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Friday, December 28, 2018

The Struggle to Believe


The following meditation is from Doug Hood's book
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ.

“I have faith; help my lack of faith!”
Mark 9:24 (Common English Bible)

Many who sincerely want to believe in God find believing to be difficult. Faith rarely comes easily. The only way it does come is when we accept where we are on our faith journey and go on from there. Longing to be someplace else along the journey accomplishes nothing, apart from frustration.

At the beginning of a new year, we cannot say I wish I was fifteen pounds less before beginning a New Year’s resolution of a healthier lifestyle. Eating better, exercising more and getting more rest must begin where you are. That is what the unidentified man in this story from Mark’s Gospel teaches us; we must begin where we are, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” He begins from where he is. Within him is a mixture of belief and unbelief. He owns that when he speaks to Jesus.

Each day we may know a little more of God. We can never know all of God. But instead of being occupied with what we don’t know we can say, “help me with my unbelief.” The man in our story approaches Jesus with both belief and unbelief. Rather than dwelling upon what he doesn’t know - or being troubled by what he doesn’t understand - he seeks Jesus’ help. There is present enough faith to seek more of Jesus. This is a more helpful approach to faith than those who claim they will not believe until they understand fully.

The Christian faith is not established upon right beliefs, right doctrine, or on how much someone believes. The Christian faith is personal, centered upon the person of Jesus. Here, this man in Mark’s story instructs us that often we approach faith incorrectly. Rather than trying to understand all the mystery that is God, this man seeks out the person of Jesus; he seeks a relationship. To concentrate on what you don’t understand will destroy whatever faith you have. Accepting God’s love in the person of Jesus and making your love for him tangible in each day of life results in a faith that will grow from more to more.


Joy,

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Defeated Lives


“Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:29, 31 (Common English Bible)

            The Band’s Visit, currently on Broadway, has won several major awards including Best Musical at the 72nd Tony Awards. Music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, the musical is based on the 2007 Israel film of the same title. More a play than a musical, The Band’s Visit is a ninety-minute narrative of a single night in the small, isolated Israel desert town, Bet Hatikva. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra – an eight-member ensemble – has accepted an invitation to perform in the cultural center of Petah Tikvah. Difficulty with accents results in bus tickets to the wrong Israeli town. The next bus out of town – and to the band’s intended destination – is not until the next morning. A charismatic woman named Dina, the owner of the local café, offers the band a meal and a place to stay for the night.

            The musical opens silently with words projected on a bare wall: “Sometime ago, some musicians from Egypt came to our town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Those few words powerfully informs the audience that they are now invited into the lives of people who feel defeated; people who long for any sense that they are noticed and that their lives matter. With the arrival of the band from Egypt, a deep journey into brokenness begins – the brokenness of the residents of Bet Hatikva and the brokenness of the members of the band. Dina speaks to the prevailing mood of insignificance that has settled deep into the consciousness of their small town when she addresses the band: “They (Petah Tikvah) have art and culture and music. Here we have my café and apartments.” The citizens of Bet Hatikva long for significance, for the presence of meaning to their meager, small lives.

            Here, in this teaching from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates a firm grasp of the fear of living lives that are seemingly unimportant. Though the larger conversation that surrounds this teaching addresses the conflict and persecution the disciples can expect as they do the work of Christ, it does present the view that nothing in the world went unnoticed by Jesus – even something as small as a sparrow falling from the sky. And, “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  Few of us set out to be common. Most of us strive to excellence in our chosen endeavor, to outstrip our competitors and receive recognition that we have added uncommon value to the world. Ambition is, of course, an admirable quality. But, as Christians, we should never lose sight that, as children of God, we are all without distinction in God’s eyes.

            Perhaps the most powerful dynamic of the musical, The Band’s Visit is how circumstances bring people together who hold a low appraisal of themselves. Thrust together for a night, they listen deeply to one another’s brokenness, and care unreservedly for each other. Within that embracing environment of love, healing bubbles forth for each person. People who led defeated lives discover that the simple act of listening, caring, and loving profoundly changes a life of another. That is the Christian source of inspiration – that each person, regardless of social rank or stature or achievement, can be used mightily to make a difference in someone’s life. It is this that provides a more balanced self-appraisal. The musical ends with Dina stepping to center stage, facing the audience intently, and saying, “Sometime ago, some musicians from Egypt came to our town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Don’t believe that for one moment.

