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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Taking Jesus Seriously


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

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

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

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

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

Joy,

            



            


Friday, April 20, 2018

The Strangest Secret


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

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

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

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

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

Joy,

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.

Joy,
____________________
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.

Joy,

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.

Joy
             


[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.’

Joy,

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.

Joy,

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.

Joy,

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.”


Joy,

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.

Joy,

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.”

Joy,

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.”

Joy,




Friday, February 2, 2018

Tequila


“God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! 
They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!”
Romans 11:33 (Common English Bible)

     Let’s be clear – the new country music song by Dan & Shay, Tequila, is not the drinking song that you might expect just reading the track’s title. Careful attention to the lyrics reveals something so much deeper – and extremely relatable – that has an enormous capacity for stirring latent emotions within each one of us. Tequila is first a love song, and for this writer, a beautiful one. The song talks about how something – or some experience – can trigger memories, in this case, a relationship. For the narrator of this song, that “trigger” is tequila: “I can drink whiskey and red wine, champagne all night. Little scotch on the rocks and I’m fine, I’m fine. But when I taste tequila, baby I still see ya. Cutting up the floor in a sorority T-shirt. The same one you wore when we were sky high in Colorado, your lips pressed against the bottle. Swearing on a Bible, baby, I’d never leave ya. I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste tequila. When I taste tequila.”

     This is precisely what is occurring in this sentence of scripture from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. The entire eleventh chapter of this letter is given to a theological conversation of God’s continuing relationship to Israel. With considerable care, Paul outlines a profound and compassionate response to the question of what happens to God’s chosen people (the Jewish nation) when they don’t embrace the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul will not accept the simplistic conclusion that God now excludes the Jewish people from God’s promises because they fail to believe in Jesus Christ. And then something happens. All this “theological talk” about the larger purposes of God “triggers” within Paul’s heart an emotional response that he simply cannot suppress: “God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!”

     Each of us carries within us “triggers’ of one kind or another. Some triggers are negative, dredging up from within a deep place an emotion of sadness, anger, or fear. Others are positive, triggers that cause delight, feelings of warmth or joy. I lost my father twenty-three years ago. He was the single greatest influence in my life for my deep love of Jesus Christ. Often during my childhood he would tell my brother and me that he cared little what vocational choice we made once we became an adult. What did matter to him is that we love Jesus Christ. One of my father’s greatest joys was spending time with his family in the Florida Keys – particularly enjoying snorkeling in Bahia Honda – one of the middle Keys. The Florida Keys, naturally, is one huge trigger for me. When I am there I feel as though my father is walking right by my side, that large, delightful smile across his face, his hand grasping my hand.

     People have nostalgic attachments to senses like smells and tastes and sounds. For the narrator of this song, tequila is one of those things. Generally, the consumption of various alcoholic beverages has no affect upon him. But the taste of tequila triggers his deep romantic affection for a particular woman. More, he recalls, “I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste tequila, when I taste tequila.” The narrator is clear, “I ain’t even drunk, I ain’t even drunk, and I’m thinking how I need your love, how I need your love. Yeah, it sinks in.” This is not the alcohol speaking. It is the taste of tequila, a trigger that summons forth heartbreak and regret. For the Apostle Paul, teaching and preaching Jesus Christ triggers emotions that began shaping within him when Jesus appeared to him on a certain road that led to Damascus. Emotions birthed and nurtured by continued attention to a relationship with the love of Paul’s life, Jesus.

Joy, 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

She's With Me


“Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am.”
John 17:24 (Common English Bible)

She’s With Me, a song recorded by Canadian country music duo High Valley, is an up-tempo piece that sparkles with influences of bluegrass. Written by Seth Mosley, Brad Rempel, and Ben Stennis, the song blends banjo instrumentation and captivating lyrics that I find to be infectious – a song that adds energy and lift to my morning runs. A beautiful and heart-felt love song, She’s With Me expresses adoration of the highest magnitude for a woman the narrator believes is “out of his league.” This song has been added to my personal canon of country songs that expresses my love and admiration for my wife, Grace – words so beautifully and powerfully expressive that I wish I had written them.

