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Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Human Touch


“Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do want to. Be clean.’”
Mark 1:41 (Common English Bible)

A provocative cartoon has recently circulated on social media that depicts an elderly woman arriving for worship. She approaches “her” seat in the sanctuary, touches a young man seated with his family on the shoulder and says, “I understand you are newcomers. Welcome. So glad you’re here. Oh, by the way, you’re in my pew.” The cartoon is unsettling for those who have worshiped regularly for some time. We have seen it. For some, it was their shoulder that was touched. Any sincerity of welcome dissipates when the woman makes it all about her – and her one desire to have her seat returned. It is an all too common narrative, placing oneself before others.

Here, in this unfolding drama in Mark’s Gospel, a leper thrusts himself into this narrative – a me first approach to life – and asks if Jesus would write another narrative, one that places others before self: “If you want, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40b) What must the leper have felt? All he desired is a cure for his skin disease. Because of his disease he was an outcast. When he was outdoors, he was feared and shunned by everyone. Whenever he came within close proximity of others he was required to cover his face with a cloth and cry, “unclean,” so that no one came closer to him and risked infection. It was self-imposed isolation – or isolation required by religious law, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

There is good news in this story. Jesus ignored the conventional taboo of remaining at a distance from such people, went right up to him, touched him and released love and healing into the man. Jesus’ gesture was instinctive, gracious, and spontaneous. It was the natural expression of someone who lived in an alternative narrative that placed others first. It was of no concern to Jesus what others may think of him. The result was that the man’s isolation was dismantled and health restored. I imagine that every time this man told his story – and Mark tells us that he “started talking freely and spreading the news” – he would bring the story to a climax by saying, “He touched me!”

Jesus wrote a different narrative in this encounter with human need. Entering swiftly and readily into the midst of people’s joy and sorrows, Jesus provided the world with an alternative way to live. Rather than keeping people at arm’s length, perhaps justifying this response that their misery is their fault or the result of poor choices, Jesus welcomed people with warmth and affection – particularly those who had great need. Whenever Jesus confronted misery, illness, and loneliness, his heart grew larger. Jesus asks those who would follow him to do the same. Today we have conquered distance and now travel the world with considerable ease. What remains, Jesus teaches, is that we close the distance we have between one another.

Joy,

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Struggle to Doubt


“I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own, that we’re not able to direct our paths.’
Jeremiah 10:23 (Common English Bible)

My earliest memory of doubting God was as a young child. I received as a birthday gift a beautiful, leather-bound Bible. I had graduated from a children’s Bible to a “real” Bible that was a joy to hold in my hand – the rich, supple, black leather with a genuine silk bookmark attached in the binding. The elegant pages were gilded with gold and the absence of pictures was, for me, the mark of a mature Bible. Continually, my brother, Wayne, and I heard from our parents that God’s strength was their strength for daily living. Accepting my parents’ faith as my own did not require any intentional decision from me. My belief in God was more organic, as I believe is true for most children living in a Christian home. Belief was a natural part of life – a life wrapped in demonstrations of trust in a loving God by parents who, for the most part, were happy. God was spoken of as a powerful force that has, in Jesus Christ, intruded our lives with powerful love and care.

Then, one evening my parents came home with a puppy – a collie. Until he was housebroken, the puppy would be kept in a large cardboard box during the night. Even now I wonder if portable, home kennels were available in the late sixties. If they were available, why did we settle for a cardboard box? None-the-less, the cardboard box proved to be a poor choice during the first night. The new addition to our family tipped over the box and had a delightful romp of the house. And, as any dog owner knows, puppies love to chew. That night, the chew toy of choice was my new, leather bound Bible. I was devastated. More, I experienced doubt in the existence of an all-powerful God. Certainly, if God was real, God would have protected God’s Holy Word to us from being consumed by a puppy! Everything my parents had built their life on seemed to be crumbling.

Yet, my first round with the experience of doubt in God quickly became a struggle. My parents’ faith remained unshaken. More, my father – a layperson – began taking me with him as he visited members of the church, members experiencing devastating loss of one kind or another, to read scripture to them, and pray with them, and love them. Even as a child – or because I was a child – I could clearly see hope returning in their eyes. Something greater than my father’s presence and spoken words was happening in each home we visited. I had no answer to why God would allow a mere puppy to feast on God’s beautifully bound word. But God kept showing-up in my parents’ life and the lives of those they loved in the name of Jesus Christ. I remained angry for longer than I should have about that chewed Bible. But doubting God became a burdensome struggle.

Thoughtful people today are pondering the significance of what is happening across the world. Time-honored political alliances are crumbling, terrorist organizations are multiplying, and the threat of nuclear war is once again disturbing our hopes for peace. Faith in God is now being asked to do some heavy-lifting. An increasing number of people now look at the appalling amount of evil in the world and question how such things can be reconciled with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah has something of value to add to this conundrum: “I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own, that we’re not able to direct our paths.” Simply, we are not in charge. We may have certain expectations of how God should be at work in the world, like preventing puppies from making a chew-toy out of a leather Bible, but that is not ours to direct. God was God before us, is God now, and will be God tomorrow. So, it becomes a matter of where we direct our focus. Direct your gaze toward all the evil, and hurt, and destruction in the world, and doubt wells-up. Direct your gaze upon the eyes of those who are loved by Christians, in the midst of difficulties, and doubt struggles.

Joy,

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I Don't Remember Me (Before You)


“These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.”
Philippians 3:7 (Common English Bible)

           TJ and John Osborne, brothers, grew up playing music together in Deale, Maryland. Following their move to Nashville they joined together as a vocal duo to become Brothers Osborne. Their most recent album, Port Saint Joe includes a rather nostalgic track, I Don’t Remember Me (Before You). Widely considered one of the deepest tracks on the album, the song speaks to the man who can’t remember – or maybe doesn’t want to remember – what his life was like before he met the love of his life: “I heard I was a wild one. I feel like a child, son. But I really don’t recall.” And a few lines later, “I’ve seen pictures. And I’ve heard stories ‘bout the boy I used to be. But I don’t remember me.” The song is a bold declaration that once he fell in love with another he wanted to grow up and change his ways for the better. Now, looking back, he is unable to recognize the man he was before.

           A similar tune plays in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi, the Book of Philippians. The letter is Paul’s declaration of his love for Jesus Christ. Near the middle of this letter Paul recalls the man he used to be before Christ: a man of considerable stature in the Jewish faith, garnering wide respect from others for his faithful, and rigid, observance of the Jewish law – a Pharisee par excellence! More, Paul confesses to being somewhat of a braggart, “With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” (Verse 3:6b) Unlike the man in the Brothers Osborne track, Paul remembers his former self with great clarity. But then everything changed for Paul. He fell in love with Jesus. Now Paul looks back upon who he was before Jesus entered his life and determines that he was a foolish man – a man that valued the wrong things. What Paul once regarded as assets are now written off as a loss.

