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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.




Friday, April 20, 2018

The Strangest Secret

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, April 12, 2018

The God Who Carries Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

Figuring Out God's Will

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

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

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

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

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

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