Particularly poignant, for me personally, is the refrain: “Ain’t she amazing, amazing, out of my league? And ain’t it crazy, crazy, she happened to me? She calls me baby, baby, hard to believe. That she’s, yea she’s with me.” Careful attention to this brief refrain exposes three movements of thought. The first is the honest realization that the woman in the narrative is absolutely “out of his league.” Second, the nearly unbelievable – yet, nonetheless true – fact that this woman addresses the narrator affectionately: “She calls me baby, baby.” As the narrator continues, this level of affection is “hard to believe.” Finally, is the clear declaration and celebration that this woman who is beyond anything the narrator deserves is nevertheless “with me.”

Our sentence of scripture above is from a longer prayer of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In a deeply moving talk with his heavenly Father, Jesus has captured the refrain from, She’s With Me. The first two movements are implicit. The narrator, naturally, is Jesus. The Son of God is unquestionably, “out of our league.” Yet, Jesus is not ashamed to identify us to his Father. Also implicit is the affection Jesus expresses for us not only in this brief excerpt but throughout the seventeenth chapter – the entire chapter is one long prayer. And then the third movement, unmistakable and deeply surprising, “I want those you gave me to be with me where I am.”  

In one of his books, Michael B. Brown, senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, speaks of another man, also by the name of Michael.[i] Serving a prison sentence for his activity in organized crime, another inmate invites Michael to turn his “big problems” over to God. Michael’s response is to laugh with disbelief that God would have anything to do with him: “What have I ever done that would get God on my side?” The other inmate replies, “That’s the beauty of it. God is on your side before you do the first thing to get him there.” It is unbelievable – even unimaginable – that Jesus would climb down from the heavenly places to be with the likes of us, even to say to his Heavenly Father that he wants us to be with him where he is. But, that is the message of the Gospel. And because of that, we can turn to the world that never ceases to bring us down and destroy us and, pointing to the Son of God, say, “He’s With Me.”


[i] Michael B. Brown, A Five-Mile Walk: Exploring Themes in the Experience of Christian Faith and Discipleship (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.; 2016), 64.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Victory On Our Knees

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

 “I live on high, in holiness, and also with the crushed and the lowly, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.”
Isaiah 57:15 (Common English Bible)

Recently Grace and I spent a weekend in the Florida Keys with two dear friends. In addition to sharing meals together, shopping, stimulating conversation about our families and an evening of bicycling, the four of us summoned the courage to try something we had never done before – paddle boarding. Popularity of the sport seems to be growing exponentially in South Florida, particularly the Keys. It looked fun and appeared to be a sport that would be easy for beginners. It was not. Paddle boarding challenges both core strength and balance and beginners spend more time falling from the board than standing. My wife, Grace, perhaps an exception; other people asking me how long she had been paddle boarding.

After several attempts at standing – and failing – Grace said to me to begin on my knees, “you have more control on your knees.” Hearing my wife’s words, my friend commented, “I hear a sermon in there somewhere!” Naturally, I was frustrated that I was unable to master paddle boarding immediately. But then, where would have been the satisfaction in that? Satisfaction of life is often preceded by considerable effort and discipline. So it is with our Christian faith. We must experience failure on our own before we can value God’s presence and strength that enables us to stand. The pinnacle of joy and satisfaction in our faith is our communion with the Risen Christ. That communion begins on our knees in prayer – our demonstration that we can’t do life apart from God.

To be a Christian is to follow Jesus. And his own life was no leap from the cradle in Bethlehem to the victory of Easter morning. Victory implies something was defeated. Between birth and resurrection, Jesus lived deeply. It was a life that knew suffering, betrayal and abandonment. We experience with Jesus the victory and joy of the Resurrection because we know all too well his hell of loneliness and pain. It was a hell that Jesus defeated because he spent so much of his life on his knees. Grace is absolutely right, “You have more control on your knees.”

The central question that confronts many today is where is God in the darkness of the present world – the darkness that seems to defeat a hope for tomorrow? Isaiah declares that our God lives with the crushed and the lowly. God is not only present in our darkness; God is at work, “reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.” God did so for Jesus. God will do so for us. What is needed is that we wait for God’s victory on our knees.

Joy,


Friday, January 12, 2018

How to Know God Better

“…growing in the knowledge of God.”
Colossians 1:10 (Common English Bible)

John Leith, theologian and teacher of the faith, once told me in a personal conversation, that the single greatest threat to the vitality of the Christian church is amnesia – the failure of the typical church member to remember the most rudimentary content of the Bible. Increasingly, those who self-identify as followers of Jesus Christ have no intentional and regular plan for reading the Old and New Testament. Yet, there remains no substitute for strengthening our grip of spiritual matters and personally contributing to a fresh and robust witness of the Christian faith. The Bible must be read regularly by God’s people for spiritual transformation.