           It is important for Paul to share with his readers his credentials before becoming a follower of Jesus. His resume sparkles and he dares anyone to present credentials that are more impressive. Paul doesn’t embrace Jesus as someone who had nothing – or nothing to lose. Through the optics of what the world regards as of great value, Paul had it all. Paul had built an enviable life and reputation. Paul held “assets” that other people only dreamed of having. In possession of all anyone could have wanted Paul is invited into a relationship with Jesus. Now Paul has discovered the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. What he once considered assets no longer has any value. Paul’s point could not be clearer. The reader is in possession of nothing that is of more value than knowing Jesus.

           Brothers Osborne song begins with the question, “Did I stop and watch the sunset fade? What gave me life and took my breath away?” These are questions that diminishes the value of a life lived before falling in love. TJ and John Osborne advance that very point later in the song, “Was my heart beatin’ in my chest? Was I even alive?” Paul confesses to as much in his letter to the Church in Philippi, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.” (Verse 3:9) Before Christ, all Paul thought he possessed had been simply an illusion. Now Paul sings another tune, “I’ve heard stories ‘bout the boy I used to be. But that was before you, before you.”

Joy,

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Hearing God


“Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”
Acts 16:10 (Common English Bible)

           In the movie, Bruce Almighty, Bruce (Jim Carey) is a reporter who made a fool of himself on a local news network, lost his job, was attacked on the street, and had an emotional blow-up with his girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston). His world is falling apart. Bruce takes a midnight ride to clear his head and begins a pleading conversation with God, “Okay, God, you want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what’s going on. What should I do? Give me a signal.” If we are honest, it is a conversation each of us have had with God at some juncture in our life. Life presses in on us, detours replace a steady movement forward, and discouragement draws close. C. S. Lewis once remarked that if the devil was allowed to choose only one tool to overtake a woman or a man it would be the power to discourage people.

           In our teaching from the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul is having a Bruce Almighty experience. Paul and his companions have laid-out a straight path to Bithynia to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally, anyone would think that God would have blessed the noble intentions to have the Gospel proclaimed in Bithynia – or anywhere for that matter. Yet, as Paul, and those traveling with him, approached Bithynia, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them enter. They were forced to take a detour instead. Their best intentions interrupted, they went down to Troas rather than enter Bithynia. One might imagine Paul taking a midnight ride to clear his head and having a pleading conversation with God: “Okay God, I’m doing this for you! Tell me what’s going on. What should I do?”

           The Bible is silent here. We are not told what Paul’s thoughts are or if there is a conversation with God. Perhaps that is intentional. No one can speak and listen at the same time – not effectively anyway. It just may be that the absence of any conversation between Paul and God is what the Bible wants us to notice. Paul isn’t speaking to God – or railing against God – because Paul is listening for God. We are simply told that Paul goes to Troas when his plans are interrupted. Then, during the night, Paul receives a vision of a man from Macedonia, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Had Paul been railing against God, as Bruce Almighty railed against God, he would have missed the vision. No one sees clearly or hears plainly when they are complaining. Paul demonstrates the spiritual value of silence, stillness, and listening for God.

           As Bruce Almighty vents his rage against God, a glowing road construction sign, directly in front of him, flashes: “Caution Ahead.” But Bruce doesn’t notice. “I need your guidance, Lord,” he begs, “please send me a sign.” Immediately a large road-crew truck pulls in front of him. The back of the truck is filled with street signs in plain view: “Stop.” “Dead End.” “Wrong Way.” “Do Not Enter.” Yet, Bruce is oblivious to every sign. Bruce continues to plea with God, “Lord, I need a miracle. I’m desperate. I need your help, Lord.” Failure to pay attention to what is right before him, Bruce loses control of his car, spins off the road, and rams into a lamp post. Bruce jumps from his mangled car and continues to rail against God, never noticing that God was answering Bruce with every construction sign. The difficulty for Bruce, it becomes apparent, is that he never learned the value of silence, stillness, and listening for God.

Joy,

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Dear God


“I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. 
He said to me, ‘My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.’ 
So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me.”
2 Corinthians 12:8, 9 (Common English Bible)

Someone once remarked that promised prayer has no power, only practiced prayer. Hunter Hayes practices powerful prayer in his single, Dear God. Written alongside pop singer Andy Grammer and Dave Spencer, the song is a prayer between Hunter and God as Hunter wrestles with faith and self-doubt: “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with me?” The song’s theme of self-doubt is advanced almost immediately following that lyric with the raw, honest, and expressive line, “And why do I feel like I’m not enough? Dear God, are you sure that you don’t mess up?” Here is a question that is asked all the time by people of faith – a valid and authentic question that presses in those moments of disappointment, failure, and pain.

A part of the human condition – and validated by experience – is the striving to live into a higher purpose and meaning in life. In those moments when we stumble and are made vulnerable by exposed weaknesses, the thought of feeling like “I’m not enough” unsettles us. This is precisely the experience of the apostle Paul in his words to the church in Corinth. Paul suffers from an unnamed affliction, what appears to be a chronic and debilitating problem. Paul’s zeal to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hampered by this affliction so Paul comes before God, in prayer, on three separate occasions asking that the affliction be removed. Anyone who has a struggle, infirmity, or difficulty accepts the reasonableness of Paul’s request. Yet, Paul’s request is denied.

What is apparent by any close reading of Paul’s ministry – both before his conversion to Christ and following – is that he is a self-sufficient person. Paul is intelligent, resourceful, and driven. Such persons rarely need others, much less God. When a weakness becomes evident, such people develop a laser-like focus on conquering and prevailing over the weakness as they again move forward to greater success and accomplishments. Hunter acknowledges as much in his song, “The truth is it’s not even you. It’s just me that I’m up against.” Hunter is dissatisfied with the frailty in his life: “Dear God, are you sure that you don’t mess up?” Paul is no different. Paul is dissatisfied with the frailty in his life.

Paul’s request for strength without weakness is refused. But Paul does receive a gift. Paul receives a deep understanding of the “riches” that are his in God’s grace, “My grace is enough for you.” As Paul must now embrace his weaknesses so also must he now embrace God’s grace. The result is a stronger character, a deeper humility, and an uncommon ability to empathize with others. In the music video for the song, Dear God, Hunter is seen making his prayer to God through a flaring horn like those commonly seen on old phonograph devices. It makes perfect sense for anyone who has every pondered whether God hears our prayers. But God’s refusal to remove Paul’s limitations reminds each of us that, ultimately, God intends that we trust ourselves, and our future, to God’s care.

