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Thursday, February 26, 2015

"I Am the Lord" (Isaiah 45:5 CEB)

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; beside me there is no God.
Isaiah 45:5 (Common English Bible)

     Each morning I receive from the New York Times an electronic “briefing” of the day’s top news stories. Conflict in the Ukraine, violent faith extremism in the Middle East and political tensions here at home seem to dominate the conversation of the citizens of this great nation. Any of these headline events could, at any moment, change the course of the lives of all of us. Few would question that, as a nation, we are unsettled. Yet, in the midst of all this, there remains a people who are prepared to stand and say, with conviction, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

     Perhaps the present unease of our nation calls for a closer look at such a belief - a belief in a God who remains present and in control of all creation. Simply, what does the full weight of that profession of faith really mean? Though statistics show that a sizable majority of the U.S. population believe in God many somehow give the impression of taking much more seriously the temporary centers of power - political, economic, and scientific - than the active presence and work of an almighty God. We talk and behave as if there are other powers that are really in control of our future.

     This is not new. The prophet Isaiah - as well as each of the Bible writers - knew well how much there is in our world that calls into question the active presence and care of a loving God. Yet, it is into such a world, where nations threaten one another, accidents happen and where hardship and difficulty fall upon both the just and the unjust, that these same writers bring to us a word from God. The day when Scripture was penned is not unlike our day; people where alarmed and fearful of what might happen to them.

     Into such uncertainty one might ask if there is proof of God. There is not. Nor can the absence of God be proved. What remains is an examination of any anecdotal evidence that may be found. In my ministry I have listened to those with devastating illness, those who have lost a loved one and others who have experienced significant economic loss who all speak of the common strength found in their trust of a living God. It was this faith that sustained them in difficulty. Perhaps all of this is anecdotal, as I have mentioned, but it is enough for me to join each of them in declaring the words of Isaiah, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; beside me there is no God.”


Joy,

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Lord's Blessing

“The Lord’s blessing makes a person rich, and no trouble is added to it.”
Proverbs 10:22 (Common English Bible)

     Woven into our common speech today is the language of the church. Perhaps the most clear example - and most often used - is the greeting, “Merry Christmas!” These words roll freely off the lips of all sorts of people at Christmas; merchants at the close of a sale, service providers at the completion of some job, and strangers passing one another on the street. Even Santa Claus is heard using this expression of the Christian Church! The difficulty is that such phrases become depleted of their richness from the causal way in which they are spoken. 

     Another example is the expression, “The Lord bless you,” or more simply, “God bless.” This is freely used today, often with little understanding of what is precisely meant. Here is an expression that has passed through the doors of the church into the traffic of secular life. You hear it used tenderly, sincerely, with deep hopefulness or even as a parting word. One television comedian’s weekly sign off, “Good night and may God bless” became familiar to his viewers. The question remains for many, what is meant by these words?

     Simply, these words, drawn from this passage in Proverbs, mean a benefit, a gift, or a happiness and completeness conferred on us by God. Whether he knew it or not, the comedian who signed-off his weekly variety show with, “God bless” was saying, “I hope God gives to you what is required today for your joy and happiness.” What a most pleasant thing to say to another! 

     Naturally, this is far more rich than saying, “Good luck”. The words, “God bless” sparkle with a depth and power and meaning that wishing someone, “Good luck” can never accomplish. Perhaps this is because nothing is being left to chance. The phrase, “God bless” preserves God. God is in the words. Though this phrase may have fallen into casual use, the aroma of the faith remains. Next time you use the words, “God bless” understand that what you have done is placed that person into the hands - and heart - of God where untold riches are found and there is no trouble. 


Joy,

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Pelicans

 “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us.”
Romans 5:6 (Common English Bible)


      Florida has two pelicans, the Brown Pelican who is present year round and the White Pelican who is a “snowbird” and only arrives in the winter. An exciting bird to watch, the pelican has a very large bill with a rather large pouch used to gather food. Most days they can be seen from the beaches of South Florida diving from great heights, crashing into the water and emerging seconds later with a satisfying meal of fish. I have sat on Delray Beach and counted as many as fourteen flying together along the shoreline overhead. For me, watching pelicans in flight is a most satisfying experience!


     The early Christian Church often used images of the pelican as a symbol of caring and self-sacrifice. This was because of a misunderstood practice of pelicans as they cared for their young. While feeding her babies a mother pelican often presses her bill onto her chest in order to fully empty the pouch. The early church thought that the mother was wounding herself - providing her own blood from her chest - when no other food was available. The Dalmation pelican has a blood-red pouch in early breeding season and this may have contributed to this misperception. As a result, the pelican came to symbolize the death of Jesus that we might have forgiveness and life.
     Here in this sentence from Romans, Paul speaks to God’s character and achievement, in particular, Jesus sacrificing himself - accepting wounds on his own body - for a people who were utterly helpless because of their sins. Christ’s own suffering and death on a cross shows God’s gracious, surprising love for us. The careful reader will notice that God’s love is not conditional. God doesn’t ask anything in return before dying for us. What is abundantly clear is that it was at that point “we were utterly helpless” that God did what was necessary for us. For anyone who inquires of the character of God, that is what God is like. God loves us first.
     The self-wounding pelican for her young is a legend. More careful observation has taught us much about pelicans. Yet, this legend provides hope, encouragement and strength for me. Each time I am on the beach enjoying a beautiful day I look for pelicans in flight overhead. When I see one - or many - I am reminded of the legend. And that legend is all I need to hear the words again in my heart, “Christ came at just the right time” for me.
Joy,

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Flags on the Beach

“But if you do warn the righteous not to sin, and they don’t sin,
 they will be declared righteous.
Their lives will be preserved because they heeded the warning,
and you will save your life.”
Ezekiel 3:21 (Common English Bible)

     The sky is clear and the temperature is optimal for a day at the beach. You grab your sunscreen, a chair and a good book and look forward to a day in the sun, sand and surf. After making your way along the path that has been cleared through the sea grapes and other natural coastal fauna, you arrive on the beach and discover that flags have been prominently placed on or near lifeguard stations. Someone has been given the responsibility for flying the correct flag for each day’s swimming conditions. Though there may be some regional differences, the flag warning system is used by coastal communities worldwide to alert beach goers of potential water hazards.

     On Delray Beach there are ordinarily four color flags. Green flags are the most welcomed. They are flown when the day is clear and the water is calm. A green flag is an all clear sign - safe to swim and enjoy the day. Yellow flags means that ocean conditions are not optimal but not life-threatening. There may be a high surf or dangerous current and caution is advised. A purple flag indicates that dangerous marine life is in the water or on the shore. This flag may be flown with other flags and suggests extreme caution. Red flags are the most serious. Usually, a red flag is used to discourage swimming by all but very strong swimmers.

     Ezekiel is given “flag duty” by God for the people of Israel. He must shoulder the responsibility of placing warning flags in their midst alerting them of God’s presence and claim upon their lives. Whether the people paid attention to the flags or not was not Ezekiel’s concern, only that he got the word out. If the people were wise and heeded the warnings, they would live. Otherwise, they would perish. It is a considerable responsibility to discern the day’s conditions and carefully raise the appropriate flag.

     As members of a faith community we have a similar responsibility. That responsibility is not necessarily to walk around announcing dire warnings. Rather, it is a responsibility to make a positive investment in the lives of others. As Ezekiel, God calls us to take an interest in the common welfare of others, to pour ourselves into their lives in such a manner that they see God and God’s care for them. By our genuine interest in others, we deliver ourselves from an inward focus that only results in selfishness, meanness and, ultimately fear of loss. It is how we will save our own lives.

Joy