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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.


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.

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.


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.   


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

Friday, June 15, 2018


“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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.




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. 


Thursday, April 12, 2018

The God Who Carries Us

The following is one of Doug Hood's favorite meditations, originally written in 2016.

“Bel crouches down; Nebo cowers. Their idols sit on animals, on beasts. The objects you once carried about are now borne as burdens by the weary animals.”
Isaiah 46:1 (Common English Bible)

     One of the most moving – an inspiring – moments in any athletic completion is that one where an athlete stumbles and another competitor goes back to offer help. The tone of the moment is transformed from a test of strength and speed to one of mutual humanity, sharing in one another’s frailties. Such moments remind us of something nobler than defeating another in a game of skill, strength, and speed. Competition may push each of us to realize our best potential – and that is good. But more extraordinary are moments that reveal our common infirmities; moments where we strengthen one another in the storms of life.

     This is not so with God; it must not be so. Unfailing strength is the very nature of God. Yet, here Isaiah fashions for us a sharp contrast between gods that are carried and a God that carries us or, as Henry Sloane Coffin once observed, “Between religion as a load and religion as a lift.”i In another of Isaiah’s tirades against idols, against imaginary gods, he provides the reader with graphic clarity the gods of Babylon bobbing and swaying in an absurdly undignified fashion on the backs of animals. Weary from the weight of these gods, the animals strain to move forward as the frightened devotees lead the animals to a place of safety away from the invading armies. What a picture; ordinary, mortal human beings struggling to secure the safety of gods! Isaiah intends for this to strike us as absurd.

     Isaiah then contrast this ridiculous image with the living God, the God who bore Israel in his arms from its birth and has carried it ever since. The prophet would have us understand that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god which must be taken care of is not a faith that can sustain us. Israel needs, as do we, a faith that takes cares of us. Communion with the God of Israel is a faith that always shifts the weight of life to God, not the other way around. And Isaiah wants us to know that if we ever feel that we are carrying our religion, that if faith has become burdensome, then our gaze has moved from the one, true living God.

     The wonderful teacher of the Christian faith, Paul Tillich, once commented that we are not asked to grasp the faith of the Old and New Testament but, rather, are called to be grasped by it. A Christian’s beliefs are not a set of propositions which we are compelled to accept. That would be a burdensome religion. The Christian faith is an invitation from a living God to come and be held in God’s grasp, to be lifted and carried along through the difficulties of life we must all face. We may struggle at times to free ourselves from God’s embrace, to go through life alone, in our own strength. But sooner or later, we will become as weary as the animals carrying the idols of Bel and Nebo. And when we are depleted, God will be there.

iHenry Sloane Coffin, “Religion That Lifts,” Joy in Believing (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956) 8.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Figuring Out God's Will

The following is one of Doug Hood's favorite meditations, originally written in 2016.

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.”
Romans 12:2 (Common English Bible)

     Antoine de Saint-Exupery wisely said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” It is ludicrous to suggest that any follower of Jesus lacks the goal of spiritual growth; lacks the desire to become more Christlike than they are presently. Adult baptism and membership in a church are intentional decisions. No one stumbles into the Christian faith. And ask anyone seated in church on Sunday morning if they would like to be a better Christian and I doubt there will be any surprises. There is really only one reasonable answer. Ask that question and I imagine you may receive some strange looks. Common courtesy may prevent an honest answer but stirring in the minds of many would be the curt response, “Do you know the trouble I had this morning to simply show-up at church?” No one stumbles into the Christian faith. And no one stumbles into Christian worship. Naturally, every follower of Jesus has the goal of spiritual maturity.

     The difficulty is that in many faith communities, in many churches, there is so little evidence of Christian growth. Listen carefully to many church members and they sound no different than those who remain outside the church doors. Gossip abounds, grumbling is heard and self-righteous judgement is whispered in every pew. Perhaps each person guilty of such bad behavior desires to be better than this but there is simply no movement in that direction. The reason should haunt each of us. We lack an intentional plan for growth. Antoine de Saint-Exupery is correct, without a plan, the desire for becoming increasingly Christlike is nothing more than a wish. Worse, without a plan for growth, says Paul, the natural consequence is conformity to the patterns of the world.