Appreciation is expressed to Marchele Courtney for bringing this song to my attention.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Miracle in Bethany


The following is written by Dr. Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

“Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’”
(John 11: 43-44 Common English Bible)

           It was spring then, and little pink blossoms peppered the almond trees while the olive groves slept and dreamed of warmer summer winds. Passover was approaching, a time when the crowds of Jerusalem would heave their way towards the Second Temple to slaughter the sacrificial lambs demanded of each family. From their tombs on the eastern mountain ridge the old kings and prophets stood a silent guard as the great masses churned their way through the roadside veins of the countryside and the alleyway capillaries of the city. Beneath their lookout lay the tiny hamlet of Bethany, as inauspicious a community as could be imagined in the shadow of God’s chosen city. In this place was a quiet and stillness unknown to the commoners, soldiers, and merchants living and working nearby. To the east lay the salty Dead Sea, to the west the fiery Jordan Valley, trapping the village in these brief months in a constant crossfire of desert heatwaves and Mediterranean rains. Imagine for a moment the tranquility of such a place: the steam of rainwater baking on the rocks in the heat; the smell of roasted meat and fresh bread mixed with the scent of new flowers; the comforting silence born of the absence of human hubbub and busyness.

           Bethany was a paradise in the shadow of Jerusalem’s splendor, one that served as a figurative and literal retreat for Jesus and his ragtag group of Jews in his final days. It’s mentioned no less than five times in the Gospels, most often for lodging and eating with friends and family, particularly the beloved sisters Martha and Mary. But we also see it as a place of comings and goings: it was where Jesus prepared for his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and where he blessed the disciples before the Ascension. Bethany was a place between places, a sanctuary for preparations for bigger and better things.

           How odd, then, that Jesus would choose Bethany as the site for one of his most amazing feats, the resurrection of his friend Lazarus. The Gospel of John lists it as the last of Jesus’ seven signs or miracles, and none could have been more climactic or astounding. The defeat of death! The pronouncement of a new life after life! The conquest of cosmic entropy and emotional antipathy! Yet notice how Jesus took his time to arrive in Bethany after learning about Lazarus’ fatal illness—the ease and casualness with which he delays his departure for two days, with which he teases his disciples with riddles about Lazarus falling asleep. When he finally arrives in Bethany, it’s four days too late: Lazarus is dead. The detail of four days is an important one—in that time Jews believed that a person’s soul remained with their bodies for three days. If Jesus had come too early, his raising Lazarus could have been brushed off as an improbable but not impossible phenomenon.

           And yet the four days proved nothing before the hand of God as Jesus cried for his friend to come out of his tomb still wrapped in his bandages. Imagine the fear and terror felt by the disciples at such a sight! Imagine the joy and rhapsody! And most importantly, imagine the surreality! Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feat of God’s power since the sundering of the Red Sea for Moses or the consumption of Elijah’s altar on Mount Carmel…and in such a podunk nowhere as Bethany! Jerusalem lay less than an hour’s walk away and here was where Jesus broke the bonds of death. It’s an important reminder of one of the great Christian truths—size and worldly importance matter not to a God who can breathe life upon a mountainside of graves. It is God who makes all things great and mighty, not the designations of man. If a million angels can dance on the point of a pin, then surely God can work wonders in a place overlooked and abandoned by most, even the most insignificant little hamlet as Bethany.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Unnamed Saints


“But his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a basket 
through an opening in the city wall.”
Acts 9:25 (Common English Bible)

               On March 4th, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Today, that monument is known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb – fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become Tomb Guards. Out of respect for the interred, the sentinels command silence at the tomb from the thousands who visit each year. Inscribed on the Western panel: Here Rest In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.

               The Apostle Paul is the greatest evangelist of the early Christian Church and author of nearly two-thirds of the New Testament. Soon following his conversion to that faith he once sought to extinguish from the religious landscape, the Jews and their leaders at Damascus sought to silence him. In fact, Acts narrates that “the Jews hatched a plot to kill Saul (Paul’s former name)” and, “They were keeping watch at the city gates around the clock so they could assassinate him.” Paul escaped by the heroic act of unnamed disciples who, “took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the city wall.”

               Not one of the disciples who aided in Paul’s escape is named. Their identity remains unknown. Yet, each one played an important part in the history of the Apostle Paul, without whom, Paul’s great work might have never been completed. Paul would go forward from that glorious night to cover thousands of miles by sea and by land preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Churches would be planted and life after life would be changed by his message of hope and eternal life available in the name of Jesus. Through the robust ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit gave birth to a movement that would change the world. Yet, without the loyalty and devotion and courage of a few unnamed disciples one particular night, Paul would have perished at the hands of his enemies in Damascus.

               Our nation remains grateful to the tremendous leadership of great leaders such as General Patton, General Eisenhower, and General MacArthur. The Christian Church continues to build upon the work of the Apostle Paul that is without parallel. But it is true in our nation’s history and the history of the church that who they were and what they contributed would have never been realized had it not been for the loyalty, devotion, and courage of the unknown soldiers and unnamed saints who risked their lives, and in many case laid down their lives for something they believed in. We all depend upon one another. We all need each other. And nothing becomes strong without the strength of the many.

Joy,

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Don't Complain!


The following is a repeat from Dr. Hood’s Meditation from August 2017.

“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)

Lowell Russell, formerly Executive Secretary and Director of the National Presbyterian Church and Center, Washington, D.C., once shared a lesson he learned from an attorney – a series of propositions that the attorney had written down on paper and kept with him at all times. There were three: “Never tell anyone how much you have to do. Never speak of your problems, your difficulties. Never talk about your disappointments.” In other words, he was saying to himself, “Don’t complain!”i

My friend and mentor, Arthur Caliandro, who followed Norman Vincent Peale as the senior pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, once shared with me his conviction that every pastor would be wise to preach on forgiveness at least three times a year. Caliandro believed that the single greatest obstacle to obtaining full Christian maturity was our difficulty with forgiveness. Any failure to forgive results in a weight that must be carried – by both the injured and the one who caused the injury. For Caliandro, the greatest burden was carried by the one who failed to forgive. Over time, the accumulation of “transgressions” that remain unforgiven results in stagnation of our spiritual growth. Christian growth isn’t possible without the extravagant practice of forgiveness as Christ forgives us.

Perhaps my friend is correct. Yet, I contend that another hindrance to our growth as Christians is our propensity to complain. Here, in the Book of Exodus, the whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. Food was scarce, the days in the desert were hot and the journey through the desert seemed as though it would never end. Life back in Egypt as slaves seemed to present a better quality of life than a trek through the desert! So, the whole Israelite community complained.

