
     The unfortunate result of this scramble is that we become self-centered. Everything becomes about us. Even in the church – perhaps particularly in the church – a self-centered nature is revealed in demands that the worship music suit our personal taste, the pastor be more outgoing, and the children be less distracting. Criticism always shows up in someone who is thinking far too much about themselves. There was a case of a woman who made a special donation for flowers in worship one Sunday morning. Mention of her gift was inadvertently omitted from the worship bulletin. Recognition denied, she demanded a refund.
     Jesus had a great deal to say about self-centeredness and status seeking. “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They love being greeted with honor in the markets. They long for the places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets” (Luke 20:46). Jesus’ remark, “Watch out” could not be clearer. Self-promotion has no place in God’s kingdom. For a people who claim to follow Jesus, many of us are missing the mark – some considerably so!
     What is a faithful response? First, understand that Jesus never forbade his followers to seek greatness. It is right to seek it, but it must be real greatness. The greatness esteemed by Jesus is one that places initiative, ambition, and developed ability at the service of others; at the service of God’s mission. The parable of the valuable coins in Matthew’s twenty-fifth chapter is but one supreme teaching of the Bible that God expects us not to be idle. Second, if we are to reverse ourselves in the stream of self-interest and drive for success we must keep before us – morning and evening – the example of Jesus. In him we see love to God as the inspiration of life. There is simply no substitution for the regular reading of scripture and prayer for maintaining our focus on why we live and strive to achieve much.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

When It Is Difficult to Love Yourself

“…and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Luke 10:27 (Common English Bible)

     Nothing runs deeper in human nature than the desire to be loved. It is seen in people of every age. Children craving attention and approval, teenagers eager to be acceptable and affable to their peers and adults longing to be welcomed and valued. In every age there is present the widespread desire to be liked and loved. There is nothing wrong with this. Approval, acceptance, and appreciation are yearnings of nearly every normal person. Each of us wants to be loved.

     It is upon this healthy quality of the human condition that Jesus constructs his Great Commandment, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, for numbers of people there is present a practical difficulty – they have trouble loving themselves. And this is where the Great Commandment comes apart for them. Perhaps because of some physical defect, lack of general attractiveness, or problems with personality or temperament, they have experienced avoidance or blatant rejection. The consequence is pain. Unpopular and unwanted, it is difficult to give to God or neighbor a love they have not known personally.

     Desperate for acceptance and community – or simply a friend – lonely people will compromise nearly anything. They will become anyone others want them to be, value what others demand, and behave as others do, even if that behavior is wrong and hurts others. They willingly put to death the person they are. Being authentic only brought loneliness. Peer pressure is the common label used in such circumstances. And it is a powerful weapon by those who would manipulate others to conformity.

     Jesus offers an alternative. This very commandment – The Great Commandment – demonstrates Jesus’ reverence for people. Jesus assumes that people love themselves because he found them worthy of being loved! This is demonstrated again and again in the ministry of Jesus. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, dishonest and loathed by the people, a woman caught in moral failure, and a man who lived alone in a graveyard, Jesus loved those others ignored. And there is Christ’s power. By personal influence he brought out in them what was the finest in them. He gave them a new self-respect and that became the basis of their recovery and transformation. Jesus did this for them. He continues the same today for those who receive him.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Common Life Lived Uncommonly

“To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one.” Matthew 25:15 (Common English Bible)

      It is natural to strive for greatness, for recognition and for making a large contribution. Each one of us is endowed with some talent, some gift and ability and the business of life is to discover what it is. Once discovered, that talent is developed and polished much like a rough, natural diamond that is placed in the hands of a jeweler.  No one really wants to be common. Every normal young person has dreams and aspirations and strives to get on with life, to climb the success ladder and pass others in the walk of life.

      This is admirable, of course, if the motivation is wholesome and the desire is directed toward worthy ends. But our Lord’s parable of the valuable coins is a reminder that there is a limit on each one of us. Some may be endowed with greater ability but everyone has some limit on capacity for achievement. Five star generals do not win battles by themselves. Without apology, Jesus teaches that talent and ability is unevenly distributed. Some people will be exceptionally talented and have the potential for greater accomplishment than others. Some are uncommonly gifted and many of us are simply common.

      The question then becomes, will we do our best with what we have? Will we focus our efforts for maximum contribution, for the welfare of others or will we begin to whine and recline because we cannot shine? Unreasonable expectations and demands upon ourselves result in chronic unhappiness and diminish not only our lives but also the lives of those who love us.  There are far more ordinary doctors, lawyers, persons in the service sector and administrative roles than exceptional ones. Yet, each has the capacity to make an important contribution each day to their families, friends and community.   

