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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.