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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Hearing God

“Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”
Acts 16:10 (Common English Bible)

           In the movie, Bruce Almighty, Bruce (Jim Carey) is a reporter who made a fool of himself on a local news network, lost his job, was attacked on the street, and had an emotional blow-up with his girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston). His world is falling apart. Bruce takes a midnight ride to clear his head and begins a pleading conversation with God, “Okay, God, you want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what’s going on. What should I do? Give me a signal.” If we are honest, it is a conversation each of us have had with God at some juncture in our life. Life presses in on us, detours replace a steady movement forward, and discouragement draws close. C. S. Lewis once remarked that if the devil was allowed to choose only one tool to overtake a woman or a man it would be the power to discourage people.

           In our teaching from the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul is having a Bruce Almighty experience. Paul and his companions have laid-out a straight path to Bithynia to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally, anyone would think that God would have blessed the noble intentions to have the Gospel proclaimed in Bithynia – or anywhere for that matter. Yet, as Paul, and those traveling with him, approached Bithynia, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them enter. They were forced to take a detour instead. Their best intentions interrupted, they went down to Troas rather than enter Bithynia. One might imagine Paul taking a midnight ride to clear his head and having a pleading conversation with God: “Okay God, I’m doing this for you! Tell me what’s going on. What should I do?”

           The Bible is silent here. We are not told what Paul’s thoughts are or if there is a conversation with God. Perhaps that is intentional. No one can speak and listen at the same time – not effectively anyway. It just may be that the absence of any conversation between Paul and God is what the Bible wants us to notice. Paul isn’t speaking to God – or railing against God – because Paul is listening for God. We are simply told that Paul goes to Troas when his plans are interrupted. Then, during the night, Paul receives a vision of a man from Macedonia, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Had Paul been railing against God, as Bruce Almighty railed against God, he would have missed the vision. No one sees clearly or hears plainly when they are complaining. Paul demonstrates the spiritual value of silence, stillness, and listening for God.

           As Bruce Almighty vents his rage against God, a glowing road construction sign, directly in front of him, flashes: “Caution Ahead.” But Bruce doesn’t notice. “I need your guidance, Lord,” he begs, “please send me a sign.” Immediately a large road-crew truck pulls in front of him. The back of the truck is filled with street signs in plain view: “Stop.” “Dead End.” “Wrong Way.” “Do Not Enter.” Yet, Bruce is oblivious to every sign. Bruce continues to plea with God, “Lord, I need a miracle. I’m desperate. I need your help, Lord.” Failure to pay attention to what is right before him, Bruce loses control of his car, spins off the road, and rams into a lamp post. Bruce jumps from his mangled car and continues to rail against God, never noticing that God was answering Bruce with every construction sign. The difficulty for Bruce, it becomes apparent, is that he never learned the value of silence, stillness, and listening for God.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Dear God

“I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. 
He said to me, ‘My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.’ 
So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me.”
2 Corinthians 12:8, 9 (Common English Bible)

Someone once remarked that promised prayer has no power, only practiced prayer. Hunter Hayes practices powerful prayer in his single, Dear God. Written alongside pop singer Andy Grammer and Dave Spencer, the song is a prayer between Hunter and God as Hunter wrestles with faith and self-doubt: “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with me?” The song’s theme of self-doubt is advanced almost immediately following that lyric with the raw, honest, and expressive line, “And why do I feel like I’m not enough? Dear God, are you sure that you don’t mess up?” Here is a question that is asked all the time by people of faith – a valid and authentic question that presses in those moments of disappointment, failure, and pain.

A part of the human condition – and validated by experience – is the striving to live into a higher purpose and meaning in life. In those moments when we stumble and are made vulnerable by exposed weaknesses, the thought of feeling like “I’m not enough” unsettles us. This is precisely the experience of the apostle Paul in his words to the church in Corinth. Paul suffers from an unnamed affliction, what appears to be a chronic and debilitating problem. Paul’s zeal to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hampered by this affliction so Paul comes before God, in prayer, on three separate occasions asking that the affliction be removed. Anyone who has a struggle, infirmity, or difficulty accepts the reasonableness of Paul’s request. Yet, Paul’s request is denied.