Growth in the knowledge of God always begins with stillness. That is one of the non-negotiable conditions of knowledge of any subject. Stillness, as modeled by Jesus, is not necessarily the opposite of noise and tumult, though neither contributes to thoughtful reflection. Rather, stillness is slowing down, withdrawing from the routine of life, and turning one’s focus to one thing. The four gospels record Jesus regularly “withdrawing” from his disciples and other people to turn his attention to God alone. If we want to know more of God – indeed, to know God better – we must relax the strain of constant daily demands that are placed upon us and read God’s word.

Experiencing God deeply, as a reality in our lives, increases as we read the biblical witness of God’s mighty acts upon God’s people. Through the pages of scripture we hear God whispering, “I am with you!” But there is more. As we penetrate the stories of the Bible and listen to their claim upon us, we also hear an invitation: “Are you willing to be with me; to live into a relationship with me?” The biblical witness is always calling to us, imploring us to turn away from choices that ultimately result in our disappointment, injury or death. Attention to God in the pages of the Bible impacts the decisions we make each day. Measure upon measure we discover that we not only know God better. Our lives are changed.

As we enter the unsearchable riches of God, in the pages of the Bible, our growth in the knowledge of God becomes as organic and natural as the growth of a seed planted in rich, fertile soil. Growth is a mysterious process that belongs to God. Our responsibility, as with the planting of seed in the ground, is to provide the necessary nurture – the daily watering of the seed until we see the growth and eventual maturity of what was planted. Daily placing ourselves before God’s word in a time of stillness is God’s method for experiencing larger and larger growth in the knowledge of God. The witness and vitality of the church once known by a previous generation can happen again. It begins when the people of God recover the urgency to immerse themselves in the knowledge of God from reading the Bible.


Joy,


Friday, January 5, 2018

The Trouble with Pessimists

“At that the boy’s father cried out, ‘I have faith; help my lack of faith’”
Mark 9:23 (Common English Bible)

     Here is a remarkable story of a man with remarkable candor and honesty before Jesus, “I have faith; help my lack of faith.” The man has faith but that faith seems to be running low like a car’s gas tank that is not quite empty but requiring a stop at a gas station nonetheless. The man’s son is ill. He has tried every avenue of hope, sought everyone for help, including Jesus’ disciples. No one has been able to do anything for the boy. The boy remains with his illness. Calling from a crowd that had gathered around Jesus, the man asks Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” (Mark 9: 22b CEB) It is a plea that shows evidence of life’s failures and frustrations. Repeated disappointments in securing healing for his son has sapped the man’s reserve of faith, of his capacity to hold onto hope.

     As faith for this man wanes, nearly being dowsed by negative experiences, pessimism grows; “If you can do anything…” What is clear in this biblical narrative is that when faith diminishes, a void isn’t what remains. As faith is depleted, pessimism enlarges to fill the space. Simply, a person either lives with a narrative that with God all things are possible or they question the existence and activity of God. Life is lived with faith or with pessimism – or something between the two. This man is moving from the former to the latter. The concern for this man is that pessimism is growing rapidly as faith is withering. Pessimists are not people who don’t believe. They are people who believe in the wrong thing. The denial of God and God’s capacity to change our lives is every bit a belief structure.

     Perhaps what is most remarkable about this story is that the man recognizes within himself the withering of faith and the flourishing of pessimism, “Help my lack of faith.” He wants to turn things around in his belief narrative. Yet, he can’t do it alone. When personal faith has reached its limits, the man throws himself on the grace of God. The man asks God to supply what the man cannot, a faith that once again expands measure upon measure until pessimism is choked-out. He is unwilling to concede to the growth of pessimism.

     This man becomes our example. Repeated disappointments and difficulties can culminate in the unfortunate experience of believing in the wrong thing; of believing that life has no purpose and that we are victims of circumstance, some of it good and some that results in pain and loss. This remarkable story is a call to not settle when life disappoints. There is pain and failure and brokenness enough for all people to experience from time to time. But God remains God. The man in this story, from Mark’s Gospel, grabs hold of whatever faith he has that remains and clings to God, trusting that it will be enough. And it is.


Joy,