Joy,

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ending Well


“Demas has fallen in love with the present world and has deserted me
and has gone to Thessalonica.”
2 Timothy 4:10 (Common English Bible)

            Harry Emerson Fosdick provides uncommon insight upon this singular verse of scripture written by the Apostle Paul: “One of the most familiar tragedies in human life (is) a fine beginning and a poor ending.”[i] Demas, a colleague with Paul in ministry, lacked the power to see it through. First, Paul writes in his letter to Philemon, that Demas and Luke are coworkers in the cause of Christ Jesus. Paul wrote that letter from a Roman prison. Therefore, Demas, along with Luke, was standing by Paul in his imprisonment – a devoted and promising disciple. Second, Paul mentions Demas in his letter to the Colossians in a rather unusual fashion: “Luke, the dearly loved physician, and Demas say hello.” (Verse 4:14). It doesn’t escape the careful reader of this letter that affection is attributed to Luke but not Demas. Luke is “dearly loved.” Demas has become merely “Demas.” Now, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy we understand what is going on: Demas has abandoned Paul and the Christian ministry. Demas began well enough. But he didn’t follow through.

            Fosdick reminds us that when Luke wrote his account of the ministry of Jesus Christ, Luke alone among the four gospels shares the teaching about considering the cost before beginning anything: “If one of you wanted to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and calculate the cost, to determine whether you have enough money to complete it?” (Verse 14:28). The one who laid the foundation of the tower was unable to finish it. Luke now warns that people will notice that the builder didn’t finish what was started and will receive the ridicule of others. Fosdick imagines that Luke is here pleading with his friend, Demas; pleading with Demas not to leave unfinished the work of ministry he had started so well. Essentially, Luke is saying to his friend, “Don’t let it be said by Paul that you abandoned him in the work of Jesus Christ.”

            Has this become our story? Perhaps we have not abandoned faith in Jesus Christ. But how strongly do we feel about a daily investment in building a relationship with Jesus? Recently a member of this congregation spoke to me following worship and remarked that my suggestion that members spend five minutes each day with a daily devotional was a “big ask.” I do hope he was kidding, and perhaps he was. Yet, I wonder how many people actually believe that – that five minutes a day is a “big ask?” It is no secret that all of us find the time for what really matters. The question for each Christian to answer at the beginning of a new year is, “Does my relationship with Jesus really matter?”

            However beautiful the beginning of our Christian journey may have been, none of it really matters much without a good end. This is not to suggest that we must demand outwardly successful – and measurable – goals or achievements. Building a deeply meaningful relationship with Jesus is not a contest. It is about minding the heart, of seeking positive spiritual change or transformation that is accomplished by God as we intentionally nurture our faith. That is done as we spend time with God reading the Bible, delving into good devotional material, and prayer. At the conclusion of this New Year it is my hope that it will not be uttered by the angels of us, “Demas, my Demas. Demas has abandoned me.”

Joy,


[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Power to See It Through.” The Power to See It Through: Sermons on Christianity Today (New York and London: Harper & brothers, 1935), 1.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Disillusioned at Christmas


“They asked, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? 
We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.’”
Matthew 2:2 (Common English Bible)

            Speed bumps are intentional obstructions along routes traveled by motorized vehicles to slow drivers down. They indicate the need for caution, that something unusual is present and requires particular attention for safe navigation forward. Ignore the speed bump and the driver will experience a jolt and, perhaps, minor damage to their vehicle. Matthew’s Gospel has placed a speed bump into the Christmas narrative. If ignored – or not noticed – the reader will miss a greater truth that Matthew wishes to convey. Rather than hurrying to the end of the story, Matthew wants the reader to make a rich discovery as the story unfolds: The magi made much of their journey to Bethlehem without the light of the star.

            Notice the speed bump: the magi enter the City of Jerusalem and make inquiry as to where the “newborn king of the Jews” is born. They began their journey to find the baby when they saw a star in the east but now the light of that star is unseen. Now they must ask directions. Consulting with the chief priests and legal experts, King Herod learns that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then sends the magi on their way in that direction. Only when they come to Bethlehem do they see the light of the star again. This is why the magi “were filled with joy”, Matthew tells us. They were on the right road and the promise of that star was about to be realized. Finding the child with Mary, his mother, the magi fell to their knees, honored him, and presented their gifts.