      The simple and practical course to follow is to make a realistic appraisal of our capacity and gifts. This may mean for many the discarding of delusions of grandeur, acknowledging and accepting that in the Lord’s distribution of gifts we may have received only one or two talents, and that God’s expectation of us is the same as those who received five talents. The acid test of character is whether we have discovered what talent we have and then, having discovered it, placed it to maximum use. That is when the common life is lived uncommonly.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Allure of a Defeated Life

“I was given a thorn in my body.”
2 Corinthians 12:7 (Common English Bible)

     Few things are as unfortunate than to see a woman or man losing heart and all sense of hope, drifting into apathy, and finally despair. When a sense of defeat is permitted to take residence in a life, frustration and inaction are too frequently the result. The face becomes sullen, the head is held low, and the shoulders sag. Bitterness grows, the result of an erroneous belief that life has dealt a raw deal or that others have received better opportunities. Left unchecked, the self-pity sentences them to low levels of achievement. A strange comfort is found in simply giving-up – experiencing a certain allure of being defeated.

     History is replete with men and women who have experienced hardship, anguished over setbacks, and struggled with handicaps – physical, mental and emotional. Anyone of them may have been resentful and rebellious – and many have – with bad behavior the consequence. Yet, there are others who rise above the circumstances of their lives, press forward with unbelievable determination and consecrate their lives to the service of others. The apostle Paul stands among them. Paul moved through life hindered by “a thorn in the body” but produced nearly two-thirds of our New Testament.

     Rather than giving-up and accepting defeat, Paul labored under his handicap. Naturally, Paul – like any of us – preferred that the handicap be corrected, the difficulty removed. On three occasions Paul asked the Lord for this. But the handicap remained; the thorn wasn’t removed. But Paul’s prayers were answered. “My grace is enough for you,” answered God. With God’s answer, Paul committed himself to do the very best he could do with what he had. His life and ministry was a vessel of hope for everyone he encountered. To his children, Theodore Roosevelt continually cultivated a hopeful disposition – and in doing so charged the atmosphere of his home with hope.

     Paul sought to demonstrate in his life that there is no limitation, no misfortune, no burden of sorrow, suffering or loss that the human spirit cannot rise above. He endured much of each. But Paul went deeper than self-discipline and self-determination. Paul triumphed over it all because he sought God. Perhaps this was the finest message that Paul left the church – that when the allure of defeat tempts the heart Paul calls us to that deeper place where our life is open to the grace and power of Almighty God.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Becoming Anxious for God

“One by one, they all began to make excuses.”
Luke 14:18  (Common English Bible)

     An anxious eye on the clock and the unending fight with time accurately describes the character and tempo of life today. We are a people always on the move, operating on a tight and crowded schedule. The pace of life seems swifter than that of a previous generation, the pressure harder and responsibilities to be borne heavier than they should be for any one person. The tragic consequence for millions is that little time is given to cultivate the life of the soul – little time left to know and enjoy God.

     Luke’s story offers caution. In this parable, Jesus speaks of a man who prepared a great feast and sent out invitations to his friends to be his guest. One by one they sent their apologies. The first had bought a farm and felt it prudent to go and look it over. The second closed a deal for five oxen and was off to check on them. The third had recently married – perhaps the strongest excuse but an excuse nonetheless. At that the host directed his servant to go out and bring to the feast the poor, the crippled, blind, and lame. Jesus’ point is clear. All three men were engaged in perfectly legitimate activities. Yet, so immersed in them were they that they left room in their lives for nothing else.

     Jesus’ life was also filled with many legitimate activities. Some may say that Jesus’ life was burdened with the needs and hurts of others. But do not fail to notice an important distinction between the life lived by Jesus and the life of the men in the parable. Jesus made time for quiet, for prayer, and for God. Precisely because the demands of life exhausted Jesus he would slip away from the crowds and the bustle to be alone with God. If Jesus realized the sustaining need of regular time with God, how much more do we? Jesus’ deepest need to get through each day was spiritual. So is ours.