Moses and Aaron’s response seems to suggest the uselessness of negative thinking and speaking. Yes, the days in the desert were difficult. Discouragement is to be expected. But time and energy “moaning and groaning” provided no relief. So Moses and Aaron deflected the complaints; redirected the complaints made against them to God. It was the exercise of extraordinary leadership. That is because it forced upon the Israelite people the absolute necessity to pay attention to God, to “make their complaint” before God and then “to listen” for how God would respond. It is then that Moses and Aaron fulfilled their primary call to spiritual leadership – beginning the conversation between God’s people and God. That is where spiritual growth occurs.

Joy,
____________________
iLowell Russell, “The Hard Rut of Complaining,” Best Sermons, Volume X. (New York: Trident Press, 1968), 79.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

What Is Good


The following is a repeat from Dr. Hood’s Meditation from April 2017.

“Only God is my rock and my salvation – my stronghold! – I won’t be shaken anymore.”
Psalm 62:2 (Common English Bible)

Captured in these few words is a powerful witness to abundant progress in our spiritual life: “Only God is my rock and salvation – my stronghold! – I won’t be shaken anymore.” The author of these words is contemplating difficult circumstances on the horizon. A storm is building in his personal life and a whirlwind is gathering strength and raging. Shortly, the author will be caught in the blast – in the very center of violence that is determined to destroy him. Yet, what is heard in these words is a faith that has moved from painful wobbling in a time of trouble to an experience of being unshakable; of standing strong in the work of the Lord: “I won’t be shaken anymore.”

A mood of fear and uncertainty is transformed. Present now is a voice of a more vital trust, and the suggestion of spiritual maturity. Where once he would have been shaken by the assault that was drawing near, he is now not overwhelmed. An unshaken confidence of a matured faith now occupies his heart and soul. What changed? He provides the answer – he has found a sturdy footing in the promises of God, “my stronghold.” A trembling spirit that is placed into regular communion with God is settled; the timid fluttering of a heart is quieted. This is the calmness which comes from sharing in the strength of God; a strength that derives from intentional attention to relationship building with God.

When we nurture our own faith by attention to God’s word and regular prayer, our relationship to God is deepened. In direct proportion to that deepening relationship we discover that fears are scattered and worries, once prolific, are diminished. Lives are no longer lived in small and frightened circles where the soul grows faint and timid. Attention to God, even in the ordinary moments of life, expands the chambers of our souls and our breath becomes deeper. Uncertainties of life become increasingly rare and our slipping feet are steadied upon a certain and firm foundation – “only God is my rock.”

Here is the great secret of progress in our spiritual life – attentive and regular communion with God. Our own strength for meeting the trying and challenging circumstances of life is insufficient. Alone we will always be defeated. But we are not alone. These words from the Psalms are an invitation to put on the same strength and confidence of a life that cleaves to God. By God’s strengthening fellowship we will face all the hostile forces of this world with ordered lives – lives which demonstrate to others the beauty of God’s peace.

Joy,

Friday, July 20, 2018

Living With Tension

The following is a repeat of Dr. Hood's meditation from September 2017.

“Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. 
Each day has enough trouble of its 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.”i 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 its 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.
           
Joy,

___________________


iAmanda Enayati, “Dissection Stress.” Success.  December 2015, pages 48-51.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Get Out of the Boat


The following meditation is written by 
Rev. Catherine Renken, Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, Kennesaw, Georgia

“Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, ‘You man of weak faith!  
Why did you begin to have doubts?’"
Matthew 14:31 (Common English Bible)

Picture this: The winds are howling, and the waves are crashing over the boat, tossing it to and fro. The disciples are drenched, exhausted, and scared. They have been fighting to keep their vessel upright all night. They are trained fishermen, so storms at sea are nothing new. But this storm is a monster. Then one of the men looks up and sees a figure walking toward them on top of the raging waters. Their fear rises to a whole new level. The ghost tells them not to be afraid, but those words do little to calm their nerves. Peter wants to verify the ghost is Jesus, so he proposes that the ghost empower him to walk on water also. The ghost agrees, and Peter steps out of the boat and begins to take steps on the waves. I imagine him wide-eyed and laughing with excitement. Then, the absurdity of what he is doing seems to hit him. Noticing the storm again, his fear returns. Peter begins to sink, and he cries out for help. Jesus reaches out, grabs Peter’s hand, and helps him back into the boat saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

What do you think Jesus meant? Most people have read this as a criticism of Peter’s faith. They hear chastisement in Jesus’ voice for Peter’s doubt in God. Imagining the scene like this, we can see Peter flinching in shame as Jesus shakes his head in disapproval. Is this how you picture God talking to you? Calling out your weaknesses and failures? Disappointed in you for not being good enough?

Look again at what Jesus said to Peter. Jesus didn’t ask, “Why did you jump out of the boat?” or “What made you think you could walk on water?” Jesus said, “Whatever made you think you couldn’t?” Jesus wasn’t criticizing Peter’s fear and lack of faith. He wasn’t shaming Peter’s overzealous plan to participate in the miracle of walking on water. He wasn’t mad or disappointed in Peter for losing faith and sinking. He was reminding Peter that nothing is impossible with God. With the Lord by our side, we can do anything. He was encouraging him to continue to take chances on God.

The world around us will always be stormy. The waves will always loom. The winds will always try to blow us down. There will always be things to fear and worry about. We can choose to be like the 11 disciples who played it safe, kept their mouths shut, and stayed in the boat. Or, we can follow Peter and bravely take a leap of faith. We can’t walk on water unless we get out of the boat. 

One day, we’ll be before Jesus, and he’s not going to shame us by asking “What made you think you could walk on water?” He’s going to take our hand and ask why we ever doubted we could.

Joy,

Thursday, July 5, 2018

What Love Requires


The following is a repeat of Dr. Hood's Meditation from November 2016.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.”
Matthew 5:13 (Common English Bible)

     In his biography of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, James Traub unfolds the life of a man who was plainspoken, simple in his wants, and a person of deep Christian faith. Adams lived according to principles he considered self-evident and never seemed hesitant to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of those principles. He was only nine years old when the United States was birthed as a nation. As he grew and matured, Adams became imbued with the conviction that the United States was the greatest experiment in government the world had ever known. So complete was his identification with that government, Adams never flinched at either the prospect of death or the, “wreckage of his career, so long as he believed that service to the nation required it.”i

     When Jesus declares, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is not extending to us a compliment, though that is how this comment has become commonly used. What Jesus seeks are people who so identify with the purposes of God that they are prepared to sacrifice anything – including their lives – if service to God’s divine purposes required it. Jesus does not hold back or seek to soften his message; Jesus is warning us that following him comes with the costly expectation that we will be “all in.” Here, in his Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus lays down a challenge. The challenge is to adopt the conviction of John Quincy Adams that does not flinch at the call to be used by God to further the purposes of God’s kingdom.

