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Friday, May 25, 2018

Space Cowboy

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, May 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting Started With Jesus

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, May 4, 2018

The Missing Factor In Our Faith

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

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

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

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

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