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Thursday, June 28, 2018

The God We Don't Forget

The following is a Meditation written by Doug Hood's son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
Matthew 16:24-25 (Common English Bible)

Of all Jesus’ disciples—save perhaps Judas Iscariot—it is Peter Simon, that lowly fisherman, who comes across to us from the pages of history as the most fully realized and most fully human. The Gospels paint him as a man of great, seismic contradictions: confident enough in his faith to leap upon the waters of Galilee yet doubtful enough to sink below them; brave enough to attack the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, yet frightened enough to deny Christ three times in the high priest’s courtyard. In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, we see yet another demonstration of Peter’s conflicted faithfulness. Upon reaching Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say the Human One is?” Eleven of them mutter noncommittally, but Peter leaps in: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Many forget that when Jesus first began his ministry, he hid his lineage as the Son of God from his followers, instead presenting himself as a rabbi preaching radical reform of Jewish tradition in the face of Roman imperialism. It was here, in this moment, that a fisherman’s faith revealed Jesus’ true identity to the world.

In response, Jesus praises Peter and declares him the rock upon which he will build his church. But pay very close attention to what happens next, particularly to the language used in the Common English Bible translation. After Jesus explains his mission to suffer and die at the hand of their Roman oppressors, Peter “took hold” of him, “scolds” him, and “began to correct him.” Certainly Jesus, the promised Messiah, would tear down the Romans, reunite the Twelve Tribes, and restore the Davidic monarchy to power once and for all. Yet Jesus savagely scolds him with one of the most cutting rebukes in scripture: “Get behind me, Satan.”

But just as Jesus condemns he comforts, immediately informing Peter and the rest of the disciples that his is not the way of meek surrender, but the path to everlasting life. Again, pay close attention to the language: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” [Emphasis mine] We find three demands—one of self-denial, one of self-sacrifice, and one of self-submission. First, we must reject all our preconceptions about who God is or what God wants. Second, we must humble ourselves before him in front of the whole world. And third, we must follow in his footsteps, not in the footsteps we proscribe for him.

Peter’s mistake wasn’t his lack of faith, rather its willfully misguided application. Unable to envision a Messiah who didn’t avenge and conquer, he literally tried to seize and bully God incarnated in flesh. And how often have we seen the same thing happen today? It seems we can’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper without hearing or reading somebody screeching about what God wants or what God needs. God has become a cudgel with which to assault political adversaries, a club to self-righteously attack those who don’t fall into the proper ideological or moral line. In these troubling, divisive times, we must look to the words of the Gospel of Matthew: to find one’s life, one must lose it. Just as Peter was rebuked, so we must rebuke ourselves and humbly follow.


Joy,

Friday, June 22, 2018

When God Seems Distant


“I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38a (Common English Bible)

           Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, tells about an experience he had in church. One Sunday he was in Cincinnati for a ball game against the Reds. That morning he went to early morning Mass and happened to see the Red’s manger there. They were old friends and sat beside each other during Mass. Afterward, the Red’s manager said, “Tommy, I’ll see you at the ballpark. I’m going to hang around a little.” Lasorda said that when he reached the door, he glanced back over his shoulder. He noticed that his friend was praying at the altar and lighting a candle. He said, “I thought about that for a few moments. Then, since we needed a win very badly, I doubled back and blew out his candle.”[i] Though misguided, what a powerful demonstration of faith in God’s presence and activity!

           Countless people today long for that deep confidence in God’s presence and activity in their lives. God seems distant to them. They plod through each day, fearful, anxious, and burdened with uncertainty. Some may remember once having a close relationship with God but that was a long time ago. Prayers seem to never rise higher than the ceiling – and that is when we even feel like praying! The good news is that this is not an uncommon experience in the Christian faith. Just as people can grow apart in relationships with one another, so we can drift away from God. As Thomas Tewell once said to me, the difference is that in human relationships, both parties contribute to the distance. But, in a relationship with God, the reality is that we drift away from God. God never drifts away from us.

           In those moments when God seems distant, what are we to do? Perhaps an experience I had this past week will help. My daughter, Rachael, is in Norway – a studio photographer for the Holland America Cruise Lines. It’s not uncommon for Rachael to work twelve and fourteen hour days. Wi-Fi is limited and with her long hours it is difficult to “connect” with her by telephone or by other means in real time. Just this week, Rachael reached-out to me via Facebook Messenger. She said that for a limited time she was available to receive a phone call from me and that she really would like me to call. Immediately, I moved something that was already on my calendar to another time and placed the call. Do you see what happened? Suddenly, my greatest desire was to speak with my daughter. To do so, I had to make the time.

           We reconnect with God the same way. We move beyond our desire to be close with God and carve-out time from our busy lives to simply be still in God’s presence. We open the Bible and read expectantly, asking God to speak powerfully through the words that we read on the page. We learn from our reading more about God, about God’s good desires for us, and we learn what God requires of us. We spend time together with God. And we listen; we listen deeply in the silence following our reading to the hunches, the promptings, and the direction we sense from God. As we respond positively, the distance we once felt from God begins to close.   

Joy,


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

Friday, June 15, 2018

Overwhelmed?


