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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.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Watch Yourself

“Watch yourself!
Don’t forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Deuteronomy 6:12 (Common English Bible)

     Temple University of Philadelphia is currently promoting their educational opportunities with the moniker, Always Charging Forward. I imagine that it is effective – tapping into our natural propensity to look at the life that stretches out ahead of us. With an education from Temple University we are empowered to charge – with considerable power – into what lies ahead rather than merely stumbling into it. Obsessed with the future as we are today, many are prepared to invest considerable resources to take advantage of every opportunity that presents a better quality of life. Temple University wants us to believe that it all starts with an education that they can provide.

     Confidence in an unknown future requires considerable planning, preparation and faith. For the Christian, faith usually means that our future is in the hands of an almighty God and that God can be trusted to see us into that future and through it. That point of view is sound in our Christian understanding of God’s activity. But the writer of Deuteronomy wants us to know that it is inadequate. Faith is deeper and richer than our confidence in what God will do. Faith is also looking over our shoulder at what God has done. “Watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

     Some today ask, “Why go to church and listen to all that stuff about the distant past; about ancient Israel and Egypt?” “What do the characters of Abraham and Moses have to do with us?” What they are really declaring is that they seek a faith that is up-to-date, a faith for the future. Yet, those same people will acknowledge that they have faith in America primarily because of our nation’s history. It is because we believe that certain things have happened that we have confidence in what can happen. Confidence – or faith – doesn’t simply leap from nowhere.

     So the writer of Deuteronomy asks that we look back in faith before we look forward. There are moments in our past that are quite decisive for us, moments that provide a foundation of confidence for that forward-looking faith that we so desperately seek. To look back in faith is how we refresh our memory of God’s power and faithfulness. That is what provides the sturdy base for trust and hope today. This is why the people of God gather, week after week, to worship – to recall the old, old story of God’s faithfulness that empowers our charging forward into the future.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

When You Hear of Wars

“When you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed.
These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet.”
Mark 13:7 (Common English Bible)

     Some years ago, I interviewed for the position of senior pastor for a church located in New Jersey. I did not seek out this opportunity; they sought me – receiving my name from someone who thought I would be exactly what they were looking for in a pastor. This search committee had narrowed their search down to one other candidate and me. Grace, my wife, and I were brought to their community for a weekend for further interviews and becoming acquainted with one another. In the Presbyterian Church, this is the typical process for both the search committee and the pastor to discern if the potential relationship is a good fit.

     Most of Saturday was given over to additional interviews and showing my wife and me the community. A delightful dinner was catered in the main dining hall of a major corporation headquartered in that state. The following morning – Sunday morning – I preached for the search committee my “trial” sermon. Everything about the weekend felt right for Grace and me and we were prepared to accept their call to me to be their pastor if they offered it. They did not. During lunch with the committee, following worship, they told my wife and me that everything about the weekend felt right to them except one thing they could not overlook. It was this: I preached that morning from a different translation of the Bible than what they preferred. I continue to believe that they choose as their focus that day, the wrong thing.

     This is precisely the dynamic of this story from Mark’s thirteenth chapter; the disciple’s focus is on the “awesome stones and buildings” (Verse 1). Jesus shifts their focus from the present to the future, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished” (Verse 2). The disciples had chosen as their focus that day, the wrong thing. Jesus then announces that evil is expanding – that things were going to get worse - and that all disciples had the responsibility to “watch out;” to be ready for the end. Yet, Jesus tells his disciples. “Don’t be alarmed” (Verse 7). What Jesus declares is that God is still in charge. Rather than becoming pessimistic about what the future holds, followers of Christ are to be optimistic about God.

     The end is drawing near. Jesus wants all who hear him to know that we don’t have forever. This glimpse into the future is not a call to experience dread and despair. It is a call to focus on living faithfully in the present “just as if” the end will arrive any day.  This is not the time to be living without Christ. Nor is it the time to be sloppy in our discipleship as if we have all the time in the world. “Don’t be alarmed” when the world looks hopelessly out of control, says Jesus. God alone will determine the end of time. Our responsibility is to pay attention to God in the present, have hope and always be seeking to live faithfully.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

I Live on High, in Holiness

“I live on high, in holiness, and also with the crushed and the lowly,
reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.”
Isaiah 57:15 (Common English Bible)

     Recently Grace and I spent a weekend in the Florida Keys with two dear friends. In addition to sharing meals together, shopping, stimulating conversation about our families and an evening of bicycling, the four of us summoned the courage to try something we had never done before – paddle boarding. Popularity of the sport seems to be growing exponentially in South Florida, particularly the Keys. It looked fun and appeared to be a sport that would be easy for beginners. It was not. Paddle boarding challenges both core strength and balance and beginners spend more time falling from the board than standing. My wife, Grace, perhaps an exception; other people asking me how long she had been paddle boarding.

     After several attempts at standing – and failing – Grace said to me to begin on my knees, “you have more control on your knees.” Hearing my wife’s words, my friend commented, “I hear a sermon in there somewhere!” Naturally, I was frustrated that I was unable to master paddle boarding immediately. But then, where would have been the satisfaction in that? Satisfaction of life is often preceded by considerable effort and discipline. So it is with our Christian faith. We must experience failure on our own before we can value God’s presence and strength that enables us to stand. The pinnacle of joy and satisfaction in our faith is our communion with the Risen Christ. That communion begins on our knees in prayer – our demonstration that we can’t do life apart from God.

     To be a Christian is to follow Jesus. And his own life was no leap from the cradle in Bethlehem to the victory of Easter morning. Victory implies something was defeated. Between birth and resurrection, Jesus lived deeply. It was a life that knew suffering, betrayal and abandonment. We experience with Jesus the victory and joy of the Resurrection because we know all too well his hell of loneliness and pain. It was a hell that Jesus defeated because he spent so much of his life on his knees. Grace is absolutely right, “You have more control on your knees.”

     The central question that confronts many today is where is God in the darkness of the present world – the darkness that seems to defeat a hope for tomorrow? Isaiah declares that our God lives with the crushed and the lowly. God is not only present in our darkness; God is at work, “reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.” God did so for Jesus. God will do so for us. What is needed is that we wait for God’s victory on our knees.