            Matthew is writing to a particular people who are on the cusp of disillusionment and abandoning their faith. The decision to follow Christ has resulted in estrangement from those family members who don’t believe in Jesus. More, followers of Jesus are no longer welcomed in Jewish worship. Divided from their loved ones and unwelcomed in the faith community, it is easy to question if they are on the right road. The easy path would be to admit a mistake in following Jesus, abandon the Christian movement, and return to the embrace of family and cherished worship. The light that began their faith in Jesus has dimmed considerably and now they are traveling in the dark.

            So it may be with our faith. Oftentimes we do not experience the power, the light, the vitality of the faith we once experienced. Difficulties overwhelm, the road becomes dark, and we are disillusioned.  The path that was once clear is now an unknown way. Matthew wants us to remain confident in the promise. Circumstances may require that we stop, reassess our route, and seek guidance as the magi did in Jerusalem. But then, start out once again. There is much in the world – and in our lives – that we cannot change. It’s not our task to repair the brokenness all around us. What we can and must do, says Matthew, is speak of the promise of “the newborn king” that comes in the midst of that brokenness, kneel before him in worship, present our gifts, and trust that it will be enough.

Joy,

Friday, November 30, 2018

Christmas Begins with Wonder


“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, 
and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
Luke 2:7 (Common English Bible)

            My wife, Grace, and I collect nativity sets. Over the course of our marriage we have collected over thirty, each beautiful and unique in their own way. Several have come from Congo, Africa, where my wife was born and raised by missionary parents. Others are from Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Israel. There are also beautiful sets from Alaska and from Native American reservations in the west. Two are whimsical sets from North Carolina – one that depicts every character of the nativity as black bears and another as red cardinals. They have been fashioned from metal, stone, clay, wax and wood. Each represents a cherished memory and all stir the wonder of that first Christmas.

            Christmas begins with wonder. It is a story whereby we are reminded that God has come into the world for every generation and for every person. It is a story that defies reasonableness. God, the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is them, comes to earth as a vulnerable baby, to parents of little material possessions, in the non-descript town of Bethlehem. The parents have no stature, no power and no capacity to provide anything more than a manger to place their first child. Absent is any hint of privilege, any suggestion that this family will ever attract the notice of others. Yet, shepherds are drawn to the nativity, leaders of great nations travel considerable distances to bring gifts of substantial value and angels sing from the heavens of the birth of Jesus. The story is astounding, incredible, and outside the parameters of credible story-telling. Serious engagement with the Christmas story begins with wonder.

            Wonder is not doubt. For those who doubt, they are unable to see. Their eyes are clouded by a determined focus on what they understand. Wonder exists where there is hope in inexplicable love, and uncommon generosity. Wonder springs from believing that there is more in life than can ever be explained and the deep desire to be surprised. Christian wonder arises from the ancient promise of a God who cares deeply for us, clinging to that promise tenaciously, particularly at those times when there seems to be so little evidence for it, and paying attention, recognizing that God may surprise at any moment. The shepherds and the magi arrived at the nativity not because of incontrovertible proof that the Holy Son of God was born but because they were paying attention to a God that surprises.

            For Christmas to be more today than a nostalgic glance backward there must be a recovery of wonder. We cannot rejoice at Christmas unless we rejoice that this is a season where images of the nativity – in our homes and churches, on Christmas cards and wrapping paper – remind us that God comes to us in unexpected moments, in a surprising fashion, and always in a manner that is beyond our ability to understand. We live in a world that doesn’t know what to make of the love of God; a love that is free of ulterior motives. God baffles us and mystery and wonder permeate God’s presence and activity in the world, including the Christmas story. The Christian faith has never asked that we dismiss our questions. But its promises are realized only when we permit ourselves to experience expectant wonder once again.

Joy,

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Faith That Is Deeply Lived


“They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power.”
2 Timothy 3:5 (Common English Bible)

Flu shots work by placing into the body the flu virus in such a controlled manner that those inoculated experience a mild form of the virus, yet become immune to the full force of the illness. Experienced in its full force, the flu debilitates the body resulting in fever, dehydration, general malaise, and the absence from productive work. For the very young, those in general poor health, and those of advanced age, death remains a present danger of the flu. Few people would disagree that the mild form of the flu is preferable to the full force of flu symptoms. Mild symptoms can be managed with little effort. A full-on assault of the flu virus is a considerable struggle.