     If a wish is ever to become a goal, a plan is required. Weight Watchers offers a plan if the goal is to lose weight. Fitness Centers offer a plan if the goal is improved fitness and health. Language video and audio programs may be purchased if the goal is learning a new language. Any goal must be translated into a plan or it simply remains a wish. The same principal applies to spiritual growth. The plan need not be difficult or complex. In fact, the likelihood that a plan will be placed into action increases if it is simple to understand and follow.

     Paul’s words here offer a glorious promise. Identify a spiritual growth plan, remove it from the box and implement it fully and the result will be growing clarity of God’s will. Some people despair because God’s will is often difficult to know. Many times that is because they expect clarity without effort, without following an intentional plan for growth. The trouble is that God’s will for our lives is always inextricably bound to a growing relationship with God. It is never one or the other. Pursue an ongoing relationship with God and God’s desires will become apparent.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Prescription for Living

“Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, 
it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 
it isn’t happy with injustice, but is happy with the truth.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-6 (Common English Bible)

            Earl Nightingale shares some wisdom for living he learned from Dr. Frederick Loomis who published an essay in 1949, “The Best Medicine.”[i] Dr. Loomis wrote, “It’s but little good you’ll do, watering last year’s crops. Yet that is exactly what I have seen hundreds of my patients doing in the past 25 years – watering with freely flowing tears things of the irrevocable past. Not the bittersweet memories of loved ones, which I could understand, but things done which should not have been done, and things left undone which should have been done.” Dr. Loomis went on to write that one cannot live adequately in the present, nor effectively face the future, when one’s thoughts are buried in the past. What must be done, insists Dr. Loomis, is to stop thinking about yourself – and how you have been hurt – and start thinking about other people.

            This is precisely the teaching of the apostle Paul in these words he shares with the Christian community in Corinth, “(love) doesn’t keep a record of complaints.” We habitually think of love as a feeling or as an emotion. Yet, Paul shows no indication in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is to be understood in this fashion. For Paul, love is cognitive; it is a decision that produces behavior. Love – indeed the love demonstrated by Christ – always moves toward other people positively, seeking their welfare. Such love takes no notice of wrongs received by another. Rather, love sees the possibilities of changing people and moving all humanity toward the Kingdom that Christ embodied in himself.

            Dr. Loomis writes that by the simple device of doing an outward, unselfish act today, each person can make the past recede; “The present and future will again take on their true challenge and perspective.” He concludes his essay noting that, as a doctor, he has seen this approach being far more effective in changing lives than any prescription he could have ordered from the drugstore. As Earl Nightingale observes, those were the last words written by Dr. Loomis but they have kept him alive in the minds and actions of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have chosen to test for themselves their practical value.

            We all know people who nurse an injury, a slight or unkindness, perceived or real, they have received from another. Or, perhaps, they have suffered a tragedy in the past and simply cannot move past the hurt. They mull the memory over and over, keeping it fresh. What is done is done, and there is no remedy; no returning to the past to undo what was unpleasant. It is here that Dr. Loomis is very wise. The past cannot be changed but the present can. The course that is available, if one chooses, is to cease thinking about oneself and start thinking about others. Indeed, if we wish to destroy the envy, the anger, and the evil that lurks in the world – and in our hearts – we refuse to react emotionally to the slights or harm done to us by others and respond with love. It is a prescription for living that we learn at the foot of the cross.


[i] Earl Nightingale, “A Prescription for Living,” Insight: A Time-Saving Source of New Ideas for Busy People (Chicago: Nightingale-Conant Corporation, 1988) 5.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Courage of Saying Yes

“’Here’s my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! 
If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. 
If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them. 
Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!’ 
The council was convinced by his reasoning.”
Acts 5:38, 39 (Common English Bible)

            Those who know me well know that I have a rather strong aversion to the word, “no.” It is a word that lacks courage, a word that shows a preference for playing the game of life – or work – in the safe places. The uncreative mind finds comfort in the familiar. It is a mind that resists being stretched in new directions. Additionally, such a mind absolves itself of responsibility should a new idea turn out badly. This thinking also gives the impression of superior knowledge as to the outcome of a fresh approach. Those who choose to answer any new idea with “no” clearly have a predilection for the status quo, and, quite possibly, are impeding the discovery of something of superior value.  Yet, the future belongs, as it always has, to those who courageously answer, “yes” to trying something new.

