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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.”