     This is where Jesus’ message becomes hard. Within each of us are forces that strive for self-preservation. But, if we are not prepared to lose ourselves for advancing God’s work in the world, Jesus is clear, we are “good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.” Essentially, Jesus announces that if we fail to be driven by the same convictions that drove John Quincy Adams, then the reason for our existence in Jesus’ ministry to the world ceases. We are as useless to Jesus as the dust under our soles. That message was deeply disturbing to some. Little wonder why people left Jesus in droves. What he taught was too demanding.

      No one makes a financial investment if they are not deeply committed to seeing that investment grow. The same is true of relationships. Meaningful relationships are demanding. If there is absent any conviction of long-term value, or a commitment to the well-being of the other, a relational investment isn’t made. Yet, right here in this teaching, Jesus seeks an investment from us. For everyone who accepts his invitation, the investment will be costly. That is why our faith and love for Jesus is crucial. Unless it is nurtured regularly, the cost of what Jesus asks may seem too high. But for those who pay attention to Jesus, they will see that we are called to be “the salt of the earth” because Jesus was first, salt for us – even giving his own life on a cross because our life required it of him.

Joy,
____________________
iJames Traub, John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (New York: Basic Books, 2016), xi.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The God We Don't Forget

The following is a Meditation written by Doug Hood's son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
Matthew 16:24-25 (Common English Bible)

Of all Jesus’ disciples—save perhaps Judas Iscariot—it is Peter Simon, that lowly fisherman, who comes across to us from the pages of history as the most fully realized and most fully human. The Gospels paint him as a man of great, seismic contradictions: confident enough in his faith to leap upon the waters of Galilee yet doubtful enough to sink below them; brave enough to attack the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, yet frightened enough to deny Christ three times in the high priest’s courtyard. In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, we see yet another demonstration of Peter’s conflicted faithfulness. Upon reaching Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say the Human One is?” Eleven of them mutter noncommittally, but Peter leaps in: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Many forget that when Jesus first began his ministry, he hid his lineage as the Son of God from his followers, instead presenting himself as a rabbi preaching radical reform of Jewish tradition in the face of Roman imperialism. It was here, in this moment, that a fisherman’s faith revealed Jesus’ true identity to the world.

In response, Jesus praises Peter and declares him the rock upon which he will build his church. But pay very close attention to what happens next, particularly to the language used in the Common English Bible translation. After Jesus explains his mission to suffer and die at the hand of their Roman oppressors, Peter “took hold” of him, “scolds” him, and “began to correct him.” Certainly Jesus, the promised Messiah, would tear down the Romans, reunite the Twelve Tribes, and restore the Davidic monarchy to power once and for all. Yet Jesus savagely scolds him with one of the most cutting rebukes in scripture: “Get behind me, Satan.”

But just as Jesus condemns he comforts, immediately informing Peter and the rest of the disciples that his is not the way of meek surrender, but the path to everlasting life. Again, pay close attention to the language: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” [Emphasis mine] We find three demands—one of self-denial, one of self-sacrifice, and one of self-submission. First, we must reject all our preconceptions about who God is or what God wants. Second, we must humble ourselves before him in front of the whole world. And third, we must follow in his footsteps, not in the footsteps we proscribe for him.

Peter’s mistake wasn’t his lack of faith, rather its willfully misguided application. Unable to envision a Messiah who didn’t avenge and conquer, he literally tried to seize and bully God incarnated in flesh. And how often have we seen the same thing happen today? It seems we can’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper without hearing or reading somebody screeching about what God wants or what God needs. God has become a cudgel with which to assault political adversaries, a club to self-righteously attack those who don’t fall into the proper ideological or moral line. In these troubling, divisive times, we must look to the words of the Gospel of Matthew: to find one’s life, one must lose it. Just as Peter was rebuked, so we must rebuke ourselves and humbly follow.


Joy,

Friday, June 22, 2018

When God Seems Distant


“I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38a (Common English Bible)

           Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, tells about an experience he had in church. One Sunday he was in Cincinnati for a ball game against the Reds. That morning he went to early morning Mass and happened to see the Red’s manger there. They were old friends and sat beside each other during Mass. Afterward, the Red’s manager said, “Tommy, I’ll see you at the ballpark. I’m going to hang around a little.” Lasorda said that when he reached the door, he glanced back over his shoulder. He noticed that his friend was praying at the altar and lighting a candle. He said, “I thought about that for a few moments. Then, since we needed a win very badly, I doubled back and blew out his candle.”[i] Though misguided, what a powerful demonstration of faith in God’s presence and activity!

           Countless people today long for that deep confidence in God’s presence and activity in their lives. God seems distant to them. They plod through each day, fearful, anxious, and burdened with uncertainty. Some may remember once having a close relationship with God but that was a long time ago. Prayers seem to never rise higher than the ceiling – and that is when we even feel like praying! The good news is that this is not an uncommon experience in the Christian faith. Just as people can grow apart in relationships with one another, so we can drift away from God. As Thomas Tewell once said to me, the difference is that in human relationships, both parties contribute to the distance. But, in a relationship with God, the reality is that we drift away from God. God never drifts away from us.

           In those moments when God seems distant, what are we to do? Perhaps an experience I had this past week will help. My daughter, Rachael, is in Norway – a studio photographer for the Holland America Cruise Lines. It’s not uncommon for Rachael to work twelve and fourteen hour days. Wi-Fi is limited and with her long hours it is difficult to “connect” with her by telephone or by other means in real time. Just this week, Rachael reached-out to me via Facebook Messenger. She said that for a limited time she was available to receive a phone call from me and that she really would like me to call. Immediately, I moved something that was already on my calendar to another time and placed the call. Do you see what happened? Suddenly, my greatest desire was to speak with my daughter. To do so, I had to make the time.

           We reconnect with God the same way. We move beyond our desire to be close with God and carve-out time from our busy lives to simply be still in God’s presence. We open the Bible and read expectantly, asking God to speak powerfully through the words that we read on the page. We learn from our reading more about God, about God’s good desires for us, and we learn what God requires of us. We spend time together with God. And we listen; we listen deeply in the silence following our reading to the hunches, the promptings, and the direction we sense from God. As we respond positively, the distance we once felt from God begins to close.   

Joy,


[i] William R. Bouknight, The Authoritative Word: Preaching Truth In A Skeptical Age. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001) 30.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Overwhelmed?