            In the fifth chapter of Acts, the disciples of Jesus have been arrested for preaching the resurrection of Jesus and are saved from almost certain death by the intervention of a rabbi named Gamaliel. The religious establishment, here represented by the Sadducees, is determined to put an end to the Jesus nuisance. They are a “no” people – answering, “no” to teaching and preaching the risen Christ. Before rendering their decision on what is to be done with Jesus’ disciples, Gamaliel presents some sound advice before his colleagues: If what the disciples preach is in error, it will fail on its own. But if, in fact, what they say is true, nothing will silence their message. More, the religious establishment may even be found resisting God!

            Gamaliel is urging his colleagues to have the courage to say, “yes” – to welcome this innovation to their cherished faith tradition and take a “wait and see” position. Resorting to “no” and force against the teachings of these disciples may, in fact, end badly for them. Recognizing that great truth occasionally shows-up in new methods and practices and understandings that are not familiar entails great courage. The same courage that was exercised so many years ago when Galileo suggested that the earth was round, not flat.  Gamaliel demonstrates such courage. Ironically, the growth of the disciples’ teachings throughout Acts confirms Gamaliel’s assertion as the gospel advances.

            Naturally, there is a difference between courage and carelessness. Courage does not dismiss thoughtful care and consideration. It is highly unlikely that Gamaliel would have endorsed obviously dangerous doctrines and practices in what the disciples were advancing. Nor should we say “yes” if there is potential harm to individuals or organizations. There are times to say, “no.” But, more often, people live under a suffocating dread that they might be wrong or make a mistake. Yet, the best hitters in baseball miss half the balls thrown to them. Gamaliel speaks to us today. There’s little doubt that a better way may be found in most of the things we do. What is required is that we find the courage to say, “yes.’


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stars in the City

“Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. 
We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.”
1 John 3:2 (Common English Bible)

            Old Dominion’s, Stars in the City lyrics were written by Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rose, Brad Tursi, and Josh Osborne. With imaginative lyrics accompanied by an infectious sound, this country song narrates a couple almost hitting another car while making a U-turn on a city street. The resulting swerve causes the driver to spill coffee on his jeans. He thinks they’re ruined, but the “girl” in the passenger seat says, “Naw, they’re better now. It’s just a matter of perspective.” She then leans over and kisses him and he ponders to himself, “I don’t know how she does it, but she could see the stars in the city. She sees a diamond when the world sees dust, finds the glitter in the gritty.”

            It is here that the song makes a U-turn of its own. The driver moves from amazement; amazement that his friend can see something good when others see something unfortunate to an honest self-awareness: “I know I ain’t much but that girl sees something nobody else can see, when she sees something in me. Yeah, she could see the stars in the city.” Simply, the man fails to see much when he looks at himself. Yet, the girl in the passenger seat sees something so much more. The girl changes him. Her capacity to see more in life – and in people – than he results in an eager desire to share the same capacity: “The more I hang with her, the more I realize there can be beauty in the broken if you open up your mind.” And moments later in the song, “Well if she’s crazy, I wanna be crazy too. She’s the kinda girl that can break up a band. I wanna see whatever she can.”

            Here, in 1 John, the apostle John has written a pastoral letter to several Gentile congregations. As, perhaps, the last living eyewitness of Christ, John seeks to instill in a new generation of believers a deep assurance and confidence in God’s capacity to change lives. John teaches in this one verse, 1 John 3:2, that the Christian life is a process of becoming more and more like Christ. This process remains unfinished, “and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be.” But, it is certain, argues John, that the process is an unfolding one that will not be stopped by a disruption or force that seeks to defeat us. What Christ has begun in us will be brought to completion, “We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.”