The second letter to Timothy wrestles with a similar phenomenon in the Christian churches of his day. Quite simply, it seems that many members of Timothy’s church have been inoculated with a mild form of Christianity and, thus, have become immune to the genuine article: “They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power.” Present in the church are those who are complacent toward the faith – they accept it, are occasionally observant of its outward expression, but show no evidence of the faith’s power in their lives. As Harry Emerson Fosdick once observed, they have the form of religion but have nothing to do with it as a force.

Fosdick once shared with his New York City congregation that the saddest failure of the church is not hypocrisy. The saddest failure of the church is seen in men and women who have not personally experienced power; people who have never gone down to the depths of their faith where the power of God becomes a reliable resource in daily living.[i] What the church has always required to be a vital, dynamic, and powerful movement in the local community are church members who, through regular study of the Bible, regular prayer, and intentional decisions each day to live in obedience to what the Bible instructs, suddenly make a great discovery – it works! There is considerable power in the Christian faith for daily living; power that is unleashed when the faith is lived intentionally.

The Christian faith was never meant to be simply a creed, a set of beliefs to be embraced. When applied to every decision of life, the Christian faith becomes an inward source of power, overcoming fear, fortifying courage, and equipping a life that endures the inevitable storms that we all will face. Personally and socially we are up against destructive forces. Discouragement is a force. Fear and disillusion is a force. Failing marriages and deteriorating relationships with children are a force. So is the fear of terrorism and gun violence. Each of these forces must be met with an equal force – the power of a risen Christ that is present in a personal faith that is deeply lived.

Joy,



[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Christianity Not a Form But a Force.” A Great Time To Be Alive: Sermons on Christianity in Wartime (New York And London: Harper & Brothers, 1944), 92.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Secret of Spiritual Power


The following is from Doug Hood's newest book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; 
they will fly up on wings like eagles; 
they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
 Isaiah 40:31 (Common English Bible)

     A woman stepped into my office today. With tears and considerable emotion, she asked that I pray for the world. She mentioned nothing specific. She didn’t need to. Another shooting this week on a college campus that left ten people dead. An accidental bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan killed twenty-two people. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing terrorism, seeking news homes throughout Europe and the United States. These stories drain our strength and cause us to need renewed power.

     In the time that Isaiah wrote these words, his people also faced despair. Threatened by domination by a mighty foreign power, Isaiah’s people needed all the encouragement and strength that a genuine faith in God could bring. So do we. Just as the natural rhythm of life demands nourishing food, exercise and rest for the body, the same condition applies to our souls. Spiritual energies are rapidly depleted by the crises, suffering and fear that consume our attention. Replenishing that spiritual energy is urgently needed. So Isaiah reminds his people – and us – that our sufficiency is of God. We remain weak unless we derive strength from God.

     How do God’s people claim this strength? “Hope in the Lord,” writes Isaiah. The “hope” Isaiah speaks of is not wishful thinking or “hoping for the best.” Here is Isaiah’s call to “trust unfailingly in God.” It is a call to “hold onto God” with expectant dependence. A constant reliance on God, meditating on God’s words and promises in the Bible, generates spiritual power and makes each of us alert for God’s intention to use us mightily for God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Isaiah asks that we attach ourselves to God as a child clings to a parent.

     As in the day of Isaiah, it still takes time to be holy; to be a people set apart for God’s purposes in a world shaken by fear. Schedule time each day for reading the Bible and prayer, for reading devotional literature that awakens the senses to new understandings, and do not neglect moments to simply be still and contemplate God’s love. These things, along with weekly worship in a community of faith, gives release to the inflow of God’s power that renews strength, restores hope, and lifts hearts as on the wings of eagles.