What is apparent by any close reading of Paul’s ministry – both before his conversion to Christ and following – is that he is a self-sufficient person. Paul is intelligent, resourceful, and driven. Such persons rarely need others, much less God. When a weakness becomes evident, such people develop a laser-like focus on conquering and prevailing over the weakness as they again move forward to greater success and accomplishments. Hunter acknowledges as much in his song, “The truth is it’s not even you. It’s just me that I’m up against.” Hunter is dissatisfied with the frailty in his life: “Dear God, are you sure that you don’t mess up?” Paul is no different. Paul is dissatisfied with the frailty in his life.

Paul’s request for strength without weakness is refused. But Paul does receive a gift. Paul receives a deep understanding of the “riches” that are his in God’s grace, “My grace is enough for you.” As Paul must now embrace his weaknesses so also must he now embrace God’s grace. The result is a stronger character, a deeper humility, and an uncommon ability to empathize with others. In the music video for the song, Dear God, Hunter is seen making his prayer to God through a flaring horn like those commonly seen on old phonograph devices. It makes perfect sense for anyone who has every pondered whether God hears our prayers. But God’s refusal to remove Paul’s limitations reminds each of us that, ultimately, God intends that we trust ourselves, and our future, to God’s care.

Appreciation is expressed to Marchele Courtney for bringing this song to my attention.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Miracle in Bethany

The following is written by Dr. Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

“Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’”
(John 11: 43-44 Common English Bible)

           It was spring then, and little pink blossoms peppered the almond trees while the olive groves slept and dreamed of warmer summer winds. Passover was approaching, a time when the crowds of Jerusalem would heave their way towards the Second Temple to slaughter the sacrificial lambs demanded of each family. From their tombs on the eastern mountain ridge the old kings and prophets stood a silent guard as the great masses churned their way through the roadside veins of the countryside and the alleyway capillaries of the city. Beneath their lookout lay the tiny hamlet of Bethany, as inauspicious a community as could be imagined in the shadow of God’s chosen city. In this place was a quiet and stillness unknown to the commoners, soldiers, and merchants living and working nearby. To the east lay the salty Dead Sea, to the west the fiery Jordan Valley, trapping the village in these brief months in a constant crossfire of desert heatwaves and Mediterranean rains. Imagine for a moment the tranquility of such a place: the steam of rainwater baking on the rocks in the heat; the smell of roasted meat and fresh bread mixed with the scent of new flowers; the comforting silence born of the absence of human hubbub and busyness.

           Bethany was a paradise in the shadow of Jerusalem’s splendor, one that served as a figurative and literal retreat for Jesus and his ragtag group of Jews in his final days. It’s mentioned no less than five times in the Gospels, most often for lodging and eating with friends and family, particularly the beloved sisters Martha and Mary. But we also see it as a place of comings and goings: it was where Jesus prepared for his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and where he blessed the disciples before the Ascension. Bethany was a place between places, a sanctuary for preparations for bigger and better things.

           How odd, then, that Jesus would choose Bethany as the site for one of his most amazing feats, the resurrection of his friend Lazarus. The Gospel of John lists it as the last of Jesus’ seven signs or miracles, and none could have been more climactic or astounding. The defeat of death! The pronouncement of a new life after life! The conquest of cosmic entropy and emotional antipathy! Yet notice how Jesus took his time to arrive in Bethany after learning about Lazarus’ fatal illness—the ease and casualness with which he delays his departure for two days, with which he teases his disciples with riddles about Lazarus falling asleep. When he finally arrives in Bethany, it’s four days too late: Lazarus is dead. The detail of four days is an important one—in that time Jews believed that a person’s soul remained with their bodies for three days. If Jesus had come too early, his raising Lazarus could have been brushed off as an improbable but not impossible phenomenon.

           And yet the four days proved nothing before the hand of God as Jesus cried for his friend to come out of his tomb still wrapped in his bandages. Imagine the fear and terror felt by the disciples at such a sight! Imagine the joy and rhapsody! And most importantly, imagine the surreality! Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feat of God’s power since the sundering of the Red Sea for Moses or the consumption of Elijah’s altar on Mount Carmel…and in such a podunk nowhere as Bethany! Jerusalem lay less than an hour’s walk away and here was where Jesus broke the bonds of death. It’s an important reminder of one of the great Christian truths—size and worldly importance matter not to a God who can breathe life upon a mountainside of graves. It is God who makes all things great and mighty, not the designations of man. If a million angels can dance on the point of a pin, then surely God can work wonders in a place overlooked and abandoned by most, even the most insignificant little hamlet as Bethany.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Unnamed Saints

“But his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a basket 
through an opening in the city wall.”
Acts 9:25 (Common English Bible)

               On March 4th, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Today, that monument is known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb – fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become Tomb Guards. Out of respect for the interred, the sentinels command silence at the tomb from the thousands who visit each year. Inscribed on the Western panel: Here Rest In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.