“The night before Herod was going to bring Peter’s case forward, Peter was asleep between two soldiers and bound with two chains, with soldiers guarding the prison entrance.”
Acts 12:6 (Common English Bible)

           The late Pittsburgh astronomer, John Brasher, wrote his own epitaph: “I have loved the stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night.” What a beautiful and encouraging thought! As I have pondered those words it seems to me Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, could have written them. As Jesus’ disciple, Peter did not always live in the sunlight. Followers of Jesus rarely do. Peter’s ministry was not always filled with the brightness of success and victory. Peter knew darkness and despair. He knew times of trouble and tragedy. Here, in the twelfth chapter of Acts, we learn that King Herod has begun to make life difficult for the Christian Church. James, John’s brother, is killed with a sword. Then Herod has Peter arrested and placed in prison. Peter’s fate seems as certain as that of James. In Peter’s day – as is today – following Jesus demands considerable courage.

           What is remarkable is how this story unfolds. Chained inside the walls of a prison, with sixteen guards stationed on watch for a single man, Peter simply goes to sleep. At this very moment, the night could not have been darker for Peter. Yet, there is no evidence that Peter was fearful. Peter sleeps. The church of Jesus Christ is now under a most severe persecution and its continued existence seems doubtful. King Herod has found political favor among his constituency by destroying the lives of Christian leaders and – right or wrong – he continues simply because it is popular. The night is very dark for Peter; very dark for the church. Yet, Peter sleeps. But there is more in this story. While Peter sleeps, the church prays. When Peter and the church must have felt overwhelmed, the church holds onto hope.

           That day is not unlike today. On our streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our places of work, the prevailing mood of the day is, overwhelmed. The world today seems to be more complex, more massive, and difficulties more insurmountable than our individual and corporate memory can recall. The magnitude of the problems we face as a nation – particularly gun violence – leaves us exhausted and frightened. Everything now seems to be beyond the power of ordinary people and governments to solve or manage. It is night, and we have become fearful. Confronted with the overwhelming problems of today the question presses, is there hope?  

           In his book, Facing Death, Billy Graham shares a story about Donald Grey Barnhouse, one of America’s leading Bible teachers in the first half of the 20th century. Cancer took Barnhouse’s first wife, leaving him with three children all under twelve. The day of the funeral, Barnhouse and his children were driving to the service when a large truck passed them, casting a noticeable shadow across their car. Turning to his oldest daughter, who was staring sadly out the window, Barnhouse asked, “Tell me sweetheart, would you rather be run over by that truck or its shadow?” Looking curiously at her father, she replied, “By the shadow, I guess. It can’t hurt you.” Speaking to all his children, Barnhouse said, “Your mother has not been overridden by death, but by the shadow of death. That is nothing to fear.” Perhaps, this is a truth that Peter and the church understood. So Peter slept and the church prayed. Their witness strengthens us today.

Joy,

Friday, June 8, 2018

What Voice Shall I Follow?


“Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, ‘I’m here. You called me?’”
1 Samuel 3:6 (Common English Bible)

Here is a startling story of a young boy named Samuel who had trouble sleeping one night because of a voice that spoke to him from the darkness. Most of us know that story – a voice that comes to us in the darkness at that moment when we want nothing more than to sleep. The volume of the voice is usually immense. It is a clamorous tongue that disturbs the mind and stirs physical restlessness as we lay upon the mattress. For some, the voice that speaks addresses our personal finances, most often when our financial resources are running low and our commitments are racing in the opposite direction. For others, the voice reminds us of estranged relationships but offers no solutions for healing. Other voices that bombard the mind’s ear simply wish to generate anger at this or that political party and the absolute stupidity – or cruelty – of this or that policy out of Washington. Solutions rarely show-up in the darkness of the bedroom. Neither does sound sleep.

Here, young Samuel is lying down in the Lord’s temple. We know it is the night hour because fifteen verses later we are informed, “Samuel lay there until morning.” But Samuel will not sleep that night. Before his mind drifts off to restful sleep, Samuel hears a voice. It is the Lord’s voice but Samuel doesn’t know that – not in the beginning. He believes the voice belongs to his mentor, Eli. Three times Samuel hears the voice and three times Samuel disturbs Eli to inquire what it is Eli wants. It is the third time that Eli grows suspicious that this is more than Samuel’s imagination. Nor is Samuel simply hearing the whistle of the wind. Samuel is instructed to make inquiry if he hears the voice again; to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” And the voice does return.

This is precisely the point that Samuel makes a rather dramatic shift from simply jumping from his bed at the sound of a voice to careful listening. Samuel restrains his natural impulse to a quick response and practices alert and intentional discernment of the content of the voice that speaks. There is much all of us can learn from this simple act – pausing long enough to sincerely listen to the voice we hear, particularly if that voice is unsettling to us. What would happen in our nation if Republicans and Democrats where to exercise restrain from the vitriolic impulse they have for one another? Imagine the surprise if Evangelicals and liberals in the Christian church ever truly listened to one another. What might any of us discover in the darkness of the night if we calmly listened to all that unsettles us – personal finances, relationship difficulties, or concern for the health of those we love – and then, rather uncommonly, invited another voice to the conversation, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

At any moment of the day or night there are voices that clamor for our attention. Some voices long for an impulsive response from us, usually a response that multiplies anger and hurt and fears among those we know and love. Perhaps a voice asks from us indignation and puerile criticism of another point of view. The only contribution that voice makes is increased brokenness in an already broken world. Do not trust these voices. But Samuel’s story shows us another way. Eli counsels Samuel to “listen” rather than “jump” at the sound of the voice. If we listen, and listen with humility and civility and respect, what we will discover is that the voices that clamor for an impulsive response will scatter and one will remain. It will be the loveliest voice of all. It will be a voice that asks patience and love. Trust that voice. Ponder it. Respond to it. It will be then that you have in your heart neither doubt nor fear.

Joy,

Friday, May 25, 2018

Space Cowboy


“I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, 
blessing and curse before you. Now choose life - so that you and your descendants will live – 
by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him.”
Deuteronomy 30:19, 20a (Common English Bible)

           Occasionally I hear a song on the radio that is so raw, direct, and reflective that it grasps my heart and simply will not let go. Kacey Musgraves’ song, Space Cowboy, is the most recent addition to that canon of songs. Only two weeks ago did I hear this beautiful and haunting song on the radio and found that I was bound – heart, soul, and mind – by its lyrics. It simply would not let me go and I had not the slightest clue why. The basic narrative of the song is about finally letting go of a dying relationship and the deep sorrow that follows. Though heartbreak is deeply and powerfully infused in the lyrics, that narrative is not my narrative. In a few weeks I will celebrate thirty-one years of marriage and I have never stopped adoring my wife and finding imaginative ways of expressing my love for her.