Joy,

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Speaking of Faith


Dr. Hood is on vacation.
This is a repeat of a meditation from his first book,
Heart & Soul, Meditations to Encourage the Heart & Refresh the Soul

“Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 
Yet do this with respectful humility.”
I Peter 3:15, 16 (Common English Bible)

I read recently that many people fear public speaking more than death. In multiple surveys that gathered information from thousands of people, death always ranked high among their greatest fears. Yet, in every instance, it is always second to public speaking. The mystery of death seems no match for the terror that is generated from the thought of speaking before groups of people. Make the suggestion that people speak about their faith and the terror quotient rises.

It is true that Peter is not necessarily speaking here about public speaking. Nor is there anything here that precludes that. In fact, Peter isn’t even asking that we initiate a talk or speech before one person or many on the topic of our faith. Simply, Peter is saying that if we are asked, be ready. Be ready to answer any question that may come from others about your faith. This seems a little more manageable.

The question that presses here is, are we ready? Are we prepared to share with another why we accepted Jesus into our life? Why we follow Jesus and try, as best as we are able, to live daily for him?

If we are not prepared to give an answer this may be a signal that we have some soul work to do. Perhaps it has been some time since we gave any attention to our walk with Jesus, any time to our relationship to Christ as one of his disciples. Relationships that are vital and meaningful rarely require much effort to explain to another. Rather, when we speak about a relationship with a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend or a good friend, that conversation is always marked by energy, enthusiasm and personal anecdotes. Little thought is required.

If you are not presently prepared to answer for your faith then you know what you must do; you must become more intentional about your journey of faith. A deep relationship with Jesus is much like a deep relationship with anyone else. It requires time, commitment and energy. But most would agree that satisfying relationships are worth the effort.

Joy,

Friday, October 26, 2018

Holding Our Life Together


Dr. Hood is on vacation.  
This is a repeat of a meditation from his first book, 
Heart & Soul, Meditations to Encourage the Heart & Refresh the Soul


“…and all things are held together in him.”
Colossians 1:17 (Common English Bible)

It seems that everybody has at least one area of life that isn’t holding together very well.  Maybe it’s at work with the boss or in the home with your spouse.  The trouble area may be with your health, finances, time demands, relationships, drinking, and the list of possibilities goes on and on.  What is certain is that when one area of life begins to unravel, eventually the rest of life will be affected.  Our lives are more integrated than we realize.

Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul tells us that if Christ is our Savior, then we are to look to him to hold all things together.  In five brief verses, Paul says “all things” five times.  Paul wants us to hear that as all things were created in and through Christ so also will it be Christ who will sustain the whole of creation.

No longer can we say that some area of our lives doesn’t belong to Christ, that it doesn’t impact the rest of us.  We can’t say, for instance, “The trouble is at work, I’ll just leave it at the office.”  Nor can we say, “Nothing more can be done,” and quietly be resigned to whatever will be.  No, Paul is quite clear: all things hold together in Christ.  Jesus Christ is not the Savior of one part of our life and not the others.

Every part of our lives is important to Christ.  If one part of it seems a bit frayed, Christ wants us to give it to him, to trust in his care.  If ignored or neglected, it won’t be long before our whole life unravels.

Joy

Friday, October 19, 2018

New Possibilities


Dr. Hood is on vacation.  
This is a repeat of a meditation from his first book, 
Heart & Soul, Meditations to Encourage the Heart & Refresh the Soul

“It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty.
This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves.”
2 Corinthians 1:9 (Common English Bible)

     It is not unusual to experience, from time to time, a situation that seems completely hopeless. Perhaps a relationship has not developed as we had wished, or our career seems to have stalled, or a chronic illness is beating us down and there is no indication that anything is going to improve. Prayers are offered and patiently – very patiently – we have waited on the Lord. Yet, nothing changes. Paul tells us that in these moments of our life, we feel as though we have received the sentence of death. All that is left is despair.

     Speaking to these moments, Paul tells the church that there is an alternative: we can rely on God. Paul is not here suggesting more prayers or more patience. We may have given sufficient attention to both. What Paul is saying is that God’s preference for us may be resurrection, which can only follow a death. The death of a poor relationship opens the possibility of a new one. A stalled career may indicate God’s call to a new vocation. Even a chronic illness that never improves opens the door to a whole new relationship with God, one dependent upon God’s grace, not health, to celebrate life.

     God is in the resurrection business. Yet, for God to work a resurrection, we may have to release that which we hold so tenaciously to; to let it die. It is then that we receive something so much better than what we were afraid of losing.