“The night before Herod was going to bring Peter’s case forward, Peter was asleep between two soldiers and bound with two chains, with soldiers guarding the prison entrance.”
Acts 12:6 (Common English Bible)

           The late Pittsburgh astronomer, John Brasher, wrote his own epitaph: “I have loved the stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night.” What a beautiful and encouraging thought! As I have pondered those words it seems to me Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, could have written them. As Jesus’ disciple, Peter did not always live in the sunlight. Followers of Jesus rarely do. Peter’s ministry was not always filled with the brightness of success and victory. Peter knew darkness and despair. He knew times of trouble and tragedy. Here, in the twelfth chapter of Acts, we learn that King Herod has begun to make life difficult for the Christian Church. James, John’s brother, is killed with a sword. Then Herod has Peter arrested and placed in prison. Peter’s fate seems as certain as that of James. In Peter’s day – as is today – following Jesus demands considerable courage.

           What is remarkable is how this story unfolds. Chained inside the walls of a prison, with sixteen guards stationed on watch for a single man, Peter simply goes to sleep. At this very moment, the night could not have been darker for Peter. Yet, there is no evidence that Peter was fearful. Peter sleeps. The church of Jesus Christ is now under a most severe persecution and its continued existence seems doubtful. King Herod has found political favor among his constituency by destroying the lives of Christian leaders and – right or wrong – he continues simply because it is popular. The night is very dark for Peter; very dark for the church. Yet, Peter sleeps. But there is more in this story. While Peter sleeps, the church prays. When Peter and the church must have felt overwhelmed, the church holds onto hope.

           That day is not unlike today. On our streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our places of work, the prevailing mood of the day is, overwhelmed. The world today seems to be more complex, more massive, and difficulties more insurmountable than our individual and corporate memory can recall. The magnitude of the problems we face as a nation – particularly gun violence – leaves us exhausted and frightened. Everything now seems to be beyond the power of ordinary people and governments to solve or manage. It is night, and we have become fearful. Confronted with the overwhelming problems of today the question presses, is there hope?  

           In his book, Facing Death, Billy Graham shares a story about Donald Grey Barnhouse, one of America’s leading Bible teachers in the first half of the 20th century. Cancer took Barnhouse’s first wife, leaving him with three children all under twelve. The day of the funeral, Barnhouse and his children were driving to the service when a large truck passed them, casting a noticeable shadow across their car. Turning to his oldest daughter, who was staring sadly out the window, Barnhouse asked, “Tell me sweetheart, would you rather be run over by that truck or its shadow?” Looking curiously at her father, she replied, “By the shadow, I guess. It can’t hurt you.” Speaking to all his children, Barnhouse said, “Your mother has not been overridden by death, but by the shadow of death. That is nothing to fear.” Perhaps, this is a truth that Peter and the church understood. So Peter slept and the church prayed. Their witness strengthens us today.

Joy,

Friday, June 8, 2018

What Voice Shall I Follow?


“Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, ‘I’m here. You called me?’”
1 Samuel 3:6 (Common English Bible)

Here is a startling story of a young boy named Samuel who had trouble sleeping one night because of a voice that spoke to him from the darkness. Most of us know that story – a voice that comes to us in the darkness at that moment when we want nothing more than to sleep. The volume of the voice is usually immense. It is a clamorous tongue that disturbs the mind and stirs physical restlessness as we lay upon the mattress. For some, the voice that speaks addresses our personal finances, most often when our financial resources are running low and our commitments are racing in the opposite direction. For others, the voice reminds us of estranged relationships but offers no solutions for healing. Other voices that bombard the mind’s ear simply wish to generate anger at this or that political party and the absolute stupidity – or cruelty – of this or that policy out of Washington. Solutions rarely show-up in the darkness of the bedroom. Neither does sound sleep.

Here, young Samuel is lying down in the Lord’s temple. We know it is the night hour because fifteen verses later we are informed, “Samuel lay there until morning.” But Samuel will not sleep that night. Before his mind drifts off to restful sleep, Samuel hears a voice. It is the Lord’s voice but Samuel doesn’t know that – not in the beginning. He believes the voice belongs to his mentor, Eli. Three times Samuel hears the voice and three times Samuel disturbs Eli to inquire what it is Eli wants. It is the third time that Eli grows suspicious that this is more than Samuel’s imagination. Nor is Samuel simply hearing the whistle of the wind. Samuel is instructed to make inquiry if he hears the voice again; to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” And the voice does return.

This is precisely the point that Samuel makes a rather dramatic shift from simply jumping from his bed at the sound of a voice to careful listening. Samuel restrains his natural impulse to a quick response and practices alert and intentional discernment of the content of the voice that speaks. There is much all of us can learn from this simple act – pausing long enough to sincerely listen to the voice we hear, particularly if that voice is unsettling to us. What would happen in our nation if Republicans and Democrats where to exercise restrain from the vitriolic impulse they have for one another? Imagine the surprise if Evangelicals and liberals in the Christian church ever truly listened to one another. What might any of us discover in the darkness of the night if we calmly listened to all that unsettles us – personal finances, relationship difficulties, or concern for the health of those we love – and then, rather uncommonly, invited another voice to the conversation, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

At any moment of the day or night there are voices that clamor for our attention. Some voices long for an impulsive response from us, usually a response that multiplies anger and hurt and fears among those we know and love. Perhaps a voice asks from us indignation and puerile criticism of another point of view. The only contribution that voice makes is increased brokenness in an already broken world. Do not trust these voices. But Samuel’s story shows us another way. Eli counsels Samuel to “listen” rather than “jump” at the sound of the voice. If we listen, and listen with humility and civility and respect, what we will discover is that the voices that clamor for an impulsive response will scatter and one will remain. It will be the loveliest voice of all. It will be a voice that asks patience and love. Trust that voice. Ponder it. Respond to it. It will be then that you have in your heart neither doubt nor fear.

Joy,