            These are good words for those who are easily defeated. As the driver, in this song, defaults to angst over spilled coffee, magnifying the brokenness and imperfections of the world, the apostle John invites a different perspective. John passionately desires that we see the world – and ourselves – as Christ sees us, as unfinished. Presently, God “sees something nobody else can see, when she sees something in me.” Those who are defeated look in the mirror and sees “dust” when God sees “a diamond.” None of us have become what we shall be. That is out in the future. But God sees the future, sees the diamond we will become, and knowing that this is our ultimate destiny, gives us eyes to see the stars while we make our way in the city of the present.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

All On Me

Gratitude is expressed to Pamela Kent-Balasco for bringing this song to my attention.

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.”
Matthew 11:28 (Common English Bible)

            All On Me, a song with a catchy melody and recorded by country music artist, Devin Dawson, is an invitation by the narrator to someone who is deeply loved and is experiencing a heavy load: “You got my number you can call on me. If you’re in trouble put the fall on me. When you’re mad you can take it out on me.” And a few stanzas later, “When it gets heavy put the weight on me. Baby put it all on me. Put it all on me.” Dawson said in an interview with Taste of Country that he has a personal connection with this track because he’ll do anything to take some of the heavy load from his girlfriend. Crafting the lyrics with Austin Smith, bandmate, and Jacob Durrett, Dawson was looking to articulate something he could get behind fully, something that expresses the depth of the commitment he was prepared to make to another.

            In this single sentence spoken by Jesus Christ, and captured by the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is making the same commitment, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads.” Often Jesus is understood as someone who teaches wisdom for our daily living, providing wise counsel for the multiple decisions that press against each one of us. But the language here is something richer and more gracious than simply offering direction along our daily journey of life. There will be moments in life when direction isn’t what we most urgently need. I speak of those moments, common to everyone, when the journey becomes hard and the load we bear is heavy. In those moments, Jesus reminds us that he is very present with us and invites us to shift some of the burden we carry to his shoulders; “and I will give you rest.”

            Jesus becomes more than someone who gives wise and intelligent guidance for the living of each day. The good news that is offered here is that life isn’t simply a matter of human effort. Certainly, Jesus provides insight, but Jesus does more. Jesus is a constant companion who is always available to share our burdens and give us rest. The “rest” Jesus promises is love, healing and peace with God. When the weight of the world causes us to stumble, Jesus is present to catch us, stand us back on our feet, and give encouragement to take the next steps forward. Life has now become a holy partnership that mingles human striving with the strength of God. No longer is the struggle of life a solo act. Jesus asks, “Come to me.” Jesus desires to share company with us.

            Dawson loves the line in this track, “When it don’t add up, you can count on me.” It is a simple but clever turn of phrase that invites another way of looking at life – an uncommon approach that realizes that when life fails to work one way, another direction is available. Jesus’ life and ministry was a continuous invitation to see the wondrous possibilities available to anyone who trusts in God. Yes, failure is part of life. But defeat does not have to be our story. Jesus is present to God’s people and that changes the mathematical equation of life. Near the end of this song, the narrator sings, “C’mon relax your mind on me. When you need a shoulder, you can cry on me. Baby you can bet your life on me.” In this season of Lent, we hear Jesus saying the same thing to us, “bet your life on me.” Then Jesus turns once again, and climbs-up on a cross.


Friday, March 2, 2018

A Fresh Approach to Prayer

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2
“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.”


Friday, February 23, 2018

You Should Be Here

“Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died 
so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13 (Common English Bible)

You Should Be Here is a piano-driven country ballad, co-written by Ashley Gorley and Cole Swindell, and recorded by Swindell about the death of Swindell’s father. In September 2013, Swindell was out on tour after signing a record deal. During his tour, Swindell was informed that his father had died unexpectedly – and tragically – when a truck he was working on fell on him. Though the song is deeply personal to Swindell, the lyrics are not so specific that those who haven’t lost a parent will feel left out. Each one of us have experienced those moments when everything seems perfect except for the absence of a loved one. This track recovers those moments, releases the deep emotions of loss and articulates with candor, “You should be here, standing with your arm around me here.”