     We are a busy people. Occupied and preoccupied by this and that, and the other thing, those things that matter most are often crowded out. Luke’s Gospel makes a plea for the human heart and soul – a plea for perspective and recognition of the supreme values for which Jesus stood. In an overcrowded life, and the pressure and pace being greater than they should be, Jesus’s own life calls us to practice discrimination – to choose wisely what will fill our lives, never neglecting to reserve time for the spiritual. The spiritual should have priority over everything else. Our duty to God comes before all other demands placed upon us. Should we become anxious about what we face this day, let us first be anxious for God.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Therefore, if you worship me, it will all be yours" (Luke 4:7 CEB)

“Therefore, if you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Luke 4:7 (Common English Bible)

     Catherine Cavazos Renken, Presbyterian pastor and friend, recently posted on Facebook a page from a Christian inspirational calendar, presumably one that she had used in a previous year. The Bible selection for Thursday, July 3rd reads, “Therefore, if you worship me, it will all be yours.” It was an unfortunate selection by the publishers of the daily calendar. As Catherine notes in her posting, “Inspirational Bible Quote Less Inspirational If You Know Who Said It.” A cursory reading of this verse in the Bible quickly makes apparent that these words are spoken by Satan to Jesus – a small portion of Satan’s temptation of Jesus while Jesus was on a mountaintop in prayer.

     Removed from context, nearly anyone can use selected scripture to advance their own political position, ideology or religious convictions. Scripture is used to bar women from leadership in the church, was used to support slavery and often used to discriminate against anyone who fails to hold a particular – and narrow – interpretation of God’s word. It seems to me that such use of the Bible is less concerned with advancing God’s Kingdom and more concerned with advancing the kingdom of the individual. As that great teacher of the faith, Paul Tillich once remarked, “The Bible is God’s word not when you think you can grasp it but when you allow it to grasp you.”

     The question becomes, on whose terms do we seek to interpret the Bible – the Bible or ours? Critical study and interpretation of the Bible in its historical and cultural context is often dismissed if conclusions differ with cherished notions of understanding. Bumper stickers that declare, “The Bible says it, I believe it, end of conversation” often betray a mind closed to deeper insights of an authentic and genuine witness of the Bible. Surely, such persons wouldn’t apply a literal interpretation to Psalm 137:9, “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!”

     Present in the fifth chapter of Acts there is a Pharisee and teacher of the faith named Gamaliel, well respected by all the people. He is present when the early apostles of the Christian faith are being ridiculed and harassed due to their teaching and preaching of the risen Christ. Simply, the apostles’ interpretation of the faith is rejected. The “religious establishment” of the day was furious at the apostles and wanted to kill them. Gamaliel urged restraint – “what if the apostles are right? You will then find yourselves fighting God!” His counsel is sound today. Perhaps more civility in our speech and humility of heart would be wise as we consider the reading – and hearing – of God’s word today by those who stand in a different place than us.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why Go to Church?

 “Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised.On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read.”Luke 4:16 (Common English Bible)

     People are leaving the church – one major study indicates that people are scrambling for the exit doors of the church. Those who remain are becoming less frequent in worship. The felt need for a personal faith is undiminished. Religious convictions remain strong in our nation according to the same study. And many strive to live in a manner that is in accordance with those convictions. The difficulty is that people are becoming impatient with the church as an institution.

     Luke’s Gospel records of Jesus, “On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did.” This observation is made as a sidebar in a larger narrative but it is noteworthy. What it tells us is that the personal habits of Jesus included as a priority the regular participation in corporate worship. Naturally, Jesus knew, as any of us that God can be worshipped anywhere. He could have found support in his day that holy moments can be realized in quiet meditation and private prayer, under the open sky. In fact, each of the four Gospels record Jesus doing just that – moments of prayer in a garden, upon a mountain and – agonizingly – upon a cross. Each place made sacred by prayer and personal worship. Nonetheless, on the day of the week when the faith community gathered for public worship, Jesus was present.

     Close attention to the Gospel stories offer nuanced clues that much of the preaching Jesus heard was boring and the worship uninspiring. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the character of the worship services did not affect his attendance. For Jesus, the house of God was a spiritual home. It was where the people of God belonged. Participation in shared worship offered a reminder that life is lived for something larger and finer and more enduring than a preoccupation of the individual life. As Theodore Roosevelt once wrote to his wife, “I feel that as much as I enjoy loafing, there is something higher for which to live.”[1]
     Yet, right at the end of this brief verse in Luke’s Gospel lay the most compelling answer for the question, “Why go to church?” Jesus stood up to read. Corporate worship provides the opportunity of contribution, as well as the receiving of religious experience. A shared witness and a mutual encouragement in our faith journey are simply absent in private moments of worship and prayer. The church may struggle with tedium and uninspired worship from time to time. But worship is not about us – and our needs – as much as it is about the community of God’s people and how we might be used to strengthen one another.