     This doesn’t mean we should never struggle to prevent loss, or that we can’t experience grief over something we once held dear. It does mean that we don’t give in to hopeless like those who don’t know God. For if we must finally let go, we know that we can rely on God, the one who raises the dead.

Joy,


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Finding Calm in the Tumult


“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.”
1 Corinthians 13:4,5 (Common English Bible)

An annual childhood tradition that comes to mind, whenever I read this passage of scripture, is the Atlanta Boat Show. Naturally, as is true with boat shows today, this was an opportunity for manufacturers to exhibit new boats and related products and advance boating as a recreational pursuit. The entire, weeklong event was designed to be attractive to all ages, particularly families with young children. Plastic toy boats and other brightly colored toys were plentiful, all free in the sixties and early seventies, to ensure that children would not become bored as vendors sought to seduce the parents into making a major purchase. Inexpensive and tasty food was plentiful and various recreational activities ensured that this annual event was one not to be missed. My brother, Wayne and I marked our calendars each year for this event.

The one activity Wayne and I looked forward to the most was trout fishing. A rather large, artificial pond was placed inside the exhibit center filled with hungry trout. If you have ever experienced an Alaskan wild salmon run from June through September, you get the picture. You could not drop a fishing line without hitting a trout. And that was the point. For a nominal fee, children could trout fish with a virtual guarantee of a successful catch. That is precisely why this passage from 1 Corinthians reminds me of the Atlanta Boat Show – or specifically, trout fishing at that event; the passage is rich with wisdom and truth. Drop a line anywhere in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians and you are going to catch something.

There is present today, in our nation, political disagreements that have risen to an unhealthy state – one where the strains and tensions easily throw us into emotional turmoil and which are inevitably fatal to our peace of mind. Each of us is easily upset and friendships, once seemly located on solid ground, seem fragile. Quite simply, we all seem to have become irritable. How, in this trying political climate, can we recover our emotional poise? Is it possible to recover a sense of personal calm in the present tumult? Located in this passage is our pathway. Here, we are asked to change the conversation, to recall our baptism that is placed squarely in the love of Jesus Christ. Politically, we may disagree. Yet, in our baptism we find common ground in the Lordship of Jesus – a Lordship that calls us to withdraw from the noise and tension of daily life and focus our energies on acts of worship and prayer.

The phrase, “it isn’t irritable”, is not offered as a command. It is identified as the natural consequence of turning our hearts and mind and will to Jesus, surrendering all our desires to knowing Jesus and providing our life as a channel for Jesus’ love to flow into all our relationships. Angst and anger in the present political climate of our country is the result of living in a miserably restricted area surrounded only by our own feelings of what is right and protecting our own interest. The natural result is irritability when others disagree – when others live in a different, but equally miserable, restricted area. 1 Corinthians 13 asks that we prevent our world from becoming small by cleaving to Christ, by focusing our thoughts on the deep center of our baptism – the love of Jesus. As we move to that deep center God will restore calm in the midst of tumult.

Joy,





Friday, October 5, 2018

Our Failure With Prayer


“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, 
Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”
Mark 1:35 (Common English Bible)

            A little boy once explained to his minister that he didn’t say his prayers every night because “some nights I don’t want anything.” Many of us are like that little boy. Our view of prayer is a limited one, reduced to asking God for something. Certainly, Jesus invited us to take our request to God in prayer. But that is not all Jesus taught – or demonstrated in his own life – about the subject of prayer. The consequence of an inadequate understanding of prayer is felt in our own lack of spiritual power. We are troubled by doubt, by fear, and by a sense of weakness to make any real difference in a world of brokenness and need. We miss much of the strength God would provide us through a more expansive understanding – and practice – of prayer.

            In this teaching from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had just finished a hard, demanding day meeting the needs of numerous people. Another awaited him. How could Jesus be ready for it? The answer is right here in this one sentence of scripture; “Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” Conspicuously absent is any record of the content of Jesus’ prayer. In other prayers that Jesus offered, we are told the substance of the prayer. Perhaps the most familiar prayer is the one Jesus offered the night he was betrayed by Judas, arrested, and placed on trial during the night. It is a prayer that is familiar because we have offered it so often ourselves: “Take this suffering from me.” But here, in this account of Jesus at prayer, we are not allowed in on the conversation. All we know is that Jesus got up early in the morning to be alone with God.