           What was inevitable for me was the decision to download this song onto my IPhone and listen to it again and again, not understanding the inescapable hold it had on my imagination. This morning, during my morning run – and listening to this song again and again on the “repeat” mode – the mist of confusion scattered and with piercing clarity heard what my subconscious had heard all along: Musgraves’ words have become God’s word to me, “You look out the window while I look at you.” Several weeks ago I turned fifty-eight, and that birthday gave me pause to ponder just how much of my life has been frittered away looking “out the window,” longing for something more.

 It is difficult to appreciate and value a blessing you are standing right in the middle of when your gaze is out the window, wanting something else. And the whole time my focus is out that window, God’s focus is right on me, longing that I not let go of God’s claim on me; not letting go of God’s deep love for me. It is true that in my baptism I attached myself to God’s redemptive work in the world. But fundamentally, God demands less of me than what God desires to give me. But God’s gifts are inextricably bound to “obeying his voice, and by clinging to him.” Yet, God will not “close the gate” and “fence me in.” God sets before each of us the choice to “cling” to a deeply satisfying relationship with God or to pursue whatever it is we see out the window. 

Rarely do I watch the video of songs I enjoy. Nancy Fine, my colleague in ministry, suggested to me this morning that I watch this video. The final scene is the clincher for me: as the lyrics repeat, “You can have your space, cowboy. I ain’t gonna fence you in. Go on, ride away in your Silverado” the young cowboy in question rides away. Musgraves is bathed in the soft light of the remaining light of dusk while dark clouds appear and close-in all around the one who chooses to leave. The implication is clear: what is “out the window” lacks the beauty of what is left behind. Here, in these words from Deuteronomy, God already knows that and pleas with us, “Choose life, choose me, choose us.”

Joy,

Friday, May 18, 2018

God's Purpose. God's Call. God's Power


 “…so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. 
Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend.”
Isaiah 55:11 (Common English Bible)

           Reading the Bible, with a fresh and alert mind, impacts and stirs the reader in extraordinary and often unanticipated ways. Because the printed words belong to a real, present, and active God, the words are used imaginatively and purposefully, in a tailored fashion, for each individual reader. Reading the Bible is never a solo activity. God, in the Holy Spirit, is always present, accomplishing a purposeful work in the mind and heart of the individual who comes expectant to experience something new. When the mind is dull and expects little from reading the Bible, this dynamic and amazing power is absent. In my own engagement with the Bible each morning, I experience three reoccurring themes.

           First, the Bible reveals the purposefulness of God. Perhaps in no other place in scripture is this more clearly and directly presented than in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, verses 1-3: God promises to bless Abraham. But, with penetrating clarity, this blessing is ultimately for the purpose of blessing all of humanity. A blessing to all people, of all nations, is the bottom line of God’s promise to Abraham. God’s unfolding purpose may be too vast and, at times, imperceptible, to be grasped this side of the grave, but, at least, we are assured by the Bible that the world has been delivered from meaninglessness. With this knowledge, we can live quietly and confidently, trusting the care of the future to God.

           Second, the Bible reveals God’s call upon each person. Assuming a robust theological posture, the Apostle Paul declares in Ephesians 2:10 that we were, “…created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” Candidly, Paul corrects the notion that followers of Jesus Christ are to participate, here and there, in good work. No; good work, or doing good things, is to be our way of life. It is all part of God’s divine activity that our own lives be caught-up in the one grand purpose that God is continually unfolding in the world. Each person’s life is made integral to God’s resolve to gather the nations under the Lordship of his son, Jesus Christ.

           Third, the Bible reveals God’s power. God is not defeated. With panoramic vision, Paul captures the human condition in Romans 8: “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, we are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter. But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.” (Verses 35-37 CEB) Contrary to appearances, difficulties, hardships, and death will not defeat God and those who belong to God. Struggle will certainly manifest itself in every life. But at the end we will discover that our life has been guided and loved, and that disaster is over-ruled. More, we will find that nothing of value is lost.

Joy,

Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting Started With Jesus


“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice
is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock.”
Matthew 7:24 (Common English Bible)

           How does a person start to be a Christian? For many in the church, it is a startling question. It is startling because so little thought has been given to the question. Christianity has been reduced to joining a church, worshipping on Sunday morning when convenient, faithfully completing a financial pledge card once a year, and an occasional appearance at a congregational dinner. The notion that there is anything more escapes them. What also escapes such people is any vital relationship with Jesus Christ. And  a vital relationship with Jesus will remain absent until behind every conventional practice of faith a person goes directly to Jesus, listens to the teachings of Jesus, and puts those teachings into practice in their own life. A person gets started with being a Christian by endeavoring to live as Christ lived.

           Simply, being a Christian is something to be done. Christianity is not consent to a particular theological creed, belonging to a church that self-identifies as Christian, or practicing a set of rituals. Christianity is doing what Christ does. In every account of Jesus calling particular men to be his disciples something is absent; what is absent is a requirement of a theological education, or a seminar on the basics of the faith, or a new member class. The only thing that Jesus asks is, “Will you follow me?” We will never understand everything that the church teaches. And there may be some teachings that we understand but we simply cannot believe. Jesus doesn’t ask for either. Yesterday, and today, Jesus asks one thing: “Will you follow me?”

           In the second place, though we begin where we are – with little understanding of Jesus or no understanding of Jesus – we do not remain where we are. Following Jesus is a continuous journey of listening to all that Jesus teaches and appropriating what is understood into the daily practice of life. As this is done, each week, each month, and each year brings clearer insight and a deeper assurance of Christ’s presence and strength for our lives. Faith matures as the season changes from spring, to summer, to fall, to winter, and finally back to spring with all the new growth each new spring brings. As we pay increasing attention to Jesus, learn more from him, and think harder how to walk as Jesus walked, we make progress toward a more confident faith.

           Getting started with Jesus is not difficult. Remaining on the walk will be one of the most difficult challenges of life. That is because of all the distractions and temptations to walk a different path, a path that promises quicker satisfactions and pleasures. But what God already knows – and what many of us discover by our own experience – is that every other path ends with disappointment and loss. But strength is available to those who wish to remain on the path of Jesus. That strength is found in the daily reading of the Bible, regular prayer, and the use of helpful devotional material prepared by trusted followers of Jesus Christ. By these resources our confidence in God, in Jesus Christ, and the available help of the Holy Spirit grows upon us.

Joy,

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Missing Factor In Our Faith


“This has happened because of the Lord; it is astounding in our sight!”
Psalm 118:23 (Common English Bible)

           Many who occupy a seat in Sunday’s worship have a reduced faith. They have given intellectual consent to the Christian ideas that they have received, either from their family, a loved one, or the persuasive witness of another. Perhaps they concur that the Christian church is a useful, necessary institution for the general well being of a community and should be supported. Some may vigorously advance the argument that the world would be a better place if more people embraced basic Christian values. Yet, many of these same people would be immensely surprised if they ever caught God doing anything. The God of their faith is one who sits in heaven and does nothing. Expectancy of God actually moving and working powerfully in the world is the missing factor of their faith.