               The Apostle Paul is the greatest evangelist of the early Christian Church and author of nearly two-thirds of the New Testament. Soon following his conversion to that faith he once sought to extinguish from the religious landscape, the Jews and their leaders at Damascus sought to silence him. In fact, Acts narrates that “the Jews hatched a plot to kill Saul (Paul’s former name)” and, “They were keeping watch at the city gates around the clock so they could assassinate him.” Paul escaped by the heroic act of unnamed disciples who, “took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the city wall.”

               Not one of the disciples who aided in Paul’s escape is named. Their identity remains unknown. Yet, each one played an important part in the history of the Apostle Paul, without whom, Paul’s great work might have never been completed. Paul would go forward from that glorious night to cover thousands of miles by sea and by land preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Churches would be planted and life after life would be changed by his message of hope and eternal life available in the name of Jesus. Through the robust ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit gave birth to a movement that would change the world. Yet, without the loyalty and devotion and courage of a few unnamed disciples one particular night, Paul would have perished at the hands of his enemies in Damascus.

               Our nation remains grateful to the tremendous leadership of great leaders such as General Patton, General Eisenhower, and General MacArthur. The Christian Church continues to build upon the work of the Apostle Paul that is without parallel. But it is true in our nation’s history and the history of the church that who they were and what they contributed would have never been realized had it not been for the loyalty, devotion, and courage of the unknown soldiers and unnamed saints who risked their lives, and in many case laid down their lives for something they believed in. We all depend upon one another. We all need each other. And nothing becomes strong without the strength of the many.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Don't Complain!

The following is a repeat from Dr. Hood’s Meditation from August 2017.

“The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘
Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
Exodus 16:2, 8b (Common English Bible)

Lowell Russell, formerly Executive Secretary and Director of the National Presbyterian Church and Center, Washington, D.C., once shared a lesson he learned from an attorney – a series of propositions that the attorney had written down on paper and kept with him at all times. There were three: “Never tell anyone how much you have to do. Never speak of your problems, your difficulties. Never talk about your disappointments.” In other words, he was saying to himself, “Don’t complain!”i

My friend and mentor, Arthur Caliandro, who followed Norman Vincent Peale as the senior pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, once shared with me his conviction that every pastor would be wise to preach on forgiveness at least three times a year. Caliandro believed that the single greatest obstacle to obtaining full Christian maturity was our difficulty with forgiveness. Any failure to forgive results in a weight that must be carried – by both the injured and the one who caused the injury. For Caliandro, the greatest burden was carried by the one who failed to forgive. Over time, the accumulation of “transgressions” that remain unforgiven results in stagnation of our spiritual growth. Christian growth isn’t possible without the extravagant practice of forgiveness as Christ forgives us.

Perhaps my friend is correct. Yet, I contend that another hindrance to our growth as Christians is our propensity to complain. Here, in the Book of Exodus, the whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. Food was scarce, the days in the desert were hot and the journey through the desert seemed as though it would never end. Life back in Egypt as slaves seemed to present a better quality of life than a trek through the desert! So, the whole Israelite community complained.

Moses and Aaron’s response seems to suggest the uselessness of negative thinking and speaking. Yes, the days in the desert were difficult. Discouragement is to be expected. But time and energy “moaning and groaning” provided no relief. So Moses and Aaron deflected the complaints; redirected the complaints made against them to God. It was the exercise of extraordinary leadership. That is because it forced upon the Israelite people the absolute necessity to pay attention to God, to “make their complaint” before God and then “to listen” for how God would respond. It is then that Moses and Aaron fulfilled their primary call to spiritual leadership – beginning the conversation between God’s people and God. That is where spiritual growth occurs.

iLowell Russell, “The Hard Rut of Complaining,” Best Sermons, Volume X. (New York: Trident Press, 1968), 79.