[1] David McCullough, Mornings On Horseback (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 30.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Overcoming Defeat

“Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him.”
Luke 22:43 (Common English Bible)

     Three weeks ago our daughter, Rachael, caught a flight from Fort Lauderdale International to Vancouver, British Columbia to begin her new career as a professional photographer aboard the Volendam, Holland America Cruise Lines. Naturally, she was a bundle of energy, a mixture of excitement for the opportunity and concern for whether she had prepared sufficiently for the journey. She had made an eight-month commitment to Holland America which meant she would be away from our home for that length of time. A crucial question was if she had packed all she would need for that time away.

     The question of adequate preparation, of securing adequate resources for a journey touches each one of us. The closer we move to the time of departure that question can become overwhelming. Have we enough for both what we anticipate and for what we cannot see? Will we have all that we need to triumph over all unforeseen challenges? It is well for any of us to experience some measure of anxiety about these questions. Only the foolish begin a journey without thought of what may be required.

     An equally important question is do we have the spiritual resources to conquer what is inevitable to us all, moments of discouragement, disillusionment and exhaustion? How will any of us keep the fire of a true devotion to God burning when life thrust us into a crisis? Descending upon us like a sudden tornado, our sheltered and comfortable life can be swept away in a moment by rough winds. With a life now wrecked and in a ruined heap, the enemy of defeat lingers near, ready in a moment to destroy us. Defeat is a worthy adversary. Is our faith sufficient for the strain?

      That day comes to all of us, the day when we experience a desolating sense of human weakness and an inadequacy sweeps over us. It is a day when the road becomes steeper and the journey lonelier than any of us could have ever imagined. It is precisely on this day that we must remember that as followers of Jesus we have more than our natural resources; that there is more available to us than what we packed for the journey. In that testing hour we have a supernatural resource, an outer power that is as sturdy as an oak and as intense as the sun. For Jesus that power was received from a heavenly angel. For us that strengthening angel may be some shining truth from the Bible, an encouraging word from a friend or a quite strength received from time in prayer. The angel that comes appears differently to each of God’s children. But the angel does come. We need only to keep our eyes – and hearts – wide open that we not miss it.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Treasure in Clay Pots

“But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God
 and doesn’t come from us.”
 2 Corinthians 4:7 (Common English Bible)

     My favorite photographer today is Alan S. Maltz. His work is primarily nature, destination and landscape photography with particular attention on South Florida. His work has garnered wide acclaim including The Official Wildlife Photographer of Florida by The Wildlife Foundation of Florida and The Official Fine Art Photographer of Florida by Visit Florida. His work is not inexpensive so, consequently, I have only one of his pieces, Tropical Blues, a lovely sunset in the Florida Keys.

     I purchased this piece already matted but unframed. This is how I have displayed it in my office for nearly two years – waiting until I am comfortable in spending an extravagant sum to have it properly framed. Though there will be some who may disagree with me, I believe that it is not fitting to enclose such a lovely – and expensive – picture in an inexpensive frame. Priceless artifacts are encased in lovely and prominent cabinets in museums and expensive jewelry is placed in presentation boxes that are nearly as beautiful as the jewelry itself. Anything less would fail to properly value the artifact or beautiful jewelry. The same is true for this rich and beautiful photograph. Yet this, writes Paul, is precisely what God has done.

     In a startling contrast, God has taken the magnificent treasure of divine grace and placed it in human hearts – hearts that are likened to clay pots. This is a God who would take a fine art photograph of Alan S. Maltz and place it quickly into a tawdry picture frame found in a yard sale. Here is an immense and glorious treasure entrusted to such broken and pathetic instruments as men and women; jewels of a great Kingdom placed in a flimsy box of cardboard. “But we have this treasure in clay pots.” This is what God has done – and so, there must be a lesson here for all of us.

     Paul invites the reader to join him in discovery, to find the reason and purpose for this most unusual contrast of treasure and clay. And Paul’s rich discovery is our discovery: “so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.” God’s purpose is that it will be unmistakable to the world that the forward movement of the church’s mission cannot be credited to us, the church. The power of the church to change lives and transform communities does not come from human strength and determination. Anyone who has an honest estimation of human ability understands that. They understand that, alone, any of us are inadequate for the job. There must be something more, something else at work in us to accomplish the immense task of making whole in the world what is broken. That something more, that something else is God.