           Not so with the writer of these few words from the Psalms. Doubtless, this writer believes that God acts in the world. What we know is that something happened, that God seems to be the only explanation, and that it was astounding. No longer is God a mere object of belief, God is someone to be experienced; experienced as a force operative in the world. We are not told what happened. What we do know is that it changed this persons’ whole complexion of faith. This vital sense of the reality of God – and God’s activity in the world – presents a striking contrast with much of the faith that is common today.

           Some years ago a popular television program, The A-Team, developed a fictional narrative of four Vietnam vets, framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Each weekly episode featured an elaborate – an unlikely – collaboration of the four helping the innocent while on the run from the military. Following the always heroic and successful effort of the four to correct an injustice, Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of the team, would lean back with a lit cigar, smile, and say, “I love it when a plan comes together!” That must have been the experience of the Psalmist when something always believed in suddenly works. There was a present difficulty, and God showed-up!

           Of course, astounding things are supposed to happen. We are not alone in the world, watched over by a disinterested God seated in heaven. Whatever else God may be, the Bible is clear that God is a spiritual force waiting to be released through the lives of those who believe, who are expectant of God’s activity, and are daily aligning their lives with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Perhaps nothing is more profoundly absurd than the Christian who professes belief in a great God but fails to expect astounding results from that belief. The Psalmist experience can be our own. It begins with expectant prayer, eyes wide-open for the astounding things God will do with us and through us.

Joy,


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Taking Jesus Seriously


“When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘
Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!’”
Luke 5:8 (Common English Bible)

             Recently, I began working with a personal trainer after nearly five years of absence from a gym. Stepping into the gym I saw muscle tone where I lacked muscle tone. I saw the absence of fat where I had much. Here were women and men, of all ages, in nearly perfect physical form, radiant, confident, full of energy. I nearly turned and walked out the door. The comparison of these Olympian-like gods and goddesses to my aging, late 50’s body disheartened me. Each person in the gym that morning disturbed me. I did not belong to this community. I cannot rise to that. Instinctively, I wanted to escape their company.

             Luke’s Gospel tells us that this was precisely Simon Peter’s response when it dawned upon his consciousness who Jesus was, “…he (Peter) fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!’” Peter had come to know Jesus, welcomed Jesus as a guest in his home, and was welcomed by Jesus into discipleship. But, it was after Peter began to see the kind of person Jesus was, and the astonishing work Jesus did, that Peter realized – in both a stark and unsettlingly manner – that Peter stood in extraordinary company. Peter wasn’t simply in the presence of a god-like individual. Peter was in the presence of God!

             Simon Peter was right - right to understand so clearly and profoundly that satisfied admiration, adoration, and worship are insufficient in the reality of the divine presence of God. From the depths of Peter’s whole being was released a cry, “Leave me, Lord.” The divine presence disturbed Peter. He did not belong on that scale of life. Peter could not rise to that. Instinctively, Peter looked for an escape. Peter took Jesus seriously.

             Many people have pretty much reduced their Christianity to an admiration of Jesus. Such a response is easy, and natural. Yet, that is all the Christianity they have – admiration. But that is not enough. To truly grasp the divine presence is unsettling. It is to become aware of just how far we are from that measure of life. And, unable to rise, we seek an escape. After approximately seven sessions with my personal trainer, Bill, he asked me to perform a chin-up. I could not. Not one. Again, I wanted to escape. And then Bill spoke, “I’ll get you there.” And it was enough to remain, struggling to become more. Jesus did the same for Peter, “Don’t be afraid.” It was Jesus promising Peter, “I’ll get you there!” That day, Peter left everything and followed Jesus.

Joy,

            



            


Friday, April 20, 2018

The Strangest Secret


“Everything is the same for everyone. The same fate awaits the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the pure and the impure, those who sacrifice and those who don’t sacrifice. The good person is like the wrongdoer; the same holds for those who make solemn pledges and those who are afraid to swear. This is the sad thing about all that happens under the sun: the same fate awaits everyone.”
Ecclesiastes 9:2, 3a (Common English Bible)

            Some years ago the popular motivational speaker, Earl Nightingale delivered a radio address that would result in the formation of a corporation – the Nightingale-Conant Corporation – the sale of millions of cassette tapes of that message and, anecdotally, learn that just as many lives were changed by that one message. That message is widely recognized today: The Strangest Secret. Simply, the strangest secret is, “we become what we think about.” Nightingale said that the fact very few people have learned it or understand it seems strange. That is why, for some equally strange reason, it virtually remains a secret. Equally strange is how few people have grasped the truth advanced in these few sentences from the Old Testament: “Everything is the same for everyone.” This may well be the strangest secret of the Bible.

            Naturally, this denies the old heresy that only good comes to the righteous and that suffering comes only to the evil. A heresy it may be, but one that is very much active in the Christian faith today.  Many in the church act as though a sincere follower of Jesus Christ is not attacked by cancer, lose a child, or suffer financial setbacks. The question is heard often on the lips of faithful followers of Jesus, “What have I done to deserve this?” The question is as old as the Book of Job in the Old Testament and as fresh as a recent calamity in any congregation. The premise that God rewards faithfulness and visits suffering upon the faithless has no support here in Ecclesiastes. Again, “Everything is the same for everyone.”

            Though this teaching sparkles brightly through the pages of the Old and New Testament, it is often received by Christians as somewhat of a surprise – as a secret now brought out of the shadows. Strange, isn’t it? Something that is so clear on the open pages of the Bible yet so few ever grasp it. Again and again the apparent cloak of secrecy must be removed by those who teach and preach God’s word. Once removed, the conversation changes. The old, familiar question, “What have I done to deserve this?” becomes, “How shall I respond to this?” The former question results in resentment, bitterness, anger, and rebellion. The latter question seeks God’s strength and direction for tomorrow. Understanding the truth always changes our reaction.

            Often I hear people say that the goodness of God – and God’s very existence – is denied by the suffering of this world: “How can there be a God of goodness when people must pass through such pain?” Yet, the scriptures boldly declare that the goodness of God is proved by the existence of suffering and pain. Psalm 23, a deeply loved passage from the Old Testament, asserts clearly and forcibly, “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you (God) are with me. Your rod and your staff – they protect me (Psalm 23:4).” God’s strength and care are experienced in the midst of suffering, not its absence. Persons of faith do not look backward in the day of calamity and ask, “Why?” They look forward, confident in God’s continuing care. 

Joy,