            This little verse teaches more about prayer than most realize. Rather than distract us with the actual dialog between Jesus and God, we are left only with the fact that it was important to Jesus to be alone with God. Before another day of ministry, before another day of addressing the great need of the world, Jesus addressed his own need to be alone with God. Regular time alone with God was the source of Jesus’ incredible spiritual power. Here, Jesus teaches us that prayer is more than our formal presentation to God of our various needs. Prayer is a demonstration of a life that is lived with God. Our failure with prayer is that we have reduced prayer to asking rather than understanding that prayer is a real and vital relationship with the divine.

            Mark has one additional insight on the wisdom of prayer before we leave this story. Moving the narrative quickly along, we are told that Simon and the other disciples tracked Jesus down, told Jesus that other people, with their various needs, have gathered looking for Jesus, and that Jesus surprises the disciples by announcing that he is going in the other direction. What is apparent is that time alone with God in prayer supplied Jesus with more than spiritual power. Prayer infused Jesus with fresh clarity and focus upon God’s intention for Jesus. Jesus was now to go to the nearby villages so that he may preach there also. “That’s why I’ve come,” Jesus declared. It is easy to respond to the “asks” of those around us, people asking us to meet their needs. It is the greater wisdom to discern God’s intention for us, in prayer, and to respond faithfully. 

Joy,

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What We Might Be


“But in the days to come…”
Micah 4:1 (Common English Bible)

            Some years ago I was sharing lunch with my mother in Irving, Texas. A woman seated at a nearby table looked at me, grabbed a notepad from her purse, and approached me, “May I have your autograph?” I inquired of her who she thought I was. She named a football player with the New York Giants and, apparently, she was a huge fan. Naturally, I politely told her my name and that I was a Presbyterian pastor serving a congregation right there in Irving. She refused to believe me. With anger and frustration all mingled together in one burst of emotion, she answered, “If you don’t want to give autographs, say so!” and returned to her meal.  She saw something in me that I was not – and never will be. And, I fear, I have cost a Giants player one of his fans.

            God does something similar. God doesn’t mistaken our identity, as the woman in Irving, but God does see in us something so much more than is presently true. With a forward-looking eye, God sees what we might become.  Think of a teacher that goes into a classroom, a class of girls and boys. The teacher lifts his or her eyes away from the present to see women and men. The best teachers understand that, in a sense, they are architects and builders of the people those children will become. It is the teacher’s vision of “what might be” that directs every moment spent with the children. The vision is active in the present, shaping, and molding, and encouraging children to something more.  Yet, for the future to be claimed, each child must be a willing participant in the process of learning. In Jesus Christ, God shares God’s vision for what we might become. It is a work completed by the Holy Spirit as we willingly participate by paying attention to God.

            Our encouragement comes from the rich examples in the Old and New Testament – examples of God’s uncommon work in common people. Moses had a speech impediment but would stand before a king and demand that the people of Israel be set free from their bondage in Egypt. David, a shepherd boy tending sheep, would defeat a Philistine giant, Goliath, rescuing Israel from an enemy. Simon, a name that means hearer,  or one who simply hears, would have his name changed by Jesus to Peter, a rock, upon which Jesus would build his church. And a woman of sin – an outcast child of the city – would be addressed by Jesus as “daughter” and spoken to as if she had already entered the future as an heir to God’s promises. Each story nudges us to come to our present, filled with difficulties and struggle, with a vision of the future, a glimpse of what might be.

            Here, in this brief passage, the prophet Micah lifts his eyes away from the present to the days that are to come. By holding clearly before him God’s promise of more, Micah finds refreshment in the present difficulty. Without the joyful anticipation of something more to come, without the conviction that the God who worked uncommonly in common people in the past continues the same today, Micah would lose his capacity to hold-on, and the spirit of striving would go out of his work. Our vision of the future always determines the behavior and attitudes that we bring to the present. Our dominant thought and hope regulates how we go about our responsibilities today. It is wise to ask what vision pulls us forward? What future do we have in mind? What do we see as the possible consummation of our present work? It is not enough to know what we are doing today. We must draw so close to God that we capture a glimpse of what we are working for – for a glimpse of what we might be.

Joy,

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,