It is this particular moment – remembering a loved one who has died – that the apostle Paul addresses in his first letter to the Christian community in Thessalonica. With deeply emotive language, Paul expresses genuine love and concern for these new Christian believers. Paul then provides a heartfelt, pastoral response to the deep grief that has cast a shadow over them as they remember those who have died: “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.” At first glance, it would appear that Paul is suggesting that if we have enough faith in the promises of God, we will not mourn the death of a father, mother, or any other loved one. In fact, this is not what is suggested by Paul. A second glance is necessary.

A deeper look at this one sentence of scripture reveals something quite different. Paul understands that grief and mourning are important. The presence of deep grief is testimony that the one who has died made a difference in our lives. Mourning is indicative that the world is a better place because that person was born, lived, and positively touched others. Paul values mourning as part of the human experience. What Paul is saying is that the Christian community is not to mourn “like others who don’t have any hope.” Mourn, yes. But mourn differently. Paul is asking for a distinctively Christian-type of mourning that acknowledges that because of Jesus Christ, the one who has died is not separated from us forever. In the resurrection, we will be together again. Mingled with our grief is the certain knowledge that there will be a heavenly reunion with our loved ones.

In a particularly expressive lyric Cole Swindell captures my own longing for my father when I am walking on the beach: “You’d be loving this, you’d be freaking out, you’d be smiling, yeah I know you’d be all about what’s going on right here right now. God, I wish somehow you could be here. Oh, you should be here.” My father loved the ocean and walks on the beach. I walk to the beach from my office on occasion and wish my father was right there by my side, “standing with your arm around me here.” But grief doesn’t consume me. That is because I mourn differently. Because of Jesus Christ, I now anticipate that day in the future when my father’s arm will be around me once again.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Dear Hate

I have been asked to repost this meditation from November due to the
High School shooting that occurred this past Wednesday.

“God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.”
  1 John 4:16b (Common English Bible)

     Dear Hate is a deeply moving song, written as an epistolary conversation with hared itself, introducing hate as a character “on the news today” and having the capacity to “poison any mind.” Written by Maren Morris, Tom Douglas and David Hodges and performed by Morris and Vince Gill, the song pinpoints the garden – presumably the Garden of Eden from the pages of Genesis – as hate’s origin. The voices of Morris and Gill, supported only by two acoustic guitars, lead the listener along a serpentine path from Selma, Alabama (“you were smiling from that Selma bridge”), to Dallas, Texas ( “when that bullet hit and Jackie cried” ), culminating in New York City ( “You pulled those towers from the sky” ). Yet, hope remains, “But even on our darkest nights, the world keeps spinning ‘round.”

     Hatred’s power, made visible, is answered three times by a confident affirmation, “love’s gonna conquer all.” It is then that the last chorus flips the narrative of hatred’s destructive ambitions to address love as someone who is personal and omnipresent. Though doubt is identified, “Just when I think you’ve given up,” the presence of love becomes unmistakable once again, “You were there in the garden when I ran from your voice. I hear you every morning through the chaos and the noise. You still whisper down through history and echo through these halls.” Love then speaks, “love’s gonna conquer all.”

     Here in 1 John, love’s name is revealed, “God is love.” More, a promise is made. Anyone who clings to love, not as a feeling but as intentional conduct towards others, will discover that they are, in fact, taking-up residence in God and God in them. It is precisely the demonstration of love toward one another, in obedience to Jesus’ example and command, that the reassurance of love’s power over hate becomes unquestioned. By the intentional and active force of love, given freely to others, Christians are able to abide in God and God in them, in a state of mutual indwelling. And it is precisely by this mutual indwelling that we know we are loved and that the very best that hate can summon will not defeat us.

     Dear Hate stands among a growing canon of songs that grapple with hatred – most notably for this writer, Tim McGraw’s Grammy-winning, “Humble and Kind” – and offers a heartening message that love is stronger. Most days, it seems, the news swings the camera toward another appearance of hatred, moving among us at its foulest. All of us fight back tears and struggle with doubt. It is precisely at those moments that Maren Morris and Vince Gill seeks to encourage us with the good news, “love’s gonna conquer all. Gonna conquer all.”


Friday, February 9, 2018

God Will Guide Us

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2

“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.”